“The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles” cookbook brought back lots of memories. Every day for about a year a steaming bowl of savory, hearty dal soup marked the start of the midday meal. I could count on that. It was one of the few consistencies in a tumultuous world marked by strife, police curfews and frightening rumors when my family lived in East Pakistan during the civil war that gave birth to Bangladesh. It was a lot for a teenager to take in but we tried to keep things as normal as possible within the confines of our home, and the daily ritual of dal soup was most comforting.
The Bengal region, located at the apex of the Bay of Bengal and anchored by Kolkata (previously Calcutta), is now shared between Bangladesh and the West Bengal state of eastern India. Culinary traditions, along with language and cultural heritage that are largely unknown outside the area, bear little resemblance to the typical Indian fare found in the U.S. and other countries. The foods that are shared between these lands that were historically one are rich in diversity, favoring rice, fish, greens, mustard and the lentil in all its various forms. Bangladeshi dishes can be more fiery while their Indian Bengali cousins tend to be a bit sweeter.
Rinku Bhattacharya, author of “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles” and "Cooking in Westchester" blog, helpfully outlines the history of Bengal in the introduction and preface at the same time that she introduces us to her earliest food memories and family traditions. One of the delightful aspects of the cookbook is how much personal information she shares with the reader. Not only is the introduction substantial but each chapter features a page where she describes the topic, fish, for example, and tells us about how fish is cultivated and prepared in Bengal. Importantly she bridges the geographic divide and explains how she handles gastronomic details in the U.S. and how she might modify general preparations to suit modern tastes, e.g. skipping the traditional Bengali step of frying fish before simmering in gravy to simplify steps and reduce fat. Each recipe is preceded by a paragraph where she describes the dish and often includes an anecdote about her experience, people she has shared the dish with, or family members who cherish the meal. She offers liberal suggestions for substituting ingredients or adapting cooking styles. Interspersed within the chapters are insets of black-and-white photos of the author’s illustrating a festival or market scene. Not only does this give the reader an intimate connection with the author, her relaxed approach and flexible recipes invite creativity in the kitchen. If you want a heartier dish, add chicken to the Pepper Spiced Bengali Vegetable Stew; if you don’t have green bananas use tomatoes. This is the way home cooks prepare meals, using whatever fresh ingredients are on hand.
There are twenty five color photographs of select dishes clustered together in the middle of the book, which represents just a fraction of the recipes. Unfortunately we don’t get to see what most of the dishes should look like, probably due to cost constraints.
The Five Spice Blend
Panch Phoron, the Bengali five spice blend that is profiled at the start of the cookbook, is not universally used in the recipes, and in fact I had to sift through quite a few to find one that used all the spices I had procured. The author states, “It is almost impossible to prepare a Bengali meal without using Panch Phoron.” That may be true when preparing a variety of dishes but many individual recipes use only two or three. Each of the five spices is profiled in a chapter introduction. Of the five, three are easy to find at any large supermarket: fennel seeds, cumin seeds and black mustard seeds. Two are more challenging to obtain requiring a trip to our local Indian store, Lotus Chaat in San Rafael, Calif., where I easily located fenugreek seeds, a large, yellowish, cuboid shaped seed, but I couldn't locate nigella seeds even after consulting with the owner. After a quick internet search we found the tiny black seeds that resemble black sesame seeds under the name kalonji. I fell for a three-for-two special and bought three different kinds of lentils as well. If you can’t find the spices (or other ingredients such as dal) locally they can be ordered online through Amazon and other retailers. The recipe for the spice blend is simple. Mix equal parts, such as 1 teaspoon each, of the five seeds and you have Panch Phoron, or the Bengali Five Spice Blend.
A Bengali Meal
I tried three of the recipes one night for a complete Bengali meal, and they were all a hit with my husband. The Orange Split Lentils with Tomatoes and Cilantro (Masoor dal soup) was quick and easy to prepare and the Masoor lentils cooked to a tender consistency in 25 minutes. It was reasonably flavorful with cumin and cilantro, but more bland than another dal soup I made later in the week, Yellow Split Lentils (Moong dal soup), which had a more toothsome consistency. We were split (no pun intended)—my husband liked the Moong dal better, while I preferred the smoother mouth-feel of the Masoor dal, and both of us liked the spicier recipe better with turmeric, ginger, cayenne, cumin and coriander. When I make dal next week for my elderly father, who shares my fond memories of our daily dal soup, I’ll make the blander recipe as that will sit better with his more delicate constitution.
For the vegetable dish I made a variation of Mashed Smoked Eggplant, cooking the eggplant down to a mush instead of smoking it on the grill first. The onion and chilies (I used jalapenos) blended well and the soft texture balanced the firmer quality of the accompanying white rice. We liked the spiciness and though the recipe only called for cumin and coriander I will admit to using some of the Panch Phoron for some added punch.
I was tempted to make a curry dish but wanted to branch out from the tried and true that we might be more familiar with from Indian restaurants, so I made Shrimp in a Spicy Caramelized Onion and Tomato Sauce. Intensely spiced with turmeric, ginger paste, bay leaves, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, cloves, chilies and yogurt, it was delicious. The three dishes complemented each other, both in texture, seasonings and zest, and the recipes were clear, straightforward and easy to follow.
If you've cooked with turmeric you know how it can stain, and my wooden spoons, kitchen sponge and various other surfaces sported a yellow glow, so now I have a turmeric-christened set of utensils. A small price to pay for a delicious meal created from the pages of “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles” cookbook.
The “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles” is a great introduction to a little-known cuisine, and brought back comforting memories of flavors I had forgotten about.
“The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles” cookbook
By Rinku Bhattacharya
Available at Amazon, $13.18
Published November 15, 2012
Full disclosure: I was provided a review copy of this book.