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Bengali Summer Lunch Thali Series : Day 3
Beyond maach, mishti and kosha mangsho, there exists a vast horizon of Bengali vegetarian dishes that are exemplary of finesse , which demands repertoire of culinary expertise. At the same time they represents a profound and sharp flavour contrasts, as you traversed through the fertile plains of Bengal from one end to another, from river to coast , from hills to deltaic plains. It is beyond the scope of this blog to encompass every single dish in its fold, however we will try to showcase the glimpses of ones that are traditional, ethnic and native to certain geographical bounds.
So the much celebrated aloo posto, dhokar dalna and mochar ghonto which has already found its reputable stature will be superseded with everyday Bengali vegetarian dishes that are staple in almost every households, the one that comes to known as comfort food. And here we will be focused mainly on summer lunches, as the gastronome Bongs still religiously follow the old traditional way of eating seasonally.
Please read this also – More Bengali summer lunch thali are here :
This Bengali thali features – regular musoor dal and aloo bhaja, beans bhorta, chhana bhapa and aamer tok.
Dal – the staple food of millions on this planet is a regular feature on any Indian thali and Bengali thali is no exception. However, we keep changing the type of dal from season to season and on special occasions. In Bengali households, summer essentially means tok daal or mango dal , the one made with the raw mangoes or lau r teto dal or bittergourd dal, the one with the bottle gourds and bitter gourds. Other than that the “all season musoor daal” or red lentils are must haves.
How to prepare Bengali style musoor dal – its pretty simple. We like it thin, almost watery. Once the dals are cooked in pressure cooker, add more water to get that watery consistency. Then temper the dal with ghee, dry red chillies, garlic cloves (I use around 8-10 cloves, as I love garlics in dal) and nigella seeds (kalonji).
Bhaja – only a Bong can truly appreciate the holy matrimony of dal-bhaja alliance. This blissful combo are what comfort foods are made of. They hit straight to the heart, where it matters. And in Bengali cuisine, we have an expansive army of bhaja and bora, ready to turn your simple meal into something blissful. Bhaja could be any vegetable of your choice, may be undraped or may be batter coated, and not just plain old begun bhaja, or maach bhaja, the fried fishes as discussed in my first post of the series.
Bora, on the other hand, are usually mix of two-three ingredients with binder in place. Like posto r bora, the poppy seed fritters , narkel er bora , the coconut fritters or dhonepata r bora, the cilantro fritters. You get the idea, right? Again in bora, or fritters we have an interesting range and some are really unique and native to a particular region, like khoi er bora, the popped rice fritters. Have you heard about it?
How to prepare Bengali jhuri aloo bhaja – feature here is Bengali style jhuri aloo bhaja or jhiri jhiri aloo bhaja, the dainty potatoes that can turn any simple regular meal into gourmet. This simple aloo bhaja is the real test of your knife skill, or rather boti skill,the Bengali cutting instrument, to be more precisely. Now a days, people simply grate the potatoes in the vegetable grater. Grating releases lots of starch that needs three – four rounds of washing under cold running water. Also it makes the potatoes very crisper and wafer like. For me, that loses the punch of eating true aloo bhaja.
I usually cut them into thin julienne. My partner in crime is my prized santoku knife and I really love to slice the potatoes as razor sharp as possible. If you julienne a potato into longish sizes, it will anyway break while frying in hot oil. So around one inch size should be the ideal one. After cutting the potato, give it a good wash under running water. Sprinkle salt over it and leave aside for an hour. It will again release lots of water, so dry it completely on the kitchen towel, before deep frying them on hot oil. Frying will take some time, so be patient and keep frying them till you get that brownish or golden hues. Potatoes will be crispy and brittle.
After this dal-bhaja affair, the next course on any regular Bengali menu are the usual suspects of ghonto (like mochar ghonto, chapor ghonto, lau er ghonto) and dalna (dhokar dalna, and other rich vegetable curries). But here I am presenting you two lesser known aspects of Bengali cuisine, native to east Bengal (geographically lies in present day Bangladesh) – bhapa and bhorta.
The sweltering hot summer days also demands minimalist style of cooking, yet nutritious and contented.
