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Make maach on a Mamata win – a guide to the Bengali kitchen

Ever lived in a new city all by yourself and got fed up with the hassle of changing cooks, weird tastes, astronomical eat-out prices, less nutrition, oily stuff and then resorted to Maggi, milk, cornflakes and ready-to-eats? Well, sooner of later you are going to start missing home food.

If you haven’t gone beyond preparing that Maggi, or a cup of tea once in a while, don’t worry. Let me tell you what I (Sudeshna) did.
Four years ago I landed in Bangalore for my next degree. I had shifted from home (Kolkata) and within a few weeks I started missing home cooked Bengali food. Bengali restaurants in Bangalore were either too costly for a student like me, or too far away or didn’t serve authentic Bengali food. As a last resort, I started cooking my own food.
Initially, I had to ask my mom every time I wanted to cook something new. I then started a blog Cook Like a Bong (bengalicuisine.net) to help people like me master Bengali cuisine. Kalyan joined me and the website became fairly popular in the
Bengalis outside Bengal community.
My father helped me setting up my first kitchen. There have been additions to my kitchenware over the years, but I can never part with those few utensils that I bought with my dad. On that note, lets start with how a typical Bengali kitchen looked like – Bengali

Kitchen Essentials.

Utensils
First things first, purchase a small handi, big enough to cook rice (oh yes, this is a Bengali staple) for two. Now, bhaat (Bengali for rice) can’t be complete without maach(fish). A Bong can’t finish a meal without at least a piece of fish. The general solution to that when you are setting up your kitchen is to have a kadhai (wok) in the kitchen. The kadhai can be used to prepare not just fish, but also vegetables and fries. Now that you have a handi and kadhai,you can go home and prepare bhaat maach for the night. Just add a saucepan or a deep bottom vessel, a few dishes, spoons, bowls and ladles to your kitchenware list.

Extra Tip: If you love to entertain, pick up a colander, serving bowls or any other fancy utensils that catch your eye.

Calories vs Taste
If you are a Bong or know somebody who is, the plump cheeks and that extra fat have surely caught your attention sometimes. A lot of credit for this goes to the congenital habit of having the following as staple diet - Bhaat, Daal, Bhaja (something fried), followed by a vegetable curry and a fish preparation ending in Mishti Doi (sweet yoghurt), Papod, Chatni and Mishti.
Don’t be afraid though, not every dish asks you to choose between calories and taste. There is a wide variety of Bengali dishes that allows you to choose both – controlled calories and finger licking taste. In this column, we would like to drive you towards that goal. But for now, lets get back to the heshel (kitchen).

Panch Phoron. Image by Sudeshna and Kalyan.

Panch Phoron. Image by Sudeshna and Kalyan.

Mistress of Spices
In India, each regional cuisine has a different aroma attached to it. Our kitchens smell different. A Bong kitchen uses a varied collection of spices - from bay leaves to red chilies dried in the sun, from roasted cumin powder to asafetida. The unusual mixes of spices make each traditional Bengali recipe distinct from the other. But the spice you must remember is Panch phoron, a concoction of five spices – fennel (mouri), fenugreek (methi), nigella (kalo jeera), cumin (jeera) and mustard (sharshe). It is a colorful blend of several seeds – green, black, golden and tan. This mixture of spices finds its place in both vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian dishes. But, that does not mean panch phoron is the only spice in the Bengali kitchen, there are plenty of others too. But more about them in a later article.

Like a Rolling Stone
In Bengali Cuisine, every spice is required to be ground to a fine powder or paste before it becomes a part of the dish. Here comes Sheel Nora, a stone slab with a stone rolling pin – a modification to the mortar and pestle. In Kolkata/Dhaka, a few decades back, during the time of my thakuma (grandmom), it was a very important part of the Bangali Heshel. It still is important in villages and in small towns. However, the busy schedule and frequent location shifting have replaced the sheel nora with powdered spices and the mixture grinder. The coal stove is replaced by the gas oven or the microwave. So now, you don’t have to wait for hours for the Paturi (steaming the fish in a paste of spices). Just pressing a few buttons readies it in minutes in a microwave.

Sheel Nora. Image by Sudeshna and Kalyan.

The Director’s Cut

Imagine the problem of a cook if she/he has to chop brinjal, julienne ginger, chop up a vegetanble like ol, meat and fish with the same blade. Tough, huh? Bonti came to the rescue in times of yore. The Bonti is a curved and raised blade (much like Gandasa, but smaller) that has a flat wooden plank at the base. You have to squat on the ground to work on the bonti. (Note to self: I guess that’s why my mom never stepped to any gym). A lot of older Bengali households wanted to keep meat/fish separate from vegetables, so there were two kinds of Bonti – one for vegetarian food and the other one called Ansh Bonti (Ansh is fish scales) to chop/cut fish and meat.
The narkel kuruni (coconut grater) is another slight modification to the bonti. A little flat serrated blade attached to the head of the bonti helped grate coconuts so fine that you can just squeeze it to take out the milk. But, alas, it looks like our next generation will only see bonti in Google Images and buy frozen grated coconut from the store.

Change Management
Over the years Bengali food has changed keeping in pace with the reduction of time spent in the kitchen. There are more and more people who make do with ready-to-eat meals. But tell me this, can you beat the taste and nutrition of warm white rice, alu chokha (mashed potato sauted in onions and red chilies) with a dollop of ghee (clarified butter) accompanied with green chilies, bhaja, maach, chatni and rasogolla.? Probably not.

That’s what we, Sudeshna and Kalyan, are after. Through this column we will try and talk about nutritious and tasty Bengali delicacies, how to prepare them with less fuss. We will try and combine traditional Bangali Heshel with the demands of the modern life. In our later articles, we will see how we can use substitutes for Sheel Nora, Bonti or Hamal Dista. Stay tuned as we embark on a journey to help you prepare our grandma’s recipes in your modern kitchen.

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