Celebrating the Bengali Legacy dishes with my twists this week- Poila Boishak Special....
Let me start today with a story. A story that the young me got really shocked to star in. Once upon a time, a big while ago; I met my man of dreams and together we went to seek a flat in the busy metropolitan Mumbai. Our offices were in Lower Parel, the southern neighbourhood of commercialised mill properties. It started as a humble neighbourhood, which fast became the most expensive part of the city. To us, it made sense to stay near our offices better than travelling in the maddening traffic up and back everyday. There were these humble 1 bedroom flats up on rent, a very basic setup but for a young love struck couple like us, it seemed perfect by many statures. The meeting with the landlady started with a question; “what is your caste?” The answer put a smile on her face. “Oh good, you are a Brahmin, our flat would be blessed. I am extremely happy to have you here, especially because we are also vegetarians.” I was perplexed. “Vegetarians?” I asked. She stared back blankly, “you are Brahmin na… then?” “Yeah, but we are Bengali Brahmins, we eat non vegetarian food as well. Is that a problem?” my husband asked. It took a minute for the landlady to overcome the shock. She calculated the copious amount of rent that we were about to pay her and then mumbled out, “yeah OK, the sin is for you to bear!”
I had met many such vegetarian Indians who have cringed upon us for being Bong Brahmins. Yes, the elite caste in every region apart from the eastern, comes with a preconceived cuisine of vegetarian delicacies. Nothing wrong in that I say, but the nose cringing and talk of sins is wrong. Wrong if you think so, and wrong if you feel we are lesser Brahmins than you. Every region comes with its history. Try to understand it and you would know exactly why we don't follow what you might. Bengal is prone to floods every year. Do you think it was a better idea for the whole sect to die hungry, rather than eat what was available to us at the difficult times? And yes, after that we chose to continue eating, respecting every single morsel of it.
A lot of our food revolve around fish, and it’s true. But another fact that is as truer is that we eat a lot of veggies too, some really exotic and exclusive to our region. A typical bong thali looks a bit like this- It starts with bitter vegetables, transcends into a leafy vegetable- Saag and then does it give way to the non-vegetarian fare. And I remember growing up like this. We ate a hearty amount of saag and veggies, and 1 pc of fish daily.
Today, I am going to write about 1 of the most classic vegetarian dishes that the Petuk Probashi Bangal me loves to eat quite often than not. It’s rather easy to put together, and respects the vegetable enough to keep its flavour clean. This is how I like to make it, my way.
200 gms Pumpkin, diced
1 medium sized potato, diced
2 tbsp mustard oil
1 whole red chilly
1 bay leaf
½ tsp Bengali 5 spices (Panch Phoron- a proportional mix of cumin seeds, nigella seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds and black mustard seeds)
Salt and turmeric to taste
A pinch of asafoetida (hing)
1 tbsp + ¼ th cup water
1/4th tsp sugar
1 tsp cumin powder (jeera)
2 tsp coriander powder (dhaniya)
A big pinch of coriander leaf chopped to garnish
Dab dry the diced vegetables and keep it aside.
Heat 2 tbsp. of mustard oil in a non-stick wok, till its smoking point. Add the dry red chili and let it burn until its black in colour, quite literally so. Trust me, the smokiness of this burnt chilly will impart such a contrasting flavour to the dish that you would most certainly be bowled over.
Once there, add the Bengali five spices and bay leaf to the oil and let splutter. Add the potatoes at this stage and let it sauté in the oil till it develops a golden hue all around. Now dump in the pumpkin along with a big pinch of turmeric and cook on medium flame uncovered to develop a beautiful colour all around. It’s important that the pumpkin is not covered or salted at this stage. We need to caramelise both the veggies well, taking utmost care to stir every once in a while.
Once its nicely golden and 50% cooked through, salt it to taste.
Dissolve the pinch of hing in a tbsp of water and add it to the hot pan. This is a unique step, but believe me it adds to the dish pretty well. Thoroughly mix it with the vegetables and cook for a minute till the aroma of hing wafts off.
At this stage dump in more water, stir and let it simmer on low flame till you prep the 3rd unique step in the recipe- roasting dhaniya and jeera powder.
In a hot pan or tawa, dry roast freshly ground cumin and coriander seeds. Let them colour well, taking utmost care to not burn the delicate masala. Transfer it out of the tawa as soon as you feel the aroma pulsing through the kitchen, and set it aside.
Once your pumpkin is almost cooked through, dump in the masala and give it a good stir. It’s imperative that till this stage there is a bit of water in the pan which will cook down the roasted masala a bit. Otherwise, the masala would actually turn crunchy, and would mar the dish with too much of uncooked strong flavour. Once there, put the flame on high and while stirring constantly, let the water dry out. Taste, season and serve it hot out of pan with steamed rice and an easy lentil curry.