A Tale of Two Bengali New Year Feasts in Mumbai and the Bengali Vegetarian After-Party That Followed

Lunch at Shaswati Saradar's.
Row 1 chingri baati jhaal, row 2 (left to right) neem begun, posto narkol bora aam dal (more later)


Highlights:

  • It was the Bengali new year on 15th April and I spent the day eating a lot
  • An elaborate lunch was cooked by my college alumni and friend, Shaswati Saradar, and it featured many traditional dishes from Bengali homes
  • Dinner consisted of the more bombastic festive fare from the Bhojohori Manna restaurant
  • A Facebook post the next day by food researcher and friend, Pritha Sen, got me thinking about whether we do disservice to the wealth of Bengali vegetarian food by talking only of the matinee idols such as kosha mangsho and chngri malai curry
  • A couple of days later I took Singaporean travel show host and a friend, Anita Kapoor, through a vegetarian Bengali meal at Oh! Calcutta. Hopefully Pritha would now feel happy!

Lots of food to start the new year with...yes, what's different?

The bell rang just as I started to write this post yesterday. 

I got up from my desk, went out and opened the door. I found the security guard from a building nearby standing outside, holding a Starbucks bag for me. No, there was no cappuccino in it. It contained four servicing spoons instead and with that ended the chapter of a story that had begun a few days back.

The story had begun when Shaswati Saradar, my fellow Presidency College, Calcutta, alumni and who now lives in the lane beside us in Bandra, sent a whatsapp inviting us over to their place for lunch on the Bengali New Year which fell on Sunday, 15th April this time.

‘Get four serving spoons too,’ said the message at the end.

“Why? Will we play dandiya?” I retorted cheekily.

“You will see!” she whatsapped back in a huff.

Many delicious slices of Bengal served lovingly in Bandra by Shaswati Saradar


Recreating memories from rural Bengal in modern Bandra

We rung the bell at Shaswati’s house at lunch time on the 15th. Anticipation was high as by now we know now that she is a generous host and a great cook too and the thing is that we always leave her place for home well fed. We were intrigued about the serving spoons though and we duly handed them over to her when we walked in.

“Wait," she said as she walked towards the door, where we were, bearing two small stainless steel bowls. One with a green paste in it while the other had an orange coloured one. It almost looked like the colours of the Indian flag and I wondered whether we would be expected to sing the National Anthem before lunch.

“In our village in the south of west Bengal, they smear pastes of neem leaves and fresh turmeric blended with mustard oil too on each other’s body to signify the beginning of a new year and the cleansing of the past,” said Shaswati after she came and stood in front of us.

“I was excited to find fresh turmeric and neem leaves at the Mahim Citlylight market when I went to buy fish and bought it for the occasion,” she continued, “made pastes with them and will apply them on your foreheads to recreate that memory.”

And so came in flavours from rural Bengal into our lane in Bandra in urban Mumbai. Best tried though when not wearing a bright new white shirt, which I was, courtesy K who had bought me a notun jaama the previous day. 

Notun jaama, or wearing new clothes, and picking up sweet boxes from local shops for ‘haal khaata’ the opening of new accounting books, was what the Bengali new year meant to me in my childhood days in Bansdroni on Kolkata and this afternoon in Bandra brought back memories of that.

Shaswati welcomed us with watermelon juice. Not any watermelon juice but 'hand pulped and strained with a bit of salt and sugar like they do in our village,’ explained Shaswati. She often attends commercial home cooked pop up meals in the city to try out new cuisines. It almost seemed as if she was recreating the experience of attending one for us though the only 'payment' here were the spoons we had lent to her.



She then went into the kitchen, from which we were barred till she said she was ready, to put the finishing touches for a meal that she had planned for over a month, shopped for over week and had single-handedly cooked for over two days to feed us.

When she came out with the food we realised why she needed our serving spoons. She had cooked many more dishes for the lunch than her kitchen cabinet was prepared for!

Shaswati walks us through the menu of Mahabharat proportions

The menu was a reflection of both the west and east Bengal culinary traditions we were told and was based on memories of meals Shaswati had been fed by her family and her friends in the past. 

Her return gift to them was the meal we got to have. Aren’t I the lucky one?



Let me tell you what was on offer and in the order in which you were meant to eat them. 

Lunch at Shaswati Saradar's
Row 1: Peper chaatni, row 2 (left to right), bhetki horo gouri, lau doodh, til rui
Row 3 in the middle, kancha lonka mangsho


We started the meal with teto or bitters. This is eaten at the start to aid the flow of digestive juices as I remember reading in an Iskcon magazine in Mayapur when I had gone there with my grandparents was probably 12 years or so old. 

