Sweet biographies of Bengal

The gastronomic culture of Bengal is well known for its affinity towards sweets; particularly “rosogolla” and “sandesh”. Rosogolla is a round shaped sweet made out of Chhana (cottage cheese) and dipped in sugar syrup. Sandesh on the other is a sweet made of kneaded chchana cooked with sugar/ jaggery and made into diffferent moulds.

While there are debates as to who invented Rosogolla it was the enterprising family of Nobin Chandra Das and his successors primarily K.C.Das and Sharadacharan Das who were instrumental in putting the Rosogolla on the global map. Bengalis have a fettish for Chhana based sweets. What is Chhana?  Chhana is an important base for a variety of sweets. It is obtained by acid coagulation of hot milk and draining out the whey.

Nobin Das popularly known as Nobin Moira is known for his invention of Sponge Rosogolla. Langcha (a popular sweetmeat) in fact is named after Langcha Dutta who was a karigar from Kalna. He was efficient in preparing Pantua (Another Fried sweet made of Chhana and dipped in Sugar syrup) of huge sizes. Since he used to limp and walk hence the name Langcha (In Bengali Langchano means to limp). Surjya Modak from Chandannagore, Hooghly invented ‘Jalbhara Talsans Sandesh’ (1818). Bhimchandra Nag and Nakur Nandy from Hooghly district created revolution in Sandesh from their respective shops in Kolkata.

My first field work was in a sweet shop in Chandernagore/ Chandannagore by the name Jalbhara Surjya Modak, descendants of the legendary Moira/ Modak (confectioners in Bengal are known as Modaks/ Moiras). Chandernagore is a former French colony ( For details on Chandernagore visit the link http://www.chandannagar.com/htmlfiles/chanhistory.htm). Unlike the rest of India, certain towns on the banks of the Hooghly river had  Dutch and Portuguese settlements. For instance, Chinsurah a town close to Chandernagore was a former Dutch settlement and Bandel, few kms away from Chinsurah was a Portuguese settlement. These settlements have played a key role in the social history of sweetmeat in Bengal. While the earliest documentation on sweetmeats record “kheer” as the primary ingredient of sweetmeats with the advent of Dutch and Portuguese according to some scholars and traditions “chhana” became an important component of Bengali sweets.

For instance, the web portal (link given below) of Jalbhara Surjya Modak credits the Dutch cook of Bandel Church ( a church where Portuguese sailors had stayed for a long time) for introducing the Moiras of Hooghly to Chhana.

(http://www.jalbharasurjyamodak.com/profile.html)

Jalbhara Surjya Modak is currently owned and run by Saibal Kumar Modak, descendant of the famous Surjya Moira or Surjya Modak who is known for the invention of Jalbhara Sandesh (a Sandesh with sugar syrup filling). In April 2010 when I met Surjya Modak to discuss and plan my work he offered me Jalbhara Sandesh. As I finish eating the sweet he asks me whether or not I was aware about the history of the Jalbhara and if I had savoured their sweets before. I politely told him I knew that unlike the Jalbhara in Kolkata, I am aware that if one is not careful with Chandernagore Jalbhara then one might end up spilling the water.  Jabhara Sandesh as it is popularly known now was invented on the occasion of Jamaishasthi( a feast prevalent among Hindus in Bengal in honour of son-in- law)

In 1818, on the occasion of Jamaishashti, the Bandopadhyay family of Telenipara, Chandernagore sent a request to Surjya Moira that they wanted us to prepare a sweet which will surprise their son-in-law. The first step was creation of a Talshansh sandesh (a sandesh/ sweet shaped like the kernel of a palm). The dice for this Talshansh Sandesh was invented by Surjya Modak’s grandson, Lalit Mohan Modak who was an experienced hand. In those times Siddheswar Modak(Lalit Mohan Modak’s father) used to run the shop. The dice (shaped like kernel of a palm) was filled with Kara-Pak (slightly harder vesion of cooked chchana) sandesh to which rose-water flavoured sugar syrup was added. In those days sugar syrup was made of dolo chini(a variety of locally produced sugar). This sweet was sent to the Gangopadhyay family. When the son- in- law was offered this sweet, the moment he bit into it the water spilled over this clothes. Following this incident Jalbhara Sandesh became popular. Then orders came on pouring in and Surjya Modak became famous for introducing Jalbhara. Jalbhara Talshansh Sandesh was its real name. Now it is popularly known as Jalbhara Sandesh. Our Jalbhara Sandesh is unique as the “water” does not dry up”. In my several interviews with Saibal Kumar Modak we have discussed why Surjya Kumar Modak is credited with the invention of Jalbhara considering his grandson Lalit Mohan Modak had prepared the dice. Again he alluded to the fact that everyone in the area knew the product was available at Surjyi Moira’s shop.  So next time you want to try out give into your sweet temptations visit Jalbhara Surjya Modak for Jalbhara Sandesh, Motichur Pak. They even sell Mango filled Jalbhara. Since the shelf life of Bengali sweets is short put on your shoes and take a tour of this former French Colony and finish off with a visit to this legendary shop.

