Yes, Bengalis are the ones who eat fish. That’s the impression of my race all over India, the quintessential ‘Bangali sirf machhli khata hai,’ (Bengalis eat only fish). The idea is as blasphemous as the accusation that we ignore veggies and everything else in the culinary world. I was reading an article the other day on how Bengali vegetarian fare was monopolised by widows forbidden to consume onions/garlic/meat/fish/red lentils. It is still practised fervently all over the state by widows and a few women who choose to remain in the path of animal nutrition are termed ‘liberal’. Given the arguments for this tradition of widows and the sheer number of indigenous recipes that they conjured with scanty ingredients, vegetarian food is entirely their forte. And yet, I wouldn’t like the rest of India to assume that anyone who isn’t a widow in a Bangla household eats only non-vegetarian items in their daily meals.
A typical Bengali lunch is a perfect example of a balanced diet in terms of its elements – a teto (bitter) item as an appetiser to unlock your taste buds, daal (lentils, though not exactly in a healthy soupy form), bhaja (veggies or fish roe fried in a batter) for the gluttons, one or two vegetarian items like labra/chochhori/dalna/ghonto (and the list is endless), finally a non-vegetarian dish and then a chutney/tawk (literally, sweet and sour) to relieve your taste buds of the previous clique of items. I wouldn’t claim all of these are healthy in the way we cook them, but the menu is a testimony that all we eat is not merely ‘maachh-bhaat‘ as termed pseudo-fondly by Bollywood.
This rant will continue later in other ‘bhejetarian’ posts as we lovingly utter so. Now let me hop on to an item that has become a delicacy in this millennium – Chhanar Dalna. I don’t have the acuity to discuss the origin or etymology of Dalna; I can only say it’s a medium thick aromatic gravy with large bites of veggies or boiled eggs. Chhanar Dalna is simple and yet flavourful with soft chunks of fried Chhana (homemade cottage cheese) in a lightly spiced gravy. It’s a fact that this item has almost disappeared from our daily menus and become a rare one. While I was growing up, Chhanar Dalna was a staple in meals during any puja/festival and in funeral ceremonies. To be consumed with Radhaballabhi or Vegetable Pulao, along with Dhokar Dalna to suit the vegetarian menu fit for such occasions.
I recall that the ubiquitous paneer (packed or made in sweet shops) was nowhere in scene at public functions or family gatherings. Instead of the rubbery, chewy paneer in a bland or otherwise gravy, it was always the soft, melt-in-the-mouth Chhanar Dalna that ruled the vegetarian menu. During those times, people flocked to Shraddho bari (funeral lunches) to pay respect to the deceased and eat a humble yet tasteful vegetarian menu. These days, the occasion is totally displaced as nobody wants to eat ‘sada veg food’ at Shraddho anymore. Families in Calcutta are ashamed of serving these lovely items to their guests and opt for just Niyombhongo where you may even find biriyani.
Chhanar Dalna dates back long, I’m not sure how long though. When I began searching for stories related to it in my families, the earlier generation sounded surprised that Chhanar Dalna is into limelight these days, because it was common in their times. The mothership racked her brains and came up with the only anecdote she knew about Chhanar Dalna, and that dates back to the early 1940s. Mother had heard this story from Dida, who was a beautiful young lass at the time. Her eldest brother was getting married and there was possibly a lavish menu. Though it was the era of the World War II and everything was expensive, that couldn’t hinder the wedding ceremonies of the eldest son of a zamindar (who would later become a state minister). The lunches during Bengali weddings are still a homely affair where only close relatives and friends are invited for a sumptuous and traditional meal. Mother says the menu at this Uncle’s wedding during early ’40s contained Chhanar Dalna. Lunch was served and the item was a huge hit. People turned to the cook and applauded him for such wonderful cooking. One of the family members had a doubt and called the cook aside to ask for the recipe. It is said that the cook had confessed he couldn’t get hold much of the expensive Chhana that day and made the Dalna with Green Banana koftas instead. It was his flair in cooking and intelligence that saved the occasion and he could serve a stellar dish to the guests. There goes the lore of the holy Chhanar Dalna into a piece from my family.
My version of the Chhanar Dalna goes here –
Whole Milk ( 1 Litre) – Boiled and curdled into Chhana (I used juice from two lemons, you can use the Calcium Lactate powder)
Potato (1 medium) – diced into medium sized cubes
Tomato (1 small) – finely diced
Garam Masala (whole) – Cloves, Cardamom, Bay leaves, Cinnamon
Ginger – half an inch, grated
Turmeric powder – half t
Cumin powder – 1 t
Cumin seeds – 1 t
Chilli powder – 1 t
Garam Masala powder – 1 t
Salt, sugar, oil, slit green chillies
How to – Curdle the milk, scoop up the chhana onto a plate and press it to release the extra water. Add a pinch each of salt, sugar, chilli-cumin-coriander powder and mix well. Spread this mixture on the plate at a thickness of about an inch and let it dry for about half hour. Cut it into 1 by 1 inch squares and shallow fry them carefully. Press the chunks a little with a spatula so that they don’t crack. Set aside. Heat 1T oil in a wok, add the whole garam masala and cumin seeds, let them splutter. Add the potatoes and fry, followed by the tomato. Make a paste of turmeric-chilli-cumin powder, salt, sugar and grated ginger with little water. Add this to the wok, mix well for a few minutes, and add sufficient water for a gravy. Add 2-3 slit green chillies. When the potatoes are well cooked and the gravy thickened, add the fried chhana chunks, sprinkle the garam masala powder and 1t ghee (optional).
This decadent yet simple recipe cost me around Rs 60 and serves two with plain roti, parota or even luchi. You won’t regret when the chhana chunks will melt into the mouth with a creamy texture and lightly sweet taste balanced by the mild hotness of chillies. Do invest into making this organically orgasmic vegetarian item at home, I’d rather you not paying Rs 110 for a plate at a Bengali restaurant.
Try the recipe and let me know how it turned out.