Saturday, March 31, 2018

Edible Flowers from the Bengali Kitchen

Over the last few years my trips to Kolkata were quite frequent and in contrast to the standard visits in summer, I happened to be in Kolkata in the winters too. Moni's house is in a quiet lane in Selimpur and a variety of vendors come to the 'goli' or lane calling out their wares. From umbrella repair to ice cream, from variety plastic products to fresh veggies and fish, everything comes to our doorstep.

I found the steady stream of vendors quite entertaining and slowly began to buy vegetables and fish for the novelty of buying at the door, so much in contrast to my life in Mumbai where veggies were either bought online or from a supermarket, an entirely impersonal experience. As I chose vegetables every morning I started examining the variety on the cart more closely and questioning the vendor about specific vegetables I was unfamiliar with. I'd also ask Jethima from upstairs or go bug Moni to identify ingredients and then to cook them for me. My interest vegetables and local ingredients grew and if you've ever enjoyed winter vegetables in Bengal, you'll understand just why I succumbed.

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What a glorious variety there was! Leafy greens, beans, brinjals, gourds, root veggies, the list can go on and on. And among all this bounty I found an array of edible flowers and inflorescence that are all a regular, even mundane, part of the Bengali kitchen, enjoyed in season and then looked forward to once the season was over. As I took photograph after photograph the subziwala, seeing my interest and quite entertained by my enthusiasm, started bringing unusual seasonal ingredients to show me every morning. I'd happily be awake at 6 am waiting for him to make his first circuit of our goli. Thanks to him I learned about many vegetables that are a part of the Bengali's winter meals. Not only did I learn from him, Moni and Jethima, the neighbourhood mashimas (aunties) also started educating me, making the entire experience richer and so much more interesting.

Edible flowers maybe trendy today and perceived to be modern and hip but for the Bengali they are a part of everyday meals and I discovered a wide variety in Kolkata, some of which I have listed here. Whether it's the blooms, inflorescence or stems, the flowering portions of many plants are commonly cooked into simple dishes or more elaborate fare.

Malabar Spinach or Pui Shaak is a common ingredient in many Indian kitchens, but did you know the inflorescence on this plant is also eaten? It's sold separately as an individual ingredient and I first saw it on the subzi cart.

Pui Mituni (inflorescence on Malabar Spinach)

Similarly the inflorescence on Spinach or palak, called Shish Palong in Bengali, is also a delicacy and Jethima made a quick stir fry with potatoes for me. 

Shapla or water lilies also star on Bengali menus. The stem is cooked with prawns or made into fritters. While prepping the stems may feel tedious the resultant fritters are perfect as a snack at tea time or are served as the accompanying bhaja in the daal course of a traditional Bengali meal. The flowers aren't eaten but they look lovely floating in a flat vessel full of water.

Shapla or Water lIlies

Then there were onion scapes or Peyaanj Koli as we call them in Bengali. Such a pretty vegetable! Mostly added to chorchoris or made into a simple bhaja with potatoes, the markets are filled with these in season. 

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Peyaanj Koli

This post would be incomplete if I didn't mention Kumro Phool or pumkin flowers. Mostly served batter fried, sometimes with a stuffing of prawns (yes, we Bengalis cook many veggies with prawns) I had plenty of these thanks to my beloved Jethima.

Kumro Phool 

On my last trip to Kolkata I encountered Jukti Phool. This flower enjoys a very short season and, from what I understood from the vendor in Gariahat market, is gathered from plants growing in the wild. A strongly bitter flower, it can be stir fried with potatoes and panch phoron or can be used in a sukto to impart the bitter notes.

