Bengali mixed vegetable chorchori

Mixed vegetables, Bengali style

In every Calcutta home, you find a flat slab of stone upon which fresh spices are ground by hand.  It’s somewhat like a mortar and pestle, except that the mortar is flat and the pestle is held horizontally with both hands.  My nani’s sharp eyed Bengali cook, Radha, clad in widow white with her sparse white hair knotted back in a severe bun, insists that using this grinding tool, the sil batta, is the only way to make a traditional Bengali fresh curry paste of cumin seeds, coriander seeds and fresh ginger root.  Electric blades generate heat which change the taste of the paste she says.  Also no matter how powerful the machine, the fibers of the ginger get caught in the blades and show up in later fibrous mouthfuls of food.  In Calcutta, with plenty of kitchen help, I am easily persuaded.  Here, in my apartment kitchen with no sil batta or even a decent mortar and pestle, I’m alone with my wet grinder and coffee grinder.  I make compromises: ginger paste with a little water in the wet grinder and dry cumin seeds powdered in the coffee grinder.  The coriander seeds yield to hand pounding in my molcajete.  I combine them all for the wet paste of my earthy, aromatic Bengali mixed vegetables, called chorchori.

This colorful vegetable preparation uses lots of different vegetables that grow in Bengal: pumpkin, sweet potato, eggplant, pui or pohi greens (can substitute with spinach), white potato.  Use what you have, but if you don’t have greens, add a splash of water: the greens give off water that allow the other vegetables to cook.  The tempering of the oil, called tarka is a traditional Bengali one: the five spice mixture called panch phoran, a long red chilli and bay leaves.  A pinch of sugar is a must in the wet spice paste.  This dish tastes delicious rubbed into steamed white rice with your fingers along with sweet Bengali cholar dal.

Bengali mixed vegetable chorchori

Vegetables: balance quantities across whatever you have on hand
1 Asian eggplant, cubed
A medium chunk of butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1/2 a large sweet potato, peeled and cubed
a large handful of pui saag or spinach, washed and roughly torn
1 medium yellow potato

Tarka spices
1 tsp of panch phoran
1-2 dried red chillis
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp of oil

To be made into a wet paste, preferably by hand
2 tbsps of ginger paste
1 tbsp of coriander seeds
1/2 tbsp of cumin seeds

Dry spices
1 tsp of turmeric
½ – 1 tsp of sugar
½ tsp cayenne pepper powder, optional
Salt to taste

1. Heat the oil and add the tarka spices when the oil is hot.  Allow the panchphoran to sputter.  Cook the wet paste for a few minutes.

2. Add the wet spice paste and fry for a few seconds

3.  Add all the vegetables, including the greens.  Stir and allow to cook for half a minute.  Cover and cook until vegetables are soft, stirring occasionally.  When the vegetables are halfway done, add the dry spices.    Taste for sugar and salt when the dish is done.  Cook uncovered for a few seconds at the end, before removing from the heat.  Serve hot.

Lauki chana dal

Lauki chana dal

This warmly spiced lauki chana dal recipe is a childhood favorite.  I grew up in Calcutta, and this nutty, hearty yellow lentil soup studded with pieces of translucent green bottle gourd showed up frequently at mealtimes. It’s a complete and nourishing meal when served with rice or Indian style bread. This dal can be made with carrots and spinach instead of the bottle gourd.  If you plan to use  spinach, you could saute some onions, garlic and ginger in the ghee after the initial tarka, before adding the dal.

Chana dal with lauki

1 cup split Bengal gram lentil, called chana dal
1/2 of a 8-inch bottle gourd, called lauki, peeled and cubed

1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon asafoetida, called heeng
3-4 cloves
1 inch piece of cinnamon
1 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 tablespoon clarified butter, called ghee (preferred) or oil

salt to taste

1. Before beginning, wash and then soak the lentils in water for an hour. Discard the water, and place the lentils and the chopped bottle gourd pieces in a pressure cooker. Add enough water to cover the lentils, such that the water level reaches about 1/4 inch above the lentils. At medium heat, wait for 3 whistles on the cooker, which is about 15 minutes of cooking time. Turn off the heat and put the cooker aside. Wait for the steam to release entirely before removing the lid. At this point the lentil and the bottle gourd should be soft and mash easily between your fingertips.

2. Heat the ghee in a separate heavy bottomed pot. When the ghee is hot, add the asafoetida and cumin seeds, along with the cinnamon stick and cloves. The cumin seeds should sputter a little. Immediately add the boiled lentil and bottle gourd mixture and stir. Add turmeric and salt and some water if too dry, and bring to boil on medium heat. Cook for a few minutes, before removing from the heat. You can add a pinch of garam masala if available, a squeeze of lemon and chopped coriander to serve.

from left to right: chana dal, lauki, turmeric, heeng, cinnamon, coriander, cloves

How to make paneer

Soft curds of cheese form after the vinegar is added to boiling milk
Pour into a strainer lined with a muslin cloth
Tie up the bundle and hang over the sink for a couple of hours for a firm, mozzarella-like ball of paneer
An hour or so later

Last year I visited Poonam aunty’s home-run organic dairy operation in rural Assam and learned how to make paneer.  Although paneer making is an everyday event in my mother’s home, standing beside Poonam aunty in her kitchen that overlooked her green kitchen garden and her cow barn, was quite a different experience.  Poonam aunty refined my recipe for paneer in a subtle way: allow the milk to come to a boil, add the vinegar, but don’t stir or touch the bubbling milk.  Soft delicate clouds of paneer will rise to the surface.  Strain, and tie up the cheese in muslin or cheesecloth for a little while to allow the excess water to drain out.

