Be ready. Our New Year’s Day is coming up. We say, Shubho Naba Barsho.
The First Day or Pahela of a Bengali New Year happens in the middle of April. Indian calendars are lunar calendar, and the first month is called Vaisakh. The Bengali New Year therefore is called Pahela Vaisakh.
On the calendar, Vaisakh is the first month of a two-month summer. Scorching summer. In some places, it can reach up to forty degrees…maybe even forty five. Which is well above 100 F. Then appears the famous Bengali monsoon cloud with its famous, continuous rain, thunder and country floods. Frogs flourish. In remote villages, snakes flourish too. Monsoon also goes on for two months. Monsoon is followed by a beautiful, sunny autumn.
And so on.
Pahela Vaisakh, the New Year’s Day, is well known for its food and festivities. In other parts of India also, such as Punjab in the north or Assam in Far East, this day is celebrated with much fanfare. In southern state of Kerala too, this is an auspicious day.
In Punjab, it’s called Vaisakhi.
Bengalis love their food, and they love their festivities. The gods and goddesses have blessed Bengal – both the province of West Bengal where I came from, and also East Bengal that is now known as Bangladesh. My parents came from East Bengal, after the British partition.
In the Hindu Bengali community, Pahela Vaisakh is celebrated with a religious offering or Puja to Ganesha, the god of success. Traders and merchants in particular have their observance, before they ceremoniously begin their yearly accounts book. In Bengal, they call it Haal Khata, or the new ledger. Small traders and shopkeepers, whether it’s a sweet shop, grocery store, neighborhood book publishing business or a tiny hairstyling saloon, the owners make sure the decorate their shop with the ceremonious banana plants adorned with the sacred vermillion or sindur. The puja ritual is done inside by a Brahmin priest, and then the trader would have abundant food and particularly sweets to give away to local children or guests whoever show up that day.
In a few places in India, people also fly kites on the New Year’s Day to celebrate the festivities. India is a very diverse country, where you can find different customs and cultures only a hundred miles apart. Some places fly kites. Some others places perhaps have a rowing competition.
Food, of course, is an integral part of any religious or social festivities in India. Bengali or Punjabi or Assamese New Year’s Day is no exception to the rule. But on the two sides of Bengal, food has assumed a very rich role in these festivities.
Many people in Bangladesh celebrate Pahela Vaisakh with an exotic combination of rice soaked overnight in water they call Pantaa Bhaat, and a special preparation of the famous Hilsa fish. There, they call it Ilish. The major rivers such as Ganges in West Bengal and Padma in Bangladesh are lush with this beautiful, shiny, silvery fish that is absolutely mouth-watering. No Bengali New Year’s Day celebration is complete with Pantaa-Ilish. It is a must. Add some hot green chili to the mix. That is, if you can take it.
Ilish is cooked in many different styles in different parts of Bengal. Some bake it with special spices. Some put pieces of the fish coated with turmeric and salt in a soft banana leaf, and slowly cook it inside an earthen pot on a very low charcoal heat. The baked Hilsa is known as Bhapa Ilish. Some cook it with a generous amount of mustard seed paste, mixed with green chili. That curry is known as Sarisha Ilish. Then, some others would not wait much longer once the fish arrives either from the village river or from the city market. They would cut it delicately in large pieces, and deep fry in mustard oil.
Absolutely heavenly – all of the above.
And of course, no lunch or dinner is complete in India and Bengal without its fabulous desserts. There are so many varieties of desserts and sweets there that one would simply keep counting them for the rest of their lives.
And mangoes. A very big part of the Bengali celebration. Unending varieties of mangoes, too.
That’s how life is like back there: full of food, full of fun, and full of family and friendship.
Be a part of this wonderful celebration.
Shubho Naba Barsho.
Diwali is here! Indian households will light up with clay lamps, candles and electric decorations. Fireworks will fill up the streets, and the sky.
And we will eat sumptuous Indian food to celebrate the Festival of Lights. Diwali, or Deepavali.
Indian households, particularly Bengali homes, practically spend their days and nights thinking about eating. At least, that’s how it used to be when we grew up.
The day begins planning for food: breakfast around 7 A.M., followed by lunch (around 10 A.M. on weekdays, and 1 P.M. on weekends), followed by afternoon snacks (around 4 P.M. when kids return from school), followed by evening snacks (around 7 P.M., when kids return from playground and the head of the household returns from work), followed by dinner (around 10 P.M.).
There are some Indian families where dinner is really late: around midnight. Believe it or not! Not good for health, though.
Of course, today, with more health consciousness and less available time, life has become “less exciting,” when it comes to having many meals and munches throughout the day.
Let’s talk about breakfast.
Breakfast used to be fun. Not like today’s routine cereal and milk, or toast and eggs -- in affluent, Westernized families; or no breakfast in a very busy, nuclear family where everybody would go out to work at 8 A.M. sharp. Laid-back were those days when we grew up. Father would work in government office, with a stable and peaceful lifelong job, and mother would stay at home. Father would plan with mother the night before what next morning’s breakfast would be.
Weekdays and weekends, just for the simple reason that one has more time than the other, would have different sorts of breakfast.
On a regular weekday, father would go out to work at 10 A.M. (and in my case, my mother would also go out to work more or less at the same time, unless she had morning duties at the post office where she worked all her life). Therefore, breakfast would be made between 7 and 7.30 A.M. Weekday breakfast would include leftover roti (handmade wheat bread) from last night; but in order to make it delicious, mother would fry it with ghee on a flat skillet. The roti would turn dark brown, but father would take special supervisory role to make sure mother would not over-fry it, so that it turned black. Once it turned even remotely blackish, it’s no fun to munch on it anymore. It’s bitter.
