With the voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra stirring the stillness of the night just a few days ago, Pujo is officially in the air. This year however, I have no plans of returning to Kolkata and all I have to keep me company are warm memories of the Pujos gone by. And what better way to reminisce than by going down memory lane to revisit a classic? There’s a sweet four-parter series lined up for Pujo next month, but before that, it’s breakfast time…
“Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper”, a wise man once said. Indeed, it is common consensus that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, providing us with enough energy to go about our day. Being a night owl myself, I’ve never been much of a breakfast person, always finding myself in a severe time crunch on my way to school and now, work. As a result, I tend to skimp on breakfast a lot, making up for it with a heavy lunch or dinner.
The big exception to this, ever since childhood, has been the lazy Sunday. School’s off, and if I was lucky enough to have a tuition-free holiday, then my joy knew no bounds. Waking up late and enjoying myself to a hearty meal that dangerously bordered on brunch thanks to the late hours, there was nothing like a Sunday breakfast. And this languid tone was perfectly encapsulated by a dish that is still etched in my memory and in the memories of countless Bengalis the world over.
Loochi and shada aloor torkari is quintessentially Bengali. It is surprising that the dish we take so much pride in, shada aloor torkari, which translates loosely to “white potato curry”, has got to be one of the most ridiculously simple potato recipes out there. Yet it’s our very own, and nobody can take that away from us. But what is all the fuss about? Why do we prize so dearly a dish that doesn’t showcase culinary brilliance like say, the Kolkata biryani or the kabiraji cutlet?
The most important reason, of course, is nostalgia. For countless Bengalis everywhere, this dish epitomizes comfort food, it is the taste of home. But in that case, its appeal is bound to be limited to only us, and a Punjabi or a Malayali is bound to find it boring and kinda bleh. Well, I don’t think so. The reason I love this dish so much is not just because of the nostalgia. Of course, the familiarity is a major factor in its appeal, but equally important to me is the fact that it is the perfect example of a minimalistic dish.
In today’s world of pomp and show, a lot of credit goes to dishes that showcase culinary brilliance. Think of the stuffed dum aloo, potatoes stuffed with a rich dried fruit filling and cooked in a complex sauce with an enormous ingredient list. While that sort of dish is a commendable feat and undoubtedly delicious, the shada aloor torkari lies on the opposite end of the spectrum. It takes just a handful of ingredients and makes them sing.
The recipe couldn’t be simpler. Take oil in a pan and temper it with kalo jeere (nigella seeds or kalonji). Add diced potatoes, salt and sugar. Fry for a few minutes, then add water and a few chillies, fresh or dried, and cook till the potatoes are done. You could add some more complexity by swapping the kalo jeere with paanchforon, Bengal’s very own five-spice mix, maybe a touch of hing (asafoetida) or some minced ginger. But these are mere embellishments, and the simple equation of potato-nigella-chilli-seasoning is the foundation on which the dish stands. That is exactly how it was made in my house, and I can tell you that it’s absolutely delicious.
While the “respect your ingredient” philosophy is very common in the West, it is usually not the norm here, where complexity of flavour takes center stage. I’m not complaining, though. One of my favourite dishes, kosha mangsho, is a perfect example of how ingredients over time can amalgamate into ambrosia. But the shada aloor torkari does the exact opposite. Its flavour might not be decadant and complex like a kosha mangsho, but the handful of ingredients that go into it interact in perfect harmony.
If the kosha manghso is a symphony, the shada aloor torkari is a string quartet, with four simple melodies meandering and intertwining to create magic. The soft pieces of potato fall apart in your mouth, accented by the subtle flavour and textural bite of the whole spices which by nature, are much less dominating than their ground counterparts. There is the gentle herbaceous note and heat of the green chilli, deftly counterbalanced by the sweetness of the sugar. It’s shocking how such a simple dish could taste so amazing.
And where there is shada aloor torkari, there is loochi, the puffed flatbread adored by us Bongs, whose ethereal evanescence is unmatched by any North Indian poori. Of course, the loochi is perfect with a lot of other Bengali classics; the choto aloor dom made with waxy winter potatoes or the sweet chholar dal with bits of coconut in it, and of course, kosha mangsho.
But when it comes to the shada aloor torkari, nothing else will work. The earthiness of a rooti will dominate in flavour, and a thick North Indian poori will woefully overpower the delicate curry. Only a loochi can allow the subtlety of our string quartet to shine through, the fatty richness perfectly balanced by the subtle notes in the torkari, the frills providing just the right amount of crunch to balance out the delicious mushiness. Making a loochi definitely takes a lot more skill, but it is second nature to Bengali mothers everywhere, who can conjure these magical orbs as if out of thin air.
These are the dishes which Bengali restaurants never serve, in favour of more extravagant concoctions like a shorshe ilish or a chingri malaikari. As the famous food writer Chitrita Banerjee writes, “This is partly the fault of the Bengalis themselves, for they cannot bring themselves to serve, much less flaunt, some of the simplest things which are also the best they have devised over time”.
So go ahead, flaunt. It is high time the outside world realized that Bengali food is a lot more than kosha mangsho and roshogolla. Our rich culinary tradition has a lot more to offer, and its about time that we realized it ourselves and shared it with the world.
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