Nilanjana S Roy
There are two kinds of fervent devotees at Durga Puja: one kind has their hearts fixed on god, the other has their minds focused on food, but the degree of devotion is the same.
Reading the prescribed list of offerings to Ma Durga for each day of the pujas is a way of understanding the food culture of Bengal. On the first day of the pujas, the gods must be offered, among other things, sugarcane juice, “atop chaal” (kalijira rice), sesame oil, green gram and other humble local grains.
The water offerings speak of a riverine culture that also ventures into the oceans: there must be rain water, ocean water and pond water with lotus pollen in it.
Shashti Puja pays obeisance to local foods: bel or wood apple, a dozen bananas on the stem, green coconuts, white mustard seeds. On the ninth and tenth days, Nabami and Dashami, the food offerings will also include betel nut leaves. Some of these items are seasonal, some will be found in even the most basic Bengali kitchen.
Most outsiders know about the grand “bhog” offered every day after the morning prayers at the puja pandals. But few show up for the Ananda Mela, the unofficial opener to the festivities, where neighbourhood housewives offer their kitchen’s specialities.
Ghoogni, a chickpea-based stew that may include either meat or cauliflower-and-peas, is immensely popular.
The grand stars of Bengali party cooking can be found at these local melas: luchi and alurdom (each household has a different spice mixture for the potatoes), chicken chops or banana flower chops, pantras (pancakes stuffed with a mince filling and fried). But if you’re lucky, one of the mashimas may produce more unusual offerings, like devilled eggs Bengali-style or a
coconut-based sweet like patishapta or narkeler naru. Eating at the Ananda Mela is like eating at someone’s home.
The bhog offered at puja pandals is of a different order, usually made by trained karigars. Classicists insist that you ignore the tantalising aromas arising from the kitchen until after the food has been offered to the gods — to breathe in deeply and enjoy the fragrance is to rob the gods of their portion. The rest of us inhale as furtively as possible, waiting for banana leaves or
sal-leaf platters to be laid out. In the more modern pandals, plastic has taken over, but this wrecks the flavour of the food. The classics of the puja pandal are oddly humble dishes, taken to a different level by the expert’s hand at mixing spices and by the pleasure of communal eating: khichudi, the rice-and-dal staple you’ll find everywhere in India; labra, a pumpkin and aubergine based vegetable stew that can contain up to 15 different vegetables, spiced with panchphoron; the Nabami staple of mung dal cooked with fish-heads.
While Calcutta restaurants in Calcutta from Kewpie’s Kitchen to Bhojohori Manna have offered special puja thalis for years, Delhi’s non-Bengali residents have had to either find a hospitable Bengali friend or miss out. This year, Oh Calcutta!’s Delhi branch came up with special puja buffets served twice a day for the duration of Durga Puja. The spread is astonishing, with over seven-eight vegetarian main dishes, an equivalent number of non-vegetarian mains, and an assortment of bhajas (fries) and chops for starters.
But what I liked was that, in keeping with the spirit of the pujas, Oh Calcutta! didn’t stick to the kosha mangsho, chingri malai curry and other party dishes. One of the best dishes on offer was a sheem-begun chorchori, a stew of broad beans and aubergine that you seldom see outside people’s homes; also an ordinary lau-ghanto (lauki with a crumble topping) raised to unexpected heights, and a sublime pabda-shorshey (whole fish cooked in a light mustard gravy).
For some purists, the idea of eating at a restaurant rather than at the pandals might be anathema, but judging by the number of Bengali families who determinedly ploughed through platters of darbesh and chicken chop, this is well on its way to becoming a new puja tradition.
6 months ago