Bengali cookery is the best mainly because of the simplicity of flavours and the fresh smelling taste that will set it apart from the traditional Indian restaurant food you may have tasted. Having said that, as a bit of a foodie, I love trying out recipes from the different regions of India both cooking it myself but best of all trying out the beautifully made fare by family, friends and good restaurants.
For this class, I am writing about Bengali food from West Bengal and only the food I have cooked myself. What is the difference? East Bengali (Bangladeshi cuisine) tends to be hotter in spice, more heavily flavoured but my oh my so tasty! During a trip to Bangladesh last year, I could not get enough of the ‘Hilsha’ fish, one that you have to eat with your fingers or at your peril due to the multitude of bones, which were cooked in a different way every place we went.
Bengalis – East and West are fish lovers but when I want eye wateringly hot and pungent dried fish curry, I go to my close friend’s house for Bangladeshi ‘shutki’ which is dried fish cooked in a hot sauce and eaten with rice and tissues within easy reach! This, together with meat cooked with ‘shatkura’, a type of grapefruit where the flesh and pith are used to make a wonderfully fragrant curry with a hint of bitterness are my two favourites. However, I will leave this for another day.
Why concentrate on the recipes I have cooked? This is because I have learnt these from my grandma, mum, aunts and more recently cousins and friends. When in college, I used to phone mum up for recipes and methods and follow these to the letter. Although it did not taste the same as Mum’s cooking, I wowed my friends! When living in the East End of London, I learned authentic Bangladeshi cooking and had the pleasure of tasting glorious food – caught, killed, spices milled and cooked the same day at my in-laws in Bangladesh.
I have adapted all that I have learnt for my own family, even ‘restaurentifying’ it eg. adding cream to a ‘paneer’ (curd) dish because one of the sons-in-law loves it or anglicising chicken curry for the grandsons, one whom orders ‘chicken and rice Dima’ whenever he sees me! Then there is good old ‘phana bhat’ a type of porridge that is made by boiling rice, keeping all the starch in until it is a sticky mess which is eaten in India with freshly made Ghee (clarified butter), mashed potato and hard boiled eggs mixed with fresh green chilies and mustard oil. This is the Marmite of Bengali food – You either love or hate it but when either of my daughters are ill – or even when they are not, they go through bowl-fulls of the stuff swimming in butter.
Right enough of the nostalgia and onto the cooking! Below I have highlighted some of the basics for cooking Bengali dishes for you to try.
Basic whole spices
- – Kala Jeera / Kalonji / Nigella seeds
- – Mustard seeds
- – Panch faran (5 spices)
- – Cumin seeds /Jeera
- – Cinnamon Bark
- – Cloves
- – Cardamom pods
These are used to give the background taste and flavour and don’t really taste of much in themselves unless you inadvertently bite into some of them, such as cloves or cardamom which isn’t particularly pleasant, or as one son-in-law did because he didn’t want to offend, sat there and scoffed the lot!
Which one or what combination of whole spices you use determines the kind of dish you are intending to make and purist Bengali cooks don’t stray from these rules. The whole spices are placed into very hot oil so they spit and splutter, almost to the point of burning. This gives off a beautiful aroma, but beware will fill your house with smoke and smell and makes a mess of your cooker!
The ‘faran’ as this is known, is either added to wet ingredients eg daal (lentils) which causes a volcano or other ingredients or spices are added to it to make the basis of a gravy. For some reason, unless much spitting and spluttering occurs at this stage, the spices aren’t deemed to be cooked properly and if no volcano occurs, the ingredients have not fused sufficiently. Well this is what my grandmother and mum told me so it must be so.
Basic ground spices (shop bought)
- – Tumeric / Haldi
- – Jeera / Cumin powder
- – Coriander powder
- – Garam Masala (a blend of spices)
- – Curry Powder (mild)
- – English mustard powder
The women in my family from an older generation would be ‘chi-chi-ing’ (tut-tutting) me for even suggesting shop bought ground jeera, coriander, garam masala. It is absolutely true that freshly ground spices are the best and in fact doesn’t take very much effort to grind it (very finely mind) in a coffee grinder. However, for starters, I have suggested shop bought but chuck away unused bits when out of date as they will have lost their flavour.
Ground spices are added mixed in a little water to make a paste, after the whole spices have done their spluttering and fried at a medium heat. It is a cardinal sin to have ‘kacha’ (uncooked) ground spices and in fact can spoil a good dish if you can still smell or taste the raw spices. More on this later.
