She is as everyday and seems as inconsequential and undervalued as the air we breathe in, yet she is indispensable for the morning cup of tea or as a quick solution to a sudden hunger pang. She is neither too sweet nor salty, she is simple, yet she is beautiful with a neat pattern and a round shape. The most common pack in grocery racks around the world, she is an egalitarian food, the need and love for her cuts across borders, age, religion, culture and tastes. I cannot do without her in the mornings, and this has been a habit since childhood. The accompaniments changed but she remained constant. Years ago I used to dip her in my morning cup of milk before rushing off to school and now I dip it in my cup of Second Flush or Earl Grey.
The she I am referring to is a biscuit, the common Marie biscuit. Even if it is inanimate by standards, I feel the need to breath life in her, as she succors souls for years. I feel Marie is a woman…. constant, unchanging yet full of life and with lot of potentials. The idea of writing about Marie biscuits came to my mind last morning when I was angry, frustrated and sad in finding that my stock of Marie biscuits were over. Even during the prolonged Lockdown I ensured I had a steady supply of her. The emotion in finding my tea tray without the Marie was akin to finding one’s lover cheating and that too with a close friend- angry, frustrated and sad at the realisation that the bond was never as strong in reality, only in a figment of thought. I thought I had betrayed the Marie in not restocking it in time.
Amends to be done, apart from buying stocks, I thought of paying a tribute to this humble yet indispensable element in my life. An ode to my favourite Marie would be the best amend. Marie biscuits are dunkable biscuits and they are best served with tea or a glass of milk. Another way to enjoy these biscuits is by making a sandwich out of two biscuits with either marmalade or butter spread in between- a childhood nostalgia for most of us. A marmalade sandwiched Marie is still the comfort food for many . Marie biscuits are also given to infants and toddlers as the first solid food. The biscuit universally has one shape and is called by the same name irrespective of language. Round in shape with the name embossed on the top surface with the edges embossed with an intricate design as well. It is made from wheat flour sugar, palm oil or sunflower seed oil and is usually vanilla flavored in comparison to the rich tea biscuits.
How the Marie came into being
Marie Biscuits were originally called Maria. In 1874 Queen Victoria’s second son, the Duke of Edinburgh, married a Russian princess, Maria Alexandrovna. She was the fifth child and only surviving daughter of Emperor Alexander II of Russia . To celebrate the duke’s wedding to Maria, a London based pastry chef from the biscuit company Peek Freans made a simple round biscuit of flour, oil, sugar and vanilla extract, with the name Maria stamped in the middle, and around the edge a Greek key pattern, which was very popular in Russia. The biscuit became very popular throughout Europe, specifically in Spain where it became the country’s symbol of economic recovery after the Civil War. Marie biscuits have been produced in mass quantities in Spanish bakeries during that time due to wheat surplus. The first Peek Freans factory outside of England was set up in Kolkata as the biscuit travelled from high teas in British countryside to ordinary homes and roadside tea shops assimilating into the “chaa ae adda culture of Bengal .
Marie and History
The reason why Marie biscuits had a global acceptance has a historical underpinning. It was the high curve of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, and biscuits became one of the unexpected products of it. Biscuits had existed mostly as nibblers for consumption in ships- a hard, plain one, often without salt, made on a large scale and meant to serve as long-lasting rations on ships. Bakers did make sweet biscuits called Fancies, but only on a small scale and for local consumption, since they were too perishable to sell widely. Margaret Forster describes in Rich Desserts and Captain’s Thins, a fascinating history of Carr’s of Carlisle, one of the first big biscuit manufacturers.
New technologies like airtight metal boxes for packing and transport by canals and then the railways, which reduced breakages from bumpy roads gave a shelf life to biscuits. Long train trips also required food for the traveller as Forster wrote “this new method of travel actually fuelled the need for biscuits.” The new industrialized world as well needed new foods. “Biscuits were the perfect form of snack, and snacks instead of proper meals were becoming more and more usual as working hours changed,” writes Forster. As the British spread their empire across the world, they took their need for biscuit breaks with them. Tightly packed tins of biscuits were easy to transport by ship and as a result they became among the first global brands, with names that are still familiar like Huntley & Palmer or McVities (Peek Frean is available only in Pakistan now).
As biscuit manufacturing boomed, competition became intense. Most biscuits were similar and quickly copied, so companies were under pressure to come up with new types, shapes and names. Any major event was celebrated with its own biscuit as Forster that royal links were very popular: “The nibbler was thought to be seduced by visions of Queen Victoria eating the very same biscuit.” Making a biscuit for a marriage was easy, with a standard recipe for a semi-sweet biscuit being replicated with a machine to punch its circular shape, the pattern of holes and a design around the rim and ‘Marie’ in the centre.
Marie and Brands
When it comes to Marie biscuits, there are several brands to choose from and one of the most popular is the Britannia Marie from India. In Spain, one of the biggest brands of the Marie Biscuit is Maria Cookies. Another Spanish brand is the Rio Maria where the biscuits are thin, crisp and very sweet. In Spain, Natillas Custard is typically served with a Maria biscuit on top. In Mexico, the Pagasa Marias Cookies make crunchy Marie biscuits. In UK the biggest producer of Marie Biscuits is Crawford’s, the company that produces airy and light biscuits with vanilla flavor. These biscuits are great to be paired with tea. In the United States, Marias brand under Goya Foods is a popular Marie Biscuits brand, while the Maria Brand is well-known in Canada under the President’s Choice biscuit manufacturer. In the Philippines, Fibisco, the country’s top biscuit manufacturer, has popularized this biscuit variety as a great starting food for toddlers. There are three Fibisco made brands of this biscuit; Marie, Marie Time and Marie Munch.
Here and there Marie
The simplicity of Marie both in taste and design seems to appeal to many. It made them versatile, far more than the richer biscuits with fillings and fat. Maries are sweet, but not too much, so they complement other foods – we have all eaten them spread with jam or honey as kids, but Maries are good even when eaten like savoury crackers with cheese. Maries have less fat so they don’t crumble as fast. Though they lack a delicious melt-in-your-mouth feel, but it makes them better for dunking. This is where Maries really come into their own, their stiff dry structure absorbing more liquid as they go into milk, coffee or tea, but staying together long enough for that fraught journey from mug to mouth. Of course, even Maries fall apart if left in liquid for too long.
Marie and Politics
On 12th October, 1997 the Times of India reported in an article headed ‘Marie Biscuits and Mukhiya Mantris’ how chief minister Vasantdada Patil made use of the Maries served at Mantralaya press conferences to avoid giving answers-“Crucial questions skipped the chief minister’s attention as he would be too busy scooping out the details of the cup with a spoon.
Marie – the versatile one
To me the pleasure in carefully nibbling off the patterned rim first and then crunching the diminished centre is meditative peace. Faced with a cup with a mouth too small for a full Marie to go in, I then contemplate the geometry of how to break it into pieces small enough to go in, but not so small as to make dunking difficult. These are small but real pleasures of life. Parle failed in its attempt to sell Mary Long, introduced in 1987 as “the Square Shaped Marie.” Parle boasted that Mary Longs has won a gold medal at the Monde Selection Awards in Brussels, but Indian consumers evidently didn’t feel the way the Belgians did and the product is now forgotten.
Marie’s do have one use where the shape doesn’t matter. Crumbled or broken Maries are the foundation of some delicious puddings. Sri Lankans have a pudding made of layers of milk soaked Maries with chocolate and cashew nuts in between. Even easier is the recipe for Serradura that Fatima da Silva Gracias gives in her wonderful book Cozinha de Goa . The name Serradura means sawdust, which is exactly what pulverised Maries look like, and they are layered with a mixture of cream and condensed milk and frozen till solid.
1 Packet Marie biscuit
2 cups whipping Cream
1 Can Condensed Milk
1/2tsp Cinnamon Powder
In a food processor crush the Marie biscuits into fine crumbs resembling saw dust.
Beat the cream until medi soft peaks form
Add the condensed milk to the cream and whip for 4 minutes more.
In a tall glass alternate the cream and crumbs beginning and ending with cream.
Garnish with chocolate powder or chocolate gratings or sliced almonds.
Ancestors do come and visit us it is believed across the world and varied cultures as we celebrate a day remembering them and in some cultures performing rituals to celebrate their coming. Be it the Hallowen or the Bhoot Chaturdashi of the Bengalis, be it the carved pumpkin or the choddo shaak( leaves of 14 greens),food and rituals remain inextricably connected. So too are memories of childhood, pictures of our grandmothers and mothers going about celebrating a ritual with traditional gaiety and faith. Eating choddo shaak and lighting of 14 diyas, a day before Kali Pujo was a must in our house, though I never saw my parents or my grandparents being rigid about any ritual or festival. This was more about celebration of food and illuminating thehouse.I remember my mother reminding my father not to forget the choddo shaak when he went to the market. I can still hear her voice cautioning Baba to himself choose the 14 varieties and not to get the ready packs. What my father eventually did remains shrouded for Ma often used to complain about the quality and compare them with what her father, my grandfather used to get in their village in Jessore, presently in Bangladesh. Bhoot Chaturdasi is also memories of choosing the fourteen places where the diya should be placed- finding the darkest corners. This was a task left by my parents to me and my elder sister. Me and my sister used to disagree till our father acted as the patient referee .As I am writing this, I was worried about the quality of the greens I would get and also I was mentally choosing the fourteen places of my house. This has been a ritual which I have followed in my in laws place ever since I got married and still will do today.
Hallowen and Bhoot Chaturdoshi
The history of Halloween goes all the way back to a pagan festival called Samhain. The word “Halloween” is derived from the word All Hallows Eve meaning hallowed evening. People dressed up as saints and went door to door, which is the origin of Halloween costumes and trick-or-treating. Halloween is celebrated on October 31 because the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain, considered the earliest known root of Halloween, occurred on this day. It marked a pivotal time of year when seasons changed, but more importantly, it is also believed that the boundary between this world and the next became thin at this time, enabling them to connect with the dead. This belief is shared by some other cultures too. A similar idea is also the crux of the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, which is celebrated in October and involves saying prayers for the dead. This is also where Halloween gains its “haunted” connotations. Bhoot Chaturdashi celebrated in Bengal or Naraka Chaturdashi celebrated in rest of the country is its close cousin. The 14th day of Kartik month or Chhoti Diwali is also known as Narak Chaturdashi, Kali Chaudas and Bhoot Chaturdashi.
