The all season congee with mashed potatoes that fuels Bengali kitchens across the world. Made with the rice that the Gods love to feast on. Fyana bhaat/ alu sheddo bhaat with Gobindobhog rice

Fyaana bhaat (with admittedly less fyan/ starch than optimum in this case), alu sheddo, deem sheddo,
dhyarosh, fulkopi sheddo. Hopefully it won't sound Greek to you by the time you finish reading this post. 

Let me tell you about a rice that even the Gods love to feast on

Anindya S Basu of the blog Pikturenama from Kolkata was in town a couple of weekends back and we met up for a quick breakfast at Candies when we was here. He had most kindly got me some food gifts from Kolkata including a bag of Gobindobhog rice. The idea of picking that up was given to him by his wife, Madhusree, he told me with a shy smile. The care pack from home also had my favourite Mukhorochok chanachoor and some Gondhoraj lebu.

I received the gift of rice most gratefully from him. Gobindobhog is a type of short-grained rice considered most precious in Bengali households. It was kept reserved for special occasions in our house when I was growing up. It was more expensive than the rice that we used for day to day consumption. The name Gobindobhog literally translates as a 'feast for Lord Krishna.' It is indeed a feast for the Gods.

It's all about ageing and maturity

From what I remember, Didu (my maternal grandmother) would prefer purono chaal (old Gobindobhog rice) to make pulaos. A dish reserved for birthdays or the new year (Bengali of English). The notun chaal, newly harvested Gobindobhog rice, when bought would be used to may chaler payesh. A Bengali rice pudding that is usually made on birthdays. A dish that the Assamese call payokh. 

This differentiation is because the older rice is firmer and better suited for making pulao where one does not want the rice to get soggy. Newer ones, which has more starch, work well in a payesh where one would aim for a bit of creaminess. Of all the rices that I have cooked with, Gobindobhog, like a moody lover needs the highest amount of care and attention. One wrong move, or an extra minute on the pan, and it has a meltdown. Quasi-literally.

Nothing gives me as much sorrow as overdone, soft and squishy rice does. Hence, I am very careful when I cook with Gobindobhog.

Didu would go to the market and would specify that she wanted ‘purono’ chaal or ‘notun’ when she wanted to buy Gobindobhog and the neighbourhood grocer would oblige accordingly. This was more than thirty years back. When I was an eight year old and had just moved into India with my parents. I found all of this fascinating. Each day was a new experience for me. An example of the sense of curiosity and awe that is special to children.

Didu is 90 now and home bound due to weak knees. Her days of going to the market are over. 

When I do call her on the phone though, I make it a point to ask what has been bought from the market. What has been cooked at home. She first points out in her reply that she barely has any appetite these days. She then proceeds to tell me about her dinner plans and what her cook is cooking, a bit of life returning to her voice. At times she goes into details of how these dishes are cooked.  Talking often from memory and not practise. Her voice firm and confident again for a short while. Making me wish that I could have recorded her voice.

The bag of rice that Anindya got me was from a supermarket in Kolkata. It was packaged and sold in a sealed plastic bag. The vintage of the rice was therefore a mystery to me. I was just grateful to get it, even though I had no idea if it was purono or notun.

I had once bought Gobindobhog from Delhi’s CR Park market and brought it back to Mumbai. I believe that one gets it in places such as Chembur and Vashi here and now online too. I use the local ambe mohor rice in Mumbai instead for dishes that need Gobindobhog. It is short grained too and has a nice aroma. 

More than its taste and texture, many would say that it is its aroma that makes Gobindobhog special.

It is all about respecting your ingredients as our grannies always knew

My attempt at a Gobindobhog choriz pulao. Not the best
use of Gobindobhog

One night I experimented with the Gobindobhog rice Anindya gave me by making a choriz pulao by adding the Goan sausage that I had brought back from Goa recently. I didn’t follow any recipe. I boiled and cooked the choriz and then added pre-boiled Gobindobhog to it and mixed the two together with peppers and potatoes and sliced onion.

Something was missing was what I felt when I sat down for dinner. The rice had not really taken in the flavours of the choriz. Possibly because the original recipe, as journalist and food enthusiast Shoaib Daniyal pointed out to me on Instagram, does indeed call for the rice to be boiled with the choriz, and not separately.

Khichuri with Gobindobhog, begun bhaaja (fried brinjals) & maachh bhaaj
(fried rohu). Gobindobhog at its most beautiful

A couple of days later, I requested our cook Banu to make a Bengali khichuri with the Gobindobhog that was at at home. Gobindobhog and khichuri is considered be a near sacred combination and is made during religious festivals such as the Kajagiri Lokhi Pujo and Saraswati Pujo in Bengali homes. I have learnt my khichuri recipe from Didu and have taught Banu how to make it now and she does a good job of it. 

