India 2008: Bloom of Youth

During a recent visit to Calcutta, I was invited to lunch by a woman whose reputation as a Bengali cook made me accept with delighted anticipation. The meal surpassed my expectations, and what stood out above the giant prawns, hilsa fish, and lamb with poppy seeds was her mochar ghanto, a fragrant dish of banana blossom, or mocha, with tiny cubed potatoes, tinier coconut chips, chickpeas, and spices. A Bengali classic, it can be found year-round in Calcutta, though rarely in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I live now.

Bengali gastronomes consider mochar ghanto a true test of a cook because of its mélange of textures—dense, chewy, soft, brittle—and the harmonious melding of spices. It’s also a cultural marker, identifying a regional palate, and perhaps a generational one. While my fellow guests avidly consumed every item on the table, there was a teenage girl who screwed up her face when she tasted the banana blossom. After lunch, the girl told me what she loved most was going out with friends and ordering french fries at a fast-food restaurant. Any notion I had about extolling the banana blossom to the young Bengali quickly vanished.

Bananas have been around in India for eons, and the fruit, the blossom, even the pith inside the trunk have long been part of the cuisine. But in Bengal the banana has a special mystique. A 16th-century biography of the Bengali mystic Chaitanya eloquently describes a banana blossom dish prepared for him in the house of a disciple. As a child I loved the story of the beautiful Behula, who sailed downriver in a banana raft all the way to the underworld and rescued her husband from Manasa, the vengeful snake goddess.

Growing up I had little interest in cooking, but I delighted in watching my mother painstakingly prepare mocha. The process began with her peeling away the purple layers to reveal the clusters of tiny bananas and the ivory-colored center, which she chopped into small pieces and boiled with salt and tamarind to leach away the bitterness. For her mochar ghanto she then heated mustard oil and tossed in bay leaves, whole cumin seeds, and a few slit green chiles. As the fragrance of spices filled the air, the banana blossom was added along with the potatoes, coconut chips, and chickpeas. I often imagined I could give up fish and meat as long as I could have my mother’s mochar ghanto.

Sometimes I’d save a couple of the discarded purple blossom leaves and pin them together with toothpicks. Under my fingers they were amazingly seductive, soft as silk, smooth as velvet, and their conical shape resembled a boat. In the evening I’d go up to the roof, fill a pail with water, light one of the small oil lamps left over from a Diwali festival, and set it afloat on the leaves. Usually there was enough breeze to create little eddies on which the banana boat tossed gently. I would sit mesmerized, wondering if it would capsize. It never did, though the lamp went out after a while.

Chitrita Banerji is the author of several books on Indian food, most recently Eating India.