Yes, Bengalis are the ones who eat fish. That’s the impression of my race all over India, the quintessential ‘Bangali sirf machhli khata hai,’ (Bengalis eat only fish). The idea is as blasphemous as the accusation that we ignore veggies and everything else in the culinary world. I was reading an article the other day on how Bengali vegetarian fare was monopolised by widows forbidden to consume onions/garlic/meat/fish/red lentils. It is still practised fervently all over the state by widows and a few women who choose to remain in the path of animal nutrition are termed ‘liberal’. Given the arguments for this tradition of widows and the sheer number of indigenous recipes that they conjured with scanty ingredients, vegetarian food is entirely their forte. And yet, I wouldn’t like the rest of India to assume that anyone who isn’t a widow in a Bangla household eats only non-vegetarian items in their daily meals.
A typical Bengali lunch is a perfect example of a balanced diet in terms of its elements – a teto (bitter) item as an appetiser to unlock your taste buds, daal (lentils, though not exactly in a healthy soupy form), bhaja (veggies or fish roe fried in a batter) for the gluttons, one or two vegetarian items like labra/chochhori/dalna/ghonto (and the list is endless), finally a non-vegetarian dish and then a chutney/tawk (literally, sweet and sour) to relieve your taste buds of the previous clique of items. I wouldn’t claim all of these are healthy in the way we cook them, but the menu is a testimony that all we eat is not merely ‘maachh-bhaat‘ as termed pseudo-fondly by Bollywood.
Udta Punjab begins at night, in the lush green fields swaying merrily in the winter breeze. A disc that lands flying on the crops costs millions and is picked up by a young immigrant contract labourer from Bihar. And the mayhem commences.
With all the controversy that the film has garnered over the past months, might I say that it is worth almost every minute of watch. The scenario it reveals about Punjab is astounding. Despite the motley of disclaimers that label the film as a work of fiction, it seems shockingly real. I have never been to Punjab but had doses of the silky yellow mustard fields – courtesy Bollywood. I know that romance in those fields is not what Punjab is only about; just like Calcutta that is not entirely resting on Howrah Bridge and roshogolla. The innocence of that romance has long been veiled by the white powder that rules. It seems, the penetration of powder (and liquid) in Punjab is an issue that has been carefully concealed from the rest of the country. In a humongous nation like ours, keeping track of the maladies in each state is something that even Governments haven’t managed to accomplish. It is not an excuse to be oblivious of that scenario in Punjab, it’s a shame that a state is gradually crumbling into ruins.
‘Khet banjar te aulaad kanjar’ – probably sums up the film’s true essence.
It’s not everyday that I sit down to write about a Bangla book. There are a few that not only tug a few strings at the heart, but pull them hard enough to inflict pain. Kachher Manush (The Close One) by Suchitra Bhattacharya is an epic work in contemporary Bangla Literature. SB was an immensely popular writer over decades until she passed away untimely last year. Her stories have always been as close to our middle class reality as they could. She wrote almost solely about the average Bengali family, one you’d spot around you daily with all its problems, undercurrents of tension and occasional bursts of joy. Kachher Manush was written in the eighties, quite early in SB’s career and yet it portrays the mastery that she had in her craft. The writing waned later though, stories became repetitive, plots became a little mundane, but she produced occasional masterpieces like Kancher Dewal, Neel Ghurni, Dahan and Parobash. Among the good, bad and ugly ones, Kachher Manush is the one I love the most.
The opening pages are laced with hope and anticipation. Titir, a teenager in full bloom in the eighties Calcutta has just appeared for her Secondary examinations in school. She awaits her alcoholic father Aditya’s homecoming from a hospital. SB does a wonderful, rather wistful job in narrating the ambience around Titir as she waits for her mother Indrani to fetch Aditya home. She lives in a huge house, in a ‘joint family’ that we were so familiar to in the previous century. Titir’s family comprises of little islands, bound loosely together by her ailing grandfather. Her paternal uncle Sudip and his wife Runa have aptly named their son Atom, probably in apprehension that they would live as a nuclear family sometime in future. Aditya’s youngest brother Kandarpa is a wannabe actor who lives in horns of dilemma, tethering between right and wrong. SB describes these islands through the eyes of Titir’s elder brother Bappa, who admits being the smallest isthmus, waiting to sever his ties with the dysfunctional family soon by applying for a sailor’s job.
Mainland China came into existence in 1994, the first outlet being in erstwhile Bombay. It’s not surprising that this piece of news didn’t reach the majority of middle class people residing in Bengal. Why would they have bothered with accounts of some expensive Chinese restaurant opening in Bombay? I, as a child, was quite happy with our occasional Peping and Chung Wah stints while visits to Calcutta and the ketchup slathered ‘chowmein’ at street stalls. Eating out hadn’t gained popularity, nor had Chinese restaurants popped up like mushrooms all over the city. The China Town or Tangra area in Calcutta still ruled when it came to amazing food and liquor at modest rates. Years passed, Anjan Chatterjee made his mark with Mainland China and Oh! Calcutta, and finally inaugurated the first outlet in Calcutta in the last decade. It was still inaccessible to a student like me with its posh location and exorbitant prices. It was only when I left home ten years ago, the Western concept of eating out slowly imbibed into my being. Mainland China was still beyond my reach with its à-la-carte prices that could slash my wallet brutally. I’m not sure about the year of inception of a buffet or ‘set meal’ (as referred in the China buffets all around US & UK) in Mainland China, but I was over the moon that the bill could fit in my wallet in lieu of some great food. Summing up my experiences of over five years at Mainland China outlets in three Indian cities hitherto.
