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Most of you have heard about the strict taboos placed on the eating habits of Bengali Hindu Widows until the mid 20th century. They were prohibited from eating non-vegetarian food like fish, meat, eggs, certain lentils like masoor and vegetables like onion and garlic. These were regarded as tamasik food, food that could induce passion and thus were a strict non-no for Bengali widows.The rules of course were set by a patriarchal society where men who had lost their wives were free to gallivant around with kept women, eat anything they wanted and drink to drown their sorrow. The females alas had no such choices.
By the time it was the 1970's, society had opened up but the rules laid down long back still ran deep. A fall out of these strict rules was the excellent culinary skills achieved by most Bengali widows of that time, in their vegetarian cooking.Within their limitation, they created magic.
Amongst the family and relatives I knew, no one really enforced such strict rules, at least not openly but some of the women themselves embraced the taboos of their own volition. One of them was my father's grandmother. We called her "Baro Ma". I had known her for only that one year, that our life intersected and to me she was the stern lady in the sepia toned framed picture that hung above the dresser in my grandparent's room. To my father and uncle however she was the doting grandmother, one whom they loved more than their own mother. She was also the greatest cook and till this date my father tries to conjure up the taste of her paayesh and mohonbhog in his own memory.
"Baro Ma" had lost her husband when she was in her mid or late sixties. She was a woman of strong determination and steely grit and if I believe stories told by my Baba, there was no society who could force her to do anything. It is only natural that in the stories retold by my father, I see "Baro Ma", not as a deprived woman, but one of immense self-control who ate only one full meal a day and that too a meal that was strictly vegetarian. It could have been that it was easier for her to give up the non-vegetarian food she was used to eating because she was already at an age when lust and passion for food was not foremost on her mind.
Now, though she ate only once a day, her meals were very elaborate. That she loved to cook and was an expert at it, only helped. Baba says, her meals would always follow six courses starting with bitter neem leaves when they were in season or some fritters/bora made with the bitter leaves of polta pata or some dish made with uchhe. This would always be followed by some shaak or greens. Palong, Paat, Note, Pui, the variety was endless. Protein would come in the form of dals. Lentils would not only be simmered into Dals but also ground and spiced to make different boras which were fried and added to many dish. This would be followed with other vegetable preparations depending on season. The meal would always end with a milk based dessert, usually a bowl of milk which had simmered for long on the low flames of the coal unoon and had a thick layer of fat or shor on its surface. Vegetarianism only made her hone her culinary skills and with the aid of fresh vegetables, dollops of ghee, variety of spices and creamy whole milk from their own cows, she conjured meals so good that my father and uncle preferred sharing her meal than their own fish or meat options.
While I have only heard about her meals, the next story is about my father's aunt who lost her husband, when I was around 9-10 years old. N Dida, was also in her sixties, a cheerful soul who lived by herself in a house with a sprawling verandah, not very far from our own home. After the passing away of her husband, she too was sucked into folds of vegetarianism with a strong force. Again, no one had asked her to do so, she lived by herself and there was no one to judge what she did in the confines of her own home either.I was a budding feminist and I thought it was extremely unfair that N Dida had to give up fish and meat. When she came to visit us, I would insist that she eat the Britannia cake that everyone knew had eggs in it. She never agreed.Now, that I think of it, while no one asked her to give up meat and fish, none of the elders insisted that she eat them either.
The times that we visited her though, the food was so good that I never missed our non-veg options. Soft pillow like chanar dalna soaked in a sweetish gravy, dhoka--the squares of spiced lentils in a reddish looking curry, aloo posto, daal er bora, it was an endless feast. She loved my Mother's cooking and Ma always took great pains to serve elaborate vegetarian meals when N dida came to visit.
Though many Bengalis think that a meal without fish or meat is hardly a meal to live life by and many non-Bengalis cannot imagine a Bengali eating anything other than sweet and fish, the truth is there exists a whole array of rich and flavorful Bengali vegetarian dishes and many of them owe their existence to these enterprising women of the early 20th century who were forced to give up their largely fish diet.
