Feasting during Sajibu Cheiraoba

( Itiriti : Soibam Haripriya is pursuing her doctoral studies in Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics. She is a poet and recently published her poems in a collection Tattoed with Taboos. She blogs on Ibnlive.com (http://ibnlive.in.com/group-blog/The-North-East-Blog/soibamharipriya/3355.html). She brings to Itiriti readers the feasting delights of Sajibu Cheiraoba celebrations from her mother’s kitchen at Imphal.

Happy reading and  if you want to share your  New Year Feast with itiriti do drop in a line …)

Like most calendar of events and celebrations in Manipur, the Sajibu (the lunar month which falls this year in April-May) Cheiraoba (the Meitei New Year festival) too is observed on two different days either on the first day after the new moon or falls alternatively on the 13th or the 14th of April depending on the religious affiliation –either Meitei Sanamahi or Hindus (mostly Vaishnavs). Sajibu heralds the coming of summer, mild sun or pleasant rains. A few days prior to Cheiraoba, the Khwairamband Keithel  –the popular and much romanticised Ema market on either side of the tasteless Bir Tikendrajit road flyover (a flyover that perhaps is sign of ‘modernity’ more than having any role in easing traffic, one road leading to a dead end i.e. straight to the Kangla gate) that cuts the market sharply like the equator, could be seen teeming with people –mostly women buying gifts for members of their natal home. There is no idea of festival discounts in the valley –‘Make hay while the sun shines’ is an apt maxim.

As is with most celebrations of this kind the day begins early for the womenfolk even though the assortment that would comprise the meal would have been thought of the previous day. The number of dishes should be in odd numbers, my family settled for five dishes –three seem slightly meagre for such a day while seven seem slightly extravagant for a family of small eaters, a condition necessitated by health reasons. Uti, Yongchak aloo eromba, nga thongba, bora and chakhao is what we settled for.

Uti has now become a marker of Manipuri cuisine and every place that claims to stock authentic Manipuri food has to have Uti in the menu. It is a dish consisting which could either be uti ashangba (green uti) which could be made with green peas and sometimes added with a bit of broken rice or the classic Uti, the trick of enhancing the flavour of the latter is to add a wee bit of milk at the end.

Yengchak aloo eromba taste best with small red potatoes and yongchak with fermented fish. Nga thonga (fish curry) could be cooked in a variety of manner, either deep fried fish, lightly fried ones or not fried at all or more popularly the stirred nga thongba which would be rather difficult for a non fish eater to negotiate considering that all the fishes are broken and one needs to navigate an array of bones. Chakhao is simply the deep purple scented rice which is slightly sweet and is either cooked with water or cooked as a kheer with milk, camphor, slices of coconut, bay leaves and dry fruit.


The dishes are first to be offered to propitiate the spirits, believed to be evil   –a space is mud plastered in the front gate of the house and the back gate –the dishes are offered with rice and three variety of flowers – kusumlei, kombirei, leiri and seasonal fruits of one’s choice and offering of money along with the food. One assumes this to be an innocuous offering; however the function of this offering is to satiate the spirits so that no harm befalls the family. In fact the name of the last demised person of the locality is invoked in order to appeal the former’s longer stay in the crematorium so that no one else gets claimed by the insatiable land of the death. The mud-plastered place of the offering is decorated with flowers.

In our fondest memories of childhood we vied with each other to claim the offering of money when elders disappear for an afternoon siesta or go about presenting New Year gifts to elders and relatives.

Photo : Soibam Haripriya


Feasting during Durga Puja II

The much promised Ashtami meal could not make its way to the blog. Well Ashtami,  is the day when women dress up in white sarees with red border and men in their crisp Punjabi and Dhoti for the Pushpanjali. Usually, we are expected to fast and offer our prayers in the form of Anjali to Goddess Durga and this day is primarily significant because of another ritual SandhiPuja where 1001 Lotus flowers and 108 diyas are offered. Anyways coming to feasting during Ashtami in our family its Luchi for post Anjali breakfast, Luchi for Lunch and Luchi for Dinner.

I am a self proclaimed Luchi fanatic but I do not claim to make Luchis. Nobody can make Luchis like my mother. They are soft, fluffly, to the extent you can see the lightly crisp base from the fluffy top layer. They are “perfect”. After offering our Anjali we headed back to our home and I quickly chopped the Pumpkin ( Kumro) for Kumror Chhakka.

