Thursday, December 20, 2012

Inside the Bengali 5 Spice Cookbook

The second in my series of blog posts from cookbook authors is with Rinku Bhattacharya, the author of the Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.

Here's what she had to say:

There are so many good Indian cookbooks in the market, however; the regional nuances of Indian cooking still remain unexplored. I personally find it fascinating to see how the same spices can be used to produce such amazingly diverse culinary creations. In fact, this is why I feel that I am always learning something new about Indian food.

Just looking at the differences between my mother (from Eastern India) and mother-in-law’s (from North India) cooking can keep me entertained for a lifetime. Since the cuisine of Eastern India has still not been extensively written about, I felt that it might be nice to offer readers a different dimension of Indian cooking.

The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles was done in two disconnected phases, but somehow connected together as this cookbook.

When my son was born about seven years ago, my parents visited me and well, my mother kind of took over my kitchen for a while. When she cooked, I suddenly reconnected with a lot of the regional Bengali delights, particularly the simpler everyday comfort foods.

I began taking notes, and jotting down some of the recipes which formed the beginning of my book without my realizing it. Then, a couple of years back, I spent a lot of time going back and forth to India, to spend time with my father who was very sick. Sitting around my childhood landscape inspired me to think a lot, write a lot coming together as the body that is now this little book.

I love food and cooking and often express life and experiences through food. Memories of mornings with my children come through as egg recipes (their breakfast staples), quick-fix stir fries are usually my memories of my husband (the gardener) and this book really is a reflection of how I link food with memories and culture.

I would like to think that I have been able to make the recipes user-friendly and suitable for the American kitchen without making them watered down.

This is important for any cookbook, more so a regional one, where you are actually introducing a dimension of India food beyond the now familiar Chicken Tikka Masala and Saag Paneer.

In a nutshell, my book offers you over a 180 recipes, spread over fifteen chapters, ranging from appetizers, rice, breads, starters, an assortment of entrees broken up by type to chutneys and finishing off with desserts. These are traditional recipes from my mother’s and grandmother’s Bengali kitchen and several Bengali inspired recipes from my New York kitchen. All my recipes work with ready to find American ingredients and of course work in an American kitchen.

Well, before you ask me I might as well tell you what makes Eastern Indian or any regional Indian cuisine unique, while we tend to use similar spices across the country the uniqueness of each region rests in how we use these spices. This is not unlike the concept of offering two artists the same palette of colors, but each artist uses these colors differently to express their creativity.

The seasonings in Bengali cuisine are subtle and nuanced, with a lot of emphasis on balance. The Bengali cuisine is also very sustainable we work and cook with nature. Take for example the banana tree, we use the blossoms, the fruit and the stem in cooking and if you think that is not enough, we use the leaves in traditional settings as serving plates – simple, pretty and completely bio-degradable.

So, certain spices that are somewhat unique to the eastern part of the country is the Bengali Five Spice Blend or Panch-Phoron a mixture of five whole spices – fenugreek, fennel, mustard, nigella seeds and cumin seeds, mustard pastes, poppy seed pastes and coconut both shredded and the rich and creamy coconut milk.

Ironically enough, what took me a lot of time to get straight was the fresh mustard paste that forms the seasoning of several recipes. I have written this down in my blog, just for reference. The blender would yield a paste that is rather bitter, very different from the smooth and mellower stone ground texture I was used to. It took some trial and error to work out that I needed to soak the mustard seeds longer to get this texture in a blender, so I now soak the mustard seeds overnight before grinding them the next day.

Of course, once I had gotten this straight my mother informed me that most people used powdered packed mustard these days anyway – well, so much for my accomplishment of the authentic taste.

An honest confession here is that putting a book out there is always a scary proposition at was for me. I have been thrilled with the reader responses so far, it is always interesting to see what people find interesting and worth trying.

So here are two recipes to persuade a little experimentation,

Gol Piyaji

These onion fritters are a well-loved roadside food in Bengal—hot and crisply fried, wrapped lovingly in newspaper bags.

