The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles by Rinku Bhattacharya

The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles by Rinku Bhattacharya

In Indian cuisine, the most popular spice is the powder garam masala, the spice mix that is the main component to many well-known curry dishes. In the newly released cookbook by Rinku Bhattacharya, Bengali Five Spice Chronicles: Exploring the Cuisine of Eastern India, I learned of a new spice mix called panch phoron. It is a five-spice blend of equal parts whole spices: Black mustard seed, Fenugreek, Cumin seed, Fennel seed, and Nigella seeds. In nearly every recipe in her cookbook, this spice blend was an essential ingredient. I had always wanted to be able to learn how to use exotic spices such as fenugreek and nigella seeds. I was not only excited to learn that there were other spice blends used in Indian cuisine, but that I would also be able to use these new spices in a variety of vegetarian and meat dishes that went far beyond the traditionally known curry dishes. 

The Bengal region is in the northeastern part of Indian, of which it is divided into West Bengal (East India) and East Bengal region now known as Bangladesh. The diet consists of primarily vegetables and then followed by fish then meats. This book focuses on Eastern Indian cuisine which is largely unknown to the world but also contains some Eastern Bengali dishes to show the diversity between the two regions with West Bengal being more milder than the East Bengal's fiery and sharper seasoned cuisine. Rinku’s cookbook is filled with wonderful recipes that are part family recipes and part Bengali ingenuity based on her memories of her childhood home, Kolkata, India. I enjoyed reading her family stories and how she began cooking for herself and her family. What I admire the most is how she is passing on her knowledge and love of her heritage and cuisine by giving cooking classes and writing near her home in Westchester, New York.

I have a love for Indian food and have cooked a variety of dishes that utilize the garam masala spice blend.  This is my first attempt at cooking Bengali dishes and I was so pleased at how every dish came out so flavorful yet subtle by using the five spice blend, panch phoron.  I prepared two dishes, Stir-Fried Mixed Vegetables and Quick-Spiced Potatoes and Cauliflower with Baby Shrimp.

I loved how the colorful mix of vegetables was quickly prepared in Stir-Fried Mixed Vegetables.  Another new and interesting ingredient in this dish is asafetida or hing. Asafetida is a tree resin that is used sparingly to replace the use of onions and garlic or to enhance the flavors of them. Rinku explains that the scent can be off-putting to some people, but the first time I opened that little jar I immediately was reminded of the distinct odors of onions and garlic being sautéed together. To me that’s a wonderful smell! This recipe does not have onions and garlic listed in the ingredients so it’s amazing how a little pinch of this spice can just give that illusion of both aromatics. This a great dish to make for a busy weeknight and a wonderful way to get your kids (and husband) to eat more vegetables. This is also a very versatile dish where you can change the vegetables throughout the year depending on what’s in season at the farmer’s market.  Now that I love! Because it was later in the fall season when I cooked this dish, pumpkins were a little scarce, so I chose to use Butternut Squash. Either way, the beautiful orange color was eye-popping and sweet against all the other contrasting vegetables. It was so lovely!

 In Quick-Spiced Potatoes and Cauliflower with Baby Shrimp, this is another easy dish to put together. I would suggest cutting the potatoes at about the same size as the cauliflower pieces so that the potatoes and the cauliflower cook at the same time. If you cut the potatoes too big, the cauliflower will become overdone before the potatoes and that’s not good. You want the tenderness of the potatoes and the just-enough-bite in the cauliflower. That’s the true beauty of the dish. They both are, after all, in the recipe title. I cheated and used precooked medium shrimp with the shells and tails removed. This did not compromise the recipe at all because this only helped cut cooking time and… was the overall favorite with everybody. The five spice blend gets a quick toast in the pan to release all its essential oils and it lends a wonderfully subtle yet flavorful taste and aroma to your palate. I love how the spices cling to the vegetables, adding a pleasing visual contrast and letting you know,” Hey! I’m here!”  without really letting you know they are there. Although the recipe calls for a spicy green pepper, go for the kind of green pepper you’re comfortable with. I chose to use a sweeter green chili that gave the dish just enough heat without slapping you in the face.

There are 180 recipes in The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles. In each recipe, Rinku Bhattacharya tells you the story behind each one, giving a family history, a personal story, the origins of each unique recipe…all of which will compel you to try each of them. Rinku has written a wonderful and thoughtful cookbook; it is a journey through Bengali cuisine.