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.
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.
Seeing people queuing up for hours outside hyper markets for essential foodstuffs overlooking health hazards and norms of social distancing and also suffering from pangs of anxiety on how to keep the kitchen fire on, I remembered the 80’s when most middle and upper class households had ration cards and weekly visits to the ration shops yielded sugar,whole wheat flour, the Bangalipi copies in specific quantities allotted to every member of the household. With the 90’s we were flooded with choices and with mushrooming of departmental stores, the rationing system went out of popularity among middle class households in the cities. Open racks displaying a variety in consum inables, prospect of credit card payments etc made us forget the possibility of being able to live on limited supplies.We began buying indiscriminately, stocking up and often wasting stuff.We became addicted to high sugar,high calorie and preserved foods thereby increasing our sugar and cholesterol levels nationwide as well as worldwide.
The advent and rage of novel Corona virus changed all such consumption patterns worldwide and in a sense changed people across nations. Anxiety about the unknown, an explainable fear,social distancing,separation from loved ones in cities across nations and continents,jumbled emotions and a high incidence of stress are common worldwide irrespective of social or economic status. Anxiety about aging parents living in a different city, complaining kids and sulking friends is making things worse.The challenge is two fold – to build up stores during the days of the lock down,to maintain the supplies and then to cook two meals for the family using as little of the fresh vegetables,chicken,fish, dry provisions so painstakingly stocked up. With the entire family around and helping each other it is always good to see a smile in their face at the end of the day and a smile is best got from a hearty meal.The meal I am cooking is following a general rule that it should not be elaborate using exotic ingredients, it can be a one pot meal providing the daily dose of calories from carbohydrate,proteins and minerals and the lunch can be doubled up as dinner throwing in certain variations. Someday a brunch is ideal saving up on one meal.To use up left overs,to think rationally when planning a meal,to use oil,butter and eggs judiciously, to innovate and be creative is all that we need in the kitchen now.
Yesterday when my milk and bread stores were nearing depletion, I thought of nations subsisting on rationed provisions for years during World War I and particularly during World War II.Living on less is difficult but not impossible.If we survive the Corona ,the world will be no doubt a bit different.We will be better individuals learning to respect little pleasures,little boons and small blessings. We will probably start counting our blessings.History has taught that nations do survive on less and come out stronger out of it.
Reports in the social media about supermarts like TESCO in UK rationing goods like antibacterial gels, wipes and sprays, dry pasta, UHT milk and some tinned vegetables made me study the history of food rationing. The rules of rationing are applicable in stores as well as online.While Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Iceland and Lidl have not made changes to their opening times, several of the supermarket chains have introduced dedicated shopping hours for the elderly, vulnerable customers, NHS and social care workers. Sainsbury’s is allowing customers to buy a maximum of three of any single item, while Morrisons said it is limiting purchases across 1,250 lines. Asda also announced that it is restricting shoppers to three items on all food and Aldi has already introduced limits of four items per shopper across all products. In essence all such measures amounts to rationing and probably soon in India too we will toe such rules of limited buying.
A look back in times
During the beginning of the Second World War, Britain imported about 55 million tons of food a year from other countries. The Germans used battleships and submarines to hunt down and sink British merchant vessels on sea. With imports of food declining, the British government decided to introduce a system of rationing. This involved every householder registering with their local shops. The shopkeeper was then provided with enough food for his or her registered customers.In January 1940 bacon, butter and sugar were rationed. This was followed by meat, fish, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, milk and canned fruit. In the summer of 1940 the government established a committee of nutritional experts to advise the War Cabinet on food policy. The committee issued a report claiming that each citizen could survive on twelve ounces of bread, a pound of potatoes, two ounces of oatmeal, an ounce of fat, six ounces of vegetables and six-tenths of a pint of milk per day, supplemented either by small amounts of cheese, pulses, meat, fish, sugar, eggs and dried fruit. Allowances fluctuated throughout the war, but on average one adult’s weekly ration was 113 gm bacon and ham (about 4 thin slices), one shilling and ten pence worth of meat (about 227 gm minced beef), 57 gm butter, 57 gm cheese, 113 gm margarine, 113 gm cooking fat, 3 pints of milk, 227 gm sugar, 57 gm tea and 1 egg. Other foods such as canned meat, fish, rice, condensed milk, breakfast cereals, biscuits and vegetables were available but in limited quantities on a points system.The food rationing system gave people the opportunity to obtain a balanced diet and as a result the health of the nation improved during this period.People were encouraged to provide their own food. The government’s campaign called for every man and woman to keep an allotment. Lawns and flower-beds were turned into vegetable gardens. Chickens, rabbits, goats and pigs were reared in town gardens.