Address of the shop: 247, G.T.Road ( East) , Barasat , Chandernagore,Hooghly : 712136 West Bengal ( India ).Phone No : (033) 2683 5640

Other details regarding the shop is available on the following website

http://www.jalbharasurjyamodak.com

© itiriti

Please visit the following article on Surjya Modak

http://yummraj.com/2012/11/02/surjya-kumar-modak-chandannagore-west-bengal/.

Boys don’t CRY but men can COOK

Every time I watched Sanjeev Kapoor dishing out the delicacies in the age old Khana Khazana on ZEE TV with my mom, I remember one of my aunt’s commenting, “He has made cooking a fashionable profession”. Well, though I frowned at the comment and considered it my moral responsibility to defend my Master Chef who taught me how to make pasta from the scratch and introduced me to Rajasthani food I could not believe how could my aunt did not appreciate cooking as a profession. What is it about “cooking” that divides the public and the private? What it is about “cooking” that makes it an optional choice and not a natural choice of profession to be taken up even after the seven fantastic schools and a centralised exam by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. With the mushrooming of hotel management institutes across the country with a boom in tourism we need trained professionals for service and cooking. The entire discipline of hospitality management among in middle class households of mine remains a second option and not a first option.  Why do we always want our kids to be engineers, doctors and teachers?

The social norms of inclusion and exclusion in professional sector are premised on a gendered notion of “masculine” and “feminine” attributes.  Though we have a number of successful female engineers it remains a distant dream or far- fetched to see a group of women working in technology factories. While on one hand the social rules of exclusion of women is based on jobs that are feminine, basically jobs that do not require you to flex your muscles. Similarly for men the social pressure is to join profession that requires flexing of muscles and most importantly professions that embodies “masculine” performances. Hence the photos of industrialisation always show mining engineers with the caps standing in a row. The gendered socialisation and preference for men to take on “public” responsibilities have left them spoilt for choices to do public service so men who can cook, wash and clean are an exception to that said norm. So we constantly come up with appreciative gestures for men who can cook “Gosh… he knows how to cook”, “How sweet of him to cook for you”, “He actually knows to cook biryani”.

Born and brought up in a family where my father made the morning tea I did not realise the gendered socialisation till I encountered men who would eat out rather than make arrangements for cooking in home. While men have occupied public spaces in cooking it still remains a far fetched dream and aspiration for many working women to see their husbands come back and join them shoulder to shoulder in chopping vegetables, cooking them and even sharing the washing. Some of course are rare exceptions like my father who never expected that his wife should be at the beck and call whenever he was hungry. He dished out some of the amazing chicken and spicy ladies finger. He cribbed about the fact in public that he could not make Roti/Chapatti. On a similar note when I see one of my brothers in law helping out my cousin in cooking responsibilities I wonder with pride that these men know to respect the space of “kitchen”. They have no frills of making that afternoon tea to wake you up or washing the bowl of the dirty mixer. Even after being socialised to think that they will have food on their table cooked by women they have learned to cook for themselves and their family. My father taught me to appreciate food to satiate my appetite. He told me it is a sin to go hungry because you cant cook and cooking will not make you less of a man and woman. It is a creative art.  It can be taken up as a hobby, passion. 

 Strangely, my father taught me to cook for myself a lovely chicken recipe and a mix veg omelette in my first cooking lesson which I have recreated over the years and now have my own version. Here it goes.

S.D’s special chicken

You can take 500 gms of chicken pieces and marinate them in 150 gms of curd, a pinch of salt, half a spoon of pepper powder, 1 table spoon of ginger garlic paste and some freshly grounded roasted cardamom for thirty minutes. After that slice onions (say of 200 gms ) finely and fry them in a wok with a generous amount of mustard oil with some roasted and crushed cinnamon till the onions turn golden but not crisp. Spread out the onions to a plate and let it cool for 5 min and add the onions to the marinated chicken and keep in for another ten minutes. After allowing it to marinate for ten minutes add the entire marinated chicken to the oil after tempering it with whole garam masala ( if possible avoid cloves). Stir it gently till the oil separates and the chicken become tender. If you want the chicken dish to have a red colour add a pinch of sugar and let it caramelise to which you can add kashmiri mirch powder for the fiery colour. When the oil separates you can add poppy seed paste (always ground poppy seeds by adding green chillies and pinch of salt) to the dish and boil for five minutes. Empty it to a bowl and finish off with freshly chopped coriander leaves and slices if ginger.