According to a legend, Lord Krishna killed the demon Narkasur with his Sudarshan Chakra on this day. As a ritual, symbolical killing of Narkasur, a ‘Kareet’ (an extremely bitter green berry also called Narkasur) is crushed under the foot by each member of the family. Its bitter juice is then consumed. Symbolism aside, this ritual has great health benefits as the Tikta Rasa (bitter taste) of the berry is known to pacify Pitta, which is on a high during this season. Several rituals that are performed during this season like the celebration of autumnal harvests in south and west in India is marked by preparing of special delicacies with sesame seeds, fresh jaggery, poha along with ghee and sugar The ritual of Anjanam or Kajal is popular during this day to ward off evil spirits. A unique herb called Daruhaldi is boiled with goat’s milk to create Rasanjanam. It is then applied as Kajal with a silver stick to prevent inflammatory eye conditions, which are on the rise due to Pitta during this season.
Celebrated a night before Kali Pujo, Bhoot Chaturdashi is also all about warding off the evil spirits. Though Bhoot Chaturdashi does not call for going trick-o-treating for candies, but it does include eating 14 kinds of leafy greens, and instead of Jack-o-lanterns, one lights 14 lamps. These 14 lamps are placed around the house, especially in the dark corners and near the tulsi tree to ward the dark spirits away. Some legends point out that the number of lamps represent the 14 forefathers. According to folklore, the spirits of the ancestors come back to the household on this night and these ghee lanterns help them find their loving homes. It’s believed that ancestors upon visiting their homes showers blessings. Bhoot Chaturdashi is in a way to pay homage to choddo purush — fourteen ancestors, seven from each side of the family — protecting from evil spirit and ghosts. Another popular belief is that Chamunda along with fourteen other ghostly forms ward off the evil spirits from the house as fourteen earthen-lamps are lit at different entrances and dark corners of the rooms. There is also a belief in rural Bengal, that tantriks kidnap children the night before Kali Puja and sacrifice them the next day to gain dark magic powers. Bhoot Chaturdashi is also often believed to be a custom to keep the children safe by keeping them busy at home with leafy green food and other rituals.
Bhoot Chaturdoshi and Choddo Shaak
Ritual practices are often underlined with ethnobotanical significance. Bhoot Choturdoshi like any other Bengali ritual, is connected to food – leafy greens in this case. This ritual food is called ‘Choddo Shaak’/‘Fourteen Greens’. It traditionally involved the collection of fourteen uncultivated greens by women from their homestead gardens or home surrounding areas like roadsides, ditches, ponds or canal banks, field bunds. Choddo shaak is a ritual of celebrating such uncultivated greens highlighting the enormous variety of uncultivated foods in our surroundings and its immense nutritional and environmental importance.
How the ritual began
Though the word shaak currently implies leafy greens in modern Bengali language, the word shaak was traditionally used in Ayurveda to denote six different types of greens. “Jodi totro bosenmasong sakaharo noradhip. Sonunong lovote punyong bajimedh folong totha’’ In 6/24/4 sūkta of Rigveda, a place called Shaakdwip, located in eastern India is mentioned where several Aryans lived. ‘Shaakal’ otherwise known as ‘Baskal’ branch of Rig Veda originated. They use to rely on mostly greens instead of meat in the diet. These group of people later spread to other regions and came to be known as ‘ShaakdwipiBrahmins’ due to their food habit. the 13th verse of chapter 84 of ‘Banaparba’ of Mahabharata mentions that Yudhisthira had visited ‘Shakambhar Tirtha’, a place in Shaakdwip where Shakhambhari Debi, a deity who was offered Shaak was worshipped by serving Debi Shaak for fourteen days(Sanskrit Choturdosh). Thus the practice of eating greens to celebrate Shaak Choturdoshi Vrata was started by ‘Baskal’ or ‘Shaakdwipi Brahmins’.However, there was no mention regarding the season of this ritual. Krityatatta (16th century C.E.) written by Raghunandan first mentions about the ritual of eating Choddo Shaak on Bhoot Chaturdashi . The verse is:‘‘Olong kemukbastukong, sarshopong nimbong joyang.Shalinching hilmochikancho potukong shelukong guruchintotha.Vontaking sunishonnokong shibdine khadonti je manobah,Pretottong no cho janti kartikdine krishne cho vute tithou.’’
Charak Samhita and dietary notes
The practice of eating leafy greens can also be traced in scriptures as old as Charaka Samhita (c. 700 B.C.E.). “Barshashitochitangonang sahasoibark rashmiviih. Taptanamachitang pidong prayoh saradi kupati’’, meaning ‘‘in rainy season our body becomes numb/cold. With the advent of autumn, our body becomes suddenly warm by sunlight and often suffers sudden bile upsurge. So sages have alerted us to consume greens in this season to be safe’’. In Markandaye Purana (7th century C.E.) the eulogy of Shakambhari Durga denotes that Debi is creating greens, tubers and fruits from her body to save and feed the world from famine. Charaka Samhita also states “On the onset of autumn the sudden change of weather brought about by the heat warmifies our heat-starved cold body due to lack of sunlight during the monsoon and thus engaging the pitta imbalance, which may cause various infectious diseases and these herbs have the potential in them to keep such diseases at bay.” This ritual of choddo shaak is believed to have its origin from this Ayurveda advice.
Doing the Choddo Shaak
Choddo shaak should ideally be a mix of palong (spinach), lal shaak (red amarnath), kalmi shaak(water spinach),sorshe shaak (mustard green), mulo shaak (radish green), pui shaak (malabar spinach),methi shaak(fenugreek green),paat shaak (young jute ),ol kopi shaak (turnip greens), chola shaak (chickpea greens),helencha, lau shaak (bottle gourd greens), kumro shaak ( pumpkin greens), kochur shaak( taro greens). Choddo Shaak has to washed very well, and the key to cooking it lies in retaining all the myriad flavours in a perfect balance.In mustard oil, I add whole dried red chilli. Once it splutters I put in some crushed garlic and a pinch of nigella seeds or kalo jeera. To it,the choddo saag is added. Some salt and turmeric is put in. I cover the pan to let the shaak cook in steam. Once done I add a pinch of sugar and some whole green chilli. This is served with plain steamed rice.
Bhoot Chaturdashi, this year, the year of the pandemic and so many deaths has an added significance – to ward off the virus and spread happiness and light. Let Bhoot Chaturdashi be celebrated with tradition,let the 14 diyas spread light across 14 corners of the world and restore our known world where we hugged, loved ,trusted and travelled. Happy Diwali to all as you choose your choddo shaak with love and caution and cook it perfect for the afternoon lunch. Dress up the diyas with ghee and mustard oil and start choosing the fourteen corners of the house.May we light one for our soul too- the darkness,the contradictions be dispelled for ever.
One knows that Durga Puja, the biggest festival of the Bengalis is around the corner if one looks at nature.Verdant blue skies with fleeting clouds, Shiuli flowers flowering ,Saptaparni trees growing dense with the intoxicating flowers, the iconic Kashphool swaying in the gentle breeze means it’s time to usher in the Goddess to Earth. Durga Puja is not limited to being a religious festival alone but in essence it is a celebration of life and a coming together of disparate elements and stratas. As we bid adieu to the Goddess in 2020 with restrained celebration but with a lot of faith amidst the Pandemic, I thought of looking back in history, about the origins and changing nature of the Pujas.
Ancient origins of Ma Durga
The Durga temple of Aihole (550 AD) is the oldest temple dedicated to Hindu goddess Durga, yet quite surprisingly, worshiping the Goddess turned into the biggest annual festival in another part of the India, especially in the state of West Bengal, that too, presumably not before 16th century. A recent research suggests that Gosanis of Odisha were probably the predecessors of Mahisasurmardini Durga worshipped in Eastern part of India. How did the Goddess gain popularity in the neighbouring region more than her place of origin?
Durga became a celebrity goddess in Bengal long before the two states separated in 1930s. The earliest Durgapuja recorded in Bengal history is in 1583, probably arranged by one of the zamindars of Rajshahi, who started Durgapuja as a substitute of Aswamedha Yagna. Historians also point out that the Durga worshipping culture bloomed as an expression of Hindu identity in Bengal under Islamic rule during the regime of Murshidkuli Khan and Alivardi Khan. However evidence of a Durgapuja arranged by Raja Baidyanath in Dinajpur by 1760s under patronage of Nawab Alivardi Khan supports a different opinion: worshipping the Goddess was in fact, patronised by the Mogul emperors. They favoured Durgapuja through their local representatives as an option to enhance brotherhood with the Hindu subjects in this region.
Tracing origins of Durga Puja in the city
The first Durgapuja in Kolkata was celebrated by the Barisha Sabarna Ray Chaudhuri family, when the puja was started in 1610. This puja was in celebration of the receipt of a Jagir from Humayun. Another school endorses the view that the festival took its current shape after the Battle of Plassey (1757). The new English rulers were keen to patronise the festival in order to win the hearts of the local Hindu subjects. Durgapuja in a sense was a ploy to reconstruct the relationships between Hindu Zamindars and the British. Maharaja Krishnachandra’s Durgapuja in Nadia district is a perfect example of British patronage. Krishnachandra, was not in the good books of the Murshidabad Nawabs and was even jailed that prevented his participation in Durgapuja in his own home in Krishnanagar. during the power struggle between British and Islamic rulers, he supported the British and in return was awarded the title “Maharaja” by Lord Clive. the Durgapuja with Krishnanagar royals became a festival to mark the re-establishment of Hindu cultural traditions in the region. Similarly, Raja Nabakrishna Dev, the founder of Shobhabazar Rajbari, who was awarded royal title by British,invited Lord Clive to participate in Durgapuja in 1787. In the beginning of establishing their rule, English rulers found patronising Durgapuja an option to establish power amicably in Bengal.
Durga Puja and 19 th century Socio- political milieu
The new group of zamindars post Permanent Settlement to confirm as well as to boost their social and economic status did not spare the scope of using the religious festival as a medium to establish own brand. Inviting Europeans following the trend set by Shobhabazar royals became wide practice for the same reason. There are plenty of newspaper reports of that time showing the growing number of Europeans attending the festival. 19 century Bengali literature, especially satires written by Kaliprasanna Simha, Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay can be considered as literary evidence explaining this scenario.
How community pujas evolved
Durgapuja as a community festival started in 1790 as the first Barowari puja, organised and sponsored by 12 friends together in Guptipada of Hooghly district near Calcutta, was a display of wealth and power. Raja Harinath of Kashimbazar adopted this collective form of puja in 1832.“Hutom Panchar Naksha” (1862) by Kaliprasanna Singha gives a vivid description of Calcutta Barowari (public) Durgapujas: how these were organised, celebrated and how the celebrations used to be dragged for weeks.This can be interpreted as the beginning of democratization of Durga Puja. Power-shift from old orthodox land-owners to the merchant class Zamindars encouraged them to show their gratitude to the ruler by accepting the British queens as incarnation of the goddess — best expressed when look of some of the Durga idols resembled Queen Victoria!
Public Durgapuja started gaining popularity late nineteenth century onwards. At that time, donations were collected from the people of the locality or community members staying close to the puja venue. Some of these old public Durgapuja are still being organised in Kolkata. One of them is Bagbazar Sarbajanin Durgotsav, started in 1919. The term, “Sarbajanin” started being used instead of Barowari puja for the community Durgapuja by early 20th century.
