•••The dinner I had just finished was impromptu meal-on-the beach, from a modest outdoor food shack, consisting of curried shrimp wrapped in banana leaf. I didn't know what it was called and a language barrier meant I couldn't ask the wizened old cook in his dhoti who sold me the food for just pennies.The only English I spotted was a faded sign with the slogan, "Enjoy Best Bengali Cuisine." I was nearing the end of a two-week tour of Eastern India before heading to the southern region of Kerala. It was the end of a long day of psychedelic street images, the non-stop cries of chai wallahs and crowded trains. And I was hungry. I simply followed my nose - and a long list of hungry patrons to a make-shift beach-side food stand, and pointed to the food my fellow patrons were ordering. ( Traveller's tip: modest eateries popular with locals never disappoint.) I'd only just learned to distinguish between the curries of north and south India. Northerners, so I've been told, turn to ghee for most recipes, while cooks in the south, in such places as Kerala, prefer coconut oil. But little did I know what constituted Bengali cuisine. [caption id="attachment_14576" align="aligncenter" width="325"] Bengal risotto called khichuri (Photo courtesy: Rinku Bhattacharya)[/caption]
•••Thanks to Rinku Bhattacharya, I can – three years later – enjoy at home the tantalizing dishes I inhaled during my tour of Eastern India. The Calcutta-born Bhattacharya says her book "merges the food and recipes of my mother's kitchen and my attempts at recreating Bengali cuisine at home." [caption id="attachment_14578" align="aligncenter" width="312"] Potatoes with poppy seeds (Photo courtesy of Rinku Bhattacharya)[/caption]
•••Says Bhattacharya, "The book (like the rest of my cooking) is strongly inspired by the seasons and their bounty. It is named after my favorite spice blend, Panch Phoron, a heady, fragrant and colorful mixture of fennel, mustard, cumin, nigella and fenugreek, which is one of the essentials of the Bengali kitchen." The region Bhattacharya writes about is the Indian state of West Bengal and the country of Bangladesh (formerly East Bengal). The historical influences are definitely parlayed into the cuisine itself, making it varied and often full of surprising blends of spices. (Be sure to follow Rinku's food blog.) [caption id="attachment_14579" align="aligncenter" width="330"] Market day in West Bengal (Photo: Hahnoor Habib Munmun)[/caption]
•••So what does the typical Bengali cook serve? Vegetables, rice and fish are pretty much the mainstay. "A traditional Bengali meal sequence," explains Bhattacharya, "involves eating through a rainbow assortment of vegetables, and then finishing off usually with a fish dish, but sometimes mutton or goat. Since Bengalis rely on seasonal foods and usually eat what is available, meals are prepared in small quantities so cooking is a daily ritual." [caption id="attachment_14580" align="aligncenter" width="330"] Incredible dal: Orange split lentils with tomatoes and cilantro (Photo: Courtesy Rinku Bhattacharya)[/caption]
The three recipes that I most want to tackle: 1. Steamed Mustard Fish Wrapped in Banana Leaves - if it's anything like my curried shrimp in banana leaves I fell in love with while in India, I'll be happy as a clam. 2. Tart Pigeon Peas and Green Mangoes - you can never go wrong with mangoes. 3. Snapper in a Coconut Tamarind Sauce - it wasn't until my extended stay in India that I discovered how flavourful coconut oil is when mixed with a variety of spices.YOU can win enter to win a copy of Rinku Bhattacharya's book, "The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles: Exploring the Cuisine of Eastern India, simply by posting your favourite Indian dish below. It's your chance to bring a taste of India home with you!