Go Bananas

Kolkata is always an indulgence in food. It helps, of course, that my aunt is both keen and competent as a cook. Bengali food is all about simple spice combinations and exotic vegetables. Given that Bengal is full of banana trees, it isn't unexpected that banana florets - which we call mocha - is on the menu today. The stuff is horrendously laborious to clean and peel since you need to go through a lot of those tiny florets to arrive at any volume of the curry, but the result is one of my favorites specially since I play no role in the aforementioned labour. Mochar ghonto is best had with rice for lunch, where the blandness of the rice matches the spicy cinnamon-clove flavor of the ghonto. Then there's thor (rhyming with more) - the spongy pith inside the stem. When the green outer layers are peeled off, a white hollow tube emerges that looks and feels quite like plastic, but someone somewhere persuaded the bongs that it was edible. Since then, the chopped up, nicely spiced version has displaced the Norse god in Bongland. Not without considerable hard work. though. The stalk is surrounded by a fibruos string that has to be unwound before the edible core is accessible. It's a bit of an acquired taste (which, of course, is another way of saying it tastes bizarre till you're too used to it to know better). I remember I used to dislike it when I was a child, specially the stringy celery-stalk texture it had, but I've changed my opinion since then. It's a dry dish, eaten with rice before any of the curries. More banana stuff is in store. A different species of banana is the kachkola - literally "green banana" but not the unripe version of the regular yellow kinds. Rather this is a cousin that is also, strangely enough, synonymous with snubbing someone. It tastes horrible when ripe, but while green forms the critical component to two of my favorite bongland items - sukto and kachkolar kopta. Sukto is a vegetable medley with ginger and mustard, but the kachkola is one of the essentials. The kopta is mashed kachkola made into balls with whole raisins in a garam-masla gravy. The subtle taste and smooth texture of mashed kachkola combines extremely well with the sweet raisins and the hot, strongly aromatic gravy. Finally, of course, there's the banana leaf. In bongo-shomaj (that's bongland for you illiterates) it's used to wrap stuff such as cauliflower or shrimp or fish such as hilsa with a paste of coconut, green chillies and mustard. The package is then steamed, usually by putting it on top of rice that's cooking. It's called paturi, and no you don't eat the leaf. Did I mention we eat ripe bananas too?

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