In this case it was not shukto which the magazine article spoke of, but neem begun or neem leaves fried with cubed brinjals. Fried neem leaves were common at our dining table in Calcutta when I was growing up. My younger brother loved them as well as fried karela or bitter gourd. I would not touch either bitter vegetable then!

Part of growing up process for me has been learning to appreciate bitter flavours in a meal. Just as I enjoyed the the doodh lau that Shaswati had made. This is a delectable stew made in milk with lau or bottle guard. My mother loves lau and when she stays with us in Mumbai, Satish the local vegetable vendor comes and gives us three laus every day. 

I don’t touch them. I hate lau! I have torrid memories of a dabba that I used to take while working in Mumbai which would send some lauki nonsense. My mom's boiled lau these days looks unappetising too though I didn't mind the lau with fish head that she would make when we were kids.

Then it struck me recently that I would eat the same (lau) if offered to me as a part of say a Keralite or Maharashtrian thali in a restaurant here as I like to try out new regional dishes. In which case, it would be a bit unfair for me to not eat lau dishes native to my own community I reasoned with myself. So I tried the lau at Shaswati’s and I am glad that I did as I quite enjoyed it and found its lightness quite apt for the summer heat.

As it was summer, Shaswati served us tok dal. Masoori dal soured with slices of seasonal unripe mango. Something my mother used to make during my Kolkata days and which I didn’t mind as a kid too. 

The dal brought back memories of my recent trip to Assam where ‘tenga’, any dish with a sour note is often had at the end of a meal. I had a thekera tenga dal during a dinner at a small restaurant called Majuli Asanj at Guwahati last week. Thekera is a herb used for souring food and the taste of the two dals were similar, though the plumpness of the unripe mango added to the texture in the tok dal.

To go with the dal was narkol posto bora which Saswati had fried fresh after all the guests had arrived. It is a soft textured fritter which smacked of the tastes of both crushed poppy seeds and fresh grated coconut which were used to make it. This is what respecting ones ingredients in the kitchen is all about and what the Bengali domestic cooking tradition is all about. Different from posto boras which I have in restaurants which are over-fried and hard.

Lunch at Shaswati Saradar's
Row 1: mudi ghonto, row 2 (left to right) bhaat, mangsho, neem begun, chingri baati jhaal

 Then came the ‘exciting’ bits. The non-vegetarian dishes.

There was a flavoursome mudi ghonto on offer too. In this case, the version made with rohu fish head, rice and potatoes. In the past I had wondered about the logic of having rice (which this mudi ghonto has) and rice, but at Shaswati’s the combination made perfect sense just as the grannies of Bengal always knew it would. Mudi, refers to mudo (fish head) Shaswati told me and not muri (rice puffs) or rice as I had once thought. As my granny told me recently and which was much to my surprise, mudi ghonto refers to a variety of fish head curries and not just this rice based one.

Then there was fish two ways for lunch. Both bought from Dulal’s at Mahim’s Citylight Market, a favourite of many Mumbai Bengalis. Shaswati is very particular about where she shops from.

She had made rohu but not the usual maachher jhol or kaalia or doi maach. This was til rui where the curry was made with a base of white sesame seeds. I had just come back from Assam where sesame is used often in cooking, especially black sesame, but this is the first time that I came across it in a Bengali curry. The curry did have a very subtle and cooling taste and nutty texture which seemed so appropriate given the heat outside. 

Incidentally, I had the Assamese classic masor tenga in two home cooked meals in Guwahati on the same day. There the curry was soured with kon bilahi or cherry tomatoes and tiny bony rohu was the fish used. When my mother saw the pictures of those on my Facebook page, she said that it looked like our home cooked maccher jhol.

The other fish dish that Shaswati made was a Bhetki Horo Gouri. I have come across the name horo gouri in a restaurant menu before (Bhojohori Manna perhaps) but had never tried the dish. The fish was cooked in a blend of mustard paste and tamarind juice. Both the pungency of mustard and the tanginess of the tamarind came through individually and then blended well together too to create a dish that offered a lovely burst of refreshment in the middle of a meal of epic proportions.

There are many interpretations of Horo Gouri. In one my friend Pritha Sen tells me, koi fish is used and a combination of small and large fish at that. Shaswati had used bhetki here to give the dish her own stamp of creativity and it worked pretty well for me. Pritha Sen had once pointed out the similarity in the cooking traditions of Assam and the rest of the north east and Bengal, especially what is Bangladesh today, to me and I have seen examples of that in my recent Assamese meals in Mumbai and in Assam.

Coming back to our lunch, then came the ‘big guns’ of a Bengali meal. Chingri (prawns) and mangsho.

Shaswati had made chingri jhaal bhaati. A prawn curry made with roasted powdered cumin, poppy seeds and pepper of the base. The taste of the curry and the texture of the prawns (cooked quite a bit but still soft and not hard) reminded me of the way my mother cooks prawns. I prefer to keep them a bit more 'rare'.

