Thursday, 11 February 2016

Mangshor Kasha: Bengali Slow Cooked Mutton or Lamb Roast

I had mentioned my hopeful determination to get through my collection of cookbooks one at a time, in a previous post. Considering that the endeavour is a seemingly ambitious one, not to mention it being a ‘susceptible-to-be-dropped-before-I-begin’ campaign, the choice of a book to take the initial plunge was surprisingly easy. The book had sort of settled itself in my mind as an obvious selection right from the time I was toying with this idea. Rinku Bhattacharya’s ‘The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles’ is a book dear to me – it was a gift from Susan (of The Well Seasoned Cook) and is a work that I cherish both for its own merits as well as for Susan’s persistence in trying to get it to me, despite running into some technical glitches with respect to its delivery.

I generally prefer cookbooks that are friendly, conversational and warm, to those that lecture on in a serious, matter of fact, text book like voice. With its Sepia and Maroon toned illustrations and fonts, The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles has an old world charm to it, and Rinku’s style of prose only accentuates this homely feel. Right from the preface where she throws light into her own background and inspirations behind the work, this is a book that says 'come, let’s sit down and chat'.

The book is written with a non-Bengali audience in mind and has an extensive introduction that touches on almost all things Bengali. It shuttles through the state’s formation after the partition, its culinary heritage and the influences brought upon the cuisine by various invaders and traders. The author touches on regional produce as well and draws a vivid picture of how the life and routine of Bengalis are entwined with culture, music and food. This is a great read, even if you are familiar with the region.
Every existence - no matter how simple - is in some way tinged with the myriad flavours of life. This is often a composition of sweet, sour, bitter, savoury, and the astringent, much like the five-spice blend we Bengalis call Panch Phoron
Rinku Bhattacharya, The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.

With a title and cover image that stresses on the quintessential Bengali Five Spice blend, it is only natural that ‘Panch Phoron’ occupies an almost torch bearer status to the sections to follow. A brief account of each of the spices that forms the Five Spice Blend – Mustard Seeds, Nigella Seeds, Fenugreek Seeds, Fennel Seeds and Cumin Seeds - are tucked into the book at intervals, implying how important these spices are to the cuisine. I love that the book doesn't take a direct dive into recipes. A whole chapter is dedicated to introducing common pantry ingredients, kitchen tools, basic spice blends, pastes and techniques that are essential to a Bengali kitchen. It also has a section on basic Bengali Culinary terms, which is invaluable to understanding the recipes better. The chapter that follows elucidates on the proper flow of courses in a Bengali meal as well as a few practical menu suggestions.

This attempt at making what might be a fairly formidable ground for non Bengali readers affable and accomplishable continues throughout the book. It is not just a handful of recipes that you will find in the rest of the chapters. Snippets on traditions, festivals and home life are peppered throughout the book. These, along with the notes on ingredients, tips and techniques make this small volume almost encyclopaedic.
The recipes themselves are written in a simple, straightforward way; each of them headed by a note – which at times can be a twist on the recipe, an anecdote or a detail on the origin of the dish. The recipes are manageable and stresses on the authors attempt to bridge the gap between regional Indian cooking and what is practical in non Indian kitchens. And it is to this effect that Rinku offers her own contemporary twists to a lot of recipes as well as practical substitutions for what might be hard to find ingredients, without sacrificing on the underlying Bengali roots and flavours of the dish.

What was revelatory to me was the absence of the five spice blend in a lot of these recipes. Although Rinku says in beginning portion of the book, “It is almost impossible to prepare a Bengali meal without using the Panch Phoron blend”, I found that none of the recipes that I tried used the blend. (Personally, this works great for me as I do not really like the overpowering flavour of Nigella Seeds.) Most recipes instead use one, or a combination of two or more of these cornerstone spices of the Bengali cuisine.