Clothing too was rationed from June, 1941. A points system allowed people to buy one completely new outfit a year. To save fabric, men’s trousers were made without turn ups, while women’s skirts were short and straight. Frills on women’s underwear were banned.Women’s magazines were packed with handy hints on how, for example, old curtains might be cut up to make a dress. Stockings were in short supply so girls coloured their legs with gravy browning .In May 1943, the annual clothing coupon allowance was cut from 48 to 36 per adult.
Second World War, America and food rationing
The situation was same in America too.As the 1940s dawned, Americans faced the looming threat of World War II with warfare and food shortages spreading throughout the European continent. During World War II Americans responded quickly to the government’s calls for soldiers and adherence to a host of home front programs established to support the war effort. Food rationing, as one of the first civilian programs established after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, became a central component of the American home-front experience. Women made conscious and sometimes difficult choices to support elements of the government’s food rationing program. Yet, women rationed their family’s food on their own terms and for their own reasons.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s famous maxim “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are” hints at the connection between food and identity. Identity emerges as a result of both the types of foods one consumes and the thought behind the action of consumption. Beyond mere personal tastes and preferences, food choices disclose an individual’s station in society; food is given significance by how it is narratively framed and by its significance within the community or nation. Sugar and Red Meat served as linchpins of American identity and held distinct meanings for consumers in the 1940s. Amy Bentley’s Eating for Victory succinctly argues that wartime Americans held engendered views of these two items. The rationing of culturally feminized sugar meant limits on purchase amounts, and home front baking and preserving, challenged housewives’ ability to maintain the prewar standard of a full cookie jar. In a modern sense, cutting sugar intake seems prudent. However, in the 1940s sugar was regarded as an important energy-giving substance and even nutrition experts agreed with widespread consumption. Likewise red meat, considered the bible in healthy eating during the 1940s, also held strong connotations. Red meat conjured masculine discourse which meant many felt it vital for those actively fighting or producing for the war.
Food Rationing, Frugal meals and American Women
As American women sought to negotiate the strictures of the OPA food rationing program while remaining true to their commitment as preservers of American culture, some inventive efforts aimed at redefining cultural meanings so as to make unappealing items more acceptable occurred. Perhaps the best example of the transmutation of food meanings on the home front comes from the journey of ethnic foods into the mainstream diet. Many cookbooks and women’s magazines pushed the housewife to attempt feeding the family with exotic ethnic cuisine during the war because these ingredients were often more available and ration friendly. While these newly discovered foods didn’t necessarily appeal to the American palate in their most authentic forms, recipes underwent some alteration with respect to taste and meaning. Foods once considered true expressions of immigrant culture that carried negative connotations were reborn as patriotic experiments from the kitchen. Eating broccoli , mustard greens gained value. Molasses became fodder for patriotic cooking. Molasses gained widespread acceptance and even started a craze over spice and molasses cookies during the war became popular. Many Americans saw molasses as an ethnic food from the American South, but embraced it’s strangeness as it allowed women to bake without the use of sugar. Propaganda messages regarding directed at influencing housewives to ration food in accordance with the OPA program became state directed.The general goal of this propaganda remained the same throughout the war: convince housewives to cheerfully adhere to the food rationing program by using patriotic and democratic imagery. In 1943 the Office of War Information published a propaganda poster aimed at convincing housewives to democratically share available foods, especially the much hoarded coffee. A poster depicted a young white serviceman wearing a combat helmet, smiling and holding a large tin coffee mug. The taglines on the poster read “Do with less- so they’ll have enough!” and proclaims “Rationing gives you your fair share”. Within weeks of American entry into World War II coffee became the first commodity to disappear from grocers’ shelves and tempted many women to hoard coffee as they remembered the drastic shortages endemic to the First World War. The final, and perhaps most revealing series of OWI food-rationing posters, which met with housewife support, addressed the issue of canning foods and vegetables.
