Khichuri – labra to Soyabhog : shifting contours of Bhog cultures

Bhog is the cooked food that is offered in Hindu rituals in India. Traditionally ( and even now) people queued up to receive the blessed food (prasad). With time, the prasad was made accessible to devotees through advanced online bookings across various websites.  Most of these prasad bookings are restricted to items that are hugely popular.  For instance laddus of Siddhivinayak Temple, Maharashtra can be pre-booked and devotes can get a home delivery of  Aravana Payasam  prepared from jaggery, ghee and a special variety of rice called Unakkalari(red coloured raw rice) of Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple through DTDC. The temple economy has pervaded the net through advanced bookings of such offerings and attractive deals offering combinations of various prasad is also available in some web-portals.

Like other regions bhog has been an integral component of Bengali Hindu rituals. Mandar Mukhopadhay in his article “Jogbiyoggunbhag” published in Robbar, Pratidin1  recounts several bhog which were particularly famous – bhog offered in Radhakanta temple , ras-bhog ( food offered during ras, a festival celebrated in the full moon night of kartik/ October- November, an annual festival celebrating  Lord Krishna’s desire to dance), “nanda-bhog” and “pancham doler bhog” (bhog offered during Holi-the festival of colours). Bhog, as Mandar Mukhopadhyay recounts was not only prepared in temple complexes but also prepared in households. Notions of purity and pollution and codes of preparation were rather strict. Reminiscing about bhog preparation in households, Mandar Mukhopadhyay mentions that the cooking area was splashed with cow-dung water and mopped neatly before cooking. Bell metal cookware was washed with tamarind pulp and ashes from the clay oven used to cook vegetarian food.  Women were responsible for bhog preparation. Usually senior women were in charge of bhog preparation probably to maintain notions of purity associated with food offered in Hindu rituals. In Bengal, women during their menstrual cycle were refrained from taking part in Hindu rituals, so I am assuming similar practices were followed in bhog preparation as well.

Annabhog or rice based bhog is cooked in Brahmin households.  The codes of prohibition around food prohibited a Brahmin to consume anna / rice from non Brahmin households hence there existed a practice of  preparing luchi ( round discs of fried fluffy bread from flour) in non-Brahmin households. Mahendranath Dutta in his book Kolikatar Puraton Kahini O Pratha (1929) recounts experiences from his childhood days when Brahmin households served rice-based meals because everybody could eat at Brahmin households2.  Similarly Kayastha household n Dutta’s account served Luchi- based meals.

Each household had their own speciality. For instance I loved the jora ilish and rice bhog that was offered during Lakshmi Puja in a neighbouring household.3 Similarly, I  miss the Luchi- Suji ( Semolina prepared with ghee and sugar) bhog that is offered in Janmasthami in our household . One item that is commonly associated with bhog across festivals is khichudi (one meal dish prepared from rice, pulse and vegetables eaten with fritters and chutney).

With Durga Puja around the corner, bhog is one integral component. The journey of Durga Puja from household to community-centric has re-shaped bhog preparation and distribution as well. In Kolkata, Puja organisers arrange for home delivery of bhog in neighbourhoods. Some bhog staples are khichudi, labra (a mish mash of seasonal vegetables) and chutney( a tomato based tangy preparation). Some organisers have replaced labra with alur dom (a potato based curry). Runny khichudi and labra are my favourite.

In Delhi, Mumbai, the puja organisers serve “bhog” on Saptamai, Ashtami, Navami. Special arrangements are made for senior citizens so that they don’t have to stand in the long queues. Hence it is of no wonder that the food giants are making their way to sponsor such initiatives. If you are in Kolkata and your puja committee has collaborated with Nutrela you might find Nutrela products blended in your puja bhog. This year, Nutrela has started a new initiative: Nutrela Mahapujor Mahabhog with a vision to introduce “soya bhog” in Durga Puja palate. They have selected 26 clubs across Kolkata and will award “Nutrela Mahapujor Mohabhog” title to  the Puja committee who manages to whisk up a delicious bhog using Nutrela products. This is a new dimension of corporatisation of Durga Puja and bhog-culture.

