Monday, November 19, 2012

Global vs. local cuisine: Does it makes sense?

My mother mostly cooks Bengali food, but sometimes she goes global unwittingly. Hey, wait a minute! Maybe I am wrong -- global is a misnomer. All food is one. There are overlaps among foods of the world.

Just the other day, she prepared a topping for toasts. It was a variation of a simple yogurt topping she often serves. That day, she prepared a topping with steamed cauliflower, spiced with roasted cumin powder, and seasoned with red and black pepper, and salt. The robust flavor of the cumin made all the difference.

A day later, I read in The New York Times as story about squash on toast, a dish rustled up by no less a cook than chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. I realized, again, how food has an ecumenical character. So, dear reader, I hope will forgive this post on a blog that celebrates Bengali cuisine.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Poppy seeds are small, but big in flavor - I

One of Bengal's best-known -- and most homey and delicious -- vegetarian dishes is alu posto, or potato with poppy seeds. Poppy seeds used in Bengal are mostly tiny, brownish white, and grain-like. It may sound strange -- and scary -- that posto is derived from the same plant as opium poppy. But, fear not, dear reader. Poppy seeds used for cooking are harvested from dried pods versus the green pods, which used to extract opium.

Today's post is merely the tip of the iceberg. So much can be written about the tiny seeds and they pack so much of flavor. A recipe of alu posto is in order, too. So stay tuned. Until then, here is the Wikipedia entry. Enjoy.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The story of a lemon

I love lemon -- despite its negative connotation in informal meanings. And the kind of lemon I like most is gandharaj lemon, available only in Bengal and other eastern states of India. At least, I haven't seen it anywhere else; nor have I heard the kind of praise showered on gandharj, or fragrant, lemon, anywhere else.
Gandharaj lemon deserves all the credit it gets, for it is truly fragrant. You need to actually taste it to perceive its flavor -- the fragrance is indescribable. The shape is longish, the rind thick. It's beautiful. And divine when squeezed over hot rice mixed with a dollop of ghee! Gandharaj lemon, then, makes me give in to sin, too.
What kind of lemon or lime do you like, dear reader?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ma's Kitchen Is Immortal

This week, read an essay, "Ma's Kitchen," just published in the Prairie Wolf Press Review magazine. Feel free to offer comments.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Food magazine features Cooking in Calcutta recipe

Recently, I discovered that Saveur magazine had featured my recipe for payesh as part of the publication's Best of the Web series. I am not complaining! Go enjoy the recipe, again. Thanks, Saveur.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Modak and its cousins bind two states

Pithey, puli, and modak offered to Ganesha

Recently, my wife prepared modak, a kind of sweet dumpling eaten during Ganesh Chaturthi, the start of the Indian festive season. Modak is a Maharashtrian specialty. We grew fond of modak in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, where we stayed for 5 years before returning to our home state of Bengal earlier this year. Modak, like the festival of Ganesha itself, is a strong connection we have developed with Maharashtra.

My blog is about the food of Bengal, yet here I am writing about modak and Ganesha, both part of Maharashtrian heritage. For Bengal and Maharashtra share a food connection. In Bengal, home-makers and shops prepare pithey and puli, sweet dumplings akin to modak. My wife even created a clay idol of Ganesha to replicate the Maharashtrian home on Ganesh Chaturthi. On that auspicious day, the elephant God reigned in our home, feasting on modak, pithey, and puli. How similar our festival customs are and how unified all of India is in spite of differences! And God is one. Dear reader, do you find any common food connections among states during the festive season?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Learning to cook home food in a faraway place

When I think about how I learnt to cook Bengal's food, my journey is amazing and ironic. True, the seeds of cooking were sown early in me during adolescence in India, but it was not until my stay in America, 10,000 miles away, as a graduate student that I really learnt to cook.

Books and mandatory cooking turns in a house shared by room mates did the trick. It was by chance that I found a book in the library where I worked part time. The book, a yellow hardcover, was written by an author from -- of all places -- Texas. That book taught me a lot about how to cook Bengali dishes. I learned to cook alu dum, and potato and cauliflower curry, which my room mates and friends adored. Thanks to that book and my deep interest in cooking, I developed a reputation and found fulfilment in a foreign land.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Bori brings back boyhood memory

I recently ate bori in our office cafeteria. Boris are sun-dried lentil dumplings popular in Bengal. Bori is comfort food, made usually at home, though the tradition of the home-made bori is fading. You can get bori these days at your neighborhood grocery store. But my best memory of bori belongs in the home.