Propaganda pushed housewives to can foods instead of buying canned food at the grocery store .Many Americans living in rural areas, and the working poor already planted gardens and preserved foods for future kitchen use. Gardening a portion of one’s food supply, either as a part of traditional lifestyles or as a necessity began during the Great Depression and remained popular throughout the war years. By 1944 Americans tended over twenty-million individual gardens which produced 40% of all vegetables grown in the United States. Secondly, canning and preserving foods remained an almost entirely female pursuit. By canning, women demonstrated their mastery over the domestic sphere and simultaneously insured food stability for the family. The message on the poster “Can All You Can” is emblazoned across the label of an empty quart canning jar sitting atop a variety of luscious fresh vegetables.
Recipes for Frugal Meals
Women’s publications encouraged a communal relationship with food. Just as the OPA’s announcements, radio shows, and posters worked to inspire adherence to food rationing programs, cookbooks and magazines also served a basic purpose. Cookbooks have long been a vehicle for women to express their beliefs, culture, and build authority on domestic affairs. While many larger national publications, such as the American classic The Joy of Cooking, could not totally rearrange and restructure their books to discuss rationing, they did make sizeable efforts to touch upon the issue. These national publications created wartime supplements with advice and supposedly ration-friendly recipes, alongside new introductions which acknowledged both the role of women in the war and the uniquely female understanding of patriotic action popular among housewives. The largest publications, such as the Good Housekeeping Cookbook, tended to marginalize their response to food rationing by building war sections or special addendum to their normal cookbook content instead of integrating their advice throughout the cookbook. Some cookbook authors chose to highlight the war and food rationing through the recipes they published during the war years. these authors shared basic meal planning and points planning advice. They echoed varying levels of support for the OPA’s food rationing program, mimicking propaganda from the first two years of the war that emphasized the democratic nature of rationing. Marjory Mills’ Cooking on a Ration brightly proclaims “food is still fun” in the face of rationing and fears of food shortages. Mills begins her cookbook by admonishing her readers to have faith in food rationing and reminding them to stick with the childhood lesson of sharing. She tells her readers, “we’re relearning that lesson now where food is concerned, only it’s global sharing of the chocolate bar, the juicy steak, the can of soup.”
Sugar rationing and shortages caused stress for housewives. Corn syrup became the most common sugar substitute in most cookbooks, although author’s disagreed upon the exact amount needed for an equal exchange in recipes. The Gardeners’ Cook Book argued a proper substitution called for two cups of corn syrup for every single cup of sugar. Conversely, the cookbook Cook’s Away, which targeted those learning culinary arts for the first time or those going without a cook due to labor shifts caused by the war, called for substituting half the sugar in a recipe with corn syrup. Another author advocated an equal swap of syrup for sugar, but cautions “this will not be as sweet”. Gertrude Voellmig’s Wartime Cooking Guide advises housewives “baking and cooking of other sweets can be managed if sugar substitutes are made to help stretch rations.” Cookbook authors also suggested alternative methods for producing desserts without the use of any sugar at all. Harriet Hester’s book devoted to saving sugar reminded housewives to use fruit juices from canned fruit as a sweetener for gelatin and to cook with dried fruits in order to add sweetness without sugar.