One of the most attractive features of Mainland China (MC) is the decor. I’ve been to four different MC outlets and the decor is always soothing, oriental, calm and soft to the eyes. The entrance of every outlet has been a mishmash of designer wooden panels as dividers that impart a feeling of passing into a private space. The lights are dim and tables are very strategically placed, so that you don’t overhear conversations, get irritated by inane people nearby or stumble into someone else while filling your plate from the buffet counters. Seats are quite comfortable and tables are adequately spaced to fit in your satchel or purse. The decor at each outlet I’ve visited fetched a big thumbs up, and here’s a glimpse of my favourite piece at any eatery, the ceiling lamp.
Carrying forward the tales on mutton this week are insights on the varieties of Sunday curry at both ends of my families. Nature of the curry has changed with seasons and reasons; each person acclaimed as a cook in the family has created their own recipe based on their taste and sensibility. From the homely jhol by mother-in-law, an aromatic kosha by baba, a rich spicy gravy by mashi to a soulful Sunday jhol by M – mutton has evolved in my lifespan as no other food. Let me guide you through a tour of this motley of the enigmatic mutton.
The homely jhol by mother-in-law – Relatively easy to cook than its richer versions, this jhol has often been underestimated. With its unpretentious appearance, the jhol has successfully eluded people about its character. It might look a tad bland, but it is not. At my in-laws’ place, this jhol by mothership is served in a little pressure cooker, the one in which it is cooked. We have tried to replicate the same measures of meat and condiments in the exact cooker, but it didn’t turn out the way mother-in-law makes it taste. Like home. Like a refute from meat dunked in puddles of oil at restaurants. If you look at her silhouette against the slightly dark kitchen, pored over the pressure cooker with left hand rested on her waist to balance, a steel khunti (spatula) in her right hand – you will realise that the jhol isn’t a result of careless work. It is the ultimate level of comfort on a sultry summer afternoon, served with wedges of lemon and extra green chillies on the side.
There is a lesson that the age old Bangla cuisine teaches us – prudence. One might not easily believe it, given the history and evolution of the elaborate Daab Chingri and the uber rich Sorshe Ilish. But it is not every day that you sacrifice puddles of oil to cook Golda Chingri or grind mounds of mustard seeds on your sheel nora (oh, forget that already, there’s the ubiquitous pungent branded mustard powder). It is the daily fare – the humble Rui and Katla that we so lovingly call Kata Pona, omnipresent in the Bangali kitchen in its various avatars. Shove aside the runny machher jhol with potol or a subtle garlic tomato machher torkari that finds its way in the morning platter of rice before heading for school/college or offices. If you live outside Bengal and crave for something fishy and spicy apart from the jhol or jhaal, you’re in for a treat with just three pieces of fish. If you have a kid at home, or an overgrown one like my better half, this will bring lakes of smile on their faces.
Since my father lived away from home and Bengal for a considerable period, the cooking bug in him became fairly active. I’ve heard stories of him quizzing the cook in his college hostel kitchen for quaint Bangla vegetarian recipes. He reproduced them later, and more importantly, taught my mother most of it after marriage. Stationed in Kanpur for twenty years, baba would crave for the crispy hot aromatic Fish Chop (croquette) among other telebhaja that rule our province. Fish or mutton chops weren’t frequent in every telebhaja shop in Calcutta as the non-vegetarianism in them would make the harmless Aloo or Mochar Chop untouchable to a lot of people.
Do you remember the candies that you shared with cousins during a summer vacation, the ice lollies called golas on the streets with your college beau, or a plate of crispy pakoras on a rainy evening with the entire family? If you can share these and create memories, why not share a bucket of laundry with members of opposite sex in your family.
Sunkissed washing machine on a summer morning
Not getting into the nitty gritties of laundry duties in India (like I did in a previous article on #ShareTheLoad ) – I’d suggest, and may be coax you with my stories to jump into the bandwagon. The very basic and important household chore of laundry is often seen lonesome waiting upon women of the house. It was pretty common among my peers to heap trunkload of unwashed clothes all through their semester and carry them back home to be washed. A humongous task of washing was gifted to the mothers, sisters and domestic helps during the college kid’s semester break. Times are a’changing now, with washing machines costing cheaper than decades ago and invading the middle class household. High school kids and freshmen are just a button and few clicks away from washing their soiled jerseys and fancy jeans. What about the other chores though – drying, folding and stacking the clothes? The most arduous part of laundry.
Generically, an atomic family of a couple like us need to perform laundry twice a week with mini washes (without the machine) in between. Since Pune is facing a drought this summer, we’ve decided to keep the laundry minimal and accumulate them to maximum twice a week. Hence the #LaundryGoesOddEven becomes easier to implement with the better half (M) going gung ho on Sunday – first day of the week, and me choosing the fourth day (Wednesday). This has actually been working since the advent of summer this year as water became scarce and came in batches of hours each day. We chose Sunday and Wednesday mornings for laundry as they suit our leisures perfectly well. M jumps about as a hyperactive school kid in glee of just operating the gadget, laundry seems an excuse for him to play with the washing machine. Since he leaves early morning on working days, Wednesday works fine for me to wrap up the midweek laundry. We have been able to fine tune the chore to almost mechanical precision, and try not to miss our preferred days of the work. It’s a seamless process, each doing their own on time and saving rest of the day for important work like writing and blogging!