Stirring up a delectable chorchori (mixed curry) with leftover stuff; stuff that would be basically lying at the bottom of the vegetable tray; you know like a lonely radish, or a floret or two of the cauliflower, or half a brinjal, a thin slice of the pumpkin that you got last week; even skins, and peels, and stalks of vegetables; basically stuff, that you cannot figure out what to do with, and finally land up chucking in the garbage bin; yeah cooking with this stuff is thoroughly a specialty with us Bongs. Actually our moms. And grannies. And those really awesome aunts.
We all hate this stuff, as kids. But as we grow up and out of our nests, we miss them. Miss them so hard, we say stuff like “Thamma’r hathey’r paanch mishali torkari diye aek thala bhaat kheye naewa jaye” (one could devour a whole plate of rice with grandma’s mixed veg curry). We even call it healthy and nutritious stuff. God knows where all this wisdom dawns upon us all of a sudden.
|PUTI MAACH'ER CHORCHORI|
But the fact is, these curries wherein leftover cuts in particular, like spinach ends or vegetable peel, are transformed, are seriously finger licking good. It is a shame they are not upheld as some of the star attractions of the cuisine. They do deserve a higher place, despite being really humble in their origins. After all creating such delicious, and nutritious stuff, with things which usually land up being discarded, is no simple feat.
And the cuisine stands obligated to the widows of Bengal, for this amazing perspective, because it was they who evolved this style of cooking with humble ingredients. It is definitely not a news for us about how repressive the society has been in the treatment of Hindu widows. Tradition tied a woman’s identity to her husband; a widow was therefore left without an identity, property rights or social standing. And Bengal was no different in this regard. Widows were either banished or led highly monastic lives within the household, living under rigid dietary restrictions and not allowed any interests but religion and housework.
While most Bengali castes ate meat and fish, this was barred for widows. Widows also did not use “heating” foods such as onions and garlic. But ginger was allowed, and this found a core place in Bengali curries, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian alike. Expensive spices such as saffron, cinnamon or cloves were used very sparingly, if at all. Nuts, dry fruits, milk and milk products were similarly scarce. In spite of all these restrictions, the food evolved in such a way that its deceptively simple preparations created the unending list of vegetarian options in Bengali cuisine. These dishes were cooked with elaborate precision and served with equal refinement. Multiple courses and an intricate formality about what goes with what and in which sequence, formed an enduring base for a rich and varied cuisine.
All that said, it is now time to take a look at what exactly is it like, to cook with leftovers. Well, given my limited knowledge; and not a very strong memory of all that I used to hate eating as a kid; this will be more of a peek, rather than a look. But the basic idea here, is to bring out the essence of it all. So here it is.
|PAANCH MISHALI TORKARI|
Paanch mishali torkari - Basically a mix of five kind of veggies. Which would usually be radish, spinach ends, climbing spinach, brinjal, potatoes, string beans, carrots, pointed gourd, broad beans, etc. These veggies would be cut in similar sizes, sautéed lightly in very little oil, spiced with some turmeric powder, bengali five spice (paanch phoron), green chillies, seasoned with some salt, and of course a dash of sugar. These would be added to the wok (korai) basis their varied cooking times, so they would be cooked to perfection; not overcooked neither under.
|LAU KHOSA'R CHORCHORI|
Lau’er khosa chorchori - A simple yet scrumptious stir fry made with bottle gourd peel. What else goes into it - a tempering of nigella seeds, a dash of turmeric powder, and some seasoning, that’s all. Does amazingly well with some steaming hot fluffy rice.
Tormuj’er khosa shukto - If one has visited Bong cuisine, one must definitely know shukto. For those who haven’t, it can be described as a bitter-sweet medley of vegetables. But this one, made with watermelon peel (the white remnants actually), is just unique. Yeah, that’s right, a fruit’s peel. Used to make a veg curry (read fantastic veg curry). So what happens in this one is, the white remnants of the watermelon are diced up into small cubes; mustard seeds and bay leaves get tempered in ghee; to which the white cubes are added and sautéed along with some turmeric powder, ginger paste, poppy paste, salt and a pinch of sugar; this is then cooked on a slow fire, and topped with a dollop of ghee, once it is done. Again goes well with steamed rice, almost like they were meant to be together.
|POTOL'ER KHOSA BATA|
Potol’er khosa bata - This is a simple concoction where peel of pointed gourd (or Parwal) is ground along with green chillies and garlic pods, and is then sautéed in a nigella seed tempered oil along with some coriander powder. Makes a confounding combo with rice.
Aloo’r khosa chapta - Now this one’s a killer. Take a bite, close your eyes for a moment, and….well that should be left for you to experience. All you would need is some potato peel, wheat flour, poppy seeds (for the crunch), turmeric powder, green chillies, and salt. Not for the faint hearted though, ‘coz this one is deep fried. And guys who are dieting, save it for your cheat meals. So all the ingredients ought to be mixed, and spread out like you would do for a pancake, and deep fry it till it turns that amazing shade of golden. Eat it along with rice, or just like that.
Dal shukno - What do you do with dal that has been lying in the fridge for two days. It is not exactly very little in quantity, has been heated and reheated for a couple of meals, but got no takers. Do you just chuck it out? No. You should rather just heat up some oil; add some tamarind to it, sauté it for a couple of minutes; add the dal to it and some seasoning if required; and let all the water evaporate from the dal till it turns into a pasty dry consistency. And if you are up for it, just top it off with some mustard oil and chopped onions. It is just unfair, how awesome it tastes when eaten with rice.
|CRISPY FRIED JACKFRUIT SEEDS|
Fried seeds - This is normally made with the seeds of ripe jackfruits, and even ripe pumpkins. The seeds are washed (peeled and chopped in case of jackfruit seeds), mixed up with some turmeric powder and salt, and fried till they are nice and crunchy.
|MAACH'ER TEL'ER TORKARI|
Adding left over cuts of fish to chorchories (or veggie medleys), followed as an inevitable adaptations of this style of cooking. Of course keeping in mind the fish loving or better said, non-veg addicted Bong palate. This was however limited to using leftover cuts of expensive fish varieties, with the obvious intention of making use of every edible inch of the delectable fish. For example, the bones of the bhetki (or Bekti) would be slow cooked along with potatoes, onions, and ginger-garlic paste to create a Kaanta Chorchori. Heads of jumbo prawns would be ground and made into cutlets, and then cooked in a light yet flavourful onions-and-potato gravy. Fish fat, normally found in their abdominal cavity, would be fried as cutlets, or would be cooked along with potatoes, onions, turmeric powder and green chillies to yield a spicy treat.
Yum! yum! yum!
It seriously is a pity and a shame, that we don't get to have this stuff more often. Our busy lives keep us from being reminded of this stuff, let alone cooking them. And thanks to our cosmo lives in metro cities, most of us happen to be living away from our mothers, and get to see our grannies and aunts far too less. This is actually yet another reason why we should be grateful to have these wonderful women in lour lives. Coz if it was not for them, we would have stayed oblivious to these finer tastes in life.
So. Bon appetite. Till we meet again.