Indian

A Bowl of Bengali Comfort Food, For When Life is Turbulent

Comfort food is often seasoned with nostalgia, fond memories of happy times that take us back to where want to be. And it’s even more true when life feels turbulent.

A unique and very simple meal that many Bengalis hold close to their heart is one called bhaate-bhaat, which is rarely eaten outside the home or even shared with non-family members. It’s essentially a humble meal of steaming-hot rice and an assortment of vegetables that are mashed, separately, with clarified butter and/or mustard oil, green chiles, cilantro, and maybe lime or lemon juice.

The name basically means a meal cooked in rice, as “bhaat” is the Bengali word for rice, and, given the importance of rice on the Bengali table, also loosely refers to food in general.

Bengali cuisine belongs to the eastern state of West Bengal in India and the country of Bangladesh, bound together, across political lines, by a shared language and cuisine. Many Bengali homes have their version of this simple meal, endorsed in Ayurvedic tradition as the meal of choice for simplicity, purification, and even periods of mourning, due to the balance of protein, fat, fiber, and carbohydrate.

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“Another comfort word, though low on the totem pole, is "dahi bhaat". Just plain rice mixed with plain yogurt and salt. ”
— Annada R.
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For me, bhaate-bhaat was something that I usually enjoyed as a child when my father had to cook for me unexpectedly, usually when my mother was running late from an errand. While there were other options, it was our father-daughter thing to do. It was something over which he made a lot of fuss and fanfare, yet, in the process, taught me to celebrate simplicity.

Photo by James Ransom

Bapi, as I called my father, would go looking for whatever we could piece together for our special bhate-bhaat, with vegetables ranging from spinach to cauliflower, pumpkin to taro to green banana. The potatoes were usually a given. The vegetables were made separately, carefully mashed with the appropriate seasonings, and shaped into small balls so that the servings included a little of everything.

We would add red lentils, usually cooked in a cheesecloth in the same pot as the rice, and my father’s special touch was to add eggs to the pot towards the end, ensuring that they cooked to a semi-soft yolk, something he referred to as “quarter-boiled." It has taken me becoming a parent twice over to understand the importance of such precision in food rituals.

It has taken me becoming a parent twice over to understand the importance of such precision in food rituals.

Today, in my New York kitchen, I am years and miles away from those moments. But when the need for comfort and the cravings for warmth hits, I run to cobble together my ingredients to make this very basic comforting meal, usually from a mélange of winter squash, Yukon Gold potatoes, and red lentils. Sometimes I round it out with spinach or kale—and of course the quarter-boiled egg, exactly the way my father made it.

The last time I shared this meal with my mother and brother was after my father had passed away. It was the prescribed fare for mourning, and yet in many ways it was just what was appropriate for remembering Bapi and celebrating my many wonderful years with him: in food, comfort, love, and nourishment.

When the going gets rough, you take to the kitchen and make what? Tell us in the comments below.

23 Comments

Alice February 13, 2017
Thank you for this lovely story and recipe. I know a bit of South Indian cooking, and some Mogul dishes but nothing about Bengali cooking. I will remember you and your father when I make this.
 
Tazmin A. February 13, 2017
What a beautiful heart-warming story!! Thank you for sharing this with us. It brought tears to my eyes as I recalled my childhood spent with my dad. My father refused to cook or even make chai. (Women's work'!! 😜). But to his credit he gave his daughters as great an education as his son. I have fond memories of Sundays where he and I either worked on his stamp collection, went to cricket matches or ambled around downtown. <br />
 
Ruth N. February 12, 2017
Your website has the best recipes of all....they are my favorites...thanks
 
luvcookbooks February 8, 2017
Creamy yogurt rice. Boiled rice mixed w fried cumin seeds, mustard seeds, curry leaves, and dried red pepper. Stir in whole milk yogurt and whole milk.
 
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Rinku B. February 8, 2017
Tayir Shadum or curd rice, absolutely quintessential comfort food from Southern India.
 
Natasha February 8, 2017
This was a treat we had growing up - basmati rice mashed with a hard boiled egg, butter (or ghee), salt, and green chili. Thinking about it now makes me hungry!
 
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Rinku B. February 8, 2017
Nice!
 
E February 7, 2017
Aww loved this! And I love all your recipes too, Rinku :) This is one of my favorite things my mom makes for me when I visit. I also love bhartas - my mom makes a great shrimp bharta. And this Bengali restaurant in the Bronx actually makes bhate and bhartas. About to save this recipe!
 
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Rinku B. February 7, 2017
Thanks!
 
Whiteantlers February 7, 2017
That was a beautiful, touching article. It made me cry. Thank you for sharing such a sweet memory of making this with your late father.
 
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Rinku B. February 7, 2017
Thank you!<br />
 
txchick57 February 7, 2017
Reminds me of rava uppma which is the most comforting food I know.
 
Author Comment
Rinku B. February 7, 2017
I love rava uppma
 
Julie February 7, 2017
In college I had a Bengali roommate who made me something similar. We never had the full set of vegetables like this, but she would prepare them in a similar way individually and she called them "bhartas". (I'm guessing "bharta" and "bhaate" are similar words that mean smashed?) They were so good! My favorites were the baingan ka bharta and the egg bharta. Sometimes when we had extra vegetables or even random leftovers, we would "bharta-fy" it--cook till soft, smash it up, and saute with mustard oil, onions, garlic, and chilies. I learned that there are very few things that don't taste good after you do that (but don't try it with cake--that one doesn't work...). Reading your article brought back a lot of happy memories!
 
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Rinku B. February 7, 2017
Julie, bharta is a close cousin of bhate.
 
Mayukh S. February 7, 2017
Rinku! Love this. My mom was telling me the other day about how difficult it was to describe bhaate-bhaat when she first got to the US from India. Though when it comes to comfort food, she and I prefer aloo sheddo deem sheddo bhaat ;-)
 
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Rinku B. February 7, 2017
Close really! This is an expansion of aloo sheddo deem sheddo bhaat. Wanted to send you something on a Bengali fish curry in response to your piece on fish.<br />
 
Mayukh S. February 7, 2017
If only I weren't allergic to maach! But send away :)
 
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Rinku B. February 7, 2017
Ha! Funny! my son is too! but can eat salmon.
 
Annada R. February 7, 2017
Beautiful article, Rinku! Thank you for sharing your childhood memory. Once again reminded me about the power of food. My comfort food involves rice too. It is something called "pithala bhaat." For the lack of a better word, it's a semi-soft stew made of chickpea flour (besan) and onions topped on steaming hot rice with ghee. Another comfort word, though low on the totem pole, is "dahi bhaat". Just plain rice mixed with plain yogurt and salt.
 
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Rinku B. February 7, 2017
My husband love dahi bhaat, he usually adds pickle to his.
 
creamtea February 7, 2017
I used to mix rice with yogurt way back when (probably during my college years)! I didn't know it was an actual "recipe" from that part of the world, it was just something I did. I liked it. Maybe I'll start to do it again for lunches or when I'm home alone for dinner.
 
Author Comment
Rinku B. February 8, 2017
Well, maybe my opinion but a lot of Indian cooking is a concoction, not really a recipe and bhate bhaat is no different.