So far in this series, we have talked about cooking techniques involving water and fat. This time, we will conclude the series and explore the realm of combination cooking, a loose term that encompasses all dishes that involve both water and fat as cooking media, which actually includes most Bengali dishes.
A small category of dishes starts with a moist-heat cooking technique followed by a final cook in fat, the best example of which is dal or lentils which, along with rice, forms the backbone of the Bengali meal. There is a wide variety to choose from, like moong (split mung), musur (split red lentil), chhola (Bengal gram) and arhar (toor). These usually start off by being boiled in water with some seasoning till the grains break down, after which the entire mixture is added to a pan of oil tempered with spices and aromatics.
Dals can range from from the simplest musur dal made by boiling the dal and finishing it in oil tempered with sukno lonka (dried red chilli) and kaalo jeere (nigella seeds) to the rich torkar dal made using whole green mung with a spicy onion and tomato base. You could add uchchhe (bitter gourd) or kacha aam (raw green mango) to make tetor dal and tok dal respectively. Another way of kicking things up a notch is by roasting the lentils before boiling, like the famous bhaja moong dal, where roasting adds a brown hue and a delicious nutty flavour to the final dish. Want more decadence? Flavour the dal with machher matha (fried fish heads) to make a special occasion dish .
Rice, dal, a bhaja and a torkari (vegetable preparation) makes a simple yet hearty Bengali meal. Common torkaris include drier dishes like chorchori, ghonto or paanchmishali and its derivatives (more on that in part 2), and dishes with a bit more sauce to it, like the dalna. Unlike the dals, dalnas and all the subsequent dishes we’ll talk about start off in a fat-based medium with the subsequent addition of water. The basic technique remains the same : add oil, add whole spices and aromatics, add the main ingredient to the flavour base, then add water to bring the dish together.
The simplest kinds of dalna involve cooking the veggies with spices and aromatics in oil before adding the water, which finishes the cooking and forms the sauce. Common examples include dalna made of phulkopi (cauliflower), paneer (cubes of cottage cheese) and enchor (raw jackfruit). Some other kinds of dalna however, are a bit more decadent.
Instead of using paneer or veggies, you can make dalna with other prepared components. Most of these are usually fried separately before being added to a simmering sauce near the end. Common examples of these are dhokar dalna, which uses pieces of lentil cake, made by grinding lentils and aromatics, cutting it into pieces and frying them in oil.
Other similar examples include the chhanar dalna which uses fried balls of cottage cheese, or the kachkolar koftar dalna, which uses balls made of mashed raw plantains. Although these can be eaten dry as it is, but when added to a light curry, they soak up all the rich flavours and become incredibly luscious in texture.
There is no end to the variety of vegetarian dishes in Bengali cuisine. There is the kumror chokka made with large dices of pumpkin, the array of shukto we talked in the bitters article, or a plain and simple aloor torkari perfect with luchis or kochuri for a Sunday breakfast. However, it is the fish dishes which have given Bengalis a worldwide, almost cliched renown, and not without reason.
Most Bengali fish dishes begin by rubbing the fish with salt and turmeric and lightly frying them in oil, before adding them to a curry near the end. Fish curries can range from the simple and light jhol and the yoghurt or poppy-seed based doi machh and posto machh, to more decadent versions like the kaliya made with a thick onion and tomato based sauce, and the malaikari made usually with prawns (smaller baagda or larger golda) in a coconut milk based sauce. Whether you’re feeling under the weather or attending a wedding banquet, there is a machh for every occasion.
Both kaliya and korma are Mughlai imports, with the former (usually made with fish) using a water or milk base for the sauce and the latter (usually made with meat) relying entirely on oil, with only yoghurt and the meat juices bringing the sauce together. The malaikari probably stems from Southeast Asian roots, with old cookbooks referring to it as “Malay curry”, one of them giving a delightful recipe using lemongrass as an aromatic. The name was probably changed to malaikari in the last century, referring to the use of “dairy” in the form of coconut milk another typically Southeast Asian touch.
Other techniques include steaming (bhapa ilish) or cooking fish wrapped in banana leaves in a skillet with oil (bhetki paturi), like the Parsi patra ni machhi or Keralan polichattu we talked about in our article exploring the banana (which you can check out here). Both bhapa and paturi tend to use shorshe (mustard) as a common flavouring, although mustard paste is commonly used in a lot of fish curries too. Fish and mustard is a match made in heaven, and fish fried in mustard oil and cooked in a mustard based sauce is something that is typically and endearing Bengali.
The terms jhol, jhaal and kosha are often used in the context of Bengali fish and meat dishes. A jhol has a much runnier sauce and is much more light-handed with the spices than a kosha, where the sauce is richer, drier and clings to the fish or meat. The term jhaal indicates that a dish is spicy and hot, which some Bengalis adore.
Which brings us to the meat dishes. Almost all Bengali meat dishes begin with a marinade in yoghurt and spices for a decent amount of time, ideally overnight, before cooking it in an aromatic base of oil, onions, ginger, garlic and other spices. While vegetarian dishes rely mostly on ginger and chillies for aromatics, skipping of onions and garlic in a meat dish is the exception rather than the rule.
Unlike most vegetable curries which use sparse flavourings like a smattering of paanchforon, a sprinkling of whole cumin and a handful of powdered spices like chilli and turmeric, meat dishes go all the way, employing a complex flavourful aromatic base. The amount of water added depends on the amount of sauce or gravy we want. A light, runny murgir jhol is second to none, not even to the rich and decadent kosha mangsho we talked about at length in a previous article (which you can check out here). Each dish has its own charm, its own time and place.
“Ideally, a Bengali person would sit down for a meal, use his fingers to subdue a sufficient amount of rice and mash according to his/her preference, and then scream, “Maaa… jhol dao!” (Mother… now pour in the gravy!) Said mother will stand alert, pouring in the piping hot jhol and hearing her precious child grumble about how hot it is, and it just burned his/her finger, but at the same time, you could see the fingers moving, mixing the right amount of gravy with the rice to get the perfect texture and consistency before consuming furiously.”
— Poorna Banerjee, Presented by P
The fish or meat course is usually the climax of the meal, but there is more to come, a final flourish before the meal comes to an end. While sweets are served at the end of a meal in an elaborate spread or a banquet, an intervening course helps our palates transition from savoury to sweet. In the simplest meals, this bridging course provides a satisfying finish on its own. Join us next time as we bookend our trilogy with a Taste of Bengal article exploring yet another crucial aspect of Bengali cuisine.