Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Pritha Sen -- and her Bhoger Khichuri

Anyone who reads my blog would have come across recipes like Goalondo Murgi or Railway Mutton Curry and by now know who Pritha Sen is. And if you don't read my blog but you are a Bengali food enthusiast, there is not an iota of doubt that you would know her!

For the uninitiated, she is a journalist, a food consultant, a development consultant and last but not the least  -- the person who unearths lost recipes, ingredients, cuisine from undivided Bengal and  traces their history.

The reason I respect PrithaDi so much is not only because of  her repertoire of knowledge on food but because she is one of those rare breed of food writers who are also very generous with that knowledge and experience. She is always there to share her recipes, suggesting changes, answering questions, guiding you along the way. I have learned a lot from her and hope to continue that in the future.

This Durga Pujo, I bring to you Pritha Sen, woman power in food from Undivided Bengal (as she puts it)! My humble ode to thank her for all she does.

Come join me as she talks about everything food -- from her foray into food history to the Bhog she cooks at her community Pujo, from her childhood pujos to her  special pujo memories.




Thursday, September 21, 2017

Enchor Chingri Malaikari

My grandmother's house in India had a wildly growing garden. Trees of all kinds grew around the age old garden, leaning over the solid brick parapet that surrounded the house. Guava trees with their albino limbs and pale green leaves, Jamun trees with marble sized juicy jamuns hidden in their leafy canopy, jackfruit trees where the jackfruits clung onto the tree like koala babies and loads and loads of flowering trees from shiuli to tagor.



I don't know who planted the trees or who take care of them, for I never did see anyone take care of them regularly. Once in a while my grandmother would get hold of some poor guy walking the lane on a solitary afternoon in search of  odd jobs and then she would entice him with prospect of food and easy money. That is how she got all her weeding done and kept the garden neat. But I never did see anyone spraying fungicide or pouring insecticide or do anything thing fancy in there. Most of the trees in that garden were old and big anyways and knew how to take care of themselves.

In that garden there was this Ka(n)thal gaach -- a jackfruit tree, where jackfruits grew in abundance hanging around the tree like koala babies. Since no one at our home was fond of ripe jackfruit smell, the jackfruits were plucked when they were green and young and called "Enchor" in Bengali. "Enchore paaka" was also a term often used when any adolescent tried to act smart-alecy. Given that it was actually a much adored vegetable, it was hard to figure out, that the term was not actually a compliment!


As a result of all this abundance of enchor, green jackfruit curry or enchor er dalna was quite a common dish at our home. Though honestly cutting green jackfruit, with all its thorns and spikes and sticky glue, was no mean feat and it would be an elaborate affair compassing couple of hours. As is the rule, I was not much fond of "enchor er dalna" as a child. The adults loved it. They called it "gaachh pantha", the vegetarian meat. Much later would I know that it tasted a lot like pulled pork. But at that point I didn't appreciate the soft fibrous texture of green jackfruit in a curry. My mother sometimes made koftas with the green jackfruit, like meatballs, the jackfruit boiled and mashed with potatoes and spices and then fashioned into spherical balls which were deep fried. They were soft and delicious, more after soaking in the spicy gravy. Now those I absolutely adored.


Monday, September 18, 2017

Mahalaya, Thin Arrowroot biskoot and Birendra Krishna Bhadra

I set a lot of alarms on my phone. From the first wake up call in the morning to alarms notifying me when the elementary and high school bus is supposed to come, I have a series of them set up in variety of tones. My wake up alarms are so melodious that I often snuggle in and go into deeper sleep hearing them.

This was not the case with my parents. We, or rather my parents had only one moon faced alarm clock, white and chrome, which stood on two tiny legs and had two buttons around the top. It was wound by a key like all clocks were on those days and I am sure the alarm was set in a similar fashion. Standing on its two legs, it looked exactly like how you would draw an alarm clock. It also had a jarring, steely noise, that would not only wake us up but also the neighbors and any stray dogs or cats in the street outside.

However, unlike me, my parents rarely needed an alarm. My mother's body clock would be naturally set to a fixed time in the morning when she would wake up. In turn she would go around acting as our very own human alarm. We didn't need a clock.

There were only 2 or maybe 3 days a year that our Alarm clock with the jarring alarm would be put to use. Two of those days would be when we had to catch the early morning train to go to my grand parent's home.



And the third day would be on Mahalaya! This day marked the end of PitraPaksha and start of Debi Paksha, the fortnight when Ma Durga would arrive. I did not pay any attention to these details though. For me, Mahalaya was synonymous with the radio program Mahishashurmardini, aired by All India Radio at an ungodly hour on this day.

We never did say "Mahi-sha-shur-mar-dini".
"Mahalaya shunte hobe", was the phrase. We have to listen to Mahalaya. It was not a day, it was a phenomenon.

To wake us all up in time for that program, the alarm would be set to an ungodly hour of 3 in the morning. To be sure that the hour is not missed, my diligent Baba always set a couple of practice alarms the evening before.Reassured by that earth shattering krrr-rr-ing a couple of times he would finally set it to 3AM the next morning.

He then checked the new set of radio batteries repeatedly and set the dial to Akaashbaani. My Mother kept her clothes ready to change into the next morning. It was no ordinary radio program after all.

"Kal bhor bela uthe Mahalaya shunte hobe. Ghyaan ghyaan na kore uthei chaan kore nebe", I would be coaxed repeatedly the night before, to wake up and take a shower the very first thing in the morning.



Honestly as much as I was excited for DurgaPujo, I dreaded the early morning Mahalaya. I was never a morning person and waking up at 3AM was not my forte. My parents were ardent fans of the event though and would be up before day break . Tightly holding a pillow over my ears I mostly slept through the jarring alarm and the sound of morning ablutions. My Mother tried various methods like untying the mosquito net and letting the soft net fall in a heap over my sleeping self. I did not budge.

Finally she would patter away grumbling about my insouciance. As the first pink ray of sunlight hit the earth, the radio would crackle and there was this resounding voice reverberating over ether and entering our home through the radio. The deep baritone of Birendra Krishna Bhadra, traveling from afar and bouncing off the walls of our house. There was some magic in that chant that pushed even someone like me out of the bed, and rubbing my eyes I would sit around the dining table listening to him invoking the Goddess. Crisp Thin Arrowroot biscuits dipped in cups of sugary tea, mingled with 'Bajlo alor benu..." on Mahalaya mornings.

Strains of the same voice would float around from neighboring houses too and the neighborhood would be all awake in their separate homes, united by the power of the single voice reciting "Ashwin er sharod o praate..".



I never managed to listen to the entire Mahalaya program ever and dozed off some where between the chant and the songs, carrying the voice deep in my heart. A voice that I would never forget even when radios were replaced by television and later youtube channels. On Mahalaya I still listen to the original version of mahishahshur mardini. In my early days in the US, it was cassette tapes but now Birendra Krishan Bhadra lives on over the ether once again via on-demand internet.

Tomorrow early morning it will be me and Mahalaya once again. With Birendra Krishna Bhadra, Thin Arrow root biscuits and cups of sugary cha. My girls will sleep on.




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