I have to confess right here, that I know very little about Bengali food. I am from Kerala, which has something in common with Bengal including Communist/ Marxist governments from time to time, a love for fish curry, plain white saris with a red border in Bengal and gold in Kerala, and an obsession for football that goes beyond the believable.
It is also not unusual to find people in Kerala bearing Bengali names like Ghosh and Das. However, Bengali food has had little or no impact there, though rice is the carbohydrate of choice in both states, and Malayalees who eat fish love it as much as their Bengali counterparts.
I know that Bengalis love sweets, especially those made with “chenna” (a softer and moist version of paneer) like “Rôshogolla” (I was told off by a reader who was offended that I called them Rasgulla!), Cham Cham and Sandesh (I should have said “Shôndesh”?) and their Mishti Doi (sweet yogurt). I know that what the rest of us in India call “Gol Gappe” is “Puchka” for Bengalis and that they also love Aloo Poshto (a potato curry cooked with poppy seeds). And I know they like to use mustard oil in their cooking which I find a very acquired taste (and aroma) that I haven’t been able to manage to acquire so far! I also know that in Bengal, fish is considered vegetarian fare!
As you can see, what I do know about Bengali food is not very much. So what am I doing reviewing a cookbook about Bengali food? In the first place this book is written by a fellow food blogger who is also a virtual friend of sorts. I say, of sorts, because I really do not her very well, but I have read her blog on and off (she writes very well) and we keep crossing each other’s paths frequently on Facebook while commenting on each other’s pages and those of mutual friends. I also firmly believe that good food, whatever its style of cuisine, will transcend all man-made borders/ divides.
So when Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta wrote her first book, “BongMom’s Cookbook” published by Harper Collins, I was there to read and review it. I’m doing it with an open mind, though it is one that’s slightly unschooled in the matter of Bengali food.
I guess the place to start would be to ask, “What do Bengalis (really) eat?” Sandeepa tells us that Bongs (slang for Bengalis) will eat apparently “anything and everything, as long as it is followed by Gelusil, Pudin Hara, Jowaner Aarak or Nux Vom 30!”
She also tells us, “Bengalis don’t eat breakfast: they eat a complete meal in the morning, or else they eat luchi (deep fried bread)”. It’s obvious that the Bengalis like their counterparts in the other states of India have a great love for their food!
The book started on that note and just went on getting more enjoyable to read as I turned page after page. And if you’re thinking of asking, “Why would you read a cookbook?” here’s the answer. Sandeepa’s book is more than just a cookbook. S.
ure, there is a lot of traditional authentic Bengali food that has been cooked by the older generation of women in her family, and Sandeepa’s recipes make them easy to cook in a modern kitchen. She also weaves stories of her childhood which are invariably connected to food to gives us glimpses of a lifestyle where people had time to cook and savour the simple pleasures of everyday life.
Every chapter is redolent with the aromas of spices used in a Bengali kitchen interwoven with her memories of life in Bengal as a child, from her grandmother’s Calcutta kitchen, all the way to through her life to her kitchen in the US where she now lives. Married and a mother of two young girls, she also shares her attempts to keep India alive and real for her daughters and her trials to connect them to their Indian roots through the Bengali food she cooks.
I can relate to large parts of her book. I have grown up seeing grandmothers, aunts and other elderly ladies in the house spend a large part of their lives cooking up a storm almost every day, and belong to a community where food is so important that there are even prescribed dishes, ingredients, combinations and menus for each occasion (small or big). So I’m not surprised that her mother would be appalled to think that milk and cereal or something similar could be considered any sort of a meal, let alone breakfast!
To get back to the BongMom Cookbook, it a book dedicated entirely to recipes and narratives related to Bengali food. Sandeepa’s has a way with words and descriptive phrases, and her style of narrative makes for interesting reading and her recipes are easy enough to follow. Where specific ingredients are needed, that are commonly unavailable outside Bengal, she provided easy alternatives.
The chapters in this book have quaint titled and some examples are The Great Bong Breakfast, The long Lost Lunch, By God! Bongs Also Eat Veggies, Every Bong Girl Needs Her Tiffin and Love In The Time Of Dessert! Each recipe in preceded by a short narrative about the dish and its place in her family saga and the book is interspersed with further factual details either about Bengali meal-time or food traditions and the masalas (spice mixes) used in their cooking.
One masala/ spice mix that I always associate with Bengali cooking is the Paanch-phoron which is frequently used in their recipes.
Paanch-phoron is a mix of 5 (Paanch) spices – Fenugreek (methi), Nigella seeds (kalonji, Mustard seeds or (rai/ shorshe), Fennel seeds (saunf/ mouri), and Cumin seeds (jeera/ jira)
To make Paanch-phoron, grind equal quantities of these 5 spices into a powder and store in an airtight bottle. This spice mix is usually added to a hot oil to release the flavours, while cooking.
Good photography is always a bonus in a cookbook, but this is one cookbook that really doesn’t need the photographs.
However, I would have been happy to see some more sketches illustrating the book beyond those that adorn the first page of every chapter.
I would have definitely liked to see a recipe index in the book, as it took me time to trace down the recipes I wanted to cook from the book since there was no way to do that except search.
While there is a list of spices used in the book, translated to English, I also feel a glossary of some of the Bengali terms used throughout the book would be helpful as a ready reference for the non-Bengali reading public.
Beyond this, I have only good to say about the book and it will have a happy resting place on my cookbook shelf even though most of the recipes in the book are of no use to a vegetarian like me.
About the author:
Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta loves food, is a food blogger and mother of two who i
s dedicated to connect them to their Bengali roots mainly through food. Her cookbook showcases this attempt along with sharing the mysteries of the BongMom’s kitchen with the rest of us through heart-warming stories and easy to cook recipes.
I have marked a few recipes to try from the BongMom Cookbook and Sandeepa’s mother-in-law’s Dim Kosha or Spicy Egg Curry caught my eye first. Egg curry is something that’s cooked in quite a few variations in Kerala and the Egg Moilee is our favourite. While we are not egg lovers, the occasional good egg curry is always welcome at our table.
I did over salt my Egg Curry a wee bit (my fault, not the recipe’s) but otherwise we liked the curry very much. Be warned this is a bit on the richer side as it involves frying boiled eggs and the potatoes, but that’s what adds a lot of flavour.
This is my somewhat adapted version of Sandeepa’s recipe.
The BongMom’s Ma-in-Law’s Dim Kosha (Egg Curry)
(Adapted from BongMom’s Cookbook by Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta)