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The Art of Chopping Vegetables in a Bengali Kitchen

Bengali cuisine is marked by certain typicality…first, there are no set masalas for preparing a particular dish, and second, vegetables have to be cut in
chopping vegetables
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Bengali cuisine is marked by certain typicality…first, there are no set masalas for preparing a particular dish, and second, vegetables have to be cut in a particular way for every dish, be it chochchori (a mixed vegetable preparation) or dalna (curry).

So, if it is jhurjhure alu bhaja— juliennes of potatoes will go into steaming hot oil in a wok and come out crisply fried! Similarly, dumo dumo (cubed), lomba lomba (wedges), chhoto dumo (diced), kuchi kuchi (thinly sliced), jhirjhire (juliennes), phali (slit) and gol gol (roundelles) are some of the terminology used for classifying the cuts for vegetables. Chopping vegetables is an art in itself, more so in a Bengali kitchen, where each vegetarian preparation demands specific cuts. Before one starts cooking, ingredients have to be assembled properly…with the right proportions of vegetables and spices, depending on the dishes which are to be cooked.

diced vegetables
Diced vegetables for a Bengali Chochchori

It sounds easy when we say ‘chop the vegetables’. But how shall they be cut…roughly chopped (kata), diced (dumo dumo), or shredded (kuchi kuchi)? The most commonly used words in Bengali is sabji kata (chopping vegetables), but that’s a very general instruction. The special cuts for each vegetarian dishes are different; for chochchori, vegetables will be diced or cubed. If the chochchori is using leafy vegetables it will require lomba lomba (wedge-shaped) cuts. For a good chochchori one has to cut all vegetables in similar shapes and sizes— could be in wedges and slices or as large chunks.

Remember, chopping them fine will not yield a chochchori, it will in all probability, become a bhorta or a paste as the vegetables that takes the longest to cook get cooked! First the vegetables will go into the wok,  and then those that take lesser time to cook. Pumpkin, brinjal, handful of greens and dices of stems or roots like drumsticks and taro are some of the vegetables that have been used in a chochchori for centuries. Some of the other popular vegetables used are ridge gourd, drumsticks, pointed gourd, brinjal, hyacinth beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and cauliflower (stems as well as leaves).

Even shukto, the very popular mixed vegetable stew, requires wide-wedged cuts of several vegetables. In a preparation like this, the way they are cut and prepped plays an important role in how they come together in the end: we want all the vegetables to be cooked at the same time, and yet none should become so mushy that they disintegrate.

The same holds true for dalnas (curries). Be it cauliflower curry, potato and pointed gourd curry, or egg curry, diced (cubed) vegetables are needed. Dicing (dumo dumo) is a culinary cut in which the vegetables are cut into small blocks or diced. This is usually done not only for aesthetic reasons, but it also allows for distribution of flavour and texture throughout the dish, as well as a somewhat quicker cooking time. But, if the ‘wedge cut’ is used instead for dalnas, the taste and texture differs.

However, for bati chochchoris, the cut of the vegetables…potatoes, pumpkins and onions are important. You have to make fine sticks (juliennes or jhirjhire) of equal length and width—because this dish is usually steamed, and for even cooking, we need to cut the vegetables in equal sizes. Bati chochchori just needs a little bit of mustard oil, and all the sliced vegetables are mixed together with salt, sugar and mustard oil and steamed; whereas for chhenchki (dry pumpkin and/or potato curry), vegetables have to be thinly sliced (kuchi kuchi) like matchsticks and cooked in mustard oil and seasoned with nigella seeds and dry red chillies.

For chhanchra, again a mixed vegetable preparation, wedges of select vegetables…potatoes, pumpkins, brinjals, etc are used. Chhanchras also need leafy vegetables but are to be chopped (kucho) roughly along with their stems…could be spinach (palong saag) or Malabar spinach (pui saag).

A chhanchra or a chochchori are easy to cook recipes catering to the needs of large families—a culinary innovation that could perhaps be traced back to the Bengali famine when women folk would forage into their store rooms to put a meal together. Both the dishes are made with vegetables and may also include fish heads. A chhanchra or a chochchori can be had with some rice and occasionally some dal and is healthy and nutritious. Both the preparations exemplifies the skill of the women in Bengali households to make do with whatever is available at hand—everything was used—from piles of scrapped vegetable skins (khosas), leftover vegetables, fish bones and scales. It is important to cut the vegetables in the same way…either in wedges, slices, cubes or strips. In Bengali kitchens, different tempering is used for cooking each dish…be it vegetarian or non-vegetarian preparations. This, of course, can be dealt with in another article.

In Bengali kitchens, vegetables are cut, not with a hand-held knife, but with a bonti, a curved raised blade attached to a long wooden base and held in place by the foot of someone squatting on the floor. In fact, this allows the use of both the hands, and the job gets done faster and with precision. Bonti is widely used in many traditional kitchens of eastern and southern India. They are used in Indian households to peel, chop, shred, slice and dice vegetables and fruits.

Glossary of terms:

Bonti (Bengali): A semi-circular blade attached to a block of wood. A device used for chopping vegetables, fish and meat in East Indian kitchens. 

Dalna (Bengali): A thick curry usually cooked with vegetables, fish or eggs. 

Chochchori (Bengali): A dry vegetable or fish curry. 

Shukto (Bengali): Vegetable stew cooked usually with bitter gourd. 

Sabji (Bengali): Vegetables.

Jhurjhure alu bhaja (Bengali): Crispy fried potatoes.

Arundhati Gupta is a Kolkata based food enthusiast, communications consultant, freelance writer and a translator.

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