I am not certain how or why paanch phoran, a classic element of Bengali cuisine, became such a constant feature of the food my mother cooked.
I tend to attribute it to the fact that my father, who was a student in Kharagpur, West bengal in the 1960s acquired a life-long love of Bengali food there, and often asked her to flavor her daals and curries with this spice mixture.
Or it might have been because our family lived from 1964 until 1984 in Bihar. They use this spice mixture in Bihari cuisine too so it may just have been a local influence.
Either way, paanch phoran and its wonderful flavors make up a very special part of my childhood memories of my mother’s table – red masoor or sometimes chana daal tempered with paanch phoran; lauki cooked with tomato and a little milk and flavored with paanch phoran; a sweet and sour tomato chutney tempered with paanch phoran; khichdi made with rice and yellow moong or red masoor daal with paanch phoran in the tempering; rasedaar aloo tamatar flavored with paanch phoran; kadhi tempered with paanch phoran ; the list goes on.
Consequently the five spices that make up this mixture -mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, and fenugreek seeds – are staples on my spice shelf and I couldn’t bear to run short of any of these !
I have listed these spices in that particular order because that is the sequence in which I put them in the oil.
You could mix equal quantities of the five and keep the mixture ready to use in a bottle. But I prefer not to do that because each spice takes a different amount of time before it’s aroma is released; so I find that sometimes by the time the fennel reaches this point, the fenugreek and the cumin seeds have almost burnt, giving the fenugreek, especially, a very bitter taste.
So what I do is that I let the oil heat (though not to smoking point), and then first add the mustard and the nigella. Then when the mustard seeds begin to pop, I add the fennel seeds, and let them fry for a few seconds till they start to go a very light brown and to release their aroma. I then add the cumin seeds and let these fry for a few seconds till they begin to brown (without letting them go black which I feel spoils the look and the taste). Finally, I add the fenugreek and fry for just a couple of seconds before adding the ingredient which comes next in the recipe.
This probably takes a little longer than heating the oil to a high temperature and adding all the spices together, but IMO preserves the flavors better.