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

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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.

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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.

Bhaate-Bhat (Bengali Mashed Vegetables and Rice)
Bhaate-Bhat (Bengali Mashed Vegetables and Rice)

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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Bhaate-Bhat (Bengali Mashed Vegetables and Rice)

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Serves 4
  • 3/4 cup red lentils (masuur dal)
  • 3 or 4 Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered
  • 1 pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into large pieces
  • 1 pound trimmed spinach or baby kale leaves
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup basmati or kalajeera Rice
  • 2 tablespoons clarified butter or ghee, divided
  • 2 tablespoons mustard oil or extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 medium red onion, finely chopped and divided
  • 2 or 3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro, divided
  • 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • 2 or 3 green chiles, minced and divided
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (optional, to taste), divided

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