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10 September 2014

Bengali Five Spice Chronicle
Rnku Bhattacharya
Hippocrene Books Inc U.S.
Publication Date
Jan 2013

Bengal, located in eastern India, is famous for its cuisine, which features a unique five-spice blend called panchphoron. Bengali cooking balances fresh, local ingredients with delicate spices to produce an array of mostly vegetarian, fish, and shellfish delights.

With over 180 easy-to-follow recipes, Rinku Bhattacharya brings you the best of the Bengali table, including temping dishes like Steamed Mustard Fish Wrapped in Banana Leaves, Eggs Cooked in Caramelised Onion Sauce, Crisp Lentil Cakes in Curried Gravy, and Golden Cauliflower in Orange Mustard Sauce. A through introduction to Bengali culture and cooking; sections on spices, ingredients, and equipment; and lively family anecdotes, history, and cultural information round out this unique cookbook. 

My review:  

Having a husband who was brought up in the Indian Subcontinent, spicy Indian cuisine has always played a big part in our home cooking. We do, of course, cook most of the recipes which I do know from my Pakistani mother-in-law. But I am new to Bengali cooking, so I was really excited when I received this book for review. 

The cover appealed to me straight away. I liked the fact that it did not show a cooked dish, but cute little pots with the spice mixes, underlining the fact that the spices will play a main part in the book. And it made it stand out for me from the crowd of the other cooking books on the book shop shelves. If you are into cooking with spices, you know straight away that you are right here.

Many cook books have a 'pre-story' where the author tells us a little bit about the background. Here, this is quite extensive and makes very interesting reading about the personal story of the author, and than a brief culinary journey into Bengal. And, of course, the Panch Phoron, the Five Spice Mix upon which the book is based, is explained. 

Chapter One gives us: Ingredients, Techniques and Tools. First - don't be frightened off by the unusual spices if you are not used to the ingredients. They are (at least in the UK) actually quite easy to find. The chapter also provides a useful reference point if you ever have to look back. Chapter Two introduces us to the Bengali meal - eating the Bengali way and Practical Every Day Menus. Again, this is something I have not often seen in cooking books. I certainly had the impression that the family meal is a very important part of Bengali life. 

The recipes are than arranged around the five spices of the Panch Phoron spice mix: Mustard Seeds, Nigella Seeds, Fenugreek, Fennel Seeds and Cumin Seeds. Many of the recipes have a personal background story which I loved. And now one of the most important parts - is it actually easy to cook the recipes? I tried page 69 My Uncle's Yellow Bengali Gram Lentils Mesho's Cholar Dal. 

1. Ingredients:
Where they easy to find?
Yes, certainly. Here in the UK, you can find Bengali Gram Lentils and the spices used (turmeric, cayenne pepper powder, fresh ginger paste, garlic, cumin, red chilli and also ghee (clarified butter) in every small 'Indian' grocery store. Some of the bigger supermarkets also stock them. 

2. Was it easy to cook?
Couldn't have been easier. As a busy mum, all it took was maybe 5 mins of preparing, and than 30 mins cooking. 

3. and the main question:
was it tasty?
Yes, it was! It can be served as a main dish and as a side dish. It didn't take a lot of effort - admittedly, it was on of the easier recipes in the book and nothing fancy, but it did the job and provided a quick meal. 

One amendment I made was to use oil rather than ghee for purpose of calorie savings. I guess used with ghee it would be a richer taste, but it was still fine with ordinary oil.

Here is my dish:

I wished there would have been more pictures. There is a section in the middle with a few pictures which makes your mouth water. It is always nice to be able to have pictures with every recipe in a cooking book, but the large number of recipes in this book would make this very difficult indeed I guess. 

One slight moan from me: I do not like it when the measurement of 'cup' is used (i.e. use 1 1/2 cups of ....) - I prefer to have my measurement in grams / pounds etc. I am a bit picky in the sense that I want exact measurements. 

In summary, this books is most likely one of the most extensive introductions to Bengali cooking on the market. If you like spicy cooking and would like to try something else, this is a wonderful book to get you started. Also, if you like vegetarian cooking and wanting a change from you usual recipes - this book has the most extensive selection of lentil recipes I've seen. 

About the author:  

Rinku Bhattacharya was born in Kolkata, India and currently resides in Westchester, New York. She teaches cooking classes, maintains a popular food blog, Cooking in Westchester, and writes a weekly column, "Spices and Season", for the Journal News website.