Bitter the better, no one said ever, except the Bengalis. Traditionally in a Bengali household, food will be served in separate bowls with five different types of food (pancha vyanjana) in them. The rice was placed on the metal platter (thala) and the bowls were arranged anticlockwise around the platter in the order the food was to be eaten. It started with something bitter, maybe uchhe bhaja (fried bitter gourds), neem-begun (neem leaves fried with eggplant) or some kind of bitter leafy vegetable. Then followed a daal (lentil soup), bhaja (fried vegetable like potato, ash gourd, eggplant etc.), vegetables in gravy, ghanto (a vegetable mishmash with or without fish), fish or meat and the last course was always a sweet or tangy chutney (made from either tomato, green mango, papaya or jolpai (Indian olives)). Separately, sweets were a must after every meal, be it mishti doi (sweet yogurt) or something made either at home or bought from the local moira (sweetmeat maker).
It’s very normal for children to hate anything bitter. But, I was a strange kid; I didn’t like fish or most of the vegetables but always liked bitter foods. Uchche (karela/bittergourd) was always my favorite, be it fried crisp, chachchori cooked with potato and mustard paste or just boiled and then mixed with boiled potatoes, mashed with green chilis, salt and mustard oil.
The bitter taste is an acquired taste, if you like it, you like it a lot but if you don’t, you’ll hate it…not many people fall in the middle category I assume. The bitterness is supposed to clear your palate (probably the reason behind serving it first during the meal) and has medicinal properties too. During old times, the kabiraj (ayurvedic doctor) would often prescribe bitter tasting food to cure many diseases. In fact Bengalis still eat neem-begun at the onset of boshonto (spring) as a preventative measure of chicken pox. One way or another, the Bengalis’ love for the bitter has never faded.
The recipe below is my mother’s and I love it. It’s very simple and needless to say that it’s tasty (at least to the bitter-loving people). I haven’t altered anything from her recipe including grinding the mustard-poppy seed on my shil-nora (traditional Bengali grinding stone).
Bitter gourd: 3 med.
Potato: 2 med.
Green chili: 2-3 nos.
Dry red chili: 2 nos.
Pnach phoron: 1/2 tsp.
Mustard whole: 2 tbsp
Poppy seed: 1tsp (optional)
Salt to taste
Mustard oil/vegetable oil: 1 tbsp.
How to cook:
- Soak the whole mustard and poppy seeds with water for 30 minutes.
- Grind it to a fine/smooth paste with 2-3 green chilis.
- Wash and cut the bitter gourds in 1 1/2” pieces. Do the same for the potatoes. I prefer not to peel potatoes for most of the times as I do not want the nutrition in the peel to go waste. If you like it, go ahead and peel them.
- Heat up the oil (if you are using mustard oil, heat it up to smoking hot, reduce the temperature and then add the phoron. The mustard oil does add flavor to the dish but you can always use something else), add pnach phoron and two dry red chilis. Sauté them until they release a nice aroma.
- Add the potato, sauté them for 5 minutes. They should be very lightly fried, not deeply fried.
- Follows the bitter gourd. Add turmeric powder and sauté for another 5-8 minutes.
- Add water and cover the pot with a lid.
- Once the vegetables are halfway cooked, add salt and let them cook uncovered.
- Add the mustard-poppy seed paste when the vegetable are cooked. Give them a good stir and turn off the heat.
- Let the flavor intermix a little bit and then serve with plain rice.
- Try not to overcook the vegetables. I cut the potatoes a little bigger than usual (for no reason), but it’s better if you can cut them a little smaller than mine. Mine worked fine but to me it looked like the potatoes were predominating the dish.