A tale of abundance and frugality: the evolution of the Bengali chorchori | Condé Nast Traveller India | India

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It’s been nine years since I moved away from home for studies and work. Nine years since I could get to eat my mother’s Bengali cooking on a regular basis. Why can’t I make the same food, you ask? Simple: I dislike cooking and loathe the prep it entails. And the Bengali dishes I miss the most: chorchoris. A vast number of vegetables go into one preparation. A single dish can contain potatoes, green beans, pumpkins, eggplant, bitter gourd, radish, striped gourd and spinach. While the cooking of the chorchori is a simple matter, it is the washing, chopping and cutting of the vegetables into uniform pieces that make it labour intensive.

One day, a particularly strong craving for lau data chorchori with bottle gourd, its leaves, tendrils and stem, I wondered why Bengali food is popularly associated with just fish and meat when one simple dish, the chorchori has so many avatars. Curiosity made me dig deeper, and I realised the evolution of the chorchori is linked to a long and layered history of Bengali vegetarian cooking.

Lau daataa jhol, a kind of chorchori - Bengali vegetarian cooking - bengali chorchori from west bengal
Lau daataa jhol, a kind of chorchori. Photo: Shraddha Chowdhury

Here is a brief history of how the Bengali chorchori came to be.

Bengal’s abundance 

This style of cooking chorchoris with many vegetables is greatly attributed to the lush abundance of undivided Bengal, where more than a hundred varieties of vegetables grew at any given season. “Bengal was the land of greens and gourds,” says food historian Pritha Sen. “There’s a stereotype that Bengali food is only ‘maach bhaath’ (fish and rice), when our food is 80 to 85 percent vegetarian. At the end of the meal, we might have one piece of fish, that too in a curry that’s full of vegetables.”

And Bengali-American writer and food historian Chitrita Banerji explains that the style of cooking was ideal for large, extended families those days. “This combination was an easy, delicious and time-saving way to feed people (many ingredients and one dish as opposed to many ingredients and multiple preparations),” she adds.

The Vaishnava influence

Bengali vegetarian cooking really proliferated under the Vaishnava influence. Banerji says it became a major trend in Bengali cuisine during the medieval period when the Vaishnavas, especially the followers of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, gave up eating non-vegetarian items. With the spread of the ascetic Hindu monk’s anti-slaughter philosophy came the growth of the Bengali vegetarian diet, leading to a new focus on cooking with vegetables.

“It’s this culinary style that’s in our DNA that was passed down through generations,” says Sen, adding that it got a boost in the 14th century from the Vaishnav followers of saint Sri Chaitanya. It’s believed that the Vaishnavas were the ones who added dal into the Bengali diet as a substitute for fish protein.

A plate full of khichdi, pulao, vegetable curries and fries and payesh.
A plate full of khichdi, pulao, vegetable curries and fries and payesh. Photo: Getty Images

The frugal innovations of Bengali widows

A patriarchal practice imposed on Hindu widows among the Brahmin and Kayastha caste is perhaps among the most significant reasons behind the rich and wide characteristic Bengali vegetarian fare. Hindu Bengali widows had myriad dietary restrictions after their husband’s death. One report even calls them the “cuisine’s unsung architects”, for they learned to cook delectable food with the limited ingredients they had to make do with—they had to abstain from meat, fish, onions, garlic and strong spices, which was believed  to act as a “hormonal suppressant” to curb their sex drive. They were given the responsibility of cooking the vegetarian items for the extended families they lived with, giving birth to new recipes and innovations..

While Banerji says that the chorchori cannot be described as solely the creation of widows, she says the limitations of the items they were allowed to cook with and eat forced them to use their creativity to come up with different, tasteful ways of preparing vegetables. “Hence the association of Bengali vegetarian cooking with widows,” she says. “The deprivation of nutrition through food taboos for widows was more an indication of the power of the patriarchal society.”

Sen, however, believes that the association of Bengali chorchoris and the dietary restrictions imposed on widows “was formulated for sensationalism”. “Yes, it’s true a lot of our vegetarian food was perpetuated because of widows. All families had widowed relatives living them. Therefore, vegetarian food was a constant. But the repertoire did not happen because of them. The myth that they originated from them was started for sensationalism”

Bengali drumstick potato chorchori - Bengali vegetarian cooking - bengali chorchori from west bengal
Bengali drumstick potato chorchori. Photo: Getty Images

Author and writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni explains this idea further, saying that to be as little of a burden as possible to their families, the Hindu Bengali widows developed dishes such as the chorchori that wasted nothing—leading to the root-to-shoot concept of cooking—and used very little oil and the simplest of spices (red chilies, panch phoran), not expensive ones like clove, cardamom and other garam masala.

