Kathal Bichir Daal (A Faux Dal recipe with jack fruit seeds)

5:40 PM

Bengal has always been described as the land of abundance. Each and every traveler whoever crossed this lush green land has always described it as the land of bounty and abundance. But the history and destiny of this land changed forever under the British rule especially in the 18th and 19th century when many famines devastated this land. Chiattorer monontor or the famine of 1770 wiped out almost one-third of the population so as the famine of 1943 which estimated to have killed around 3 million Bengalis.
Economists and historians argue that these famines were man-made, occurred mostly due to exploitative Colonial policies. The effect of these famines was so deep-rooted that for generations to come Bengalis suffered from a sense of insecurity around food availability. So much so that it changed Bengal’s culinary repertoire and philosophy around food. Otherwise, it is very difficult to explain the vast array of recipes that involve discards and offals in a land of such abundance.
As a little girl, I often disliked when the women in our house would not discard even the insect-infested veggies. They will simply cut that part away and use the rest in cooking. I fought with them especially with dida and maa asking why they need to be so miser when we had plenty of it. It took me years to understand the reason.

Khosa charchari or Bengali style curry made with various vegetable peels
Though Dida talked about the famines of 1943 as a passing remark here and there but she never did emphasised on how difficult it had been for them. She had a hard life before she got married to Dadu. Her father died when her mother was pregnant with her. Though the food was never scarce but life was difficult for them and then the famine of 1943 hit hard. When I grew up a little she told me many stories that sent a chill down my spine. She told us stories of how they found themselves fortunate if they could even eat once a day and how very few people were that lucky. They mostly cooked around midnight to avoid hungry people flocking around their house. Yet people would find out and come begging for the rice cooking water or phyan. The story that made me cry was how most infants during that time had grown up on pituli gola jol or watery rice powder broth instead of milk. People died of starvation, of malnutrition, and from eating toxic inedible greens and fruits. Dead bodies were littered everywhere as nobody had the energy or the resources to do a proper funeral.

Life was difficult and those who survived lived with an unbearable trauma that changed their behavioural pattern for life. I found dida and the women from her generation being obsessed with saving all the edible parts of vegetables and protein. She was an amazing cook and often she prepared elaborate meals for the family gathering but would save the off cuts and scraps for a delicious meal the next day. Fish oil and bones even from smaller fishes like Mourola (Indian anchovies) and puti were made into fritters. Rice cooking water would be used to make Phyan er jhol, a warming broth in winter and a cooling drink called Amani in summer. Used lemon peels were rubbed on coarse surfaces to get rid of the bitterness and made into delicious pickles. Jackfruit seeds were saved in earthen pots on a bed of sand to make delicious chop (croquettes). Tamarind seeds were sundried and dry roasted to be had as between-meal snacks.
Macher Matha die dal, Bengali style lentil with fish head a great example of nose to tail dining
Maa Learnt from her and she also had her share of hardship during the food crisis of the 60's. She was very particular about food not being wasted by us. She would sit with us during mealtime and told us stories of how they had to live on a meagre supply of ration during the 60's food crisis. Though Dadu had an wellpaid Govt. job but the fact that they had to feed many of their relatives during that difficult time made things worse for them.

the trauma of the  famines collectively changed the behavioural consumption pattern in most of rural Bengal, especially in women who had the responsibility to feed their families. My mother for example constantly lived with a deep rooted fear of having to go through such crisis again. Everytime there was a forecast of bad weather or cyclone she would call up everyone in that area and asked them to stock as much food and water as possible. My husband laughed at me when just after our marriage I bought a huge container to stock rice for the whole year. But that is how I grew up, with measures to minimise the possibility of food shortage and hunger. We learnt to be resourceful around waste, always preserved the excess for future and found a nack to devise ways to make faux recipes at a fraction of the original cost.

And now as a person deeply immersed in food and food history I try to find the background stories. I do not take them for granted and firmly believe that recipes like these are here for a reason. And when I say that I must confess that it would be wrong to attribute these ingenious recipes or methods to those hard times alone. There definitely are other factors that I would like to explore in my coming posts.

Today let me share this simple dal made of Kathal beej or jackfruit seed. This is not the real deal and falls under the nakol or faux recipe category. Jackfruit seeds are available in summer in plenty and cost nothing. This is an ingenious way to use something so cheap to substitute expensive legume and make the platter complete. Maa cooked this every summer and nobody could find out that this did not actually contain any lentil. Reason enough for this being a recipe suited for hard times.

 This faux dal is perfect in this time of lockdown when prices of food staples are skyrocketing.

More Kathal bichi or Jackfruit seeds recipe
Kathal bichir bhorta

Kathal bichir Daal
(Bengali style lentil soup with Jackfruit seeds)

Jackfruit seeds (preferably fresh): 1 cup
Ginger: ½” piece
Cumin seeds: 1 tsp
Dry red chilies: 2 pieces
Oil: 2 tsp

First, prepare the jackfruit seeds by removing the white plastic-like cover from the top. Cut the brown seeds inside it in halves. Wash them under running water.
Put them in a pressure cooker with a cup of water, salt, and turmeric and cook on medium for 3 whistles. Let the steam dissipate in itself then open the lid and mash the dal with a potato masher or with the back of your spoon. You will see the brown thin skin will come off in big pieces. Discard those and make the mixture as smooth as possible. I prefer a few tiny bites here and there for texture.

While the dal is boiling peel and make a coarse paste of the ginger. Mix it in the boiled mixture. Add ½ to 1 cup of warm water to it. Mix and adjust the salt.

Heat the oil in a heavy bottom kadhai or pan. I prefer mustard oil. Add the cumin seeds and torn red chilies. Let it splutter and then carefully pour in the boiled mixture from one side. Mix and let it come to a boil. Do a final taste test and then serve it hot with boiled rice or Roti.

A Homemaker’s note:
  1. Alternatively, you can temper the dal with nigella seeds (kalonji or kalo jeere) and garlic.
  2. You can also use a tadka pan to temper the dal.
  3. You can also make this dal with Alu or potato. Though I have never tried that recipe but following this same method you can do this.

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