The mangsho on offer was not the usual kosha mangsho. It was kaacha lonka mangsho instead where green chillies were meant to hold the favour base together. Mangsho means meat and goat meat at that. All other ‘mangsho’ has to be qualified. Murgir mangsho for chicken, shuorer mangsho for pork and so on.

Shaswati buys her muttom from Modern Mutton in Bandra and what she presented to us was most tender mutton and with the chorbi (fat) not taken off!  In other words, my idea of heaven. I have been in love after all with the fat of goat meat ever since I was introduced to it as a kid at my paternal grandparent’s place when we moved into India. 

We packed some of the mutton at Shaswati's to have for dinner the next day and it tasted still as fresh and seductive when we had it.

We had all of this with bhaat (rice) and this was followed by a peper chutney made with shredded unripe papaya and large pump raisins. An apt palate cleanser before we had the dessert of payesh made with nolen gur. Both are best had chilled and which is how Shaswati served them to us. 

Her chutney, Shaswati pointed out, is different from the ‘plastic’ chutney were sliced and not shredded unripe papaya is used and the word plastic reflects the similarity in form. The Bengali plastic chutney is fully bio-degradable of course!

The beauty of Shaswati’s cooking was that it was most nuanced thanks to the use of fresh ingredients and she had used minimal oil which meant that it was very light on the stomach. Proof of that was that I felt fresh enough to run a marathon despite the long menu that I had batted through with the aplomb of a seasoned test batsman of yore. 

I followed it with a more culturally appropriate bhaat ghoom (nap) though.

Payesh



A gala dinner from Bhojohori Manna


Bhojohori Manna dinner
Row 1 (left to right) kosha mangsho, pulao, golda chingri malai curry
Row 2: Aaamsoktor chaatni, chitrokoot, mishti doi


There was more on the poila boishakh (the Bengali new year) menu for me!

Chef Sanjib Das of Bhojohori Manna, Mumbai, offered to most kindly send across food from their Bengali new year menu for our dinner and it is with that that my day ended. 

The spread was extensive but the time had come for focus I felt. So for dinner I zeroed in on chingri malai curry made with golda chingri or scampi and a very rich and resplendent kosha mangsho (goat meat slow cooked in onion paste with assorted spices and mustard oil) and mishti pulao. Dishes that I loved and coveted from my childhood days but which were never made at home. One usually got to try them at wedding or poite (sacred thread wearing ceremony of Brahmin boys) or annaprashan (rice eating ceremony) which got invited to back in the day.

These are dishes which I make at home when I call guests in and which to me connote a gala Bengali feast.

The next day I saw, Pritha Sen, who is a food researcher, writer and culinary consultant, fret on Facebook about the excessive kosha mangsho and chingri malai curry Facebook posts that she apparently on the Bengali New year. 

“This is a protest post,” she wrote and went on to add, “A Poila Boishakh meal at one time in in Bengal would have an array of most wonderful vegetarian dishes….why are we forgetting to eat like this?” (edited)

Jobab chai! Jobab Dao! as they used to say, said Pritha and I do take her seriously 


I indulged in some light hearted banter with Pritha on the post, in a manner in which friends can, and told her that she surely can’t ‘protest’ about people eating what they enjoy. That perhaps mangsho and chingri feature right on top as they are more fun to eat than everyday vegetarian fare. 

While I enjoyed yanking her chain, I did understand Pritha's larger point that with a few dishes gaining prominence, the richness of Bengali cuisine runs the risk of getting boxed and stereotyped. 

Take what Shaswati cooked and what I enjoyed for lunch the previous day for example. None of those dishes, barring the mango dal, were even cooked in our house so it was an afternoon  of discovery for me. This would not have happened of Shaswati had stuck to the usual.

However, it is also true that it took a lot of effort, love and passion by Shaswati to put that meal together and very few people would do that. If we want to preserve and grow the wealth of the Bengali culinary heritage then we need to cook it ourselves and food others, document it, appreciate it, write about it….and the applies to all regional cuisines. Plus let’s not forget that there was some innovation involved too, bhetki instead of koi in the horo gouri and perhaps therein lies the answer. 

Pritha does that by the way. She had once fed me a Bengali meal at her apartment in Gurugram where not only the dishes were novel to me, but so were the rice grains used, radhuni pagol and kalo nuniya. She's the cuisine consultant for the Bengali fare at the Mustard restaurant and I hope she uses this platform to introduce more of this food to a larger audience. Incidentally, there was fish, prawns and pork on Pritha’s table so please don’t mistake her to be a vegetarian activist. 

