For the past few years I have enjoyed the bhog served in the Bandra Notun Polli Pujo. This time I wanted to know the story behind it.
So I landed up at the Pujo on Saptami morning, gave my Anjali prayers as Sam (Samudra Sen) , who is in charge of the rituals, called me from the stage. I then caught on to Kaushik Saha. Kaushik has been in charge of the bhog department of the Bandra Pujo for the last 25 years. He tells me that he has been involved in the bhog distribution at the pujo since he was 8 (!) years old. Originally a Manicktala boy, Kaushik moved into Bandra as a kid. He now has a team of around 50 people – cooks, volunteers, security staff – working with him to get the bhog out.
Bhog (pronounced like Bogart with an h) means food blessed by the gods. It starts with food cooked by the side of the puja pandal, where the Goddess is kept, by a few ladies in the committee. This food is offered to the gods to be blessed as prasad. The food is then taken and mixed with the dishes cooked for the community bhog so that the food served to all has been blessed by the goddess Durga according to the rituals of the pujo. The food in the bhog then is served in the afternoon to anyone who queues up regardless of religion, caste, class or creed. No one is turned back.
Kaushik tells me that the cooking starts at 5 am every morning and he is there to marshal his troops right from the beginning. The cooking starts first with the payesh or rice pudding. The tomato chutney is cooked next. Next follows the labda or the mixed vegetable. This is followed by the khichudi which is the centrepiece of the feast. Last on is the begun bhaaja or brinjal fries.
The pujo bhog meal is vegetarian. However, unlike North Indians who turn vegetarian during Navratri, we Bengalis have no such practices during Durga Puja. The food stalls at the Bandra Pujo are most popular for their fish fries, chicken rolls, kosha mangshos, mutton biryanis and fish curries. These are served at the Pujo grounds itself and are pilgrimage spots for hoards of home sick Bengalis who visit the pujo. While the food at the pujo pandals are not always the best around, I was quite impressed by the fish fry, moghlai paratha and egg roll in the Feast@East stall. Feast@East is a foray into food of finance professional Sougoto. As he says, ‘jibone ekbar paglami na korle hoi?’ (at some point you have to take a risk in life.
Coming back to the bhog, Kaushik tells me that it is funded by donations. Folks are fed free of charge. Vegetables are bought at the wholesale market and sometimes even these are donated as the brinjals were today which were sent from a farm for the pujo. Kaushik told me an interesting story behind the thermocol plates in which the food is served. A theremocal manufacturer had once fallen on bad times and was on the brink of shutting his business. He had some plates lying around in the factory with no buyers so he donated them to the Bandra Durga Pujo. Apparently his fortunes took a turn for the better after that and he made up his losses and got big orders. Since then he has supplied all the plates used in the Bandra Pujo. It runs on shroddha (faith) says Kaushik.
The kitchen is manned by an Oriya chef, Gobindo Babu who gets his sous chef from Odisa. He has been with the Bandra pujo for three decades now. He used to work in Mithun Chakraborty’s kitchen apparently and then in a Bengali restaurant near Toto’s and was famous for the fish rolls that he would make. Then he didn’t have a job for a while till he got a job as a cook with the Raheja business family. During the puja days though his time is committed to the Bandra Pujo.
I saw Gobindo Babu marshalling his troops quietly while they stirred the huge cauldrons. No flamboyant ‘Yes Marco’ cries here.
I asked him about the recipe of his khichudi and this is what we reconstructed.
Add oil. Heat. Add dried bay leaves. red chillies and panch phoron (Bengali 5 spice). Stir. Add turmeric, red chilli, coriander and cumin powders. Add dry roasted moong daal. Stir. Add water and then let it boil till the daal is 40 pc cooked. Then add pre-soaked rice (the same quantity as the daal). Add sugar, salt, ghee and a bit more of cumin and turmeric powders and let it cook. Also add in some cubed potatoes and tomatoes. The whole process takes about an hour. Once cooked the khichudi is set aside and left to slow cook further in its own heat.
Each dekchi (cauldron) has 40 kilos of material in it. You want measurements for the recipe? Chef Gobindo smiles and he says he cooks from the heart and checks the taste along the way.
You could try out my recipe & khichudi video based on a phone call to my grand mom here though. It has measurements.
People say that ‘bhoger khichudir taste alada’ (you can’t replicate the taste of the bhog khichudi).
Rationally you could ascribe this to the magic of slow cooking. The devout will say that this is because the food is blessed.
Incidentally on Ashtami pulao is served instead of the customary khichudi in the Bandra pujo. I asked Kaushik the reason for this. He said that in the beginning of the Pujo, one of the committee members must have suggested it. Since then the practise has been followed without being questioned.
Talking of the committee members, the Bandra Pujo used to be quite a Bollywood hub with Bengali Bollywood personalities of yesteryears such as Shakti Samanta, Basu Chatterjee, Basu Bhattacharya and RD Burman being involved in organising the pujo. Old timers at the pujo talk about how Mithun Chakraborty used to hang around here to meet people during his struggling days. Many Mumbai Bengali urban legends centre around the actor after all. Nowadays I am told a bit of Bollywood touch is coming back to the pujo with Susmita Sen dropping by. Overall the Bandra pujo is quite a ghoroa (domesticated) pujo shorn of the glamour of the Tulip Star and Lokhandwala Pujos and doesn’t have the scale of the Shivaji Park Pujo or the pedigree of the 83 year old Tejpal Park Pujo. Still it is my parar pujo (pujo of my neighbourhood) and this is where I feel at home.
Every Bengali should have a parar pujo.
The bhog is served around 1 pm once the morning puja is over and goes in till about 3 pm or till stocks last. Suddenly the place which seemed empty crowds up with queues snaking to the food distribution counters. On weekdays about 3,500 people are fed at the Bandra pujo. On holidays anything between 5500 to 8,000 people which is what they are expecting this time on Gandhi Jayanti which is when Ashtami and Nabami have got combined.
The food is served by volunteers and I occasionally join in too. You will find children joining the grown ups as Kaushik must have when he was 8. Food is served like in an assembly line…khichudi, labda, beguni, payesh, mishti…patiently to the never ending queues and folks then take their plates and find a place to relish their bhog in peace. When everyone is served, the volunteers get up on stage and have their lunch, which is often close to 4 pm.
You should try the bhog someday. It’s an amazing experience.
And here are some of the many humans of the Bandra Durga Pujo. To see more pics click here