Bengali Pantry Essentials
What are the things that you need in order to set up a kitchen where you can cook Bengali food? This list focuses on ingredients with a long shelf life, like rice, grains, and spices; we've included a basic list of fresh staples, like vegetables, fish, egg or milk, at the end.
Even though this is tailored primarily to a Bengali cook, it should work as a pantry setup guide for Indian cooking in general.
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A Bengali pantry essentials list has to start with rice. On a day-to-day basis, most Bengalis eat sheddho chaal (parboiled rice; it is a method of processing rice). It is considered to have a slightly better nutritional profile than non-parboiled rice, and Bengalis think it is easier on the stomach, but that could mostly be out of habit.
A staple like sheddo chaal is readily available in markets across Bengal with varieties galore. Some of our favourites are hand-pounded dudhersar, tulaipanji (siddha), raniakanda, and rupshal.
Once you have the basics covered with the everyday staple, sheddho chaal, a Bengali pantry needs some kind of aatop chaal (fragrant, non-parboiled rice), specifically of a small-grained variety, for khichuri, polao or payesh.
The most commonly used rice is gobindobhog, but our current favourites include radhatilok, chinekamini, kanakchur, and karpurkanti. Outside Bengal, look for kalijira rice in Bangladeshi stores abroad, or jeera samba rice if you happen to live in the southern states of Indian.
Finally, for biryani, pulaos, or phirni, you may want to stock some aged, long-grained basmati rice. When you buy this rice check to see that it is old or aged rice. New rice is starchy and will not hold its shape after a long period of cooking, like in biryani.
Depending on how often you use them, you may want to stock the two fragrant rice (small-grained aatop, and basmati) in small quantities. They tend to lose their smell once the packet is opened. We typically buy not more than 500 g to 1 kg at a time (whereas, for comparison, we would buy the staple sheddho rice between 3 and 5 kgs at a time).
Lentils & Pulses
At the very basic level, a Bengali pantry needs to be stocked up on mosur dal, moog dal and chholar dal. With these in your pantry, you can make a wide variety of dals, in fact, there are so many recipes with just these three, that you are unlikely to get bored of them in a long time!
To d(i)al it up a notch try getting arahar dal, kolai’er dal and motor. That’s right. Graduate to this level and you will be able to make ghugni at home!
To complete your arsenal of Bengali dals, you might consider stocking torka’r dal, motor dal, chhola and kabli chhola. Torka’r dal is whole moog dal with the husk. It is great for making torka, which, it’s safe to say, is a hit with most Bengalis. You can add chhola to alu kabli, churmur, chaats, and also to torkari like mocha’r ghonto.
It is worth mentioning that three of dals on this list look very similar, which may be confusing. Chholar dal, also called chana dal, is split gram. Arhar dal, also called toor dal, is split pigeon peas. And motor dal or matar dal is split yellow peas.
Lentils and pulses
Most cooking begins with some kind of oil or fat. And in Bengali cooking, a majority of the recipes begin with good, pungent mustard oil. Besides regular cooking, it is also used for deep frying (think machh bhaja or beguni). In its raw form, you can drizzle mustard oil over certain dishes at the end of cooking to give them a sharp flavour. The concept is much like how the French use butter to finish their sauces or soups. It is also used to flavour things like alu sheddho (Bengali mashed potatoes) or phena bhaat.
Then there is ghee, which any South Asian kitchen is incomplete without. Bengali-style ghee in particular, is a brown, nutty, more caramelised version. It is used to cook, fry and flavour dishes. Many Bengali vegetable dishes (torkaris) are finished with a dollop of ghee and some gorom moshla at the very end.
Regular vegetable oil, what Bengalis call ‘shada tel’ (white oil), is mostly used for deep-frying, or in white gravies where mustard oil would turn it yellowish. We like buying oil with a high smoke point (so peanut oil or groundnut oil), as they they don't deteriorate after one round of frying, and can be reused a number of times, as long as you are careful not to let the oil smoke.
Butter can be spread over toast, used to fry your omelette, or to flavour your steaming hot rice or mashed potatoes.
