Bangladesh: Bata Macher Jhaal, and a full meal

#8 People’s Republic of Bangladesh /গণপ্রজাতন্ত্রী বাংলাদেশ : Bata Macher Jhaal, Aamer Dal, Bitter Melon, Tomato and Green Mango Chutney, Payesh

bata macher jhaal

 

Sorry for the recess in blog entries… I have been doing a lot of traveling over the past couple weeks and then catching up at work.  Don’t worry, I have still been cooking the countries, but need to catch up with the posts here on Eating the Atlas.  Which brings us to the next country: Bangladesh.  To say I knew little about Bangladesh before preparing for this blog post would be generous.  But I now have at least a vague idea of the rich history of Bangladesh, the Bengalis, and most importantly, the food of Bangladesh.

So let’s start off with the basics.  Bangladesh is a densely populated country at the Northeast corner of the Indian Subcontinent.  The majority of Bangladesh is concentrated around the Ganges Delta, the largest delta in the world, formed by several large rivers draining into the Bay of Bengal.  This delta is one of the most fertile regions in the world.  Two out of three Bangladeshis work in agriculture and farming.  Ethnically Bangladesh isn’t very diverse with about 98% of the people being Bengali.  Bengali is the ethno-linguistic group of people from the historic area of Bengal, and typically speak Bengali. The Bengali population is primarily split between Bangladesh and India – mainly West Bengal.  Most of the culture and cuisine of Bangladesh is, in turn, the culture and cuisine of the Bengali people.

Now back to the food.  Although I found the history and current state of Bangladesh interesting, what blew me away was their take on cuisine.   Apparently Bengali food is considered to be the French cuisine of the subcontinent.  Bengali cuisine is a source of pride and excitement for the people of Bangladesh.  There are tons of telling, popular phrases about Bengalis, including, “Bengalis live to eat, not eat to live.”  I started to realize would like these people (or at least what I get from cooking their food.)

There are several important ingredients and traditions in Bengali cooking.  Probably the most important is the Bengali meal.  Bengali cuisine is the only one on the Indian Subcontinent to have a complex, structured meal with several traditional courses.  Similar to French cuisine’s eight course meal, Bengali cuisines served many courses in increments, with a logical, and delicious order.  This is, of course, what I tried to recreate, in a modified and less intense version. I figured why not make it a big old Bengali dinner party and invited a friend to join the fun (and keep Sous Chef company while I cooked all of the courses).

The most important ingredient in Bengalis cooking seems to be mustard oil.  They fry just about everything in mustard oil.  At first I wasn’t going to use mustard oil in my food preparation, because I kind of hate mustard.  It’s just one of those very few tastes I can’t get behind, it tastes a bit like poison to me – like my brain is telling me that this is not something I should be putting inside my body.  But, I am ok with black mustard seeds, and small quantities of mustard in recipes, so I went in search for mustard oil.  Which is when I discovered that mustard oil is not approved by the FDA in the US.  Apparently mustard oil has high levels of eurocic acid, which some studies show can affect heart health.  Turns out this is a highly debated topic.  Most Bengali people believe mustard oil is safe as long as you heat it until smoking to burn off the acids.  Anyway, by the time I figured all of this out it was nearing time to cook, so I decided to fry some black mustard seeds in vegetable oil and use that.  Another big part of Bengali cuisine is fish.  Being so close to the delta leave most Bengalis near freshwater, and as a result fish comprises a main part of the Bengali diet.  Spices, like all of the subcontinent, also make a huge impact on the food of Bangladesh.  This is especially true with a Bengali five-spice mixture called Paanch-Phoron.  Paanch phoron is a mixture of equal parts fenugreek seed, black mustard seed, cumin seed, nigella seed(also called black cumin, kaljeera, or kalonji), and fennel seed.  So I started this meal – by making this important spice mixture:

Spices for panch phoron

Like your average twenty-something attorney, I had all of these spices laying around.  Labeled with a label maker.

spices for panch phoron

I used a teaspoon of each spice, and mixed them together in a bowl – knowing I would use only a tablespoon or so for this meal.  The spices in the above picture clockwise from the top are black mustard seed, fennel seed, fenugreek seed, nigella, and mostly hidden under the center is cumin.

Panch Phoron

For an amazing, well written, and informative description of the courses in a Bengali meal, check out this post from IshitaUnblogged.  He also touches on a lot of Bengali traditions, including what children first eat.  Which got me thinking about a future side project – what to babies around the world eat?  Could be interesting… or at least adorable?  Through this and other descriptions of the traditional Bengali meals I figured out which courses I would attempt to cook.

