These beautiful stone moulds from Aniruddha’s mother are used to shape the famous Bengali sweet sandesh (shondesh). And I’ve added my own non-Bengali touch to the sandesh I made by decorating them with colour 🙂
Although there is little in common between Marathi and Bengali food in terms of flavour, there are some ingredients that are commonly used. Yoghurt is one such ingredient, used in both savoury as well as sweet preparations. It is called dahi in Marathi and doi in Bengali.
As I started to think of what else I could do for a dessert option on our dining menu, the idea of playing around with all the versions of yoghurt started appealing to me. I have already spoken about shrikhand and sandesh (sandesh is technically made from curdled milk, but why let facts get in the way of a good story?) I decided to add another Bengali yoghurt dessert to my repertoire – Bhapa doi. Bhapa means steamed and doi is yoghurt, so this is a steamed yoghurt pudding.
You couldn’t find a simpler recipe to make – equal parts of yoghurt and condensed milk mixed together with a little vanilla essence for flavour. This is then steamed to allow the mixture to set and become like a pudding or cheescake.
And so with that I have a nice little trio of milk/yoghurt based desserts – Shrikhand tart with mango, Bhapa doi and sandesh! All light in taste and so different from typical Indian desserts! Only one more needs to be added to this….a shrikhand vadi. But that is going to take a little practice to get right 😉
Some time back I had the opportunity to cook with something called a Pommery crumble which I discovered was like a biscuit or crumble dough flavoured with mustard. Intrigued by the taste, I wondered if I could do the same thing using kashundi. Kashundi as I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, is a pungent mustard sauce very common in Bengali cuisine.
There was only one way to find out. So I took my very basic biscuit dough recipe – 1 part flour, 1/2 part butter, about 1 tablespoon of kashundi and balanced it with a bit of salt and sugar. Chilled it for a while, rolled in out and baked it for 15 minutes. The taste was surprisingly good…very more-ish. And the texture firm yet crumbly.
Now I’m trying to figure out all the things I can possibly eat these biscuits with 😀
Without knowing it my first introduction to Bengali cuisine had happened when I was very young, while gorging happily on sandesh from a Bengali sweet shop in Nagpur, my father’s home town. It’s only later I realized just how integral this wonderful sweet is to Bengali cuisine and culture.
Sandesh is a very popular dessert made from cottage cheese and comes in a variety of flavours and shapes. Compared to most other Indian sweets and desserts, it is much lighter to eat – something I greatly appreciate as I get older!
But since I had assumed making the sweets at home were difficult, I relied on Bengal Sweets in Bombay for my regular supply of sandesh. Until recently, after living in Singapore for a while and not being able to get them, I decided it’s time to give sandesh a try at home.
To make sandesh you first need to make chenna or cottage cheese. This is simple and acquired by boiling cow’s milk and curdling it with lemon juice. You then strain the mixture to separate the cheese from the whey. This cheese which has not been shaped is apparently called makha sandesh. If you mix simple flavours like cardamom powder, rose water and sugar and then shape it you would get one type of sandesh called kanchagolla.
If you cook the mixture over low heat for a short time, you get naram pak. This is not as soft as makha sandesh but can still be molded. Cooking it longer will give you karak pak, which I haven’t tried making yet.
My first attempt at making chenna or cottage cheese was very successful. I then tried to make both kanchagolla and naram pak. My naram pak got a bit more dry than I would have liked but both versions still tasted damn good for a first attempt at this wonderful dessert. I used some very old sandesh moulds that my mother-in-law had given us – the ones made from stone. And decided to add a little colour to my kanchagolla 🙂
Next try – different flavours and my favourite variety, ice cream sandesh.
Something we’ve been attempting in the Bombay Howrah Dining Car kitchen, is sensible attempts to meld Indian (or specifically Bengali, Marathi and Bombay / Kolkata inspired fare) with western styles of cooking. It somehow broadens the appeal for those unfamiliar with these cuisines, and almost introduces an element of playfulness for those familiar with them.
I therefore decided to try making a pie with the traditional Kosha Mangsho (a drier version of the Bengali mutton curry) filling since the luchi – fried refined flour bread – the Bengali cousin of the puri, is a traditional accompaniment to kosha mangsho, and the buttery, flaky pie crust dough is a good approximation of the luchi.
