Food for thought- Spice, Curry and More

For a long time I have been wondering to write a post on food blogs. The plethora of blogs in a way reinstates how the virtual medium is being used to make the private public. The kitchen which has been otherwise the domain of everyday life now has to be the site of production where cooking methods, photographs and copyrights will be claimed, contested, produced and reproduced. In other words, the otherwise chaotic kitchen space has been turned into the subject of “gaze”.

 The virtual world has brought our kitchen activities to the forefront where we flex our muscles to dish out authentic dishes, “cheat” on some ingredients ( like me) to give authentic dishes a personal touch or wonder at the sheer magnanimity and opulence of some of the photographs and writings from our fellow bloggers. In a nutshell the blogosphere is bustling with the joys of cooking. We monitor, organise this gaze as the anchor in our kitchen who decides on the menu, chalks out the things to be bought and also decides on what is to be sent to the waste box.

For instance when I started blogging I wanted to find ways to communicate and learn from people who write on food. Apart from that, I wanted to share my food trails, the mishaps and adventures of cooking, exploring new joints and of course showcase the history of sweets in Bengal. Though my blog is not a year old, one has made new friends in this virtual space. Spice and Curry (link given below) for instance has this beautiful initiative to have a list of food blogs and has attempted to get the cooking fraternity cooking together. Visit her page for the list of food blogs that will help you explore more. 

Food Blogging reinstates that despite all odds food creates its own avenues to celebrate joys of cooking, eating and craving for more.

Happy blogging, happy cooking and happy eating.


Spice Trail : Journey through Venice, Lisbon and Amsterdam

As I added a dash of cinnamon powder to my last meal of 2011 – Moussaka I was wondering how the spice primarily found in Ceylon ended up being used in a Greek Dish. As I grounded pepper I wondered how these were responsible for the rise and fall of three great cities which crossed many a seas to take back clove, pepper and a lot of spices from Malabar coast, and islands of South East Asia.

Michael Krondl documents the fascinating tale of how spices travelled across shores, how spices were protected, how spice- economy controlled and managed state economy through the rise and fall of the three great cities of spices in his book The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and fall of the three Great Cities of Spice (Ballantine Books: New York). Michael’s spice trail begins at Venice which prospered till “Vasco Da Gama’s arrival in India rechanneled the flow of Asian seasoning” (pp20). Spices that were loaded on Italian ships included black pepper and long pepper, five kinds of ginger, galingale, zedoary, nutmeg, maces, clove stalks, cloves, three types of cinnamon and cardamom. Michael draws up this list from a list of purchases made by the Venetians in Damascus in early fourteen century. Spices were critical to the state economy of Venice and spices travelled in an army convoy referred to as mudas. Since 1330s Mudas had a control over the spice trade. Specially designed armed galley guarded the ships loaded with spices. One of the most sought after spices was pepper- particularly so because it was “dry”, “sufficiently non-perishable” and could “endure transportation by ship, camel, and mule… without a noticeable decline of quality”. (pp49) Pepper originated in Western Ghats, India, was transplanted to Sumatra as early as two thousand years ago.  Currently, pepper is grown in Brazil and China. Presently, Vietnam has overtaken India as the world’s largest exporter of pepper. Then he moves on to the spice trade of Lisbon where Michael travels back in time to tell us how pepper travelled from Malabar to Lisbon and how cinnamon from Ceylon made its way into the Lisbon. Michael takes us back to the medieval times of King Joao I and King Joao II and the wars they fought to initially conquer “Gold that flowed down West African rivers. But other goods were picked along with precious cargo, too- most notably, enslaved African ivory and the “pepper” collected in the blackwoods” (pp118). During King Joao II’s rule “who really made reaching Asia by sea a national priority” (pp119). Michael weaves the spice trail against the naval route that the ships took. He gives you an account of the spice routes through the travelogues of the sailors, cookbooks and lost recipes and ends his spice trail in Amsterdam.  

