I’ve been ordered out of bed on a Saturday morning to conjure up a Bengali feast for a posse of aunts, uncles, cousins and their adorable yet eternally hyperactive progeny. I usually relish these big messy get togethers; the preparation even more so.
This takes place with a casual sort of precision, all the women in the kitchen gossiping and joking at once. My aunt surveys me over her glasses whilst hacking at some pui saag (otherwise known as Malabar Spinach) and gives me the usual “so when are you going to start having babies then?” ribbing. I test the dhal and mutter something about one thing at a time but they feign deafness and chatter pointedly about my cousin Mitthu in Bangladesh who’s just had a beautiful baby girl. My other aunt tells me I look a lot more attractive now that I’m finally getting a bit of meat on my bones. What none of them can work out though, is why on earth I insist on cutting my hair short like a little boy. I turn a delicate shade of plum and defensively stroke my shorn occipital bone. They talk about how beautiful, plump and “fair” Mitthu is – “she has hair down to here!” my aunt pauses mid chop to hold the knife against her sari clad arse while everyone murmurs approvingly.
A very traditional Bengali feast consists of several courses, beginning with something bitter (to wake up the palate), followed by the lentil and vegetable dishes. Next comes fish, followed by meat or chicken and finally dessert. We aren’t that formal today, but nonetheless fry up crisp slivers of bitter melon simply adorned with cumin, turmeric and plenty of garlic to start. This is followed by the Malabar spinach sautéed in panch phoran (Bengali five spice) and smoked aubergine dahl, then a coconut prawn curry, a slow cooked beef curry and kitchuri. (the word “kedgeree” originates from kitchuri but instead of fish or egg, it’s made with a mixture of lentils, rice and spices). It’s more standard to make a biryani for these big gatherings, but there’s something informal and comforting about kitchuri and it goes perfectly with the beef. We finish with some Payesh, a rich, cardamom scented Bengali rice pudding.
It’s all finger licking good and even the fussiest child eats every last loving handful. There’s much boisterous laughter and yelling over one another, the little ones surge around, fuelled up on Vimto, while the uncles tease them and talk shop – everyone sated on the rich juices of family life.
Over the next week I’ll put up all the recipes, but for starters, here’s that smoked aubergine dhal…
Smoked Aubergine Dhal
There are literally hundreds of dhal recipes in the subcontinent, every village and family has its own. Traditional Bengali masoor dhal can be a simple and life affirming thing, but when entertaining it’s nice to make something more interesting…
The tender innards of blackened aubergines are often mashed with mustard oil, garlic, cumin, coriander leaves and finely chopped onion, to create a sort of Bengali “salsa” served with just rice, chillies and salt for a simple lunch or as a side dish. By adding the roasted nightshade flesh to a traditional dhal, the smoky flavours combine with the spices to a creamy, deeply nuanced effect made fresh with the caustic pop of chillies and lime.
300g/10 oz channa dhal/yellow split lentils
300g/10 oz masoor dhal/red lentils
2 fat aubergines
Mustard oil (use olive if you can’t get hold of mustard oil)
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 cinnamon stick
A pinch of mace/grated nutmeg
1 dried red chilli
The seeds of 4 cardamom pods
2 bay leaves
1 tsp mustard seeds
6-8 fresh curry leaves/about 10 dried ones
1/2 tbsp ghee/butter
2 onions, finely chopped
2 inches fresh ginger, finely chopped
3-4 cloves garlic crushed
1 litre Marigold veg stock/chicken stock
½ tsp Mr Naga chilli sauce OR fresh sliced chillies according to tolerance, taste and availability
1 tbsp natural yoghurt
Freshly chopped coriander
Wedges of lime
1) wash and dry the aubergines. Smear each one with a slick of the mustard/olive oil and place over a source of low and direct heat. Turn until a crisp, ebony crust has formed all over. Remove from heat and leave to cool.
2) Grind the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cloves, mace, cardamom seeds to a powder.
3) Melt the ghee/butter over a medium heat. Add the bay leaves and mustard seeds.
4) When the mustard seeds start to spit, add the curry leaves, cinnamon stick, onions, garlic, ginger and dried chilli.
5) Stir and fry until the aromas intensify. Add the ground spices and keep stirring so the spices don’t char.
6) Just as the alliums are on the point of turning, add the pulses. Keep stirring for about 5 minutes.
7) Pour in the stock and reduce the heat. Leave for about 30-40 minutes, until the lentils are plump and swollen.
8) Mash the lentils lightly with a potato masher, adding more water if you prefer a more “brothy” dhal.
9) Strip the aubergines of their blackened skins and roughly chop the flesh.
10) Stir the aubergine into the dhal, along with the freshly chopped chilli/naga chilli sauce, the coriander and the yoghurt.
11) Squeeze over the lime and serve hot.