As Banu cooked the dish that afternoon, our tiny kitchen in Mumbai seemed enshrouded with the holiest of culinary fragrances of the Kolkata that I had left behind. This was of the magic Gobindobhog showcased at its best.

Gobindobhog Kimchi rice at Toast & Tonic at Bengaluru
It didn't take kindly to the excesses that went into its making

The Gobindobhog had worked its magic and that is when it all became clear to me. I realised that we need to learn to understand the ingredients in our kitchen and respect them, just as our ancestors had. If I had done so in the case, then I would have known that making a choriz pulao did not make sense as the pungent aromas of choriz, which can get very possessive of ones senses, would dominate the more demure aromas of the rice. That using it in the choriz pulao was not putting Gobindobhog to good use. 

Just as the Gobindobhog fried rice with kimchi, bacon (which seemed non-existent the day we ordered it) and soft shell crab that I tried at the Toast & Tonic in Bengaluru recently, did not show the rice in its true glory. It could have been any rice that afternoon. So dominated was it by the busyness on the plate.

What about using it in the Bengali pulao you ask? Well, the pulao made in Bengal is very mildly spiced with whole garam masala, ghee and green chilles. This ensures that the Gobindobhog is the hero of the story and not just a character artist.

The gobindobhog & foraged mushrooms risotto with goyna bori
and gondhoraj lebu that chef Abhijit Saha made at the Market Place
festival at the Vedic Village in Kolkata, was a good use of the rice. I
guess his Bengali genes came to play to create the magic

Fyana bhaat memories

I had put up a picture of the khichuri that Banu had made, plated on the pretty plate from Fabindia that I bought recently, and posted it on social media. It garnered many likes. Even on Twitter where everyone seems to be so upset and angry all the time these days. 

Then someone wrote in to me on Instagram saying, “gobindobhog diye fyana bhaat khub bhalo hoi.” (you can make fyana bhaat with Gobindobhog too)

The comment evoked a well-spring of memories in my heart.

Fyana bhaat, or sheddo bhaat as it is called too, is a dish that I grew up on as a kid. It makes for a handy and filling one pot and one dish meal. A dish that my parents told me that they used to make in the UK. It was made later in our house in Kolkata when we moved to the city by my parents on days when they were busy and tired. And later, after my father passed on, on days my mother would be back late from work and when the cook had not come.

I was unimpressed by the dish when I first had it. Its seemed so simple in comparison to the dishes that my parents would lavish their pampered first born with.

I remember refusing to eat it one night and my father lost his cool and snapped at me and said, “khaabe to khao, na khabe to na khao (eat it if you want or go hungry).” His reaction caught me by surprise. He had never scolded me before in the nine years of my existence. I guess as children we never sense the stress and strain that our parents shield us from.

I soon took a liking to the dish though and did not fuss when my mother would make it in for my brother and me in the years that followed after my father passed on.

A congee by any other name

My father had once tossed up some goat meat with salt in a pan and called it ‘Turkish delight’ to make me eat it. I did so happily and only later realised that Turkish delight meant something else when I went to Turkey two decades later on a holiday. It was too late to argue with him on this by then. His ruse to make me eat had worked! I loved the dish.

I guess what my father should have done was to call the fyana bhaat, that I had refused to eat, a ‘congee.’ That would have made me roll over I am sure. Fyan, in fyana bhaat, refers to the leftover starch of rice in the water it is boiled in. 

As it is in a congee, the rice in fyana bhaat is cooked and then left in a bit of the starchy water. Condiments such as ghee, mustard oil, green chillies, red onion and salt is added to it and the starch (fyan) becomes the deliverer of both taste and energy. 

As a kid, I could not handle the pungency of mustard oil or the heat of green chillies. So my parents would serve it to me with salt and butter.

The reason why my parents liked the fyana bhaat so much I guess, was that it was a one pot meal. Along with the rice, they would boil vegetables in the water as well. Potatoes were a must. The rest were flexible. I have seen cauliflower florets, beans, ladies fingers (okra) added to it too. Possibly sliced pumpkin as well. And eggs!

Surprisingly enough, I had never cooked this dish myself in all these years. I decided to do so a couple of days back after seeing the reader's comment.

The start of the second chapter of my fyana bhaat story

 The recipe narrative

This happened a couple of days back at home in Mumbai. I first washed and soaked some gobindobhog rice with water for about an hour in a saucepan. 

Then, in a pan which had 4 times the amount of water as rice, I added a few cauliflower florets, and potatoes which I had peeled and cut into four. I think my mother used to boil them in their skin.

The final dish. I had drained out most of the 'fyan'. I should have kept some
more though

Egg protein to power one on

I wanted to add an egg to the melange. I was a bit unsure about what to do with the egg though. Should would one wash the shell and then put it in with the rest to boil? 

I reached out to my mother by whatsapp and this is what she had to say.

“When we were young, my mother (my didu), would wash the eggs and boil it with the rice. When my time to make it came, I too would put the egg in the rice to boil. I would wash it first with liquid soap or detergent first to make sure that it was free of germs.