This tale of the three great cities of spice is gripping as it conquers many a shores for the search of the “spices”. The book ends with an account of the secret fourth floor of the multi-national conglomerate McCormick which is the spice chamber of the contemporary world. In a nutshell the book is engaging and provides an interesting account of not only how spices travelled but how spices were used and how cuisines emerged with the changing imports of spices. In other words, how it changed the fate of the three great cities which played a key role in the spice trade. The book will be of interest to any foodie like you and me who know how to add spice to your food and life.

 Happy reading!

©itiriti 2012.

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.


Bengali Cookbooks-II

Debi Chaudhurani, Renuka. (March 2007 3rd ed). Rakamari Amish Ranna. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers Private Limited (Ed. Sheela Lahiri Chaudhuri).

Sheela Lahiri Chaudhuri’s brilliant attempt to bring to the forefront the non-vegetarian culinary delights of Renuka Debi Chaudhurani must have been exhausting and she does a commendable job by introducing the readers to the book in the introduction she pens down about her mother-in-law. In the introduction Sheela mentions that Renuka Debi Chaudhurani could not complete the manuscript before her demise in 1985. The editor also apologises for the missing gaps in the cooking methods and procedure in some recipes. Well, the book has been divided across 60 sections. Each section has a minimum of 5 recipes. The book will help you sail through 365 days of cooking non-vegetarian meals. The recipes collected from Renuka Debi Chaudhurani’s cookbooks reveal the galaxy of cooks from whom she had learned to cook. There are three sections which mention that the recipes are inspired and cooked the way Bawarchis usually do. In fact the most interesting section to my mind is the section on Meat Stews. While Stews on one hand had entered the Bengali palette during colonial times, and it was being cooked in Bengali households also indicate that the everyday cooking in Bengali upper middle class households might have colonial influence. This is particularly evident in the variety of non-Bengali Chicken/ Mutton recipes that Renuka Debi Chaudhuri pens down for us.

Her East-Bengali lineage is evident in the Hilsa preparations and other fish preparations particularly the section on Fish Shukto. Infact the editor also draws attention to the culinary delicacies that Renuka Debi Chaudharni must have been drawn to considering she spent a considerable time in the then East Bengal. This collection moves beyond Bengal and actually gives us a glimpse of the recipes from North to South India which makes this an interesting read. Though I did try out some recipes from the section on prawns I am yet to enter my kitchen with this book. What I seriously miss are the cooking tips or the list of tips in kitchen which is there in the former book. Nevertheless the personalised introduction of Sheela Ray Chaudhury makes up for the missing anecdotes,  and wit of our author Renuka Debi Chaudhurani.

As I browse through the pages, and make a list of things to buy for a recipe I will cook for our Sunday meal, you take a pause and dawn on your chef’s act to get your act together.

 Choose from Fish to Mutton to Chicken to anything that catches your fancy and plan for that Sunday meal. Till then a glimpse from the cover page….

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)


Food through Labouring Lives

The sociality of food becomes implicit and explicit in the way it contains and reproduces differences and sameness. It is in the production and consumption of food  that social relations are reproduced  across social structures. The social relations of food and labouring subjects go a long way.  

The social relation between the labouring subject and food is brilliantly captured in a film that I watched today in a film workshop called “The Lunch Box” by Floridne Devigne. The film maker embarks on a journey of Belgium’s social relations and revisits various tensions and contradictions through the prism of the lunch box and brilliantly weaves in the story of production- reproduction- and waste in the everyday life of Belgium.

What struck me is the way in my work on labouring lives in industrial zones the army of workers entered with the three tier steel containers popularly known as “Tiffins”/ “Dabbas” (In Hindi). Growing up in an industrial township when the clock struck one, an uncle rang our bell to collect “Tiffin” which was neatly packed with Rice, Dal and Fish Curry to be ferried to my father’s workplace. Browsing through my field notes from Falta SEZ if one asked me to visually capture the army of workers entering the zone; the first image would be an army of workers either on foot or on bicycle with their three tier Tiffin Box entering the factory gates.

