Making a Bengali eat veggies...

Sudha G Tilak | Updated on January 16, 2018
Bori diye palong shaak (spinach)

Bori diye palong shaak (spinach)   -  Commeat.com

As you like eat: (From left to right) Green papaya and pineapple chutney; dal bata diye lau pata (gourd leaves stuffed with lentils) and tetor dal (lentils with bitter gourd)

As you like eat: (From left to right) Green papaya and pineapple chutney; dal bata diye lau pata (gourd leaves stuffed with lentils) and tetor dal (lentils with bitter gourd)   -  Commeat.com

Paturi was a slab of grated radish and chillies

Paturi was a slab of grated radish and chillies   -  Commeat.com

...is a feat only another Bengali can achieve. Food researcher Pritha Sen’s pop-up Unishe Pawd recently did that and more

The thing with Bengalis is there are unwritten rules. You’re with ’em, or too bad, prepare to feel left out. If you want to join in, learn the bhasha (language); you want to make music then learn Rabindrasangeet; failing which, learn to sing along to Kishore da, Hemanta da, Manna da, Burman da and latter-day Shantanu da’s Hindi film songs. And by Bibekananda (Swami Vivekananda), if you are a “pure bhej (vegetarian),” brace yourself for some serious food shaming. If you protest, thou shalt be told to join the gau rakshaks.

Over years one has been to wonderful dinner parties with them. When the table is laid out groaning with food, the apologetic boudi (sister-in-law) will say, “ Ishhh, sorry, I have only dal and aloo bhaja (potato fritters) or you”; the solicitous boudi would make a special effort and usher you to point out, “I’ve made paneer just for you” followed by titters around: “Who eats paneer or rajma?”

Ergo when food researcher and self-styled food anthropologist Pritha Sen invited you over especially for a “Bengali veg meal” it was much more than soothing years of food hurt.

“I want to rekindle curiosity and interest in vegetables; for vegetarians to stop being apologetic about being vegetarian and for die-hard non vegetarians to realise that there is a vast green world that can give their repertoire of meat and fish dishes a run for their money,” explained Sen.

What she laid out last week was a vegetarian repast for a group of foodies. Unish Pawd (19 course) refers to a lavish meal in Bengal. This was not the mandatory Kolkata restaurant sludge of shukto or jhinge posto passing off as vegetarian offering. It was veggie heaven, with the taste of seasonal vegetables, the hint of thin gravies (not the West Bengal uniform fiery red jhol), fine spices and tempering (forget the regular paanch phoron but think a merry threesome of fennel, methi and kalonji) that brought the flavour out of each dish.

The pop-up, organised by Commeat (commeat.com), had the warmth of home cooking, the effort to bring a dying East Bengali or “Bangal” heritage cuisine upfront. It was a throwback to the thrifty women and careful cooks who found no peel or pip too low to be cast aside, and whose homespun inventiveness made a meal of a variety of country vegetables, root, stem, leaf and stalk. “The huge East Bengali repertoire runs the danger of being lost. I want to showcase it, revive it and create a demand for it,” said Sen.

The feast began with a non-alcoholic aperitif of tamarind and spice or tentuler shorbot. A variety of starters included popped rice fritters or khoi-er bora, stuffed bottle gourd greens or dal bata diye lau pata, red amaranth with kashundi sauce, stuffed teasel gourd, stir fried bottle gourd peel or lau khoshar chhenchki, a roasted tomato and steamed long beans or tomato borboti makha, lentils with bitter gourd or tetor dal and Dhakai masoor dal.

The entrées were mixed vegetables with lentil cakes, a roasted delight where the paturi was a slab of grated radish and chilli and spices off the oven, an ash gourd and dill recipe and a marvellous dish of colocassia greens cooked with black gram and with a magical hint of cardamom. The signature cauliflower with seasonal oranges is a personal favourite.

A variety of rice dishes included bhaat or steamed rice, a thorer pulao of rice cooked with banana stem, and a veggie mix with the famous aromatic Gobindobhog that made for a one-pot dish and the irresistible luchis. The chaatni (chutney) of grated green papaya, pineapple and kishmish was sweet heaven.

The spread of erstwhile Bengal (Bangladeshi) cuisine was predominantly a Hindu satwik or no-onion-no-garlic menu. Unish Pawd also included dishes that marked Bengal’s multicultural history and its effect on their cuisine. The Muslim influence showed up in Sen’s masoor dal family recipe from Dhaka with onions and a borboti. While curdled milk was inauspicious in Hindu homes, aspiration allowed the Portuguese fondness for cheese to make its way as chhana or paneer in Bengali Hindu kitchens. A delicate tomato bata and a paneer dish in golden mustard cream were a nod to the Portuguese contribution. The Armenian influence in Bengal popped up in a dolma with a mash stuffing. A steamed sweet curd with seasonal oranges or bhapa doi, and chhanar pulao were the highlights of the dessert cart.

Stuffed pumpkin or gourd leaves


10 pumpkin or bottle gourd (lauki) leaves

1 cup split pea or chana dal

1 tbsp ginger paste

1/2 tsp whole jeera

A pinch of chilli powder

1 tsp roasted jeera powder

1 tsp kalonji (nigella seeds)

Besan/ rice flour

Salt to taste


1 Wash and steam the leaves lightly.

2 Soak the split peas or chana dal in water and blend to a thick paste.

3 In a pan add a little oil and splutter jeera, ginger paste, chilli powder, salt and add the dal paste with roasted jeera powder and cook to a dry consistency.

4 Wrap the leaves into a paan shape with the dal stuffing. Dip these in a batter of besan and rice flour, kalonji, chilli powder and salt and deep or shallow fry. Serve hot.

Sudha G Tilak is a Delhi-based journalist

Published on December 09, 2016

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