This decisively Bengali preparation remains one of the masterpieces of our culinary ingenuity and innovation.
Say Mustard, and one is instantly reminded of the French Mustard. The omnipresent yellow sauce has earned an infallible repute of being the most versatile sauce across cuisines. Just slather it on top and it easily cranks up the taste of a sandwich, hot dog, fish or even a stake, by a notch or two. But history talks about a different side of mustard that once dominated the world along with the spice itself, which, says culinary anthropologist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “not only is the oldest spice used widely by civilisations but also one of the most fascinating tastemakers and preserve that was used across all major food cultures back then.” Rome for instance, used mustard in their wine to refine it as well as add a contrasting flavour to the dram that could easily go from “sweet and nice” to
“nasty and rancid”. Arabian countries used it as a dip or to pickle, while Egypt regularly peppered its food with mustard paste to give it that taste burst that, legend has it, even General mark Anthony fell for. Such was the importance of mustard back in the age that it was often an item pharaoh were buried with including the famous of all, Tutankhamun.
In fact, the Pliny The Elder who called mustard a fascinating crop, wrote in his tome, “natural history”: “With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted.”
With that the ancient naturalist not only indicated the value of mustard in the world, despite of it being an ingredient that proliferated lands with the ease of rice kernels, but also how at one point of time every continent in ancient world was producing mustard including the erstwhile state of Kalinga, where mustard seeds arrived as part of trade from Southeast Asia. According to history the story of how mustard in India, adds Chef Gorai, “begins, as all stories go, in the north frontier region we often refer to as erstwhile Punjab. It was here that the first crops grew and eventually spread over a large swath of land, true to what Pliny had noted in his book, saying “once been sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”
Port towns like Tamralipta and Konarpatnam got their share through trade. Amongst the famous travellers who brought mustard to India as part of their barter deal was Vasco De Gama, who offered it as part of his entry fee. Food lore has it that when Gama first landed in India, he showed the handful of mustard that he brought from Spain, and was immediately turned down by locals. Gold, he was told, was the only metal that was acceptable to meet the Zamorin. Angered, Gama threw the handful on the ground, and as luck would have it mustard grew widely before it found its way around the coast, including that of Eastern India where it became part of the famous spice mix Paanch Phutan or Paanch Phoran.
But was mustard’s entry into the culinary world that late? Curiously not. Even before the Gama’s and Arab traders landed on the shore, mustard was known in India, albeit more as an antidote. Sushruta Samhita mentions the existence of two different mustard varieties depending on the colour (and usage) called Sarshapa and Rajika, while other ancient text mention other variants like Sita, Asita, Rakta, Pita, Goura as well that was grown in different regions of India. And though it is hard to ascertain which is the variety that gained precedence and was used in cooking initially, it is safe to assume that the varieties that were identified by the Samhita were preferred thanks to their nourishing quality.
In fact, adds culinary alchemist Chef Sharad Dewan, “the start of any spice that we use today was first for medicinal purpose before it was explored for its tastemaking properties. Mustard was no different.”
Curiously, mustard culinary usage wasn’t driven by its medicinal supremacy only – mustard back in the day was used to treat a variety of condition including inflammation, wounds, stings , fungal infection and some neurological disorders as well – but also through cross cultural influence. After all, Rome used paste for its wine, and Egypt was already slathering it on its food for taste. However, that, says Chef Dewan, “is debatable as the use of mustard paste or soriso bata was prevalent in coastal areas, especially on the East side where mustard grew with flourish. And given that we were already familiar with the different nuances of mustard -medicine at the time was given in form of food - its rise as a tastemaker would have been obvious graduation.”
The availability aside, what gave sorse bata or mustard paste its popularity was the taste. Paired with different ingredients (garlic in Odisha, and mustard greens in Assam), mustard paste took on a different flavour play than its high on bitter and pungent notes. But the beauty of the paste, which was often created with mixing two different varietals of mustard seeds, was that this version of the paste could be cooked. It is still a wonder, say the chefs, “as to how our ancestors arrived at a format that could be cooked instead of its usage as a sauce, and the technique of cooking it, the sorse bata, which remains one of the mother sauces of Bengali cuisine, evolved as the only paste in the world that could bear the heat of a burner.”
Sorse bata which is the base tastemaker of Mustard Prawn, till date holds the distinction among the mind-blowing array of Mustard Paste across the world. So how did the sorse bata achieve such culinary supremacy. The answer to this, says Chef Gorai, “is in our tempering technique that began not as much as oil and whole spices but as paste, which was added at the end to give the dish that necessary nutritive boost and taste. As a matter of fact, even today in temples this technique is followed because as paste most spices retain the natural aroma and taste, and this is especially true for mustard.”
Given, adds Chef Dewan, “that temples and veds helped design most of our ancient cooking techniques and practices, it is a valid assumption that the original mustard paste was used in the same manner to flavour different forms of dishes.” A prove of this are the temples prasad in Eastern India where mustard paste is used to make the prasad.
Incidentally, that pungent- tangy taste of the paste and the way it helped elevate the dish, especially those made of fish and meat, and paired with other flavourant transformed sorse bata not just one of the foundation sauces to master but also as a tasty accompaniment. Known for its versatile use, sorse bata for a large part of history remained a classic made usually with black mustard and oil with an occasional addition of jaggery/sugar to pare down the pungency.
Such was the popularity of sorse bata that it became a beacon not just of great Bengali food but the different influences as well. Sorse bata that began as a simple paste of mustard – usually a mix of two varieties – oil and salt, soon had additions of sugar, chillies, coconut, and eventually poppy seeds. Each version a reflection of not just the evolution in cooking but of palates too. Result, by the time Bengal became one of the prized regions of the Mughals, the sorse bata had taken on a diva-like quality, where the paste was designed not as per the ingredient but also the region that inspired the dish. Like the Mustard Prawn that uses mustard paste made with both black and yellow varieties with an addition of coconut that gives the dish its rich, velvety, right pungent palate play. In fact, adds Chef Dewan, “the reason that coconut works so beautifully with prawns that are inherently sweet is because of the pairing of mustard that provide that slight bitter-pungent contrast that up the experience a notch or two higher.”