Also there are many Bengali vegetarian dishes that can transcend the fine line from veg to non-veg simply by adding a few shrimp or prawns. It was this trick that the Bengali jester "Gopal BhaNr" applied to extort money from his widowed Pishi. There is a very old story about how the aunt being a widow was not allowed to touch non-veg and had cooked a niramish lau ghonto for Gopal. Gopal did a mean trick of adding some fried shrimp to the dish while eating and declaring that it was the best "Lau-Chingri" -- bottlegourd with shrimp he had eaten. The aunt afraid at what the society would say if they heard of this had agreed to give Gopal money to keep his mouth shut. Now that I try to retell the story, which celebrated Gopa BhaNr's cunning and which we lapped up as kids, I realize how mean it was. Goes to show how conditioned we are to set rules.
Today's Alu Phulkopir Dalna -- potato and cauliflower curry, is a similar dish where addition of some succulent prawns transfers it from a vegetarian delight to a non-vegetarian dream of Chingri Aloo Phulkopi'r Dalna. You take your pick.
The nuances of the dalna is explained in the Alu Potol er Dalna here. I make this potato cauliflower dish along similar lines. Some families add onion to this dish but my Mother, a sparse user of onion did not and I too abide by that.
Chingri Aloo Phulkopir Dalna -- Potato-Cauliflower curry with prawns
If you are going to add prawns there are two options.
If using the headless ones, cleaning is easy. Remove the shell, keeping tail intact. Devein shrimp. Rinse.
For the head-on shrimp carefully remove the whiskers and sharp points on the head along with the eyes. Do not remove the entire head though because it adds to the taste of the gravy. Carefully devein and remove the shell from the body keeping the tail intact. Rinse thoroughly.
Now toss the cleaned prawns with turmeric powder and salt.
Chop 1 medium sized cauliflower in medium sized florets. Soak in warm water with salt for 10 minutes.
Heat Oil in a wok and fry the cauliflower florets with 1/4 tsp of turmeric till they are golden with brown spots. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel.
Heat some more Oil in the same wok.
Fry the prawns till they turn pink. Remove and keep aside.The oil flavored with the head-on prawns adds a beautiful taste to the dish
Temper the same Oil with
1&1/2" thin stick of cinnamon
1 small Bay Leaf
1 big black cardamom and 3 small green cardamom
few cumin seeds
When the spices sizzle add 2-3 peeled whole tomatoes from a can or 1 big juicy tomato pureed or finely chopped. Fry the tomato for couple of minutes till the raw smell is gone. If you are not the smelling type, check to see if the oil is separating from the masala.If you don't like bits and pieces of tomato in the gravy, I suggest puree and then add it.
Add 1 heaped tsp of Ginger paste/minced Ginger, couple of slit green chillies and continue frying till tomato is cooked and mushed up
Add 2 medium sized potato, peeled and quartered. Add 1/4 tsp of Turmeric and saute the potatoes till they take on a gold hue.
Next throw in 1/3 cup of fresh or frozen peas. Keep sauteing/frying for the next 3-4 minutes. When using shrimp no need to add peas.
Time for the masala.
Mix the following spices in water and add the paste
1/2 tsp of fresh ground Coriander Powder +
1/2 tsp of Roasted Cumin Powder +
1/2 tsp of Red Chili Powder
Note: I roast coriander/cumin seeds and grind them to a fine powder. I also use Deggi Mirch so use Red Chili Powder according to taste.
Add a little of the tomato juice or a little water and fry the spices + potatoes + peas for 2 more minutes
Add the fried cauliflower florets and gently mix everything together
Add 2 cups of water. Add salt to taste. Cover and cook till potatoes are done. Cauliflower should be done by now. Remove the cover and reduce the gravy to your desired thickness
Adjust for seasoning and add about 1/2 tsp of sugar.
If you are using prawns, add the fried prawns to the gravy at this point and simmer for 3-4minutes at medium heat.
Finish with a little ghee and 1/4th tsp garam masala powder. Serve with rice or chapati