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Agonies and ecstasies
Bengali vegetarian food is an acquired taste. First you hate it, then you love it.
Most patrons of Bengali restaurants I know order the same things every time they visit - shorshe maachh (fish in mustard sauce), kosha mangsho (mutton), fried bhekti and paturis of chingri and illish (prawn or hilsa steamed in banana leaf). I once suggested a friend walk the road less travelled by ordering the hilsa in a sauce of mustard and cucumber - the restaurant was trying to be experimental - and was ignored. Vegetarian is rarely considered except for beguni (batter-fried brinjal) or mochar ghonto (banana flower sabzi).
For a newcomer to Bengali cuisine, this is quite a misleading list. These items top every poll, they are the vanguard, the cavalry of Bengali food. But there's an army of foot soldiers that goes unnoticed by most non-Bengalis. And this army is largely vegetarian.
A few years ago, when I didn't pay serious attention to what I ate, I would have said that Bengali vegetarian food is better left unnoticed. Bongs eat practically every leaf, tuber, root and vegetable that grows. They're particularly fond of fleshy vegetables (pumpkin, raw papaya, squash) that tend to disintegrate unattractively when cooked and mucilaginous ones (all the gourds) that, to the eyes of a young Bong, acquire a sickly, ectoplasmic quality.
Take kumro (pumpkin) and pepe (papaya), vegetables that are particularly dear to Bengalis as they are sweet. Pumpkin is a key ingredient of charchari (a mixed veg spiced with paanch phoron), it's made with shrimps, diced pumpkin is cooked with spinach and it's cooked to a pulp in bontis. B, our cook and resident neurotic, likes making bontis. Spiced with paanch phoron, the pumpkin is cooked till it melts into an orange puddle that has the consistency of hummus. Boiled red chana is added for some extra flavour and texture. Till recently I could get myself to eat this with only the greatest difficulty. It's awfully sweet because of the vegetable's natural sweetness and the seasoning of sugar and has the goopy texture of baby food. But my family would, unbelievably, dig into kumro bonti with the gusto of hungry infants.
Then there's peper dalna. If you've had a bad day, the sight of this soupy, dun-coloured gravy in which pieces of papaya bob like sorry icebergs will make it abysmal. The sky will seem darker, inklings of imminent ruin will assail you. Naturally B, whose mental contents are pretty dark, is fond of peper dalna. She prefers to cook it with a phoron of methi seeds, though many use jeera instead.
Olkopi (kohlrabi), squash and chichinga (snake gourd) prompted similar reactions. For one, all these vegetables, except kumro, have an unsettling translucence. I'm not entirely sure what's disturbing about this quality. Their ambiguous nature perhaps - they seem firm but offer little resistance to teeth. The only interest chichinga generated was from the knowledge that the gourd is used to make didgeridoos. Not that the trivia made it any more appetising.
Secondly, like most Bengali vegetarian food, they're cooked with a light hand. That means there's little masala to mask the flavour of the vegetables themselves. Usually the only masalas used are smatterings of ground dhaniya, jeera, turmeric and ginger. That's a problem when you're a kid because the last thing you want is to try to appreciate the natural flavours of pepe and kumro. That's too academic an exercise for a minor or even a young adult. Kids of certain other communities are less rebellious I think when it comes to the same vegetables.
Coastal communities, for instance, prepare the same items with chilli and coconut, ingredients that can elevate the dullest food. Now much has been said about the subtlety of Bengali food. In the megalomania that surrounds the cuisine, it has been compared to French food in this respect. But for those growing up in the tradition, it can be too subtle. So subtle that you miss the point. That's probably why a lot of these items aren't served in restaurants. That's also why Bengali vegetarian is often a taste that's acquired with age. It seems that the more experienced the palate gets, the more receptive it becomes to nuances of taste. Like a satellite picking up remote signals, the palate receives the subtleties of light gravies and the intrinsic flavours of vegetables that were once reviled.
It's only recently that I've begun probing my way around the universe of Bengali taste and appreciating the experience. Though it will probably be light years before I can eat peper dalna without feeling that the world has suddenly become a cheerless place.
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