The purple heart of the banana tree
In Bengal, appreciating the banana blossom demands serious knife skills, patience and a sophisticated palate
As a child, I was a strangely acquiescent eater. I would eat my greens with uncommon alacrity and lap up insipid gruels without objection. My non-discriminatory eating policy was effusively extolled, even flaunted, in front of guests too. But what earned me the most enthusiastic nods of approval as a five-year-old was my obsessive love for mocha (banana blossom). I could give up all the kormas and kalias of the world for a bowl of ghee-soaked mochar ghonto (a dry preparation made with the banana blossom). My family took this as early proof of my evolved palate.
The weakness of the 15th century Vaishnava saint Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu for mocha was legendary. In fact, the mocha is mentioned quite a few times in the Chaitanya Charitamrita, a biography of his life and teachings written by Krishnadas Kaviraja. Swami Vivekananda, too, was a fan and is believed to have proclaimed that in order to eat mochar dalna, “one could be born again and again".
My love for mocha wasn’t just gastronomic. I particularly enjoyed watching our cook clean and cut the mocha—she would smear mustard oil on her fingers and palm (to avoid staining from the sticky sap), yank out the large petals with seasoned flicks of her hand, one at a time, and carefully pull out the florets attached to the base. At times she would grumble about how she would never understand the hue and cry over the vegetable, and the time and labour that went into its preparation. “In our village," she would say, “we feed these to the cows." I would wait patiently till she had finely chopped up the last floret and dunked it in turmeric-infused water to prevent discolouration. I would then demand a couple of the gorgeous merlot petals to play with.
For a long time, in my mind, mocha was something “steadfastly Bengali". Of course, that’s far from true. But it is true that the exalted culinary status, the cultural iconicity and sentimental value that Bengalis attach to the innocuous mocha, can hardly be seen elsewhere. Few cuisines use it as diversely and imaginatively. There was a time, elders reminisce, when “cutting and cleaning the mocha" was counted among the essential skills for all Bengali girls of marriageable age.
These days in Kolkata one can buy the mocha cleaned and chopped from the local bazaar, but many still shy away from preparing it at home because it’s time-consuming. The feted mochar ghonto (the best-known banana-blossom dish of Bengali origin) does make an obligatory appearance on menus at Bengali speciality restaurants. Yet, somehow, it doesn’t match up to the home-cooked versions to which cooks add their personal touches.
The best mochar ghonto I have tasted came out of my maternal grandmother’s kitchen. She liked cooking with the larger, meatier and tastier garbo mocha, which is cut from the tree just before the banana has matured. Sometimes, she would add black gram to her slightly sweet mochar ghonto, and finish it with a garnish of freshly grated coconut or crushed, deep-fried bori (sun-dried lentil pellets). Sometimes, she would add prawns to the mix. The dish was a lesson in subtlety and balance. Another of her specialities was the mochar paturi (mashed banana florets mixed with grated coconut, mustard paste and green chillies, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked on a griddle), reserved for special occasions. The mocha, like raw jackfruit and green bananas, would also be used to make koftas for rich curries.
Basically, my grandmother could construct an entire meal out of mocha. Her personal favourite was the innocuous mocha bhaate (boiled mocha mashed with salt, minced green chillies, a splash of mustard oil, and, sometimes, a blob of kasundi, or mustard relish) that she sometimes rustled up for herself. Her solitary, late-afternoon lunch would feature this bhaate with hot rice and ghee.
I could eat the mocha cooked in my grandma’s kitchen seven days a week. The only problem was that in our home, like many other Bengali households, it was strictly prohibited on Tuesdays and Saturdays. This was because of a rather grim tradition followed by many Hindu families in Bengal whereby if a person died on a Tuesday or a Saturday, a banana flower had to be placed near the body. As a result, Wednesdays were considered the best day to bring the mocha home in our family, for it could be relished over three days.
In a state known for its telebhaja, or fried snacks, the mochar chop has a somewhat exalted status. These crumbed patties made of a sweet and spicy banana-blossom stuffing were once among the chief attractions at neighbourhood chop-cutlet joints. Although it’s difficult to find a decent one these days, a few Bengali restaurants and wedding caterers have it on their menus. But it seems the mochar chop has a richer cousin. In his 19th century cookbook Pak Pranali, Bipradas Mukhopadhyay talks about the Mochar Mohan Chop, which is prepared like a regular mochar chop, except that it is loaded with luxurious ingredients like khoya, almonds, pistachio and fried in ghee.
Interestingly, author Utsa Ray, in her book Culinary Culture In Colonial India, writes about a rather unusual shukto (a bitter vegetable dish with a light broth) of eggplant, pumpkin, green banana and banana blossom spiced with asafoetida, cumin and fenugreek…", mentioned in one of the versions of Chandi Mangal Kavya, an important work of medieval Bengali literature. Such recipes are rare these days, consigned to the pages of dusty old cookbooks or fading memories of grandmothers. It’s perhaps time to recreate them in our kitchens.
One banana to rule them all
All across India, wherever banana trees grow in abundance, the edible inflorescence also finds its way into the kitchen. In Kerala, a particularly popular dish is the banana blossom and green gram thoran (stir-fry), tempered with curry leaves and mustard, and loaded with fresh grated coconut. Tamil Nadu’s spicy banana blossom vazhaipoo poriyal is flavoured with sambhar masala and tempered with urad dal, mustard seeds and curry leaves, a perfect accompaniment to piping steamed rice and a dash of ghee. Kitchens in Karnataka’s Udupi district often have a chutney made with banana flower. Fortified with fresh coconut, ginger, chillies and sesame seeds, it’s a condiment that livens up the simplest meals.
The banana blossom is also quite well-known in the North-East. Assam has an interesting dish, the koldilere rondha paro manxo, a thick curry made with banana blossom and pigeon meat. And the Khasis of Meghalaya have a chutney which combines mashed banana flower with sesame seeds.