The best thing about being Bengali is that we are reasonably non fussed about rituals. Plus we are genetically engineered to give food the importance it deserves. Eating is a big part of our festivities. And none of that vegetarian hypocrisy here. We are legally allowed to eat mutton, the heathen chicken and fish. And they form part of our customs too. Beef is banned to Hindus, pork considered unclean. Many Bengalis rebel and eat these but you won't get them at social or religious occasions.
Still, this is different from communities which eat meals in whose preparation animals were hurt and yet keep their festivities limited to foliage and dairy products. We are proud of what we eat. So you will get mutton, chicken, fish and prawns served at our weddings, Annoprashans or rice eating ceremonies too. Large rohu fish are gifted by both sides of a traditional wedding and the period of mourning after death is broken (Niyom Bhongo) by serving fish.
Ashtami, THE biggest day of the Pujas is of course vegetarian. The rice and daal based khichudi being its focus. Then there are Durga Puja days which have non vegetarian themes to the community feasts. Nabami, or the second last day, is traditionally a fish day. Doshomi, or the last day, a mutton day.
They took a break from tradition this year at the Durga Puja at Debjan Apartments, Kolkata. It was the twenty fifth anniversary of the Puja. There was complimentary lunch for all the residents. Biriyani and chaap. Guests had to pay. I asked my mother if I qualified as a 'resident more than a decade away from home. She cryptically told me "depends on how you see yourself". Well I was there from year one of the Pujos.
I licked my chops in anticipation on Nobomi day. Saw and smelt the biriyani and chaap as the cooks created magic in the make-shift kitchen. Went to South City with my mom. Their food court opens only at eleven. The Coffee Day even later. I get menopausal without breakfast and my mom had to bear the brunt.
I was home in time to catch the end of the Nobomi Puja. If Anjali is the high point of Ashtami then the Joggo (sacrifice) of sandalwood sticks is the high point of Nobomi. The soaring flames reminding you that the Pujas are at their fag end with just one more day after this.
We went down for the community lunch and tried to catch an early batch as I had to leave for my flight back to Mumbai. I wrote about Parsi wedding feasts once before. Traditionally these were sit down affairs. You queue up behind those who are eating so that you can grab their seats once they are done. Well, let me tell you that getting a a seat at a Parsi Laganu Bhonu is children's play compared to getting one in a Bengali biriyani on the house feast. Both communities go a bit mad when there is meat around. But the Parsi Frennys and Jimmys are very tame compared to the marauding Bengali Banalatas and Jibanandas when there is mangsho (meat) at stake. I was pushed away by smiling yet menacing uncles and aunties reserving entire rows for their clans. Only to find my mother blocking a row for the four of us at the other end!
They say that Ma Durga banishes all evil, rights all wrongs, listens to all prayers. A month or so back I had some horrible biriyani and chicken chaap at Johnny Come Lately Arsalan. On Nobomi I got to have the best Kolkata biriyani and chaap that I have had in a long long time. Things begun to look up again.
The food was served by hired help and not by the building uncle and aunties. So I took charge and asked for extra alu (potato, a Calcutta addition to the biriyani of the exiled Nawabs of Oudh), mutton with marrow pieces in the biriyani and leg pieces for the chicken chaap.
The rice of the biriyani was firm (jhor jhore) and very aristocratically flavoured. The mutton so tender that you could almost feel it flap in the surrounding breeze on a rather wet afternoon. The potatoes a work of art for something that had just soaked in its flavours from the rest of the dish. Reminiscent of a Satyajit Ray cinematic masterpiece which enthrals you even today despite its very impoverished production values and lack of colour.
And the chicken chaap .... what elegance...a very complex masala mix whose taste and aroma swirled through the chicken climaxing in an ode to culinary excellence. A dish with zest which made you feel like breaking into a Baul jig. The leg piece of chicken was small, delicate and tender. Care had gone into choosing the right cut of meat. Such a contrast from the bilge that they served at Arsalan. It was so good that I asked for a bit more of the masala later and happily twirled the spoonful in my mouth ... truly thankful to the Goddess.
I asked for the Chef. No I didn't kiss him ... but the Mainland China ad suddenly didn't seem so ridiculous. The biriyani was put together by a gentleman called Mohammed Shahabuddin. I could talk about the secular triumph of a Muslim preparing a Hindu Puja feast. But let's save that crap for the politicians. For Mohammed Shahabuddin is the God of biriyani and chaapbiriyani for large gatherings. He explained to me about how the meat was first put in, then the alu ('no biriyani without alu' he agreed) and the rice above that. Three hours from start to finish apparently. I would strongly recommend Mohammed Shahabuddin if you are in Kolkata and want to organise an authentic Kolkata Biriyani Banquet. This is his number ... 9748565397
I left happy and content. Ma Durga couldn't have given me a better send off as I bid my farewell to my mom too. The biriyani seemed to have lifted her mood for a few seconds. Dulling the pain of separation.
Note: I must say that I was really impressed by the service of Indigo Airlines. They gave me the front seat with extra leg space with no extra charge. I was just in time and they helped me cross the serpentine queues at Calcutta's village railway station-like airport. The crew was polite. I had two grannies in my row. One clutching a Kookie Jar box as did I. Another, an older one, happily munching on an airline sandwich. And yes, we landed at Mumbai before time.
|Deep fried onions for the biriyani|
|The meat for the biriyani gets ready for its big moment|
|The Nawabs of Oudh had to add alu/ potatoes to biriyani when they were sent to Calcutta on exile (source: Vir Sanghvi)|
|My mom makes sure that the feast would be fit for her son|
|The very aristocratic chicken chaap gets ready|
|The Nobomi Joggo|
|Yes, we don't forget our chief guests within all the food|
|The priests nurture the sacred fire as the biriyani cooked in the make-shift kitchen outside|
|This is where I once played carrom during the Pujos. I was a lousy player. Joy, in the grey shirt, part of the original gang|
|The biriyani is ready and steaming|
|I had to win over this pehelwan so that he allowed me to photograph the biriyani inside|
|The aunties line up to grab their seats. My new sis in law dutifully by her mother in law|
|My brother and his wife make their first appearance as a couple at a Puja feast|
|Building Pujas are always a great time to catch up with the world|
|The Karmakars sit down, sans the allergic to rice, Mrs Knife|
|Serving is outsourced now|
|Mr Shahabuddin, you are the King of Biriyani|
|And of chaap too... check out the complex yet subtle masala mix|
|Eating a meal personally supervised by the Goddess|
|Mr Shahabuddin, the King of Biriyani, his number is 9748565397|
|I could have kissed him... I have never had such fantastic biryani & chaap in a long time|
|Mr Kanjilal, there from year one, President of the Puja this year. Father of my first 'best friend' in the building, Rupu|
|Thank you Ma Durga|