“As children even the first sight of dark clouds rolling towards us from the distance southeast would set us skipping with excitement. The anticipation intensified as the winds gathered force, the low rumble of thunder was heard and the first streaks of lightning rent the sky. It is hard to remain on responsive to what Rabindranath Tagore called the “terrible rapture” of the oncoming monsoon. As the first drops fell, we would rush clamorously out on the streets or upon the roof for a ritual drenching.”
Chitrita Banerjee, Bengali Cooking.
The monsoon truly is a magical season the season of greenery, of rejuvenation. Poets and musicians alike have composed odes to this beautiful season, and the eyes of farmers swell with tears of joy as the first drops of rain enliven the parched earth. The first showers bring forth great joy, and calls for a celebration, with khichuri and ilish machh bhaja.
Khichuri is a dish that ticks all boxes. A light, almost soupy style of khichuri is as effective as machh er jhol in revitalising the sick, whereas more decadent versions drenched in ghee and studded with vegetables are called for during special occasions like the Saraswati pujo or Ashtami bhog (more on the bhog here). The monsoon khichuri falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, and like all khichuris, starts with gobindobhog rice.
Gobindobhog is a short-grained, starchy, aromatic rice that is prized by Bengalis as much as the Italians prize their carnaroli and arborio. Plain gobindobhog rice with some ghee and mashed potato or boiled egg is comfort food at its finest; the subtle nutty aroma of the rice enhancing the experience even further.
Gobindobhog is also used to make basanti polao, a sweet polao laden with cashews and raisins, as well as payesh, our version of rice pudding. Gobindobhog It releases starch as it cooks, giving the payesh a luscious creaminess that you simply wouldn’t get with basmati. Similarly, the khichuri experience wouldn’t be the same without gobindobhog.
The other component of the khichuri is the dal, and the dal of choice is moong. While we prefer lighter daals like musoor and biuli during the summers, we want moong dal for khichuri, and you need to roast them. Roasting moong dal makes it nuttier and the resultant dish more decadent, be it a khichuri or a biyebari-style moong dal with veggies (more on the biyebari feast here).
What else you add to a khichuri is entirely up to you. The choice of veggies and inclusion varies, common candidate’s being potatoes and peas, although a winter version may use in-season peas and cauliflower. The spicing can vary a lot too, being limited to the bare minimum of turmeric and ginger for versions when you’re feeling under the weather, to more elaborate concoctions flavoured with gorom moshla.
The consistency can vary immensely too, from the almost polao-like bhuna khichuri, often served during bhogs, to a slurpy, almost soupy variety. I like something that is somewhere in the middle, finished with a generous dollop of ghee. Ghee is essentially clarified butter: butter (made traditionally from cream or malai) boiled slowly till all the water boils off, and the milk solids strained out to give a straw-coloured liquid that sets into a light-yellow, slightly grainy fat.
Bengali gawa ghee is different from the North Indian desi ghee, since the milk solids are browned much more, giving it a deeper colour, grittier texture with a wonderfully nutty flavour. You do strain out the bigger clumps of milk solids, but the fine bits are allowed to pass through. The flavour is reminiscent of brown butter (which it essentially is, read more here) that no pallid North Indian ghee can dream of matching.
And speaking of fats that Bengalis swear by, let’s move on to mustard oil. We use a kachi ghani variety of mustard oil, which means that the black mustard seeds are essentially cold pressed. It is sharp and pungent, like some olive oils, although it has a distinctive flavour and a wonderful light brown hue. Mustard oil is a big part of Bengali cooking, as precious to us as olive oil is to Italians, be it the base oil for curries or the preferred medium for frying.
And what can you fry in a pan full of mustard oil? Why, ilish of course! Ilish machh bhaja is THE traditional accompaniment to the khichuri in the glorious rainy days. Monsoon is peak ilish season, when huge numbers of the fish are caught, during the monsoon months of July to October, which coincides with the upstream journey of the fish.
In an attempt to save the ilish population, which is facing extinction due to overfishing, attempts are made to avoid catching and selling juvenile fish, which do not bring as much money and also prevent these fish from spawning, a lose-lose situation. Also, no fish should be caught at all during the major spawning season during October and November. (More on this topic here)
But, why all this hype around ilish? Because it’s delicious, that’s why! While you can also make excellent shorshe ilish with mustard, it is an extremely fatty fish and that fat, much like salmon, is full of flavour. Hence, ilish is a fish that stands very well up to the minimalistic technique of pan-frying. Heat mustard oil in a korai and fry the ilish slices, coated in salt and turmeric, until it is delicious browned on both sides and perfectly cooked within.
While khichuri and ilish machh is absolutely delicious, there is something else we get from the cooking process which is often criminally overlooked. Mustard oil is flavour-packed just as is. When fat from the ilish renders into the oil as the fish fries away, you get a flavour oil that can give any Chinese chilli oil a run for its money. Ilish oil mixed into plain rice with the fried ilish on the side is heaven on a plate.
Ilish is expensive and studded with pinbones, which can be daunting for the novice. A simpler, cheaper alternative for fried fish or machh bhaja could be rui (carp) or katla (perch), although it’s taste is nowhere close. If you want to skip fish altogether, you could pair your khichuri with some fried vegetable. Next time, we’ll continue our discussion with the enticing array of fried delights or bhajas.