As stated earlier, ground spices make the ‘jhol’ (gravy), whether this is thin (eg with tasty fish swimming in it) or just coating meat or vegetables. Many Bengali vegetable dishes don’t use ground spices, relying on the background whole spices to bring out the taste of the vegetable.
Staple base ingredients
- – Onion
- – Garlic
- – Ginger
- – Green chilies / Kacha Lanka
- – Plain yoghurt / Dhoi
- – Fresh coriander
- – Sugar (yes really!)
- – Butter / Ghee
- – Lemon
The above may seem obvious but if you already have some of these in your fridge, you can rustle up a Bengali meal. However, don’t even think of making a ‘Kalo Jeera, Kacha Lanka’ dish with say chilli powder or dry chilli as it will be completely different so you will just have to change the dish you were going to prepare originally. Sounds purist but believe me, there are no alternatives!
Sometimes only onion and ginger is used (‘aada-peyaj’) which is a totally different flavour to when garlic is added. Very often, these are liquidised into a paste which again yields a very different taste to when fried chopped. Chilies are a must but you can de-seed them to make the dish less hot. You can also take them out after the faran so you just get the flavour but not the heat.
Yoghurt is used to marinade as well as making an integral part of the dish. Then we come to the sugar. Bengalis tend to put sugar into almost everything. Sounds strange but having some vegetables or a light prawn dish or pilau without that salt /sweet / ‘jhaal’ (hot) combination, does not make it authentic Bengali – in my humble opinion.
Salt: there is an ongoing feud in my family whether to salt or not salt our food during cooking. While I totally agree with the dangers of too much salt in food; if people want salt they can add it later; foods have their own natural salts etc, I can’t think of Bengali food without using salt integral to the cooking process. It is up to you to use your own judgement. We also like to add lemon to many of our dishes which gives it yet another unique flavour and cuts down too much saltiness
Measurements and Proportion
This is where I might come unstuck as a good instructor. Unless following a recipe book, I have always used my eyes and taste to put in spices, salt and sugar etc. This isn’t bragging but this is what my elders did and I followed. I think it is a question of looking at the quantity of the raw ingredient and judging how much of each spice to use. You can add or subtract up to the point of putting the main ingredient in but it is difficult to adjust later. I have therefore found myself cooking a second identical dish with less spice or salt in it and mixing up the two to reach a happy balance
So on to some traditional dishes:
‘Kalo Jeera, Kacha Lanka’ faran
This basically means it contains Kalo Jeera (Nigela seeds) and green chilies in the ‘faran.’ Fish that isn’t too strongly flavoured, prawns and vegetables are cooked this way. The fish or prawns (raw – deveined) is lightly coated with salt and turmeric and fried separately so a crispish shell is formed – mainly to stop it breaking up during cooking.
A faran of Kalo Jeera (2 /3 large pinches for a family meal of 4) and green chilies (to taste) is then prepared and spitting! You then make a paste of about 2 teaspoons of turmeric – for your 4 person meal and add to the faran, adding water so that it does not burn. You can smell the distinct almost bitter flavour of the turmeric at the back of your throat and this must go away before you put in anything else. Keep adding water until the turmeric is cooked. You can remove some or all the chilies at this stage as they will keep emitting their heat throughout the cooking.
Pour in enough boiling water so that it will cover the fish/prawns – but don’t put these in yet. Boil this until it starts to thicken a little. At this stage, add any vegetables you would like to put in. Marrow, pumpkin, green peppers, green beans go particularly well with this dish but not potatoes for some reason. Add salt and sugar. It should not be sweet but you can taste the sweetness in the background so experiment! Veg will emit its own water but if it gets too dry, add more water, tasting all the time for sugar, salt, chilli.
When the vegetable(s) are nearly done, add the fried fish / prawns and cook on a low heat but don’t overcook. To finish off, you can add chopped fresh coriander (leaves), again look at the quantity in the pan and estimate how much you need – I would say roughly a large tablespoon for your 4 person meal. The gravy can be any consistency you want but should taste ’rounded’ ie not too watery and not boiled dry. If you think it is too watery, carefully take the fish/prawns out and boil until thicker.
Another great last minute addition is one or two teaspoons of English mustard powder, dissolved in water. This gives it a nice mustardy nose-kick if you know what I mean. You don’t need coriander as well but you can experiment with both. Serve with plain white basmati rice (this isn’t eaten with pilau or fried rice) and a couple of slices of lemon and green chilies on the side for the brave.
