The story began way back in 2001.Fresh out of college with dreams of teaching in a college, I was in for a shock. The West Bengal College Service Commission sent me an appointment letter for a college located in a remote village in 24 Parganas (South). My father in his last days wanted me to take the posting and to give me courage told me, “Love your workplace and the workplace will in turn love you.” A two hours journey by local train which I boarded probably for the second time in my life took me to my workplace. Time flew, I aged, the college grew in dimensions and I fell in love with the place, the college and the people. Every place has its unique culture, food tastes, techniques of cooking, local dialects and traditions. I began learning about them and understanding the moorings. One such tradition of this area is Ranna Pujo or Arandhan celebrated a day before Vishwakarma Puja and continues a day after. The puja centres around cooking and all rituals are associated with cooking the spread which is often more than twenty items.
In essence a tribute to Goddess Manasha (Snake God), the night before the Vishwakarma Puja, kitchens in the household are cleaned thoroughly including the mud stoves. A new mud stove is made, new utensils are used to cook the spread to be offered to Ma Manasha. The spatula used for cooking is made out of a branch of a date palm tree. The lady of the house takes a bath at dusk and initiates the cooking. Payesh is cooked first. Five types of vegetable fritters and five types of vegetable chorchori(mishmash) are a must. A mixed vegetable with kochu (taro) ,coconut and soaked Bengal Gram is also prepared.Another unique trait of the pujo is an array of non vegetarian offerings. Hilsa, a seasonal favourite is a must. Prawn fritters, Kochu shaak and Loti (colocasia stem and greens) with prawns are a must. Shapla (white lily) chorchori and Dal Chorchori (cooked lentils till dry) too are part of the spread. A relish or a chutney is made from Chalta (Elephant Apple). Apart from Payesh sweets like Kolar Bora(ripe banana fritters), taaler Bora and several Pithes(stuffed pancakes) are served. A beverage called Amani is served at the end which is basically the water in which the rice was soaked overnight flavored with salt and lemon.
Next morning the offering is placed before the deity which is a not an idol but a branch of a Manasha tree.The spread is served on seven leaves of the Shapla flower. Incense sticks and a new lamp is lit. The rice cooked last night soaked in water is served along with the vegetables and the fish. This is called Panna. The next day guests come over for a grand feast which is cooked and served hot.
Over years students have treated me to various delicacies cooked during this festival. The one I love is the Dal Chorchori which I have tried to replicate in my kitchen.
For Dal Chorchori, I soak Motor Dal(yellow split peas dal) overnight and make a coarse paste of it. To hot mustard oil I add bay leaves, whole red chilli and fenugreek seeds. Once spluttering I put in the coarse dal paste, turmeric powder, red chilli powder and salt. After the dal paste starts to leave the sides I add some ginger paste and over low heat I keep stirring it till all the water evaporates. A dash of mustard and green chilli paste at this stage.I cover the pan for some time and add a drizzle of mustard oil for the flavour. The Dal Chorchori will require a large amount of rice to be had with it and those on a diet let loose for a day.
Such traditions as Ranna Pujo or Arandhan keep regional and local culture alive and ticking. Heterogeneity in an age of globalization must be valued for it is such unique diversities which keep the spirit of a multicultural, multi ethnic country like India safe. Regional and local deities, festivals, food, cooking techniques, beliefs and faith of every region and culture makes this part of the world a mosaic of life.