Didi Ma's Kitchen, And Bengali Sukta
EVERY ISKCON TEMPLE has its unsung heroes devotees who quietly serve the Lord with dedication. You find them everywhere, but few reach the cooking stature of the eighty-year-old legend in the Deity kitchen of ISKCON's Mayapur Chandrodoya temple in West Bengal.
Her name is Radharani Dasi, but she's lovingly known as Didi Ma, or grandmother. Daily for the last seventeen years, she has directed her realm, the kitchen.
Today I met Didi Ma in the kitchen at 6:30 A.M. With her were two bright-faced brahmacaris, Ghanasyama Dasa and Rasavigraha Dasa, who have been training as her apprentices for, respectively, nine months and one and a half years. Surrounded by baskets of just-picked produce and by shiny brass pots of well water, she was seated on the floor, busy cleaning and cutting platter upon platter of vegetables with a very old Bengali foot knife.* Her grey eyes spoke volumes, conveying approval or disapproval with a glance. Words were sparse, save for terse instructions or affectionate exchanges with the temple priests and the extended kitchen staff.
* This utensil, a curved blade attached to a board, is held in place by one's feet. One sits on the floor and cuts vegetables by pushing them against the blade. A pleasant alternative to standing.
The quiet morning broken only with the sound of lilting Bengali kirtana, I marveled at the smooth flow of kitchen activity. I asked questions in my rusty pidgin Hindi-Bengali kitchen language. In five and a half hours, the team turned out four gigantic trays of a twelve-course Deity breakfast, a thirty-plus course Deity lunch, and numerous varieties of milk sweets. The two brahmacari chefs exchange duties daily from vegetable chef to bread-and-sweet chef but Didi Ma almost always cuts the vegetables. It is understood that the finished textures of the artful dishes rest largely on her precise vegetable cutting; the chefs have yet to graduate to the post.
Organization and Results
The bread-and-sweet chef for the day, Rasavigraha Dasa, made paper-thin wheat capatis; perfect buttered rice; deep-fried puffed breads called luci; sugar-glazed Bengali pastries called gaja; savory biscuits (spiked with black cumin seeds) called nimki; a condensed rice-pudding, called chaval khira, studded with raisins and cashews; diced fruit with rice, folded in sweet yogurt; and various fudges, called barfi andsandesa, made from milk and cheese. He worked on a Western-style marble countertop, making all the dough by hand. Using little more than a rolling pin and knife, he turned out flawless dishes.
Before the vegetable chef, Ghanasyama Dasa, began cooking, on a stone mortar he ground pastes of fresh ginger, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, white poppy seeds, and special spice-seed blends. He powdered fresh coconut by rubbing it across the fine teeth of an iron coconut grater. And he made fresh tomato puree in a mill.
Then he sat on a low stool in front of four burners, surrounded by ground spice pastes, platters of cut vegetables, containers of whole spices and ground spice powders, and tins of ghee and oil. In typical Bengali style, he began cooking all the dishes on high heat, using generous amounts of ghee and oil, in thick bowl-shaped karai pans.
A sampling of his dishes: rich cauliflower charchari; diced zucchini in a sugar glaze; cut green beans in tomato glaze; pureed spinach with fried panir cheese; cubed jackfruit-and-potato in cumin-ginger gravy; green papaya with bits of crispy channa dumplings in coconut sauce; pan-sauteed dry whole okra and potato fingers; and, the topic of this month's column, the vegetable stew called sukta all made in classic Bengali tradition, with trademark Didi Ma style.
How I define and prepare Bengali sukta comes largely from instructions given by Srila Prabhupada and his younger sister, Pishima. I talk about those instructions in the class textbook, Lord Krishna's Cuisine. If you're following this cooking-class series, read the section on sukta and then prepare at least three of the recipes from the cookbook.
In my experience, sukta was one of the dishes Srila Prabhupada most often requested. He would ask his cook to sun-dry sliced bitter-melon rounds to take with him when he traveled to places where fresh bitter melon wasn't available. I even recall him taking the time to do this himself on the rooftop patio of his Bombay quarters.
For newcomers to sukta, it is a faintly to sharply bitter vegetable dish, with textures ranging from that of thick soup to chunky stew. Its bitterness most popularly comes from bitter melon, called karela in India. It's available at many Chinese and Asian greengrocers and sporadically in larger supermarkets. According to many Ayurvedic sources, bitter dishes aid normal digestion and jump-start a sluggish appetite. Therefore they are eaten toward the beginning of an Indian meal.
The Didi Ma rendition of sukta that follows is decidedly Bengali, mixing deep-fried bitter melon and green banana with pan-fried potato and green papaya four tropical staples. Feel free to experiment with local seasonal produce, using vegetables such yams, peas, carrots, eggplant, potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, broad beans, or lima beans, in any combination. Deep-fried vegetables are traditional and yield a rich quality, but adding steamed or roasted vegetables to the sukta broth is also delicious. Bitter melon, however, is better not steamed or roasted; it is tempered and much more delicious when fried. Experiment with ingredients to find your own favorite varieties for sukta.
Kitchen Meditation for Today
Srila Prabhupada wrote in a letter to Vyasa Dasa in 1970, "Anyone can understand that behind the beauty of nature, behind the succulent fruits and vegetables, behind the wonderful heat and light of the sun, there is a Friend. So we should contact that dearmost friend, Krsna." With a fixed mind, contact Lord Krsna through your cooking.
Yamuna Devi is the author of the award-winning cookbooks Lord Krishna's Cuisine; The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking and Yamuna's Table. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post andVegetarian Times. Write to her in care of BTG.
Didi Ma Sukta
Use any 4 varieties of the vegetables mentioned in the article plus the bitter melon mentioned below to familiarize yourself with this dish; then forget the measurements.
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
½-inch piece ginger root
1-2 jalapeno chilies, as desired
¼ teaspoon turmeric
3 tablespoons water
3 lbs. mixed vegetables, cut into large 1 ¼" pieces
optional oil or ghee for pan-frying
¼ to ½ cup sliced bitter melons
Toasted spice seasoning and assembly:
1 tablespoon unrefined corn oil or ghee
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 cassia or bay leaf, crushed
6 cups water or 4 cups water and 2 cups milk
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or parsley
Combine in a blender all the ingredients for the spice paste, process until smooth, and then transfer to a bowl.
Fry the root vegetables, eggplant, or starchy vegetables in batches until golden brown. (Alternatively, steam or oven-roast the vegetables until tender.) Set aside.
In a little oil or ghee, fry sliced bitter melons until brown and crispy; remove with a slotted spoon and let drain.
In a large saucepan, heat the corn oil or ghee over moderately high heat. Add the cumin and bay leaf and fry until the cumin darkens a few shades. Add the spice paste and fry until nearly dry. Pour in the water or liquids and bring to a boil. Add all of the vegetables, bring to a gentle boil and cook to the desired texture. Season with salt and pepper and fold in fresh herbs. Then offer to Krsna.