Spending our time untethering the mind, getting the fidgets out, exploring the in-between ideas, and learning kintsugi.

Learning to cook with mom – Part I, the basics

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This is my first dedicated effort to cook while in Kolkata. I am cooking on my own, following mom’s instructions. Bengali home cooking is somewhat non-trivial to replicate outside of Bengal. A number of produce are unique to this region and while sourcing them elsewhere is possible, there is no guarantee to the quality of the produce. The Gangetic delta is particularly fertile and small scale agriculture continues to be pervasive. This also means that farm to table is a very short trip. Produce varieties are extensive and the produce is often very young and tender. To the extent I will be able to replicate them in California remains to be seen.

First the basics. In my mom’s house, there are only a handful of spices like mustard seeds, cumin, nigella seeds, fennel, bay leaves etc. There is nothing particularly exotic. Dry red chili is a common mechanism for generating heat but some dishes exclusively use green chilis. The common powdered spices are turmeric, cumin, chili and “garam masala”. Turmeric, cumin and chili powder are store bought, but the garam masala is always made from whole spices in small batches. Asafetida is used but not commonly. The other critical ingredient is white poppy seeds. Mustard oil is commonly used but vegetable oil, ghee, Crisco (Dalda is the Indian variant) are all used occasionally. And, like Thai cooking, sugar is a key ingredient in savory dishes. It is the equivalent of adding salt in desserts. You add a touch, enough to balance the flavor, not enough to make the dish sweet. A very unique Bengali spice is Radhuni (apparently called ajmod in Hindi), its scientific name is Trachyspermum roxburghianum (also known as Carum roxburghianum).

Top row: Yellow mustard (shorshe), black mustard, Cumin (jeera), Radhuni (ajmod); Bottom row: Nigella (kalonji or kala jeera), Fennel, Cumin powder, Chili powder, Turmeric powder
Top row: Poppy seeds, Asafetida, Cinnamon, Cloves; Bottom row: Red chili, Bay leaves, Cardamom, Nutmeg
Common cooking utensils (kadai, saucepan, pressure cooker, tadka pan) and oils (vegetable shoterning, clarified butter, mustard oil)

A kadai is typically used for cooking. A kadai is shaped like a wok (wide but not deep) but heavier duty. It is often made of aluminum, sometimes steel and rarely iron. Mom has kadais of all sizes, ranging all the way from 7 inches to 12 inches. These are the workhorses of the kitchen. I often turned to 10-12 inch wide ones when cooking for 4. Saucepans are set aside for boiling or reheating e.g. milk . An electric kettle is always handy for ready access to boiled water. She has three pressure cookers and they are all in use, small, medium and large. They are most often used for cooking rice or lentils.

Jhaal Shorshe: Translated exactly, it is spicy mustard sauce. Mustard flavored fish or vegetable is a staple. The fundamental ask is the mustard paste made from yellow mustard seeds and black mustard seeds in a 6:1 ratio. The two are combined and then dry ground to a fine powder in a spice grinder. Lets assume we are starting with 0.5 cup of seeds.Then we add a few green chilis (e.g. 2 Thai chilis), 1 tsp turmeric, salt and 0.25 cup water to make into a smooth paste (thick batter consistency). The paste should feel fluffy and lighten in color to indicate good mixing. At this point, the paste can be stowed away in refrigerator for up-to a week. To use, optionally mix with yogurt (nonfat or otherwise), mustard sauce to yogurt in 2:1 ratio, before using. It is best to add the yogurt right before using.

Panch Phoron: Translated, it is a mixture of five spices that is used for “tadka”. It is equal amounts (e.g., 1 tsp) of mustard seeds, nigella (kalonji) seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds and fenugreek (methi) seeds. I bet there are variations. My favorite variation is 1/2 the amount of methi seeds as the rest.

Ingredients leading unto Bengal’s famous “Jhaal Sorshe” and “Panch Phoron”. For “Jhal Shorshe” or mustard paste, need black and yellow mustard seeds, green chilis and a spice grinder. For “Panch Phoron”, need black mustard seeds, nigella (kalonji) seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds and fenugreek (methi) seeds.

Here are some notes on known deviations and options:

  • Mustard seeds: The black mustard seeds come in all sizes and sharpness. I find the mustard in Bengal at least third the size of mustard in US. The taste is also mellower. Indian stores may carry the smaller mustard.
  • Fennel seeds: There are at least two varieties, the big fat yellowish ones and the skinny green ones. The later are known as Lucknow-e fennel (i.e., from Lucknow). I personally prefer these. My mom has always used the fat ones. Indian stores will carry both varieties. There is no significant taste difference, the smaller ones present a more pleasing mouthfeel to me.
  • Red chili: There are dozens of common varieties. The one that are most elegant and spiced right are skinny, red and long. Indian stores will carry this variety.
  • Garam masala: There is no one garam masala. Instead there are as many variations as there are homes. Mom uses cinnamon, cardamom and cloves in same quantity and sometimes throws in a small amount of nutmeg. Cinnamon is one of the hardest one to source right, the ones in Indian subcontinent are more savory and complex in flavor. Good luck.

Written by Som

December 7, 2021 at 1:21 am

Posted in Recipe

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  1. […] Jhaal: For most fish dishes, cooking in mustard sauce (refer to part 1) is the simplest recipe. Typically, fish is scaled, cleaned, cut into individual serving size […]

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