Despite its simple name, labra is a surprisingly complex Bengali delicacy of mixed vegetables cooked till they are almost inseparable. I know, it doesn’t sound appetizing but eaten with khichuri on an overcast monsoon day, its pure bliss.
Bengalis can be very picky with the names and the specifications of things they cook and eat. A ghonto is different from a chachchori, which in turn is different from labra which is again different from a pnachmeshali. Then again, how can I forget chhNyachra (which in a non-culinary context literally means a mean and inferior person)? These dishes are all essentially vegetables cooked with spices but with a little tweaks that make each one quite unique. For example, a chachchori is a drier preparation whereas a ghonto is a wet mishmash (no gravy though, just moist). The name ghonto or ghnyat came from the Bengali word ghnata, which means mixing vigorously. Ghonto can be either made with one or many vegetables and ‘usually’ incorporates bori or bora (lentil dumplings, sundried or fried, respectively). Ther are non-vegetarian versions of ghonto too, like murighonto made with fish heads. Labra is a mishmash too but is always made with multiple vegetables, and pnachphoron (Bengali five spice) is a must in the phoron or tempering used for cooking it (some will disagree). Chhnyachra contains machher muro/knata (fish heads or bones) and is mainly made with pnui shaak (Malabar spinach). The vegetables here are cut in rectangular shapes rather than cubes. Somewhere I read that the name chachchori or chorchori came from the sound produced while cooking it. At one point in the cooking process, the vegetables make a typical spluttering/charring sound like “chor chor”, hence the name. In chachchori, oil is added liberally and the vegetables are also fried a little in the beginning. You can definitely identify the individual ingredients here but in a ghonto or a labra they somewhat lose their identity and surrender to the cook’s aggression. The vegetables are also cut a little smaller for a chachchori than in a labra.
Every family has their own recipes for almost all of the above mentioned names. But, there are certain key ingredients which will be there no matter who is making it. In the case of labra, these are pumpkin, potato, eggplant and some leafy vegetables (like cabbage, spinach or cauliflower leaves). The rest is up to the cook’s whim. Labra is quite flexible and you can put many types of vegetables into the mix…specially if there is something screaming for attention from the dark corners of your fridge.
Without going too deep into the semantics, lets dig into the labra before it gets too complicated. I had a hard time taking the picture. It’s hard to make labra look beautiful or appetizing. Trust me; in this case the picture is NOT worth a thousand words.
Potato: 1 medium or 2 small cubed
Sweet potato: 1 small cubed
Eggplant: 1 small cubed
Green beans/yard long beans/string beans/French beans: 1 cup chopped into 1” pieces
Cabbage: ½ of one small cabbage cut into thick strips
Leaves and stems of one cauliflower, chopped into approx. 1” pieces
Pumpkin: 2 cups, peeled and cubed
Spinach: 1 small bunch chopped into big pieces (optional)
Radish: 1 cup cubed
Ginger: grated or paste, 1 tbsp.
Pnach phoron/Bengali five spice: 1 tsp.
Turmeric: ½ tsp
Sugar: ½ tsp
Mustard oil: 1 tbsp.
Salt: to taste
- As I have mentioned, cube all the vegetables mentioned in the ingredient list and cut them almost equal in size.
- Heat up the oil, let it smoke and then bring the flame to medium.
- Add the five spice and let it release the aroma.
- Add the vegetables (except the cabbage and the spinach) and give them a good mix. Sauté them for few minutes followed by the leafy vegetables.
- Cook them on medium flame for several minutes and then cover the pot.
- After 10 minutes or so, mix them again and then add ginger, salt and sugar to taste. Mix well.
- Cover and cook until the vegetables are well done.
- Uncover and mix the vegetables and break some of the potatoes to have the ‘makha makha’ consistency (you know what I mean. The closest I can get is the mixed well consistency) and the flavors to marry well.
I do not add any water. If you see the vegetables are dry and sticking to the pot, add 1/3-1/2 cup of water (not more).
You can increase the amount of sugar to your liking. Ginger paste is optional but it does give the labra a nice flavor. You can add the cauliflower florets as well. I did not.
You can skip the cauliflower stems and leaves if not available. Spinach is optional as well. Replace butternut squash if you cannot find pumpkin. Some people add zucchini, and squash too.
Disclaimer: My definitions might differ from many people’s view. Bengali cuisine is ever evolving like any other cuisine and there is no rule set in stone. I would love to hear other people’s view as well.