To show that I am game for this plea of Pritha's, my lunch the next day, featuring remnants from the Bhojohori Manna, started with shukto, a stewed vegetable dish where karela is used to add a touch of bitter. I never liked the watery version made in our house in my childhood days but I like the restaurant version which has a bit of sweetness and creaminess to it.

The other dish that I had is the macched mudo diye dal. Dal with fish head, the one dish from my mother’s kitchen that I missed in Mumbai and learnt to cook as soon as we had a kitchen of our own here. 

The version at Bhojohori Manna is slightly sweeter than our one reminding us that the recipe for the perfect Bengali dish varies from kitchen to kitchen.

Bhojohori Manna lunch
Top to bottom: Shukto, machhed mudo diya dal, bhaat


When a Bengali boy ate his vegetables quietly


That's Anita and me with Prajwal and Mansi in the front


Pritha would be happy to know about my lunch next day at Oh! Calcutta, Khar, too. 

I had met Anita Kapoor for lunch there. Anita is a Singapore based TV show host and presenter whose shows I had began to watch at the time when I had started blogging. Her style of story telling was something I could relate to and found inspiring back then and still do. We’ve become friends since then and yesterday I met her and Pranjay and Mansi, a lovely Gujarati couple from Mumbai, for lunch. 

They told me that they had not had much experience of Bengali food in the past. I took the opportunity of ordering our food, walking them through the meal and explaining the concepts of what I had ordered. 

In essence, what any Bengali does in a mixed group at Oh! Calcutta. Since Prajwal and Mansi are vegetarian and Anita is tending towards vegetarian food these day, we stuck to vegetarian food yesterday.


Oh! Calcutta, mochar chop



The meal started with the mochar chop (made with shredded banana blossoms) of the sweet shops of Kolkata and then the traditional breakfast fare of luchi (refined flour fried flat breads), chholar dal and alur dom and with some steamed shorshe aloo to boot. ‘It’s so Italian,’ said Anita when she had the alur dom, remarking on the tomato hit in the rendition here. 

Along with this, was a tasting of the aloo kabli that my late father in law loved here, the shredded cucumber jeera based sweet raita and the pungent but refreshing tomato and mustard oil chutney that they give to welcome you at Oh! Calcutta.

Oh! Calcutta
Row 1, left to right, alur dom, luchi. Row 2 chholar dal


Jol Khabar’ or in betweens done, ‘mains’ of aam shorshe dhyarosh (ladies finger with glazed onion cooked in mustard and unripe mango) and dhokar dalna followed. 

They make dhoka, the one dish kept for vegetarians in a Bengali festive meal, with green peas fresh everyday at Oh!Calcutta. This is different from the one made with  mashed lentils that I am more accustomed to, but tasted just as regal. The curry which had spilt across the rim of the curry bowl got to Anita though and she wiped it clean so that she could style it for the photos. I had remarked on my first post on Oh! Calcutta Khar that this is an area they need to look at.

To have with this, I chose the short grained Gobindo Bhog rice that is so special to us Bengalis. I asked for some Jharna Ghee on the side and added it to the rice and my table-mates couldn’t get enough of this iconic cow’s milk ghee brand from Bengal it seemed. I have bottles of this ghee at home and would have taken them for them if I knew they would love it so much. Not everybody does as the ghee tastes and smells different from others.

Oh! Calcutta lunch
Top to Bottom: Gobindo Bhog rice, dhokar dalna, aam dhyarosh, Jharna ghee


For desserts we shared a nolen gurer ice cream, barely a decade old innovation introduced by Bengali restaurants and which is made by local ice cream manufacturers such as Pabrai. The smokiness of the jaggery and the restraint in the sweet quotient of the ice cream won over my non-Bengali guests and they left for home as new fans of Bengali food and yes, no fish was caught in the making of this meal!

Nolen gurer ice cream in focus


To answer Pritha’s question on whether Bengali vegetarian fare will get eclipsed by its much touted non-vegetarian fare, I’ll go back to Bengali cinema for an answer perhaps and point out that there was a place for Soumitra Chatterjee even in a world dominated by Uttam Kumar.

Wish you a very happy Bengali new year folks, albeit a couple of days late. I did have a lot of food to write about and hence the looooong post!


That's Soumitra Chatterjee to the left and the late Uttam Kumar on the righ
Image source:http://halfsamosa.in/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/158-1-2.jpg


A video capturing both my Bengali New Year Meals:


Earlier posts which could be of interest
  1. Jol Khabar
  2. Lunch at Pritha Sen's
  3. Chingri malai curry recipe
  4. Kosha mangsho recipe
  5. Machhed mudo diye dal recipe
  6. Food walk with Anita Kapoor in Bohri Mohalla

More pics:


 At Shaswati's







At Oh Calcutta





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