Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Bon(g)  Appetit!

Its a given that Bongs love their adda over a piping hot cup of tea. Its also a given that no Bong celebration or festival is complete without the rendition of  the ever mellifluous Rabindrasangeet. But what is it between a Bong and food? Even the name of food is enough for a Bong to drool over, to slurp or even transport one to the savoury world of gastronomy.

A Bong's romance with food goes back a long way. Most recipes are hand-me-downs from the authentic kitchens of moms, grand-moms or even great-grand-moms and each recipe is characterised with its distinctive flavour and aroma. For example the moong dal or yellow lentil has to be bhaja or dry-roasted first and then boiled in order to bring out its distinctive flavour. Or a muri-ghonto (fish-head's curry) is ideally finished with a generous dose of ghee or clarified butter and a smattering of garam masala powder.  A breakfast or evening snacks is not a mean feat either. A Bong's kitchen can boast of a variety of kochuris, an entirely indigenous find straight out of the grandma's kitchen. Unlike the kachoris of Northern India, the Bengali kochuri is different both in look, taste and texture. Made out of a variety of stuffing inside a dough, flat rolled and deep fried in flaming hot oil, this is hardly hard-crusted unlike its North Indian variety. An accompaniment with these is inevitable. So one can have brinjal chunks pan fried or alur dum(potato slow cooked) or cholar daal(Bengal gram with shredded coconut). When it comes to variety, trust a Bong!

 It is also interesting to note the eclectic influence of erstwhile East Pakistan (present Bangladesh) in the present day Bengali cuisine. The array of ghontos and chorchoris is a direct import from Bangladesh. Again the ubiquitous Calcutta biryani is not  entirely its own, geographically speaking. It is distinctly different from its more popular cousins of Hyderabad or Lucknow, the latter famously fragrant for its spices and traditionally cooked on dum. Apparently it was the Nawabs of Bengal, who were ruling Bengal from Murshidabad, who brought the biryani to Calcutta. In fact it won't be an exaggeration to call it the "Murshidabadi Biryani"! What sets this biryani apart from all its other cousins is the copious presence of boiled potatoes, so much so, that this biryani is not considered to be 'complete' without the presence of the 'tuber'! From the nondescript road side stalls of Gariahat to the speciality restaurants of swanky malls this saffron streaked 'tuber' biryani is to be found literally every where today.

No Bengali occasion-big or small is complete without a feast. The menu is customised according to the significance of the occasion. So a lunch for an  annoprason, which roughly translated would mean a "rice-eating ceremony", would typically start of with a platter of steaming hot, long-grained fine basmati rice to emphasize the transition from liquid food to solids for an infant that would ideally begin with having the first grain of  rice.  Similarly a Bengali wedding's dinner would be grand just like the wedding itself with its three course meal which would be any foodie's delight. And no there should be no dearth of fish or chicken or goat's meat in the menu. If one is seeking to whet a Bong's appetite, promptly do so with fish; plain and simple, nothing fishy about it! While ilish or the 'hilsa' is considered to be the king of fish, prawns would undoubtedly rank a close second. In fact it is an eternal tug-of-war between these two varieties who fight tooth and nail for the first spot. Traditionally 'hilsa' is supposed to be a favourite among the Bengalis who migrated from erstwhile East Pakistan(present Bangladesh) while prawns are known to be savoured by  those from the Indian state of West Bengal. But when it comes to food, expect borders to diffuse and let  a spicy and zesty flavour come in from the holy marriage of wet mustard and poppy seeds paste that these two fish are famously cooked in.

But am I missing some thing? Oh yes! How can one miss the sweets? A typical Bengali meal is incomplete without the variety of sweets that the dhoti-clad, pot-bellied, bespectacled 'bangali babu' loves to endlessly indulge in. But what if, God forbid, one is diabetic which most Bengalis incidentally are?  One must also keep in mind that it is next to impossible to keep a Bong away from sweets for long. So when the health gods and goddesses turn their backs at you and even the doctor is not of much help, trust your local sweet maker for innovation and here comes the sugarfree variety of sweets to meet a diabetic's sweet tooth! Here, one should not lose sight of the fact that a Bengali sweet ideally is not to be devoured at one go vis-a-vis technique of eating. Yes, there is the rosogolla and the pantua variety that is to be popped inside the mouth and there you go into the stomach kind of sweets. But the others like nolen gurer sandesh, chitrakuth, langcha etc. are to be eaten with much love and caress-slowly, relishing it, letting the savoury sweetness gradually dribble and fill one's mouth  until one is transported to seventh heaven.So next time one visits a Bong wedding, be prepared to come across many such Bong babus whose whiteness of the starched dhoti can only match up to the whiteness of the rosogollas in his dessert plate and whose love for the grub would compel one to say 'Thou Bong! Gastronomy is they second name!'

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mind in a Doldrum

I woke up with an uneasy feeling- sweaty, sticky and humid. An early morning overcast sky had ensured the humidity to persist and the discomfort level, carried over from the previous night, persisted all the more. Drawing the curtains of the window of the living room, I stood there for a while facing the eastern sky. A jackfruit tree stood there just across the boundary wall. For a moment i gazed at the numerous baby jackfruits that hung from the branches-green, fleshy and edible. On the left of the jackfruit tree stood a mango tree, a barren one, quite unusual at this time of the year, when trees burst into flowers, buds and fruits. I looked at the mango tree for a while, my eyes hovering around the criss-crossing branches, but it was all barren. The air felt heavy and moist. The rain god having played truant, the city had been experiencing a sweltering heat for the last few weeks coupled with high humidity levels. Nor was there any trace of the Norwesters that normally lashes the city around this time of the year.

