Getting under the skin of the vegetarian side of the Bengali wedding feast

Row 1 (L to R): Veg fried rice, shondesh, alur dom
Row 2: Veg chop, koraishootir kochuri, chholar dal
Row3: Kasundi, Mishti doi

What you see in the picture above can largely be classified as the vegetarian side of a Bengali wedding feast, the way I remember it to be from my childhood in Kolkata. For the odd, no pun intended (!), vegetarian guest.

The picture is not from a wedding feast from Kolkata though. It is of the Bengali food that we called in for a lunch at home in Mumbai for guests who were vegetarian. 

A lunch that brought back memories of Kolkata and which is why I thought of writing about what goes into the Bengali vegetarian wedding menu. A topic that is becoming very pertinent in the state today from I gathered from the recent Lok Sabha election results.

Vegetable chop with kasundi

Starting off the festivities could be a bread crumb coated croquette, stuffed with mashed potato, beetroot, carrots, peas & fried peanuts and deep fried. The bhej (veg or vegetable) chops of the mishtir dokan (sweet shops) of the by-lanes of Kolkata. 

Some might offer mochar chops too. The 'ch' is pronounced as it is in 'chair' in this mocha. We are talking of banana blossoms here and not a form of coffee. These could have grated coconut in it.

The vegetarian answer to the machher chops (fish) and mangshor chops (mutton) that rule the street corners of Kolkata today. Street food stars that were said to have been introduced to the masses a century back by the cabin restaurants of what was then Calcutta. Inspired possibly by the croquettes of Portugal and Spain that the shahebs (British) had at their homes and clubs and which their Bengali cooks learnt to cook. 

I have had jamon and quesa (ham and cheese) croquettes, cousins of Kolkata's chops, in Madrid, Barcelona and Seville. In local markets and in the home of a chef who showed me how they cooked these. Fried in extra virgin olive oil, would you believe it? They did remind me of Kolkata though.

You get chops in rolls shops and small corner stalls of Kolkata and neighbourhood sweet shops (only veg here). Served with tomato sauce, kasundi (mustard sauce) and sliced onions, cucumber, carrots and beetroot.

Moving on from chop cutlets, I should point out that some might offer begun bhaaja (fried aubergine) in the wedding feast. Or alu bhaaja. 

What the Parsis call salli and Jhumpa Lahiri famously, 'matchstick potatoes'.


Koraishootir kochuri and alur dom

There could be koraishootir kochuri (green peas stuffed maida puri) next. Some might offer luchi or radha bollobi instead. Maida or refined flour is a must on weddings when it comes to the holding the flag of gluten high. The more forsha (fairer/ whiter) the better. 

Aata or wholewheat flour would be sacrilege in a wedding feast.

Alur dom

With the kochuri and luchi, comes alur dom

The alur dom requires its own space in this narrative, and no, alur dom is not dum aloo. The latter is as Bengali as Dara Singh for God's sake. 

Fried onions, robust roasted masala, a medley of chillies form the heart of this dish. This is a dish that is most versatile in its reach. 

You could find it in the biye barir bhoj (grand wedding feasts). And at roadside stalls. Served with kochuri or luchi. And at office and college. Often served with ruti (hand-made tava aata chapatis) or slices of pound ruti (bakery bread) in these cases. Or in tiffins packed from home. With love. Or just garters/ rubber bands. 

It is meant to be a side dish, but no-one told the alur dom that. For many, it is the queen of the plate. There are phuchka stalls where the alur dom is sold as a solo artist too.

In upper class home kitchens and at clubs and five star hotels, you might find the alur dom to be made with perfectly peeled, round baby potatoes. For the rest, roughly cubed potatoes would do. And in the humblest of places, the potatoes might not even be peeled. The food here would be served on dried sal leaves in a world where the plastic ban was irrelevant. I cannot describe the sheer joy of biting into the skin of the alu. One more reason for advocating a zero waste policy in the kitchen, as the grannies of Bengal would tell you.

In its clubs which once had a 'whites only' policy or in five star hotel room service breakfast trays or in bonedi (old rich) raj baaris, the alur dom would come out on blemish-free white China and not sal leaves of course.

What is beyond debate though, is the fact the potatoes in the alur dom should be rendered soft and cherubic thanks to the magic of slow cooking and then served. 

Thereby transcending the gap between the aristocratic and the subaltern worlds of this rather tempestuous city.

Veg fried rice and chholar dal

Fried rice or vegetable pulao would herald the arrival of the main course in a wedding.

We had it at home yesterday with chholar dal, for channa dal is preferred over a simple moong or masoori dal which it comes to moments of hedonism. 

To make the feeling of ullash (euphoria) complete, some would add bhaaja narkeler kuchi to chholar dal. Fried bits of freshly chopped coconut. Chholar dal pairs well with luchi too. Even better than with pulao.

An actual wedding feast might have had a dhokar dalna (cubes of mashed dal in a curry) and/ or a chhanar dalna, to match the fish and meat on the other side of the menu, when it came to mains. 

Chhanar dalna consists of small dumplings of soft cottage cheese which are fried and put into a gravy. These have a lot more textural complexity and depth than cubes of paneer. 