Nowadays people boil the eggs separately. That takes more time and the egg does not taste as good. Washing them well and putting it in the rice should do.”

With your hands is the only way to eat fyana bhaat
Mashing the yolk to it feels special

I washed the egg, added it in to the pan and then put the rice, egg and vegetable mix to boil.

I added the ladies fingers towards the end as I were worried they might overcook. Though, to be honest, I used to love the sliminess of the ladies fingers when I would mix into the rice as a kid.

It all came out well at the end.

My only 'mistake' was that I had drained a bit more of the water than I should have and the meal lacked its characteristic slight soupiness. The rice was soft but not squishy. Gentle is how I would put it. Nurturing. Draped in a hint of the moisture of the fyan.

Alu sheddo. The potato mash that unites the subcontinent

I made some alu sheddo/ alu makha, with the boiled potato that I had boiled along with the rice, before I sat down to eat.

Alu sheddo is the Bengali finely chopped green chilli, raw red onion, salt and mustard oil spiked  version of mashed potato. Didu would sometimes makes toasties in her handheld toaster with this as a filling when I would visit her on weekends as an eight year old.

I added some red chilli powder to the one I made the other day. My mother would put butter and pepper and make it the ‘English way’ for me as a child as I did not like mustard oil. As most on Twitter and Facebook said when I put up pictures of it, shorsher tel, lonka, peyaj (mustard oil, chillies and onion) are non-negotiable in making alu sheddo. I did add them them this time.

I washed the potatoes under running water to cool them but had to still use a spoon at first to mash the potatoes as they were still hot. Then I used my fingers and palms to complete the mash and that is when the magic happened. I kept a portion for K at night and she loved it.

“Why had you kept it away from me all this while,” she said after her first taste of the alu sheddo.

The Assamese call the alu sheddo alu pitika and have made it more famous while we Bengalis focused on other dishes and have not spoken about it much. As we have not about the fyana bhaat either.

They remain our secret. Not to be shared.

I was first introduced to the Assamese alu pitika by Gitika Saikia. The Biharis call it alu chokha I was told on social media. In Punjab it is called alu bharta said my blogger friend Monika Manchanda. In Bangladesh, it is one of the many types of bhortas.

Call it by whatever name that you want, the alu sheddo is comfort food for the entire Indian subcontinent for sure. 

Alu sheddo in focus

When my mother saw the picture of my plate, she told me that fyana bhaat with Gobindobhog is indeed special.

To complete the tableaux, I added some Jharna ghee to the rice and sprinkled some gol morich (crushed black pepper) on it too. I also put a dash of salt on the side of the plate for it is salt that holds this dish together.

You can imagine from the smile on my face, the joy that sitting down to the meal, after plating and taking pictures for Instagram, gave me! 

I could see my father smile back from up there on seeing me.

My fyaana bhaat smile


Here's a little video that I did before I sat down to lunch that day:

My khichuri recipe
My mother's blog post on her observations on buying vegetables around the world
Link to Pikturenama


Supriya Dutta said…
Fyana Bhaat has been my 'key food'. As a kid, would start the day with fyana bhaat before leaving for school - everyday of 14 years of schooling. Now, it is THE comfort food - on days I feel really happy or on days I feel really tired. On cheat days, this definitely is my go-to dish.
Indeed Gobindo bhog chaler fyana bhat is one of the Best friend.. comfort food for Bong. Even I had it all my school days as the first thing morning.My little brother just after this annoprason also got the taste of it from my plate and from those days until his schooling ended, every weekday morning our house would be full of gobdindo bhog chaler aroma.
And regarding the dim college a bong friend of mine taught me to mash the dim with a bit of salt and pepper and a dash of kacha sorshe r tel. She had got it from her dida who was from Mymensingh. Till date I relish dim shiddo dal shiddo Allo shiddo ...
jjs said…
Fyana Bhaat is what ghotis call or a modern name, the bangals and also in rural bengal it is also called "maar gela bhaat". In our house it is cooked when time is short and you need to have rice also, exactly a one pot meal. As like every child, i will say ma makes the best, sabzi which goes in our house is aloo, begun, kumro, potol with variations like bhindi, phul kopi. Ma also puts some roasted moong dal or even musur dal sometimes. amazing taste. ma has her timing to put her vegetables separately so that none of them gets over cooked. the finest point io ma's phena bhaat is somehow she is never wrong with the quantity of the water, according to her if water is added subsequently then the taste is not same.
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@JJS apparently they call it mar bhaat in Assam too. In our house mar dewa referred to starching clothes with the fyan. Thanks for sharing your mother's story. Tells us about how much thought goes into a seemingly simple dish

@jeeb dastan hain yeh I love mashing the egg yolk into the rice and eating it. Will follow your friend't tip the next time

@supriyadutta I can see why. I must make it more ofte too