Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Super Secret Spice Mix from Bengal

I find the regional variety in India's cuisine quite mind boggling, but then again given the diverse cultural and social mores of each state it is only natural that the food habits be equally diverse. Although for the average North Indian (defined as one who believes the region South of the Vindhya's is inhabited by a strange race called South Indian's or Madrasi's) South Indian food means idli. dosa's and sambars or variations thereof. And the average South indian returns the compliment heartily by clubbing North Indian food into one category which is over dominated by all things intensely rich, creamy and full of paneer.
I have had the good fortune of growing up in a cosmopolitan neighborhood and learnt pretty early to differentiate my rasam's from pappu's ,my avial's from the stews and my upma's and uttapam's. A mess in distant Rajasthan helped me iron out whatever little confusion had remained. A Marathi housemate in the US introduced me to kokum (yes, that awful thing which everyone here wanted banned) and for everything else there was the Internet.

At one stage I realized that most Indian cuisines use the same base of spices, dals etc. There are regional differences but the basic ingredients remain more or less uniform. What makes each cuisine unique is usually a method of combining the spices or the preferential use of one particular flavoring ingredient. After further head scratching, grey cell tickling, I realized that if one thing defines Bengali food it is the use of panch phoron - a mix of more or less equal parts of futhe following seeds:

§ jeera (cumin)
§ kala jeera (nigella)
§ methi (fenugreek)
§ saunf (fennel)
§ rai (mustard) or its bengali cousin randhuni

I said more or less as most cooks will further customize this according to their tastes. My Mom prefers using half the quantity of fenugreek, while I have known others who will have nothing to do with the mustard. The latter will only use its Bong cousin. Personally I am more forgiving, as long as I can find all the five ingredients in there I am happy. This mix is used for seasoning (you know the heat oil, add seasoning till it sputters and then continue cooking drill) or it may also be dry roasted and then ground into a powder. This powder is then used to season pickles, sprinkled as a garnish on vegetables. I love stir frying most of vegetables with some panch phoron and dry red chillies and then seasoning them with turmeric and salt. The vegetables that lend themselves readily to this treatment are okra, pumpkin, spinach (throw in a fistful of peas) and spring onions to name a few.


Mika said...

Hi Anyesha- Found my way here from Mahanandi. Love your posts and photos. My hubby loves calcutta chaat esp jhaal moori. If you have a recipe, plz share with us.

golliwog said...

This sounds like fun! I went around hunting for panch phoron in Singapore. Found it and my dal was made...

Anyesha said...

mika: Thanks for stopping by. I am about 60 percent sure of what goes into making good jhal muri, but I shall get the 40 percent confirmed on my upcoming trip to India. and rest assured I will post the recipe.

golliwog: I am hoping you liked it.

Nupur said...

Beautiful picture, anyesha!

Joy Forever said...

I was unable to find Panch foran in Hyderabad. Probably it can be found, or the individual components in any case, but I couldn't explain to any Telugu shopkeeper what Kalojeere was. On hearing 'black' they invariably came up with either mustard or Til. Ultimately I requested a friend's parents to get it from Delhi...
And the photo is nice. :)