Durga Puja and the political language in the freedom movement
This, in turn, contributed in Bengal’s freedom movement as well. In the imagination of the freedom fighter, India as a country was transformed to mother-goddess and image of this “Bharatmata” intermingled with the goddess Durga based on Bankimchandra’s poem “Bande Mataram”. During this time, Durga became the symbol of power against colonialism. The history of Durgapujas organised by Simla Byayam Samity of Anushilan Samity proves this. Anushilan Samity organised a Durgapuja combined with weapon-worshiping in a hidden location in North Calcutta where Maharashtrian activist leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar played the role of a priest once. Even British ruler became aware of the trend of power shift evolving around the Goddess by that time and that was their reason for banning the Simla Byayam Samity’s puja between1932–34. . Swami Vivekananda started Durgapuja in 1910 in Balur math (1908). Bharat Sevashram Samgha and some others followed suit. Durga became the Goddess for Bengali community free from caste or religious bias — supporting the cause of Hindu nationalism of Bengal.
Theme Pujas and footfalls
As celebrations became much more festive rather than being ritualistic, the dramatic twist in this came with the introduction of themes in 1990’s and the emergence of corporatism in the whole event. The makeshift pandal was no more a beautifully decorated shelter for the idol, but representation of Bengal’s cultural life, people’s understanding of global history, politics, economy and current affairs.The Badrinath temple or the ancient Egyptian temple or Harry Potter’s world began to be recreated. With all these concepts, pandals and the idol were designed by an artist conceptualizing the theme atleast six months before.individual donations were no more adequate to meet the huge cost. At the same time, number of footfalls in the Durgapuja venues were converted into an advertiser’s canvas. presence of almost all business sectors covering FMCG, CDIT, electronics, apparel, mobile networks and apps, automotive, banking etc in the puja sponsor’s list. Durgapuja, became a corporate event showcasing power as market force.
Durga Puja and the political lexicon now
Interestingly, Durgapuja provided the political parties of Bengal good opportunity for public relations. Following the footsteps of pre-independence political motivators, political leaders kept on using the occasion of Durgapuja as their best scope for public communication — the way to achieve political power in a democracy. Many influential political leaders became Puja organisers in own locality. Even Communist Party of India,could not avoid opening kiosks near the famous Puja venues in Kolkata. With government funding to Durga Puja these days, Durga, the Mahisasuramardini continues to be the symbol of political opponent slayer.
This Durga Puja many of these did not happen except the government funding.Pandals were declared no entry zones and pandal hopping was ruled out by the High Court in the event of the Pandemic. Durga Puja once again went back to its ritualistic form as the main focus shifted from counting footfalls to observing the religious rituals.For the first time in history, Pujo became virtual as there were live streaming of the bodhon, anjali, sandhi pujo and bisarjan across the world.
Looking ahead amidst the Pandemic
Amidst a different flavour to the celebrations this year, many things continued to remain same. Ma Durga blessed us all, her eyes glistened during Sondhi Pujo which became watery as well on Dashami. The kaash phool swayed, the shiuli filled up the early morning fragrance, the Saptaparni flowered and so did the lotus bloom.People expressed their bonds through traditional food as Chandrapuli, Kheer takti, Bonde, Mihidana, Ghugni did make star appearances at most houses. A deafening silence engulfed the festive days no doubt but hope did make its way through as we fervently wished to enjoy once again the hues and spirit of a Sarbojanin or a traditional family pujo.
Durga Pujo 2020 has been different for all of us and for myself too. The pandemic restricted celebrations worldwide and for me this year without my Ma was a journey into the self and memories. As I opened my Ma’s wardrobe and tried to feel her and her recently worn sarees, I felt comforted and warmed.Life is vastly different this autmn, there were neither pre Pujo to do list nor any plans for pandal hopping or eating out. Pujo in that way was relaxed but was not happy.The only strand of happiness I tried to integrate in my life this year was to cook, otherwise Bengali households rarely cook during the festive days. Eating out is the norm. It is during the festive days that people veer for traditional delicacies like kheer singara, mihidana,sitabhog,luchi- cholar dal, jibhegoja,kheer takti, narkel takti, basanti pulao , kosha mangsho, khichuri, labra, apart from a deluge of a on the go chicken roll or a plate of biryani while pandal hopping.As I heard a friend ordering Radhaballavi and alurdom for breakfast, my mind suddenly got thinking about the the historical as well as etymological origins of this typical festive Bengali delicacy.
How are Radhaballavis different
Radhaballavis are in its essentials soft deep fried flat breads made of refined flour and stuffed with urad dal or black lentil paste flavoured with ginger, asafoetida and cumin. The art of making a good Radhaballavi lies in fusing the flavours in the filling in a way each flavour remains distinct.The distinguishing element of Radhaballavi is the addition of sugar in the filling. Stuffed fried flat breads are common across the subcontinent be it the Hing Kachori or the Dal Puri or the Bedmi Poori, but the delicate balance of the spice and the sweetness of the lentil filling in a Radhaballavi makes it stand apart. it also stands apart for its festive character distinguishing it from the everyday luchi alurdom and it’s beautiful name.
The root Sanskrit word for Radhaballavi is Beshtonika and in common parlance it is named after Radha and Krishna,the eternal lovers of the world. My imagination runs wild as I get to grind the soaked lentil for the stuffing of radhaballavi for Dashami breakfast.Did Radha and Krishna share love for Radhaballavi?Did they binge on it on their secret escapades? Did Radha make them for his beau? After all food shared is love shared.
Origins of Radhaballavi
Legends have several stories about the origin of Radhaballavi. Myths about Shri Chaitanya inventing these stuffed flat breads to be offered to Shyamsundar Ji of Khardah, a form of Lord Krishna. Since one among the 108 names of Sri Krishna is Radhaballav, it is said that these flatbreads got named after the Lord himself.Another legend points out to a rather late origin of Radhaballavi in the kitchens of Shobhabajar Rajbari. The radhaballavis were offered to the presiding deity of the house Radhaballav Jiu, hence the name. Some other chroniclers trace the origin of Radhaballavi to the Singha family of Kandi in Murshidabad where the stuffed and fried flat bread was offered to the deity. It is also said one Jitendranath Modak learnt the art of making Radhaballavi from Vrindavan and introduced it in the shop of his nephew, the iconic Putiram Sweets in College Square.
Whatever be historically correct, whether it originated in Bengal as part of prasaad offerings or had an origin away from Bengal or was part of ancient food customs as the Sanskrit origins suggest, Radhaballavi has been able to maintain its steady popularity with its inherent festive and celebratory character. The best radhaballavis are undoubtedly made at home but one can choose from Putiram Sweets which serves puffed up Radhaballavis with a sweet cholar dal or Shri Hari Mistanna Bhandar in Bhowanipur which doles out slightly thick ones with red hued spicy alur dum. While the city generally stands divided in food preferences and specialities between north and south ,Radhaballavi stands tall against such disparities.It is loved and popular in both the parts of the city.
Any time Radhaballavi time
The nostalgia associated with Radhaballavi is not only linked to religious festivals and food offerings to God. Radhaballavi was an intrinsic part of a marriage spread till a couple of decades back. It was served as the first course with cholar dal over plantain leaves The Radhaballavi was served piping hot carried from the makeshift kitchen in cane jhuris , an indigenous way of draining the oil. A perfect Radhaballavi has to be redolent with fragrances of the asafoetida and the cumin, with no oil seeping in through small punctures within the flatbread. Radhaballavis were also served for breakfast during marriage gatherings coupled with bonde or mihidana. All that is lost today. Marriage spreads now would rather have a baby nan or a lacha paratha with chole keema or stuffed dum aloo. What still lives on in some community pandals is a queue waiting for a plate full of hot radhaballavis after the customary Ashtami anjali. Some mihidana and a hot milky tea to team up with the aged cousin Radhaballavi. Radhaballavis are also gentle enough to break fasts after rituals like sasthi and several pujos They still though rarely makes its valiant appearance in packed food packets served as working lunch or for various ceremonies like Sraddh when people stay away from having rice and prefer carrying back token food packs.
Nothing is lost however for good. Radhaballavi remains thriving in our childhood memories, in the memories of college life of our parents and one can ocassionally watch a glimpse of a Radhaballavi served in marriage spreads in the marriage CDs. My memories of Radhaballavi are rooted in my college days at Presidency College and Putiram. Though not a very frequent visitor to Putiram during college days, yet the taste was preserved with much care.Now whenever work takes me to College Street, I make it a point to dip the radhaballavis in the cholar dal and take a big gulp closing my eyes trying to feel better the riot in my senses. The Radhaballavi at Shree Hari Mistanna Bhandar in Bhowanipur is also iconic. Full houses of people of various stratas pairing their Radhaballavi with langcha.
How I did my Radhaballavi
Since Durga Pujo this year was mostly about rejoicing around food nostalgia, Dashami had to begin and the Pujo had to end with Radhaballavi and Ghugni. Late on Nabami night I hurriedly soaked the lentil and went off to sleep with a eagerness to wake up to a good morning.After a hurried cup of my favourite Darjeeling Assam blend of tea, I drained the soaked black lentil or urad dal or biulir dal and made a course paste out if it.Over oil, I put in whole cumin seeds, fennel seeds and a pinch of asafoetida or hing. Once fragrant and spluttering added chopped ginger and green chillies. I put in the coarse paste ,some mace powder, salt and sugar.As the oil left the sides and the filling was well blended, I put the filling to cool. For a soft dough I mixed in refined flour, salt to taste and warm milk.The dough has to be medium soft.Out of the dough made small equal sized roundeks, made a dent in the middle ,stuffed the filling and reshaped it and flattened it on palms.Rolled it like luchis but remember to do with light strokes, the filling should not peep through, if it does your Radhaballavi would become soggy upon frying. Fried it over hot oil and one can serve it either with alur dom, cholar dal or Ghugni.
Love pairs and food bondings
My Radhaballavi paired beautifully with a Ghugni made sans onion, garlic and flavoured with fried coconuts, tamarind sauce and bhaja masala. I dry roast cumin seeds,whole red chilli and whole fennel seeds before grinding it coarsely. As I was pairing Radhaballavi with ghugni I was in two minds over a not so common serving tradition.But I went ahead and let this breakfast indulgence be as different as is the love dynamics between Radha and Krishna. Let Radhaballavi reign the world for ever as the eternal love story of Radha and Krishna lives on in our legends, myths, minds and everyday ritual lives.
Tender pieces of chicken preferably legs embalmed in a marinade of freshly roasted spices, fresh coriander leaves paste, a touch of vinegar with some tamarind and a dash of rum, each bite into the chicken sends a message of an intense complexity of flavours which goes beyond our known indigenous flavors. The ginger,cumin, garlic, rum and tamarind flavoured …the charcoal or pan roasted or grilled wonder is Chicken Cafreal .
