Spring is officially here, even in cloudy, misty Munich. The sun is shining bravely, undeterred by the mist hanging over the mountains. The warmth is fleeting but people are shedding their winter coats eagerly.
Unlike here, where we get roughly the same fresh produce all the year around, give or take a couple, back in Bengal, every season is identified by its unique signature of vegetables and fruit. During spring and summer, a dish of steamed fresh vegetables, made aromatic with the addition of a minimal amount of spice and a touch of oil, is often the feature of a meal. It is called bati chochchori (the “chch” pronounced like the “cc” in cacciatore, but with a stress on it) bati is a bowl, chochchori is a vegetable dish with very little moisture. Traditionally, the bati or bowl was set in the centre of a pot of steamed rice, fresh off the stove. The ingredients would cook in the residual heat of the rice. One can make it with any vegetable, and especially with fresh small river shrimp. The possibilities are endless. One of my aunts has refined the art of making bati chochchori in the microwave. I think it is a great short-cut, because we no longer cook large amounts of rice. But if you don’t have a microwave, you could also use a steamer or rice-cooker, or even make a double-boiler arrangement with the pots that you have. The dish is very quickly made because you don’t use any vegetable that needs a long time to cook.
The other day, I had a craving for a bati chochchori, especially one with the bite of mustard. Bengalis are perhaps a unique lot among Indians (correct me if I am wrong) who cook fish or vegetables in a sauce made of mustard paste. If you like the bite of wasabi or horse-radish, then you will certainly like the sharpness of a mustard sauce. The only preconditions for such a dish is that it should be strongly seasoned and should be hot with chilli. When you have fulfilled these conditions, your mustard sauce will be as satisfying as mine. My clogged sinuses were thanking me profusely!
Here is the basic recipe which you are welcome to improvise upon:
Recipe for Bati Chocchori (just one of several possibilities)
Cooking time – 10 minutes
3-4 cups of assorted fresh tender vegetables like snow peas, green asparagus, sugar snap peas, bell peppers, zucchini, tender carrots, fresh herbs like cilantro/coriander, parsley
I used a mixture of snow peas, button mushrooms, lots of parsley – stalks and all
1 tsp of powdered yellow/white mustard (if you don’t get it in the stores, you can easily grind up the mustard seeds in a coffee grinder) + 1 tablespoon of hot water
As much red pepper flakes as you can tolerate, or fresh green chillies as my aunt would use
A teaspoon of salt (or to taste but make it generous)
2 tsps of oil (a mustard sauce needs oil to smoothen the edges)
Process – Mix the powdered mustard in the hot water first and let rest while you wash and prepare the vegetables. Cut the large vegetables into batons, trim and chop the herbs, stalks and all, slit the green chillies, if using. If you are using mushrooms, quarter them. Take a large microwave-proof bowl (glass bowls are just fine). Add your vegetables, pour over the mustard, the pepper/chilli and the salt. Mix well. Put a cover on your bowl, I just used a plate that fits. Set in the microwave oven and cook on high power for 3-5 minutes. I like my snow peas to be still crunchy, so I took out the bowl after 3 minutes. They were perfect – bright green and sweet, the crunch offsetting the softness of the mushrooms. The mustard sauce pooling at the bottom of the bowl was spicy and sharp, mellowed by the sweet vegetables and mushrooms. It was a perfect dish to eat with hot basmati rice. I was in heaven! I had leftovers for the next day which I reheated in the microwave. Everything tasted as fresh as the first day.
If you don’t relish the idea of mustard, then you can substitute with some chopped onions or some garlic and ginger, or some toasted cumin. Even a dash of soy-sauce with chopped ginger would be delicious too, except that it wouldn’t be exactly Bengali. Indo-Chinese, probably.