Maachher jhol is a name for a rather broad genre of fish dishes in Bengal—it’s not actually very descriptive at all. “Maachh” means “fish” in Bengali and “jhol” (rhymes with “goal”) would translate to “gravy” or “sauce” in English. So “maachher jhol” literally means “fish in gravy”. As such, in English “fish curry” would be an entirely adequate translation in the sense in which “curry” is used in India. The particular sub-genre of the preparation that this recipe falls into involves a paatla or thin jhol and various versions of this form one of the central pillars of Bengali comfort food. In its most basic form the dish involves mustard oil, kalo jire, ginger, green chillies, fish and water. Vegetables are often added: sometimes potatoes, sometimes brinjal/eggplant, sometimes cauliflower. It’s also not uncommon to add bori (a type of dal-based fritter). Though tomatoes and garlic are not very traditional in Bengali cooking, it’s not unheard of for either or both to be used as well. Some may use no tomato, some may use a little, some more than a little. My approach comes to me from my mother, who learned to cook after marriage while living outside Bengal. Her cooking therefore employs more tomato than that of my Calcutta aunts but is—as far as I’m concerned—no less Bengali for that. Continue reading
Don’t tell my children but I barely ate any vegetables when I was a kid. In fact, I barely ate any vegetables till I was in my twenties. The big exception was potatoes—and I guess technically potatoes may not even be vegetables. I ate potatoes in all forms, from simple alu-sheddho (boiled potatoes mashed with either ghee or sharp mustard oil and minced onion) to alu-parathas to alu-bhaja (fried potatoes of various sizes and textures) to alur torkari to alur dom. [Be patient, I’m almost done with this fascinating dietary autobiography.] A favourite dish, however, was alu-posto, a quintessential Bengali dish of potatoes cooked very simply with a few spices and poppy seed paste. Mild in flavour and somewhere between grainy and smooth in texture, the poppy seed paste (or posto) made this dish unlike anything else made in my mother’s kitchen and all through childhood it was a major comfort food. For whatever reason, I didn’t start making it in the US until relatively recently but now I make it often. I have not yet had any success in getting my own kids to eat it though: in a wry twist neither of them is particularly into potatoes except in French fry form, and one of them doesn’t even care very much for French fries. Meanwhile the missus and I both love potatoes. Who knows how these things work. Anyway, here is the recipe for alu-posto as it is made in my family. Continue reading
Malai curry is a quintessential Bengali dish of prawns cooked in coconut milk (in this version, with potatoes). It involves very few spices and is very easy to make. Doubtless, there are many variations among Bengali families. This recipe is from one of my aunts, one of the most redoubtable cooks in the extended family (my mother’s version is far less canonical). In Bengal it is common to make this with larger, head-on prawns. Head-on prawns/shrimp are always better because a) the more shell the more intense the prawn flavour, b) the texture of the meat is always better and c) the roe and other goo in the head both improve the flavour immeasurably and give the gravy a richer, red colour. I do make malai curry with head-on shrimp from East Asian stores from time to time but I try to avoid that as far as possible: given all the dubious stuff surrounding the harvesting of seafood in the region—from environmental concerns to the maltreatment of workers—without more knowledge of provenance it’s an ethical grey area. If only stores that did supply the provenance would stock head-on shrimp! Anyway, when I do succumb to temptation it’s usually for malai curry. Continue reading
Here is a classic Bengali dish and one of the true pleasures of summer. You are not going to find this in any Indian restaurant outside India (and within India only Bengali restaurants are likely to serve it and those are not so common). Luckily, you can make it very easily at home. It is made with mangoes. Here in Babylon we may not get mangoes that can approach even the third tier of Indian mango glory but that’s not a problem for this dish. That’s because it is made with green, unripe mangoes, of which all that is required is that they be sour without being astringent.
Now, why have I put “chutney” in quotes up top? That’s because the Bengali chatni (pronounced with a long aa) is neither chutney as it is understood in North India (a condiment, as in tamarind chutney or mint chutney) nor as it is understood in most of the West (as a sort of pickle/preserve a la Major Grey’s chutney). The Bengali chatni is closer to dessert, though it is not a dessert proper as it is not primarily sweet. It is a tart-sweet dish and in a structured Bengali meal (of the kind now seen mostly in Bengali weddings) it would come before the sweet/dessert course proper. When not eating a structured Bengali meal it works just fine as dessert, and I’ve been known to devour it by the bowlful at all times of the day and night. Continue reading
It’s been a while since I’ve posted an Indian recipe. And the one I have today may please those, like my friend the bean king, who complain that my recipes call for too many esoteric ingredients that most non-Indian cooks don’t have lying around the kitchen. This is a very simple recipe that produces quite delicious results. And it’s healthy to boot, packed as it is with veg. I guess it’s a Bengali’ish recipe. It’s in the style of a general way of making shrimp/fish dishes that my mother and a couple of my aunts follow: lots of potatoes and veg and only ginger, turmeric, red chilli powder, green chillies and whole garam masala to flavour the sauce/curry. Following my mother, I use a lot of tomatoes and some garlic too, and this is not very traditionally Bengali. But traditions, you know, are always on the move. At any rate, this is simple enough to make, and you might give it a go. Continue reading
While posting my recipe for Masala Salmon in the first edition of my Indian Home Cooking Week series I mock-apologized for not including a Bengali fish dish. This because I am a Bengali and Bengalis are renowned fish-eaters and for my first fish recipe to be a non-Bengali dish seemed like a bit of a betrayal, even to one who spent most of his life in India outside Bengal and who speaks Hindi better than Bengali. Well, here I am now with one of the most iconic of Bengali fish dishes: shorshe-bata maach. (Maach=fish; shorshe=mustard; and here bata=ground into paste.)
This one is for a take on a classic Bengali dish with chickpeas/garbanzo beans called ghugni. Ghugni is one of those rare dishes that is both a popular street food and made at home. It can be found year round but is often made in homes on the last day of Durga Pujo—the week-long celebration that is the Bengali religious/cultural festival (imagine Christmas, Thanksgiving, the 4th of July, the Oscars and the Super Bowl all rolled into one but communal, public, louder and with more food). This has always been a popular dish with everyone I’ve made it for and it’s supremely adaptable.
As with almost all my bean cooking I don’t really bother with anything but Rancho Gordo’s garbanzo beans (disclosure: Rancho Gordo proprietor Steve Sando is a pal). They cook implausibly fast, are incredibly sweet and the pot liquor is great. Continue reading
Indian Home Cooking Week kicked off yesterday with a recipe for chholar dal; here today is a recipe for a vegetable dish to eat with it: mishti kumro. “Mishti” means sweet in Bengali, and for those of you know Bengali food it may seem redundant for a Bengali dish to be qualified thus. My people have a renowned sweet tooth (though we can’t compare to most Gujaratis) and often add a bit of sugar to a lot of savoury dishes as well. The “mishti” in the name of this dish, however, is a qualifier of the second word “kumro”, which means pumpkin, and means only that the dish features sweet pumpkin—the dish itself is not particularly sweet. I’m not really sure which of the bewildering multiplicity of pumpkins and squashes available in the US is closest to the Bengali pumpkin. If I had to guess, I’d go with buttercup, but really I use whatever I have at hand: butternut, buttercup, kabocha, delicata, or in this case ambercup. Continue reading