Chicken Cafreal is a symbol of a recipe travelling and imbibing flavors. It made India its home crossing continents and imbibing flavours. Mozambique is the original homeland of Chicken Cafreal known as GalinhaPiri Piri there.In her food memoir, The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship,Nandita Haksar highlights the Portuguese-influence on the Goan dish and its historical connection to Africa.The Portuguese had colonized Mozambique from 1505 for nearly four centuries.
The story behind
The story behind “Chicken Cafreal” is indeed interesting. It is said that African slaves were once recruited in Portuguese army during their colonial rule in Goa.In one such army camp the slaves cooked some chicken using local spices and coriander leaves. The Portuguese officer liked the chicken and named it ‘Chicken Cafreal’. It was called Cafreal probably because the blacks were called ‘Kafirs’.
Chicken Cafreal’ has become the most popular dish of Goa over years with every household, every shack having its own recipe.A Chicken Cafreal is often known by its color- a vibrant green and the taste not so fiery as it once was with the use of Piri Piri chillies. Goans differ over many things about the authentic recipe-the type of vinegar used, the use of tamarind, addition of rum, did the original recipe use poppy seeds? Every rendition of Cafreal is nevertheless pure melody. Harmonious blending in of tunes with an array of cooking techniques…dry or a floating in the green gravy, served with potato wedges or a Goan yellow pulao.
The Peri Peri chillies also known as African Bird Chilli were used in the traditional Galinha .This chilli travelled to Goa with the Portuguese.The original dish Frangoa Cafreal is still cooked in Mozambique.In Goa Peri Peri chilli is known as Taroti Mirsangi which is more pungent than the common chillies found in India. Interestingly this chicken is cooked in Macao still .Fusion at its best- showcasing elements of African spices along with Portuguese traditions in use of vinegar and rum and cooked in Indian style- pan sauted, Chicken Cafreal has truly travelled the world. Feni or the local Goan liquor too is sometimes added.
A sculpture on the lines of Chicken Cafreal
A sculpture by Goa-based artist Subodh Kerkar, inspired by the popular Chicken Cafreal which made India its home during the erstwhile Portuguese rule in the state, was selected for an exhibition in Australia.The work was titled Chicken Cafreal and was a part of a series on Portuguese influences on Goan culture and cuisine.
Chicken Cafreal – The know how
Ingredients 1 bunch or 2 cups of coriander leaves including some stems. 1 to 1 1/2 inch ginger 10 to 12 garlic pods 2-inch cinnamon stick 1 tsp cumin seeds 1 tsp cloves 1 tsp peppercorn 6 to 8 green chillies 1 to 2 caps vinegar 1 to 2 pods tamarind one inch jaggery 3/4 tsp turmeric powder Salt, as per taste Rum or feni, as required (optional), Chicken – 1kg
Marinate the chicken in salt and turmeric for ten minutes.
Make a paste of corriander leaves, ginger,garlic,cinnamon,cloves,peppercorn,cumin seeds,green chilies and vinegar.
Marinate the chicken with this paste for four hours.
In pan over oil roast the chicken till brown.Add salt .
Once browned add the marinade, tamarind paste, jaggery and a little water.Cover tight.Add rum or feni .(optional). One may add a dash of lime juice.
Meanwhile make roundels of potato and onion.Sprinkle salt and sugar.Over pan brushed with little oil brown the potatoes and onion.
Plate the chicken with the sauce, serve with the browned potato and onion roundels.
The chicken cafreal if cooked over grill and made dry can be served as a starter, if pan sauted with a sauce can be served with bread or pao.A simple yellow pulao can be the best pal . Alternate bites into the spicy yet balanced chicken with the caramelized potatoes and onions….a glass of Feni or Rum…some rains or a windy winter.
I have never been to Kashmir. And maybe never will. Yet Kashmir is alive through imageries seen since childhood in textbooks, then in movie screens and now in news snippets. I know a couple of people from Kashmir and I know them over decades.Kolkata is second home to a large number of Kashmiri shawl traders over years.And just as one has a designated hairdresser and a dhobi, most households in the city have a Kashmiri shawl seller who visits every year be in rain or shine.Past Durga Puja and by mid November Kolkata witnesses these Kashmiris peddling cycles across the city with their warm goodies.
A shawl seller was a regular in our house when I was a kid.I used to call this middle aged man from Kashmir-Jethu and thus began a saga of a relationship continued even by his son today. The son, Ismail comes to my house every year, infact every Wednesday in the months of November through March.He has two kids now, whom he is keen to give a good education.Every time he comes back around November I feel a joy not due to the stuff I would buy, but a joy of seeing a loved one after a while. Ismail brings in saffron, walnuts in kernels and real Kashmiri chilli powder for me.He does it every year and I dont even have to remind him.He loves our Luchi and Aloor Tarkari, Payesh and Narkel Naru.He will hand out atleast two new recipes every year which he takes pain to request a school teacher there in the valley to write in English for me. His wife is brilliant in her embroidery. Every year Ismail will take back a plain silk saree from me and get it back that winter with delicate embroideries. He knows my taste…the flowers on the borders are beautiful and the colors soothing. Last November when he came and heard of my losses he was dumbstruck. He sold nothing and infact never asked me once about whether I wanted anything .He gently slipped in the saffron box and the walnuts. He continued coming every Wednesday but only to ask about my well being.Inspite of his repeated requests have not been able to visit his village a little far from Srinagar.Relationships are all that is true…hope to visit a brother’s house sometime soon in the land of Paradise.Every time I cook something from the valley I remember him and his family.
One of the earliest written history of Kashmir, Rajtarangini by Kalhana eulogised Kashmir being imbued with the beauty of Godesss Parvati.Mughal emperor Jahangir made Kashmir famous in his immortal words – “Agar firdaus bar ruhe zamin ast, Hamin asto, Hamin asto, hamin asto”. Kashmir has always been an utopia for poets, artists, dreamers and travellers. Bernier and later FrancisYoung Husband visited Kashmir and wrote extensively about it.Kashmir in short is panaromic, it is idyllic, it is majestic with fragrance, colors and mellow beauty.
According to legends the valley of Kashmir was once upon a time a lake with a demon living in it who was killed by Kashyap and Parvati by dropping a mountain on him.This mountain called the Takht – I- Sulaiman forms the backdrop to the city of Kashmir.Kashmir with its multi faceted cultural forms, rites and rituals, cuisine and language with roots embedded in antiquity is cohesive in what is called kashmiriyat.
Kashmiri Cuisine is one of its kind, unique and elaborate, delicate and aromatic. Influenced by the Mughal style of cooking , yet it has several other strands of synthesis. While the Muslims take pride in their Wazwan, the Hindu pandits excel in their Butta.Both share a love for lamb but the Pandits eschew onions and garlic while the Wazwan uses it liberally. Food is always encapsulated either with a legend or history…a tale is a must.It is said that when Timur invaded India he had in his retinue a few hundred woodcarvers, weavers, architects and cooks from Samarkhand who continued living in Kashmir. The descendants of these cooks were called wazas.
Wazwan…a royal feast
The word Wazwan is derived from two words – waz and waan which means shop. Wazwan thus meant a cook shop.However in everyday life Wazwan is an elaborate and sumptuous ritual – a feast served to a guest. Tables are laid for for groups of four as the guests sit on floor as they share a meal served on a large plate called trami. Each trami is heaped with rice accompanied by four Seekh Kabab, four pieces of Methi Maaz, one Tabakh Maaz, one Safed Murg, one Zafrani Murg as the first course.Of the 36 dishes served, between 15 and 30 are meat preparations cooked overnight. Tabakh Maaz, Rista, Roghanjosh, Dhaniwal Korma, Aab gosht, Marchwagan korma and Goshtaba are a must. The desert is followed by Kahwa – a green tea flavored with saffron, cardamoms and almonds.
Kashmiri Cuisine uses a variety of spices and condiments. Use of dry mint leaves, cloves, black cardamom, saffron, coriander, fennel powder, cinammon, cumin seeds, dry Fenugreek leaves, dry cockscomb flower, dry ginger powder and red chilli powder are common. Kashmiri cuisine uses cooking techniques which are unique. It uses a lot of cooked yoghurt, garlic water, ver paste and ghustaba. Cooked yoghurt is nothing but whisked yoghurt and water cooked on high heat till it comes to a boil and then it is reduced to half and becomes off white in color over low heat. Garlic water is minced garlic and water mixed together and then strained over muslin cloth. Ver paste is quite interesting whereby garlic and shallots are ground to a coarse paste with which Kashmiri red chilli powder, black cardamoms, black cumin seeds, green Coriander seeds, cinammon powder and dry ginger powder are mixed. These are made into cakes, dried, strung together and kept for use in harsh winters.The weight of each goshtoba and rista too is specified.
I have cooked a lot of Kashmiri food both vegetarian and non vegetarian.Kashmiri Dum Aloo and Roghanjosh are quite common in restaurant menus as well as in marriage receptions and other feasts. Sadly what is passed off as Kashmiri Aloor Dum and Roghanjosh in the rest of the country is far from authentic. Kashmiri Chilli powder and saffron are one of the most costly spices and the ones we get packed are far from original. Over years as I cooked Kashmiri cuisine I remembered the techniques and tips given by my Kashmiri brother Ismail.
Lockdown days reinforced my love for cooking Kashmiri cuisine. Getting hold of good quality mutton was a challenge and often impossible.On such days I used chicken with the same recipes.These days I cooked Dhaniwal Korma, Kishmish Korma,Aab Gosht and Kashmiri Dum Aloo.
Dhaniwal Korma is a yoghurt based gravy garnished with green coriander leaves.The things which went inside cooking the korma are – 500 gms of mutton, half cup of desi ghee, two onions pureed, four garlic cloves ground, two cloves, four green cardamom,one cup cooked yoghurt, one tsp of turmeric powder,one tsp of coriander powder, pinch of black pepper powder and fresh coriander leaves.Salt and water as required.
To make the Korma I put the mutton in boiling water and blanch it for 5 min.I drained the water and cooled the meat washing it under running water.I then put the blanched meat in a pan, pure ghee, onion puree, garlic cloves, green cardamom,salt, saffron,cooked yoghurt,turmeric, coriander powder.Mixed everything well and cooked it until the ghee separated. I added enough water to cook the meat til tender.The meat was cooked covered over low heat.Once done added black pepper powder and fresh coriander leaves.
Kishmish Korma ( Raisins Korma)
Another very interesting and different dish is the Kishmish Korma – meat cooked with raisins and saffron.For this one needs 500 gms of bite sized boneless mutton pieces, 10 green cardamom,6 cinammon sticks of 1inch,3 cloves, 3 tbsp garlic water, 1 tsp sugar, 2 tbsp tamarind extract, pinch of saffron, 1 cup kishmish.
