Huge prawns in coconut cream, a medley of vegetables in masala paste, poppy seed cooked in ghee… a Bengali banquet can’t get better.
The best thing about Delhi winter is its onset. This — and again when winter is petering out — is the only time we can sit outdoors in the evening, and eat al fresco without fussing about shawls and sweaters or worrying about staining our silks with haldi-rich oil and masala. If only we had gardens to do this in, but clubs are a close alternative: there’s the relaxed atmosphere of a home without the housewifely worry attendant on entertaining.
Last week the India International Centre had its annual Bengali dinner. There’s a slew of cultural and academic events, but food is the way to my heart. This year chairs and round tables were laid out under a sloped marquee of translucent white fabric — so the dew was of no concern — with buffet tables ranged around the edges. Waiters were leaping about and snacks appearing on tables: “Madam, fish fingers? Mochaar chop?” It’s taken me some years to understand and remember that in Bengali cooking parlance, a chop is called a cutlet, and a cutlet a chop. Anyway that night, there were only chops, banana flower and vegetable, which was a mix that included red beetroot. Preparing mocha, banana flower, is apparently a full day’s job. There must be some something in its taste that makes the schlep worthwhile, but it escapes me. There were also crisp, crumb-fried fish fingers, delicious in the over-fried way one wouldn’t cook at home, and chicken legs, which I didn’t touch. I’m open to correction, but I think chicken legs start northwest of Delhi.
Then we proceeded to help ourselves to dinner. There were three delicious vegetables, each cooked with many spices and in complicated ways — not the sort that I would do myself on a weekday evening. There was a chachhari, a dark mishmash of a medley of vegetables in thick masala paste flavoured with paanch phoron. The flavour of mooli, radish, which was cut into batons, stood out. Stuffed parwals, potol, were next, in a thick reddish sauce reeking of hing. They were filled with paneer and raisins and the combination of firm parwal and soft paneer, smelling pungently of asafoetida and tasting sweetly of raisins, was unexpectedly good.
But the dish I liked best was of posto, khuskhus: poppy seed ground to a paste and cooked with jhinge, tori, in an abundance of good desi ghee. Khuskhus is a spice I love to eat but know not how best to cook it. My mother used to cook it in stuffed tindas and I would love to recreate the buttery, melting taste. The jhinge posto falls in the same category: bland cucurbit cooked in its own juice with lashings of ghee soaked into the mild, nutty flavoured poppy seed.
The meats. There was malai chingri, huge prawns cooked in coconut cream, the shell dark pink and the flesh white, sweet and tender. There was shorshe bhetki, the fish pieces cooked in a paste of mustard seeds, which melted in the mouth, and with large chunks of fresh deep red chillies that I fished out into my plate. Kosha maangsho, mutton cooked in a thick brown masala, was a bit ho-hum, the gravy unnecessary — I thought it should have been a dry meat, bhuno’d till dark brown with the masalas almost completely absorbed in the meat. But the matarer kochuri it was to be eaten with, were the best in class. I could have eaten six. The kachoris were puffed and golden, not very big, and filled with smashed green peas flavoured with hing and saunf. And there were achar-chutni: kasundi and a sweet pineapple chutney. I missed green chillies and freshly cut lime. Gandharaj would have been ideal, but would have made do with any old local variety. There was also a vegetable niramish polao and although I’m told that pulao is mandatory in a Bengali banquet, I could have done with plain white boiled rice that would have set off the delicate flavours of all the rest.
Dessert I’m told was wonderful — rasgullas sweetened with nutan gur and many other things besides, but the taste of the savoury khana is what I’d like to remember.