Jukti Phool in the foreground with other Sukto ingredients

I also found Bok Phool or Agasti phool on an earlier trip to the market. These are cooked by many communities across India and I have seen many getting excited over them on myriad food groups on Facebook. These too are mostly batter fried and served as a tasty snack, much looked forward to by the Bengalis when in season. A simple chickpea flour batter seasoned with salt and chilli powder, a dash of turmeric and some nigella seeds is made, the flowers (stamens removed) are dipped in and then deep fried till crisp and golden. Sometimes maida and/or rice flour are added to make the batter lighter and the fries crisper but all these are variations from kitchen to kitchen.

Bok Phool outside Gariahat Market

Mocha or banana blossom is very widely known so it wasn't really a discovery for me. This much treasured ingredient in cooked a million ways by the Bengali - ghonto, chop, with prawns, chop with prawns... the list can go on and on. 

Mocha or Banana Blossom

And here's a picture of the man himself, the shobjiwala or veggie vendor. As I write this I realise I've never asked him his name as I always called him 'bhai' or younger brother. 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Sukto with Jukti Phool

Sukto is a lovely light stew of assorted vegetables with a hint of bitter. Flavoured with a bit of mustard and a hint of poppy paste, this stew also has milk in it and must be cooked very carefully. Though you can make sukto without the bitter element, many Bengalis believe that a classic sukto must have the bitter ingredient. I always avoided sukto thanks to the bitter flavour and never bothered to even see how it was cooked, turning up my nose and shaking my head this utter waste of effort! 

Over the last few years my interest in Bengali food has increased greatly - maybe I'm feeling the need to understand my roots now that I'm well into my forties and the attraction of other cuisines has paled. Somewhere I also feel great ignorance where Bengali food is concerned - it is after all the cuisine of my forefathers and I should know it in some detail at least. My frequent visits to Kolkata and the discovery of new ingredients at practically every visit to the market only fuelled my curiosity. The door to door vegetable vendor, seeing my interest, would bring new things to show me - pui mituni, kolmi shaak, shapla, kochu'r loti, bok phul, shish palong... the list is endless. 

My visits to Kolkata are now incomplete without a visit to Gariahat market, if only for a quick walk through just to see what's available. The last visit to Kolkata was for less than a week and I squeezed in a quick trip to the market on my last morning there. This time I discovered Jukti phool. 

Jukti Phool  Dregea volubis is also known as Sneeze Wort or Green Milkweed Climber. This plant is known to many Indian cuisines and has names in many Indian languages. In Marathi it is called 'harandodi' or 'naaksikani'. In Hindi it's also known as 'akad bel'. The Malayalam word for it is 'velipparuthi'  while in Gujarati it's called 'kadvo kharkhodo', and in Bengali it's also called 'tita kunga'.  See here for more details -

I'd never heard of this ingredient nor seen it but the tiny, pretty bunches of blooms were irresistible and of course I bought some. I asked the vendor how to cook it and he said to either stir fry it with a little garlic and plenty of potatoes or to use it instead of uchhe (bitter gourd) to make sukto. It's quite bitter, he warned, and I wasn't to try to eat it on its own.

Back in Mumbai I read several sukto recipes before I attempted making it for the first time. My mother loved sukto - or 'suktuni' as she preferred to call it - and I keenly missed her because it would have been so easy to just call her on the phone and learn how to make one of her favourite dishes. I wish I had paid attention on the rare times she made it... 

Anyway! Here's the recipe for the Sukto I cobbled together today. This dish has a lot of ingredients and therefore there's a good amount of prep to do before you start cooking so make sure you read the recipe from start to finish and make a shopping list before you go to get the veggies. 

Jukti Phool diye Sukto

Jukti phool - half a cup
1 small potato
1 small sweet potato
1 small ridge gourd 
1 small long brinjal or a chunk from a large one
7-8 green beans (yard longs/borboti or french beans, either will do)
7-8 papdi or seem (flat beans) 
1 drumstick
2" piece of ginger

2 tbsp mustard paste 
2 tbsp poppy seed paste

1 tsp panch phoron
1 tsp randhuni (ajmod seeds)
1/2 cup milk
mustard oil

Wash the jukti phool and drain in a colander. 

