Cooking With Fat
In Part 1 of our Bengali cooking trilogy, we discussed the moist-heat cooking techniques in the Bengali kitchen. This time, we will take a look at the techniques of cooking with fat. Before we start, it is necessary to clear out some terminology. Dry-heat cooking with fat basically refers to cooking with oil. If we are using oil, a liquid, how can it be called dry heat?
By using the term dry heat, Bill Briwa contrasts it with moist heat, which refers to the use of water as a cooking medium. Moist heat cooking, as we’ve already seen, cannot go beyond 100 degrees Celsius (with the exception of pressure cooking). Using fat, however, we can reach very high temperatures, all the way up to 200 or even 250 degrees. And this is the kind of cooking he refers to as dry-heat, where the temperature constraints of moist-heat cooking don’t apply.
One of the gentlest cooking techniques in a fat medium is confit, which occurs at much lower temperatures, around 90 degrees Celsius. Confit involves cooking fish and meat immersed in fat for a long period of time. Confit is not something we see in the traditional Bengali kitchen, so let us move on to the next technique, sweating. This too is a gentle technique, and primarily involves vegetables. All you need to do is take some oil in a pan, temper it with spices, add the vegetables, salt, and cover.
Sweating relies on the intrinsic moisture of vegetables. As it cooks, the vegetables release their juices, aided by the salt. Badhakopi (cabbage) and lau (bottle gourd) are usually cooked in this way to create a simple ghonto, a mild, dry vegetable preparation. Fish-loving Bengalis usually add a handful of fried prawns near the end for that extra oomph.
The water released from the vegetables is usually enough, with little to no extra water added. Although there is a splash of oil involved, the cooking primarily occurs due to the released moisture and the steam it creates. This low and slow style of cooking vegetables in their own juices is the basis of the complex vegetable melanges like the paanchmishali, its more elaborate cousin the laabra which is served in bhogs (more on that in our bhog article), and the chhyachra, which also includes fried pieces of fish head which adds an additional depth of flavour adored by the fish-loving Bengalis.
Sweating therefore occupies a gray zone between dry and moist heat cooking. Our next technique however, is undoubtedly a dry heat technique. Sauteing involves cooking food in a small amount of fat, quite similar to the Chinese stir-fries. This is usually the start of most curries, where we saute onion, ginger and garlic in fat.
The simple aloo-peyajkoli bhaja (fried potatoes and spring onion) or phulkopi bhaja (fried cauliflower florets) is technically sautéed rather than fried, because the end-product isn’t significantly browned but simply cooked through. Although there is some browning involved, it isn’t all that significant. Another great example is the all-time favourite aloo posto, the perfect combination of soft potatoes and a slightly browned poppy seed paste.
Another great example of sautéed Bengali dishes is the chorchori. Unlike a ghonto which is mainly cooked over a low flame, covered, allowing the veggies to steam and cook in its own juices, a chorchori involves stirring over a medium to high flame, and the resulting dish reflects this more active method of cooking; it is sharp, punchy and full of flavour. Some chorchoris are ingenious ways of using up vegetable scraps like plantain peel (kachkolar khosha chorchori) or cauliflower stalks (phulkopir data chorchori), something we have already talked about in our nose to tail article.
In sweating and sautéing, there is a lot of stirring involved. The more often you stir, the less browning you get, which is kind of what we want in a ghonto or chorchori, although you could allow the veggies to sit for a few minutes between stirs to develop some browning if you want. When it comes to our next technique, pan-frying, the objective is to keep stirring to the minimum and leave the food undisturbed in the pan as much as possible, to attain as much browning as possible. This is the principle used in the West to get a good sear on a steak.
Pan-frying uses more oil and less stirring compared to sautéing, and the pieces of food are larger. One of the best examples of pan-frying is the frying of fish before dunking them into curries. It is customary to rub fish with salt and turmeric and frying them lightly before adding it to the jhol. However, fried fish is a delicacy as it is, ilish (hilsa), katla (perch) and rui (carp) are great examples. For this purpose though, we need more oil.
Machh bhaja or fried fish is one of those dishes that makes Bengalis weak at the knees. Served with rice and dal or just rice with a generous amount of butter or ghee and a green chilli on the side, it is heaven on a plate. To make machh bhaja, we usually use more oil, a technique called shallow-frying. Oil around 2cm deep is used for frying fish. Shallow-frying is a gentler cooking technique compared to its cousin, deep-frying, which is why it is ideal for cooking delicate foods like fish, brinjal (begun bhaja) and pumpkin (kumro bhaja).
As a rule, deep-frying involves completely submerging the food in fat. Like boiling, this is an aggressive cooking technique that jostles the food around, which is why it is usually used to cook sturdier ingredients. Some common deep-fried foods include the jhuri aloo bhaja (shoestring potatoes) that pair perfectly with rice and dal, loochi, the puffed flatbreads that are a favourite of all Bengalis, and the array of fried goodies we call telebhaja. While the term “bhaja” refers to foods directly fried in oil, the term “bora” is usually used for battered or breaded fried foods.
Telebhaja literally means “fried in oil” and refers to a number of fried snacks traditionally eaten during the evening with a cup of tea and a bowl of moori (puffed rice). They are usually vegetarian although minced fish and meat can also be used. Although there is a huge variety of dishes that falls under this category, they are broadly of three different types.
The first of these, the fritters, involve small bits of vegetable held together by batter and cooked in oil, like the peyaji (onion fritters). The other two types use larger pieces. While some of these are dunked in a batter like the beguni (battered aubergine), others involve more elaborate breading or flour, egg and dried breadcrumbs, like the beloved vegetable chop, which involves a filling of potatoes, beetroot and other ingredients.
Although telebhajas are technically street food, other kinds of bhajas like the begun bhaja and jhuri aloo bhaja, and boras like the phulkopir bora (battered cauliflower florets) and the machh er dim er bora (fish roe fritters) are common accompaniments to rice and dal near the start of the meal. The charm of fried foods is something which appeals to kids and adults alike.
Cooking with water and cooking with fat represent two specific niches. Most of the cooking in the Bengali kitchen however, falls under the vast realm of combination cooking. Next time, we will conclude our trilogy with a mop-up of whatever remains, with a focus on combination cooking.