I really hope I’ve reached a turning point here. I have always had the hardest time cooking vegetables the Indian/Bengali way. Either the flavor or texture would be off. I think a lot of it has to do with lack of patience on my part and not understanding the concept of “less is more” when it comes to spices and vegetables.
So I’ve had some vegetables languishing in the crisper drawer of my fridge for a while. The ones that were already well past help have been dispatched to the great vegetable garden in the sky, but there remained a few hardy specimens that still weren’t giving up. One of them was an eggplant and I kept trying to figure out what to do to that sucker since the last time I tried making eggplant, the recipe flopped.
Then came some inspiration via some hurriedly scribbled notes from a long-ago visit home. The really hard part about trying to learn how to cook from relatives is that they very rarely use cookbooks and hardly ever pay attention to measurements, instead trusting their instincts. This is widely known as the art of “andaaj” or estimation. I’ve been guilty of this as well — once you know the general idea of how to make something you can kind of tell how much of something to use without really measuring. So while I can get a very loose interpretation of a recipe over the phone, I’ve often had to resort to taking notes and giving the third degree while watching my mom make something, and even then it doesn’t always come out right.
Today I happened to spot some notes I’d stuck on the fridge and one of them was for “Bhaji” or mixed vegetables. I love love love Bengali-style vegetables — they are the epitome of comfort food and home-cooking for me. Although I have no plans to do so in the immediate future, should I ever decide to become a vegetarian, I know I will not starve if I can make these veggies. I think I’d tried cooking from my notes once and it didn’t quite turn out, probably because I was busy tweaking it. This time though, I followed it to the letter and had success! Moral of the story being, don’t deviate from Mom’s notes if you want it to taste like Mom’s cooking!
You can make these Bengali-style mixed vegetables with any kind of vegetables you have on hand — vegetables typically used are eggplant, potato, zucchini, broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower. This time around I used eggplant, potatoes, broccoli, and carrots.
The recipe specifies ginger powder, and I really think this is the key. I’ve tried using ginger paste in the past and it just doesn’t work — it’s too strong, and this dish is meant to be delicately spiced and flavored. Speaking of spices, the use of Bengali five-spice, or panchphoran, is what will give the dish its characteristic flavor. You can buy panchphoran at any Indian grocery store, or use an equal mixture of fenugreek, nigella, mustard, cumin, and fennel seeds.
Bengali-Style Mixed Vegetables
3 tbps. canola oil
1 tsp. panchphoran
1/4 medium onion, chopped
3/4 tsp. ginger powder
1/8 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1/4 tsp. chili powder
3/4 tsp. salt or to taste
4-5 cups fresh mixed veggies, cut into approx. 1-inch pieces — I used eggplant, broccoli, potatoes, and carrots.
Combine the ground spices in a small bowl and add small amounts of water until you have a spice paste. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the panchphoran, wait until you can hear the seeds start to sizzle, then stir lightly for a minute or so. Add the chopped onion, continuing to stir until soft. Now add the spice paste and continue to stir for a minute or so.
Increase the heat to medium-high and add the hard vegetables. Stir to combine with the spice mixture and cook for about five minutes. Then start adding the softer vegetables, again stirring to combine everything. Add about 1/2 cup water, decrease the heat to medium, cover with a lid and let cook for about 20 minutes or until vegetables are soft to your liking.
Serve with warmed up roti/tortillas, or with dal, steamed rice and chicken or beef curry.