Peel the potatoes and cut into thick batons. Peel the ridge gourd, discard seeds and pith, and cut into batons of the same size as the potatoes. Don't cut the vegetables too thin or small or they will disintegrate while cooking.
String the beans and cut into 3" pieces.
Peel the hard outer skin of the drumstick and cut into 5" batons.
Cut brinjal into proportionate pieces, not too small.
Grate or pound the ginger into a rough paste. 

Heat a generous quantity of mustard oil in a wok or kadai and wait till it's properly hot. Fry the prepared vegetables one by one for a couple of minutes each and remove to a plate or other flat vessel. 

In the same oil, after you've finished frying all the vegetables, chuck in the panch phoron, randhuni and grated ginger (add a little oil if required before you throw in the spices). Let the spices sizzle for a few seconds and then add the mustard and poppy seed pastes. Add salt and sugar to taste. Keep the flame low and stir well to cook everything. See that the pastes don't stick to the bottom of the kadai.

After a minute or two add a cup of water and the milk. There are different methods followed with the addition of milk - some recipes add it at the end of the cooking and some add it early. I added it at this stage. Bring the whole mix to a gentle boil and then add the fried vegetables. Mix gently and then cover the kadai and let it cook over low heat till the vegetables are done.

Once the vegetables are cooked switch off the flame and drizzle good ghee over the sukto. Cover and let it infuse for five minutes.

Sukto often has bori (vadi or lentil cakes) in it. My mom would fry the bori and then crumble it over the cooked sukto before serving. I didn't have any bori so I couldn't do that bit. 

You can make sukto without randhuni. It will taste different but no one will accuse you of cooking a sukto that's not authentic. So don't stress out over the randhuni. 

There are many variations to the vegetables in a sukto. Use whatever you have at hand - brinjal plantain, radish, potato, sweet potato, beans of various kinds, gourds, and something bitter, be it bitter gourd or jukti phool. Did you notice there are no spices here apart from the panch phoron and randhuni?

Serve the sukto as the first course of your meal with plain rice. Follow it up with daal accompanied by a couple of bhajas and then a light machh'er jhol and you'll be on your way to a proper Bengali meal! Or just keep it simple and have it with hot rice and daal to follow.


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Mogri Aloo Subzi - Radish Pods and Potatoes

Mogri, moogri, lila mogra, lila mogri, rat-tail radish, radish pod - just a few of the names I've encountered for this winter vegetable. Somehow I didn't notice it at my local veggie shop all these months till I chanced upon it yesterday. I duly bought some as in another couple of weeks it's going to be difficult to find seasonal fresh vegetables as the temperatures are already soaring.


The weather is pretty awful already and I don't feel like cooking elaborate or even spiced up dishes and nor do I feel like eating much - it's just too hot! The mogri was perfect for a light lunch paired with a simple Bengali style daal and plain rice. It works well with chapatis too.

Mogri Aloo Subzi

250 gms Mogri
1 or 2 potatoes
4-5 cloves garlic
1-2 green chillies
chilli powder
jeera/cumin powder

Wash the mogri thoroughly and drain in a colander. Cut into 2 inch pieces. I found it easier to snip them with my kitchen scissors but you can chop with a knife if that works for you.

Peel the potato and cut into thin fingers. Peel and smash the garlic. Remove the stalk from the green chilli and break the chilli into 2 inch pieces.

Heat oil in a kadai - you can use any neutral oil or even mustard oil, I used peanut oil.

Once the oil is hot drop in the green chillies and the garlic and stir for a few seconds. Add the cut potatoes and cook over a slow flame for a few minutes till the potatoes are 3/4th done.

Add the chopped mogri and stir well. Add the spices and salt, stir again to mix the spices in, and then let it cook covered on a low flame for roughly five minutes till the mogri is cooked.

Serve with hot rotis/chapatis or as a side with daal and rice.