“Iconic cuisine” could describe the food of Bengal. Among their many influential dishes, sweets are perhaps the most famous. Yet, there are many preparations which have come to shape Indian cuisine as a whole. Charchari is not merely a single dish, but a cooking style unique to Bengal. Essentially, vegetables are cooked in a pan and covered without stirring until a close-to-burnt caramelized crust forms on the bottom of the pan, which is stirred in to finish the dish. Unlike many vegetable dishes in India, spicing is simple, often only turmeric, chillies, salt and hing (onion-like asafetida powder). The result is a deliciously rich tasting subji (vegetable) which can be used as an appetizer with crackers and bread, or as a show-stopping part of a bigger Indian meal.
One of my favorite cookbooks is The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Jamuna devi. She is to Indian vegetarian cuisine what Julia Child was to French home-cooked cuisine. Her book is an easy-to-understand look at Indian kitchens. It was written a number of years ago and is a timeless must-have resource for those who wish to cook and enjoy Indian food as it is supposed to be. Jamuna presents a number of charcharis in the book and her description and recipe is excerpted as follows:
“Charcharis are Bengali vegetable dishes that combine three cooking procedures: boiling, steaming and frying. Though other cuisines of the world use the same procedures, and in a similar sequence, to my knowledge only charcharis are brought to the point of charring. During the entire procedure, the vegetable is never stirred—not even once! They are succulent vegetables, often rich and served as side dishes, but take little attention while cooking and are really delicious.
The dividing line between the cooking procedures is blurry. In the first stage, large pieces of vegetable are gently boiled in a seasoned liquid. Sometimes sugar, tomatoes or lemon juice is added to provide a glaze, flavor or zest in the finished dish. In the second stage, the vegetables are steamed by the concentrated liquids barely boiling in the bottom of the pan. Srila Prabhupad described the final stages of cooking: ‘When the liquid is absorbed, there will be a little noise, a hhhzzzz sound, and then, just as the bottom crust browns, turn off the heat and it is done.’ The pan is covered and allowed to sit off the heat for a few minutes, until the crust softens and can be easily folded into the moist vegetables.
Since this final stage of cooking delicately borders on burning, it is important to convey that it should not come to that. No one wants to serve or eat burned vegetables. It is essential to use a very heavy, thick bottom pan such as enamel on steel, stainless steel or, better still, non-stick Silverstone on heavy aluminum. With good non-stick cookware and attention to heat control, perfect charcharis are possible even the first time around.”
Here is a recipe I adapted from Jamuna’s cookbook by mixing it with my own experiences of charchari. Many years ago I was able to sample some of her cooking and the exquisite flavors of her beautifully crafted dishes have inspired me ever since. I dedicate this recipe to her and the amazing foods that roll out of her kitchen.
Baigan Aloo Charchari
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
2 finger hot green chilies, minced
1/4 teaspoon hing (yellow asafoetida powder)
6-8 fresh neem leaves
5 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into one inch cubes
1 medium sized eggplant, cut into one inch cubes
1 2/3 cups water
1 cup spinach leaves, stemmed and coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 inch piece of cinnamon stick
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, freshly ground
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, fresh ground
1 1/4 teaspoons sea salt
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy-bottomed 4 quart pan over moderate heat. When it is hot, but not smoking, add the black mustard seeds, ginger and chilies and fry until the mustard seeds sputter and turn gray. Sprinkle in the hing and neem leaves and within 5 seconds, stir in the potatoes, tossing with a wooden spoon for 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook about 30 minutes. From time to time, check to see if the vegetables are drying up, and adjust the heat or liquid accordingly. When the vegetables are fork-tender, all of the liquid should be absorbed and the vegetables left sizzling.
Raise the heat to moderately high and fry, without stirring, until a slightly charred crust forms on the bottom of the pan. Turn off the heat and keep covered for 5 minutes. Stir the crust into the soft vegetables before serving.