When in Kolkata, eat like a Bengali
- Spend a day in a Bengali household and you get the drift that food is not about three meals a day, it’s the sutradhar that binds the family
- Make a list of all the Bengali friends and relatives you can impose on to savour home-made winter delicacies
If you are in Kolkata any time soon or planning to visit, look beyond phuchka, jhal muri, biryani and double chicken, double egg rolls. Instead of heading to the city’s innumerable kebab and Chinese joints, make a list of all the Bengali friends and relatives you can impose on to savour home-made winter delicacies. One, because it’s the season of nolen/patali gur (date palm jaggery). Two, because nice, relaxed weather does fuel the appetite, you don’t want to be sweating over your parshey machh-er jhal and chingri malai curry. Kolkata has a fleeting winter and to a visitor from up north it might seem strange to hear people say, “Baba ki thanda (It’s so cold)". Actually that’s just a prompt for heading to the bajaar (local market) with a tholay (shopping bag) and lugging home the season’s best offerings. As soon as the mercury dips by .05 degrees Celsius, the frenzy in the kitchen goes up by several notches.
Spend a day in a Bengali household and you get the drift that food is not about three meals a day, it’s the sutradhar that binds the family, and the larger circle of friends and relatives. The four-letter word spices every conversation. Festivities like Christmas and New Year are marked by kosha mangsho, fish fry and mangsho-r cutlet as much as roast turkey and plum cake. Here are a few of the must-try staples if you are in the city:
KORAISHUTIR KOCHURI:A seasonal speciality, this is a puri stuffed with the freshest winter peas. But it’s not that simple. The peas are first blitzed with green chillies (some people still do this on a sheel-nora, or stone grinder). Mustard oil is heated and spiked with asafoetida. To this are added red chilli powder, ginger paste and sugar and salt to taste, followed by the pea purée. The mixture is cooked till it can be formed into small balls. Once the mixture cools down, it’s flavoured with bhuna (dry-roasted) garam masala powder (dried red chilies, cumin, cinnamon, green cardamom and cloves). The dough is made with refined flour, refined oil and salt. Most households make koraishutir kochuri like luchi, soft and pale in colour. But there is a khasta version also, with a crunchy outer layer. This is achieved by deep-frying the puri on low heat. The kochuris are paired with potato curry. But they are good on their own too, with a cup of Darjeeling tea. And, of course, you can’t stop at one.
PATISHAPTA:This is a kind of crepe stuffed with khoya. A not too thin or thick batter is made of refined flour, a little bit of milk, water and patali/nolen gur. In a separate bowl, the khoya is mixed with sugar/nolen gur and crushed green cardamoms and formed into small rolls. Pour a ladle of the batter on a non-stick griddle, and, when bubbles start to form, place the khoya roll in the centre. Roll the pancake and put ghee all around so that the pancake is cooked and slightly browned. These keep for four-five days and can be had as a snack any time of the day.
PATALI GUR-ER PAYESH: Essentially, rice pudding, but Bengalis use the fragrant gobindo bhog rice, which is also used for making ghee bhaat (a kind of pulao). The rice is washed and cooked in milk on low flame. You keep stirring the mixture and adding milk. When the rice softens, patali gur is added. The mixture is cooked till the desired consistency is achieved. It can be had both warm or chilled—after dinner, lunch or in between. I prefer the thick creamy version, where the mixture coats the spoon. And yes, it tastes better than kheer.
KOSHA MANGSHO: Although not technically restricted to winter, this classic mutton dish is far more enjoyable when there’s a nip in the air. Between rogan josh and kosha mangsho, I would opt for the latter, any day. This dish with melt-in-your-mouth meat and a heady aroma is best had with soft luchis, but it is equally delectable with parathas or rice. Here, the meat is marinated in yogurt. Next, whole spices are added to hot oil, followed by sliced onions and ginger-garlic paste. When it turns golden brown, tomatoes, red chili powder and turmeric are added and cooked till the oil separates. Then add the mutton. It is first seared on high flame and then cooked, covered, on low heat till done. The dish gets a final flourish of garam masala powder and ghee. An afternoon siesta is recommended after a sumptuous lunch.
FISH FRY: Again, this can be made all-year round, but just imagine standing next to a hot kadhai (wok) in the stifling heat of summer. And, it’s not a simple recipe—good food needs patience and TLC. Betki fillets are first marinated in lemon juice and salt, then washed and patted dry. Next they are marinated in a paste of ginger, garlic, green chillies, mint, coriander, parsley, black pepper, red chilli powder, a little bit of sugar and salt. The fillets are dipped in egg wash, rolled in breadcrumbs and then deep-fried. Fish fry is best had sizzling hot with evening tea. But then you can have it at any time, as a starter or with vegetable soup for dinner. Bite into a fish fry, and you can see the three distinct layers: the golden crust, the green marinade and the flaky white fish. Also, keep a bottle of kasundi (mustard) handy.
After all this, if you still think something is missing, head to one of the many sweet shops (ask for recommendations from friends/relatives) and feast on nolen gur-er sondesh, especially jalbhara sondesh—split the sweet in half, and see the liquid jaggery ooze out.