The same Kalo Jeera Kacha Lanka faran can be used for vegetables, either dry or with a turmeric gravy. You can make the exact same vegetarian meal as above omitting the fish but following the same process. Alternatively, after the faran, you put in chopped vegetables – anything goes, add salt and the mandatory sugar, cover and cook, making sure the bottom does not burn. You can also add chopped onions and/or ginger (not garlic – but experiment) before the vegetables, fry them gently until browned and cook as above.
A very nice quick dish we eat with ‘Luchi’ (heavenly puffed balls of bread) is Kalo Jeera, Kacha Lanka faran, chopped onions fried first, add potatoes cut into really small cubes – sugar and salt and almost crispified. Great in wraps or pitta bread or as a filling for an omelette.
The Kalo Jeera was made famous by its namesake Nigella Lawson where she made a faran of Kalo Jeera in a small amount of oil and put in thinly chopped cabbage. She then added vegetable stock dissolved in water, covered and cooked. Goes great with any roast and better than the school boiled cabbage any day!
Gorom Mashla faran
Another staple is the cinnamon, cloves and cardamom faran, known in Bengali as Gorom Mashla, not to be confused with Garam Masala which is a different combination spices in each Indian region and can also be found in powdered form in shops. Most meats, pilau (we pronounce it as polaou), some fish and many veg dishes are made with this faran. However, this is the most complained of (particularly by my partner) as horrible when bitten into – other than a chilli of course. Therefore, after the faran and before you lose the bits within the cooking, you may want to take the offending spices out. Sometimes I have to count mine in and count them out again. Personally I think it’s a shame as it adds so much flavour but can be annoying admittedly.
For chicken, lamb, mutton, goat or beef, I would use this faran. Again for your family of 4, use say 6 cloves, 6 cardamom (give these critters a whack to break the skin otherwise they pop and jump out onto your skin or eye if not careful) and equivalent of 6 inch piece of cinnamon stick. Put in green chilies or if feeling brave, some dried red chillies.
Once nicely browned, put in your onions, garlic, ginger which can be chopped and grated or the whole lot liquidised (no water if possible). As I said above, each will yield a different taste so experiment. However for creamier dishes, the liquidised version is better. Not wishing to advertise unnecessarily, my right hand tool is the Kenwood mini-chopper, which does everything, is one of the best rated and cheapest and recommended by Delia no less.
You can now either put in your meat to brown or your ground spices, and as long as the ground spices are cooked, I don’t think it matters. For meat curry (not the creamy version) I usually use the mild curry powder, ground cumin, ground coriander, turmeric, salt and ….yes a little sugar! For your curry for 4 use 1 teaspoon of each, except turmeric use half. You can add fresh or tinned tomatoes after the ground spices have cooked if you want.
Add boiling water to cover the meat, bring to the boil and simmer until soft. I love meat on the bone as it gives a much better flavour. For mutton, goat or some beef, put this in the oven if you like on a low heat until the meat is coming off the bone. Top up with water as necessary. As with the fish above, the gravy can be any consistency you like as long as it is ’rounded’.
I like putting big chunks of potatoes in this type of meat curry as the gravy seeps in and makes it a dish on its own. However, you need to put these in when the meat is nearly cooked otherwise it will turn into mush. If it is going that way, take the potatoes out and add them back in at the end. Add any other veg -peas or beans are nice and fresh or frozen spinach great. You can put chopped coriander in at the end.
For a creamy version, liquidise the onion, garlic, ginger; leave out the tomatoes and maybe the ground coriander as you want it to be light. At the end, add cream or coconut milk or hack off a chunk from a coconut block. Not sure if potatoes would go with a creamy version but other veg like carrots, sweet corn or even pumpkin is nice.
A great fish dish with this faran is Dhoi Maach (literally yoghurt fish) where any white fish or salmon can be used and is cooked with liquidised onions and ginger (no garlic) and yogurt. Make your basic Gorom Mashla faran, add green chilli (no dried chilli for this one as you want the lovely green chilli flavour). Once browned, add liquidised onions and ginger and cover and cook. The idea of this dish is that it should remain white so don’t let it brown if possible but don’t worry if it does. Add enough plain yoghurt to cover the fish but don’t add the fish yet. You may find that the yoghurt separates and looks curdled, don’t worry, it won’t impair the taste. Cook a little until all the ingredients are integrated, adding salt and the obligatory sugar.
