When the bitters enter the Bengali kitchen, mostly it's cooked and consumed as the first thing to be had with rice. This is mainly because the chronology of consumption should be from the food that's most likely to be good for you to the one which is seen as the "treat" of sorts. Of course, if you grew up in a household like mine, where the treat was considered to be the fish course, you would probably be in for a bit of a disappointment as the main course often would be a thin, runny jhol of tiny, freshwater fishes with chunks of raw banana and potatoes added to it. On the outset, it sounds great, but it would be mostly consumed for "better vision, digestion, and proper development of the brain", where the child would be asked to eat the fish from its head to tail so that not a single bit of that nutrition goes to waste. For example, bitter gourd or bitter melons would form an integral part of hot summer days, especially because of its ability to deal with two ayurvedic doshas - 'Kapha and Pita' - rather solidly. Either it would be served on its own, or as a part of another dish.
"Eating bitters for health is common to the Indian subcontinent, as well as other parts of Asia. You would see bitter melon or bitter gourd as we call it on the Chinese table very often, eaten on its own with rice, or added to the meat. Pork with bitter melon is a common Chinese recipe, and you would find bitter melon (or karela) being eaten in different parts of South East Asia, like Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and Korea. However, every part has its own take, and you can see the way each region makes something unique with it," noted Prithvish Chakravarti, owner of Tak Heng, a popular Chinese restaurant in Kolkata. "I love the way they put minced meat inside karela and cook it in a thick, spicy gravy, in parts of North India and Pakistan." In different parts of India, bitters are often paired with something spicy or meat to hide/overpower the flavours. However, for an everyday fare, bitters are cooked simply and served in the beginning.
A few interesting additions include the tetor dal, which is essentially cooked lentils with bitters added to it. The reason behind this concoction is perhaps the Bengali mother's obsession with health, and ensuring the family would be consuming more than their fair share of it. It is especially prevalent during late spring and the summer season, which is also when people tend to fall sick the most, and the chances of diseases like chickenpox and measles are quite high. At this time, bitters are abundant and are often bought in bulk and cooked in different forms, including into a simple dal.
The dal is a fairly late entrant into the Bengali kitchen scene, as compared to many other parts of India, since its echelon in the Bengali culinary history is not ancient. Also known as Bengali Mung dal, tetor dal is homegrown, with its name derived from the Sanskrit "mudga", and evidence of its first cultivation goes back to around 4500 years.
The tetor dal eaten in my household is essentially split mung beans cooked and tempered, and just before serving, topped with a generous helping of fried bitter gourd. This last-minute inclusion is for two reasons - one, the fried bitter gourd doesn't lend its bitterness to the dal in its entirety and two, the bitter gourd retains a bit of crunch even after getting thoroughly soaked. This flavour and textural contrast make it an excellent summer staple that can be had with rice solely, and a slice of lime or some pickles.
Immunity-Boosting Recipe: Tetor Dal (Bengali MoongDal) Recipe:
- 100 gm. split yellow mung beans, washed well and soaked in water for an hour
- 100 gm. bitter gourd, washed and cut in 3/4th cm roundels
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds/jeera
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 large pinch asafoetida/hing
- 1 teaspoon grated ginger
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 green chillies
- Salt to taste
- 3 tablespoon mustard oil
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- In a bowl, mix the bitter gourd pieces with salt and half of the sugar. Let this rest for half an hour at least. This will ensure that some of the excess water from the bitter gourd will be extracted.
- Drain the water from the lentils completely. Let dry for 10 minutes. Then, spread them evenly on a tawa or pan, and over medium-low heat, dry roast them for about 7-8 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure the dal roasts and doesn't burn, until you start seeing them get a slightly darker colour and the smell of roasting dal hits you. Remove at this point and let this rest for 10 minutes.
- Add the remaining sugar, turmeric powder, bay leaf, salt and 2 cups of water to it now. Cook the dal till it is very soft. Remove from heat and mash the dal up a bit.
- Heat 1/2 tablespoon mustard oil and fry the bitter gourd pieces, in batches, over medium-low heat, till they are dark golden in colour. Remember, they will darken and continue cooking through the residual heat, so remove them when you see them just about to hit dark golden.
- Just before serving, heat the remaining half tablespoon oil and add the whole cumin seeds, hing, and ginger, in that order. Add the dal, then let the dal come to a boil. Drop the temperature to a steady simmer, add the chillies first, then adjust salt and sugar, and let this boil for 3-5 minutes, depending on how runny or thick you want the dal.
- Then, top with the fried bitter gourd and serve immediately with rice.
About Poorna BanerjeePoorna Banerjee is a food writer, restaurant critic and social media strategist and runs a blog Presented by P for the last ten years where she writes about the food she eats and cooks, the places she visits, and the things she finds of interest. She is deeply interested in culinary anthropology, and food history and loves books, music, travelling, and a glass of wine, in that order.