There is a story behind the newspaper itself. In India, recycling is perfected to an art form, designed with a 4-layer industry. First we have the purchaser of the original newspapers. Then that person saves and stacks the papers for the used newspaper buyer, a very essential middleman. When he arrives, they settle on a price, the newspaper stack is weighed, and then he is on his way. He then sells the newspapers to the paper bag manufacturer, who makes the paper bags that are in turn bought by the vendors of the onion ring fritters.

I make these fritters like onion rings to make them fun for my kids. They also make a great appetizer to pair with drinks.

Prep Time: 20 minutes | Cook Time: 25 minutes | Makes: 6 servings
4 medium onions, tops removed and peeled
3/4 cup chickpea flour
3/4 teaspoon nigella seeds
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder
1 teaspoon black salt
Oil for frying
Cilantro to garnish (optional)

Cut the onions into 1/2-inch-thick rounds and separate the rounds.

Mix the chickpea flour and ½ cup of water into a thick batter (the consistency should coat easily). Stir in the nigella seeds, turmeric, cayenne pepper powder, and black salt and mix well.

Heat some oil in a wok or deep skillet until hot enough for frying. Dip each onion ring in the batter and fry until crisp. You may fry 3 or 4 or more rings at a time, depending on the size of the wok or skillet. It is important not to have the rings touch each other while cooking. Remove rings from the oil and drain on paper towels before serving.

Tomato Sohorshe Rui

I made this recipe when my dear friends Dr. and Mrs. Brush were visiting. I met Dr. Brush, a professor of colonial history, at a faculty picnic at my university. An amazing gentleman who spent his boyhood in pre-independent India, Dr. Brush told me tales of West Bengal as he knew it, before the hustle and bustle when the Anglo-Indian culture dominated.

I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had I not met the Brushes. They not only welcomed me into their hearts and lives, but they helped slowly ease me into New York culture in such a subtle manner that I barely noticed it at the time. I will be forever grateful for their friendship and Dr. Brush’s wonderful foreword to this book.

The Brushes enjoyed this fish recipe, which I usually try to make with carp, something that is close to the all-purpose Bengali fish rui. Because of the mild tasting firm flesh of the fish, it is used for the more vibrant sauces—but ofcourse if you are a Bengali, mustard sauce is never a problem.

This recipe can also be made with mahi mahi, tilapia, or rainbow trout (which is what I tend to use most frequently) with good results.

Prep Time: 15 minutes | Cook Time: 45 minutes | Makes: 4 servings

2 pounds carp steaks, rainbow trout, or other white fish, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons oil, plus additional for drizzling
1/2 teaspoon nigella seeds
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tomato, chopped
2 tablespoons mustard seed paste
2 tablespoons low-fat Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

Place the fish on a flat cooking sheet and sprinkle with the turmeric and half the salt. Drizzle with some oil and broil on low till lightly browned on both sides, about 3 to 4 minutes on each side.

Heat the 4 tablespoons oil in a wok or skillet on medium heat for about 1 minute. Add the nigella seeds and let them sizzle lightly. Add the onion and cook for about 6 minutes, stirring frequently, until it reaches a soft pale golden consistency.

Add the tomato and continue cooking for another 5 minutes, until the mixture is thick and pulpy. Stir in the remaining ½ teaspoon salt, the mustard seed paste, and yogurt and cook the sauce on low heat, stirring frequently, for about 15 minutes. (The key is to get a nice smooth creamy-textured sauce, without letting the yogurt curdle.)

Carefully add the fish to the sauce and simmer for another 7 to 8 minutes, stirring the fish very gently and occasionally to mix the fish in but not let the fish break up. Stir in the cilantro before serving.

Want your own copy of The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles?

Just go like the author's Facebook page at, then come back here and leave a comment telling me that you've liked the page.

Contest opens when this posts, and ends on Wednesday, December 26 at midnight, mountain time. US residents only. Good luck!