This time, I also decided to go native on the curry and cook it entirely in mustard oil as folks back in Kolkata would frequently do. That, and the distinct flavor and colour you get from using fried onions (beresta as Bengalis call it, as opposed to the barista you may find at a Starbucks) that adds a wonderful caramelized flavor, and depth of flavor and colour to the dish. One of our Singaporean friends and a very discerning gourmand, had given us some feedback from meat dishes she had eaten from our kitchen – while she loved the spices and the flavours, she wanted to taste more of the meat i.e. a little less well done and chunkier. The point was well taken and executed in this dish.
The experiment worked, and the good news is that both elements of the dish – the filling and the pie crust can be made in advance. The Kosha Mangsho gains a lot from giving the meat more time to soak up the gravy, and the pastry dough keeps nicely in the refrigerator (indeed some amount of refrigeration is needed before the baking of the pie crust, to let it firm up a bit). The combination was a wonderful hearty meat pie with all the flavours that I love about our meat preparation, combined with the look and taste of a pie with a nice, golden crust that cut open with just the right amount of flakiness, baked with the expert help of Priya, the queen of all things dough at home. This is definitely making it to the menu of the dining car, and I intend to try other fillings as well (Chicken Rezala as a hearty pot pie substitute maybe?)
Bengalis have a saying that we have thirteen festivals for twelve months of the year (“Baro Mase Tero Parbon”) – implying that we barely need an excuse to celebrate. That probably also explains our healthy levels of food obsession and productivity! And festivals clearly meant , which invariably involves eating way more than we ought to.
One of my personal favourite festivals used to be Poush Sankranti that celebrates the harvest and the beginning of winter, and like all traditions around the world that celebrate food in sync with the seasons, it is celebrated with rice – since it is harvested then – and palm jaggery – that is produced only in that season. My grandmothers would then bring out the big guns to make the wonderful desserts with rice and jaggery, and the excellent vegetables in season in winter. My favourite dessert of these, was patishapta, or rice flour pancakes – with a filling of either coconut and jaggery, or sweet milk solid. The pancakes themselves are made with a combination of rice flour, wheat flour and semolina in a thin milk slurry, lightly pan fried and then rolled with the filling, almost like a soft, golden white cannoli.
I got my mother to teach me the pancakes with two kinds of filling – spiced coconut and jaggery,and sweetened milk solids. The pancakes like all such dishes I guess are a function of practice and my tenth pancake was better and smoother than the first, and the twentieth better than the tenth….and so on, you get the drift. Guess that’s why my grand mothers, who were easily a thousand plus pancakes down in their lives, were so effortless and consistent.
I also made the jaggery filling version at our dinner party, that we served with a lovely raspberry coulis that Priya prepared. I also took down the semolina content in the pancake batter….the semolina is there to give the pancake structure, but makes it a bit heavy, so I preferred the lighter version, though I needed to be a bit gentler with the pancakes. All in, a good effort, and a version I made at home got a final brush of cointreau. The orange notes were great and when has the right use of alcohol ever hurt a dessert??
We were back in Bombay to celebrate my Dad’s 70th birthday and much to his chagrin, I spent the better part of a day cooking with Mom to learn a couple of my favourite recipes (that she has no part in my Dad’s bonding sessions with me over single malt, was not a consideration). The first of these was Mochar Chop – chops made with Banana Flower (Mocha). Banana flowers are a favourite of Bengalis with good reason – they are wonderfully fragrant, with great, subtle flavours. They look really pretty as well lined up in rows inside the big purple banana blossom that holds hundreds of these little flowers.
Now for the bad news. They are a pain in the arse to get to. And I clearly wanted to learn to do this from scratch (and there is no way to buy cleaned flowers, so someone had to do the hard work anyway). You have to pull out the tall stigma and a plastic-like bud from each individual flower to leave behind the soft, delicious bud and stamen. So, after that patient effort (quite therapeutic), it was time to finely chop and cook the flowers into what is called a Mochar Ghonto (a mixed Banana Flower vegetable) that becomes the filling for the chop and is a fantastic vegetable dish to learn in its own right….
And then, after a night in the fridge for the filling (helps any chop by drying out some of the moisture and firming up the filling) it was time for a coating of flour slurry and bread crumbs for deep-fried goodness. You get the wonderful crunch, followed by the fragrant, spiced banana flower filling with all the garam masala, coriander and cumin flavours and the added flavours of grated coconut in the filling. They went down pretty quickly with the kasundi (sour mustard sauce) – a must for many of our deep fried chops.
