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Friday, 17 June 2011

5-Spice Magic


I'm contemplating starting a series of posts on Bengali food and I'm a little daunted by it all. First of all, my 91 year old grandmother is my teacher, and she's the best cook I know. So I have large, large, large shoes to fill. She stopped cooking a while ago - even walking unsupported is a virtual impossibility now - but her departure from the kitchen was gradual. So, some 20 years ago, she was properly Mistress of the Kitchen, chopping and stirring and whipping up pure magic-on-a-plate that would surprise and delight even the most fussy of eaters. Then, when physically cooking became too tedious, she would sit herself on a stool and boss me around - do this, chop that, mix this, no dear - too much, no dear - too little - etc. Mind you, I quite enjoyed being bossed around by her. And when the bossing got too much, I'd just plonk myself on her lap and we'd exchange big bear hugs. That was really the best part. And oh! How I remember those days with fondness!

Anyway, the result of these supervised cooking sessions were always quite good if I may say so myself. But I think that only means that she was rather good at being bossy, than that I was a good cook. Alas!

And that was as recently as some 5 years ago. Now of course, even that's too tedious. So, now, it’s all me. As I said, I have large, large, large shoes to fill. But just because I can’t ever make Bengali food quite as well as she does, doesn’t mean that one should go through life without even braving an attempt.

So here goes nothing.

And as if that's not daunting enough, there's Bengali food itself. See, Bengali food has its own, very-specific-to-itself list of ingredients and spices and lentils and things. And they aren't really easily translatable in a Pan-Indian context, much to the bewilderment of my non-Bengali brethren. For example, in Bengali food, you routinely use jayatri and jaiphol. That's mace and nutmeg in English. But I'll be damned if I know their Hindi names. See what I mean? Ce probleme est trex complexe.

Thus, I am daunted. Greatly so.

So, I have decided that as I go along, I will try and explain away some of these very peculiarly Bengali ingredients - the secret to great deliciousness, I promise you, that often doesn't go much beyond a Bengali kitchen. But since I am so lovable and kind, sweetness personified and all that, I will happily share it ALL!


So, I'm starting with Panch Phoron.
"Panch" means five and "Phoron" refers to the process of tempering oil or ghee. It so happens that I do know the Hindi word for "phoron." It's "tarka." There! I knew my marriage to a hot-blooded Punjabi wasn't completely in vain.

So anyway, Panch Phoron I guess would then translate to "Five Spice" – and the five spices that make up Panch Phoron are:

1) Fenugreek - (Hindi word: methi)
2) Nigella - (Hindi word - kalonji)
3) Mustard - (Hindi word - rai)
4) Fennel - (Hindi word - saunf)
5) Cumin - (Hindi word- jeera)


By the way – Who says I can't speak Hindi?

Anyway, anyway. Back to more pressing matters - to make Panch Phoron, just take equal quantities of each of the above (2 tbsp of each should do), put in an air-tight container and store away!

Panch Phoron is as indispensible a part of Bengali food as they come, and in the dishes that use it, it serves as your very first step. So, you would take the pan you are cooking in, add in a spoonful of oil or ghee, and then add the Panch Phoron. When the seeds begin to sputter, you have your cue to add in whatever else you want. The idea is that when you take regular oil and fry the panch phoron in it, the aromatic oils inherent in the panch phoron mixture (they are all seeds, after all, and all seeds have oils in them) mix with your cooking oil, thus flavouring it. So basically you now have a much more flavourful oil in which to cook whatever you were planning on cooking. You follow? Or have I confused the heck out of you?

Really though - it works wonders. Try it. Heat ghee or oil, toss in a teaspoon of paanch phoron, pause awhile to take in the wonderful aromatic fragrance. Now, add in your vegetables (really anything will do - cauliflower or beans or peas or carrots or potatoes or all of the above mixed together) add salt, mix everything well, cover and let cook. You don't need a thing more.

You have sweetness and heat and bitterness and muskyness and nuttyness and pungency. All at once. And your vegetables are transformed. From an insipid pile of boring blah to flavourful, crunchy, heart-healthy deliciousness. With a sizzle and a splutter. Just like that. It's magic.

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