At its core, a chorchori or charchari is a mix vegetable preparation in the Bengali cuisine. It brings together a few vegetables in a wok or pan along with an easy tempering and results in a one-pot dish with little or no addition of water. It's also handy when you have dinky bits of different vegetables, aptly described as "fridge-cleaning" in the contemporary world.
In my cooking journey of fifteen years so far, I had once the luxury of having a cook at home. After moving to Bangalore, I initially lived with sister M. Following a year of gruesome commute, I moved closer to work and there burgeoned the true life of independent living. We were four girls renting an apartment in the far flung locality of Whitefield—the land of concrete decked with high rises of IT companies. While I was always willing to cook for all of us, my housemates found it too much of a chore for me alone. So, we decided to hire someone to cook for us and I happily took over the responsibility to task the cook everyday and keep track of the grocery.
J, our cook, was somewhat stout, always adorning a pair of shakha-pola on her wrists and a bindi on her forehead, occasionally a paan stuffed in the corner of her mouth and forever wearing a smile on her face. She called me didi, meaning elder sister, although she was elder to me, and I called her the same, didi. No matter how much I asked, she would not call me by my name. Didi meant respect, and she never agreed to call me anything else!
Didi J was my soulmate in that kitchen in Bangalore. With a stock full of stories and a knack for cooking a variety of dishes, she never ran out of banter. Despite the shocks of migration from Bangladesh, a grim family scene and stunted finances, a drunk husband and a daughter left far away in the village to have a sheltered life, Didi J could always make people smile with her talk and her food.
Although a Bengali, she cooked all kinds of Indian food. Idlis, parathas, dhokla, you name it! I loved the Bong murgirir laal jhol (chicken in a thin red gravy), kochu bata (mashed taro), mochar ghonto (banana blossom preparation) and shorshe ilish (hilsa fish in mustard) she made but what I relished the most were her chorchoris or charcharis.
There are many variants of chorchori, the difference being the tempering and no strict regime for what vegetables to use. The name of the chorchori will denote the constituent vegetables or the tempering used in it.
It's extremely flexible in terms of what vegetables to use. Not restricted by strict recipes, its taste is attributed to the art of chopping the constituent vegetables, pairing them appropriately and layering them with minimal spices with a glug of mustard oil. All vegetables in a chorchori are chopped in a similar fashion to ensure uniform cooking. The vegetables that take longest to cook go first into the kadhai followed by the ones that take less time.
Slices of pumpkin, chunks of eggplants, handful of greens and dices of stems or roots like drumsticks and taro are some of the oldest vegetables used in a chorchori. Some other popular vegetables used in a chorchori are ridge gourd, drumsticks, pointed gourd, brinjal, hyacinth beans and potatoes.
Bitter gourds, sweet potatoes, carrots and cauliflower (stems as well as leaves) are also readily used.
Although a chorchori is primarily vegetarian, fish is also included in some varieties. Small fish like chanda, tengra, morola, bele, kochki, shrimps work really well with vegetables in a chorchori.
Didi J cooked it in many ways. She sometimes added paanch phoron along with dried red chilies and bay leaves. She also made a version with a tempering of nigella seeds alone, and added pounded ginger and green chili. This particularly is my favourite! At times, she made it with only asafoetida (hing). This variety is subtle and gets a bit of kick with a few green chilies. Another tempering is with plain mustard seeds, and sometimes a mustard paste, shorshe bata and bori (dried lentil dumplings). Mustard oil provides a distinct taste to chorchori and the texture is defined by the cuts of the vegetables.
This style of cooking vegetables is akin to the Odia chadchadi although the tempering in that often includes garlic, not always necessarily.
A chorchori or charchari is a Bengali story of extremes, one that ranges from extravagance to resourcefulness. To understand how, we need to go slightly deeper into India's past.
Chorchori and Bengal's excesses...
With an area of 228,000 square kilometers, undivided Bengal consisted of East Pakistan or Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal in India today. Renowned for its fertile soil, paddy production and rivers which were inexhaustible sources of a variety of fish, Bengal was one of the wealthiest regions of the subcontinent. While Bengalis are usually associated with a fish and rice diet—owing to the abundance of both in the region—the Bengali cuisine is rich in several vegetarian dishes.