If you anticipate dabbling in Italian, Mediterranean or Persian food, you’ll need olive oil. It is great when drizzled on pasta, hummus, or even just good bread.
Finally, this is something we almost always have in our freezer: it’s mutton fat. You can collect it from the top of mutton or beef curries and store it in a jar in the freezer. You can use it in torka, or ghugni, or even chicken curry for an added boost of flavour and umami.
A Bengali kitchen needs a wide variety of whole spices, for tempering (phoron), or to create powders or spice blends. First up, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom, what in Bengali we consider ‘gota gorom moshla’.
We then have shada jeere (cumin seeds), kaalo jeere (nigella seeds), and panch phoron (a five-spice mix). The last is a very typical eastern Indian mix of whole spices used for tempering curries. The exact combination may differ by region and even family, but more or less, nearly all cuisines of eastern India have some version of panch phoron. You can buy this readymade or follow our recipe.
Next, bay leaves, dried red chillies, and peppercorn. And you definitely need mustard seeds too. Mustard is a vital ingredient in Bengali cooking. It is used as tempering, and mustard paste forms the base of many Bengali sauces. We have two kinds of mustard seeds here, yellow and brown. If you are just starting out and have to choose, get just brown mustard. Yellow mustard is less pungent than brown mustard. So we always use a combination to make mustard paste.
Once you have managed to acquire the basic spices, you can get dhone (coriander seeds), methi (fenugreek seeds), mouri (fennel seeds) and radhuni. Mouri and methi are two of the spices in panch phoron. If you want to make panch phoron at home, you will need these. Plus they are used for tempering in recipes like tito’r dal. Radhuni is a spice typical to Bengal. It is used to temper dals, flavour shukto, spice achaars, and so on. It is often referred to online as celery seeds, but it is a different spice with no English translation that we could find. It looks very similar to yet another typically Indian spice, ajwain (carom seeds). So don’t get confused.
Then there’s black cardamom (boro elach), nutmeg (jayphol) and mace (joyitree). Advanced cooks may add star anise to this stash, along with peepli, shah jeera, kababchini, jowan (carom seeds) and kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves).
Did you know that peepli along with black pepper was how we cooked spicy hot food before the Portuguese brought chillies to India? Can you imagine Indian cooking without chillies now? Funny how what is considered traditional or authentic can change completely over a short period of time.
Grinding whole spices on a stone sheel-nora everyday is often not practical. Packet powdered spices will help you cook a wide variety of day-to-day dishes. Let’s start with the absolute essentials: turmeric, cumin powder, coriander powder and red chilli powder. These form the base of many vegetable, fish or meat dishes.
At the intermediate level you can keep a stash of Kashmiri red chilli powder. Its heat is milder than red chilli powder, but it is full of flavour, and adds a vibrant red colour to kababs or sauces.
A tiny pinch of hing or asafoetida adds a wonderful flavour to some of the ‘niramish’ dishes, in that it somewhat mimics the smell of onion and garlic. It is exceedingly pungent, so use sparingly.
Ground spices lose their flavour over time. So depending on your usage, if possible, buy smaller packets and refill your containers once a month.
Gorom moshla (garam masala) is a ubiquitous South Asian spice blend, the composition of which differs from region to region. The very basic Bengali gorom moshla is made with just three whole spices: cardamon, cloves and cinnamon. We always have this on hand, whether homemade or store-bought.
For certain recipes, especially meat dishes, it is useful to have shahi gorom moshla, which besides the three basic spices, contains nutmeg, mace, black cardamom and a few more.
Another typically Bengali blend is bhaja moshla, which translates to dry-roasted spices. It is made with a mix of whole spices—cumin seeds being the main ingredient—roasted and ground.
The spices for gorom moshla are very lightly toasted to awaken their flavours and get rid of any dampness from the cupboard, while those for bhaja moshla are properly roasted until they darken and their flavours turn deep. Bhaja moshla is used in torkaris like labra or panchmishali, or in chaats, phuchka, ghugni, chops, etc.
