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Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Bengali Salad

So, first things first.

If you're Bengali and you're reading this, you're probably thinking – What a load of drivel!

Because, any Bengali worth his salt knows that the words ‘Bengali’ and ‘salad’ are not friends. They’re not even acquaintances. In fact, I will go so far as to declare that these two words have never before been seen together in serious print.

(Which is what I am all about. Serious print I mean).
(Ha!)

See, Bengalis eat their vegetables deep-fried, usually as the first-course of an elaborate and strictly-ordered meal. So, its aloo bhaja (deep-friend potatoes) uchhe bjaaja (deep-friend bitter melon), begun bhaaja (deep-fried aubergine) and so on. The more deep fried, the better – bring it on!

So a bunch of raw vegetables mixed together and served cold?
Why, what an absurd idea!

But here’s the thing – As much as I see the logic of starting every meal with deep-fried goodness, I do enjoy the occasional salad soooooo very much!

What can I say? I've been corrupted most happily by the ways of the West!

And so, I’ve found some happy middle ground. Because I like to see people happy. (I’m just that kind of person.) And I’m telling you, folks – If there is a happier place to meet in the middle, I haven't been there.

And this famously happy place is – The Bengali Salad!

Hold my hand and I'll take you there...

It's special. It's stunning. It's sublime.

Here, let me introduce you: Bengali, meet Salad.

First, meet butternut squash with its mellow, nutty sweetness. Next, say hello to some fiery chillies. Greet panch phoran (pure genius in a jar) for texture...and nuts for depth and crunch. Then, rub shoulders with coconut for its richness and tamarind for that dense delicious "sour". Get cozy with pomegranate seeds for some sweet juicy bite, and coriander for its fragrance, and finally give a big, cheery high-five to the yogurt-drizzle for that last cool-creamy zing!

Yum!

I know it seems like there’s a lot going on here, but the combination of ingredients is magical. 
You'll love it. I know you will.

Firstly, it’s beautiful. And anything beautiful gets me every time. I’m a sucker for beautiful. And it’s beautiful because of all the vibrant colours…orange and green and white and bright red. And isn’t that just beautiful?

Second – its huge on texture. And texture as you know adds depth and dimension to food. Texture is very important. Texture makes the world a more interesting place.

And third – and hands down the most important criteria for judgment – taste. And trust me, darlings, on taste, this dish is off the charts.

Really, not that I’m bragging or anything (well…) but it just so happens that my humble Bengali Salad received quite a reception on Saturday night – and dare I say it – quietly stole the show from under the noses of some seriously amazing meaty competition…

And even though it hurts his ego to admit it, I think my husband (who industriously barbequed the seriously amazing meaty competition) does (albeit most grudgingly) agree.

(Yes, yes we had the bbq despite the rain. Though we had to sit indoors, which was complete rubbish. Anyway, two bottles of wine down, it didn’t really matter. But one day we'll get this right, I swear)

But anyway, this dish is seriously good folks. Utterly and wholly Rad.

So:

First I'm making a butternut squash dish, and – the good, demure, little Bengali girl that I am – I’m making it in the traditional Bengali way.

And then – I’m rapidly doing away with that little imagery before you start to believe it (as if!) and messing with it with reckless abandon – much in my usual mad manner.

Now, here’s the thing:

I don’t love the term “fusion.” Fusion, in my experience, is a fancy excuse to serve very bad food at very bad prices. Which – as you know – is a combination that makes me very upset indeed.

See here's the problem with fusion, the way I see it – I believe that more often than not, the best food can be found in it’s place of origin. For example, the odds are the best sushi can be found in Japan, the best Biriyani in Hyderabad, the best pasta in Italy, the best Butter Chicken at Moti Mahal, the best paella in Spain, and so on. In fact, I just can’t resist not telling you, because all good secrets must be shared (!?) – the best paella (not on only on this earth, but far beyond it) just happens to be in Marbella, in this charming little local joint called El Gallo. There’s no website – when I mean local, I mean local – if you’re ever headed to Marbella, please give me a shout and I’ll tell you how to find it. You may decide to live there, don’t say I didn’t warn you…)

Anyway, back to the current discussion.

I do believe that the best food always has an element of authenticity to it. An old-fashioned, purist touch that inherently commands respect. And because of this – this stamp of originality – it becomes hard for anything else to compete.

And for fusion to work – it needs to compete with this.
Indeed, it needs to top this.
Which is just not easy.
And this is why fusion is, so often, just wrong.

And so, although what I’m doing here is some serious tampering with the tried and tested, I would hate to call it fusion. It’s just my somewhat contemporary take on a classic dish, without taking anything away from the flavours that define it. It’s not fusion. It’s evolution.

I just thought I’d get that out of the way.

And anyway, I think there’s something utterly romantic about East meeting West. But then, I would, wouldn’t I?

Here’s what you need:

First for the butternut squash.

- 1 medium butternut squash (or ½ pumpkin), deseeded and cut into rough chunks
- 1 tbsp mustard oil
- 2 tsp panch phoran (constituents and explanation here!)
- 3 whole dry red chillies
- 1 tablespoon unsweetend tamarind paste
- ½ tspn salt
- ½ tspn sugar
Now I wasn’t joking when I said I am making this entirely in the traditional manner. In fact, the Bengali name for this is Chaalkumro Bhaaja, translated as Fried Pumpkin (but of course). I’m using butternut squash instead of pumpkin, because it’s easier to find around here, but I’m pleasantly surprised by the substitution – the orange flesh is sweet and dense and pleasantly nutty. Anyway, I have no idea what butternut squash is in Bengali, so I’m going to stick to calling it Chaalkumro.

Also, I’m not deep frying (sorry guys!) Instead, I’m stir-frying chunks of the golden squash in panch phoran, tamarind and chilli tempered oil.

Here’s how you do it:

Heat the mustard oil in a pan. Add the panch phoron and whole red chillies and fry till the seeds sputter – you’ll be able to smell the aroma of the tempered oil. Add the diced pumpkin and stir well making sure the orange chunks are well coated. Now, add in the tamarind paste, salt and sugar.
Cover the pan and cook on low heat for 10 min. or till the pumpkin is tender enough to spear through with a fork.
By the way, you can stop here and eat this with some plain white rice. It’s sublime.
Or you can be like me and venture forth bravely into a new and wonderful world.
For the salad…
Here’s what you need:

- 2 tbsp raw cashews
- 2 tbsp sunflower seeds
- 2 tbsp pumpkin seeds
- ½ fresh coconut, finely grated
- Coriander leaves, roughly chopped
- Seeds from 1/2 a pomegranate 
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 2 tbsp natural yoghurt for drizzling
And here’s how you do it:

Wait for the cooked squash to cool a little – but it should still be warm. Stir in the cashews, the pumpkin and sunflower seeds, lemon juice and the coconut and toss well. Top with coriander and pomegranate seeds and then drizzle over with yoghurt.

And…I think I've just pioneered the Bengali Salad!

Are you proud of me?

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