Last time, we started our survey of the spring-summer Bengali meal, with a close look at the first course and the rice-dal duo. This time, we will explore the rest of the meal, starting with course the veggies, and one of my absolute favourite dishes.
Aloo posto is an absolute delight. Cubes of potatoes are fried in oil tempered with kalojeere before adding in the poppy seed paste, which is then cooked down as little or as much as you like. Aloo posto straddles the boundary between bhaja and torkari for me, since I like my aloo posto very dry and caramelised. My mother also adds in fried onion, which amps up the caramelised flavours even further.
Although both potatoes and poppy seeds are available all year round, posto is traditionally considered to cool the body, which is why it feels apt to introduce it into our summer meal. And paired with builir daal, which is also believed to cool the body, it is just plain delicious. Certain other veggies are consumed traditionally in the summer, like the snake gourd or chichinge, ridge gourd or jhinge, or the pointed gourd or potol, both of which can replace aloo to create jhinge posto or potol posto, which add another textural dimension.
Gourds like chichinge, jhinge and potol are cooling vegetables, and consumed in summer. My favourite summertime potol dish is the ridiculously simple doodh potol, which has a very lightly spiced milk-based sauce to go with our potol. For our meal though, I’ve chosen a dish made using yet another gourd: the bottle gourd or lau.
Lau ghonto is a humble dry vegetable dish, made by cooking small pieces of lau slowly in its own juices, with a handul of spices. For texture you could add grated coconut, or crisp shards of bori (more on these later). If you want to take it to the next level, you might want to take a trick out of the bag of a certain fictional court jester from Bengali children’s literature and slip some pieces of fried shrimp into your ghonto to make lau chingri.
Slipping some fish or shellfish into seemingly vegetarian dishes if something that is pretty common in Bengali cooking, from adding fried head to a medley of vegetables or a humble daal, or adding tiny bits of shrimp to lau or mocha (banana blossom), is a common trick in Bengali cooking. It is a great example of nose-to-tail eating, not wasting any scrap. The lau peel for example, could be fried in some oil to create a ridiculously simple bhaja to go with daal. We Bengalis waste nothing, making the best possible use of our ingredients.
And then comes the actual fish course. No heavy dishes for now: the sweltering heat of the summer calls for a light machh er jhol, the panacea of the Bengali household. These light fish curries often employ catfish like shingi and magur, alongside more common varieties like bhetki (barramundi) and koi (carp).
Another common factor of the light jhols is the array of vegetarian inclusions. In the winter these may be cauliflower, but in the summertime, seasonal veggies like potol, pepe (papaya) and kachkola (raw plantain) are used, along with the ubiquitous aloo. The dyspeptic Pyalaram from Narayan Gangopadhyay’s Tenida consumed “potol diye shingi machh er jhol” to calm his ailing tummy.
But my favourite machh er jhol inclusion is the bori. These are sun-dried lentil dumplings, made by dolloping a thick paste of lentils, usually with biulir daal, and drying them in the sun. The process of dolloping by hand gives them their characteristic shape, although factory-made boris are a bit more irregular.
Boris serve the same purpose as tofu puffs and fish cakes in Southeast Asian cuisine: they act as sponges that soak up the flavours of the sauce, and turn into luscious flavour bombs that burst in the mouth. Boris can be used in any dish with a light sauce, like machh er jhol or shukto. Alternatively, you could fry them crisp, crumble them and add them to drier curries like a lau ghonto for a very different texture.
Of course, we’re not done with fish just yet. Fish also makes its way into the tok course, the refreshing sour course that acts like a palate cleanser and is a welcome addition to any summertime meal. Mourola machh er ombol, for example, is a curry of tiny whitebait fish cooked in a tangy sauce flavoured with kacha aam or green mango.
Kacha aam is the fruit of the Bengali summers. Sliced up and sprinkled with some red chilli and black salt, it is the ultimate summertime treat. Kacha aam finds its way into a lot of summer dishes, from the tok dal and mourolar ombol we’ve already talked about, to soupy toks and syrupy chaatnis. A refreshing sour course is the perfect ending to a light summer meal, no dessert needed. Other popular candidates for tangy summertime chutneys are chalta (elephant apple) and jolpai (Indian olive).
A great summer drink is the aampora shorbot, made with roasted mangoes and spoiced with some chilli and roasted cumin. Fruits like kacha aam and kodbel (elephant wood apple) can be mashed up with spices and salt to create a delicious makha, the ultimate summertime treat.
Paaka aam or ripe mangoes are eaten as is, or used to make amsotto, a multi-layered fruit leather of sorts made by sun-drying thin sheets of mango pulp. Other popular summertime fruits include lichoo (litchi) and bel (wood apple), the latter often made into a deliciously cooling drink that is a welcome treat in the sweltering summer heat.
Although we do get some showers in Baisakh, the kalboisakhi, it is short-lived, and all through summer, the people of Bengal look up at the skies, waiting expectantly for the arrival of the clouds and the first showers of monsoon. And when the rains do arrive, the parched earth regains its vitality, greenery fills the surrounding, and poets and farmers rejoice alike. This is our version of springtime, the season of rejuvenation. In the next part, we will take a close look at the season of barsha through the lens of Bengali gastronomy.