Kumror Chokka

It is a small dish made with one of the wholesome spice used generously in most of the vegetarian Bengali dishes, i.e., Kalojeere or Onion Seeds. The pungent smell of the nigella seeds adds the requisite kick to any vegetable. Dice the pumpkins and soak some Chana overnight. Add a spoonful of oil to the wok. Once the bubbles disappear add kalojeere or onion seeds and dry red chillies/ slit green chillies. Add the diced pumpkins, salt, turmeric and soaked chana and stir fry it. Once the pumpkins softens finish it off with bhaja guro masala ( basically it is a spice mixture prepared from dry red chillies and cumin seeds. Dry roast the dry red chillies and cumin seeds and grind it into a mixture). Finish it off with a little pinch of sugar.

Then it was over to Mother dear who prepared Cholar Dal, Alur Dom, Phulkopir Tarakari and Lamba Begun Bhaja. We were too hungry before we could take photos. Just one shot brilliant relish of Luchi and Begun Bhaja …

Luchi aar Begun Bhaja

Have to rush now to take care of some friends who are coming down to take them on a Puja tour.

Watch out this space for my Navami Dinner and more …

Happy Pujo.


Feasting during Durga Puja-I

Durga Puja is an autumnal festival celebrated mostly among Bengalis for over five days. “The first recorded Durga Puja seems to have taken place in Nadia district in or around 1606. In those days it was more of a family festival for the rich or landlords. The oldest Puja in Calcutta, as some believes, was used to be the family Puja of Sabarna Chaudhury of Barisha which dates back to 1610. The first publicly organized puja happened in Guptipara of Hoogli district when twelve men were stopped from taking part in a household puja. They formed a twelve man committee and held a puja. Since then these kind of puja arrangement is known as barowari (baro-twelve, yar-friend). Later the term ‘barowari‘ was replaced by ‘sarbojonin‘ (for all men and women).The first community puja in Calcutta was held at Balaram Bose Ghat Road in 1910”1. Durga Puja is a five day affair beginning with MahaShashti (the first day of the Puja ), followed by Saptami ( the most significant being the bathing of Kalabau(banana plant dressed as a bride and Pranpratistha), the third day is called Ashtami, fourth day Nabami and finally Dashami. Each of the households has their own rules regarding the foods that they can cook. For instance in my house, we do not take any non- vegetarian food during Shasti and Ashtami. Though we do not cook any non vegetarian food on these days, we can eat at the various food stalls in the pandals.

Though I miss the grandeur and aesthetics of the pandals in Kolkata, the festival in Delhi has acquired its own charm. Each Puja Committee in Delhi organises a Anandamela in the Puja grounds where groups of men and women sell different food items ranging from Peas Kachori, to Pasta, to Pineapple Chicken. Yesterday we visited the famous Puja at Bengali Senior Secondary School and everybody was waiting in line for the inauguration of Anandamela. As soon as the event was inaugurated people poured in to savour the veg and non- vegetarian delicacies on offer which included delicacies like Peas Kachori, Chicken Korma, Alu Phulkoir Singara (Samosa stuffed with Potato and Cauliflower) etc.

Today is Mahasaptami- the day when cooking and eating non vegetarian food is allowed. We decided to feast on the following : Bhaat (Rice), Bhaaja Moonger Dal, Niramish Bandhakopir Tarkari, Chingri Machher Batichochori, Katla Machher Kalia and Chutney.

Bhaja Moong er Dal.

Dry roast the Moong Dal and wash and clean with water. Pressure cook the moong dal with salt and turmeric powder and keep is aside. For tempering the Moong Dal first add a spoonful of oil to the kadai. Add Cumin Seeds, Dry Red Chilli, 1 Bay leaf, wait for these to crackle and add tomatoes. Cook for ½ a minute and add the boiled Dal. Finish off with a pinch of sugar and generous helping of peas and some freshly chopped Coriander.