This ghee-fried, crispy and crunchy, golden brown roti would be savored with some cane sugar, sugarcane or date-palm jaggery, or for the less-sweet-toothed, Indian style mango relish or achaar, or even leftover curry, warmed up on the clay oven.
For the more Westernized but less affluent, French toast, but not with pricy eggs, but with a batter made out of chickpea flour of besan. Equally delicious and nutritious, but less harmful to heart. Eat a few pieces of besan French toast with a dash of salt and pepper.
Luchi, or Puri.
Weekend breakfast would be elaborate. Luchi (deep-fried white-flour, puffy bread), Paratha (triangular bread fried on a flat skillet with ghee or oil), served with very thinly sliced potato fries. Especially, in summer, fried Patol (a delicate vegetable of the cucumber family), or in winter, fried cauliflower. In families where they have health restrictions on use of oil or ghee, they would make a spicy curry with all of the above vegetables, with minimal oil (not mustard or coconut oil, both of which are high in cholesterol).
Fried Patol, or pointed gourd. Parval in Hindi.
No breakfast is complete without some sweets. In Bengal, Mohan Bhog (in Hindi, they call it Halva) would be a major treat for kids and adults alike. It is made out of semolina and ghee, with generous amount of cane sugar added to it. Once in a while, perhaps a few, mouth-watering Ras-Gollah, or Gulab Jamun.
Then, after breakfast, it’s time to ponder carefully about the lunch menu. Time for the family member who has time, to go to the local farmer’s market or bazaar, a very important, daily ritual for most Indian households, even today.
Here is a Mukti’s Kitchen recipe for you, a gift on Diwali.Poha(Flattened Rice with cauliflower, cashews and raisins)
Poha is originally a Marathi-Gujarati dish (from the Western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat), a popular vegetarian breakfast, with a fragrant nutty flavor. I made this in my in-laws house with the supervision of my father-in law. He travelled across India, and he introduced me to many vegetarian dishes. I still remember my First Poha making and getting nervous whether it would come out nice. Especially in your new home where people are watching over your cooking skills. You have to make sure your flattened rice is not sticky. It must be fluffy, and that is the trick.
Poha, a delicious breakfast.
Poha (a Bengali modification)
Prep time – 15 minutes
Cook time – 20 minutes
Total time – 35 minutes
Yield – 4-6 people
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1 tablespoon of ghee (clarified butter)
1 medium red onion, finely diced
3 tablespoons of cauliflower (very small florets about 1”/1” cut)
½ cup frozen peas
2 tablespoons of roasted cashew
2 tablespoons of golden raisins
2 cups of soaked flattened rice
1 teaspoon of salt
½ tablespoon of sugar
1 teaspoon of roasted cinnamon, cardamom and clove mixture (directions in procedure)
ProcedureHow to soak the poha
Wash 2 cups of flattened rice in cold water and add 3 cups of warm water. Give it a good swirl. Soak in warm water for 3-5 minutes, then drain the extra water completely, and let it sit for 4-5 minutes. This part is tricky to make your poha fluffy.
Indian spice box
How to roast spices
In a clean pan, add two inches of cinnamon, 5 green cardamoms, 7 cloves. Let them toast in a medium heat until you get a nice aroma (hold up the pot to look for the fumes coming from spices, it should only take 10-20 seconds, it is important not to burn your spices.)
Transfer the whole spices, and grind them in a spice grinder until granular.
Now, the actual cooking process
Heat the oil and ghee on a large skillet on medium flame, and add the finely diced onion.
Add ½ teaspoon of salt and cauliflower, then fry together for 3-4 minutes.
Add the peas and stir well, and fry for 1 minute. Cook until the vegetables are soft; then add cashews and raisins.
Add the flattened rice and softly fold it (gently, not to mash the cooked vegetables and rice).
Add 1 teaspoon of cardamom, cinnamon and clove toasted powder and sugar; mix well, then salt to taste.
Serve a on a flat plate garnished with ½ teaspoon of toasted powder (cinnamon, cardamom and cloves), ½ teaspoon of ghee and chopped cilantro.
My dear friends,
The time has come once again for my annual trip back home to India. I always make an effort to return home to learn new dishes and techniques to bring back and show my students. I also feel like going home recharges and rejuvenates my mind and spirit.
Happy New Year to all my friends, students, supporters and sympathizers. You have made a difference, and Mukti's Kitchen a big success in 2014.
Thank you so much.
I'm suggesting a quick recipe here, given it is now getting really cold, and we need to do all we can to fight off the adverse weather and the ailments that come with it. Can we prepare some quick dishes at home that can help us to fight back against the cold and flu?
I have already suggested one dish in December. Here is one more. I'll keep posting more recipes in the coming weeks: recipes you can try easily at home, perhaps without any hands-on training. If you need hands-on help, though, please do not hesitate to contact me. My cooking classes are open, and you can register for any of them online, from the website.
No, I am not advocating squashing the Thanksgiving celebration. In fact, I am encouraging you to celebrate it with full dignity and honor. I'm only using the word squash as pun.
Squash the Thanksgiving Myth: I'm asking you to get out of the box, and find out more about how to use the squash. Can you make anything other than the usual dishes with it?
Squash is such a beautiful, healthy and nutritious vegetable. There are so many varieties of it. And if you think about it, not too many Americans know how to make non-traditional dishes with it.