I serve cheese now because it’s easy and because it’s expected. Cheese is simple. Go to store. Purchase cheese: some soft, some hard. Unwrap. Slice bread, arrange crackers, wash and slice fruit. Use apples, pears, grapes. Assemble. Done. For added fanciness, use marble serving board, add dried cherries and apricots, silver cheese knives. Still very easy. And popular.
Ahh, easy. If only Bengali appetizers were available at the gourmet store, and all I had to do was purchase, unwrap, reheat, and serve. But the delicious Bengali chop, (pronounce it softly, almost like “shop” with a slight English accent), is a homemade masterpiece. It requires a little work but promises deep-fried fulfillment in the way that only home fried, deep fried things can satisfy.
A defining characteristic of the chop is that it is dipped in egg wash and bread crumbs and then fried. The Bengali chop is a special occasion item here in Chicago. It is usually served as a snack, with tea, or as an appetizer prior to a meal. My mother served it as an hors d’oeuvre for dinner parties when I was young. The Bengali chop is infinitely varied, and can be made with fish, meat, or vegetables. My mother made macher (fish) chop and vegetable chop with beets, in large part because my father grew beets, and like most vegetables my father planted, they seemed to come out of the ground with prodigious fervor. They are best served immediately out of the fryer, but leftovers can be re-crisped with some success in the oven.
A chop is a little surprise. The packet before you is all fried exterior and the interior is yet a delicious mystery. What will it contain? How will it be spiced? For chop lovers as well as the uninitiated, the beet chop is unexpected. That first bite crunch, the tenderness inside, the sweet and hot all at once. It inspires talking with one’s mouth full, “I didn’t know beets could taste like this!” At our house, though, every summer when the beets emerged, we craved, requested, and dare I say it, even expected them.
Bengali Vegetable Chop or Beet Chop
The complexity in this dish lies in the technique and in the time that it takes to go through the steps. The ingredient list is relatively short. I use fresh potatoes in my version, rather than potato flakes.
Allowing 3 chops per person, this dish serves 6-8 people.
5 medium-size beets
2 large baking potatoes, the texture should be dry and floury not waxy
1-inch grated ginger
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon garam masala
½ teaspoon nigella seeds
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and sugar to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
For the Breading
1 tbsp water
1 cup bread crumbs
Scant amount of salt and pepper to season the bread crumbs
Step One: Vegetable Prep
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Clean, rinse, and peel the beets and the potatoes. Wrap the vegetables individually in foil, place in a baking dish and bake, undisturbed, for 1-1 ½ hours, or until the beets are easily pierced with a knife. The potato should be a little on the dry side. Allow vegetables to cool.
Step Two: Chop Prep
Using the finer setting on a handheld grater, grate beets and potato into two separate bowls. If the potatoes are too soft and cannot be grated, simply mash with a potato masher.
Heat 2-3 tbsp canola oil in a large skillet, add ½ teaspoon nigella seeds. Add grated beets and sauté, gradually adding coriander, cumin, garam masala, sugar, salt and ginger. Cook over medium-low heat for approximately 7-10 minutes, until all the flavors are incorporated and the dish is fairly dry. Add the potatoes, adjust seasoning and continue to cook another 5-7 minutes, stirring constantly. The mixture should become thick and sticky, uniform and almost kneadable, like dough. Turn off heat and allow to cool until mixture can be easily handled.
Note: The consistency of the mixture is important, otherwise the chop will not hold its shape properly.
Step Three: Shaping
Line a baking sheet or a large plate with wax paper. Take three tablespoons of the mixture and roll into a ball. Press down gradually and evenly, creating a disc-like shape about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Repeat until all of the mixture has been used up. Mine are pictured below.
Step Four: Breading and Frying
In one bowl, beat the eggs slightly with water and in another, pour the bread crumb mixture. First, roll the chop in breadcrumbs for an initial coat. Next dip in eggwash and roll in breadcrumbs again. Shake off excess breadcrumbs.
In a sturdy frying pan with high sides or Dutch oven, heat approximately one inch of canola oil to 375 degrees. Fry chops in small batches, be sure not to overcrowd the them. Chops will begin to brown immediately and will need to be turned quickly and repeatedly. Watch them closely and turn every 20-30 seconds. They are done within a few minutes and can be removed as soon as the exterior turns golden-brown. Cool on a wire rack or a plate covered with paper towels.
Serve with a wedge of lime or tamarind-cilantro sauce.