Omlette for Sunday Brunch

Take two eggs. Chop one medium sized tomato, half of a medium sized onion, green chillies, one capsicum. Whisk the eggs with a half a spoon of milk, salt and pepper. Add one table spoon of oil to the frying pan and spread out half of the egg spread and when it is half cooked add the veggies . To this you can add cheese( grated); this dish tastes best with bandel cheese( a locally produced cheese available in new market, Kolkata. Please remember to add pinch of salt as the cheese has salty taste. Add the remaining egg spread and cook it for 1 min. Slice the omlette and you will have a gooey mix of veggies and cheese egg omelette, a perfect way to enjoy a late Sunday breakfast with your Sunday news paper. Do not forget to have the omlette with your freshly brewed coffee/ tea.

© itiriti

A hearty meal

What is a hearty meal?  A low diet, cholesterol free food that keeps your heart beat in normal pace or a heartbeat racing recipe with everything in excess. While minimalism seems to dictate the terms and conditions of most of the silhouettes; we also have our frenzies for dollops of full cream on our hot chocolate fudge; fetish for picking up a full cream milk for that lavish payesh garnished with dry fruits or for that chocolate excess. Excess meals are globally acclaimed to curb and aid depressed patients. They are supposed to be instant tonics for bringing a smile across old age groups. “Excess” in meals has always been associated with eating out. And multinational food chains across the globe has managed to cash onto people’s fetish for “excess” to introduce a category of  customers always in constant search for excess through those “add on” options to our pizza, burger and even fried chicken. But are “add-on”s a way to define “hearty meal”?

Personally a hearty meal would be one where I enjoy the food in a social gathering. A social recluse for instance would call himself/ herself  a social animal when he/she goes dining out and enjoys a hearty meal with dollops of meaty conversations with that perfect punch of  pepper, salt and sugar to finish it off.  So a hearty meal has to be with likeminded people who share your appetite beyond the table that is laid out. The hearty meal is bonding and rebounding of lost souls, lost friends and unexpected encounters. The unexpected encounters with new cuisines in hearty meals can be excess. But excess of laughter can satiate the extra calories we gulp in every bite of the hearty meal.  Hearty meals are successful in small groups when you do not have to strain your ear to hear the person at the far end of the table.  While I have enjoyed hearty meals with friends in most of the metroes in India my favourite hearty meals of late has been in Bangalore thanks to my cousin, her husband and my friends. My top picks of hearty meals places in Bangalore are :-

Breakfast:  When you want to treat yourself to a hearty weekday breakfast away from home and hotel buffet try out the delicacies @ Koshy’s. If you are bored of breads and eggs and for all my vegetarian friends you can have a lazy breakfast of luchi, alur dam and cholar dal at K.C Das, St. Marks Road from 9.30 am onwards. On Sunday please ensure you reach early.

Lunch : Bheema’s on Church Street truly represents “excess”. Specialising in Andhra Cuisine this place offers carrier meals which can serve up to three people. A great place if you have a mix of vegetarian and non vegetarian friends.

Coffee : Indian Coffee Home, Church Street. Simple, great filter coffee to keep you awake in the pleasant weather of Bangalore

Dinner: Sorry this section is dedicated to all the meat eaters. My two picks are steak places tucked away in two busy parts of the town but you will love the ambience and food once you hit there. First and foremost, I would recommend The Only Place, tucked away in Museum Road. Please try out the section on fish and for all those who are brave enough and really hungry can head straight for the steak by the name “A hearty meal”.  One great thing about this place is that it is at a walking distance from St. Marks road and yet enjoys a quite ambience. The place is not pretentious and fancy. Even on a weekday you might have to wait but it is worth the wait. Love their steaks, and their desserts are worth a try.

My second pick under this section is Millers 46, near Cunningham Road. The restaurant is for the brave and prosperous souls who are willing to dig into steaks. It is a popular joint  and it is a beef lover’s paradise and when we say “well done” they do it really well. The beef is cooked to perfection and for the frail hearted please avoid this place. Please book a table in advance to avoid the rush and enjoy steak to the fullest.

