October and November are two of the most festive months in the Hindu calendar. Dusserah is observed on the tenth day of the autumn lunar calendar when after a four-day celebration (or puja) of Goddess Durga, devotees bid her adieu. Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and success, appears on the full moon immediately after.
In Bengal, where we came from, Lakshmi is also known as one of the two daughters of Durga, the other daughter being Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and wisdom. Along with two sons Ganesh and Kartik and these two daughters, Durga descends from the Himalayas where her husband Shiva lives, to pay an annual visit to her parents’ home on mortal earth. Religion and scripture have taken various easy-to- understand forms in various parts of India. In Bengal and eastern provinces, Hinduism has taken on a least rigid shape.
It has a long history with other religions, and two centuries of British colonization. Then, in a fortnight, on the new moon, Diwali happens, which is also known as the Festival of Lights. All across India, and in households of Indian origin across the globe, regardless of their religion, Indians celebrate this secular festival, which also is known as Kali Puja, or the invocation of Goddess Kali. Fireworks – big and small – light up the sky, all night long.
Mother’s day is this Sunday May 10th. I wanted to share a little about my mother and what she meant to me and my family.
My mother seemed like a normal Indian mother, but if you knew her heart you would know she was beyond compare.
Her name was Renuka, or Renu to those closest to her. She grew up in East Bengal, which is now known as Bangladesh. Before the British partition of India in 1947, East Bengal and West Bengal were two parts of an undivided province of Bengal. The two sides of Bengal shared a common history as well as their rich cultural and social heritage for at least one thousand years. A very important part of this heritage was the cuisine.
My mother and her family lived in Dhaka, which the capital city of Bangladesh. Today, it is the tenth largest city in the world, with a population of more than 18 million people. My father and his family also lived in Dhaka, but after the 1947 partition they were forced to cross the border into Calcutta as refugees. Then, as it is now with refugees flooding into Europe and other countries, one can imagine how extremely difficult a time it was. This life-changing experience allowed my mother to be a champion of others who had even less than what she did.
From the time I was young and able to understand my mother she was a key person, both in her own family as well as her marital family. She was the one everyone could count on for help. “Let’s ask Renu,” they would say, whenever they were in need. Both my parents worked for the government. My mom worked in the post office, which did not pay much (some things never change), but gave her some much-needed economic stability. My mother used that peace-of-mind and stability she gained to help out others in all possible and seemingly impossible ways.
One of those ways included, of all things, match-making! It was almost uncanny the way she saw connections between possible brides and grooms within her circle of family members and friends. A middle-class, distant relative’s son and a long-unseen, poor friend’s daughter would suddenly be brought together. This match would ultimately end in a nice little wedding ceremony – my mother being the all-important “cupid” who organized it. Or, a needy cousin and his family members who were suffering so much that they were almost starving. When my mother learned of their plight she showed up at their dilapidated home on a Sunday morning, with cooked food in a large tiffin carrier and money for the starving family. She helped people realize their hopes and dreams as well as helped them to reclaim those same hopes and dreams.
No matter your status in life, she would be there. She even provided support for the people who worked as servants or maids in our home. We were not rich, but were blessed enough to have people who worked for us. That also meant that the people who worked for us were extremely poor. Despite that, they always knew that my mother would be there to save them from hunger and hopelessness.
In 1992, my parents came to the United States to visit us for the first and only time. At the time we lived in Southern Illinois where my husband was doing his Ph.D. at Southern Illinois University, and I was also working in a biology lab at the university. She met my daughter for the first time; she was only five at that time. Mother said it was the best time of her life, those three or four months she stayed with us here in America. According to her, it was “God’s blessing”. After returning to India, she spoke and joked about it with friends and family.
Before her passing she often said that when the time comes for her to meet God, she would say, “God, I am very happy and satisfied with my life on earth. I have no regrets. I have even traveled to America, and stayed with my daughter and granddaughter”. That always makes me feel special. Even though she was so young, my daughter fondly remembers those days. And I still remember my mother sitting in a swing with my daughter in the small and quiet park of our graduate student housing on Evergreen Terrace.
I miss my mom very much, but for me I still honor her by doing for other people by using my life’s experiences to help out any way I can. It’s why I love to cook and teach others the benefits of eating the right foods and staying healthy. I would love to hear stories from you about your mother. Leave a few words in the comments about how you remember your mom. What did she like to do? How did she inspire you? How do you honor her today whether she has passed on or is still here today?
Happy Mother’s Day,
There’s nothing like the beginning of Spring. After this past Winter the warmer air and sunshine is as welcomed as a childhood friend visiting after many years apart. While most of us enjoy the nicer weather there are some who dread what else it brings, seasonal allergies. Stuffy/runny noses, sneezing, itchy, water eyes…its enough to make you go insane!
There are lots of over-the-counter medicines to help relieve the symptoms of seasonal allergies, but I like to rely on the healing power of food to develop the bodies defenses against allergens.
There are many spices that I use in my cooking that have allergy-fighting properties and I want to share 3 common and readily available spices with you.
Found in curry powder this wonderful spice has anti-inflammatory properties, and since allergies are really just inflammation of the mucus membranes this miracle spice can really bring some relief.
Garlic is not only good for allergies, but is a natural antibiotic. Add it to your morning smoothie every day and it will naturally boost your immune system. Don’t like the smell of garlic? You can opt for supplements, but these just don’t work as well.
Cayenne pepper contains a compound called capsaisin, its what gives spicy foods that hot, peppery taste. When you eat foods with lots of pepper your nose begins to run. This helps to clear your nasal passages of allergens like dust and pollen.
I hope these simple tips bring you some relief. If you have tried any of these or have some tips of your own please include them in the comments below.
Images from Wikimedia Commons
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!
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 dream dinner abroad — it would have to be Rome, Italy or maybe even Paris, France since I don’t believe Indian food is as popular in those regions. I would consider England, but the Brits, they know Indian food better than most Indians! We’ll keep that off the table, so to speak.
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.
Indian food has some very special spices that are known for their health properties. And if you know how to use them in the best possible way, you can stay healthy, and fight off many seasonal illnesses.
Come this winter and come this flu season, you can try a couple of Indian dishes that will help you to fight against the flu. I’m NOT advising against taking the flu shot or any other precautions you may take, but these dishes are also very helpful in keeping healthy and strong especially during the coldest months of the year: December, January and February here in the U.S.
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.
Fall is here and nothing says good healthy food like this very popular vegetarian Indian dish. This is a simple and delicious Indian recipe and a great way to put that Autumn squash you got from your local farmers’ market or CSA. Squash is very tasty and is loaded with Omega-3s and beta-carotene which are great for the immune system.