Debi Chaudhurani, Renuka. (Sep 2007 2nd ed). Rakamari Niramish Ranna. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers Private Limited.
When I had started to pen down this blog almost a month back my first post was an ode to Julia Childe and I had said that its time to salute women who turned the tables around. I had also blogged about Beladi, and the prized possession of her cookbooks that are stacked neatly in my mother’s book shelf. Today I picked up another stalwart of the cookbook genre Renuka Debi Chaudhurani from whom many novices like me can cook without batting an eyelid.
Renuka Debi Chaudhurani’s book “Rakamari Niramish Ranna” was first published by Surbarnarekha in 1988 and later it was taken over by Ananda Publishers Private Limited. Till date it remains one of my personal favourite reads and guidebook as far as Bengali vegetarian cooking is concerned.
About Renuka Debi Chaudhurani : From what we know from this second edition is that she was born on 31 July 1909 in Baghber, Maymansingh ( present day Bangladesh ). She was married in 1921 and moved to her in-laws house in Muktagachcha. Her husband was Dhirendranath Lahiri Chaudhuri who was the elected representative of undivided Bengal at the Central Legislative Assembly.
The introduction to the volume of Rakamari Niramish Ranna is a social history of Bengal, and it moves between home and the world. She gives us a glimpse of her life under “purdah”, she gives us a glimpse of the political scenario and her wit is explicit in the way she narrates an incident about the famous cook Rudrada from whom our legendary author has learnt many a recipes. On one occasion when Sarojini Naidu and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru visited her husband’s house in Delhi, Rudrada was the head cook of the Delhi household. Overwhelmed by the presence of two political leaders Rudrada made his way and told Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, “Apnar Leg e Sir Amake Dibo. Desher Kaaje Amake Nen”. (If we literally translate, I am willing to work under your feet. I want to work for the country). Such anecdotes are a refreshing to the book. The richness of the book lies in the simplicity of the recipes and elegance of the cooking in itself.
The book is divided into 35 sections and each section has almost close to minimum twenty recipes. The range of choices it offers to new generation cooks like me is as varied from “Poda” ( Roasts) to Poush – Parbone Pithe puli (Sweet dishes cooked during harvest festival in December ) to Jalkhabar ( Snacks). My all time favourite sections of this book remain Ghanta- Sukta- Jhol, Ghanta and Jhol. These three sections are dedicated to all of those who stare at the vegetable basket and rake their brains for hours to come up with an authentic Bengali vegetable dish. Cooking vegetarian food in Bengali through Renuka Debi Chaudhani’s senses seems like an easy task. Moment one hears Ghanta, one feels like running away from kitchen to hide as it reminds one of the dollops of ghee, garam masala that might go onto people’s palates but it is not quite so as the recipes indicate.
What we learn from here is that “Ghanta” ( a should be pronounced as o) can be both spicy and non-spicy. And this is what makes it simple, easy to cook and something you can reproduce without venturing out into the market.In my house there is a close affinity towards raw papaya. Whenever I see that green vegetable popping from the vegetable basket in the refrigerator I try to keep it aside and wait for my stack of prawns.
Today Renuka Debi Chaudhurani came to my rescue to produce a simple dish by the name Peper Ghanta ( Papaya Ghanta). For this recipe you would need:Grated Raw Green Papaya (500gms), grated coconut (about half-cup),Soaked Moon Dal (50gms)2 table spoon mustard oil, 2 bay leaf, 1 dry red –chilli, a pinch of Kalo jeera (three names for this black caraway seed/ black sesame/ onion seed)*, 2 green chilli,1/2 cup milk, 1 tea spoon flour. Salt and sugar ( as per your taste).
Take a kadai( wok) and add mustard oil. Let it bubble for some time and add dry red chilli, Kalo jeera*, and bay leaf . Once the aroma these ingredients hits your nose add the grated papaya and stir well. After that add salt and sugar and keep stirring nicely till it is semi-cooked. After that add soaked moong dal , add water and let it cook till the dal and papaya are cooked. There should be no excess water. To this add the mixture of half cup milk and flour and finish it off with grated coconut, 2-3 slit green chillies and ghee for that aroma. Serve piping hot with roti / parantha/ rice.
*According to Chitrita Banerjee “the seed referred to as kalojeera in Bengal has produced endless confusion in translation. It neither resembles cumin (jeera) in taste nor are thetwo botanically related. Some people also translate it as black caraway or black sesame. Native to the countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean, black cumin is small wedge shaped and naturally black. But when added to oil it releases a pungent odour very similar to that of onion. Hence another misnomer- onion seed! ( Source : Banerjee, Chitrita. 2001. The Hour of the Goddess. Memories of Women, Food and Ritual in Bengal. Calcutta: Seagull Books.)