In this, we don’t usually pre-fry the fish so care is needed when cooking. Add the pieces of fish, cover and cook – it won’t take long. Again, the gravy needs to be ’rounded’ in flavour and not watery which it may become especially if you are using pre-frozen fish. If this is happening and the fish is cooked, take it out, boil out the gravy a little and replace the fish.
Any veg can be made with this faran but cabbage and cauliflower seems to take on the flavour particularly well. After the faran, add some cumin powder and then the chopped cauliflower or cabbage. You can either make it dry with peas or the cauliflower is nice in a thick gravy with tomatoes. Don’t forget the salt and sugar!
A final tip on this faran is ‘polaou’ – pilau to most. Soak cleaned rice for an hour if possible, drain and dry as much as possible. Do the Gorom Moshla faran in butter or ghee, adding salt and sugar to taste. You can use chopped onion, but traditional polaou does not have any. Then add the drained rice and fry very gently otherwise the rice will break as it has been soaked. Once the rice is coated in the flavoured butter, pour in boiling water to cover the rice + about 1.5 inches more. Bring to the boil, cover and cook on a very low heat. You shouldn’t disturb the rice but you may have to check that the bottom isn’t over-cooking. The rice is done when the top bits are nearly cooked and standing on end, because when you turn it off, it will continue to cook.
You can add turmeric once the faran has cooked to give it a nice colour. Remember to cook it before putting the rice in though. You can also put saffron strands in, giving it a beautiful colour and flavour. Mum used to put peeled almonds in at the time of cooking and you can use cashew or pistachio nuts also. For a richer flavour, you can put sultanas in during the cooking process.
Mustard fara and cumin faran
Other favourite farans are whole mustard seeds, usually for things like chick peas, some daals and vegetables and Jeera (cumin) faran for daal, vegetables and fish. Mustard seeds (also dangerous little things when popping) tend to give an earthy flavour which can be tasted especially as you bite into the seeds. Whole cumin is more of a background taste and flavour – you know it’s there, you can identify it but it doesn’t particularly have a taste. You will see what I mean when cooking with these farans.
So your basic daal. There are many types of lentils and pulses and there are some ‘rules’ on which farans to use and whether to use onions, garlic, ginger etc. I don’t think you should be bound by these and to be honest I don’t know them myself. There are two types of daal. One is very light with the minimum of spices, used almost as a palate cleanser but very very tasty, the other quite heavy and can be a meal in itself.
Either way, you wash and de-grit the pulses. You don’t need to soak these. Put plenty of cold water and boil. There is some theory that putting salt in at this stage hinders the cooking process, so don’t. The consistency will depend on the type of daal you are making. Most pulses are boiled to a pulp but things like channa daal, split peas, whole green mung (?) need to be nearly cooked but not quite.
Prepare the faran, which could be either mustard seeds or whole cumin, not forgetting green or dried red chilies. There are many others – but that’s for another day. You can use either oil, ghee or butter. For a light daal, don’t add any onion, garlic or ginger. When nicely popped and brown add the daal. There must be a volcano effect with daal and faran spitting everywhere creating havoc and greatness! The true way to do it is have either a small karai (pan) or large metal ladle, do the faran in there and plunge or pour the contents into the daal. The things we do for taste. Add salt, sugar to taste, add water to make it more broth like and enjoy.
Now for the daal with onion, garlic, ginger and/or other vegetables. For a sambar for example, you use urid daal, add vegetables and tamarind to make a hot sour daal to eat with dosa (a large crispy pancake). For your average ‘tadka’ daal as in restaurants, you add onion, garlic and ginger to a faran of either and volcano the daal. Use lots of butter in this version and you can add vegetables, carrots cubed small I found out by accident recently goes rather well, as does spinach or especially shallots. Many fry onions separately and add this at the end. Mum used to make a glorious daal – not sure if it was Bengali or from another region, adding spinach and yoghurt at the end to make a sour-ish daal. Then there is my favourite, daal with nothing more than a mustard faran and green mangoes sliced into it and cooked – Tak Daal – literally meaning sour daal.
Finally, I mentioned the ‘Panch Faran’ – five spices. You can make the most glorious chutney with this, eaten traditionally at the end of a meal. Splutter the Panch Faran in a little oil and add any fruit – mum used tinned pineapples, my aunt tomatoes and sultanas. Me I put anything I can find in the cupboard, including oranges, dried apricots, prunes and even known to put in strawberry jam! Seriously, once you put all this on the boil with salt and quite a lot of sugar and cook slowly, the result, once cooled down is divine.
So there you have it, the basics for you to play around with, experiment and enjoy. Sweets and puddings to follow!