Mostly women carried their tiffins as they felt shy to sit in canteens or walk back to the factory gate to have tea and snacks in the series of shops lined along the zone. The women workers usually carried their leftover lunch for the evening shift. In fact majority of the women preferred the evening shift from 2pm-10pm as they could cook lunch and carry food with them. Some of them carried their lunch to the workshops as they often got late doing household chores. Mostly women gathered in groups and shared their respective tiffins. While on one hand, mostly the unstructured interviews with women used to begin with what food they had cooked on the respective day it was not so for the men. Infact, for men, when they wanted to wind an interview particularly after morning shift they excused themselves by saying “Have to go… take a shower. I am hungry.” For women it was “ Need to go and cook both lunch and dinner. I hate morning shifts”.

Men not only had the choice to sit for a meal which was already prepared they often ate in the roadside tea stalls lined along  the factory gates. In my field work of three months I had never spotted a woman barring me and the respective owner’s wives who helped their male folk in cutting of vegetables in the shop. Even the women who helped in the shop had to cook in their respective homes before they reached the shop. While women managing tea shops and lunch stalls are a common sight, the customers remain mostly male. For instance, one of the shopkeeper owners through some arrangement with the security used to send his wife with a bag of 30-40 packets of Puffed Rice and Vegetable Fritters to the zone to capture the female clientele.

During this field work, even my social relation with the workers came to be determined by food that I ate and consumed. For instance the very fact that I rested in a shop close to Falta Special Economic Zone where they prepared vegetable fritters to be sold to Zone workers; made me acceptable to a section of workers who were the patrons of this shop. Infact one of the contractors who had misbehaved with me in front of a factory gate actually apologised when he found me eating Dhakai Paratha with ghugni ( Dhakai Paratha is a layered paratha which is made of flour, and water. What is interesting is that it is shredded, and sold according to the weight). Ghugni is a popular Bengali breakfast of roadside tea stalls. The basic ingredient is Dried White Peas.  We sat with our respective kanshi ( Bengal word for an steel / aluminium utensil with a shallow base usually used to have puffed rice) and discussed various issues relating to the zone and beyond.  So Tiffins- not only represent a “break” of the routinised schedule of the labouring subject it is also a space where through the tiffin the labouring subject is able to gaze/ engage with the product of his/ her labour.

Coming back to capturing everyday life through the prism of “lunch box” presents a materiality of political economic life which is both productive and reproductive. While on one hand the food that is inside your tiffin is the product of  “labour” ; the labour also “consumes” the tiffin. It is almost as if the image of army of workers walking with tiffins point to the banality of work. It is this banality of social relations that we as labouring subjects produce and consume through food.

© itiriti


Bazaars and beyond

If I want to revisit my momo memories in Nepal I want to own a perfect “Bazarer” bag to carry my fish purchases. A perfect “bazarer bag” can make all the difference in the kitchen.  In Kolkata, despite the water-logging problem I grew up watching my fathers and uncles take out their rusted bicycles during rainy season with their “bazarer bags”.

 Anybody familiar with the kitchen set up of a Bengali household will find these nylon bags beneath the sink . Two bags are neatly hanged on two separate hangers. One dedicated for the amish( non- vegetarian) raw ingredients and the other for niramish bazaar( primarily the vegetables). Onions and garlic usually came in a separate cloth bag.

As a kid my favourite subject for drawing competitions was Indian market place. In this pictorial representation of the “bazaar” I often drew a man standing next to a fish-seller selling fish of all sizes and kinds with a bag from where the greens would pop out and the bloated bottom of the bag had stacks of potatoes, and other vegetables.

Though shopping malls and organised retail outlets have made an entry into the Kolkata, nothing can beat the vibrancy of walking through hordes of fish lined up in series of rows with enough space for the customer to stand, order and take the freshly cut fish in their “machcher bag”. Machch is the Bengali word for Fish. I always had a fetish for carrying the “fish bag” whenever I accompanied my father to “Manicktala Market” or “Rani Rashmoni Market” (two noted markets of North Kolkata).

