A lot of cookbooks pass through my hands - at bookstores, in libraries, and through the virtual world of amazon's 'search inside' feature. While there are plenty of books I love, and even more that I want to buy, very rarely do I come across a book that makes me want to jump and evangelize! Chitrita Banerji's 'Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals' did just that, very recently.
This is a fairly old book, first published in 1997, divided into four main sections called Basanta-Grishma (Spring and Summer), Barsha (Monsoon), Sharat-Hemanta (Early and Late Autumn), and Sheet (Winter), and each section delves into details about the food of that season, the whys and the hows of it, and how it relates to the produce, the beliefs, stories, fables, festivals, and so much more, that it is difficult to describe it in a few words. The book talks about the differences and contrasts in food between the various regions in Bengal, of Ghotis and Bangals, of Hindus and Muslims, of rich and poor, of the past and the present, along with plenty of recipes interspersed within the narrative. And yet, as it tries to cover so much ground it never feels as though it is meandering. The fact that Bengali cuisines is among those more unfamiliar to me says even more about the book. As Deborah Madison says in her foreword, this book reminds us that food is not separate from people, history, geography, and culture - in short, life itself. What I also love about the book is that it makes no concessions, and the author does not simplify the writing at any point for popularity's sake.
There are no photographs in the book, but the writing is so evocative that it paints enough pictures with words. Sometimes, the descriptions are so beautiful that I want to rush to the kitchen to rustle up some luchis with alur dom and chholar dal. What I do instead is run through page after page of the book, traipsing through West Bengal and Bangladesh, taking my time, dipping into the book every now and then.
If someone is looking for a book of Bengali recipes, then this is probably not the book for them. However, if you are not deterred by recipes that are not divided into neat sections of 'ingredients' and 'methods', and that do not necessarily give you exact amounts of everything, if you are intrepid enough about looking for a few unknown words, if you are not a new cook and do not need every step explained to you, if you are familiar with Indian food, and would like to know more about the context of Bengali food, you will love this book, regardless of whether you have eaten Bengali food before or not. This is evidently a book based on extensive research and personal experience.
The book has a glossary, but I was left fumbling with some names that weren't given in English. Knowing Hindi and Marathi, I could guess some of them, and with friends who know Bengali, translation help for the rest will be at hand if I need it.
So far, I haven't tried out a lot of things from the book, but like I said, the joy of this book is in the vivid descriptions, not necessarily in trying out recipes from it. The Kancha Moong Dal that I tried was simply stellar, with an amazing flavor using only a few ingredients that came together just right, and convinced me that the other recipes in the book would also be up to par, not that I ever doubted that anyway.
There is also a recipe in the book for a Bangladeshi Lemon dal, and I loved the way it described how thin slices of lemon are used to flavor the dal, so I used the leftover Kancha moong dal and turned it into Lemon dal, which was a wonderful way to use some of the Meyer Lemons from the yard, and the presentation looked beautiful.
The following introduction to the Kancha Moong Dal in an extract, and the recipe that follows is paraphrased, and uses the same style of recipe writing as used in the book.
In summer, the common dals in our house are moong and kalai rather than lentils, yellow split peas or pigeon peas. And while in winter the moong dal may be roasted in a frying pan before cooking, in summer it is preferred kancha or unroasted, because it is easier to digest and does not heat the system.
Kancha Moong Dal
Take 1 cup of moong dal and rinse the dal under running water for 3-4 miutes. Then it describes how to cook the dal in boiling water, but I cooked the dal with 4 cups of water and a pinch of turmeric in a pressure cooker.
Finely chop or grate a small piece of ginger, enough to make 2 teaspoons.
Heat about 1 tablespoon of oil, add 1 teaspoon whole mustard seeds, 2 dried red chilies, and when the mustard starts to pop, add the ginger, and 2 bay leaves. Stir for a minute, add a teaspoon of ghee, and pour the dal over it. Add a little sugar and salt to taste, and heat the dal through for a few minutes.
It then goes on to describe another type of phoron (tadka) that can be used instead of the above seasoning, and in a blink of an eye you have another recipe right there.
This is an extract from the book, keeping in mind the guidelines for fair use of copyrighted material, that illustrates how even a simple dal recipe sounds wonderful in the book.
Once, in Dhaka, a good friend of mine, Salma Sobhan, was talking to me about Muslim Bengali cooking. She explained that among its intricacies were a few simple dishes, like lemon dal, that amazed one with their taste. What was that, I asked, and she was taken aback at such ignorance.
For Lemon dal, it is the same kancha moong dal that is used. Once cooked with a little salt and water, it is sieved through a cheesecloth so that it comes out as a thick, creamy soup, without the fibres. Then a large porcelain or earthenware (never metal) serving bowl is taken and the bottom and sides lined with thin slices of lemon or lime. Bengalis prefer to use the fragrant kagaji or gondhi lemon, if they are available. Once the slices are in place, the sieved dal is put back on the stove, brought to a boil, and kept there for two or three minutes, then poured into the lemon-lined basin and kept covered for about five minutes to absorbe the taste and flavor of the lemon. This needs to be served with plain rice, preferably an atap (non-parboiled) rice like Basmati. The problem with this dal is that it can neither be reheated, nor kept overnight, for it tends to turn bitter.