I love making this dish and sometimes I use mutton keema too for this. I blanch the meat and keep the water aside.In a pan with the meat I add cardamom, cinammon, cloves and pure ghee.After frying for a while add water and salt till it is boiling. then I put in the garlic water, sugar and tamarind paste.Once the meat is cooked covered over low flame I add in the saffron and the ghee fried raisins.I serve it with a pulao and sometimes with a naan.
One of my favourites is the Aab Gosht. This comes out real good with chicken too. This is a meat cooked in a thick milk gravy. For this we need 1l of milk reduced to 250 ml, 500 gms of mutton, one tsp garlic paste, one tsp of saunf or fennel seed powder, four tbsp pure ghee, six each of cloves and green cardamom, one tsp of fried onion paste.
To begin with we need to reduce the milk to 1/4 of the original.In boiling water I put the meat, remove the scum , add garlic, fennel powder and salt.The meat has to cooked till half done.The stock jas to strained and reserved. In hot ghee in a pan I add the cloves, saute for a while till they crackle, put 1tbsp of water and cover the pan with a lid.The ghee will be infused with the aroma of the clove.In a cooking pot I add the half cooked meat, the stock, the clove flavored ghee and the onion paste. I cook it covered till done. Then I add in the reduced milk and mix well.
Kashmiri Dum Aloo
Now for my all time favourite Kashmiri Dum Aloo known as Dum Olav. For this we boil baby potatoes, peel them and pierce through them with a toothpick.We have to fry the potatoes very well and evenly over hot mustard oil.I make a paste of cooked yoghurt, cloves, cardamom, cinammon sticks, dry ginger powder, bay leaves and salt. Over oil I add this paste, water, the potatoes and bring to a boil. Then I reduce the heat to a low and cook it covered till the sauce thickens.
Visiting Kashmir remains a distant dream.Every three months Ismail gives me a call to know if all is well.I too wish him and his fabulous valley all well, peace and prosperity. Till the day I see the lake and the snow….Kashmir remain happy and look ahead.I in the meantime cook some of the dishes the way they do and often take a look at my black saree with dainty pink embroidery done to perfection by my brother’s wife…my sister from paradise on earth.
Getting married is undoubtedly a sudden exposure to new things ….food, culture,lifestyle.This is universal across gender, communities and regions. It also means a lot of efforts to get acquainted and in course of time to start loving the host of new things in life.It is not that one does all of it spontaneously, not even that you are forced into it…with time you get used to it, some you learn to brush away with a smile and some you adapt that too with a smile.To get to love the new food, new tastes is always an uphill task. It might be a dish that you never ever had in life is a favourite one in your in law’s house.Either your mom in law cooks it with a pride or tries to teach you with precision. That is how heirloom recipes are preserved and passed on. Humans are by nature flexible and adaptable and often we begin recreating such dishes which were once new to our taste buds with minor changes to suit tastes.
My story like so many others followed on similar lines. Though I had an ancestry from what is now Bangladesh, quite similar to my husband’s house, yet we were quite apart in the food we had. My grandfather on my father’s side had long settled in Ranchi. My father was a probashi ( one who lived away from motherland) in that sense. My paternal aunts or pishis loved making a Bihari fish curry and perfected the art of Thekua making. My father himself had cosmopolitan tastes and loved his Chopsueys and Meat Loaf more than a typical shukto. My mother hailed from that area of Bangladesh which had tastes similar to those of West Bengal. They loved their Doi Maach with some sugar added into it. Years spent in Bombay made my parents more open to tastes and they loved their Vada Pao and Shrikhand more than the Mishti Doi. We did have fish but mostly Bhetki, Rohu, Katla, Koi, Prawns, Parshe and Papda. Kochu Saag was seldom cooked with Hilsa head, it was mostly done with Prawns and Hilsa was never done in a runny gravy with green bananas and pumpkin, it was mostly steamed in mustard and coconut paste.
My husband had lost his mom long before we got married.So I thought that with my father in law around, things would be a cakewalk at least in the kitchen. But within a couple of days I was in for a surprise. My father in law – Baba was a foodie and had such interesting anecdotes about food during his childhood in Dacca and then in Sylhet where his father worked for years. Baba was a true blue Bangal in food tastes. It was from him I came to know of a Shukto with fish head called Bhangachora Shukto. He wanted his Pui Saag perfect with the head of an Hilsa. Bhorta was a very common dish which was cooked during my mom in law’s time.The only bhorta I knew was Begun Bharta or Begun Pora. Aar and Boyal were delicacies in fish. Baba at one sitting could name a hundred species of fish…so many extinct now. Mustard was a favourite flavoring agent and so was mustard oil a near compulsory in cooking.
The love blossoms
With time my taste buds started changing. Shutki became my favourite though I still did not know how to cook it.The first shutki I had was cooked by my husband and the taste still lingers on after years. I learned to steam fresh Aar fish in a mustard paste with raw mustard oil smeared on it and cook Boyal fish in a light gravy with fresh coriander leaves. My learning seemed fun now as I began taking a liking for all things Bangal. My father encouraged me and infact loved the bowl of shutki my husband took for him.He remembered the Bombay Duck or Bombill fry which was his favourite in his days in Bombay. Over the years I learnt to choose the best Shutki. Trips to Digha were always special as I could source an array of shutki …freshly salted and dried from the shores. Infact I began loving the smell of shutki. A turnaround it was and definitely an epic one.
The story of the Shidol
I love cooking dried shrimp and ripe pumpkin cooked together with a lot of garlic — the perfect balance of sweet and hot. My love for more fiery creations met it’s climax in the Shidol chutney which I was served with. Both Shidol and Shutki in Sylhet families are cooked with seasonal vegetables such as brinjal — either as a dry pickle or a spicy saucy dish. It could also be had on its own, just roasted with onions, garlic and chilli and mashed.Whenever I salivate at the thought of Shutki, my first encounter with Shedol Shutki cannot go undocumented.It was a trip to Shillong and we had a lunch invitation at the house of a relative from my in laws ancestral village in Syhlet. We were welcomed by smiles no doubt but the aroma wafting in the house was more endearing. Settled in Shillong for years they still spoke in the dialect of Syhlet and I hoped they still had preserved the cooking heritage of the region.As my aunt called us over to the dining table I eyed the reddish oily stuff lying gracefully at the side. With the rice what a beautiful melange of soft and hot colors.It was indeed Shidol chutney…one which I always wanted to taste.
I realized I was making rather uncivilized sounds and my eyes were watering yet I wanted more of it. Had to have sips of water in between but I wanted more.The smile on my aunts face was very suggestive.I had heard of Shidol Bora and I kept praying that I might be able to taste it. It would be my only chance.The Shidoler Bora (fritters) did come . As I was biting into the crispy exteriors to navigate to the fish my aunt in her dialect went about describing the way she made the Sidoler Bora .The Shidol was pounded and cooked with plenty of garlic, onion and chillies. The paste was placed in a pumpkin leaf, wrapped,folded and dipped in a batter of gram flour and deep-fried. It was an experience of a lifetime.The texture, the heat, the garlic all fused in to create a bliss which I cannot put into words.
The saga of the Shidol
Shidol is a traditional fermented fish, popular in North Eastern India which uses freshwater Punti fish, the scientific name for which is Puntius sophore. Shidol is prepared by stuffing earthen pots with the sundried fish. The earthen pots are then sealed airtight for fermentation and stored at room temperature for 3-4 months. Shidol is also popular among the communities of Khasis, Tripuris, Kacharis and Manipuris. Ngari is a popular fermented fish product of Manipur which is prepared by using sundried salt-free punti fish locally known as phoubu usually from Brahmaputra valley and Bangladesh. Hentaak is an indigenous fermented fish paste product (small ball shaped) prepared from fermented fish Punti along with vegetables like colocasia. In Tripura Shidol is known as Berma and is often added to flavor curries. It is also used in a vegetable mash dish known as Gudok. Dried fish is also popular in Kashmir during the harsh winters. Hoggard a local fish is wrapped in muslin cloth and dried in the terrace to be consumed during the winters.It is fried in mustard oil with some Kashmiri red chilies and served with rice.
Shutki or dried and salted fish can be made out of different varieties of fish…most common in India are Loitta or Bombay Duck, Prawns,Hilsa and Punti fish.Dried and salted fish are used in Konkani, Malvani, Goan, Oriya, Keralian and even in Kashmiri cuisines.The saga of salted fish however did not begin in India.
The history of dried fish worldwide
Salt cod, also known as Bacalao, can be traced all the way back to the 15th century. During the 17th century, salting became economically feasible when cheap salt from southern Europe became available to the maritime nations of northern Europe. It was an essential part of international commerce between the New World and the Old and eventually became a popular ingredient in Northern European cuisine, as well as Mediterranean, West African, Caribbean and Brazilian cuisines.
The sea has sustained Norwegians for thousands of years. With one of thelargest cod stocks in the world, the fish played a significant role in Norway’s culture and economy. Before modern food preservation, Norwegians used air and salt to preserve the wild cod stocks. Since the early Middle Ages, Norwegians have relied on stockfish, salt cod and clipfish for nourishment during long winters and ocean voyages. Stockfish is a dried cod, provided Vikings with sustenance during their sea voyages. Even Leiv Eiriksson was said to have had supplies of the dried fish with him when he discovered America. With temperatures of around 0°C, Northern Norway’s cold winter climate provides the perfect conditions for creating dried fish. Stockfish is Norway’s longest-sustained export commodity and one of the nation’s most famous dishes.Norway has become the world’s largest supplier of stockfish, salt cod and clipfish. However, the salted and dried cod has become popular throughout the world and is most widely consumed in Portugal, Spain and Italy. Preserved cod is incredibly versatile with a unique taste and texture.
Salt fish has been a part of Caribbean cuisine dating back to the days of colonial rule. Salt fish was first introduced to the Caribbean in the 16th century. Vessels from North America—mainly Canada—would come bringing lumber and pickled and salted cod. They would then return to their homeland with Caribbean molasses, rum, sugar, and salt.The most popular way of preparing salt fish in the Caribbean is by sauteing it with thyme, lots of onions, tomatoes and hot pepper. Salted fish is also popular in southern China and in Southeast Asian countries, where it is often used as an accompaniment to other dishes or rice. Although the amount consumed at any one time is small, the dish is a must at every meal. Salted fish mixed with rice has also been used as a traditional food for infants.
From the large repertoire of salted and dried fish recipes across the world my pick is limited to our country though spread across regions.I include some from the neighbouring country of Bangladesh too as my forefathers hail from that area.
