Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Bitter sweet

Bengal is a fertile region of India, criss-crossed with an intricate network of rivers and streams. Here both bitter and sweet tastes jostle for supremacy over the Bengali tongue. Rich and sweet milk desserts are a speciality of Bengal and have made the state famous worldwide. The fondness for bitter foods are a more Bengali peculiarity though and most people outside of the state cannot quite fathom the appeal.

The intensely bitter taste of karola or knobbly bitter gourd cooked with softer vegetables such as aubergines and potatoes in pungent mustard oil and a five spice mixture of whole cumin, whole fennel, whole fenugreek, whole nigella and whole black mustard seeds collectively known as panch phoron is a staple dish - called shukto - among Bengalis and their aroma filling a kitchen transport me straight back to childhood. I've been eager to introduce them to M since I bought a few Bengali cookbooks over the weekend.

As soon as I came home from work tonight, I prepared the shukto. First I fried a handful of dried lentil vadies or nuggets in some mustard oil in a heavy wok for five minutes, stirring constantly, and set aside to drain on some kitchen paper in a bowl. In the same oil, I fried the slices of three medium karola or bitter gourd for another five minutes and also set aside. Then, in a separate heavy based saucepan, I fried a tablespoon of panch phoron until they popped in the mustard oil. Into this I added around a teaspoon of grated fresh ginger, ten patol, or small white striped gourd, which I had sliced lengthways into halves, and a diced large aubergine and fried a further five to ten minutes, adding oil when necessary and taking care that the vegetables and spices didn't catch on the bottom of the pan. I stirred back in the pre-fried karola.

I ground together in a mini blender two tablespoons of Indian poppy seeds and a tablespoon of black mustard seeds to make a dry posto which I added to the pan with a quick stir along with a teaspoon of turmeric powder. To this I added enough boiling water to just cover the vegetables and left to simmer very gently for 30 minutes, seasoning with salt to taste. After 30 minutes I stirred in the pre-fried lentil vadies and two teaspoons of sugar and left to simmer for a further 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, as the shukto was simmering, I made a Bengali red lentil dal. I popped a teaspoon of panch phoron and six tiny dried red chillies in some mustard oil then added a teaspoon of turmeric powder. I stirred in six handfuls of washed red lentils and covered the mixture with enough boiling water to make a runny soup - some four times the amount of water. I added a teaspoon of salt and two bayleaves then left to simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally and topping up the water when necessary.

I served it all with Basmati rice and am happy to say that M loved it all.

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