A Bengali Culinary Journey with New Cookbook
Bengalis are one of the most food and culture obsessed people in India. They are commonly compared to the French in that regard, as dining and entertaining are such an integral part of their culture. What makes Bengali cuisine so unique are the variations and complexities that are a result of practice and delicate subtlety.
This fall, a new cookbook brings this distinctive culinary experience to home kitchens in the U.S. In "The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles," author Rinku Bhattacharya explains the food and culture of her native homeland in Eastern India and showcases the recipes that are at the heart of Bengali life.
The book gets its title from the five-spice blend Bengalis call panch phoron. This spice blend consists of five whole spices in equal proportions: cumin seeds, mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fenugreek seeds, and fennel seeds and is at the heart of Bengali flavors and the individual spices form the basis of the Bengali pantry.
"The Bengali diet leans heavily on vegetables, rice and fish. Bengali cooks prepare a variety of imaginative dishes using the many types of vegetables that grow in the region year round," Rinku explains. "A traditional Bengali meal sequence involves eating through a rainbow assortment of vegetables, and then finishing off usually with a fish dish, but sometimes mutton or goat. Since Bengalis rely on seasonal foods and usually eat what is available, meals are prepared in small quantities so cooking is a daily ritual."
With over 180 easy-to-follow recipes incorporating a balance of traditional and contemporary recipes, The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles showcases the best of the Bengali table. The book begins with a thorough introduction to Bengali culture and cooking, including sections on spices, ingredients, and equipment. Recipe chapters cover Rice & Breads, Lentils, Fried Vegetables and Fritters, Vegetarian First Courses, Vegetarian Entrees, Eggs, Fish, Chicken & Poultry, Meat Dishes, Chutneys & Relishes, Drinks & Snacks, and Desserts.
Rinku has adapted the cuisine for the American kitchen and markets making it easy and accessible to find ingredients. Some of the recipes in the book include tempting dishes like; Eggs Cooked in Caramelized Onion Sauce; Crisp Lentil Cakes in Curried Gravy; Lentil-Stuffed Puffy Breads; Tart Pigeon Peas and Green Mangoes; Lightly Spiced Pan-Sautéed Okra; Green Plantain and Taro Cakes; Golden Cauliflower in Orange Mustard Sauce; Slow-Cooked Rice with Saffron, Shrimp and Rosewater; Steamed Mustard Fish Wrapped in Banana Leaves; Red Snapper in a Coconut Tamarind Sauce; Pickle-Spiced Lamb Curry; Coconut and Cardamom Fudge, and Milk Cake.
The Bengal region is made up of the Indian state of West Bengal and the country of Bangladesh (formerly East Bengal). The food of this area comes from a long history of influences, both foreign and South Asian and stems from the historical invasions and trade links it had with many parts of the world.
For anyone who loves to cook and experience food of different cultures, "The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles" is a fascinating culinary journey without ever having to leave the kitchen.
Rinku Bhattacharya was born in Kolkata, India and moved to the U.S. about 25 years ago. She has been teaching cooking classes for the last seven years at her home, community college, and Whole Foods Market in Westchester, New York.
Rinku has a natural passion and love for regional Indian cuisine and uses it to share and connect with her cultural heritage. She has travelled extensively and specializes in adapting Indian cuisine in global environments and kitchens. Her deep commitment to using seasonal ingredients for Indian cooking is reflected in her recipes.
To learn more about Rinku and Bengali cooking visit her website, www.CookinginWestchester.com.
BENGALI FIVE SPICE BLEND
The Bengali Five Spice Blend is a blend of five whole spices in equal proportions: cumin seeds, mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fenugreek seeds, and fennel seeds. The fenugreek is a substitution for the spice called radhuni (a form of celery seed relatively uncommon outside of India). The actual panch phoron, however, is available in most Indian stores, often transliterated as panch puran.
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon nigella seeds
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
Mix the seeds together evenly. Store in an airtight container and use as needed.
ORANGE SPLIT LENTILS WITH TOMATOES AND CILANTRO (Tomato Dhoney Pata Diye Masoor Dal)
Makes: 6 servings
This is a weeknight variation of orange split lentils which are extremely versatile because of their quick cooking time and naturally mild and adaptive taste. They are comforting, simple, and as basic as it gets. Everyone in my family, including my children, loves this lentil. This light variation is a summertime favorite but can be enjoyed as a soup in winter, if desired, with some hot buttered whole wheat toast.
Prep Time: 5 minutes | Cook Time: 25 minutes
½ cup dried orange/red split lentils (masoor dal)
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
4 green chilies, slit lengthwise
2 ripe tomatoes, chopped
2 teaspoons ghee (clarified butter)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Put the lentils and 3 cups of water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the turmeric, salt, and green chilies and cook for about 15 minutes. While the lentils are boiling a scum may form on the surface, gently remove this while the lentils
Add the tomatoes and cook for another 5 minutes. Mix the mixture well-it should have a nice soupy consistency that is not too thin or too thick.
Heat the ghee in a small skillet on medium heat for about 1 minute and add the cumin seeds and wait till the seeds begin to sizzle. Pour this seasoned ghee over the lentils and stir in the cilantro.
Recipes from "The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles: Exploring the Cuisine of Eastern India," by Rinku Bhattacharya, Hippocrene Books; November 2012