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.

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.