In a Conde Nast Traveller article, food historian Pritha Sen says, "Bengal was the land of greens and gourds." With the rise of Vaishnava Bhakti cult (worshipping the Hindu god Vishnu) in 14th-15th century Bengal, vegetarian cooking found new dimensions, so much that dal got a place in the meal as a replacement of meat and fish. Even before this juggernaut movement which became stronger and popular with the followers of Sri Chaitanya, the Hindu widows among the Brahmin and Kayastha castes are believed to have pioneered many vegetarian dishes including chorchori. The regressive patriarchy made them abstain from onion, garlic, pungent spices, meat and fish, all of which were categorized as foods that could boost sex drive. Sen further explains, “Yes, it’s true a lot of our vegetarian food was perpetuated because of widows. All families had widowed relatives living them. Therefore, vegetarian food was a constant. But the repertoire did not happen because of them. The myth that they originated from them was started for sensationalism.”
A chorchori also exemplifies easy cooking catering to the needs of large families. Whethr made with vegetables or including fish, a chorchori with some rice and occasional dal is sufficient for a meal.
It was also a means to utilize the energy used in cooking. Consider the bati chorchori. Raw vegetables were laid out in a bowl or bati and raw mustard oil was added on top. A lid was placed over this bowl and left to be slow cooked in the dying embers of a wood fire. This mirrors the Odia cooking technique of Bati Basa. There is another school of thought that describes a slightly different style of cooking a bati chorchori. The vegetables are first cooked normally in a kadhai just as a chorchori would be made, and then the heat is turned off. The vegetables from the kadhai are mixed with green chilli, mustard and poppy seed paste and raw mustard oil, stuffed in a bowl and steamed for a few minutes.
Irrespective of the origin and the variants, chorchori in pre-British Bengal was a celebration of the fresh produce, heaving with the abundance of vegetables growing in the Ganga delta. The face of chorchori underwent changes during economic crisis and famines in Bengal in the 17th and 19th centuries.
Chorchori and Bengal's poverty...
Under the British Raj the Indian subcontinent was robbed for 200 years spiking the economy with repeated famines. It was the oppressive British taxation that caused the famines and not the lack of food. A British Indian government famine inspector, William Digby, explains in his book, Prosperous British India: A Revelation from Official Records, how an insurance fund against famine at one and a half million a year was added to the taxation of the country. The subcontinent was made to pay a portion of the expenses for an unnecessary war in Afghanistan and how the insurance sum was expanded over the years for railways and other communications, as if the railways were a solution for the famines and as though the most tragic famines had not occurred in provinces well supplied with railways!
Like Digby, Surgeon Major Francis Day, Inspector General of Fisheries in India was also ignored who reported to the profit hungry British government that the fishermen burdened by taxation preferred to starve than go about their daily job of fishing. Emperor Akbar who had abolished numerous other taxes had kept the land tax to one-third. With the Mughal empire falling apart, the nawabs and rajas not only raised the land tax but revived the taxes that had been discontinued and brought in more exacerbating taxes. The East India Company happily continued the trend, raising the land tax to its highest in the history of the subcontinent. With the monopoly over trade, they now dictated the prices of goods sold and bought.
Robert Clive of the East India Company dislodged Mughal emperor Shah Alam in 1765 with the signing of the Treaty of Allahabad after the Battle of Buxar, seizing the Diwani rights, right to collect taxes on behalf of the emperor from the eastern province of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa in return of securing the districts of Kora and Allahabad for the emperor. The taxes trebled within five years and in the Great Bengal famine of 1769-1773, a third of the population of Bengal died. Even after this, the company continued to increase its taxes.
With people becoming less able to pay taxes and the fact that the government cannot run without revenue, Lord Cornwallis introduced the Zamindari System under his Permanent Settlement Act in 1793 which brought in intermediaries called as zamindars, mahalwars, ryotwars who were made land owners and rented their lands to peasants who cultivated on their land. The East India Company owned the 10/11 of the rent (land tax collected by zamindars) while the zamindars kept only 1/11 of the share, heavily impoverishing the peasants. This zamindari system was different than the system under the Mughals because the latter did not make zamindars the land owners neither did it allow lands to be taken away from the peasants unless they paid the rent. Like many other parts of India, a large portion of Bengal was sacrificed for the zamindars of the British Government in captive India.
Author and physician Manoshi Bhattacharya mentions in a DailyO article:
India, which is reckoned to have accounted for a quarter of global manufacturing before the British traders arrived, was reduced to just 3% of world GDP by the dawn of the 20th century. Bengal silver funded Britain's Industrial Revolution which began to flood the markets of India with British products.
At this point of time, chorchori was no longer a prodigal vegetarian extravaganza. Women honed their skills to use whatever was available to make chorchori practicing the philosophy of root-to-shoot or nose-to-tail cooking. Everything was used from piles of scrapped vegetable skins, fish bones and scales, nugatory seeds of the opium poppy that had overhauled their lands (thanks to the British again), to pulverized mustard seed remnants outside oil mills, keeping the families alive on frugal meals.