Bhaja Moonger Dal

Niramish Bandhakopir Tarkari

Finely chop the cabbage. One trick my mother insists I follow is to parboil the cabbage. Take a spoonful of oil and add panchphoron and wait for it to crackle. Following with add crushed/ grated ginger, salt, sugar and turmeric to the oil. Add tomatoes and slit green chillies and cook till the oil starts separating. Add the parboiled cabbage to the masala and cook it. (My mother says its important that the masala should blend well and the Bengali trick is kashano… which means constantly keep on tossing and turning the vegetables till your hands give in J)Add salt and sugar to finish it off. Once its cooked add freshly grounded garam masala (preferable cinnamon and cardamom) to the vegetable and serve it hot.

Niramish Bandhakopir Tarkari

Chingri Machher Bati Chochori

Take 300 gms of prawns (medium size) and marinate it for half an hour with salt and turmeric. Add a spoonful of mustard oil to the kadai and lightly fry the prawns. To which add a pinch of finely chopped garlic, onions, tomato, green chillies and tomato and let is cook. Give it a nice toss and close the kadai/ pan with a lid. Take a break for 10 min and you will find the aromatic hues of bati chochori find its way into your drawing room. Finish it off with a nice helping of coriander.

Chingri Machher Batichochori

Katla Machher Kalia

Take 400gms of Katla Machch which means approximately 6 nice pieces. Marinate the fish in salt and turmeric and keep it aside. Add a spoonful of oil . Fry the fish. You may need to add another generous helping of oil after you are done with frying of the fish. Add onion paste to the oil, 1 Bay leaf and wholesome garam masala. Fry the onion paste till it turns brown. Add tomatoes, cumin powder, coriander powder, sugar and salt and cook the masala till the oil separates. Add water to the cooked paste and cook it till you see the bubbles appear. Add the fried fishes and let it cook for another 2-3 minutes. Finish it off with coriander.

Katla Machher Kalia

Finally Plastid Chutney

1 nice raw papaya. Thinely slice it. Take a pan and add oil. Add some Saunf and 1 Bay leaf. Saute the papayas, and add a pinch of turmeric and Salt. Add water and now comes the sweetening ingredient- sugar . Mix it nicely and let it cook on low heat. Your Plastid Chutney is ready.

Plastid Chutney

Watch for Ashtami Special tomorrow. Time to serve the lunch.

1 Visit this website for more details http://www.calcuttaweb.com/puja/


Yongchak: The Bio-Bomb of Manipuri Cuisine

(Itiriti: I had invited a dear friend who believes life is about flavours. By training, an anthropologist, and a photographer by passion, Rekha Konsam is a wide-eyed explorer of herbs, and plants. She introduces the readers to the bio-bomb of Manipuri cuisine. Happy reading!)

When I was invited to write a guest post on Manipuri food for itiriti, I wondered and wandered in my thoughts for long about a suitable topic that would have something to do with food. The only thing I was certain about was that it would not be a recipe for the simple reason that I myself never follow any recipe while preparing even the simplest item. But somehow we always seem to be assaulted by food. More so, in the world of the virtual where the displaced diasporic communities always seem to be hunting for the taste of home. Anything near to that is relished – in thought if not in taste, consumed by the eyes if not by the mouth. Come winter, and the latest pictures of the winter seasonal vegetables, made their photographic presence in the community portals. Inevitably, these are accompanied by groans and slurps. Making use of one of my favourite timepasses (hunting out of English names of herbs and vegetables that formed a part of the Manipuri cuisine), I decided that it would only be befitting to introduce the readers of itiriti to the favourite winter vegetable that holds pride of place in the Manipuri cuisine. This is the yongchak.

Figure 1: A Yongchak Tree. Photo Courtsey - Mayanglambam Merina

 The English name for this vegetable is tree beans, but it has been infamously nicknamed stinky beans. It is one vegetable that has been drawn out as a caricature as well – there actually seems to be an internet game modelled on it! Certainly, its fame spreads far and wide. The Wiki page entry on this item lists several names by which – petai in Thai, sutaw in Indonesia, ….  A blogger called it one of god’s strange creation – you either love it or hate it. http://www.thefoodrenegade.com/2011/02/sambal-petai-chilli-smelly-beans.html .

Another one humourously recommends it as the most appropriate food to be consumed (next only to garlic) for keeping away an undesirable date. It appears to be widely consumed in Southeast Asia and is often to be found in Thai restaurants as part of its ‘secret recipe’ . Known by various names (petai, sutaw, etc), the Southeast Asian palate distinguishes two varieties of the tree beans. It is the glossy green seeds that are consumed.