Try as much as one can, one cannot have control over one's thoughts, they always, willy-nilly determine their own course. The human mind is a cauldron of activities, at least mine has always been one-eternally vacillating between the real and the ideal. My mind could never be reigned in as far as the flow of thoughts is concerned. And so I stood there by the window of the living room of my "home" in the City of Joy and yet felt a terrible angst of being displaced. So this unreigned existence called "mind" was soon transported to a far flung place in the Land of Dreams-the United States of America.

Peoria, to me is a sleepy, peaceful town, especially in comparison to the hustle and bustle of the City of Joy. Perhaps the 'small-town girl' trait in me helps me to connect more spontaneously and effortlessly with small towns. Suddenly my mind was missing the lush, unadulterated greenery, the sudden burst of flowers and foliage one gets to see in spring. I wanted to breathe the fresh, unpolluted air to escape the damp and heaviness of the air that I was breathing then. Ahh Spring!!! The cool, balmy zephyr, the birds singing and the crispy warm vernal sun...The transportation of the mind in time and space is invariably accompanied with a complete detachment of the body as I was soon to realise...

A SLUMBER did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:

I seemed a thing that could not feel the touch of earthly years. No motion had i now, no force; I neither heard, nor saw...

I was woken up from my slumber by the splash of cold rain water into my face. Looking up, I realised the heavens had opened up with all its might- thundering, roaring, cutting across dark strips of cloud" while the moist Earth was smiling below". And my mind, having been jolted from the temporary slumber was basking in this heaven's glory- feeling, enjoying, bathing in the cool waters of this refreshing downpour, cooling down my mind which had till then been in a thunderous 'doldrum'. The mind was at peace now...ahh Norwesters...ahh the City of Joy...my "home".

Sunday, November 1, 2009

City of Joy

Calcutta, the City of Joy, is where my fortune took me next after I completed school. To me the experience of this capital, till then, was irksome to say the least. I had faint memories of a dusty, noisy and an overwhelmingly crowded Sealdah. To me Calcutta was all "grey"-heat, dust, humidity!!! It was far away from my "green" North Bengal. But as luck would have it, i landed in this self-defined "grey city" owing to my father's transferable job. I still vividly remember it was mid-July when we landed at the Dumdum airport. It had rained considerably which had rendered the road slushy and muddy-a fact which i soon realised was customary in Calcutta even after a mild downpour. Looking outside through the window of our cab, in a day when the sky was overcast, Calcutta seemed even more grey to me. For that moment i truly felt i had permanently lost my "green days"...Impossible though it was for me to adapt, yet i had told yourself since this was going to be my city for the next few years atleast, better i fall in love with it!!! The sooner, the better...

But sooner it was not to be. Initially it seemed like a struggle to me...coping with crowded buses where i often felt like the proverbial tin of sardines or even the tube which was fast, pollution-free and dot on time, still would occasionally make me feel claustrophobic. It was the same old story- a small town girl trying to cope with the hustle and bustle of a metropolis. For me this struggle was all the more doubled. It is often said that a healthy body and a bad memory yield happiness. But my memory was too strong to forget things and i had a terrible feeling of my home town that didnt let me embrace this new city...a city that i had initially loved to hate but nevertheless i couldnt ignore for this city was to become my "home" for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Awaiting Spring

"If winter comes, can spring be far behind..."

This immortal line from Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind' always tickled my mind, since the time i first read the poem as an undergraduate student. Albeit my mind always tried to interpret the metaphorical meaning-the continuity, the immutability of Nature as against the transience of Man. But never did its physical implication tickle me. Having been born and brought up in a tropical country like India, winters were always a thing i romanticized about, especially in a city like Calcutta. Winter was a welcome relief from the heat, dust, humidity of the burgeoning metropolis. And to think of Siliguri, my birthplace, situated in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas, winter reminds me of the moist, misty mornings, the mellowed sun, the languorous afternoons and the chilly evenings, made warm by hot cups of specially flavoured Darjeeling.

Going to school in the early hours was an experience by itself. Huddled up in buses, rubbing hands to get rid of the numbness, pulling socks literally up til the knee-and many such other improvisations to keep ourselves warm would occupy most of our journey time. Many of us would be still drowsy eyed, barely pulling ourselves like zombies. And our activities would be invariably punctuated by yawns followed by the emanation of smoke, much to our amazement. And as the bus turned right from Darjeeling More towards Sukna, entering the famed tea-estates of North Bengal, we would be greeted by lush greenery. I, a keen Nature lover, almost felt as if i were in the lap of Nature at once, a la Wordsworth. Its refreshing beauty and unadulterated serenity still "flashes upon the inward eye". The mist, the fog, having accumulated overnight would give a blurred and hazy vision at times but interestingly enough it added mysticism to the already beautiful Nature. It was like Nature veiled in its beauty exhibiting a shy charm. This journey of thirty minutes had become a routine to almost all, mundane to some , and mechanical to few others. But to me it was a new journey everyday, a new beginning for the day.

Speaking of journey reminds me of the other fascination-no, not Nature...but a man-made machine-The Toy Train, which has now become a symbol of heritage. As the bus entered Hill Cart Road, our path would run parallel to the rail tracks, sometimes running towards our left, sometimes towards right and yet at other times crisscrossing our path. Never did i feel this man-made machine to invade Nature or to ruthlessly control it, but this eternally blue-coloured machine added a kind of charm, following an unwritten rule-abiding by the ways of Nature, winding its ways over the serpentine tracks towards the mighty, unconquerable Himalayas. On a few days when we were lucky we would cross our paths with this toy...whistling its way zig-zacking, criss-crossing, steaming until melting in the lush greenery.

Gone are those days, my school days, my salad-days...my "green days".