There is something, apart from taste, about bori that endears it to me -- bori's grandmotherly or motherly connection. I remember my mother making boris with various kinds of lentils -- red, orange, and yellow -- each having its own texture and flavor. I also remember grandmothers in my extended family lovingly making boris, which are shaped like Hershey's Kisses. The store-bought ones, however, have other shapes, less attractive and authentic. The red lentil, or masoor, bori is good for frying and dropping in a tok, or tamarind-based sauce. Ah, the pleasures of bori, and the hazy memories of a boyhood spent on the red soil of small-town India!

I remember also the boris sold outside, but not in a store. Those boris, along with pickles, rode a cart, a covered kiosk, with glass walls, pushed by a man whom I can't recall anymore. His cart had a bell underneath that he would ring, pulling a rope, to entice the women of the neighborhoods he would pass through. I remember how his cart would come trundling into ours, and I would run out to greet the mobile grocery store. Women would follow soon and gather around the cart.

Boris have a rustic charm and flavor. Lau-bori, or bori with bottle gourd, is a classic. Savor it if you get a chance. It is amazing how simple food can transport you to a time long past, when the world was colored with innocence.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Bengal, Bombay, Boston, Budapest -- They're all one

This blog is about the food of Bengal, a state in India, but all food is one. Foods of the world all converge somewhere. Read an essay, "All the World's a Platter," on Your feedback and comments are welcome.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Water spinach: Weed or soul food?

Photo courtesy

This weekend my wife cooked water spinach, a leafy vegetable eaten in Bengal, India, and South-East Asia. The leaves are also called Chinese water spinach or water ipomea; its botanical name is Ipomoea aquatica. My family loves the vegetable as a side dish, but I discovered during my research on the vegetable that it's considered a weed in the United States!

Sure, it is cheap, but I reject the classification. I love it stir-fried with garlic. I would say it is a soul food for Bengalis, who call it "kalmi saag" -- "saag" meaning a leafy vegetable, like collard greens.

Have you eaten water spinach? If yes, do you like it?

Monday, April 02, 2012

Mulling over mullet

Parshey bhaja
Photo courtesy: Siddharth Dasgupta,

I wrote about Bengalis' love of fish a while ago. I hesitated to write this post and, especially, to carry the photo, for I do not want to put off vegetarians. Bengali cuisine has a great variety of vegetable dishes to please vegetarians; however, fish takes centerstage. One such fish that is a favorite of our family is parshey, or the silvery Indian mullet. The photo you see is of parshey bhaja, or fried mullet. Bhaja is a classic method applied to many fish in Bengal. The dish involves marinating the fish in salt and turmeric and deep-frying.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Profile in magazine brightens up day

This is a post to acknowledge a gesture, not to write about a specific food topic. This afternoon took on a bright flavor when I saw in our company's house magazine, I Can, a profile of me, "A writer who loved his kitchen," as part of a column, Pet Pastime. The article, written by a team member, Noopur, and copy-edited by my supervisor, Nandu, talks about my passion for both writing and cooking -- and my reverence for my mother, whom I credit for providing first inspiration. The feature also mentions this blog. I wish I could share the article with you, but, unfortunately, the magazine is for internal circulation only. Anyway, thank you, team, for a glowing profile.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Nothing fishy about it

If you are an Indian, that is, an Asian Indian, you might already know that people in the state of Bengal are fish-lovers. Bengal, being a state full of wonderful rivers and deltas, is rich in fish. Even though I consider myself a global citizen, I am at heart a Bengali, and I love fish.

Recently, I bought a book, The New Fish Cooking Encyclopedia, by Kate Whitman, that covers fish widely -- casts a wide net, if you will -- and I found several kinds of fish in it that my family loves to cook and eat. One such fish is the mullet. But that is another post -- stay tuned! In the meantime, you might like to read as a prelude an article I wrote several years ago about how I came to love fish.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The bitter truth

When you think of greens, what comes to mind? Spinach, kale, rocket leaves (arugula), lettuce, even mustard greens? How about bitter leaves? People in India eat leaves of the neem tree, a member of the mahogany family native to this country and Pakistan. The leaves are bitter, but take on a distinctive flavor when sauteed in oil or ghee. In Bengal, neem leaves are especially popular this time of year, when they are tender.

