Friday, December 7, 2012

Cookbook review, recipe: A taste of India

Indian food is so fragrant and the flavors so complex that making it at home always seemed daunting.

Until now, that is.

Rinku Bhattacharya demystifies and sometimes slightly Westernizes the foods of her homeland in a new cookbook, The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles: Exploring the Cuisine of Eastern India (Hippocrene Books, $18.95 trade paperback).

She takes care to describe the seasonings and other ingredients that make Bengali food taste so special. In fact, the book's name is an homage to panch phoron, a blend of five spices that is the backbone of Bengali cooking.

She explains how to make panch phoron and mentions that the spice blend is sold in most Indian stores. I bought a small package for less than $2 in an Indian grocery just five miles from my home in a St. Louis suburb.

Bhattacharya is a native of Kolkata (previously spelled Calcutta) who spent part of her childhood in Africa. She has lived in the United States for 25 years.

She says in the book that the following recipe put her on the road to writing a cookbook. As she made this dish for her uncle and his English-born wife, her aunt took notes, and Bhattacharya realized that others might be interesting in learning about Indian regional cooking.

Yield: 4 servings

1 tablespoon mild vegetable oil (such as canola)
1 teaspoon panch phoron (see note)
1 teaspoon fresh ginger paste (see note)
3 green chiles, slit lengthwise
1 cup chopped fresh cauliflower
1 large potato, peeled and cut into small wedges
2 red tomatoes, chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shelled and deveined medium shrimp (see note)
1/2 cup low-fat sour cream
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Heat the oil in a wok or skillet over medium-high heat and add panch phoron. When the spices begin crackling, add the ginger paste and green chiles. Stir in the cauliflower and potato. Mix in the tomatoes, turmeric and salt. Cover and cook over low heat for about 10 minutes or until the vegetables are soft.

Remove the lid. Stir in the shrimp and sour cream and bring to a simmer. Cook until done, about 5 minutes. Stir in the cilantro and serve.

Panch Phoron (often written as panch puran), is a spice blend essential to Bengali cooking. Look for it in Indian stores or make it by stirring together equal amounts of whole fennel seeds, cumin seeds, nigella seeds, black mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds. In India, cooks use radhuni, a type of celery seed, instead of the fenugreek.
To make ginger paste, look for fresh, young ginger without any fibers. Process the ginger in a blender or wet-dry grinder. (When testing this recipe, I used a bamboo ginger grater that I bought years ago in Chinatown in San Francisco. A rasp-type micrograter is also a good tool for grating small amounts of ginger.)
Although the recipe calls for medium shrimp, the title mentions "baby" shrimp. I used medium shrimp and Westernized the recipe further by increasing the amount to 1 cup.

Adapted from "The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles"


  1. I just got this book and I LOVE IT. The writing is wonderful, it tells a story. So much more than a recipe book.

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