Charuibhati/ Picnic

As I was reading Robbar, the special supplement of Pratidin I recalled the picnic-calendar of my growing up years in Bengal. The arrival of winter and regret of its non-arrival would lie in the stapled packets of Band-Box or Shantipur Shawl Repairing House packets lying in the Godrej Almirah and the ultimate plan to organise picnics. The advent of winter would mark the task of writing essays on Charuibhati, Bonbhojon (Bengali words for picnic) in Bengali classes and to drawing competitions organised by local clubs on topics related to these. By December, calendar dates particularly Saturday and Sundays would be blocked for picnics.  Like one of my roommates commented, a green patch, a strip of water is all that a Bengali family needs to set out for picnic.  Geared with outdoor game sets of flying discs, badminton rackets and cricket bats, we set out for those picnics in matador vans, cars, buses, and trains depending on the nature of the organisation.

As children you tagged along with grumpy faces and the pressure of being well –behaved. In my case, my mother reminded me constantly not to take a second helping. Picnics in those days started with tiffin and ended with evening tea. Tiffin or breakfast on arrival would be slices of white bread sandwiched with a cube of butter, a boiled egg with shells on and a nice big singapori kala ( banana).  Depending on the budget and the urgency to retain Bengali-ness there would be a nalen gur sandesh  “date-palm jaggery sandesh” in the tiffin. Slices of cakes smelling of cherries ( this was pre- Monginis and Sugar & Spice Outlets – two brands that popularised confectionery items across Bengal)  and oranges accompanied a cup of milky “nescafe” coffee mid-way between “tiffin” and “lunch”.  Lunch would be Rice and Mutton Curry followed by tomato chutney. One had to dutifully put on the monkey-cap and sweaters while playing badminton for Bengalis are prone to catching cold even in temperatures which never hit beyond 15 Degree Celsius. Any outdoor activity in Winter (December – February) meant hand knit woollen gears. Such gears came in matching pairs and picnics were an occasion to dress up in those gears that our mothers, aunts dutifully wove the year before.

The torture and pleasure of being an adolescent and a little respectable came with staircases, lawns being given away to organise group picnics among your own age –group. This was the tasting time for all the observed skills of cooking you have acquired while being scolded for upsetting the order of cans and jars in kitchen. Menus of such picnics would be khichuri, chicken curry, rice and brinjal fritters ( beguni) .The group picnic site would be the terrace of a gentle kakima would come to the rescue when you have messed up or a gentle kaku who would negotiate on your behalf to the loud speakers that would blare out from the staircase. This was oposanskriti ( out of culture; literally).

Such defiance could increase if you became part of Tarun Sangha or Borun Sangha from your neighbourhood and took a matador ride with utsrinkhal chele ( indisciplined boys) for a picnic to a picnic spots. There are designated picnic spots across Bengal and to support what my roommate said, most of them are located against the backdrop of a waterbody.  Such matadors would have two speakers in the front and back blaring out latest Bengali and Hindi Film Hits. While men and young boys were allowed to join such picnics, women were refrained taking part in such activities.  Apart from the matador rides, remained family picnices by cars, hired buses or even train compartments.

One of my favourite picnics was an all girl’s picnic led by Pishimoni. Father’s Sister is called Pishi and Moni is an endearing way of addressing. To this date, I don’t know why we called her pishimoni except for the reason that my father called her didi ( sister) but she was my mother’s silaididimoni (craftsteacher). Pishimoni ran a shift crafts-school from our drawing room. On Thursdays, the sound of the singer machine would fill the air of the house and there were women across age –groups whom Pishimoni supervised with their needlework, knitting and craftwork. Except for the sound of the Singer Machine, there would be a pin-drop silence on Thursday afternoons.  Pishimoni’s  bag was a box of goodies as she would carry candies, nuts and other stuff from her regular train journeys to Kolkata, and other places. She took recourse to needle work and teaching women after her divorce.  While our mothers were scared she adored us and we waited for the seasonal gifts that she brought us. Pishimoni  used to organise a picnic and this was the best picnic. The kids (particularly I) had a say in the picnic menu and I loved the way she took take of the entire thing.  Once my father wanted to join us as we were visiting this newly discovered “picnic spot” she said , Bhai ei ekta jayga to amader jonno chchere dao ( Brother, leave this space for us).