Bhorta are the present day nomenclature, given by the Bengali Muslims residing in that region. To us, in Bengali Hindu households of east Bengal ancestry, it was usually known as sheele – baata, meaning hand pounded on typical Bengali mortar and pestle, called shil nora. Like this chingri baata or bhorta.
Feature here is beans bhorta. I usually make this with sheem or hyacinth beans. Full recipe is given below in the recipe box.
Bhapa – or steamed food is another class of delicacies for which Bengal is famous for. Does that immortal ilish bhaape / steamed hilsa makes any sense to you? We can adopt the same recipe to make this melt-in-mouth chhana bhapa or the steamed paneer. Here is how to make soft paneer at home.
How to make chhana bhapa – cut the paneer (200gm) into small cubes. Coat the paneer cubes with generous amount of mustard -green chilli paste (2 -3 tbsp) blended with curd (3 tsp). You can use one tablespoon of poppy seed paste also to mellow down the pungency of mustard paste. Sprinkle turmeric powder, nigella seeds and salt over it . Add two tablespoon raw mustard oil and give the paneer cubes a nice rub. Let them marinate in that mixture for half an hour. Put everything into a steel box with lid and steam it in pressure cooker or in water bath, till done, around 10-15 minutes.
Tok and not chutney – which has acquired a pre-dessert slot in the full course Bengali menu. Bengali chutneys are essentially sweet, like tomato khejur chutney, amer / green mango mishti chutney, papaya plastic chutney and so on.
But there exists another class of dish called tok or ambol , the soupy preparation of sour fruits like raw mangoes, ber – Indian jujube, chalta – elephant apple, jalpai – ceylon olives and so on. Tok /ambol also acts as a coolant in summer months and also as a palate cleanser before moving forward to the next course of Bengali desserts of doi- mishti palette.
How to prepare aamer tok or ambol : Use a sour mango for the recipe. Wash, peel and cut the mangoes into small cubes or you can cut into longish strips. Heat a tablespoon of oil (refined oil will do) and temper it with asafoetida / hing, black mustard seeds, dry red chillies two-three. Fry the mangoes in the oil till they become soft. You can sprinkle little turmeric powder and salt while frying the mangoes. Throw in one tablespoon of grated ginger, sauté it. Then add two -three cups water, let it come to a rolling boil. Add sugar around 3-4 tablespoon for one mango. Cover and let it cook till the mangoes are soft. Adjust the seasonings as per the taste. This mango dish will have an explosion of flavours leaning towards sourness than sweetness. Before serving, sprinkle one tablespoon of roasted panch phoron for additional flavor. But this is optional.
If you want to learn more about Bengali cuisine, culture and festivals, there is a good book I highly recommend by Chitrita Banerjee – Bengali Cooking Seasons And Festivals
Bengali summer lunch menu - the everyday thali. Recipe of green beans bhorta or shile baata is here.
- 200 gm Green beans
- 2 tbsp Mustard paste
- 1/2 cup Coconut scraped
- 8-10 Garlic cloves
- 1 tsp Nigella seeds
- 1/2 cup Onions, chopped
- 3-4 Green chillies
- Salt and sugar to taste
- 3 tbsp Mustard oil
Wash and cut the green beans into small pieces.
Chop the garlic.
In a pan, heat one tablespoon mustard oil. Throw in half the garlic. Once it becomes fragrant, add the onions and saute till the onions becomes translucent and soft.
Add the green beans, green chillies, salt and saute for 3-4 minutes.
Add half of the coconut and fry for 2-3 minutes more.
Let it cool down a bit.
Once cooled down, add this into the mixer (usually it is hand pounded in ealier days) and pulse it to a paste.
You can make a smooth paste, but we like it little coarse textured. So I pulse it once or twice without adding water.
Heat another tablespoon of oil in a pan. Throw in the rest of the chopped garlic, let it become fragrant.
Add the nigella and once the seeds starts spluttering, add the beans-coconut paste.
Add mustard paste and fry it on high heat for 2-3 more minute.
Adjust salt and seasonings , add sugar to taste.
Fry till it becomes absolutely dry and moisture is absorbed completely.
Drizzle another tablespoon of raw mustard oil. Garnish with the remaining grated coconut and serve as a side dish with steamed rice.