Durga pujo is such an event in a Bengali’s life, including mine, that makes us keep gushing and never wishing to pause. It’s that time of the year when the autumn skies are bluest, fluffy white clouds are cotton candiest and most Bengalis are happiest. Every neighbourhood is lit up like it’s Diwali, people wear bright new clothes like it’s Christmas and gorge on great food like it’s Eid. The best of all festivals in India, eh? Setting aside folie de grandeur, let us concentrate on my favourite part – the food. Aided by recent controversies in India, it has probably reached even the unaware that Bengalis live to eat. Even during festivals. Some preached that we should fast. Oh, but then you don’t coach people on what they shoudn’t eat while they’re waiting to cook up a storm in their kitchens during pujo. Bengalis (pardon the generalisation), have an entire menu chalked down from Shoshthi to Dashami and then some post-pujo gluttony too. It is irrelevant digging for the origin of these urban traditions from the past century; we have already embraced them since they induce a happy food-coma and give us a reason to eat well. While you’re gearing up for the next pujo, keep these in consideration and have a balanced yet decadent menu each day.
The day pujo officially begins. It is a custom for mothers in West Bengal to observe Shoshthi for the betterment of their children. While some women fast and take only two meals a day excluding rice, others treat themselves to vegetarian delicacies like Luchi-Parota-Chholar Daal-Aloor Dom-Phulkopir Dalna-Payesh-Mishti. I used to wait for Shoshthi as my mother would make piping hot phulko Luchi along with Kumro’r Chhokka and Chholar Daal. The advent of store-bought Paneer in the late ’90s had marred the charm of Shoshthi though. As Paneer began slicing its way through the tedious Chhanar Dalna, I moved towards just the Luchi and let mother enjoy the farce called Paneer torkari.
Luchi – Begun bhaja is all we had this year on Shoshthi
Shoshthi is prevalent mostly in West Bengal and the other Bengalis from the East have their own delectable spread on this occasion. I miss Kumro’r Chhokka as it had been quite frequent while I grew up; have been trying to replicate the one mother used to make but it still lacks something. You can give it a try though.
I am still unpacking since we moved in to the rental apartment just a week ago, and in the process, discovering stuff that I had packed in Pune and forgotten. Each instance I open a bag, something or the other tumbles out like a hidden treasure. There I was yesterday, holding an old bottle of Calcium Sandoz and wondering what had I packed inside it so carefully. It wasn’t the calcium for sure as the bottle wasn’t mine and had already travelled once from home to Pune. As I gingerly opened it, little green pearls of whole green moong rustled inside. The only way I have eaten this ‘gota’ daal is in the form of a warm bowl of Torka and I have been calling it ‘Torka’r Daal’ since forever. Some use this green moong in ‘gotaseddho’ as I might have written earlier, or consume it simply at the restaurants as ‘mah ki daal’ or daal makhani. I haven’t. Torka invokes enough emotions within me to sustain a lifetime than trying those heavily spiced and creamed versions.
I believe it’s serendipity that I’ve been stumbling onto posts and pictures of the Bengali style Punjabi Daal Tadka all around the internet today, leading to this little post of mine. Since we’re dealing with nostalgia, here’s my two pence on Torka. This whole green gram (moong) is one of the richest lentils in iron, it contains about 1.4 mg iron per 100 g and is quite useful to people suffering from iron deficiency.
Yes, you read that right. Vegetarian fare from Bengal can lay out a spread of almost Chhappan Bhog for you, and they are delicious as well nutritious in peak Indian summers. While most Bengalis have begun following this trend of vegetarianism on Tuesdays and Saturdays, it is still a taboo at our place. A vegetarian meal is often compensated with at least an egg curry. However, living away from Bengal doesn’t give us the choice to go for fish shopping frequently. It is usually purchased on weekends and stored for four to five days which often leads to its depletion by Saturdays. As you must be aware of, mutton is reserved for Sunday afternoons, chicken in arid regions like Pune and Hyderabad is not very appetising in summer and smells awful; that leaves us with the choice of an odd egg. On rare occasions of fridge cleaning days or blistering summery ones, we decide to chuck the egg for a plateful of a cool vegetarian meal.