© itiriti

Straight from the book

Like many people; I am a flipkart addict.  I have to browse flipkart at least thrice a day and the list of books to purchase have increased over the time.  I have a friend of mine who has travelled a long way from making the most innovative cheesy Maggie and scrambled eggs to all that tickles her taste buds. She and I have always bonded over our love for food and recipe books. Since our school days our taste buds have rarely failed to betray us till a recent glitch when I complemented a friend that she had made delicious chutney with the dosa and she politely reminded me on a social networking site that she had forgotten to add the salt.  Keeping aside this embarrassment and barring a few such dramatic encounters with my failed senses I have fared pretty well in what a microbiologist would call “sensory evaluation”.  

Early reminiscences of my sensory evaluation days began with my maa( Bengali word for mother)’s weekend experiments with Bengali food. Her all time favourite was Beladi’s cookbooks. She used to follow Beladi’s tips for preparing exciting tiffins for me, she used them to make interesting Sunday lunches and to top it all she used them to bake cakes.  My mother closely followed the recipes of Bela Dey’s book Jol Khabar ( Bengali word for snacks and tiffin) and her columns in a Bengali Newspaper Bartaman. While she tried most of the recipes to her satisfaction she regrets that she never tried Mushroom Pakora as she did not know how to clean mushrooms and prepare them.  We stayed in an industrial township where even paneer was a luxury in my childhood. When she came to visit my small pad and discovered a packet of mushrooms stacked away in the refrigerator she told me that she will pass on a simple, easy to make recipe when I visit her. The recipe is easy and quick to make. Despite her insistence to photocopy the section on snacks from her prized possession of Jal Khabar I forgot to get a photocopy.

One fine day when I bought a packet of mushrooms and was fiddling with it and wondering what to prepare for some friends  I googled  Bela Dey and realised that a website has some of her recipes from the book Jal Khabar. I was elated that I could whisk away some of the snacks from my childhood evenings during tea breaks. And even my mother’s favourite mushroom pakora. The link is as follows

http://kolkata.streetprint.org/items/11362?authors=Bela+Dey

For all non- Bengali readers you can leave a personal message and I can translate some of the mouth-watering snacks that Bela Dey pens here. The list of snacks available on the above link are  Kucho Nimki (Small Namkeens), Shaker Bara ( Pakora made from Saag/ Greens), Egg-Bread Pakora, Chicken Pakora, Egg Pakora, Egg-Tomato Pakora, Paneer Pakora and Mushroom Pakora.

The genesis of cookbooks is varied and specific to each culture. Cookbooks represent our and their time. In fact coming to Bengali cook books some of the oldest cook books in Bengal and the way food was coded with nationalist identity, the authentic and creation of a “Bengali” middle class is evident in a fascinating essay by Utsa Ray titled “Aestheticising labour: an affective discourse of cooking in colonial Bengal” South Asian History and Culture,1:1:60-70. In this essay Utsa Ray discusses the genesis of Bengali cook books and how the aesthetics were cooking was seen as an integral component of creation of modern Bengali woman. While the “domestic” hearth in colonial times remained in the hands of women who needed to be trained in the aesthetics of cooking “Bengali” and other cuisines; the public/ commercial kitchens were manned by professional cooks/ men popularly known as thakurs (preferably Brahmins from Orissa) who were specially invited to cook a meal during special occasions. Initially it was the male culturalogues who dictated how women should have spacious kitche, and observe kitchen hygiene. Latter the print capitalism aided women to voice their concerns relating food in the public domain through recipe books. One of the important landmarks in the history of documentation of Bengali recipes date back to Bamabodhini, (from 1884) a periodical meant for women. Similarly Mahila another woman’s journal also published recipes from 1895. But what defined the journey of woman’s cookbook was PragyaSundari Debi’s two volumes of Amish and Niramish Ahar( Two Volumes on Vegetarian and Non-  Vegetarian cooking). She was the editor of the  journal Punya.

While Pragya Sundari Debi’s cook books describe the art of Bengali cooking it is significant to see how the cookbooks represent the changing times. The changing times of measurement scales, the changing times of taste and culinary skills, and most importantly the changing class. Every time I have to recommend a friend to try some “old”/”traditional” Bengali dishes I take out my PragyaSundari Debi volumes and go through the pages and reinvent the dishes using my quick fix options I wonder the effect and appeal these cookbooks must have had when it was published. In this context, Utsa Ray points out the way aesthetics of recipes was coded with “authentic” taste/ “authentic”. While the search for the authentic and reproduction of authentic goes hand in hand in public and private hearths it is important to understand the ways in which cookbooks capture the times of a by-gone era, the present and the future.