Time will tell if soya bhog can go along with labra and alur dom!


1          Mandar Mukhopadhyay (2013) “Jogbiyoggunbhog” Robbar, Pratidin, 6 October 2013. Pp 28-31.

2          Mahendranath Dutta (1929) Kolikatar Puraton Kahini O Pratha . Kolkata: The Mahendra Publishing Committee.

3      This practice was common in Bangal (East- Bengal) households. In some households, raw Hilsa was offered and later cooked and distributed. Some offered cooked hilsa as well.


Cooking shows on Indian Television

People bond over food. A nice meal brings people together and a wrong delivery fosters friendship between two strangers.  The film The Lunch Box is an account of dabbawalas (lunch box carriers in Mumbai), a wife’s trials to restore communication with her husband by cooking his favourite items and a heart rendering tale of Despande aunty who helps out her neighbour with her spices and tips J. Well I am not going to review The Lunch Box.  Instead a scene where Ila listens to a radio show on recipes kept me thinking of how food shows have changed on Indian Television.  It would be really nice if some researcher works on this area.

We have been witness to the success of Chef Sanjeev Kapoor who appeared on ZEE’s food show Khana Khazana which is now a channel in itself hosting an array of shows on food and cooking. Khana Khazana’s success as a cookery show paved way for the vernacular channels to have their own shows.   Zee’s Khana Khazana was an eye –opener for many of us who depended on recipes from magazines, newspaper columns or recipe books. In fact, I was surprised to find a recipe of ravioli in my mother’s recipe book few years back.  When I asked her from where she got the recipe she said “Why Sanjeev Kapoor?” Sanjeev Kapoor’s kitchen tips were hugely popular among my aunts as well.  They also discussed fondly the neat table top where Kapoor chopped his vegetables, and the latest kitchen appliances used in Kapoor’s kitchen were an instant hit, particularly non-stick frying pans and pots.

While Kapoor’s kitchen gave a peek into the “professional” side of kitchen activities, shows like Ajker Ranna ( What to cook Today) on DD Bangla are an evidence of the camera travelling to the households and documenting the recipes from the homemaker’s hearth.  Viewers had to write in with their recipes and the lucky one would get to dish out the chosen recipe. Unlike today’s designer sponsored sets the shooting mostly took place within the premises of the kitchen or the kitchen set-up would be re-created in a room perfect for shooting.  The personalised setting of this show appealed to the viewers. While formerly viewers had to write in specially designed “competition postcards” sold by the Postal Department for Rs 3; now viewers can mostly email, and send videos of recipes to production houses.

Post Khana Khazana success, vernacular channels realised the potential of cookery shows. Cookery shows not only tied up with food products, kitchen appliance companies but also encouraged the spread of modular kitchen. One such show on Bengali Television has been Kutchina sponsored Rannaghar in Zee Bangla.  Literally meaning “kitchen”, this show invited the viewers to contribute recipes and the lucky one got to cook and share his/her life story in this show. The kitchen in its former years (before the spread of modular kitchen) was a dream place to cook. Apart from the neatly hung pots and pans to various kinds of serving bowls (in one of the episodes anchor recalled instances when viewers  sent in notes of appreciation for certain kinds of serving bowls), the “kutchina chimney” which was the point of attraction.  People from all walks of life are invited to cook in this show and these shows have become sites of film promotions as well.

Cookery shows were taken to new levels with introduction of  24 hour food channels on Indian Television, particularly Khana Khazana and Food Food . Round the clock cookery shows not only specialise in regional cuisines of India but international cuisines as well. Innovative formats of the shows; coupled with availability of ingredients (thanks to our supermarkets!) have made these shows popular.

What is your favourite show? Do let me know. Till then, cook like a star.

Some interesting articles


Food Factory

Suruchi Mazumdar is an epircurian and I got to know her over a dinner at Assam Bhavan, Delhi. She is currently pursuing doctoral research in Singapore and has been a journalist in India.