You obviously need salt and sugar. Besides these, consider stocking some gur (date-palm jaggery), michhri (rock candy) and beetnoon (black salt). Michhri is unrefined crystals of sugar, is less sweet and better-tasting than regular, processed sugar, and can be used to sweeten payesh.
You can also stock up on chat masala, aamchur and MSG, known more commonly by its brand name Ajinomoto. We say this in nearly all recipes that contain MSG, but we’ll say it again. The theory that MSG is harmful has been widely debunked. MSG is essentially a salt, which occurs naturally in several foods including tomatoes, grapes, cheese, mushrooms and even breast milk!
Aamchur is dried green-mango powder. It is slightly tangy, and makes a great addition to chops, chaats or other stuffed fillings.
Bengal is a paddy-growing region. So, the variety of flours we use isn’t as wide as in some of the western Indian cuisines. Still, a range of flours are used in the Bengali kitchen, the most common in the present times being maida (all-purpose flour) and atta (fine whole-wheat flour). Maida is used in luchi, kochuri and porota, a host of Bengali snacks and sweets, as well as in baked goods.
Other common flours are besan (gram flour) and rice flour. Besan is used as binding in batters. Rice flour is sometimes added to the batter for crispiness. Rice flour is also an important ingredient for making pithe, that is, snacks prepared during the harvest festival in winter.
Chhatu is roasted-gram flour, popular all over Eastern India, and particularly in Bihar. Mixed with milk or water it makes a quick, easy and nutritious drink in summer, or delicious chhatur porota. You can also add it to marinades of certain Mughlai dishes, such as chaap or kababs, for binding and a nutty flavour. Chhatu looks very similar to besan. But while besan, in most Bengali kitchens, is the flour of chholar dal, chhatu is the flour made with whole roasted gram.
Nuts & Dried Fruits
Moving on to the broad category we are calling fruits and nuts. Cashew and raisins have widespread uses in the Bengali kitchen. These are great additions to snacks such as mishti sooji, jhal sooji, chirer polao, etc., as well as certain more special dishes like polao, payesh and chutney.
On the topic of chutney, consider keeping dates or aamshotto around the house. Aamshotto is made from mango pulp and can be used to put together quick snacks like doodh-chire or doodh-bhaat.
Roasted peanuts make great snack on their own. They add so much flavour when fried and added to chop or shingara fillings. Almonds are very versatile too. They can be used in baking, and also to prepare kormas of different kinds.
The alu-posto-craving Bengali will do well to keep poppy seeds (posto) on hand. Advanced cooks may consider til (sesame seeds) and charmagaz (mixed melon seeds). Each of these, that is, posto, til and charmagaz, when added to dishes in paste form produces rich, creamy gravies.
Ripe tamarind is usually used in pulp form, after it is extracted from its pod. It is very sour and wonderfully flavourful. It has the kind of sourness you won’t get from other citric ingredients like lime. It is used in a whole range of snacks like doi bora, phuchka, churmur, alu kabli, etc.
Finally, we have alu bokhara or dried plums. They are a great addition to sweet chutneys. Alu bukhara can also be essential if you plan to prepare biryani or a rich polao at home.
Nuts and Dried Fruits
Adding quick and easy snacks created from muri, khoi, chire and sooji to your rotation can potentially solve the critical problem of what to eat for breakfast, or at those times when you find yourself hungry in the evenings before dinner is ready.
Chire (beaten rice) can simply be eaten with milk or yoghurt for breakfast, or as chire’r polao if you’re feeling fancy. Sooji (semolina) can be made into a quick sweet porridge or savoury jhal sooji. Muri (puffed rice) is great with your evening dose of telebhaja, and if you don’t have telebhaja, just plain jhal chanachur.
A khoi (popped rice) snack is similarly very easy to put together, just mixed with sweet yoghurt. Dalia (broken wheat) need a bit more prep, but great to have on hand.
Sabu (sago/kind of tapioca pearls) similarly need a bit of forethought, but we can't live without them, especially in summer when all the tropical fruits are out in their full glory. See this easy, delicious, no-cook breakfast treat using sabu along with mangoes, jackfruit, banana and lime.