In 1943, Bengal was hit by another famine. Didi J used to recall the many charcharis of those days, khosa chorchori made with only vegetable peels and the kaanta chorchori that used fish bones and fish head or the dal chorchori made with masoor dal. These days we add a variety of vegetables to the kaanta chorchori, but it was not always the case then. It could be just onions or potatoes with some mustard.
Even after the partition and India's independence in 1947, life continued to be complicated for the common people. It wasn't that a paper drawn line solved the centuries of decay from the British exploitation. Born in the late 1960s, Didi J struggled with her family's continuous tussles with fate and political leaders' apathy. Her widowed grandmother went foraging for wild greens while her mother cooked rice which was usually not enough for everyone. In a dilapidated house, her mother would sit on a platter in the shoddy kitchen, mixing boiled rice with the charchari of the day, making balls and feeding Didi J and her siblings. With the family fed to some extent, the mother and grandmother would often sleep on empty stomachs, fanning themselves with the loose ends of their sarees under a dimming lantern.
Cooking a khosa or kaanta chorchori, Didi J would cajole in her sweet broken Hindi,"Kochu ke jaise hum log Bangladesh se yahan aa gaya didi, lekin jeebon obhi bhi wohi hai. Wohi charchari aaj bhi banata didi. Kintu dusre ka badi mein nei. Aapko itna pasand, shei karon aapke badi mein banata."...."We wriggled out of Bangladesh just as a taro root grows but life is the same. I make the same charchari didi but not in other people's homes. You like it so much, so I make it in your house."
Whether using fresh vegetables or discarded peels, stems or roots or bones, a chorchori celebrates the ingredients, unbridling their secret tastes and flavours. Didi J taught me well and here I'm sharing a version which is one of the easiest and the most minimalistic chorchori.
The only tip for a good chorchori is to cut all vegetables in similar shapes and sizes. You can cut them in wedges and slices or keep them as large chunks. Whatever you do, chopping them fine will not yield a chorchori. It will become a bhorta or a paste while the vegetables are cooked!
Begin with the hardest vegetable, the one that takes the longest to cook. Toss or cover and cook for a few minutes and then add the vegetables in descending order of toughness or cooking time.
There are different types of tempering used in a chorchori, and you may use any as you wish. In this specific recipe, I've used nigella seeds, mustard oil, some asafoetida and a blob of pounded ginger and green chili. You make it with nigella seeds and mustard oil only.
Garam masala or whole spices are traditionally not added to chorchoris although some recipes in the internet may call upon their use.
2 small eggplants, sliced into wedges or batons
2 potatoes, sliced into wedges (you can keep the skin on as well)
Stalks of a cauliflower, thinly sliced
Leaves of cauliflower, as is
1-2 small carrots, cut into batons
10-12 beans (French or broad beans), cut into slender poles Note: The vegetables mentioned are for reference. You can use any other vegetables per availability.
For tempering: 2 tbsp mustard oil, 1-2 dry red chilies, 1 tsp nigella seeds, a pinch of asafoetida, 1/2 inch ginger plus 1 green chili pounded Or 2 tbsp mustard oil, 1-2 dry red chilies, 1 tsp mustard seeds or paanch phoron (equal parts of mustard, cumin, fenugreek, nigella and fennel seeds)
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt, or to taste
Note: A lot of chorchori recipes that use cauliflower stalks (these are best in winter as the stalks are tender then), especially the ones from East Bengal, include mustard paste. The mustard paste provides a characteristic flavour and identity to the chorchori. I've not used it here as I prefer to make that version with cauliflower stalks, brinjal, broad beans and pumpkin. To make mustard paste, soak 1 tbsp black and 1 tbsp yellow mustard for an hour and grind fine with green chilies and water.
Place a pan or wok on medium to low heat and add mustard oil. Heat it to smoking point and then add the dry red chilies. Once they puff up, add nigella seeds and then add asafoetida.
Begin with the hardest vegetable. In this case, I added the cauliflower stalks first. Sauté for 3 minutes and then add the potatoes. Stir intermittently for about 3 minutes again. You may reduce the heat or add splashes of water if you find anything sticking to the bottom.
Next add carrots and continue sautéing for the next 2-3 minutes. Mix the vegetables and toss them around the pan or wok. Next add the beans, mix and cook for 3 minutes again.
The vegetables must be about 50% cooked by now. Add salt and turmeric and stir to combine. Add a few splashes of water if needed, reduce the heat and cover and cook for 5 minutes. Open the pan and then add the eggplants. Give a good mix and add the pounded ginger and green chilies. Stir to combine.
Sauté for 5 minutes or until the eggplants are soft but hold their shape. Switch off the heat. Serve with steamed rice and dal topped with lime wedges.