Dhoka refers not to betrayal, but to dumplings made with mashed lentils. I wonder if there is a Rajasthani influence to this. Any thoughts on this?

Norom paaker shondesh

Main course over, there would be papor chaatni to prepare you for the sweeter side of life. The chaatni here does not refer to chutney, the condiment. You could say that is a sort of sweet syrupy stew made with tomatoes, or unripe papaya or mango, aam shokto (mango leather, kismish, khajoor. The main spice is mustard seeds and mauri. Roasted dry red chillies could go in to balance the sweetness of sugar. We did not have chaatni yesterday.

Then there would be mishti or sweets. Mishti doi, shondesh, roshogolla, chomchom. And for the more well off, ice cream. 'Two in one' cups. Pink and white.

The story would end with a paan.

The food in the pic is what we called in from Peetuk in  Mumbai  yesterday. It was not meant to be a wedding feast. It was for house guests who happen to be vegetarian Parsis (!). They loved the alur dom the most.

The shondesh is the norom paaker shondesh that I carried back from Narendra Sweets which is located at Kolkata’s Russa Road. The mishti doi w inas Swiggy'd from Sweet Bengal, Bandra.

People sometimes ask me why I do not put up pictures of mishti when I go to Kolkata. Truth be told, I find them (including the ones we had yesterday) to be too sweet for my tastes. At the risk of sounding like a snob, the only well balanced mishti that I had in Kolkata recently was what they kept in our suite at the Oberoi Grand in my previous trip to the city. And the roshogollo from Joyguru sweets in the parar mishtir dokan in the suburb of Kolkata where my didu lives.

I still love mishti doi though. I had mishti doi from Narendra Sweets & Banchharam last week in Kolkata and I must say that Sweet Bengal’s  one in Mumbai is right up there in terms of quality with them. Prices would be different of course.

I must add that what I just described applies to the grand wedding feast at night. 

Lunchtime, which is for family members and close friends only, would feature simpler every-day dishes such as bhaat (steamed rice), moong dal, posto in various forms, shukto, labra, ghonto and in the non-vegetarian side, just fish in many forms.


I should also point out that my memories are from the mid 80s to the mid 90s in what would be called 'middle class'/ bourgeoise Kolkata. 

From a time when food was served on a long wooden tables which were set up at wedding halls with disposable long paper rolls acting as table cloths.The members of the family would serve you. A menu would be given at the start. A small printed card which helped you plan your meal. And when paper soaps and finger bowls would be given at the end. 

A time before the caterers came in, with their buffet meals and chilli fish and baby naans.

This was also a time when the share of vegetarian guests in a Bengali wedding would not be more then 10 to 15 per cent of the total.  The few Marwaris, Gujaratis or Tamilians that the family might know and whose existence would give the menu planner sleepless nights. (Appendix: Or widows who were not allowed non-veg as my class mate from schhol, Ayan, pointed out)

I wonder if this has changed today with some taking to vegetarianism for health reasons (not that anything in this menu is what anyone planning to walk on the ramp would touch). I feel that the changing demographics of the city, with people moving in from the north of India, as well as the change in the socio-political dynamics of what seems to be a state increasingly polarised on religious grounds, might affect this figure too.

I am no political pundit or analyst of course. I left Kolkata two decades back though I keep going back and was there last week. Yes, I am not the best person to report on what is happening on ground in Kolkata, sitting at my desk in Mumbai. You are free to ignore the previous paragraph if you want.

I should also point out that I am non-vegetarian myself and had a registered marriage to a Parsi in Mumbai with no gala bhet or bhoj. We had decided to put in the money saved on setting up home. In other words, I am no expert on Bengali wedding feast customs and rituals. So you need not taken anything I’ve written here too seriously. I did enjoy writing it though. 

The plan was to post a few pictures and a caption from Instagram. Then I got carried away while writing as you can see, but that’s me. That’s my ‘writing method,’

Hopefully you would have enjoyed reading it too if you reached till here.

One more thing. I have not attended a wedding in Kolkata in ages. 

Which is why i would love to know how the Bengali wedding feast menu in Kolkata looks today. Veg as well as non-veg. 

I look forward to hearing from you on this.

PS: For readers wondering if I have crossed over to the other side, I also ordered in a lovely mutton biryani too from Peetuk for dinner last night.

If biryani is bae, the alu is my queen. GOT fans will get this PJ.
Appendix:

1. My article on the cabin restaurants of Calcutta in NDTV Foods
2. My blog post explaining what the biryani means to a Kolkata
4. Here's where you can order my book, The Travelling Belly, from to read more stories on Kolkata

Comments

Sameer Kumar said…
Enjoyed reading this, especially since I recently converted to vegetarianism after more than 25 years of being a meat eater. Good to be reminded that veg food can be more than just "ghas phoos"... :-D)
Kalyan Karmakar said…
Thank you so much for writing in Sameer. Bengali cuisine offers a smorgasbord of vegetarian food. It is probably more nuanced when it comes to everyday food than in weddings. Hope you get to try out some of it