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.
People never believed us when we insisted that the main agenda of our Bangkok trip was going to be food. Being a lover of Pan Asian cuisine, it was imperative that a holiday in Bangkok meant trying a lot of Thai food. Even with millions of tourists flocking every month and season, Thai and Chinese cuisine is more popular in the city than Global fast food chains for people who wouldn’t venture out of their comfort zone. Does that imply we didn’t try the amazing Samurai Pork Burger in McDonald’s or Beef Whopper in Burger King? Of course, we did! They were cheap and totally unavailable in India, which made themselves land into our list of items to try. But they aren’t eligible to be featured into these 5 must eats from Thai cuisine. These are nutritious, delicious and well within your budget if you’re a traveller like me and M. We love to explore the local cuisine of any place we visit, rather than sit in boutique hotels and sample gourmet food.
Eat all Thai 🙂
We recommend these must eat treats once you’re in Bangkok –
Spring Roll and Pad Thai – These two aren’t served together, but they’re often in close proximity. Thai Spring Rolls are probably one of the few vegetarian appetisers that we love. Crisp on the outside with a moist filling of veggies, always freshly fried and served with a sweet chilli sauce – Spring Rolls are a must on the streets of Bangkok. They provide a quick snack break, satiate your taste buds and come as cheap as 30 THB per plate. We’ve had the best ones at a stall on Khao San Road and it’s the best way to fill your stomach before you start partying.
Tomorrow is Vishwakarma Puja in Bengal. While every other festival appears on different dates each year depending on its tithi, Vishwakarma Puja has rooted itself deeply on 17th September and never budges. It’s an enigma created many decades ago and Bengal has been following it religiously since. Vishwakarma has been considered as the divine architect, the God of Engineers and machines. If you are in Bengal on 17th September, you’ll easily spot this good looking deity being worshipped in every factory, press, manufacturing unit and even in rickshaw stands. While other idols sport some weapon or the other in their hand(s), Lord Vishwakarma is proudly flanked by a kite! His arrival brightens up the autumn sky with vibrant kites (that have a name each based on their designs) that look like confetti spread all over the canopy.
But this is not an article about Vishwakarma Puja. It’s about an age old custom associated with the festival – Arandhan (no cooking). It is celebrated in the month of Bhadra, on the auspicious day of Vishwakarma Puja. Typically, the custom involves no cooking on heat for the day. Every item was cooked the day before and stored in earthen utensils to protect them from rotting in the autumn heat. The culmination of the month of Bhadra implies the end of monsoon and onset of autumn in the next month of Ashwin. Arandhan serves the purpose of cleaning up the household after rains and offer a platter of the choicest foods from monsoon to Ma Manasa (goddess of snakes). I think this ritual originated in rural Bengal to protect people from the wrath of Manasa and her army of snakes. Until my generation came into being, our families used earthen stoves (unoon/chulha) before the advent of LPG. After cooking up a storm for Arandhan, the stoves and kitchen were cleaned to perfection. A platter was served on earthenware and offered to Ma Manasa, symbolised by a clay pot placed beside the stove.
Have you heard of Gondhoraj? Of a scent that has allured people all around the globe and inspired restaurateurs to create amazingly fragrant dishes. Gondhoraj is literally ’emperor of aroma’ and there’s not a soul that would refute its nomenclature. Recent articles have termed the Gondhoraj as a distant cousin of the Kaffir lime. While K lime is found in tropical Asia, including India, Gondhoraj originates in Rangpur, Bangladesh. Anjan Chatterjee, founder of the Speciality chain of restaurants, fondly calls it ‘Rangpur Lime’ and asserts that it has failed to grow in climates and regions beyond far-eastern Indian subcontinent. Much has been written about this (sub)lime citrus fruit that has totally ruled Bengal and beyond.
Photo courtesy: Neha Banerjee
I’ll leave behind the history and background of Gondhoraj at this point as I’m not much aware. Growing up in Bengal, it is quite impossible not to be swayed by the whiff and tang of this lime. It represented summer all throughout my childhood, but global warming has made summer the ruler of all seasons in Bengal now. As a result, Gondhoraj is grown all over the year for its use in posh Bengali restaurants and even mid-tier ones that serve Gondhoraj mocktails, while the lime is still available for Rs 5 at Gariahat Market. I haven’t tasted those mocktails, but I’ve had the luxury to use Gondhoraj juice into a pot of tea, chucking the milk. Trust me, it tastes as good as plain lemon tea, and even better, if you’d ask me.
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.
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.