Bhortas are the ultimate comfort food and an essential part of Bangladeshi cuisine, says Rahul Verma
Some years ago, I conducted an informal poll among friends on their favourite comfort food. Some said this, and some said that, but the dish that made many of my Bengali friends go all moony was sheddho or bhaatey bhaat. For those outside of Bengal, let me explain that this is essentially steamed rice, served with ghee, a boiled egg and boiled, mashed potatoes mixed with onions, green chillies and mustard oil. It can come with a boiled red lentil mash (again laced with mustard oil). And the dish is so very special mainly because of these mashes.
The importance of mashed food struck me once again when I heard that my friend Pritha Sen, who has been studying food customs for several years now (and cooking delicious meals), was organising a bhorta festival in Calcutta. Bhorta is the name for mashes in Bangladesh. And while not very different from their cousins in Bengal, they are generally prepared with a lot of onion, garlic and chillies.
“The Bangladeshi bhorta as it has evolved today is an amalgamation of four kinds of cooking techniques, all of them essentially ground or mashed by hand and mixed with minimal spices and mustard oil, used at one time by both Hindu and Muslim families in the erstwhile East Bengal,” Sen explains. “These were bata (ground), pora (roasted), bhaatey or makha (steamed), and bhorta,” adds Gurgaon-based Sen, the curator of the August 21 festival along with Nayana Sengupta Afroz of Bangladesh and Calcutta’s Somnath Roychoudhury.
Poras, holds chef Sushanta Sengupta of 6Ballygunge Place, are generally vegetarian, while bhorta can be non-vegetarian. There can be, for instance, chingri sheddho bhorta (with shrimps), lau pataye latya bhorta (Bombay duck in gourd leaf) and ilish kumro bhorta (hilsa-pumpkin). Sumanta Chakrabarti, corporate chef of Neotia Hospitality, points out that there are dried fish and bekti mashes, too, apart from a host of delicious vegetarian versions.
That bhortas are an essential part of Bangladesh’s cuisine became apparent to me when I read Khunti Korai — Bangladeshi cuisine by Shawkat Usman. Mentioning interesting variations of mashes, he writes: “Bhorta is food cooked or raw, sliced, chopped, mashed or crushed, and then spiced with raw onions, green chillies or crushed dried red chillies.”
Bhortas are eaten by most Bangladeshis at the start of a meal. “People eat various kinds of bhortas at home — of vegetable peels (like the skin of raw bananas), vegetables, fish, shrimps, dried fish, eggs and, although not so regularly, meat,” Afroz says.
There are unusual kinds of bhortas, too. There is one of dumur, the Indian fig. Mashed patties are also prepared with kalo jeerey or onion seeds, and til badaam, sesame seeds.
“The genesis of this dish actually lies in the history of the use of uncultivated foods in lush Undivided Bengal, the earliest reference being found in an eighth century couplet in proto Bengali or Apabhramsa,” Sen underlines. “Therefore the repertoire was huge — beginning with all kinds of taro, greens such as saag and stalks, gourd greens, vegetables and vegetable peels.”
Popular poras at one time, she points out, were colocasia greens, brinjal, jackfruit seeds, ripe seeds of pointed gourd, sweet potato, etc. “Shol maachh (murrel fish) pora was a huge delicacy and some families with Durga Puja traditions going back to 500 years or more still have it on their bhog menu,” she adds.
Chef Sengupta and Sen refer to a Bengali saying: Pora mukhe sob khabar bhalo lage. “Once the pora taste has permeated the palate, everything else tastes good after that,” Sen translates. I can believe that.
Photographs courtesy A.B.M. Aktaruzzaman