My Citizens! It has been a very stressful few days here at TFD’s secret lair, as I had to take My beloved Basset Hound – the mighty Fenris – to the emergency vet over the weekend. He’s almost 12 years old now and since he is not just My pet but also My therapy dog, it’s taken an especially grievous toll on every aspect of TFD’s mental equilibrium.
He is recuperating at home now, and I remain hopeful he will bounce back – but until then, I am gravitating towards comfort food as today’s post. In this case, as both the Sultan of Spice and the Rajah of Recipes, I shall be making a respectful nod to both of My titles in this posting for the ultimate in spicy mashed potatoes – the beloved Bangladeshi recipe for Aloo Bhorta, made in My inimitable signature style and blessed solely by My unmatched palate!
As noted in this excerpted article I found on livemint.com:
It’s pronounced bhawrta and not bharta, says my friend Nayana Sengupta Afroz, 45, a culinary expert from Dhaka, Bangladesh. I shrug and tell her it’s the same thing—Bengalis pronounce it bhorta, but for the non-Bengali population, it’s bharta. She sticks to her guns: This is not the Indian bharta. It’s the Bangladeshi bhorta, spelt and pronounced the same way whichever part of the world you are in. The argumentative Indian in me retreats quickly at the possessive tone of her voice.
Speak to any Bangladeshi and you will hear the same tone of ownership about this once-humble dish that has come to define Bangladeshi cuisine. Essentially a mash, the bhorta’s evolution from the rural kitchen to a gourmet meal, cutting across all economic strata, is well summed up by its status as the chosen dish for the nationwide Pohela Boishakh (new year) celebrations, alongside panta bhat (fermented rice).
Research indicates that uncultivated foods still constitute nearly 40% of the diet in biodiversity-rich rural Bangladesh. Among the very poor and landless, the dependence is nearly 100%. Not surprisingly then, the bhorta occupies a critical place because it requires minimum fuel, very little oil and no expensive spices. It is, however, intriguing that this poor man’s comfort food has become a nationally acclaimed dish.
This national obsession with the bhorta is a fairly recent sociological phenomenon. Nasrin Imam Hazra, 47, a Bangladeshi teacher married to an Indian, says: “Two cultural strands—Bengali and Islamic—run in parallel to create a composite and unique national identity in post-1971 Bangladesh.”
The push came in the wake of much turbulence. In 1947, East Bengal separated from India and became East Pakistan, bound by a common religion. In 1971, it fought fiercely to break away from West Pakistan on the grounds of conflicting culture and language.
Both these ruptures had a huge impact on the Bangladeshi identity. If the break with West Pakistan led to the rejection of Urdu and a repudiation of biryanis, kormas and kebabs, later in the decade, the then president, General Ziaur Rahman, amended the constitution to uphold Bangladeshi nationalism, making it clear that the Bengalis of Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country, were different from the Bengalis of India, notwithstanding the shared heritage of history, food, music, language and literature.
To replace that which was lost, the Bangladeshi looked deep within: to the regional roots of the simple bhorta. Since then, there has been an ongoing tussle about whether Bangaliyana—Bengalihood—should be defined by culture or politics.
In her cookbook Bosha Bhat To Biryani: The Legacy Of Bangladeshi Cuisine, cultural historian and writer Niaz Zaman says: “The liberation of Bangladesh led to a search for its indigenous cultural roots as well as its indigenous foods. Bhajis (simple sautéed vegetables) and bhortas had always been part of the Bengali diet…not something offered to guests or served at hotels. After liberation, however, Bengali foods were, so to say, rediscovered.”
According to Dhaka-based social anthropologist Anisa Zaman, the bhorta was a staple in large Muslim households, both because of affordability and the easy availability of ingredients and cost. “In the late 1970s, the bhorta made its way out of domestic kitchens and entered the public space,” she says.
In a June 2007 feature titled “Brick Lane Food Revival”, by Guy Dimond, in Time Out London, Ansar Ahmed Ullah, a community worker there, says, “There has been a revival of home-style and proper Bengali and Bangladeshi cooking in small cafés over the past two or three years (earlier synonymous with the curry).”
The trend, he says, started with the young Bangladeshi immigrant’s longing for home-style food. Afroz agrees: “The bhorta gained popularity worldwide through Bangladeshi students. It was an easy-to-make, economical meal, and the Bangladeshi restaurants picked it up.”
The bhorta was, and continues to be, eaten in both Hindu and Muslim families. The former, who call it bata or bhatey, use onions, green chillies and mustard oil or, sometimes, coconut and mustard or poppy-seed paste, while Muslims add garlic. In the pre-Independence days, “economic conditions didn’t permit lavish menus, and a little bhorta was sufficient for an entire family’s requirements, with rice”, says Anisa.
According to socio-cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, food can function as an equalizer or create distance and segmentation. In Bangladesh, a country marked by a huge chasm between the rich and the poor, the once austere mishmash has become the game-changer, marking the return of the privileged to the food of their forefathers. So the gradual incorporation of bhorta as a celebratory food at home and abroad is an unusual tale of how sharing common food as a ritual can become a marker of cultural and national identity.
There are literally hundreds of different types of bhorta, but today I will focus on one of the simplest and most beloved – aloo bhorta, made from spiced mashed potatoes, which are typically formed into balls as a decorative way of serving the dish. Spicy mashed potatoes shaped into balls are a great way to add some fun into your meal for children, whilst the adults will become enamored with its uniquely-melded spicy flavors! My aloo bhorta uses the Bengali ‘panch phoran’ spice blend – it literally means ‘5 spices’ and the ingredients and their amounts diverge widely depending on the dish, the locale and the individual chef’s personal palate.
I created a very specific panch phoran blend for this recipe, and the proportions and spices are perfectly-suited for the dish! I call for cumin, fenugreek, radhuni (a type of seed used in India that tastes very much like celery seed), kalonji seed (aka nigella seeds in English) and fennel seeds. You can purchase the unusual spices at the noted links – I have every confidence you will come to love this TFD-original spice blend for potatoes as much as I do!
The other critical flavor component will not surprise anyone familiar with Bangladeshi cuisine – mustard oil is a predominant ingredient, but it is imperative you use culinary-grade mustard oil, as mustard seed oils for aromatherapy and massage have a potentially toxic ingredient in them that is not present in the culinary-grade product. This is a potent oil that will clear your sinuses just like wasabi or horseradish, Citizens – you can find my only preferred brand here.
I also call for a goodly pinch of asafœtida, the garlic-tasting and potently-scented powder made from the gum of a fennel-like plant in India – you can buy top-quality asafœtida from here. Please use it sparingly and grind only as needed, as it is incredibly potent! Buy it whole as it is frequently cut in the powder form with cornstarch and it is FAR better and more flavorful when ground directly from the pieces of dried resin whenever you require its olfactory and palatal punch in a recipe! Ghee is easily made at home by simply melting butter and skimming off the clear yellow liquid, leaving the milk solids behind – but you can also buy it pre-made here.
Citizens, this is an easy and delicious comfort food that is keeping my mind and palate occupied during these difficult times – I hope you come to enjoy it as much as I do. You may wish to conclude your meal that includes this spicy side with a Bangladeshi dessert – this is one of my favorites. If you are amongst those who pray, please remember Fenris in yours this evening…I would be very grateful for TFD Nation to offer them up on his behalf…
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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