Sweet-tooth

For a long time I have been browsing the bookstores in Kolkata for a recipe book on sweets. On a self –reflexive note I remember with pleasure the sweet delicacies that were prepared post Durga Puja celebrations, i.e., the Bijoya Dashami. Bijoya Dashami marks the last day of Durga Puja when the idols are immersed in the Ganges which is followed by exchange of sweets.

Sitting in the cubicle of library I remember with fondness the smell of molasses and grated coconut which my mother cooked with care for those perfect “nadus” which were to be offered to the Goddess during the Puja which would then be offered to the guests who came to commemorate Bijoya Dashami. The celebrations of Bijoya Dashami has now moved beyond the confines of kitchen and has hit the shopfloor of sweet shops hence the homemade delicacies like Nimki, Elojhelo and Nadu are stacked in piles in various sweetshops to be sold to celebrate Bijoya Dashami.

Having spent a considerable time in an industrial township I had the pleasure of being treated to many Bijoya Dashami delicacies. There was a sheer joy in being invited to the households post play -time and being offered mutton ghugni, and sweets. Nimki, was a common item in the households and often kids preferred wearing frocks/ pants with pockets to stock them for the snack time post supper. And of course there were sweets of all shapes and sizes. To my delight, my mother thought that the best way to pass on some of these sweet treasures by gifting me a book “Mistikatha” a collection of sweet recipes by Jayasree Mukhoadhyay. Though I have not tried any recipes as of now but it will surely help me to put together a Bijoya Dashami get-together and a Poush Parbon platter without any glitches.

Mukhopadhyay, J. 2010. Mishtimukh. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers Private Limited

The recipe book is divided into three sections. In Section I, Jayasree Mukhopadhyay documents “Dokane Toire Misthi” (Sweets prepared in shops). In this section she moves beyond rosogolla and shares with her readers recipes of Kanchagolla (a round shaped sandesh made of slow cooked chchana), Misti Doi (Sweet Curd) etc. The second section is dedicated to home-made sweets. This section is particularly interesting as it will introduce the novice cooks like us to sweet delicacies which could be prepared for the Bijoya Dashami evening and for a special get together to celebrate Poush Parbon(Harvest Festival) in December. For that perfect Bijoya Dashami evening you could stack up some Misti kucho Gaja, Elojhelo, Jibe gaja and Bhaja Malpua. And for that once in a while sweet cravings post dinner you can quickly prepare some Malpua out of sweet potato or even whisk away some Rasbara. Jayasree Mukhopadhyay successfully introduces to us a variety of Pithe ( stuffed steamed sweet cakes made of rice flour) like Ranga Alur Bhaja Pithe ( Fried Sweet cake made from Sweet Potato), Bhapa Pithe( Steamed Rice Cake), Raspuli( Rice Cake dipped in sugar syrup), etc. For all those who struggle with Palm based sweets usually offered during Janmashtami she guides us through sweet delicacies like Talksheer, Taler Bara, Taler Luchi, Tal Diye Malpua, etc. In the last section of the book she presents sweet recipes from other parts of the country.

So in case you are nervous about the Bijoya Dashami and Poush Parbon celebration get hold of the book to take you through the sweet moments. Happy cooking!

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Genesis of foods that we call our own- Pau Roti, to Kanch Kala Kofta

As a child I looked forward to my brownie points visit to Nahoums, Kolkata. Nahoums and Sons, is a confectionery shop now run by David Nahoum.  Since its inception i.e., 1902 and tucked away in Hogg market of New market it offers the city’s best brownies. The facebook page on Nahoums’ has the following description

“Only gentlemen prefer Nahoum’s. This perhaps may sound bit of an exaggeration but there is no second confectionery in India that makes better baclava, cream rolls or fruit cakes. Now run by David Nahoum, the grandson of Nahoum Israel Mordecai, who came to Calcutta from Iraq in 1870, the confectionery takes anyone with a heart back to days when life was simpler, people had time to chitchat”.

This Jewish bakery has also introduced Calcuttans to the taste of Cheese Filled Sambusak and Cholla bread. The culinary scape of Kolkata has benefitted from the migrant communities and for the first time The Calcutta Cookbook: A Treaury of Recipes from Pavement to Palace (1995) by Minakshie Das Gupta, Bunny Gupta and Jaya Chaliha from the Penguin Books brings to the readers “a treasury of recipes from pavement to palace”. The book is useful not only for novice cooks, efficient cooks or experimental cooking but it also traces the culinary history of Kolkata beyond the kitchen which makes it an interesting book for those working on  anthropology of food. 

