There is more shared between Kashmir and Bengal than a love for rice, fish, and mustard oil. There is a shared history. Eighth century Kashmiri emperor Lalitaditya’s empire is believed to have extended from Kabul right up to Bengal. But, that was centuries ago. Even in the last century there was a very strong connection between the two Indian states. West Bengal seems to have been the first choice for a majority of Kashmiri youth in my parents generation seeking scholarship outside of this remote state in the north. Nineteenth Century Calcutta was the bastion of contemporary western education. It was routine for teen Kashmiri boys to leave home for this faraway state to study medicine or engineering. Many generations owe a debt to this state of bhadrlok for their education: in my family my Dad studied at IITKgp, one uncle studied medicine at Calcutta Medical College (established by the British in 1835, it is our oldest medical college), two others studied engineering at Jadhavpur University. The Government Medical College, Srinagar, was established only in 1959, followed by the REC (Regional Engineering College) in 1960.
For some reason none of them talked about the food they ate there. I will take it up with my dad and the uncle who is also visiting currently. In middle school, despite my best friend being a Bengali, my exposure to Bengali food seems to have stayed limited. I do remember a sleep-over at her place when we ate doi-maach which I liked very much. In Kashmiri cooking, combining dairy and fish is taboo and I seem to not have explored the cuisine any further. Also in my defense is the fact that I was only 11 years old at the time. Which is not much of a defense looking at the way these 8-12 years old cook in Junior Masterchef Australia – they are unlike any children I have ever seen! I was expecting them to be cooking beginner-level food but this is like watching regular Masterchef, and my interest is waning fast.
Getting back to the topic of Bengali food. So, you found me raving about Bengali food when I finally discovered it on a visit to Kolkata not so long ago. I have made begun bhaja umpteen times before, and also remember making bhappa doi a long time ago, but these two dishes don’t really count as ‘cooking’ Bengali. I also recall an unsuccessful attempt at making roasted mung dal from Madhur Jaffrey’s A Taste of India, the only time that cookbook has let me down; I likely over-roasted the mung.
The first dish I picked to try was the disarmingly simple shukto. It a medley of vegetables in a light milky gravy that is complimented by the use of the ubiquitous shorshe and poppy seed pastes. The first attempt, while delicious, did not quite recreate what I had tasted in the restaurant thali in Kolkata; it was missing something. I checked recipes on the net, and they seemed similar enough. My colleague’s wife had shared a basic recipe-construct while going over the ingredients. The only thing I had omitted was radhuni, but I was told it was optional. Since I couldn’t get the simple shukto off my mind I requested a friend, who stays in Delhi’s Bengali adda – Chitranjan Park, to procure some for me. With that, my paanch phoron was complete. Radhuni made all the difference.
When I cooked this last week, I paired it with mung-masur dal infused with Bengal-inspired spices. For a more authentic touch use only masur. In recollection of my earlier meal I also served a nigella-flecked green mango relish, prepared fresh, on the side. It was a comforting meal like only a dal-bhaat meal can be. It got better because, through no planning though, I also had mishti doi from the previous day!
Bengali-style mixed vegetable curry
karela (bitter gourd) – 1, cut into 1″ long sections, cut sections into 4-6 pieces lengthways
kuccha kela (green banana) – 1, cubed
potato – 1 (or 2, if you like them as much as I do!), peel, halve, and cut into thick slices
a mix of vegetables such as mooli (radish), brinjal, ghia (bottle gourd), tori (courgette), parwal (wax gourd), drumsticks, all cut into longish pieces (according to my friend Sanjukta, pumpkin, beans, and carrots are a no-no) – this time I used (oh, no) beans!*
1t panch phoron (mix of methi, fennel, kalonji, zeera, and radhuni seeds)
1t salt (or to taste)
1/2 C milk
3 green chillies, slit along the length (optional)
2-3T mustard oil
pinch of hing
* the total quantity of vegetables, after frying, was enough to fill a 1.5l capacity pan
for the spice paste
1T sarson (mustard seeds)
1T khus khus (white poppy seeds)
1″ piece of ginger
1t fennel seeds
1/4t radhuni (sometimes referred to as wild celery; they do look like celery seeds but the aroma is very different)
(soak mustard and poppy seeds in water for an hour, grind into a paste with the rest of the ingredients above)
Heat oil in a kadahi (or pan) and lightly stir fry the vegetables, each separately. Fry brinjal and green bananas towards the end as they suck up all the oil. Remove the vegetables into a bowl and keep ready. Heat a little oil in the karahi (a teaspoon or so). Add panch phoron and hing. Once the whole spices have spluttered add the vegetables to the karahi along with a cup of water. Add salt, cover, and simmer for 10 min or till the vegetables are half cooked. Add the spice paste and the green chillies. Continue to cook till the vegetables are cooked through, stirring occasionally to make sure there is some liquid and the vegetables do not dry out. Add more water if needed, so that you have a little gravy. Add milk and heat thru.
Serve over steamed white rice with a sweet and sour relish or pickle on the side.