I remember eating, under coercion from my mother, fried neem leaves during childhood and adolescence. My parents always said neem is good for health -- it helps clean the blood and, of course, it helps diabetics control blood sugar. Later, I ate neem leaves voluntarily whenever the dish was cooked. The medicine became palatable, even delicious. My mother swears by tender leaves fried or sauteed. You can eat it another way if you want to follow the Bengali tradition. You can saute the leaves first in a kadahi, or wok, to crispness, and then, after removing them, saute diced eggplant (aubergine), and, finally, mix the two, adding seasoning (which in Bengali homes means salt and turmeric).

Have you tried neem? How does the idea appeal to you?

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Summer’s still far, but the pointed gourd returns

Summer is still a month or two away in India, but here is a seasonal vegetable featured in fulfillment of a promise I made a long time ago. It is a recipe involving parwal, or the pointed gourd. I have my mother close at hand; the credit for the recipe goes to her.

Potoler dalna

1 lb (450 gm) parwal, peeled, and sliced into 1/2-inch rounds (small ones cut crosswise into only two pieces)
½ lb (225 gm) potatoes, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch pieces
½ tsp coriander powder
½ tsp cumin seeds, plus ½ tsp powder
½ tsp turmeric powder
¼ tsp chili (cayenne) powder
1 bay leaf
½ tsp ginger paste
¼ tsp garam masala powder, dry-roasted
Salt, to taste
½ cup water
½ cup mustard oil


  1. In a kadahi, or wok, fry parwal and potatoes, until light brown (no need to crisp) in mustard oil.

  2. Drain and remove, setting aside and leaving only 2 tbsp of oil.

  3. On medium heat, sauté cumin seeds, bay leaf, and ginger paste for a minute or so.

  4. Add coriander and cumin powder, turmeric, and, chili powder, sautéing for another minute.

  5. Add water, return parwal and potatoes to kadhai, and simmer, covered, until vegetables are tender.

  6. Sprinkle garam masala power.

  7. Serve with steamed rice, roti, or paratha.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Upholder of Bengali cuisine passes away -- II

Last week, I wrote a brief tribute to Chef Udit Sarkhel, who departed early in February. The news had come as a shock to me because I was expecting to hear from him and looking forward to seeing him. I have been unable to forget him. So I invite you to a longer and better-written tribute by another food writer, William Sitwell.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Upholder of Bengali cuisine passes away

This past Sunday started on a sad note for me. I learned from India's The Telegraph newspaper ("Lord of spices," in the "Eye on England" column) that Chef Udit Sarkhel, who had made it good in the United Kingdom as a doyen of Bengali cuisine, had bid his final goodbye. What made the news all the more saddening was that he was an acquaintance whom I revered, even though I had never met him. We had exchanged e-mail messages and talked on the phone only. Yet, I felt an affinity for him because he had shown empathy toward me when I was trying to get a memoir published. He had patiently read a chapter and said words of encouragement. More important, he had, like me, just returned to his roots in Kolkata from a faraway place of work, or, if you will, a self-imposed exile.

In fact, both returned to Kolkata about the same time -- late January or early February. Just before that, I had received a LinkedIn invitation from him and, after accepting it, written to him an e-mail expressing my delight at his return and looking forward to a long-awaited meeting. I was beginning to lose patience when I hadn't heard from him. I was wondering whether he would reply. Little did I know then that I was waiting to hear from someone who had ceased to exist.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Returning home

I am back! I am back in Calcutta -- or Kolkata, if you will -- and to the blog. It has been dormant for months, and I have no excuse, except commitment to job and family, especially my 6-year-old daughter.

I hope you understand and I hope you will continue to post your invaluable and inspiring comments. Thou be my muse!

If writing be the food of life, play on. For I love to eat -- and write about food. Even the sight of food -- raw or cooked -- fills me with delight. This morning I walked the same farmers' market in my neighborhood as I did 5 years ago and savored the lovely sight of winter vegetables. Plump, round "desi" tomatoes, stalk attached, first said hello to me. I paused and took them in. I saw the bright orange carrots, which only winter can provide. Next, I bent to touch and buy small, shiny, green limes.

How happy I am to return to the city and this vegetable market. Linger, dear winter, for I am hungry for more.