Who doesn’t love a good pickle? The mere thought of a tangy, spicy or slightly sweet pickle makes me salivate at any point of time. Being an Indian, most of our meals are incomplete without a plethora of pickles. I have a habit of choosing the pickles according to my mood. So, one day it is the hot and sour chilli and lemon pickle, followed by a sweet and sour Green Olive pickle made by my mother, or a fiery stuffed red chilli pickle to go with a snack. We’ve been using pickles in more ways than one in Bengal. The residual oil from a hot and sour Green Mango pickle is used in jhaalmuri or to mix up mashed potatoes to accompany daal-rice.
While surfing for non-vegetarian pickles online, I bumped into the Places of Origin website. They have a wonderfully sorted site with more varieties of pickles than I could even imagine. The classic Pork pickle and Naga Chilli Pork pickle look absolutely delicious. Since we are a voracious fish consuming family, we’re always on the lookout for interesting ones like Prawn and Bombay duck pickles. I’m definitely going to order few of these from the site as they look wonderful and are quite moderately priced.
If you are a little adventurous and want to try to regional pickles of India, there’s a lot in store for you at Places of Origin. I’ve only heard about Ker Sangri pickle from Rajasthan, but never tasted it. Other interesting picks are Gongura pickle from Andhra Pradesh or Mango Thokku from Tamil Nadu to choose from. Oh, and don’t forget to taste my favourite Kashundi from Bengal! It’s a great condiment with fried snacks with the tang of mustard and heat of chillies. If you are a fan of sweet pickles like a few in my family, go for the Chhundo from Gujarat. It’s a sweet and slightly sour pickle made with grated mango and jaggery and is great with paratha or thepla.
I have to admit that I hadn’t even heard about Dates, Turmeric, Chana Methi or Garlic peel pickle until I went to buy pickles online. It is just amazing of the ways you can utilise these pickles with different varieties of food. India has such a rich heritage of pickles from each of its states that is hard to find elsewhere. At Places of Origin, there’s Lemon pickle without oil and Garlic pickle in Olive oil. In case you don’t want too much oil but cannot resist pickles either – try these. They are really unique and brought together for the first time to be available across the country online. And they would also make for innovative and awesome gifts for any occasion with gift packs of 1 kg assorted pickles for friends and family.
Spice up your meals with a little pickle of any variety and you’ll be sure to win hearts all around!
Writing an article around Valentine’s Day invariably leads to the celebration of love and such stuff. With the advent of Spring comes Saraswati Pujo, technically on the fifth day of the season, called Basant Panchami. Saraswati, the goddess of Arts and Education is worshipped diligently across my part of the world. From miniature clay idols at home to medium sized idols at various schools and finally the larger versions at the barowari (public) pujo, the goddess is more revered than actually loved. I’ve often perceived Saraswati as the lonelier, geeky goddess among others, akin to the bespectacled girl in school, bypassed for prettier ones (like Lakshmi). My loyalties have been and will remain for the ivory goddess, who I believe has lent me the few words that I can write. Retracing to Valentine’s Day bit of the story – Saraswati Pujo is termed aptly as Bengali Valentine’s Day for the past half-a-century. I think it’s barely been 50 years that Saraswati Pujo began to be celebrated in schools around Bengal. The stern iron gates of each mono-gender school would be open to everyone only on this day, creating leeways for teenagers. Each teenage boy, clad in pressed and clean white or yellow Panjabi-Pajama would peer around Girls’ schools in the neighbourhood for saree clad beauties. Thus began an era of seeing each other, diligently asking for prasad, going out for a date in a group and stealing furtive glances.