Our secret trips to Manicktala market was accompanied by a brisk breakfast of  Kachori ( fried bread) and alur tarkari( potato curry) in a sweet shop by the name Thakurer Dokan in Rashmoni Bazaar, Beleghata. If you manage to reach the shop by 9.30 am one was sure to find some space in the bench which has been there since the inception of the shop. The Kachories are made of Biuli Dal and their Potato Curry is made with freshly ground ginger, cumin and secret touch of love. The un-peeled small cubes of potatoes are thrown into the big kadai and all the spices are added, with a generous touch of turmeric, adequate salt and a pinch of sugar to finish this simple curry which can never be reproduced in our kitchens. After having this brisk breakfast and packing two jalebis( fried Indian sweet) to satiate my sweet appetite we headed towards Manicktala Market– a paradise for the fish lovers.

The enticing part about Manicktala market is the smell of various kinds of fish. Whenever guests came to visit us in winters I anxiously waited for my father’s approval to take me to the fish-y den; where fishes were sold and traded in thousands, and even more. My father believed that you could get Fresh Prawns ( Galda Chingri) at any time of the year in Manicktala and the best variety of Hilsa, Topse and Morola can only be found in Manicktala. My mother for all practical reasons hated when my father bought chotto mach (small sized fish) like Morola and Putti because it took her almost an hour to clean these fishes or to supervise the cleaning done by our mashi ( aunty who helped us with cleaning and washing).

My best days would be when my father ordered Bhetki fish fillet.I used to stand next to my father with wide eyes watching the fish seller take out his bonti(curved blade rising out of a narrow, flat, wooden base) to attack the head and remove the scales and then with the swift move of a “fish- knife” ( unlike our fancy knives; it is a huge knife which looks like a ruler from a geometry box) he used to de-bone the fish and chop the fish fillets according to my father’s requisition.

Like an inquisitive intern I used to imaginatively chop the Bhetki fish using my imaginary knife and then waited patiently for him to pack the fish fillets in a white plastic bag and the Bhetki Kanta ( leftovers from the Bhetki Fish) in a black polythene bag so that the “boudi” (meaning sister-in- law; my mother) could conveniently wash and refrigerate.  Another separate small bag to carry the fish head to be cooked with Greens was neatly packed and given to us.

As a kid I thought my mother and father knew these fish-sellers because my father used to coax him to clean the fish properly so that his “boudi” should not get upset. And often fish –sellers called out to the half-sleep “babus” who visited the bazaars by telling them “ Fresh machch niye jaan; boudi khushi hoben” ( Take fresh fish. Boudi will be happy). For a long time I wondered how the fish sellers knew what the boudis wanted in the kitchen. How could they sit miles away with their fishes and know whether boudis wanted small fish like Morola, shrimps to add to the saag ( greens)  or prepare rohu/ katla jhol. This long distance relationship between the fish seller brother in law and the middle class bhadramahila boudi always fascinated me. These were the days before the mobile phones acted as the mediating device between the babu’s wife and the fish seller.

Till one day I discovered the truth of this relationship when my mother was irritated with my father for buying some fish which she did not like she commented that my father’s brother ( i.e., the fish-seller) should stop from making assumptions about what his sister in law likes to cook. At this moment I interrupted and said that “You are being rude. He really likes you maa (Bengali word for mother). He often de-bones and removes the scales without charging a penny because he does not want to inconvenience his “boudi”. I thought justice was done. Well, this further aggravated the tensions. My mother was furious that my father had some secret talk about my mother’s non-preference for some fishes with a fish-seller.

Time passes by. After completing my years of internship under my father I have attained the “eye”, “smell”, and “feel” of what a good fish could look like. Whenever I visit the slightly not too familiar yet close to a “bazaar” of my childhood  in Delhi and the fish sellers assure me of the quality of the fish and often suggests recipes and packs the fish in plastic bags I miss the “Machcher” Bag of my childhood days. Every time I return home with packets filled with fishes I remember the ways in which my Rashmoni Bazaar fish seller in Kolkata would remind me on my way back to office to carry the Machcher Bag as he would be supplying me the best priced Bhetki, Topshe or Hilsa. I miss him. Everytime I prepare a checklist of things to buy from the market , I wonder if I would find a perfect machcher bag just like my childhood days.


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

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.