The book begins with a collection of recipes which people ate before Job Charnock landed in Kolkata.  What I love is that they actually pen down the recipe of Gota Siddho ( Casserole of Whole Moong Beans and Vegetables) which is eaten during Saraswati Puja ( celebrated on the occasion of Basant Panchami) to Anda Halwa.

The book is divided into Eight Chapters. The book holds the reader through a pre-colonial history and philosophy of food (chapter 1) to a genealogy of bengali ranna ( bengali cooking) in chapter 2 and shows the way the way how the palate of Calcutta is enriched by the migrant influences from chapter 3-7 and finally chapter 8 shows how tables turned around the elaborate meal to buffet, brunch and baked beans to cope with post war time food luxuries.

The second chapter is called Bangla Ranna where the authors describe the everyday life of a Bengali in Kolkata- where “fish itself is eaten from top to tail. The head is cooked with dal or rice. The Bengali believes that the Fish head adds to his grey matter. The tail and bones are fried into delectable chachchari with herbs and red pumpkin”. (pp 29) “… Thrift is an integral part of Bengali cooking. In this land of plenty, the good housewife is loth to throw away any part f a fish or vegetable” (pp29). In this preface to the collection of recipes the authors introduces the readers to the kitchen of a bengali household, cooking utensils, methods of cooking and most importantly shows how “eating is a ritual”(pp37).  Next follows a collection of vegetarian and non-vegetarian recipes in a Bengali household. The collection is rich and varied, you can take your pick to cook up a Bengali feast.

The third chapter is called Dastar Khwan which traces the history and recipes of Kebabs, Kalia and Qorma in Kolkata. “Muslim Cooking came to Calcutta’s Chitpur. The air around was redolent with the aromatic mixtures of Amburi and Badashah Pasand tobacco briquettes and kebabs turning on charcoal fires in front of walk-in eating houses on Chitpur road, once the only link between the town and Delhi.”(pp101). Infact the authors indicate that after the fall of Murshidabad, with Nawab of Bengal Zafar Ali’s entry to Kolkata the nawabi food. The abundance of fish and vegetables compelled the nawabi cooks to dish out Jackfruit Korma and Kancha Kala Kofta out of plaintains.  The recipes are user friendly. Best picks are of course Halim and Paya.

The scene now moves to the recipes and treasures that the Firinghees brought from Iberian Peninsula, northern Europe, France, Greece, the British Isles, and Asia Minor. Firstly the Portuguese arrived an settled on the banks of the river building “Catholic churches in the grey quarter of the town adjoining English Tank Square settlement, the pukka white quarter. Many of them came from Goa and Goan cooking added zest to the culinary fare of Calcutta” (pp148).  Apart from introducing Sorpotel, one of the greatest contributions is locally produced cheese popularly called Bandel Cheese. “The small discs of salted smoked Bandel cheese were probably made by the Mog cooks under Portuguese supervision. The cheese is now made in Calcutta and sold as Bandel cheese in two shops in the famous not-so-new New Market”. (pp148) They were followed by the Dutch who settled in Chinsurah and then came the French who again chose Chandernagore. The most important contribution of French till date remains pau roti (loaf of bread). “Pau is said to be the corruption of Pain, the French word for bread. Pau, however, is the Hindi word for feet which leads others to believe that, as with the grapes in the vineyards of France, the huge quantities of dough were kneaded by stamping feet. But in fact Pau is the Portuguese word for loaf of bread” (pp151-152). This chapter also traces the contribution of Armenians, Jews and the British to the city’s social life through culinary ventures.

The richness of the book lies in the culinary ventures of colonial Calcutta that the authors have traced and collected and brought into the forefront. One of the city’s heritage is the colonial past which continues to reproduce itself in the way city’s postcolonial “dining out” has been shaped.  If one takes a look at the city’s long lost Great Eastern Hotel, Peter Cat, and the series of restaurants that occupy the centre stage in Parkstreet and different pockets of this postcolonial city we cannot deny the influence of the migrants that the city’s palate have had and this is what makes this book an interesting read. Steeped in the social history of Bengal, the book takes you through a journey of the “food” conquests of Bengal. A must read and a must have for all those who share a passion for culinary history of Calcutta and for those who want to re-create and re-live some of the recipes from history.

©itiriti

Bengali Cookbooks-I

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.)

 
 Tempering the oil

Peper Ghanta (Papaya Ghanta)

©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