What emergency snack collection would be complete without Maggi (or any other instant noodle of your choice)? Similarly, biscuits to have with your tea or coffee are a must.
And, of course, you must have chanachur. In Kolkata, we love picking up freshly made chanachur from the Ujjwala outlet in Hazra.
we often also like to have some dried noodles or pasta in our cupboards, for a light dinner or fancy snack.
Coming to beverages, if you happen to be among the avid tea drinkers that make up the Bengali race, you will need teas of your choice. We keep loose-leaf Darjeeling for liquor tea, as well as CTC for milk tea. Coffee drinkers might stock coffee.
The final beverage on this list is some kind of sherbet or syrup for the summers. Our favourites are rose syrup and passion fruit syrup. Refreshing on a hot day in water or even milk!
Aficionados of Kolkata-style biryani will swear by the fragrance of our next ingredient, meetha attar of a specific kind. The one most commonly available in Bengal is from the Deer brand. It is what lends our biryani its distinctive aroma. It is a complex essence, fashioned with a combination of, several mysterious aromatic substances, including rose water, kewra water, sandalwood, etc.
The last thing here is kesar or saffron. It is a supremely precious ingredient and usually broken out only for very special occasions. Kesar is used in Mughlai savoury and sweet dishes both for flavour and colour.
You have to have kasundi and ketchup. Kasundi is Bengali mustard. There can be various types but the most common one is flavoured with green mangoes. It is the condiment of choice with chops, fish fries and cutlets. We also love it with shaak or in panta bhaat!
Red chilli and green chilli sauces act as both sauce and condiment. If you are in Kolkata, and want to support a local Kolkata-based company, consider getting the Pou Chong chilli sauces. Did you know, Pou Chong is the inventor of the green chilli sauce! They are great in noodles and chilli chicken, as well as in rolls.
A good achaar can brighten up simple meals. It is great with porotas or rooti. Keep a good fruit jam in your fridge for a quick snack of toast and jam. We also like to keep some mayonnaise for sandwiches, salads, or a prawn cocktail!
Depending on how often you cook with these ingredients, you will need a small collection of sauces. At the very least, for a simple chowmein, chilli chicken or stir-fry type fare, you will need plain vinegar and soy sauce. For a vinegar with a bit more flavour, consider stocking a wine vinegar, palm vinegar or apple cider vinegar. Worcestershire sauce is great in roasts, stews and even everyday curries.
If, like us, you love Chinese food and cook it often, you can keep dark soy sauce, sesame oil, chilli oil, Chinese cooking wine, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, and so on. Most of these sauces have long shelf lives, so they last ages.
This list is not for hardcore bakers but if you like to make the occasional cake, you must have baking soda and baking powder in your cupboard. Baking powder has a shelf life of 9 to 12 months if kept properly sealed. So date your boxes or containers so that you know when you first opened them. Old or expired baking powder can prevent cakes from rising properly.
You will also need vanilla essence and cocoa powder.
Besides these we like to keep on hand good-quality dark chocolate (to make ganache, brownies, hot chocolate, etc.), vanilla beans (to infuse cream for caramel custard, for example), and brown sugar (for use in cakes and biscuits).
These are items we didn’t quite know how to categorise. So we are listing them here.
Bori is made from different kinds of dals. Little meringue-shaped dollops are dried in the sun in large batches during the winter months. Bori is fried and added to vegetable dishes to provide contrasting texture and flavour. It is heavenly in fish curries and shuktos, where it soaks up the delicious jhol and bursts in the mouth when you bite into it.
Beyond its used as an aftershave, fitkari or alum has exactly one vital function in the kitchen—to whiten rice. A small quantity added to water for boiling rice works wonders, especially in areas where the water has a lot of iron. But remember to use only a very tiny amount or it may affect the taste of your rice.
Citric acid is a handy thing to have around especially for recipes where you want to add acidity but not any strong citrus flavour. We use it in chutney, homemade jams, in dhokla, among other recipes.
For chops, devils and other breaded cutlets you need breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs are very easily available in many local grocery shops, but you can also make them at home by just toasting stale pieces of bread until crisp, and then coarsely grinding them.