My favorite recipes
My favorite way of doing Shutki is simple. I use Loitta or Bombay Duck Shutki but one can substitute dried shrimps as well. I clean the fish well and keep it soaked in hot water for a out 15 min. In mustard oil I fry the Shutki till soft over low heat. In another pan I add a whole lot of crushed garlic, red chilli paste and chopped onions. Once soft I add diced pumpkins,potatoes, turmeric, coriander powder and fry them covered till soft. Do not add salt at this point. Once the veggies are soft I add the fish and give it a good stir.I cover it and let the veggies soak in the flavour of the Shutki over time. The oil separates, the fish remains soft but whole. Add salt if needed. Take care not to mash the fish or the veggies, the crunch remains important. Also be liberal with mustard oil. Well, you do not need any other dish for your lunch.You prepare for a siesta.
From Bangladesh with love
The next recipe is a heirloom one from my in laws. It’s a Loitta Shutki with coconut. After soaking the fish in hot water for a while I fry the fish in mustard oil. After draining the fish, in that same oil I fry the garlic, sliced onion, chopped green chilies and grated coconut. I fry it till well browned. I add red chilli powder, turmeric and salt. After adding the fried fish and a good stir, I let it simmer covered for ten minutes. No water is added to the dish.
From the Konkan coast
This one is from the Konkan. One can use any dried fish except prawns for this. I make a paste of tomato,oil, tomato puree, red chilies,coriander powder,garlic and salt.I add water to it and make a slurry out if it. Over hot oil I add this slurry, the fish, raw mangoes, spring onion, whole green chilies and coriander leaves.I cover it over low flame and when all is fused together I add a little sugar.To be served with rice.
From the land of sea and sand-Orissa
One from Orissa too known as Sukha Macher Besara. For this I make a paste of mustard, fennel seeds, garlic, red chilli and coriander leaves. I keep the dried fish fried in mustard oil. in oil I add a tempering of mustard seeds,the mustard paste, chopped tomatoes, salt and turmeric. Once the masala is done I add bamboo shoots and cover.The fried fish is added too,mixed well and some water is added. It has a near dry consistency.
Some Prawns from Malvani cuisine
One of my favorites from Malvani cuisine. Called Sukha Jawela, this is a dried prawn preparation. I dry roast the prawns and then wash them well. In oil I add chopped garlic,chopped onion and brown it well. Then goes in chopped tomatoes and a kokum. Some Malwani masala,turmeric and salt. When the oil separates I put in the prawns, cover and cook over low heat. Once done I add some scrapped coconut.
Pick your pack of Shutki and you need a bit of courage …. Cook it up in any of the above style….make it on a Sunday for you will eat more and sleep tight that afternoon.
“A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour.” Anonymous
Life is full of unplanned detours. Some small. Some big.Some on the surface and some deep within. This is a story about a small detour apparently on the surface but which touched the cores. It was a trip to Kurseong and Darjeeling.With a sudden strike at the plains I had to postpone my flight back to Kolkata.Time came as a sudden blessing and I decided to explore a bit more on the extra day that came as a gift. As I began searching over for some quaint place where I could spend the morning my eyes got fixed to this place called Chimney. Chimney – a small village near Kurseong , very colonial in its name and I thought the place had stories which were untold.
My driver was not too happy with the sudden detour and he went about saying that it was a roundabout.I convinced the young guy who looked rather tired that this roundabout may be good to both of us.Straight paths which are known can be boring as well as tiring for him.I thought he was thinking at my words and he did, with a smile he said – Let’s Go. As my car turned back I googled the Merriam-Webster Dictionary which defined a roundabout as “a circuitous route, not simple, clear, or plain: long and confusing.” Wikipedia describes a roundabout as, “a type of circular intersection or junction in which road traffic flows almost continuously in one direction around a central island. These definitions of “long and confusing” added to my thrill .
As I began thinking about roundabouts and detours in life while I sat to write this, my hands reached out to a leather bound Bible gifted to me by a friend.Though I am not religious but some experiences in life convinced me of destiny and destined.Things which you never imagined in your most wild dream has happened to me and infact led to little transformations within me .
As I turned the pages of the Bible I stopped at a line in Genesis 12:1 when God says to Abraham, “Go … to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1 ESV). Not only does it poke at my need for control, but I get lost … a lot. The Bible preaches that God determines the time and place that each of us is born. Irrespective of religious and philosophical convictions this is universal. Nevertheless, there are times when a detour is also actually a part of predestination I suppose.I remembered the story of Abraham and Sarah. When God asked Abraham to leave his homeland, Abraham and Sarah packed up their little family and began the journey. However, just as they were starting to make some headway, a famine struck and the couple suddenly found themselves detouring into Egypt. But the curious thing is that when they left, Scripture says that they traveled right back to where they started.…”to the place where his tent had been at the beginning…” (Genesis 13:3 ESV).This story convinced me that everything has a purpose – even the detours. Even the difficulties. Even the desert roads and the mountain bends.
As I turned a bend from Kurseong towards Dowhill and again a diversion the road became unfamiliar to my driver.We reached a shaded village called Bagora. Chimney is located 8 km uphill from the heart of Kurseong. The road from Bagora was accompanied by lush beautiful trees called Japanese Cedar locally known as Dhupi Sallaa which further intensified the joy of a detour on the stunning hilly slopes.The embalming silence was only broken by some chirping of birds.In listening to the strange sounds I realised with every chirp the birds had a different tune , maybe it was like human conversation with voice modulations.
Chimney, gets its name from a 23-foot high chimney that was probably built during World War I and used by British officers.The quiet hamlet of Chimney at 6,800 ft and the neighbouring villages of Mazua, Seemkharka, Kochegaon, Khundruke, Simantar and Chaitepani are nestled in the midst of thick forests.The Old Military Road on which we travelled was one of the cleanest and most smooth road I travelled in the hills.The solitary 23-feet Chimney is the only evidence of the Dak-Bangalow which existed in this area in the former times. Erected around 1839 by British, the Dak Bungalow got entirely divested over time. It got worn away leaving behind its only central fireplace in the form of Chimney. Eventually, the Chimney rightfully shared it’s title to the Village.Chimney is not merely a nature lovers’ paradise, for those who love basking in the melodious silence of nature Chimney won’t disappoint. Overlooking the Teesta and Mahananda Chimney was a beautiful escape.
My quest for silence and peace found its destination , the gentle breeze over time loved planting occasional kisses on my cheeks , my frizzy hair got ruffled as it covered my eyes . I took no effort to flick off the hair, sitting on the elevated grassland with some warm thupka which my driver got for me as well as for him I thought life as well might come to a stop.
This detour was happiness no doubt but it also made me question several things in life in general. Is purpose and direction important in life , do we chart it out or direction itself finds a way in our life. I was convinced detours are important in travel as well as life …uncharted detours.They do not come announced but when it knocks do open your heart. This is not to say that detours won’t be sad or frustrating or challenging. There will be detours that are and when we are ready to experience a richer and more abundant life enfolds.Even if it doesn’t feel like that “in the moment”, there is abundance waiting only to be allowed in.
A detour is an opportunity to see things anew. Not always the way we probably look at road construction.And such is life. Just as my driver was in two minds over the roundabout, I thought, what if we looked at life detours through a different lens? What if we looked at life’s detours as something to embrace?
Taking a detour is the only way to keep moving forward in life I guess.We always have a choice as to what that detour will be. And that’s a choice of our attitude and the path we choose to take. When we can see the positive, the good that’s out there – those detours in life can be very life-fulfilling. Taking a few detours along the way – and really experiencing them. Meet new people. Build new relationships. Develop new ideas. The list is endless. Especially if we’re open to seeing the possibilities that exist on these “detours” life often throws at us.
By the time we were getting back to Siliguri via the Pankhabari Road with a wealth of sharp turns, Ashok, my driver had a bright smile on his eyes.Looking through the glass he asked me about my flight time. With no idea what was on his mind I told him it was at 5 pm, he looked at his watch it was just past 1 pm and we were already approaching the plains. With a shy smile Ashok asked whether we could go for another detour. Another detour in a day ….did not want to disappoint him, for I thought the joy of knowing the unknown was being enjoyed by him now.I agreed within a minute and off we took another detour at Pannihata to go to Dudhia. I googled and saw that it was a little village besides the Balasaon River.
Driving past a beautiful road lined with tea bushes we hit a check post dotted with shops selling basic momos and wai wai. We had reached the banks of the river.Overlooking the checkpost was the most beautiful bridge I ever saw in life which supposedly went towards Mirik. It was a May afternoon with overcast skies and could not spot another tourist.Yet to see the Balason river, I was dazed at the sight of the shining bridge to nowhere,I began descending towards the banks.The other end of the bridge seemed to vanish in the darkness of the forests.I crossed big and small boulders and reached the river.In a word it was mystically beautiful. Balason is the kind of the picturesque river shown in Bollywood movies where the lady romances his man dancing over boulders and the man bathing her in the mountain waters.
I had to be bare footed when I was in the middle of such a gurgling river. I put my feet into the cold water and I felt like getting drenched in the first rains of April.The freshness not only touched my exteriors, it percolated deep inside, trickled into my senses as I began to feel at peace with all my doubts in life.I lost count of time as I sensed every little wave touching and receding. It was akin to intervals of being hugged by your mom. Ashok was back spotting that shy smile which was now a bit jubilant as he was happy that his suggestion of detour was as beautiful as mine.
It was time to leave for the airport and as if the finale was waiting, grey clouds collecting overhead burst and as I walked towards the car over the boulders I was drenched with little droplets over my hands, eyes and forehead. It felt like I was returning after a pilgrimage.For a pilgrimage of the soul I don’t need Pushkar or Haridwar , a quaint mountain stream did that to me.It purified, it strengthened and it embalmed.
Most of us are taught the importance of planning, the necessity of being highly structured and organized in life.Known for being unorganized, spontaneity has been part of my life, away from mindlessly existing within the confines of predictability. Chimney and Dudhia these sudden detours taught me to embrace things as they come, we can hardly write our routes of life, they are pre written, we can only force a roundabout.
It was April 2019, precisely a year back that I went on a holiday to Kurseong. People were surprised at my choice for Kurseong,for it has often been neglected as the less beautiful sibling of the Queen of the Hills -Darjeeling. Kurseong is at best a stop over for a hot plate of momo en route Darjeeling or a one day sightseeing trip squeezed in. I wanted leisure and I wanted a respite from schedules, itineraries and time lines. Just a couple of days before the trip I realized that my trip had clashed with the dates of the Lok Sabha elections there. I remained undettered and looked forward to soak in the election fever of the sleepy town.I did not choose any luxurious resorts or tea garden home stays.I planned to put up at the wooden bungalow of Kurseong Tourist Lodge which had lot of memories of a second flush tea and soft chicken sandwiches on way to Darjeeling with my parents.The skylights, the tall pines and firs had remained etched in my thoughts for long and wanted to experience it all in silence and happiness.About 60 km from the airport at Bagdogra, Kurseong nestles among undulating valleys, mountain flowers and the winding DHR railway track. The route to Kurseong is picturesque as the road trudges along the old tracks of the DHR. I was lucky enough to go past a steam engine of the heritage toy train.The whistles,the smoke, the colors of the engine added to the sculptured beauty of the road.
