Of course, Calcutta is now officially renamed as Kolkata. This is the name we have always used in the first place.
Those who have never been to that side of the world would have no way to know how different it is from here in the U.S. It is so fascinating!
Some people might argue that it is too noisy. It is too noisy, yes. Mics and loudspeakers are almost a routine part of life. If there is a festival of any kind, organizers would play some Bengali, or more often Hindi, songs. For those who live there, it is normal. But for outsiders -- Indians from another town or village, let alone a foreigner, the noise could be difficult to deal with.
But it is only more prevalent during festive times, and that too with new regulations, present in certain areas at certain times. Otherwise, even in Kolkata, after-lunch and after-dinner hours could be very quiet, soothing, and settling. One can take a nap in his or her first or second-floor room, and quite enjoy a bicycle passing by with the rider ringing the old-fashioned bell. Or, perhaps a vegetable vendor or some other salesman occasionally oral-advertising his merchandise -- and that too, with a melodious, characteristic tune.
Some people might find it difficult to walk on the streets because it is very crowded. In a big city like Kolkata, it is way too crowded. But that is out on the main streets and arterial roads. As soon as you get off the bus, taxi or electric tram, and enter your own residential alley, it's a totally different solitude. You can walk down that seven-minute-long, winding alley from the bus stop to your home, and in some hours, you wouldn't even find a soul anywhere. You might even catch a game of chess on a sidewalk porch: you can pause a while, and enjoy the never-ending, silent game between two eerily silent players, before you decide to walk back to your place again. A street dog named Kalu may receive you in front of your house; he knows very soon, he will get a few pieces of tea biscuits you'are going to throw from your second-floor veranda.
Photo by Partha Banerjee
Every little corner of the city of Kolkata has its own character. Some neighborhoods are mostly Bengali neighborhoods. Some are predominantly Hindi-speaking. Some are Punjabi. Some are Oriya -- people who came to Kolkata from the neighboring state of Orissa. Oriya Brahmin cooks have always found jobs in a Bengali household, because of their dexterity in cooking. Especially when a mother is ill, or indisposed because of childbirth, Oriya cooks would be temporarily hired, and given responsibility of the entire kitchen. Sometimes, even when the mother comes back, the cook would be kept permanently, because by this time, he has proved to be indispensable for the family. And the man in the house finds his chicken curry unforgettable!
We had one such Oriya cook in our family when I was in high school. Sanatan-da (Brother Sanatan) worked in some store during the day, and came to cook for our large, joint household in the evening. We were at least ten or fifteen people at one point of time in our family: my parents, my father's elder brother with his wife and two sons, and my uncles, nephews and nieces, some of whom were refugees from then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). My father was always the one who would never turn anyone away; everybody knew they could find a place to live for a few months, or a few years depending on their ability to find a job in Kolkata, once they approached my father. He was the key man in our family.
My father was a kind man. But he was also a very strict man, when it came to our food habits. He was a stickler for healthy food. Kolkata is abundant and well known for its street foods -- food vendors, fruit vendors, chat sellers with their burning charcoal oven to deep-fried fritters would roam our streets every evening. But no, if my father is nearby, you wouldn't ever be able to buy anything from them. My cousins and I would sneak out once in a while to get a quick bite of the street chat: pakora, dahi bada, samosa, kulfi malai...and so much more!
We would sit down for our school work in the evening. No middle-class family would allow their children to do anything but study religiously for a few hours, before mother called them for dinner. Occasionally, we would hear a small girl practicing her Tagore songs on a harmonium two doors down.
Father would remind us that exams were coming up, and we should not get distracted by music, cinema, or such things. He would make sure we did not get sick eating junk food, especially before the annual exams.
So much fun were those days!
Summer is fascinating in India.
Yes, it is hot. It could be very hot. In some places, like Rajasthan or Punjab, it is extremely hot. In Bengal or Tamil Nadu, it is more humid than hot. It could be very uncomfortable. And not too many people have air conditioner. The poorest of the poor don’t even have a fan in their home.
That is all true. But at the same time, summer brings out nature’s best gifts for the people in India. It’s the fruits. It’s the vegetables. It's the flowers. It’s the treasure that Mother Nature has saved for the tropics. Those who have never lived in India in summer would not truly understand how much life an otherwise scorching sun can bring.
Solar energy is abundant, very abundant in India. The men, women and children are saved and sustained by the light of the sun. Sun keeps them healthy. By the heat it sends out, and by the blessings it sends down on earth – to produce an incredible abundance of food.
If I didn’t tell you, you wouldn’t believe that only in a place like West Bengal or Bangladesh, you can get at least one thousand different varieties of mango in summer. You can find mangoes in every state, every city, and every village across India -- Benaras or Bombay, Madras or Mysore, Agra or Assam. And they come in so many different shapes and sizes.