With the OPA order to ration meats under the rather complicated red point scheme, housewives found another mealtime and cultural staple threatened. Meat held great cultural currency for wartime families, who had just survived the economic rigors of the Great Depression. Sitting down to a meal built around a juicy steak, pot roast, or baked chicken symbolized a return to normalcy and affluence for the middle class. Even Norman Rockwell’s famous painting “freedom from want” depicted the ideal of a roasted turkey on every American table. Nonetheless, when meat became rationed, housewives responded positively and searched out methods for maintaining family standards while contributing to military needs by reserving the abundance of American produced meat for servicemen. When Saidee Leach’s son wrote her from his Navy ship in the Pacific and expressed his happiness with eating steak in the military mess hall, she optimistically replied “No, I am not envious of your eating steak, for we want you men to have the best.” She then continued in her letter to describe her success in wrangling a piece of utility grade meat into an edible dish with the assistance of ketchup. Cookbooks offered recipes and ideas for extending meat such as adding vegetables, sauces, cereals, noodles, or biscuits and dumplings to complete a main dish. Ground beef became perhaps the thriftiest, and yet still acceptable meat choice to emerge during the war. In one recipe for beef loaf, Gertrude Veollmig included four variations using different flavorings and meat stretchers. These sort of recipes remained popular as they required only a pound and a quarter or so of ground meat and promised to yield six to eight servings. Voellmig’s Beef Loaf included suggestions for the addition of bread crumbs or oatmeal or cornmeal to the ground meat in order to provide taste and texture variations and allow the housewife to serve this meal repeatedly. Some cookbook authors harkened back to the shortages and slogans from World War I for ration recipe inspiration in the 1940’s. Meatless Mondays reentered the American lexicon during World War II as a solution for housewives unable to restrict family consumption. Ruth Berolzheimer, the director of the Culinary Arts Institute, edited The American Woman’s Meals Without Meat Cook Book. This cookbook offered suggestions for main courses which featured mostly fish, pasta, or eggs.The cookbook then suggested these central dishes be supplemented with vegetables and savory sauces to create well rounded nutritional meals. The Settlement Cook Book offered five variations on a vegetable plate and a cheese blintz dinner menu for “meatless days.”
Oils and fats became perhaps the most unexpected food item to join the wartime ranks of rationed foods. In the spring of 1943, about a year after most staple foods came under the supervision of the OPA’s food rationing programs, butter and some other cooking oils became scarce. The Good Housekeeping Institute counseled women that they had the same two main options when dealing with butter shortages as they did with meat: substitution and stretching. Cooking fats such as bacon grease or vegetable shortening could be used for sauteing, margarine or vegetable shortening replaced butter in baking, and both still provided the nutrition . Nancy Hawkins’s book Let’s Cook even told women to use lard or suet as acceptable butter substitutes in cooking, The Settlement Cook Book suggests women end a meatless vegetable plate dinner with an artfully served frozen can of peaches.
Lockdown Food Management at home
All of us experiencing this lockdown has been dong it for the first time.The only thing which can give solace to our frayed nerves is a hope and a trust.A hope for brighter world free of disease and a faith on our health care professionals and government to bail us through this utmost crisis. History has seen pandemics like the Plague, man made as well as natural famines where humanity at large has been able to adapt, change and survive.So the next time we feel stressed about the empty egg tray think of potatoes substituting, when we feel tempted to visit the market for a fresh supply of chicken think of the jar of mixed legumes and the soyabean lying unused for months.Cheese can be done away with, start doing your own curd for the dip, instead of the noodles use the pack of instant noodles and throw away the water in which it is boiled and do it noodle style.If you are less stocked up on your masoor dal and wonder about the proportions for the khicdi, use the less consumed lentils lying sadly on kitchen closets….you will have the most tasty khicdi eaten for a while.Cook once a day for the brunch or lunch and extend it to dinner with certain variations.Use the peels and greens of the vegetable in tasty soups and other dishes. Enjoy the time as leisure, rediscover your hobbies of school years, converse with your spouse and children over issues we hardly talk call up friends as well as foes. After all we will not die of hunger , we need to survive the virus.Emerge stronger and united as a family,nation and world at large.