Bengal is a pretty far away land for me, since I am from the west coast of India, and ancestrally hail from even farther away Sindh. Exotic, I think, is the word I would use. In addition to that, I’m fond of the way Bengali sounds (not intelligible to me), full of rounded vowels; and the things they choose to say, seem old-world and fancy. Then, there is art. Sorry, I meant Art. This is what Bengal is known for above everything else (go google Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, just to start). And if you think about it, great art is a lot about judicious choice.
So this is what I want to focus on today. A few choices, judiciously made.
This dish is a dry sauté of green beans, with a simple tempering of whole spices. For vegetables cooked this way, a few choices you make are very consequential. How you cut the vegetables and how small. If they are small enough the high-heat sauté will be enough to cook them all the way through. If not, a slight steam-braise will be necessary, so cooking on low with the lid on to finish is called for. What fat one uses. Subtle choice, and often not subtle at all; the choice of fat can dramatically alter the dish. How high of heat one uses. High enough it is practically a wok-ish stir-fry. Low enough, and the primary means of cooking is from the steam emanating from the vegetable itself.
Naturally, the spices thrown into the fat to temper is consequential too. This is where the Bengali flair comes in. The famous Bengali spice mix, paanch phoran, consists of five disparate seeds from disparate plant families, that nevertheless come together in oil in an unforgettable partnership. For green beans, I find this to be very congenial and I usually cook them this way.
Here is what goes into the paanch phoran, from bottom to top:
Fenugreek seeds: Fenugreek is a legume just like beans and peas. It has a distinctive smell that some have compared to maple syrup and a pleasing bitterness.
Fennel seeds: From the carrot family, fennel seeds are used as a mouth-freshener all over India.
Nigella seeds: Also known as kalonji, these small black droplet-shaped seeds are from the buttercup family. A relative, love-in-a-mist, is grown widely in England as an ornamental, I hear. Their flavor is reminiscent of onions when roasted.
Cumin seeds: Another carrot family member. Cumin has been used as a spice in India since ancient times. Its flavor is earthy and sharp at the same time.
Mustard seeds: Little brown balls with a kick. I have always thought of them as having a biscuity taste, whatever that means.
Bah, one can’t really describe a flavor. Go try it and I won’t need to.
Green beans sauteéd with Bengali spices
I want the green beans to be basically done with the sauté, so I cut them into small pieces, none wider than about a quarter inch. For the fat, I use mustard oil, for more of the Bengali style.
Green beans sauteéd with Bengali spices
- Half a pound of green beans
- Half a teaspoon red chili powder, or more according to heat tolerence
- Quarter teaspoon fenugreek seeds
- Quarter teaspoon nigella seeds (kalonji)
- Half teaspoon cumin seeds
- Half teaspoon fennel seeds
- Half teaspoon mustard seeds
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons mustard oil
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar or jaggery
Heat the oil on medium-high in a wide thick-bottomed pan. This is the temperature that the entire dish will be cooked at. Most Bengali recipes recommend letting the oil smoke first, but I hear that is bad for you, and I like the kick of mustard oil and don’t want to quell it, so I don’t let it smoke.
Throw in the spices in the following sequence: first the red chili powder; then the cumin; when it sizzles the nigella and fennel; when they sizzle the mustard seeds; when those pop the fenugreek.
Now in go the green beans. Stir to coat with oil. Let them cook, uncovered, occasionally stirring. Five minutes in, sprinkle in the salt. Ten minutes in, the beans will be mostly done, some charred, most shriveled, and still crunchy.
In this dish, I really like the effect of some sweetness. The sugar goes in towards the end of cooking, and is simply stirred in. Done.