‘Fasting’ is the word that marks the arrival of Navratri for the north and the west of India. Move to the east (read Bengal) and ‘feasting’ is what the whole season is about. Bengal eats the ‘bhog’ with great gusto while Goddess Durga rages a battle against evil. And the bhog varies from day to day, and even household to household.
It comes in twos and fours. If you’re lucky, you’ll be blessed with a couple of more. Wondering what this is all about? Luchi (the Bengali ‘flour’ cousin of the north Indian poori, which is made of atta). A fixture on the Pujo breakfast platter, whether served in pandals or at the family dining table, the luchi comes with various accompaniments: the simple, fragrant alur torkari (potato curry with nigella seeds, green chillies and a pinch of turmeric); begoon bhaja (fried brinjal); bonde (aka boondi in the rest of India), and, in some cases, sooji halwa (dripping with ghee and embellished with cashewnuts and raisins). The bhog distributors at pandals may not be as generous as doting mothers and aunts, so you may have to do with only a few. Never mind if the luchi has turned cold by the time the volunteer stuffs it into your cupped hands. It still tastes as good.
Rice and shine
If it’s a mid-day affair in Bengal, it has to be rice. Fragrant atop chaal or gobindobhog (small-grained rice varieties popular in Bengal) is tossed into heavy-bottomed vessels, along with yellow moong dal, whole garam masala, dollops of ghee and vegetables (green peas, cauliflower, potatoes). The ingredients are stirred for hours, over peals of laughter and adda, and what you get in the end is manna-like khichudi (khichdi, if you please). For a ladleful of this khichudi, you will find long queues at pandals and temples during Durga Puja. Saptami and Ashtami bhog is almost always a khichudi meal. What comes with this delightful rice preparation is equally interesting: an assortment of fried vegetables (brinjal, potatoes, wax gourd, bitter gourd and even pumpkin rolled in batter), or the classic labra a mish-mash of vegetables slow-cooked for hours. Beauty in simplicity is the essence of labra, which, strangely, doesn’t taste as good on a non-Puja day or without the khichudi. Sweet chutney is the other bhog constant. Blanched tomatoes, dates, aam papad (aamsatto in Bengali), mustard seeds and grated ginger meld beautifully to give you a thick, syrupy concoction. The other variety is chutney made with anaras (pineapple), tempered with mustard seeds and doused in sugar syrup. A hint of dried red chilli does wonders to the chutney. Last but not the least is the payesh (rice kheer). If the menu organiser is in good spirits you may also get a pantua (Bengali gulab jamun) or a rosogolla. The only thing I’d recommend after such a meal is churan.
The Bengali’s obsession with meat and fish takes no break even during Pujas. While some families keep to a vegetarian diet, most line up an array of non-vegetarian delights for dinner. It’s not unlikely to find old handwritten recipe books coming out of closets for the making of kosha mangsho (spicy mutton curry with whole garam masala), mishti pulao, and a variety of fish preparations ilish paturi (steamed hilsa wrapped in banana leaves), machher matha diye chhenchra (mixed vegetables with fish bones), chingri malaikari (prawns cooked in coconut milk) and so on.
Bijoya Dashami (Dussehra for the rest of India) comes with a tinge of sadness. It’s time to say goodbye to Durga and her entourage. And there’s nothing like a sugar boost to up your spirits. That explains the abundance of rosogolla, gaja (deep fried dough soaked in sugar syrup), mihidana (besan fried in ghee and drenched in sugar syrup) and bonde. No exchange of Bijoya greetings is complete without this burst of calories. To balance the sugar overdose, there’s nothing like a bowl of ghugni (yellow or white peas cooked in gravy and garnished with coriander leaves and slices of lime). If you happen to be in Kolkata, do look for a bottle of ice-cream soda manufactured by Bijoligrill. And write back to tell me if that cooling drink hasn’t helped you sleep like a baby after all that feasting!