Almost a century ago,the famous Bengali poet and Nobel laureate,Rabindranath Tagore,viewed the swaying mustard flowers and immortalized them in poetry. The mustard plant has,for centuries,been a part of most Indian diets.
When I say most Indian diets,the mustard crop is grown and harvested mostly in the North and the Eastern regions of the country. Traditionally the seeds are pressed to form a rich mustard oil,using a process that has not changed in centuries. The seeds are placed in the centre of a thresher and it is powered by oxen that walk around it in a circle,operating the levers and cranks that operate the rollers that produce the rich,strongly aromatic oil.
The oil is used raw in smaller quantities to give a sharp,pungent taste to a dish. If used for cooking;it has to be heated till it almost smokes,to cook out the harsh raw flavour. Mustard oil is also used raw for traditional Indian head and body massages. Of course,a regular imbibing in this activity could cost you all your friends because of the strong sulphurous overtones in fragrance.
Mustard seeds are also ground to a paste to use in sauce traditional Bihari,Bengali,Bhaiya and Oriya cooking.
The Bengalis make an absolutely fantastic mustard dip called ‘Kasundi’. If the supply and production processes could be improved,I am sure that a little town called Dijon,in France,could be facing some real serious competition.
Kasundi/Bengali Mustard Relish
Mustard seeds 200 g/ 1 cup
Garlic cloves peeled 20 g/ 4 tsp
Green mango peeled and diced – 100 g/ 1/2 cup
Mustard oil 100 ml/ 1/2 cup
Fresh chillies 6
Salt to taste
Soak the mustard seeds in warm water for an hour. In a food processor grind together the drained mustards seeds,the garlic,the green mango,the chillies and the salt. Slowly trickle the oil in to form an emulsion. Remove when a thick paste has formed and check seasoning. This will keep well for several weeks under refrigeration.
Okra cooked in a Bengali mustard sauce
The ‘jhaal’ is a very traditional Bengali preparation that usually has fish simmering in it. Around the mid-nineteenth century and at the turn of the twentieth,the city started seeing an influx of Marwari traders who were compelled by their religions to follow the vegetarian way of life. Not wanting to deny their new guests the finer aspects of traditional Bengali hospitality,modifications were made in deference to the requests of their new compatriots.
Okra,trimmed at either end – 450 g/ 1 lb
Yellow mustard seeds – 30 g/ 2 tbsp
Black mustard seeds – 30 g/ 2 tbsp
Chopped fresh chillies - 15 g/ 1 tbsp
Slit fresh chillies – 3
Mustard oil – 30 ml/ 2 tbsp
Fresh tomatoes ground to a puree – 50 g/ ¼ cup
Water – 50 ml/ ¼ cup
Turmeric powder – 20 g/ 1 tbsp
Chilli powder – 5 g/ 1 tsp
Salt – to taste
Soak the mustard seeds in about 50 ml (1/4 cup) of hot water for an hour. Grind together with the fresh chillies.
Heat the oil in a thick bottomed pot. When it smokes,fry the okra till the vegetables turn bright green. Remove and drain off the excess oil and sprinkle on some salt and a bit of the chilli powder. Reheat the oil in the same vessel and stir in the tomato puree. When it browns add in the mustard paste. Simmer for a couple of minutes till it thickens,add in the water. Sprinkle on the turmeric and chilli powder. When the sauce thickens,simmer the fried okra in the gravy. Check seasoning and remove. Serve with steamed rice.