Some are big, like the size of a football. Some are tiny – like the size of a litchi. Some are deep red, and people in North and East India call them “sindur aam,” meaning vermillion-colored mango. Some are peach colored. Apricot colored. Some are absolutely beautiful green, even when they are ripe and juicy. And then, of course, you can have green mangoes, when they are green. People in India, especially children, find great pleasure to eat raw mango, with a pinch of salt, or some with a dash of chili powder laced over the pieces.
Mango pickle in the making
Across India, people dry green mango pieces in the sun – mostly putting them out on the roof for a few days, and then they pickle them in glass jars, using incredibly flavorful and enticing spices. Most mango pickles are done in mustard oil. And then, many people make sweet relishes out of green mango – either cooking them very slowly in sugar syrup, mixed with whole mustard seeds, or preserving them in various types of sweet sauce. One of the sweet mango relishes is called chutney – a very popular end-of-the-meal delicacy across India.
Because practically half of the one billion-plus Indian people are vegetarian, and also because Hindu widows are traditionally vegetarian, millions of Indians use mango, tamarind, cauliflower, papaya and berry pickles – both sour and sweet – to eat their rice or hand-made wheat breads, all year long. It is practically impossible to find an Indian household with no mango pickle jars on their kitchen cabinets.
Summer in India also brings out thousands of varieties of flowers. Some of the most fragrant summer flowers are white, and bloom in the night. The famous Indian tuberose or“Rajanigandha” (meaning nightly fragrance), and Jasmine have featured Indian poetry and novels through ages. Our poet Rabindranath Tagore's birthday in summer is incomplete without a bunch of blooming, fragrant tuberose.
Street foods are also special during summer. Peddlers bring out their yummy delicacies, mostly in the afternoon and evening; and in India, they never have any lack of customers. Children, of course, are their most dedicated audience.
Tagore and the Tuberose
I remember, during school days, we would have a long summer vacation when after doing our required one-hour math and handwriting practice session in early afternoon, we would eagerly wait for the street peddlers’ special selling calls. Here comes the blackberry man. Here comes the green mango man. Here comes the pakora-walla. Here comes the watermelon-walla.
Those of us who were fortunate to have rooftop on our own houses, late in the evening, way after the sun went down, we would sprinkle water on the very hot rooftop to cool it down, and then lay out thin mats, where we and our elders would sit and chat for hours. We would have puffed rice laced with mustard oil-made mango pickles, and a generous serving of eggplant or onion fritters.
The moon would jealously look down on us.
Summer is very, very nostalgic.
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.
I am in India now, and enjoying every minute of it. Next week, I'm returning to New York, with new cooking recipes, new ideas, and new energy.
It is hard to describe India in one or two short articles. India is a very beautiful, but complex country. The geography is complex. The food habits are very different from place to place. The cultures and lifestyles and languages are also very different. It's an enormously diverse country. You travel one hundred or two hundred miles in any direction, and you feel like you've come to a different country. That's how complex it is.
Yet, in spite of all the diversity, there is an underlying theme of unity, whether you are in Calcutta on the east (where I am now), Delhi on the north, Bombay on the West, or Chennai on the south. Then, there are so many big cities and small towns and big villages and tiny villages across India: Bangalore, Agra, Jaipur, Amritsar, Puri, Darjeeling... In all these places, however, regardless of the language, religion or food habits, people show some strong, bonding features that tie the country together. Care for the elderly parents at home is one such feature. The presence of a real society is another such feature. Cooking food at home and eating together at least once a day is perhaps a third feature. There are more.
Recently, my husband and I had an opportunity to visit one of his surviving maternal aunts in a village-like small town called Rajpur. He went back there after four decades, and I went for the first time. A sister in-law and an uncle in-law took us there. It was such a wonderful experience that I cannot describe in words! Before going to her place, we visited a famous nearby Hindu temple of Goddess Chandi.
Even though I went there for the first time every in my life, and my husband went back after so long, never we had the feeling that we were away from them. They embraced us so warmly that it felt as if we never left India. The love and affection were so real!
Her own artwork 🙂
The aunt, a widow for many years now, lives with her two sons, their wives and children. She has her own little room on the upper floor where she makes her own artwork, and writes her own poetry. She took me to her room, and displayed all her sewing, fabric work, and kantha (cloth) stitches. Incredible! I am sharing a photo here. She opened her iron trunk which was tucked away underneath the bed, and showed me the annual diaries she wrote for many, many years. All with a tender, affectionate smile for this daughter in-law she had heard of, but never seen!
And then, she divulged some of her cooking secrets. Now she is very old and can't cook herself, but teaches her daughter in-laws how to cook her phenomenal dishes. The pulao (scented fried rice with raisins and garam masala), the fish curry, the lamb curry, the lentils with coconut, and a number of vegetarian dishes (Hindu widows are strictly vegetarian). Absolutely delicious!
If I had the time, I would definitely go back to her at least once more, to ask some follow-up questions. But this time, it was not possible. I hope next time though, I return to Rajpur to sit down for some time with this wonderful woman, and learn from her secrets of Bengali and Indian cooking.
Feel blessed. I shall tell you more when I come back.
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.