In this guestpost she takes itiriti readers on a tour of Canteens of NTU which she calls ‘the culinary heaven’.  Happy reading!

A cousin who had just become a mother had once told me, “I forget the pains of life and hardships of the world when I look at my baby.” Not long after I too experienced similar feelings – and not once but many times over five years. In my case the surge of emotions fortunately did not entail the effort of motherhood. But the world suddenly seemed very beautiful and I felt blessed every time I entered a favourite canteen at my university in Singapore. The culinary heaven, otherwise also known as NTU, where I spent past few years in graduate programmes, hosts countless canteens – more than 17 approximately (plus numerous restaurants and cafes) – across its expansive campus that serve delightful food round the clock.

I was among the rare breed of fortunate graduate students for whom the key part of higher education entailed the joy of discovering new canteens across a beautiful campus and trying out new specialities every now and then. I became a woman of many loves and loyalties, a woman who had many choices and who felt torn between her choices in times of appetite. For instance, when New World Canteen opened sometime back I felt naturally drawn towards its Chinese stall. I stood spellbound in the queue as chef-cum-waiters kneaded ramen (hand-made Chinese noodles) out of flour mound in playful artistry in the open kitchen. The scene was straight out of one of National Geographic Channel’s exotic food shows. The extraordinariness of my experience was primarily because this extravagance was not a rare/occasional affair but a part of my very “mundane” (well!) existence as a graduate student. I loved my beef ramen – hand-made noodles in a clear beef stew. But as succulent pieces of tender beef melted in my mouth I almost always felt guilty – guilty of ignoring good old canteen 1, another paradise of Chinese food in the campus. I missed the cheerful owner-cum-waitress at a stall in canteen 1 that used to be known as Local Delight and offered delicacies from the mainland. The waitress, who came from the mainland and spoke no English, served me the stall’s popular pick Ban Mian – minced pork balls and poached egg in hot noodle soup. She never forgot that I loved my Ban Mian with a sprinkle of dry fish.

Eating out at no-fuss food courts, comprising of hawker-run stalls, is fairly common in Singapore. The food courts that comprise of hawker-run stalls are a conspicuous feature and somewhat represent the globalised city-state’s signature culinary culture and local heritage. The canteens – which are like a microcosm of the food courts – host stalls around large semi-circular courtyards. The options include Indonesian, Nasi Padang (Malay), Japanese, Korean, Chinese (Beijing, Sichuan, Hong Kah or Hong Kong) and Indian (Singaporean Tamil and common north Indian varieties) fare. The stalls are renovated every now and then for quality food service.

While compulsory renovations usually meant better options of food and services, the process also translated to great personal losses. I permanently lost favourite stalls and relationships with the owner-chef-waiters – many of them very elderly, and fondly addressed by students as aunties and uncles. For instance, when I recently went to canteen B after a long term break I was pleasantly surprised. The service of the canteen had been outsourced to Koufu, one of the three market players that monopolised the local hawker food business. The much-loved siew mai (traditional Chinese dumplings), meat-stuffed big and small buns (pau), spring rolls and crispy prawn dumplings were on the menu, thanks to the outsourcing. But cute Malay aunties and their old Nasi Padang stall were missing from canteen B. I found out later that some stall owners who lost their business because of Koufu found employment in other canteens. But I never knew if our Malay aunties could still serve their signature delightful coconut-flavoured yellow chicken curry and the spicy sting ray fish, the old stall’s all-time favourites, eaten with rice.

With the food being subsidised, a decent meal (including juices/ beverages) would come for about 5-6 SGD (approximately Rs 225-260) or lesser. Some canteens are costlier than others. Extravagant foodies like me routinely spent more than graduate students’ standard budget of food. Finally, at the heart of this personal story of epicurean pleasure and culinary indulgence clearly works a certain process of professionalisation and bureaucratisation in a system that seeks to offer the best service to customers – in this case students. This principle (corporatisation) that sums up the spirit of many ‘global’ campuses in present times has translated to a meticulously-planned localised outcome in our campus – great food across great canteens. And some of us were spoilt!