We’ve discussed quite a lot about bitterness already, in our FATS series and our Not Too Sweet series. This time, we will begin our exploration of Bengali home cooking by looking at the role in bitterness in Bengali cuisine. Bitterness is an important component of the Bengali cook’s arsenal. The resourceful Bengali knows how to take the simplest of local ingredients and transform them into marvellous dishes.
Ayurveda, which literally translates to “science of life”, preaches the virtues of bitterness, of how bitterness is necessary for a proper balanced diet, and how a lot of bitter ingredients are good for our health. Bitters are eaten throughout the year, particularly in late spring and early summer to ward off diseases like measles and chickenpox. (The Bengali word for chickenpox is “bosonto rog”, literally “spring disease”, indicating its strong seasonal preponderance). However, it is a lot more than mere medicine.
One of the commonest ways of dealing with bitter ingredients is frying them. A summer staple in Bengali households is neem begun, a really simple dish that comprises young neem or margosa leaves and tiny cubes of eggplant, fried in oil. It is a very seasonal dish, eaten especially at the end of spring and the start of summer, when the neem leaves are young and have a coppery hue. Younger leaves tend to be less bitter than larger, more mature ones, and are preferred to the latter.
Another commonly fried bitter ingredient is the bitter gourd or “korola” or “uchchhe”. They can be cut into rounds and fried as it is, or they may be dunked into a simple batter of flour, water and a few spices like green chilli, nigella seeds and turmeric. This is an example of the entire group of dishes collectively called “bhaja” (we’ve talked about them in our bhog article, and there’s more coming soon). The neem begun is also technically a bhaja.
Another way of cooking bitter gourd is by boiling it, in the “bhaate” style. Bitter gourd and potaotes are boiled along with rice in the same pot. After they are done cooking, they are taken out, mashed, seasoned with salt and flavoured with pungent mustard oil. What results is a very simple bitter mash to be eaten with rice. It makes for a frugal yet filling meal. Bitter gourd can be added to lentils, making “tetor daal” (bitter lentils), the perfect companion to rice in the hot summer months.
However, bitterness in Bengali cuisine doesn’t always have to be harsh and in your face. For one of the most famous bitter dishes in the Bengali cook’s repertoire is an exercise in subtlety and balance, the perfect vegetable melange with which to start your meal on a hot summer afternoon. A shukto is a mild, milky, bitter curry served at the start of a meal. Although it is most commonly made with a number of vegetables, rarer varieties include those made with just one or two vegetables like bottle gourd (lau) or papaya (pepe).
Commonly used vegetables in a shukto include potato, sweet potatoes, unripe bananas, aubergines, papaya, drumsticks and the mandatory bitter ingredient, which may be bitter gourd, bitter gourd leaves or other local ingredients like cantella leaves (known locally as thankuni pata); along with dried lentil dumplings called bori, which soak up the juices and become luscious flavour bombs.
Two mandatory ingredients in shukto include milk, and paanch foron, Bengal’s very own five spice mix. Unlike the Chinese five spice which combines powdered spices, paanch foron is a mix of five whole seeds: cumin (jeere), nigella (kalo jeere), fennel (mouri), fenugreek (methi) and the mysterious radhuni, which doesn’t have a proper western equivalent. It forms the base flavouring of a lot of simple vegetable dishes, and is the dominant flavour in a shukto.
Another famous Bengali vegetable medley called “paanchmishali”, which can be made using most of the vegetables mentioned above. We’ve already talked about laabra, which is a type of paanchmishali, in our article exploring the khichuri bhog. But unlike the more robust paanchmishali, shukto is much more subtle and subdued in its flavours.
The vegetables are allowed to sing, and they are accented by notes of grated coconut, poppy seed paste and mustard. A cook may use all or none of these ingredients to create an entire variety of shukto ranging from the simplest to the most decadent. Yet, even at its most decadent, it is subtle and light on the palate. It is incredibly flavourful, but never overpowering. That is the magic of a good shukto.
A small helping of bitters at the start of a meal helps kick-start the taste buds before the more elaborate dishes arrive. Think of this article as the first course of an elaborate series exploring Bengali home-cooking. Next week, we begin an unusual series, looking at Bengali food from an unconventional viewpoint that is bound to make us see these all-too familiar dishes in a brand-new light.