Once, during a visit to Calcutta, I was invited to lunch by a lady I had heard as a Bengali chef who made me accept her with happy anticipation. The meal they provided exceeded my expectations. What stood out above all was the expensive fish and meat Machar Ganto, an aromatic dish consisting of banana blossom, or mochaMixed with small potato cubes, baby coconut flakes, chickpeas and spices. It is a classic of Bengali cuisine, known for its flavor, careful use of spices, and a wide range of ingredients.
My fellow guests eagerly consumed every item on the table, but I noticed a teenage girl, whose face was spoiled with sharp aversion when she tasted the banana blossom. After lunch, the girl told me she had never eaten them before and found their texture to be flaky, though she wouldn’t mind eating cucumbers, tomatoes, green peas, and broccoli. But what she loved the most was going out with friends and ordering french fries at a fast food restaurant. Any nascent idea I might have about the banana blossom’s glorification of the younger generation vanished instantly.
Bananas have been around in India since ages, and both the flower and the pulp inside the stem have long been incorporated into the kitchen. A sixteenth-century autobiography of the Bengali mystic Chaitanya lovingly describing a banana blossom dish prepared for him in a schoolboy’s home. The fruit is not only a universal food but a primary offering to the gods. In Bengal, the plant has a mystery enriched by folklore. As a child, I loved the story of the beautiful Bhola who sailed the river in a banana boat all the way to the underworld to save her husband from the deadly revenge of Manasa, the snake goddess.
Growing up, cooking classes weren’t interested in me, but watching my mother painstakingly prepare mocha It was a joy that did not diminish. She took the large cone and removed the reddish-purple paper blocks. Under each piece is a bunch of small bananas that you have set aside. Once all the purple layers were removed, a smooth, ivory-colored center was revealed. Besides the small pile of bananas, they were cut into small pieces and briefly boiled with salt and tamarind to get rid of any bitterness. For her long-awaited Machar GantoThen she heated mustard oil topped with bay leaves, whole cumin seeds, and some green peppers. When the aroma of spices filled the air, banana blossom was added to the pot along with french fries, coconut flakes, and chickpeas, and seasoned with ground turmeric, ginger, cumin, coriander, chili powder, salt, and sugar. Emulsion finish with ghee and jarom mshaleh It was mixed before the pot went out from the fire. Bengali gastronomy considers this dish to be not only an eclectic delight but also a true test of the chef due to the combination of textures – dense, chewy, soft and crisp – and harmonious spices. Every time I ate my mother’s food Machar Ganto, have agreed.
Sometimes I saved two discarded purple bracts and secured them with toothpicks. Beneath my fingers they were amazingly attractive, smooth as silk, as smooth as velvet. Conical in shape, slightly wider at one end, resembles a boat. In the evening, I would go up to the roof, fill a large pail with water, and put a small clay oil lamp left from the Diwali festival on the purple leaf, and set it at his feet. Normally, there was enough breeze to create little swirls that the banana boat was gently tossing around. I sat fascinated, watching, wondering if it would turn, but it never did, though after a while the lamp went out.
Recipe for Machar Ghanto
• 500gm freshly chopped mocha Banana blossom, cooked and drained
• 60 grams What No (Bengal Gram), soaked overnight
• 170 gm ground coconut
• 2 medium sized peeled and cut into cubes
• 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
• 2 bay leaves
• 1 teaspoon each of turmeric and red chilli powder
• 1 teaspoon ground jarom mshaleh (Cinnamon, Cardamom, Clove)
• 3-4 green bell peppers, cut in half
• 4 tablespoons mustard oil
• 1 teaspoon ghee
• Salt and sugar to taste
Mix turmeric and chili powder with cooked mocha and set aside. Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the potatoes until they are light brown in color and set aside. In the same oil, throw in the bay leaves and cumin seeds, fry for a minute and throw in the soaked bengal gram. After stirring for 2 or 3 minutes, add the cooked and seasoned mocha and stir for 3 or 4 minutes. Add the potatoes and ½ cup of water and leave them covered over a medium heat until the water has almost evaporated. Now add the ground coconut, 1 teaspoon of salt and 3 teaspoons of sugar. Sweetness should be slightly pronounced in this preparation. Stir well and add ghee and ground jarom mshaleh, and taste (adjust as needed) for final salt and sugar balance before removing it from the stove.
Excerpted with permission from Taste of My Life: Memoirs in Essays and Recipes By Chitrita Banerji, Published by Picador India, imprint of Pan Macmillan India