©itiriti

An ode to Julia/s: women who turned the tables around

Most of us must have watched Julia and Julia  and thought of buying the book The Art of French Cooking or have stacked the DVD copy of the movie for that Friday movie dinner at home. We must have found a meaning in the way Julia cooked and cooked for the family for the nation that survived on anything but home – made foods. What it is about food that bonds yet creates a difference between people? Julia to most of us is an inspiration to live life on our own terms. At this juncture I am reminded of a scene where Julia is practising to chop onions with precision after her male classmates give her a cold look as she slice her way through onions in Cordon Bleu.  Julia’s obsession with food and her husband’s keen interest in appreciating her taste, or search for her calling from making hats to going live on television for a food series shows the way relationships bond over food. Yet, when our blogger Julia becomes obsessed with her blog and her cooking deadlines  that she almost loses her husband.  

Julia/s represent the change in our times when we have taken resort to cooking as a hobby, passion or as a compulsion.  Today as we criticise Nigella for her erotica cooking style , or admire at the way Kylie Kwong, Ritu Dalmia cooks with precision those Chinese delicacies and Italian Delights I wonder was it an easy path for any these Julia/s?   For our blogger Julia we have thousands of bloggers blogging on foods they cook and encounter in their daily lives; each claiming to be unique, authentic and personal in their style and presentation. Recipes get shared with a click of a button. We admire and comment on food photographs that our friends put on social networking sites .  Each day a blogger wants to reach out through his or her culinary delights.   

While cooking on the domestic front has been socially accepted as a “feminine” routine;  the yearning among women to re-claim the public space/ the public eye and turn in the gaze of food and sexuality has to be re-thought. For a long time women enjoyed the smirk and coldness of professional kitchens because of the existing social divide between the “public” and “private” spaced that are to be carved intact.  Every time I watch Nigella cooking her chocolate sauce and licking her finger I wonder why it had to be telecasted. Why couldn’t it be edited? It’s almost like burping in public. 

Can Nigella’s licking her finger dripping with chocolate sauce be read as challenging a culture of exclusion where women are supposed to “behave” themselves. Is it supposed to mean that women can cook and eat like our Julia? Is it supposed to mean that women have the right to cook and eat for themselves? While Julia/s of our world have written many a recipe books, some recipe books are actually interesting in the way these recipe books become guiding tools to cook that “family” dinner. I was struck by the fact the other when I came across a book  titled  50 ways to get back your boyfriend.  Well we have come a long way from the days of Julia, the woman who made French cooking accessible for American households but are we not travelling back to our cocoons by creating recipes for that big family dinner where “women” should take that responsibility.  Every time somebody appreciates my cooking and comment that I will make it to a man’s heart through his stomach I gasp under my breath and mumble “Well, yeah… after all I am supposed to bring a smile to every foodie’s heart irrespective of his gender”.  

Why is it so difficult to tell and shout to the world as women, that we can cook for themselves like our Julia/s. Why does our protagonist in the Film Hour declines into depression at the sight of a burned cake thinking she has failed to be a good wife. Why are wives expected to know cooking? Why can’t we cook for  ourselves? Why are our table manners guided by the gendered norms of do’s and dont’s? Why can’t the waiter give the cheque book to us? As a single woman when I struggle to think of what should I make for breakfast I remember my mother who continues till date to lay out the breakfast table with the preferences of each of our family member I have never asked her if she likes any of the items that have been laid out. When I ask her if has ever cooked for herself she tells me with delight that she had once tried out a prawn cocktail with some left over prawns from lau chingri and some lettuce stored away from some dinner party.  She does not remember from where she got the prawn cocktail recipe. She did not use tobasco sauce. She churned up something for herself which can be prepared in 30 min.   Here goes Prawn cocktail in her style.

Steam 5-6 size medium size deveined prawns with a little bit of salt and keep it aside to cool while you make the sauce. Technically it should be made with mayonnaise and tobasco but in absence of both my mom used homemade sour cream with two table spoon hung curd, a little bit of tomato puree and red chilli flakes. To this she added a little bit of salt and sugar for taste. She remembers the tangy and fresh taste till date as she shares with me this recipe. She mixed the steamed prawns to this sauce; added some fresh cream and took out a glass bowl ( i would totally refrain from committing the sin of having prawn cocktail in a bowl) spread out a bed of lettuce and then the prawns and finished it off with a slice of lime and pudina leaf on a winter afternoon reading a magazine.

©itiriti

Welcome to ITIRITI

Food is much more than cooking and eating – a way of life. This blog will have three sections: Coding food ( reflections on the social and symbolic meanings of food, cooking and eating), Eating Out ( review column of culinary journeys) and Sweet Trails(anecdotes from my field diary on “Bengali” sweets).

Yours Truly

Itiriti