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.
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.