Authentic Bengal cuisine, with its world-renowned curries and marinated delicacies, will make you rethink Indian food. Ranjan Bhattacharyya goes in search of lost, authentic dishes from his childhood visits to India…
On 3 January I returned to India for my annual visit with the extended family, and to seek out disappearing recipes and culinary authenticities. Twenty years ago I would feast on my uncle’s variant of the classical East Bengali cuisine of my childhood visits to India, with its abundance of seasonal vegetables.
In each household, traditions continued and developed through marriages, other happenstances like emigration, and the ideological bent of each household’s kitchen czar. In my family, the crown sat uneasy atop my dad’s head, wobbled occasionally by my mother’s acerbic grenades, disgruntled when he strayed off script, but never displaced. Households were noted for their specialities – Mocha Gonto (Banana Blossom curry), chingri jingha (prawns cooked with bottle gourd) or paesh (rice pudding).
My cousins’ generations ditched the charcoal stoves in favour of bottled or piped gas and left behind vegetable varieties and bony fish in preference for easy-to-cook chicken and mutton curries or takeaway biryanis, mughali cuisine and pizzas.
Nobody wants to let sentiment intervene with progress , but in modern India, like Britain, expedience wins over taste and nutrition. Fortunately, some family still live in further off villages where modernity has had to walk hand-in-hand with tradition, and it was here that I rediscovered real flavour.
Bori is best thought of as a crouton, made from pulses – lentil, mung, mottar (split pea) chola, channa, chick pea, etc. These are soaked in water or parboiled, drained, mashed, spiced and formed into a squidgy cone to dry in the summer sun. Different Boris are used for different preparations of fish and vegetables, eg, chola dal bori for spinach, mustard and methi greens, mung dal bori for ‘curry’ or yoghurt dishes, lentil boris for cabbage and brocolli and channa bori used for a mixed veg mottar dal.
I would squat on aching haunches alongside a household matriarch as she or he began to cook lunch and tease out recipes
Each morning, stepping out from my friend’s house, I would see pale Bori on white sheets spread out in the small front gardens of neighbours, left out to dry in the pale pink morning sun alongside freshly harvested red chillis. I would squat on aching haunches alongside a household matriarch or patriarch and watch as she or he began to cook lunch – the main meal of the day. Exploiting my exalted status as a ‘foreigner’, I would tease out recipes.
One day, next to the widowed matriarch I saw her prepare ‘widow’s aubergine’, so called because of the absence of hot spices (spices which would excite the blood, a no-no in traditional homes for widows), and a lifeline to a 5-year old from Britain, adrift of his fish fingers and heat-adjusted curries. The absence of chilli heat, the presence of mustard oil, the delicate perfumery of fenugreek leaves and threads of ginger combined to make a bitter-sweet mash, the crisp bitter blackened skin of the roasted aubergine, a counterpoint to the sweet gloupy mashed flesh.
I was instantly transported to my younger self, sitting on the veranda overlooking a green pond with overhanging creeper, eating my first solid food after a week of illness. Food that didn’t scorch my tongue or sear my insides, happy in my gran’s lap. Five years later, on arrival with my mum, she had tentatively made extra of the dish for me, and again, we ate in the twilight on the veranda while she quizzed me about what England and reminisced about times past.
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