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.

©itiriti

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(In)visible hands behind sweet industry – What does it take to prepare Sar?

The invisible hands that toil day and night to keep the sweet industry of Bengal often go unnoticed. One such skill that has gone undocumented is the art of preparing Sar. One of the artisans in fact lamented to her family member, ‘This work requires skill of eyes and fingers but you will always remain in the backyard. No one is ever going to recognise this craft, this skill’.

Sar is one of the key ingredients of Sarbhaja – a sweetmeat of Krishnanagar prepared from Sarpuriya Pak which constitutes of Kheer, cardamom, Sugar and saffron. Artisans in sweet shops prepares the pak (cooking process of sweetmeats across Bengal is called Pak). The slow method of cooking which produces a soft texture in sweets  is called norom pak and the method of cooking hat will give a harder texture is called kara pak. In case of Sarpuriya, what the artisans don’t know to prepare or in modern day terms what is outsourced is Sar. Sar is the Bengali word for cream that floats when full rich creamy milk is boiled. Till I went on my sweet trail to Krishnanagar I was not aware about the art of preparing Sar.  This cream is used to prepare Ghee (clarified butter) in many households across India. 

Sar

Krishnanagar is the birthplace of Sarbhaja and Sarpuriya two sweets where you need Sar. Currently approximately ten households in Krishnanagar prepare Sar. I was fascinated to see pairs of Sars piled up in the cupboard of Bijoy Moira a shop tucked away near to Judges Court T point.

Sar as used for preparing Sarpuriya( a popular sweetmeat from Krishnanagar)

I was alerted that Rabi Ghosh from Khottapara (name of the neighbourhood) is their Sar supplier. If I wanted to take a look at how Sar is prepared I should visit their home.  Though I felt slightly hesitant to enter somebody’s household without prior appointment I decided to take a chance last afternoon. Around 1.30 after finishing my lunch I boarded a rickshaw to Khottapara to reach Robi Ghosh’s house.  Baby Ghosh has been involved in the art of preparing Sar ( lifting the cream of the milk to form a stiff base. She learned the art of preparing Sar from her father-in-law.

Baby Ghosh preparing Sar

Robi Ghosh proudly tells me “very few Ghosh* households are skilled in this trade”.  Interestingly, across Bengal people involved in milkman trade are referred as Goalas (Goala is one of the sub-castes specialised in milk related trade). Some sections of Goalas are skilled in this trade. Baby gets up around 5 am and waits for her husband Robi to collect milk from the nearby villages of Krishnanagar. Robi Ghosh tells me, “You need good quality milk. You cannot prepare Sar with adulterated milk”.  Usually by 12 noon Robi is back from the villages. Once the milk is collected Baby heats the milk and keeps it aside to cool down. She has a mud floored room for the preparing Sar. It is a small room with two clay ovens for heating of milk. Baby starts preparing Sar from 12.30. She has 15 kadais for preparing Sar. At one time she can prepare one Sar.  She takes small portions of cow dung cakes and distributes it evenly across 15 places. She places 15 Kadais and adds small portions of milk and keeps on stirring it for the first thirty minutes. She has to keep a keen eye and wait for the cream to settle. After that she lifts it carefully and spreads in on a wet cloth covered bamboo basket and allows it cool down for 2 hours before spreading on a wooden mat to cool down. The soft tender cream becomes a solid base and it becomes ready to use after 4 hours. Baby says, “It is easy to prepare sar during winter. In rainy season it becomes hot and humid and takes time”.  I leave her to finish her order of 80 Sars to be delivered across sweet shops in Krishnanagar. Each sar costs about Rs 13- 15 each depending on the quality. As I leave the house Robi Ghosh shows me the place where he has stored cow dung cakes and Baby quietly returns to the room to finish her orders.

*Commonly people in this area call Goala households as Ghosh households. Across Bengal people from both Goala Caste Group and Kayastha caste group share the surname Ghosh.

 

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

 

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

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.

©itiriti