Traditionally Bengali meals start off with the most important and constant part of the meal, rice.  Bengali rice is prepared by steaming, and squeezing some juice from the aromatic Bengali lime.  To try to recreate this aroma, you can throw a few kaffir lime leaves in with the steaming rice.

Bengali lime rice

The first course will consist of the steamed rice on a plate topped with ghee, a couple pinches of salt, and a lime wedge.  This is very traditional, and a pretty universal presentation of the first course.

Rice lime and salt

As a first course, this is kind of perfect.  The ghee (unsalted clarified butter), mixed with the salt and lime allow you to not starve while you cook the next thousand courses, while being fresh and appetizing.

The second course can be comprised of many things.  This is kind of the appetizer course.  There are often deep fried vegetables including: eggplant, potatoes, pumpkin, and bitter gourd.  You could also prepare some spice laden greens, or mashed vegetables.  I chose Karela Masala – basically a curry/stir fry of bitter melon.  Bitter melon or Karela or Bitter Guord is a bumpy squash-looking vegetable that tastes intensely bitter.  It kind of tastes like Campari, or unsweetened coffee.

bitter mellon

Karela Masala: (adapted from BanglaKitchen)

Ingredients:

  • 3 bitter melons
  • 1 medium onion – chopped
  • 2 tomatoes, chopped and deseeded
  • 1 tsp ginger paste (or minced tsp of ginger)
  • 1 tsp garlic paste (or minced clove of garlic)
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • ½ tsp chili powder
  • ½ tsp coriander seeds
  • ¼ tsp turmeric poweder
  • ¼ tsp garam masala
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tsp vegetable oil
  • salt to taste

Directions:

Start by cutting the bitter melons lengthwise and deseeding.

karela

Then cut the bitter melon lengthwise again, and slice into ½ inch wide pieces.

chopped karela

Toss the bitter melon with lemon juice and some salt, and let sit for 15 minutes or so.  This removes some of the bitter taste… but don’t worry, it will still be there.  After letting the bitter melon rest, heat some vegetable oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat.  Once the oil is hot,  add the cumin seeds and allow to fry for about 30 seconds, or until they begin to sizzle and release their aroma.  Then add the onion.

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Stir around the onion occasionally until it begins to turn a rich golden color.

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Then add the chili powder, coriander seeds, garam masala, and garlic and ginger pastes.  Fry for two minutes, then add tomatoes.

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Stir constantly until the tomatoes begin to melt.  Then cover, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes.  Serve with rice.

The third course is a classic begali soup:  Aamer Dal – red lentil soup with green mango.

Aamer Dal

Ingredients:

  •  1 cup red lentils (masoor dal)
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 medium green mango
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp black mustard seed
  • 1 dried red chili (or more for more heat)
  • 1 tbsp mustard oil

Directions:

Wash the red lentils in cold water until the water runs clear,  then soak them in enough water to cover fully for about 15 to 20 minutes.

red lentils

(I was excited to finally use red lentils – i have had them in a jar on the window sill for a couple months – just because they are cool looking and were cheap at Patel Brothers.)

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Next, peel and cut the green mango into large chunks.  A green mango is just an unripened mango – it has a very sour taste, and is surprisingly difficult to cut.

cut green mango

Once the lentils are done soaking, drain and add to a medium sized saucepan with 2 cups water, turmeric, and mango.  Heat the lentils to boiling on high heat and reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Drain excess liquid.

aamer dal cooking

In a separate small pan, heat oil over high heat, add the chili and mustard seeds and heat until the seeds begin to pop.  Then add the dal/mango mixture to the pot and lower heat.  Add one cup of water and simmer a few minutes so the flavors meld together.  Season with salt and sugar.  Serve warm.

aamer dal

Onto the main and fourth course: Batac Macher Jhaal- spicy fish curry.  This dish utilizes the fresh water fish abundant in Bangladesh.

Bata Macher Jhaal

Ingredients:

  •  5-10 small fresh water fish
  • 2 tsp turmeric powder
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 medium tomato – seeded and diced
  • 1 tsp Kashmiri chili powder (or any red chili powder)
  • 1 tsp cumin powder
  • 1 tsp coriander powder
  • 1 tsp garlic paste
  • 1 tsp ginger paste
  • 2 green chiles – deseeded and sliced thin
  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp black mustard seed

Directions:

Cover the fish with turmeric and salt and allow to marinate for at least 20 minutes.