The Tauk Aam Diye Dal (Tart Pigeon Peas and Green Mangoes) that I tried for instance had only cumin seeds in the seasoning. This is a dish that I liked well as I always enjoy the combination of dal with something sour. Doi Begun (Eggplant in Light Yogurt Sauce) was next on my list and we loved the pairing of a well seasoned yogurt sauce with fried eggplants. I tried Moorgir Razela (Chicken in a Creamy Yogurt Sauce) as well, partly because I like the blend of cashew paste and yogurt with chicken and partly because the recipe utilised the Cumin-Coriander Powder and Bengali Garam Masala that I had already had prepared for the Mangshor Kasha (Slow Cooked Mutton or Lamb with a dry Gravy), the recipe of which follows in this post.
The only major criticism that I can draw on the book is the lack of photos. A small bouquet of coloured photos is tucked into the book and that is just about it. I like my cookbooks to have plenty of photographs, although Rinku’s work does carry itself forward through its verbal eloquence. The directions are straightforward enough, and the introduction that comes with each recipe does a really good job at elucidating on what is to come. Of course, this might not hold true for those who are new to Indian cooking.

On the whole, The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles is a book that makes you go back to it again and again and promises to guide and inspire you. Before long, the basic Bengali culinary terms and techniques will become familiar to you and you will be able to mix and match on your own -  and that to me, is the mark of a successful cookbook.

Mangshor Kasha: Bengali Slow Cooked Mutton or Lamb Roast

Adapted from Rinku Bhattacharya’s ‘The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles'.

This somewhat resembles a Kerala Mutton Roast, except of course for the notes of cumin as well as a stronger Garam Masala. But as we took it out on the next day, I found that the spices had mellowed even more. I have reduced the vinegar a bit and substituted Kashmiri Red Chilli Powder for Cayenne Pepper Powder (which itself would have been a substitution for a spicier version of Red Chilli Powder I guess).
(Serves 4)


To Marinate Overnight (in the fridge):
  1. Mutton or Lamb on the bone, cut into rough cubes - 500 gm.
  2. Kashmiri Red Chilli Powder - 3/4 tbsp.
  3. Cumin-Coriander Powder - 1 tbsp. (See Notes.)
  4. Bengali Garam Masala - 3/4 tsp.
  5. Turmeric Powder - A scant 1/2 tsp.
  6. Natural White Vinegar - 1 tbsp. 
  7. Sugar - 1/2 tsp.
  8. Salt - 1 tsp.
For the Roast:
  1. Onions, finely chopped - 1 cup
  2. Garlic, sliced finely - 3/4 tbsp.
  3. Ginger, grated - 3/4 tbsp.
  4. Natural White Vinegar - If needed - about 1/2 tbsp. Taste and adjust.
  5. Water - About 1 and a 1/2 cups.
  6. Salt
  7. Oil

Marinate the meat with all the ingredients specified and refrigerate overnight or for at least about 5 hours.

Heat up a heavy bottomed vessel and add oil, followed by onions and a bit of salt. Cook till they turn brown and add the ginger and garlic. Saute till the raw smell is gone and then add the meat along with any excess marinade not clinging to the pieces.

Sear the meat on a medium high heat until the spices in the marinade get well roasted and oil can be seen glistening on the pieces of meat.

Add the water, bring to a boil and cook covered for about an hour on a slow fire. Check around 45 minutes. Once the meat is done, remove the lid and check for seasoning. Add salt, sugar or vinegar of needed.

Now cook off the excess liquid in the gravy (stirring frequently to prevent the gravy from burning) so that the thick masala coats the pieces well.
Serve with rice or rotis.

  1. You can roast the pieces a bit more than what I have done. I skimped a bit on the oil and just decided to take it off at this texture.
  2. If you want a spicier version, add a spicier Red Chilli Powder in a smaller amount or a combination of Kashmiri Red Chilli Powder and a hotter version.
  3. The Cumin-Coriander Powder used in the book has a 1:1 proportion. However, I made mine with double the quantity of Coriander Seeds than that of Cumin Seeds as I don't like too much Cumin in my curries. See this post for more.
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  1. You peep in once a while, dont you? :) The mutton looks just like how I would love it... Lovely review of the book too... even I love cookbooks which show me how the end result is going to look like...


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