The original inhabitants, named their home “Kurseong”, because every spring it was alive and bright with Kurson-Rip orchids. Kurseong is a Lepcha word (the original inhabitants of this area) and it means the white orchid of the eastern Himalayas. The name was apparently given by a European researcher who was researching on an exotic variety of white orchid that could only be found at the height of Kurseong i.e. 4500 feet from sea level. Kurseong was a part of the Sikkim kingdom, before the British came to India. However around 1780 the Nepalese conquered and annexed Kurseong and its surrounding areas. After loosing the Gurkha War, the Nepalese ceded Kurseong to do of the British. Although a road was built from Kurseong to Darjeeling from Titalia in the 1770s and 1780s, its irregular maintenance soon made the new route, the Military Road, almost useless. The new route Hill Cart Road opened in 1861 and fared better . Kurseong is one of the oldest municipalities in the state of West Bengal. Established as an independent Municipality in 1879, it did not become a Sub-Division until 1890, when the District of Darjeeling was formed. Kurseong was added to the Rajshahi Division by the British Raj . In 1908, it was transferred to the Bhagalpur Division in the same Presidency. In 1939, when Bengal became a province of British India, Kurseong was allowed to elect its own member as the chairman, but the British Raj continued to send ward commissioners until India gained independence.
It was a morning flight that I took from Kolkata and reached the idyllic sleepy town of Kurseong in time for a brunch at the tourist lodge.The tourist lodge at Kurseong has an old world charm,a wooden bungalow with screeching stairs,huge skylights,large windows which open into the undulating valley.My favourite window seat at the dining hall was empty and as I opened the panes and a flash of cold air swept by my cheeks . I opened my eyes and heart to the world,the mist,the green and the blue mountains far far away.The mountains across the valley from Kurseong looks like a distant dream,dreams which can be fulfilled but can also flow away.As I sat with the golden brew-a cup of first flush I wanted to dream wild and as I looked out of the skylight the red spiral of the church and the pines and firs whispered happiness to my ears.
The smiling elderly employee took me to Room 201,and as I entered the room I was happy-wooden walls,a cosy bed ,an ornate mirror, glass windows and a huge balcony.One of the best rooms of the property, it was a room with a view. Wide glass windows, overlooking the peak and the undulating slopes and a balcony which was hanging delicately on the slopes.It was cloudy with a haze, a haze which often overcrowds my vision ,my life goals I thought. Took a quick shower and curled up to the bed with another cup of second flush from Makaibari and waited for my car to arrive.Since it was a day of hectic election campaigning, the young smiling manager of the tourist Lodge took pains to get me a car for some places I wanted to go to.Mountains have always a calming influence on me and as I had dozed off for a nap my phone rang and It was time to get dressed.
A stop at the beautiful Margaret’s Deck tea lounge, a cup of Castleton second flush and a slice of a carrot cake,beautiful views of the valley and I was on an uphill ride towards Downhill.Seeing the wild flowers in myriad colors I wished to be one such nameless flower on a hill slope next life. The mauves,pinks and yellows perching, peeping across walls and across the slopes were at peace with their lives…privileged to watch life and grow as they wished…no deadlines,no expectations, no roles to be emulated to perfection.The road to Dowhill was one of the most splendid roads that I have travelled. It reminded me of poems about wooded forests and the long unwinding roads of life that poets often wrote about.The dark misty road appeared to me just out of the Scottish highlands as dark clouds came down embracing me in its soft cuddles.I could almost feel the moistness of their embrace.As my car stopped at one of the dark woods I looked up the sky and could remember all the geography lessons where I was taught about the types of clouds-the cumulonimbus etc.
Boarding schools had always an illusive charm to me.Whenever I played truant when I was a kid my Ma would often reprimand me by threatening that I would be put in a boarding school.Not that it intimidated me much,infact I pined for it,the Enid Blyton stories of midnight feasts and life at boarding schools drew a very rosy picture of a life of a boarder.Perhaps I never disobeyed my parents to the extent that I was really sent off with my suitcase.The trip to Dowhill made me excited.It was my dream school of childhood.Nestled among the blue sky,overlooking dark woods with pines and firs, the facade of the school itself evokes a liking for the place.The altars,the classrooms,the church,the dining hall wore a deserted look as the school was closed for the summer recess. I left my car at the corner and walked up the winding road till Victoria Boys School.The road had a strange feeling of loneliness…stories about the ghosts crowded my mind. Dowhill and Victoria Boys School keeps on the legacy of a boarding school culture,excellence in sports ,debates.A look back into the history of the school which I wish could be my school in next life.
The general belief is that Dowhill was named after a lovely little bird called “Dow” (in a local tribal dialect) which used to frequent the place. In 1879, Sir Ashley Eden, the then Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, wanted to start a Government School for boys and girls of Government servants belonging to the middle and low income group. A house called ‘Constantia’ was bought and repaired for the purpose of a residential school. In August 1879 the first batch of 16 children arrived at the school. Soon ‘Constantia’ was found to be too small for the growing school. It was shifted to Dow Hill, where the Railway Offices were vacated and the Railway Quarters at Dow Hill were handed over to the Education Department. Dow Hill site was considered more suitable because the air was very pleasant and there was abundance of water. Mr. Edward Pegler was the first Headmaster of the school; he was assisted by his wife. The Peglers worked alone till 1885. The school then had 103 students. However, in 1887, the coeducation system was discontinued in the best interest of the school. The school was run entirely for the boys for a decade. The boys’ school was shifted to its new building in the Jubilee year of Queen Victoria and it was renamed as Victoria Boys’ School. Sir Charles Elliot, who had provided funds for the new building wished to reopen the girls’ school in Dow Hill where it had been before. In 1898 the girls’ school was started again in the old building of the school.. Mr. Edward Pegler, the Headmaster, was transferred to Alipur in 1901. Mrs. E. Pegler became the first Headmistress of Dow Hill Girls’ School in 1898.Till the 1950’s the Headmistresses of Dow Hill School were Europeans or Anglo-Indians. Miss Latika Ray was the first Indian Headmistress of Dow Hill School. The last Anglo-Indian Headmistress was Miss R. E. Ballantine, who retired in 1970.
I moved uphill to visit the Kurseong Deer Park.Quite high in altitude ,the place was damp,there were no deers around,but dense forests around made the cold unbearable.The silence of the place was eerie,the lone Nepali lady selling vegetarian momos,Nepali Alu Dum and Titora was the only person in sight.Sat in the wooded area for a while but as I saw dark clouds descending I decided to warm myself up with the freshly made alur dum. The alur dum was deliciously spicy,as the frail lady garnished it with some alu bhujia. I finished two bowls of it with a slurping sound quite audible to my ears.The frail lady slipped a packet of titora in my hands as she talked about her house,her spouse,her village,the cinchona plantations and her very difficult life.Yet her warm reassuring smile attempted to tell me that there is always a silver lining to all dark clouds.Little did I realise that I would be able to see the silver lining soon enough.
The next stop was the Forest School of the state government, a training institute for freshly recruited forest officials.The museum at the premises is worth your time.The keeper of the museum was hesitant about letting me in as there was a power failure.I reassured that I would be fine with the natural lights.The old wooden building with near dilapidated stairs,the greyish darkness with little streams of sunlight streaming in,the caracas of wild animals,remnants of flora and fauna well preserved.At one time I felt a little eerie too.But the visit to the museum will remain an experience to savor.The Central Academy of Forest Education college was established in 1927, the only Rangers’ College in the country under the direct control of the Government of India.The College Building was said to be constructed during late 19th Century. It along with its landed property was once a property of St Mary’s Seminary .
As my car took a sharp turn downhill I saw the new campus of Presidency College being built. Kurseong would soon get another institute of higher learning.As we descended downhill across one of the most artistic roads had ever seen,I thought that the best artist had played with his brush at leisure.
The next destination was the museum at Giddapahar housing precious memorablia about Netaji Subhas Chandra Basu. It was a beautiful house with a rush of colors around and as I entered the museum it was like a flight back to history.Handwritten presidential address of the Haripura Session of the Congress,numerous correspondence between Netaji and his wife presented Netaji in his various facets.The family photographs are well treasured.Sarat Chandra Bose purchased the house in 1922 from Rowley Lascelles Ward. Between 1933 and 1935, Sarat Chandra was interned for 2 years in this house. Netaji, who was placed in this house for 7 months under house arrest by the British Government in India. Netaji again visited this house in October 1937. It is said that Netaji wrote his address for the Haripura Congress from this house.The museum also has in its collection several letters written by Netaji to his wife , Emily.A couple of weeks before his death in Darjeeling on 16 June 1925, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das too visited this house.
As I entered the sleepy town which was not so sleepy on the eve of the Lok Sabha Election thought of making a stop at the iconic Kurseong Railway Station.It is not a broad gauge railway station with level crossings, overhead bridges, it is an idyllic station of the heritage Darjeeling Himalayan Railway- the toy train in common parlance.It looks straight out of British countryside, people relaxing with newspapers, senior citizens in groups, the red letter box with a lock that probably has not been opened hor long, a small but tasteful station masters room and a forlorn ticket counter.The station houses a museum of the DHR and as I was keen to see the artifacts and documents of the DHR, I met the stationmaster.An young man from Bihar quite unhappy with his posting at this little station he was quite warm.He asked me to come back the next day, though it was the day of the election.Since it was late afternoon and dusk descends on hill slopes suddenly, it would be ideal if I could visit tomorrow, he said. As I was walking away from the station, I saw a sudden stream of activity and the thrilling whistle of the toy train. It was one of the few steam engines still functioning and with a chain of smoke making circles in the air it entered Kurseong Station.Remembered a toy train ride with a friend a decade back where we had purchased tickets from an agent, at a premium price.Actually we had got the tickets from black market and since we were two women frantically looking around for the queue, a women in her late 40’s approached us with the ticket. It was peak season time and we had no other option but to accept the offer.
Driving past the TV Centre and after a climb of a few steep stairs I reached Eagles Craig.Once you make your way up the spiral staircase to this steel-caged observatory – the viewpoint, you are in for an unparalleled visual treat. Revel in stunning panoramic views of the mighty mountains as well as lush green slopes around the small town of Kurseong with the river Teesta snaking its way through the valley.I witnessed the sky change colours from yellow to orange and then to a bright red, as the sun sets behind the mountains. Breathing in the fresh mountain air, the views took my breath away nearly. The orange dusk with the grey clouds will be remembered for ever.With a memorial for the Gorkha warriors, the place abounds with the white orchids after which Kurseong is named.As the sun was sliding across the horizon ,the little town became ablaze as on fire, not a untamed one but one resembling the dying flames of a barbecue.