Bangladeshi fish

I started off by defrosting my frozen fish in the refrigerator overnight.  I impulse purchased a bag of frozen “Bangladeshi fresh water fish” from the halal meat butcher, knowing this blog entry was approaching.  Some people impulse purchase gum – I purchase fish.

turmeric bengali fish

Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large saucepan (I used a wok because I was running out of pans by this time in the evening).  Add the black mustard seeds and let them sizzle and start to pop.  Then add the fish and sauté until golden brown – a few minutes on each side. (You probably shouldn’t crowd the pan like I did… but oh well, I was ready to finish cooking at this point.)

Bengali fish frying

Remove fish from the oil and put aside.  Keep the oil at a medium-high heat and add all the other ingredients into the same pan.  Sauté for 8-10 minutes until the sauce is almost paste like.  Mix in one cup of water and bring back to a simmer.  Add fish back into pan.

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Please note the cartoon-like fish skeleton – my advice is to not overcook your fish to the point they dissolve.  Serve the fish topped with the curry and next to some more rice.  Avoid swallowing pin bones.

bata maacher jhaal

Now onto the sweet courses, the Fifth Course, is the chutney course.  In Bengali cuisine, chutneys are used like a palate cleanser before dessert.  The chutney is eaten by itself, not used like a dip or sauce as is common in Indian restaurants, and all around India.  I chose to make a tomato green mango chutney – because it seems to be very popular, and sounded interesting.

Tomato Green Mango Chutney

Ingredients:

  •  2 medium tomato- cut into medium sized chunks
  • 1 large green mango – cut into similar sizes
  • 2 tbsp – 1/3 cup sugar (to your own taste)
  • Dry red chili – stem removed
  • 1 tsp panch phoron
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 pinch of turmeric

Directions:

Prepare the mango and tomato.  You should probably cut the mango a bit smaller than I did – mine was not as easy to cook down as it should have been.  Peeling and cutting the mango is kind of rough – like a pineapple.  It has a pretty hard texture in the center and a few seeds.  Be sure to remove the seeds.

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Then heat the oil in a medium sized pan over medium-high heat.  Add the chili and panch phoron to the oil and stir until it starts to turn a dark brownish color.

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This browning took a few seconds for me, like really quick, and then started to smell like burning, but luckily it didn’t end up tasting bitter. Anyway, then add the mangos, tomatoes, salt, and turmeric and allow to cook for 2 minutes or so.  Then add a cup of water and bring to a simmer.  Add as much sugar as you want to make it your preferred sweet/sour balance.

tomato mango chutney cooking

Let the chutney simmer for several minutes until most of the water is evaporated and it reaches your preferred consistency – I went for a pretty syrupy – not soupy.  Serve at room temperature, warm, or cold.

tomato mango chutney

And now we are onto the final and the sixth course – Payesh.  Payesh is a very traditional and favorite dish in Bangladesh.  It is a rice pudding – called Kheer in other parts of India.  There are tons of recipes for payesh – but with several common ingredients:  milk, rice, ghee, green cardamom, raisins/cashews to garnish, maybe some rosewater, and jaggery.  Jaggery is an Indian sweetener that I didn’t think to stock for this meal, so I just used some sugar.  Not quite authentic, but it still tasted great.  I also didn’t think to take any pictures of the process – but, here is the final result, of a long long meal preparation.

Payesh

The Verdict?  Wow, what a meal.  This clearly took me forever to make, and was kind of exhausting by the end.  And just ask Sous Chef about the dishes I amassed.  That being said, I enjoyed all of the component dishes and the incremental courses as a whole.  The rice was shockingly good, and fresh tasting, and slightly like a tequilla shot with that lime and salt.  The bitter melon was super bitter but kept me coming back for more of it.  I imagine it isn’t everybody’s favorite flavor, but I gobbled it up.  The soup was great, sour but savory and a bit spicy.  The fish curry was great, and one of my favorite flavor combinations.  Despite eating and cooking many curries in the past, I have never tried one with fish, and now I am a changed man.  Or at least I won’t skip it on a menu.  The chutney was a great palate cleanser, and interesting dish.  I thought the chutney might be too sweet and too much to eat by itself, but was pleasantly surprised.  The payesh was great, just a standard rice pudding with some layers of complexity.  The takeaway?  I would definitely make Bengali food again – but probably not try to cook a six course meal for friends.. because, who does that?

Next up, mother Russia.  I already cooked the meal, and it is a good combination of weird and weirdly normal.

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