I took an unplanned departure from my blog for several weeks, and it has unexpectedly thrown me off course. I left home in late April to go to another home; that is, I went to Kolkata because my grandmother passed away after a long illness. We loved her deeply, we are grateful for all that she taught us and the ways in which she cared for us, and we will miss her very much.
I’ve brought back with me a restlessness that I can’t quite explain. Those of you who travel back know this feeling. It sneaks up on you unexpectedly. I’ve returned with memories: moments large and small of this most recent trip as well as recollections from decades past. Bits and pieces of conversations and stories that I will replay to others and to myself. And I will try to account for every instant until the next stream of impressions and fleeting moments are allowed to seep in and stay.
Although I didn’t cook for a few days after I returned, I thought about what I would make next. I decided to try my hand at a dish that I’ve eaten many, many times but have never made. In honor of my grandmother, I am cooking with mustard and I am making okra. It must be said, although you might have guessed it — she was a wonderful cook.
To generalize, I will say that Bengalis love mustard. We use it to season all kinds of fish and vegetables, and if there’s one ingredient the American specialty gourmet market has yet to unearth, it is mustard oil. Used sparingly, it adds a tremendous amount of flavor to sautéed daikon radish, butternut squash, even the humble boiled potato. In Kolkata, my family often cooks with mustard oil, in much the same way we often cook with olive oil. It adds a subtle yet sharp undertone to a variety of dals, vegetables and fish.
Basic Mustard Sauce
Wash the dry mustard seeds and soak them in a little bit of water to soften. Use just enough water to cover and soak for approximately 5 minutes. I grind one-quarter cup to one half-cup of mustard at a time. A mini-blender works well here, with the speed set to “high.” Adding a dollop of yogurt will aid during the blending process, for it helps to emulsify the mixture. Some like to add chili peppers and a touch of salt at this stage to season the mustard. Scrape down the sides when blending, and add water very gradually until the mixture is the consistency of runny cake batter. It will keep, covered, in the refrigerator, for 3 to 4 days.
Use yellow or brown mustard seeds. Yellow tends to be milder.
A green vegetable. Not terribly popular in America but very popular in Bengal. I ate okra nearly every day that I was in Kolkata. When cut open, okra is viscous and slightly sticky. If not cooked properly, okra can be slippery, and some do not like the texture. In this dish, I used baby okra and left the pods whole. Buy fresh young okra if you can; otherwise, high-quality, frozen baby okra will do.
Okra with Mustard or Shorshe Dharosh
1 pound of fresh baby okra
3-4 tablespoons mustard sauce (see recipe above)
1 small tomato, skin removed and diced, alternately, ¼ cup, or a little less, of canned diced tomato
2-3 green chilies
¼ teaspoon nigella seeds (optional)
¼ teaspoon turmeric
Salt to taste
Oil for sautéing
Prepare the phoron (oil and seed) mixture
Add oil to a large, heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil for a minute of two and then add the chilies (slice them in half lengthwise first or cut a small slit to create an air vent) and nigella seeds. The addition of nigella is non-traditional and more akin to the cooking of western Bengal, but it does add a slight nuttiness to the dish. Heat the oil until the chilies begin to blister.
Cooking the Okra
Add okra, turn heat down to medium, and saute. Fold gently and be careful not to stir aggressively. Avoid breaking open the okra. Add salt, turmeric, and tomatoes. Add a tablespoon or two of water if needed to help cook the vegetables. When the okra is tender – about 10-15 minutes, add the mustard sauce and cook for another 5-7 minutes. Mustard needs heat and acid to brighten the flavor. The addition of tomato and yogurt is generally enough, but a squirt of lime and some additional cayenne might help to sharpen up the seasoning.
I used yellow mustard and fresh tomato. Next time, I’m going to experiment and use tomatillo, which has a sharp, sour taste, and brown mustard.