Though I did not understand what she meant, looking back, I cherish this all girls picnic.  This picnic was Pishimoni’s way of teaching us to be independent of having our own tarun sangha and borun sangha with no matadors or blaring music but a space that my mothers, kakima called their own- a day to themselves.

©itiriti

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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!

Notes

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.

©itiriti

In Memory of P.G.W. Canteen

I have been thinking of writing a post dedicated to P.G.W Canteen that was an integral component of my everyday life as a student in Delhi University from 2000-2007. Yesterday, a friend called me and she fondly exchanged notes over how she has managed to crack the recipe of Chini Parantha (Parantha layered with sugar) that she and I used to have in P.G.W Canteen. P.G.W Canteen is the abbreviated version of Post Graduate Women’s Hostel Canteen. The Canteen once known for paranthas, tea and was the lifeline for many female students in that vicinity if they wanted a packet of biscuits, Maggie or even Sanitary Napkin has died a slow death.

The slow death of this canteen calls for a closer self reflection of the ways in which spaces in Delhi University have been subject to surveillance and how rationing of food in girls’ hostels is part of the University Culture. Rationing of food in the name of wastage has always troubled me.  My first tryst with a Chicken meal in a P.G. Accommodation in North Delhi was somewhat like this. Two pieces of Chicken stared at my face from a bowl that could have been used to serve vegetables and a bigger serving bowl brimming with gravy… It was not only aesthetically unappealing but also reflects how public eating cultures assume “women” to be small eaters. This pattern continues in the university hostel rationing cultures where there is a cap regarding the number of slices of bread one could take, to a person dedicated for serving Milk to ensure “equitable” (?) distribution and a choice between fruit and egg? I wonder if our male colleagues in Hostels for men are subject to such rationing in their mess halls. Some hostels do not allow women residents to carry food to their rooms and special permission is to be sought if one intends to do so.

Such surveillance run deep and the food rationing practices is one of them. So, for people who felt hungry and want to skip meals in their respective hostels ( Meghdoot Hostel, Miranda Hostel, DUWA hostel) and female students and teachers dropped by in P.G.W Canteen for their daily bites which could have been breakfast, lunch or an early dinner. Since it was within a girls’ hostel premises where there are timings of entry and exit for visitors and residents; female students were supposed to leave by 8pm. Yet, we did not complain because of lack of “canteen” facilities in our respective hostels as P.G.W Canteen was our saviour.

P.G.W Canteen was a legend and institution and for reasons best known to the authorities it closed down. The owner of the canteen whom we fondly called Dipu Bhaiya shared a love-hate relationship with the students. The Canteen best known for parathas with various stuffings (potato, cauliflower, onion, radish, potato-onion,) served with a spicy pickles of cabbage and onions was a hit among students from North Campus. The Chchole Batura of P.G. Canteen was also a favourite and if the people at the kitchen were in a good mood they would also give a helping of the Chchole with paratha. The parathas priced between Rs 5-10 were cheap and affordable. The vegetable toast and their special tea was the evening snack most of us gorged on. For some of the students, their bread roll was appealing as well. Most importantly, if you did not want to trek down to Kamala Nagar or Kingsway Camp you could walk down to P.G.W in your shorts, and pack food for dinner.

When I was in college we also got food packed for our 24 hour journey train ride. The food never went bad. Everyone of us had their own favourite pick. And anybody who frequented the place would remember the famous Maggie they served. A friend told me that she has managed to recreate “P.G.W Maggie” and it’s a favourite with her family. Most importantly, it was a place where a student could indulge in comfort food within Rs 20.

Many such memories haunt me every time one sees the closed shutters of the P.G.W Canteen. Such closed shutters dot a University space that seems alien to people like us who stepped in this university a decade ago. With the familiar spaces gone, what remains are such anecdotes…

©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