Now whenever I make this fresh Indian cheese, I’m listening to her voice and breathing in the early morning smell of Assam in December.

How to make paneer

Allow a 1/2 gallon of milk to come to a full boil but watch the milk carefully so that it doesn’t boil over.  Add 2-3 tbsps of white wine vinegar.  Turn the heat down to a lower setting.  Wait for a couple of minutes as the cheese rises to the top and the curds separate, leaving behind a greenish yellow liquid.  If the milk is still fairly white, add a little more vinegar, cautiously.  Try not to stir or touch the curdling milk.  Turn off the heat and allow the paneer to sit for a minute or so.  Strain the s0ft cheese into a strainer that is lined with a muslin cloth.  Let drain for a little while, and can use as is.  Optional: tie up the muslin cloth and hang it up for some time to make firm paneer.

note: you can use lemon juice or tart plain yogurt instead of vinegar

Bengali cholar dal

I’m from Calcutta, but I’m new to Bengali food.  I think it’s because I grew up eating North Indian food cooked at home – my mom frowned upon eating out in restaurants when we were growing up, and beyond one or two invitations to meals at my friend Pramita’s home, I don’t think I ever tasted authentic Bengali food.  When I visit Calcutta now, I try to eat Bengali food as much as I can at local eateries.  I also try to pester Sadhana, my mother’s cook, to make traditional Bengali favorites for me: mochar ghonto (a preparation of banana flowers), pui saag (a type of green), aloo dum (potatoes in a spicy sauce) served with cholar dal and puffy fried bread called luchis.

This recipe for easy Bengali style chana dal called cholar dal, is an attempt to recreate those flavors with excellent guidance from a new book called Calcutta Kitchen that I bought on my last trip.  This comforting mildly sweet dal tastes of cinnamon and fennel from the panchphoran mixture used to temper the oil.  The delicate fragrance of the tarka ingredients complement the nutty creaminess of the chana dal.  Cholar dal can be made with or without the addition of bits of coconut.  It’s delicious either way.

Bengali cholar dal

1 cup chana dal, soaked for 1 hour and cooked in the pressure cooker until soft

1 tbsp ghee

1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
1 tsp of the five spice mixture called panch phoran
1 long whole dried red chilli
2 bay leaves

1/2 tsp turmeric
2 tsps of sugar
Pinch of garam masala
Salt to taste

1. Heat the ghee in a pot.  When the ghee is hot, add the cinnamon stick, whole dried chilli, bay leaves, and panchphoran. Allow the panchphoran to sputter for a few seconds.

2. Add the boiled dal, along with enough water to make the dal soupy, and the turmeric, sugar and salt.  Stir and bring to boil.  Reduce heat, and allow to simmer for a few minutes.  Add the pinch of garam masala.  Serve hot.

Nani’s paneer with crushed cashews


Just before adding the paneer

In the weeks leading up to my recent three month trip to Calcutta, I dreamed of how I would go to my nani’s house and stand beside her and soak in each little thing that she had to teach about cooking. I wasn’t disappointed. I spent several mornings in nani’s house this winter, peering into a blackened wok, learning how to make several beloved family favorites like goond ka laddu, gatta matar ka chaval, paneer capsicum, kala aloo dum, and stuffed green chilli peppers. I brought my camera, my tattered notebook and lots of questions: garlic first or onions? electric blender or mortar and pestle? Nothing seemed too difficult or complicated in nani’s kitchen.

Now that I’m back here, I can feel nani’s snowy haired presence beside me issuing clear, simple and easy directions.   I’m terribly grateful for having had the chance to learn from her.  When I make her paneer at home for the first time, I am pleased to discover that my dish tastes almost like hers.

Nani’s paneer is rich and creamy from the milk and crushed cashews.  The gently pounded whole spices and garlic cooked first add a wonderful aroma to the dish, along with the later addition of kasuri methi.  The green peppers and bits of cashew present a surprise element of crunch.

Paneer with crushed cashews

1/2 cup onion paste
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 tbsp garlic paste
1 cup tomato pulp, made by briefly boiling the tomatoes, removing the skin and crushing to pulp
1 cup chopped green pepper, also called capsicum

1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cayenne pepper powder
1 tbsp kasuri methi
Pinch of garam masala

1 inch piece of cinnamon, pounded gently to release aroma
2 black cardamoms, pounded gently
2 cloves, pounded gently

1 tsp cumin seeds
2-3 tbsp of oil

200g or 1/2 lb of paneer, cut into big chunks
1 cup of milk
10 raw cashews,coarsely crushed
salt to taste

1. Heat 2-3 tbsp of oil in a heavy bottomed wok or pan, and sputter cumin seeds. At the same time, add the cinnamon stick, cardamom and cloves. Add the garlic paste and cook for a few seconds, taking care that it doesn’t burn. Next add the ginger paste and onion paste. Add a little sugar (aids in browning the onions) and cook for a few minutes until the onions turn golden brown and release oil.

2. Add the tomato paste, chopped capsicum and turmeric. Cook until the oil is released. This takes a little while.

3. Add the kasuri methi and the roughly crushed cashews. Add 1 cup of milk and 1/2 cup of water. Bring to boil.

4. Add a pinch of garam masala (optional), salt to taste and paneer. Cook for a few more minutes until paneer is heated through. Serve hot.

Ingredients for the paneer