Do you recall that warm holler of ‘Chai Garam‘ at Indian Rail junctions? Chai, tea, chaa – it’s a beverage that I cannot function without. A detoxifying lemon tea first thing in the morning, a tight milk tea toward noon, green tea or iced tea in the afternoon and finally a lightly spiced or flavoured milk tea in the evening. Yes, that’s my daily tea routine. And I love spiced tea, especially cardamom or cinnamon. I had mixed and ground a few whole spices together to make my own spice mix, but it was way too addictive to be consumed daily.
I’ve won this hamper of 500 cups of tea from Vahdam Teason Twitter. It came as a big surprise and is a blessing for a tea lover like me. They have sent a wonderful box of Cardamom Spice Tea, packed in airtight pouches and one sample each of Assam Spice Tea and Kashmiri Kahwa Spice Tea. I love the effort they implement on packaging the tea and send ziplock pouches to store them. I’ve tried all three varieties and loved each of them. They are different, exotic and very fragrant.
Cardamom spice tea
Cardamom Spice Tea – First things first, I have 500 cups of this beauty, yay! When you open the sealed pack, the aroma will instantly hit you. It is extremely organic as there’s no chemically added essence, but only crushed cardamom mixed with black tea. The aroma is so heady that I kept sniffing the airtight pouch till it was time to discard it. About half a tea spoon is enough for two cups of creamy cardamom flavoured tea. You just need to boil this flavourful mix with milk (adding a little water if you wish to dilute it). The black tea that is used in this mix has round crumbly grains and is strong. Crushed green cardamom pods and husk enhance the flavour to a blissful heaven. It’s a must try if you’re a spice tea lover or enjoy the Elaichi Chai at your local chaiwala’s.
Ilish is the elixir of Bengali cuisine, it is the epitome of all fishes, a delicacy that is looked forward to by everyone. There are only a few rare fish haters among Bengalis spread worldwide who don’t revere Ilish – I know a few such people, can’t say I’m proud of them though. Much has been written about this enigmatic fish around the globe, and about an average Bengali’s obsessive compulsive disorder in buying the best Ilish for their family. Have you heard of people serving Ilish to goddess Saraswati to worship her on Basant Panchami? Multitudinous families in Bangladesh and West Bengal follow the tradition of serving the goddess with a pair of good stout Ilish on Saraswati Puja. Similar rituals are followed on Kojagari Laxmi Puja right after Dusshera. While rest of the country is content in worshipping Laxmi with laddoos and other sweetmeats, few Bengalis carry the legacy of serving the goddess a whole, consummate Ilish later to be cooked and consumed as bhog. A good harvest of Ilish looks somewhat like the image below, with red/purple streaks vertically along its spine and glittery silver scales.
Did you know? Ilish grows and thrives in the sea, but travels all the way to fresh water in the estuaries to lay eggs.
At Gariahat Market, Calcutta.
My earliest memories of Ilish obviously dates back to childhood when we lived in the Ministry of Defence staff quarters at Ishapore (about 25 km from Calcutta, in the suburbs) near the banks of Ganga. While my in-laws’ house is within 500 metres from the river, we lived a little away in the staff quarters. Those days, about 20 years ago, Ilish was still harvested from Ganga and it tasted better than its other river contemporaries. My father used to reach the river bank at dawn where fishermen would be ready with freshly harvested Ilish, gleaming in the rising sun. Due to global warming, water distribution issues between India-Bangladesh and heavy export, Ilish has become rare in Bengal now. They don’t flock to Ganga anymore, I believe, as the Farakka Barrage diverts the water. The availability of Ilish mostly depends on Kolaghat (Rupnarayan river) and Diamond Harbour (estuary at the Bay of Bengal). This year though, has seen quite a bit of supply from Bangladesh, probably illegally. My parents have bought some of it in Calcutta, where the seller informed them in hushed tones that his father in law sent a lot from Bangladesh though channels. We have seen an Ilish weighing 3 kg here in Pune, which looks like import from Bangladesh too, priced at Rs 1800 per kg.