The Wet and the Dry
Chef Bill Briwa of the Culinary Institute of America claims that there are four primary cooking techniques: dry heat cooking with fat, dry heat cooking without fat, moist heat cooking and combination cooking. He claims that everything we do in the kitchen to transform foods falls into one of these four categories.
In the book “Salt Fat Acid Heat” which was later adapted into a Netflix series, Samin Nosrat categorises cooking techniques into low and high heat techniques, and then again into the “cooking with water, fat and air” categories. Cataloguing the complexity of cooking is no mean feat, but classifications like these do a pretty decent job. In this three-part series, we will look at these cooking techniques with a strictly Bengali approach in an attempt to explore the immense complexity of Bengali cuisine.
Let’s start with moist-heat cooking or “cooking with water”. Cooking in a water medium restricts our cooking temperature to 100 degrees, water’s boiling point. That might seem like a handicap, but a huge amount of cooking occurs within that limit. The lowest temperature cooking techniques like poaching and coddling (gentle methods of cooking eggs), which occur at around 75 degrees, aren’t big in Bengali cooking, but there’s another low-temperature moist-heat technique that is central to all Bengali homes: brewing.
At around 85 degrees, water extracts colour and aromatic compounds from tea leaves to create a concoction which runs through the veins of Bengalis. The smaller the leaves, the stronger the brew. There is no perfect cup of chaa. Some like it black (liquor chaa), although spiking it with some salt, sugar, cumin and lime juice creates a magnificent cup of lebu chaa (lemon tea). However, perhaps the most common variety is the doodh cha, with milk and sugar.
Climb up to around 90 degrees, and you’ve got a simmer. Simmering is a gentler cooking technique than boiling, and doesn’t jostle the food around as much. It is one of the last steps of most Bengali curries. Think of fresh pieces of fish added to a simmering jhol and cooked till it is soft and flaky. More on that later.
Climb up to 100 and you’ve reached a rolling boil. It is an aggressive method of cooking and is best reserved for tough ingredients like cereals and starchy vegetables. Boiling is how we cook rice, the central component of most Bengali meals. Boiling is also how we cook arguably the most favourite vegetable of Bengalis, the potato.
Boil potatoes till soft, then mash it up with some salt and mustard oil or ghee to create a simple alu sedhho, which you could spike with fried red chillies, browned onions and garlic. A plate of rice with ghee and alu sedhho is the ultimate Bengali comfort food. Another good example of boiling is the bhaatey style of cooking using potatoes, bitter gourd or pumpkin, which we’ve already talked about in our bitters article.
At 100 degrees, water turns into steam. The temperature stagnates at 100 until all the water is converted to steam, after which it starts to rise again. So, cooking in steam also takes place at 100 degrees, since we never allow all the water to boil away. However, steaming is a faster cooking technique than boiling, since steam carries more heat per gram than water, thanks to its latent heat of vaporization.
Steaming is not only a faster method of cooking, but also a gentler one, as the food isn’t jostled around as much. This is perfect for ingredients like fish, which would break apart in the tumult of boiling water. A common way of harnessing the power of steam is packing the foods in a container or tiffin kouto and place it on a stand above boiling water, creating a makeshift steamer. A great example of such a dish is the bhapa ilish (steamed hilsa).
We can gain a few more degrees in our moist heat continuum by using a pressure cooker, which cooks food at a higher pressure, an environment in which water boils at a higher temperature than 100 degrees. Some of the simplest and most nutritious dishes can be put together using just a pressure cooker.
Examples of easy pressure-cooker dishes include the rice gruel or porridge called phena bhaat, Bengal’s answer to the famous Chinese congee. All you need to do is cook and rice vegetables with water in a pressure cooker until done. Another great example is the gota seddho, traditionally eaten on the day after Saraswati Puja. It is a light and hearty stew made by cooking moong dal and vegetables together in water and finishing it with ghee. When it comes to hearty, filling, low-effort dishes, you can’t do much better than these.
Let us now take a quick look at dry-heat cooking without fat which, as we’ve already said, is pretty limited in the Bengali kitchen. It can involve indirect heat, where ingredients are cooked in a pan without any oil, or may involve direct cooking over a flame. A good example of indirect dry-heat cooking is the toasting of spices for spice mixes, a very common practice in the Bengali kitchen.
Toasting whole spices before grinding them helps activate the volatile aromatic oils and also facilitates grinding. Some common examples include gorom moshla, which uses a multitude of spices like cardamom, cinnamon and clove among others, and bhaja moshla, which is primarily made of roasted cumin and red chilli. Another good example of dry heat cooking is the magical transformation of rice into moori, khoi and chaal bhaja, common in rural Bengal.
A household dish that uses both indirect heat and direct flame is the rooti. Being a paddy growing region, rice is the staple crop of Bengal. But thin, puffy rootis (which North Indians call phulka, their rotis are much thicker) often constitute dinner in many Bengali households. The discs of dough are first cooked in a dry skillet or tawa, after which it is cooked over a direct flame for a few seconds till it puffs up and develops its characteristic black spots.
Cooking over a direct flame isn’t that common in Bengali households, unlike the Western barbecue or North Indian kababs, but there is are certain simple items that are : think of the shyeka papor, the healthy alternative to frying a papad which in my opinion tastes so much better. There is another dish that employs this technique which is an absolute favourite of Bengalis. Begun pora involves roasting whole aubergines over a direct flame till the skin blackens and wrinkles while the flesh turns soft. It is then mashed with mustard oil, onions, green chillies and some salt. What we end up with is a gorgeous mash, perfect to be scooped up with a few rootis for an incredibly satisfying dinner. This is comfort food at its very best.
Cooking with water and dry heat cooking without fat might seem limited, but a lot of Bengali cooking occurs within these constraints. Our next cooking medium, however, allows us to scale thermal heights and produce an amazing array of fried foods. Next time, we will take a dive into fat.