Before Aniruddha and I were engaged, my knowledge of Bengali cuisine was very limited. I knew that fish was a big part of their diet but I wouldn’t have been able to name a single dish. And my father had convinced me that the best Bengali sweets (notably sandesh) were available not in Kolkata but in Nagpur, his hometown.
Aniruddha and his family opened up the world of Bengali food to me and when I started experiencing the cuisine, I realized just how much I had missed out on. Fish was an integral part of the diet, but there was so much more to it.
I tasted unusual vegetable combinations and flavours in shukto and chorchori (mixed vegetable dishes typically cooked in mustard oil). I enjoyed dal preparations like cholar dal (slightly sweetened dal made from Bengal gram). I was introduced to paanch phoron, the Bengali 5 spices of onion seeds, fennel, cumin, mustard and fenugreek. I discovered kashundi, the Bengali mustard sauce. I learnt that poppy seeds are as much a part of their cuisine as they are in Marathi food. I experienced nulen gur (date palm jaggery). And of course I went through a wide range of Bengali sweets especially sandesh (a light dessert made of a ricotta-like cheese). I later realized my father’s love for his home town had clearly muddled his taste buds.
I learnt that the Bengali obsession with all things meat is second only to that of the Parsis. A Parsi wedding feast is slightly extreme. If you opt for non-vegetarian, that is pretty much the only thing you are getting on your plate 🙂 And vegetarians, like my father, are relegated to one corner of the dinner hall.
Bengalis are more inclusive. A traditional meal which is served in courses has vegetarian food served, consumed and done with before moving on to more exciting non vegetarian options. I learnt this the hard way at a dinner hosted by Aniruddha’s relatives. Not knowing that there would be courses, I tucked into the first couple of vegetarian dishes and had a lot of trouble trying to cope with the dishes that came in later. I also learnt that trying to argue with a Bengali hostess is in vain.
The Bengali opinion on culinary matters was another part of my education. Well, the Bengali opinion on anything and everything is also something to experience.
Mercifully since Aniruddha grew up in Mumbai he takes a benign view of these debates.
And so after almost 14 years of being married into the community, learning dishes from my mother-in-law and eating in Kolkata, a small part of me is also Bengali. Through the Bombay Howrah Dining Car, hopefully more people will be exposed to Bengali cuisine.
Dhokar dalna is one of those dishes I have loved, but carefully stayed away from cooking given the number of steps involved (you have to soak and grind the lentils, pre-cook them lightly with spices, fry them and then add them to a gravy) with chances of things going wrong at each step. But given how much I love the dish, and in the spirit of taking culinary plunges I thought I’d give it a go.
The result wasn’t half-bad and while I need to work on getting the dhoka (the lentil cakes) firmer and crunchier, the flavours worked and the cumin, green chilies and hing (asafoetida) in the lentil cakes all came together nicely. The next step was to make the dalna or gravy and I went for the Bengali version of the niramish (or vegetarian) gravy that’s made without onions and garlic. The latter are considered non-vegetarian in some strict sense and hence for certain folks and on certain religious occasions, the food is cooked without onions and garlic. (I am not sure what term would be used for my dietary range in a world where that is the definition of vegetarian food!) Anyway, I actually like our vegetarian dalnas without onion and garlic as the flavours are lighter and you can taste the stars of the dish – the dhoka – in this case.
So, the final step was to make the tomato, ginger and garam masala based gravy and lightly simmer the dhoka in the gravy so it soaks up the flavours, becomes soft, but still retains its texture and shape. All in all, a great twist on lentils and the final product makes every step along the way worth while!
Prawn Malai Curry is a classic Bengali seafood curry. Apparently the word ‘malai’ comes from ‘Malay’ as it is believed the use of coconut cream is influenced by Malay cuisine. I’m sure this will be hotly contested by many Bengalis and Malays alike. But regardless, it is a delicacy and I’m happy to have learned how to make it.
The gravy is made of onion paste, garlic, ginger, dry roasted cloves, cardamom and cinnamon, bay leaves and coconut cream. This is cooked over low heat till it becomes thick and creamy and then the prawns, marinated and cooked separately, are added to the gravy. A wonderful, indulgent prawn curry best enjoyed with rice.