“Fragrantly scarlet on bare branches or covertly crimson amidst dark green foliage, the early flowers of spring arrive to signal an end to the mellow contentment of winter and to herald a brief, unsettling season……The variety of colours ranged on the trees and the fragrance of mango trees in blossom carried by the balmiest of evening breezes create a lightness of being before the relentless weight of summer sets in.”
Chitrita Banerjee, Bengali Cooking.
Unlike the West, where Spring is a welcome respite from the harsh winter, springtime in Bengal blends in with the rather pleasant winter, which is why Shelley’s longing for springtime doesn’t fit too well in the Bengali context. Spring in Bengal feels rather short-lived, almost illusory. The months of Falgun and Chaitra are considered spring in Bengal. There is a gentle lull that slowly crescendos into the intensity of the summertime, which fall during the months of Baisakh and Jaishtha.
Just days before the start of Falgun, as the cold starts to subside, we celebrate Saraswati pujo on Basant Panchami. Schools and colleges all over Bengal celebrate the Goddess of learning and music, with pushpanjali, pictures in sarees and panjabis, and the all-important khichuri bhogs. Kul, often translated as Indian plum or Indian jujube is in season around this time and consumed, either on its own, like the green, apple-like Bombai kul, or made into a delicious achaar with the softer, red topa kul.
We cannot talk about Saraswati pujo without mentioning the dish eaten by ghotis everywhere during this time. Gota seddho is eaten the day after Saraswati pujo, called Shitol (cool) Shoshthi since the dish is eaten cold without reheating. Literally “whole-boiled”, gota sedhho involves cooking whole green moong dal and multiple veggies like aloo, begun, sheem (hyacinth beans) in water with a handful of spices like ginger and green chilli. Although this dish takes us back in time a couple of months, it is a worthwhile addition to the arsenal of healthy, “detox-style” Bengali classics.
Springtime is considered to be the period of “season change”, when people tend to fall victim to the flu and other diseases like measles and chickenpox, the latter dubbed “basanta rog” in Bengali, which translates to spring disease. Eating healthy is imperative; one cannot indulge in decadent winter feasts anymore. And one of the signature dishes of the springtime is the array of “teto” or bitters. From uchhe (bitter gourd) to shojne phool (moringa flower), from neem pata (margosa leaf) to thankuni pata (cantella leaf), Bengalis consume a lot of bitters in spring.
Our meal begins with neem begun, a dish comprising neem leaves fried in oil with tiny cubes of eggplant or brinjal. Starting a meal with something bitter is a hallmark of Bengali cuisine, especially during the spring months. The young leaves of neem, with their coppery hue, are in season during spring, making it ideal to make this dish. There are numerous variations to this teto portion of the meal.
You could fry off rounds of bitter gourd or uchchhe, one of my absolute favourites. You could even cook it with rice in the bhaate style and make a bitter mash using boiled uchchhe and potatoes. You could add it to cooking lentils to make a light tetor dal. And of course, if you want to go all-out, you could make the rather decadent shukto: a melange of seasonal veggies in a light sauce tempered with panchforon and occasionally spiked with milk or mustard paste, a dish that masterfully straddles health and taste.
As the mercury rises and spring gives way to summer, the bitters portion of the meal begins to dwindle. The intense bitterness of neem is considered to be too harsh for summertime. Also, certain traditional households avoid buying and cooking bitter ingredients like uchchhe on Sundays, the “day of the sun”. As we enter summer, the meal becomes considerably lighter and easier to digest.
The center of our plate contains a mound of rice, the go-to grain in Bengal, which is no surprise, considering the fertile alluvial soil of the Gangetic delta which grows immense quantities of rice. The most commonly consumed variety is the seddho chaal or parboiled rice, which is believed to be more nutritious and easier on the stomach compared to non-parboiled varieties.
Even easier to digest is the panta bhaat, the quintessential summer dish in most of rural Bengal. Essentially rice fermented in water and served with the fermenting liquid, it is rich in probiotics and nutrients and light on the stomach, a cheap yet filling dish. You could perk it up with kasundi (a mustard and raw-mango condiment) or an array of bhajas (fish or vegetables), or keep it simple with just salt, kacha peyaj (raw onion) and lonka pora (charred chillies).
And where there is rice, there is obviously daal. We Bengalis consume a wide variety of daals, but in the hot summer months, we prefer lighter versions. We’ve already talked about the tetor daal. Other common seasonal favourites include the musoor daal and the kacha moong dal, which is lighter than the bhaja moong dal made by toasting the lentils before boiling them. You can also put in raw mangoes to create a seasonal tok daal.
And how do you make the light daal a little more interesting? Add in a squeeze of gondhoraj lime, of course! Gondhoraj literally translates to “king of aroma” in Bengali, and is a seasonal citrus with a distinctive aroma that is bound to give yuzu and kaffir lime a run for its money. Like yuzu and kaffir, it has found applications in many modern desserts and cocktails, but the original uses of gondhoraj are, dare I say, even tastier.
Squeezed onto hot rice and daal, gondhoraj lebu not only adds acidity and enlivens the dish, but also introduces its unmistakable flavour that has the ability to elevate even the simple daal-bhaat to a whole new level. Gondhoraj can also be used to flavour ghol or buttermilk, Bengal’s answer to the lassi, a perfect drink to cool you down in the summer heat.
In case you aren’t lucky enough to get your hands on some gondhoraj, you’ve got some options. Some sort of bhaja or fried item pairs exceedingly well with rice and daal, like the paat patar bora for example: bitter jute leaves are batter-fried, adding another element of bitterness to a meal along with a delightful textural contrast to the rice and daal. Our meal however, features a less greasy dish, and perhaps one of my favourite veggie dishes of all time. Join us next week as we conclude our summertime meal, and reveal the first artwork of the series.