This article is part of a special series called "Books and Food". I have loved books long before I ever got interested in the culinary arts. Short stories, novels, biographies and travelogues, I love them all. Human life is inextricably linked to food, and books often use descriptions of feasts and famines, dinner rituals and food memories to bring a point across to the reader. In this series, I talk about my favorite books and the food passages therein, and make a dish or a meal inspired by the book
Today's book: A Strange and Sublime Address, a novella by Amit Chaudhuri, part of the book Freedom Song
The food: A Bengali meal of Chholar Dal and Aloo Posto, served over steamed rice
Amit Chaudhuri's novella A Strange and Sublime Address is part of a collection of three novellas, Freedom Song. It is a story with a plot that is remarkable by its non-existence! It is not a story so much as it is a snapshot, a description of a certain time and place, capturing the minutae of existence of a certain family. Sandeep visits his mother's family in Calcutta for the summer, and Chaudhuri captures this simple summer vacation- the day-today activities of Sandeep and his two boy cousins, the goings-about of the typical Bengali household- with his exquisitely descriptive language. Here is a book that reads like a poem.
"...Later, they went down to have lunch in the dining-room; they dangled their feet ferociously from chairs round a large, shabby table with pots thronging in the centre.
Pieces of boal fish, cooked in turmeric, red chilli paste, onions and garlic, lay in a red, fiery sauce in a red pan; rice, packed into an even white cake, had a spade-like spoon embedded in it; slices of fried aubergine were arranged on a white dish; dal was served from another pan with a dropping ladle; long, complex filaments of banana-flower, exotic, botanical, lay in yet another pan in a dark sauce; each plate had a heap of salt on one side, a green chilli, and a slice of sweet-smelling lemon. The grown-ups snapped the chillies (each made a sounds terse as a satirical retort), and scattered the tiny, deadly seeds in their food. If any of the boys were ever brave or foolish enough to bite a chilli, their eyes filled tragically with tears, and they longed to drown in a cool, clear lake. Though Chhotomama was far from affluent, they ate well, especially on Sundays, caressing the rice and sauces on their plates with attentive, sensuous fingers. fingers which performed a practised and graceful ballet on the plate till it was quite empty"
I am a newcomer to Bengali cuisine. Bengali food is stereotyped by the heavy consumption of rice and fish, and is famous for its delicious milk-based sweets. Vegetarian Bengali food is traditionally "satvik", meaning "pure" and devoid of onions and garlic. Unlike the vegetarian food of the rest of India, Bengali veggie food is very mild as far as spices go. To make a simple home-style Bengali-inspired meal, I decided to make two classics: a simple chana dal called chholaar dal, a potato-and-poppy seed preparation called aloo posto and some piping hot steamed rice to round out the meal.
The chholar dal recipe is kindly provided by my friend Sujayita. She served this at a dinner to me once, and I was delighted by this mild, sweetish, buttery tasting dal. I personally tend to not use chana dal very much, and when I tasted this dal, I was convinced that I should use it more.
1 cup chana dal (split gram lentils)
1 heaped tbsp grated fresh ginger
1 tbsp oil
1 tbsp ghee
2 bay leaves
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1 inch piece of cinnamon
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 heaped tsp sugar (or to taste)
salt to taste
Bits of coconut, fried (optional)
1. Soak the chana dal for 8-10 hours. Then cook on stove-top or in pressure cooker until it is tender but not mushy.
2. Stir the ginger into the cooked dal and set aside.
3. Heat the oil and ghee, then add all the tempering ingredients. Saute for a couple of minutes.
4. Add the turmeric and saute for a few seconds, then add cooked dal and simmer for 5 minutes.
5. Season with salt and sugar. You can add more water if the dal appears too thick. Garnish with coconut, if using.
The aloo posto recipe originates with my aunt J who lives in Toronto. Although she is Konkani, she was raised in Calcutta and is married to a Bengali; traditional Bengali food often makes its way to her table. When I visited her three years ago, she delighted me by serving aloo posto with typical Konkani-style dal, a true marriage of two culinary traditions! Once I returned home, I tried making it and it came out great. However, in a moment of culinary bravado, I neglected to write the recipe down. This is the best I can remember of it, so I'm not making any claims to authenticity with this recipe!
2 large or 3 medium potatoes
salt to taste
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 tbsp oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 cup poppy seeds
2 green or red chillies
1. Soak the poppy seeds for 30 minutes. Grind them with the chillies, using very little water, to make a thick paste.
2. Peel the potatoes and slice them into thick stubby finger shapes. Rub them with salt and turmeric and set aside.
3. Heat the oil, then saute the cumin seeds and bayleaf for a minute.
4. Add the potatoes and saute for a few minutes.
5. Stir in the poppy seed paste and 1/2 cup water.
6. Cover and cook till potatoes are tender and well-coated with the paste (adding a little more water if the potatoes start sticking to the pan).
See you soon with a new edition of "Recipe Watch", where I describe some recipes from my fellow bloggers that I have tried and loved. Have a great week ahead!