Back to the tourist lodge under the comforting blanket and a fragrant cup of the golden liquor,I sat through seeing the photos.As the night got darker and little lights fluttered like a diamond from the mountains across I could not resist sitting in the balcony..The balcony does not have walls in between and form a continuous line with the other balconies. There was an openness about it.Began chatting with this elderly couple who seemed to enjoy their vintage togetherness.With a peg of single Malt down the couple whom I called uncle and aunt now began humming Tagore songs.They chose the most sensitive ones which overflow with emotions of love and longing. I could feel the wetness on my cheeks which I enjoyed to the brim.A dinner of khichuri and fried chicken served in the balcony itself , the night seemed soulful.I popped on two rum filled chocolates and shared some with the elderly couple…a perfect desert with the tum oozing out as if life was oozing out with everything good and beautiful. The night was one of my most memorable ones till date,every little sound of the hills were audible, the distant car passing by occassionally, the snoring sound of the elderly couple from the next room, I lay awake most of the night tucked into the mellow warmth of the soft blanket as I thought that charting new emotions and crossing self laid boundaries is not always bad.It might be laden with possibilities of happiness.Maybe my world changes after that night.With such thoughts and fleeting dreams , woke up late and over several cups of tea made my days plan.
The day should not have plans.The tourist lodge was abuzz with activities with central observers, police personnel and election officials.Most of the staff were away on leave , the dining room was open to the boarders alone.After a rather late breakfast of minced egg and mustard sandwich in soft white bread , a cup of strong Americano I thought of venturing out.The young manager of the tourist lodge was not happy with my intent to walk on empty roads. On my insistence he relented but tucked in a paper with his mobile number written on it in case I needed it.
Walking directionless on unknown streets on an Election Day is novel,never have I done it,or never will I ever get to do it in near future.Walked the winding streets to get to the railway museum of the DHR.The station master had kept the keys ready but could not find the ticket booklet given by UNESCO for heritage museum.After a wait for about half an hour signed in the register and realized the museum was having a visitor after nearly a year.From the earliest road map of the DHR, the naming of the stations,to the first signaling systems,to the couches,to the cutlery, to the medicine box it had all of it nicely preserved.Loved to see the instruction manuals,the appraisal reports of the train drivers, the old tickets,the clocks, the cloak room mirrors.The station was deserted than usual days.Crossed the track to the other side and peeped into the now defunct NF Railway Printing Press,the Priyo Gupta Cottage.A walking distance from there past some crowded hotel area I then visited the Loco Shed.On display was one of the oldest steam engines with chimneys which probably wants to get back to work again.The pains of being static to once mobile life can best be felt in days of the Lockdown now.
As it was nearing afternoon and had to back in time for lunch, I began walking way back past police patrols, an occasional voter going back after casting his vote , a dog lazing in the afternoon sun, wild flowers looking more beautiful in empty roads.I picked up some yak churpi and two packets of Titora from the only shop which had its shutters open. The car of the central observer went past and the officer from Telengana who you was staying at the Toutist Lodge waved back.Lunch with an old style chicken roast served with baby potatoes and carrots was sorted ,the dining room was empty and with the sky clearing up could see the pristine Kanchanjungha looking across.
An afternoon nap and some quick chat with friends followed by a walk uphill to the church opposite. The Good Friday service was in progress ,sat in the church for some time and tried understanding the service conducted in the local language.The church with white orchid offerings, beautiful glass panes, heritage oil paintings, and the last rays of the sinking sun gleaming through made it look holy and peaceful. Taking a sharp turn from the church walked up to see the Elysia Place which was the DHR headquarters location,a beautiful wooden creaking bungalow, it was sadly closed for the day. On my way down saw a signage of the building Churchgate which was the halt for DHR officials .The Kurseong Station was located here till 1896 before it moved to the present location.
The best moment of the trip was when I stood their at the forlorn tracks strewn with dried leaves of some unnamed trees looking ahead.The track turned in the next bend and could not see much beyond,only imagined the track moving up to the next station at Sonada. This is also life, we try to look beyond the present, predict, plan but everything is destined for it’s own history. Can’t see life beyond the next turn.
Back to the hotel the setting sun from my balcony looked as if it was on fire.Yet it was not that kind of a fire which devastated or ruined,it was those pleasant orange hues which sent the word of hope,of renewal of life and love not lost.The sun even being tired after it’s long journey through the day made efforts to lookthrough the dark clouds over and over again .This again is akin to our daily struggle of life- joys and sorrows and efforts to overcome that sorrow.. a perennial duel with the self.
The danger of Corona virus lurking around-unknown,unfathomable has made our lives different.Different,difficult but not bad in totality.The lockdown is sure a breather for busy lives, an opportunity to rebond, spend some quality time with family,engage in long forgotten hobbies and in short reboot our lives lost in alleys of conflict and competition.The lockdown has a rather grave impact on the teeming millions who earn their livelihood by means of a daily wage. One such sector was the dairy industry where it was impossible to stop production and there was a possibility of wastage of milk in context of absence of transport and logistics.Within a week of the lockdown,the West Bengal government announced the lifting of restrictions on sweet shops across Bengal,though they were allowed to function between 12 noon to 4 pm.
The need to restock led me to the local market and seeing the queue in front of the local sweet shop or mishtir dokan I thought that Bengali’s indulge in passion and they do it with all seriousness of purpose. Bengali’s indeed have a sweet tooth and has a never dying passion for sweets which surpasses the fear of the unknown virus.People of all ages came smiling out of the shop with several packets in their hand. The smile on their face was akin to the satisfaction when one is able to crack a difficult interview or when one gets a long awaited nod from their fiance.Sweets play an important role in the everyday life of a Bengali—almost an inseparable part of the population’s cuisine and culture.No life cycle ritual is complete without an exchange of sweets.Ancient Hindu texts over two thousand years ago mention of sweet offerings to God. The Indian gods are renowned for their sweet tooth,so are their people.
The liking for sweets is hardwired among Indians irrespective of region,age and gender. Sweetness, as Sidney Mintz shows, is intrinsically linked to Britain’s colonial history. The history of sugar is closely tied to the two other global commodities that was responsible for transatlantic trade and forced labour—tea and coffee. Interestingly, sugar can be added to both tea and coffee. Mintz shows that if it were not for industrial Britain’s fetish for sweetened tea, the increase in consumption of sugar would not have achieved its peak. While on one hand sugar became synonymous with sweetness, another product that has been used across sweet dishes throughout the world is milk. Milk figure in the Old Testament as symbols of abundance and creation. Bipradas Mukhopadhyay in his book Mishtanna Pak lists different kinds of milk starting from milk of cows, goats, ewes, water buffaloes to camels. Apart from being tasty and energizing it was also the common man’s food.In Bengal milk and rice became synonymous with a prosperous comfortable life.Milk is often an analogy used in myths and folktales like rivers of milk to denote prosperity and happiness.
Much of the milk used in the kitchen disappears into a mixture-a batter, a custard mix or a pudding.India has a large number of variations on the theme of cooked down milk many of them dating back a thousand years. “For sheer inventiveness with milk as the primary ingredient, no country on earth can match India.”– Harold McGee. The warm climate and the necessity to keep the milk from souring led to two ways-either boiling it repeatedly till it cooked down to a brown ,solid paste with little moisture or by curdling them with heat and lime juice.The drained curd forms a soft moist mass known as channa which is often used as a base of sweets when mixed with a sweetening agent.
Milk is the pan-Indian intermediate base of sweet preparation.Medieval poems refer to deserts where milk was the basis. Paramanno – a concoction of rice and milk was offered to gods and became a feature of festive meals and rituals.Milk is one of the basic base to which grains of various kinds can be added to cook a pudding – a payesh or kheer. The first reference to payasam can be traced to a Jain Buddhist text from around 400BC. In the text Manasollasa ,King Someshwara mentions of payasam to be had in the middle of the meal before proceeding to other savory preparations.
In Bengal known as payesh and prepared from a special variety of short-grained sundried rice, milk and sweetening agent (sugar or molasses), this dish has many versions across Asia. There are many varieties of rice or cereals that can be used for this dish. Historian K.T. Achaya describes Kheer as the ritual food and argues that the term is derived ‘from the Sanskrit word Ksheer for milk and Kshīrika for any dish prepared with milk’ . This dish acquires a new name with each topographical region.A similar dish like payesh was used by Romans as a stomach coolant and as a detox diet.
Payesh is mostly cooked in Bengal with short grained aromatic rice and with date palm jaggery or nolengur. Variations of payesh like chhana-r payesh is also common. In the last quarter of the 19th-century, the first recipe book dedicated to sweets was Mistannapak written by Bipradas Mukherjee. This book has 26 varieties of payesh. They include Nalen gur-er payesh (made with jaggery), Luchi-r payesh (made with shredded pieces of fried discs of bread from flour called luchi), Chira r-payesh (with flattened or beaten rice), Alu-r payesh (with boiled cubes of potato), Bonde-r payesh (made with small droplets of sweet prepared from gramflour), Kancha aam-er payesh ( with raw mango), Kochi lau-er payesh (unripened bottle gourd), Suji-r payesh (payesh made with semolina), Komolalebu-r payesh (with oranges), Kanthal bichi-r payesh (the jackfruit seed) and even Piyanj-er payesh(a payesh made with onions).
Eating within available resources has been a necessity in the days of lockdown. Though the neighborhood mishti shops were doing brisk business but I preferred making some of my own from available ingredients. A morning routine for me has been to inspect the refrigerator looking for vegetables which were drying up or were lone in their existence.One afternoon, a day before the Bengali New Year came across a couple of sweet potatoes.The craving for sweets was at its maximum as well as the necessity and tradition of making a payesh for Bengali New Year made me think of a payesh made from the sweet potatoes.For this I grated the sweet potatoes and soaked it in water for an hour.I rinsed it well to get rid of the starch.In the meantime I boiled the milk and reduced it a bit.Added a few cardamoms while reducing the milk. Over ghee I sauted the rinsed and dried sweet potatoes till they were light brown in color.Added this sauted potatoes to the milk and let it boil till the potatoes were down.I had half a can of condensed milk and added this for sweetness.You can add plain sugar or jaggery according to the sweetness desired.Added some raisins and cashews.If you want you can fry the raisins and cashews in ghee before adding it to the milk.At the end I added a drop of rose water. You can add saffron too.
The fun part of doing this payesh is that it is fast,the potatoes take little time to cook and thickens the milk quick.The best part is that you will keep your guests guessing as to what went in for the payesh. My experience says that of all the times I made this payesh only once did a guest guessed it right. Do try it during these hard pressed days of lockdown and even after we have been successful in fighting this virus as part of your dinner spread.