The title of this post is not as oxymoronic as you might think. The city of Chandannagar, located 19miles north of Kolkata, was once a French colony that facilitated Bengal’s connection with France in the 17th century. Vestiges of this colonial past are still visible along the banks of Hoogly. The most ubiquitous of these are the French windows that are the characteristic feature of old houses in Bengal. Even my house—125 years old building (approximately) with a hanging balcony of tiled roof—has them.
The windows, though foreign and incongruous with the otherwise Indian style of the architectures, were part of my conception of Bengaliness and growing up. To me, they now intuitively symbolize what Calcutta means. In other words, the French windows are French only in name. They have become inseparable from what Bengal/Calcutta signifies.
The Bengali French toast is no different. It is a slice of white bread, dunked in eggs beaten with a little water, some sliced green chilies and onions, and then generously fried in white oil, and served with tomato ketchup. There is nothing essentially French about the toast. In fact, it is quite Indian in that the Bengali-French toast has become a signifier of the long histories of colonial influence on Indian cuisine and its diverseness.
In this version of the recipe I have used some good quality French bread, have used milk instead of water to beat the eggs, have made a separate sauce with roasted chilies, and have caramelized the onions separately to serve on top (because adding chopped onions to the egg mixture results in uneven cooking) to make a fuller dish that can be served on its own as a complete meal (the Bengali-French toast is otherwise considered to be a tea-time snack). However, the basic components of the traditional Bengali recipe have been retained.
Bengali-French toast recipe
Level: easy Prep time: 10 mins Cook time: 30 mins Total time: 40 mins Serves: 4
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
2 tbsp olive oil
4 extra large eggs
1 loaf of Italian or French bread, cut into 8 1 inch thick slices
1 cup low fat milk
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp red chili powder or paprika
1/4 tsp black pepper, freshly crushed
Heat half of the oil in a thick-bottomed frying pan until it comes to a simmer and then add the sliced onions to it. Spread the onions out evenly on the pan and stir to coat them in oil. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until caramelized (10-15 minutes depending on the pan).
When done, drain the onions of excess oil and transfer them to a paper-towel-lined plate.
While the onions are cooking, beat the eggs in a large bowl, add the milk and beat until the eggs and milk are properly blended. Now add the ground spices and salt to the eggs and mix thoroughly.
Carefully soak the bread slices in the bowl so as not to break them. It’s best to soak 2-3 at a time, or how many ever you can put in the frying pan together, without crowding it.
Let the bread slices soak for 2-3 minutes on each side.
Heat the remaining oil in a fresh pan.
Using a spatula, transfer the soaked breads onto the heated pan after draining any excess/dripping liquid.
Cook each slice of bread over medium heat, flipping every 1 to 2 minutes, until done. Look for a bright golden yellow color.
When done, transfer the slices to a paper-towel-lined plate.
Repeat the process until all the slices are done.
Sprinkle some caramelized onions on each slice of bread and serve with the jalapeno cream cheese on side (recipe follows).
Jalapeño cream cheese recipe
4 tbsp cream cheese or sour cream (for a healthier option)
1/2 tsp salt
Set the oven temperature to high broil. If you don’t want them very spicy, deseed them before broiling. Broil the jalapeños for 10-12 minutes.
Remove when done, and let cool.
Peel off the excessively charred areas of the skin.
Mash the roasted jalapeños in a food processor.
Using a fork, mix the jalapeño paste, cream cheese and salt in a bowl.