I’m surprised how few people are willing to cook Indian food. Even those who like the cuisine and enjoy pottering about in the kitchen are often daunted at the prospect of preparing an “Indian” meal that goes beyond chucking some Madras curry powder into an otherwise western dish. True, it can be time consuming if you want all the breads, chutneys and accompaniments (and I always do), but keep those in your larder, fridge or freezer, and you’re set. The cooking itself is not complicated — and the results are wonderful. And not always fiery, either, for those of you who have yet to venture beyond chicken tikka masala.
I just came across a new cookbook by Rinku Bhattacharya called The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles (Hippocrene Books, $18.95) that’s full of tantalizing yet simple Bengali recipes. The author was born in Kolkata (aka Calcutta), and now lives in Westchester, where she blogs about the Eastern Indian cuisine of her childhood, and gives cooking classes, should you be located nearby. (Check cookinginwestchester.com.)
Bengali dishes are mostly fish and vegetarian, often prepared using the distinctive five-spice blend mentioned in the book’s title — the seeds of fennel, cumin, nigella, black mustard and fenugreek. Bhattacharya kicks off with a list of pantry essentials, and suggests substitutes for those not readily available. Today, though, you’ll even find frozen banana leaves and such in many supermarkets, and you can get absolutely anything via the gigantic specialty store known as the Internet.
The book is entertaining, as well, with informative introductions for each section of recipes, along with anecdotes about the author’s family, and fascinating tidbits about Indian culture. We learn, for example, that grooms get the “prized fish head” at weddings, and that, once widowed, a Bengali woman was required to shave her head, don white clothes, and eat no meat or fish. Thus reduced, widows took up cooking duties for their families and greatly influenced the largely vegetarian Bengali cuisine. “Things are more optional now,” Bhattacharya notes. Well, that’s good.
There are recipes for breads, chutneys, and relishes, and many Anglo-Indian and Thai-influenced recipes among the traditional ones. Directions are easy to follow. Bengali cuisine is the only one in India that’s served as courses, rather than all at once. Throw a multi-course Bengali dinner party and impress your friends!