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.
2017 arrived and made us reminiscent of a recent Thai trip where we stuffed ourselves with gorgeous food. We had heard about Malaka Spiceand wanted to try their varied menu of not only Thai but Burmese, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Malay cuisine – truly Pan Asian cuisine. What attracted was the fact that they serve a range of meats from Chicken, Mutton, Buff to Quail and Duck. Though we didn’t try too many items, but mostly liked the ones that helped us usher this year with a good hearty lunch.
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.
To elucidate the aroma of mutton curry wafting from the kitchen, especially on a Sunday afternoon is nearly impossible. It’s easier to cook the mutton than even give a try to illustrate the labyrinth of emotions it evokes in me, and most people of my race. It’s a phenomenon evolved over a hundred years and a tradition well worth preserving. Before drifting (and delving) into the history of Sunday mutton curry, let me add a cheeky disclaimer that ‘mutton’ refers to goat meat for every instance I write about it. Being raised in Bengal, I had no notion that red meat in general (lamb, goat, pork, beef) is referred to as ‘mutton’. For me, goat cannot be replaced with any other animal for ‘mutton.’
Image Courtesy: Neha Banerjee
From lores narrated in both of my families over years and reading old Bangla stories, I’ve formed a hypothesis on the origin of Sunday mutton. In the early 20th century, educated folk from rural Bengal migrated to Calcutta (the only city then) in search of clerical occupation. They stayed mostly in rental accommodations, hostels and as paying guests for five working days. Come Friday afternoon and they’d venture for the ancestral home in different districts of Bengal. When they’d arrive home, mostly late at night, their jholas would carry fruits, candies, sweets for the children, an occasional piece of jewellery or saree for the wife and daughter, and – on frequent weekends – mutton for the entire family. Children would rejoice; I have a sneaking suspicion that they’d root more for the meat than frugal candies, like me. The wife would blush and begin preparations for the mutton curry the night itself or the next afternoon. Of course in monsoons, the mutton is replaced with Ilish, but that doesn’t take away its glory in the other seasons.
Haleem. It means Patience. And rightly so. Food that takes longer than eight hours to cook must be great in taste. That’s what I had thought when I first heard of Haleem in Hyderabad. Being a foodie and a Calcuttan, I should have heard of it earlier, but I hadn’t because middle class folks like us residing in Calcutta and suburbs didn’t indulge into niche Ramadan delicacies. Secondly, Haleem is way more popular and available in Hyderabad than our bhaat-maachh loving Calcutta. I have tried Haleem and gradually have become a kind of connoisseur for the wholesome dish. If you still haven’t tasted this divine food, here are a few reasons why you should.
Irani Haleem at Sarvi Restaurants, Hyderabad
1. History – Did you know Haleem dated back to 10th century when it was called Harisah in the Arabian lands? According to historians, the recipe for Harisah has been found dated 10th century and it was a popular dish among the Arabs. It was introduced to the Hyderabadi Nizam’s soldiers by the Arabs and later got modified into Haleem.
2. Heritage – Harisah or Harees was sold throughout the year as a snack in the bazaars, in some faraway land like a fairy tale. Today it is reduced to being available just in the month of Ramadan in India and Pakistan. The rarity of the dish has made it more popular and exotic, with people like me waiting all the year just for a taste of Haleem in the holy month of Ramadan. While Hyderabad has conserved and enriched the authenticity of Haleem, other cities have created their own runny versions, a few very weird at that too.
Calcutta is arguably the culinary heaven of India, with Delhi and Hyderabad as close contenders. The mention of culinary heaven must take you to an olfactory, ocular and gustatory paradigm of experience. It should leave you with a phenomenon, not just an eating experience. Calcutta is pretty much capable of guiding you through an unforgettable culinary tour comprising of unimaginably varied food. You will find almost everything under the sun, especially with nuovo restaurants offering both world and local cuisine. But it is the heritage that still reigns the city’s food map. Allow me to introduce you to, and enlighten about five unique dishes quintessential to what we call ‘Calcutta cuisine.’ While you can still make/cook all of these at home, they are best tasted and tried at restaurants/street corners.
Kabiraji Cutlet – Most of us have been induced to believe that the wonderful, our own Kabiraji Cutlet has been derived from something called the British ‘Coverage Cutlet’. I’ve believed this blindly since time, but as I delved deep into the beloved Kabiraji Cutlet roots, it seemed Coverage Cutlet didn’t exist at all. To know more, read this wonderful article at Presented by P. I’d keep the discussion about the origin and etymology of Kabiraji Cutlet for later, and concentrate on the making and availability.