For the Manipuri palate, love for yongchak is trully blind! We make no such distinctions and we try to make the best use of every part of the vegetable. The manipuri cuisine offers recipes starting from the flowers and the tender beans to the dried mature beans. The mature seeds of the vegetable is nicknamed ‘bomb’. The two most reknowned dishes made from the vegetable is yongchak singju and yongchak iromba. These two are only the more reknowned ones. There is an array of possible ways of consuming it. Despite my reluctance to write a recipe, I figure it is better to give an insight into how the vegetable is consumed as a part of the Manipuri diet.

Yongchak Iromba: Iromba is a dish made of boiled vegetables mashed together in a sauce of chilly paste and ngari (fermented fish). It is then served with a combination of herbs as garnish – onion, spring onion, chameleon leaves, coriander, vietnamese coriander, etc. it can be prepared from various assortment of vegetables. The iromba of yongchak can very simply be made with yongchak and potato. It can also be made with the other seasonal vegetables as assortment. The best garnish for the yongchak iromba is with a herb locally known as lomba (scientific name, esholtzia blanda).

For those interested in the recipe, here is the link http://chakhum.e-pao.org/ . The recipe is obviously written for people familiar with the Meitei cuisines. Just to add my own note to those unfamiliar with our cuisine, the thin skin of the whole bean is scrapped out. The Meiteis have a special instrument for it that looks pretty much like a tongue-cleaner, but a scrapper can well substitute for it, I guess (or may be try out with a tongue-cleaner :D). Post boiling, the bean would still have another film of skin. Remove this skin also and you would find the pulp and the seed – both of these would be used for the dish.

Figure 2: Boiled stage – potato, chillies, yongchak and fava beans. Photo courtsey - Sapam Shyamananda


Figure3 : Yongchak Iromba. Photo Courtsey- sapam shyamananda

Yongchak Shingju: Shingju is again a preparation made with the same base – a thick sauce made from red chillies and ngari (fermented fish). Here, the vegetables are added mostly in raw form. A shingju is the equivalent of a spicy salad in the Manipuri cuisine. For the yongchak shingju preparation, it is the tender ones that are often used while for the iromba, it is the more mature ones that are prefered, although there is no restriction as such. The only link of shingju I was able to find was http://www.gomanipur.com/your-story/item/206-yongchak-singju . For those unfamiliar with Manipuri cuisine, once again let me add a few lines of my own. Scrap off the thin green skin from the yongchak. Then remove the thick sides of the beans. Now, shred the beans into thin pieces.

Personally my preference for the base sauce is to roast the red chillies and the ngari. Then mash them with salt properly. Avoid putting more than a little water – the less watery the sauce, the better the dish. Toss the shredded beans with the sauce and mix it up properly. Add garnish of spring onion, lomba leaves/flowers. My mom adds her own touch to it. Along with the herbs, she garnishes it with slightly crushed roasted shrimps.  

Besides these preparations, it is used in several other dishes. The less cited delicacy from the same vegetable is the shingju prepared from its flower. Because it was less cited and less talked about as compared to the beans and its bombs, I thought it was less sought-after. I wondered perhaps that this was not less available in the market but I stand corrected. It is apparently very much available in the markets also but unlike the other two popular parts of the same vegetable, it travels less. I have not seen it arriving much in Delhi, at least.For a clearer picture of the yongchak and of the iromba dish, check out http://www.mbobo.net/food-vegetable-manipur.html

As winter closes in, the yongchak season also gets over. By the time of Cheiraoba feast in March/April, the ‘bombs’ makes their appearance drapped in ‘overcoats’. The Manipuris have a simple way of preserving their favourite winter vegetable. They select the mature beans and simply hang it up to let it dry. The deep green beans are allowed to turn black. Either they continue to hang like so or they may be taken down to be de-seeded. The seeds are then stored. As and when they are needed, they are taken out and soaked to be used for cooking. The seeds are black on the outside but it is the inner kernel of deep green that is eaten. It is this black covering that is nicknamed ‘overcoat’.

Keep reading more stories about yongchak  www.ingallei.wordpress.com.

© itiriti

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 http://spiceandcurry.blogspot.com/p/food-blog-list.html 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.


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

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


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.


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.