They also resorted to foraging before cooking to add to their dishes and incorporated a zero-waste style of cooking. “They often embellished the chorchori with things growing out in the wild, like shaag leaves that grew on their own by the ponds, or kochu (taro) that proliferated on its own. Or in their own vegetable gardens. (pui shaag),” she says. “The leaves of the taro plant (kochu saag) were also used, as were banana tree stem (thor) and kumro phool (pumpkin flower). Nothing was wasted. Vegetables such as potatoes were cooked with the skin on, to minimise waste.”

Banana fruit, stem, vegetable and flower for zero-waste cooking.
Banana fruit, stem, vegetable and flower for zero-waste cooking. Photo: Shraddha Chowdhury

Chorchori for an economic crisis

Food historians like Banerji believe that the primary motivation that led to the creation of dishes like chorchori was an economic crisis and food scarcity. “Bengali cuisine is remarkable for the wide variety of ingredients made available by the natural fertility of the region. But Bengali society has long suffered from many kinds of inequality, including economic inequality,” she says. “The poor are more likely to make do with less and to maximise the use of every possible ingredient.”

On this note, Sen points out how the Mughals and British broke Bengal’s economy and exploited the natives. “This is when families moved from growing edible to cash crops like poppy, jute and indigo. And they managed their nutrition by inventing foods and dishes. They foraged for food before cooking.”

Foraging has been an intrinsic part of Bengali vegetarian cooking for the economically disadvantaged classes, especially varieties of greens that grew by ponds that were picked right before they were cooked. “The story of the evolution of Bengali cooking of one of abundance, natural disasters, exploitation and invention,” Sen says, and this is reflected across both vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods.

Modern tweaks

In today’s culinary scene, we see chefs experimenting not just with better-known ingredients, but they have incorporated the root-to-shoot concept of cooking into their art. Dishes like chorchoris, too, have undergone a makeover to make them restaurant appropriate as well as reach out to a wider audience.

“I can imagine modern cooks using items like mushrooms, capsicum, broccoli or broccoli stems—unheard of in Bengal a century ago—to make a very Bengali-style chorchori,” Banerji says.

Sen, who was behind the menu at the fine-dining Bengali-French restaurant chain Mustard, trained the staff in the art of its inventive dishes. Like the Bangla Ghorowa Niramish Thala, which is a mezze platter of a variety of vegetarian dishes.

A Bengali chorchori at Mustard, Bengali vegetarian cooking - bengali chorchori from west bengal
A Bengali chorchori at Mustard. Photo: Mustard

By now you must be craving one such delicious chorchori, elaborate prep or not. Here are two delicious Bengali chorchori recipes from Divakaruni to try at home:

Zucchini Chorchori recipe

Ingredients

  • 2  zucchinis (halved lengthwise and sliced thin)
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • 1½  tsp of panch phoran (a five-spice mix of ½ tsp cumin seeds, ¼ tsp nigella seeds, ¼ tsp fennel seeds. ¼ tsp black mustard seeds, a small pinch of fenugreek seeds)
  • 2 whole-dried chilies
  • ¼ spoon red chili powder
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
  • Salt to taste
  • A pinch of sugar

Method:

  • Heat oil in a frying pan. When the oil is hot, add the panch phoran and whole chilies.
  • When they sputter, add the zucchini pieces and stir for a few minutes.
  • Add the turmeric and red chili powder. Let the zucchini brown.
  • Add salt. Lower heat to medium and cover. Stir it every couple of minutes.
  • When the zucchini is cooked but not mushy, remove the lid and make sure the liquid gets absorbed and the zucchini is slightly charred.
  • Stir in the sugar. Remove from heat.
  • Serve with hot rice and lentils.

Mixed Veg Chorchori recipe

Ingredients

  • Mustard oil (canola or vegetable oil can also be used instead)
  • ½ tsp nigella
  • 2-4 green chillies (slit halfway)
  • 2 potatoes
  • 2 carrots
  • 250g beans
  • Cauliflower (medium)
  • Pinch of sugar

Prep:

  • Peel and chop two medium-sized potatoes and two carrots into one-inch long pieces.
  • Peel and cut green beans and cauliflower into one-inch pieces. (1 cup each)
  • For variants, use potato, carrot and pumpkin (2 cups each) cut similarly, or potato, pumpkin and spinach (2 cups of chopped leaves)

Method: 

  • In a pan, heat 2 tsp of mustard oil.
  • Add ½ tsp kala jira (nigella), green chillies. Allow them to sputter.
  • Add all the vegetables. (If you’re using spinach, it should be added five minutes after the other vegetables.)
  • Add salt to taste and ¼ tsp of turmeric powder. Mix well.
  • When the vegetables brown a little, add water.
  • Add 1½ cups of water and mix well. If needed, sprinkle more water while cooking.
  • Cover and cook with minimal stirring till the veggies are well-cooked and the water dries up. (A little charring or browning on the bottom is good.)
  • Add ½ tsp sugar.
  • Once done, stir well and add 1-2 tsp of mustard oil on top (optional) before serving with hot rice.

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