If you’re in town during Durga Puja, here are a few things you simply can’t miss tasting.
Ghoti gorom and chapta chana
Durga Puja makes no sense if you couldn’t sit with your friends in a circle outside your neighbourhood Puja pandal for a serious ‘adda’ session. And such an adda session is incomplete if you are not constantly munching on ghoti gorom and chyapta chana. Ghoti gorom is nothing but warm chanachur tossed with lime juice, finely chopped onions and cucumbers, lime juice and a special mix of spices. It is addictive. Chyapta chana sold by roving men in pristine whites is nothing but roasted chips made of chickpeas topped with spices and lime juice. Another addictive snack and a Durga Puja must.
There is something special about the Bhog’er Khichuri served at various Puja Pandals on Ashtami. Young neighbourhood men clad in traditional pajama Punjabi gladly take up the tiring job of serving khichuri bhog to the hundreds who gather to feast on the delightful sweet and spicy mix of rice and lentils, served on plates made of banana or sal leaves, typically accompanied by beguni (aubergine fritters), lyabra ( a spicy medley of seasonal vegetables) chutney, papad and paayesh or kheer. Packed with flavours and a heavy dose of nostalgia, the Bhog er Khichuri is impossible to replicate at any other time, Bengalis will argue.
Traditionally, in most Bengali homes, on Dashami, a large pot of ghugni, along with other sweets and savoury snacks like nimki, is made and served to numerous guests who drop in for the obligatory Bijaya visit. Ghugni is nothing but curried dried white peas crammed with finely chopped coconut and often topped with roasted spices, finely chopped onions and coriander leaves and a generous drizzle of lime juice. Numerous food stalls put up at Puja pandals and roving vendors serve ghugni and it is one of the most coveted evening bites during Durga Puja.
Churmur and aloo kabli
The churmur and aloo kabli stalls have the longest queues. Most phuchkawallahs in Calcutta make churmur, a deliciously spicy muddle of mashed potatoes and crushed phuchka tossed with roasted spices and tamarind water. It’s something you won’t find anywhere else other than Calcutta. Sometimes, soaked lentil balls also go into the mixture. This is one item Durga Puja is incomplete without. The aloo kabli, a Calcutta version of Aloo chaat, is a close second. Aloo kabli – chopped boiled potatoes tossed with chick peas, finely chopped onions and cucumber, roated cumin powder and tamarind water – is the city’s favourite Durga Puja snack.
Rolls and chowmein
During Durga Puja rolls from roadside joints are a must. They come with suspicious looking ketchup but one bite is enough to convince there’s something special about them. Try them for their quirky taste. The same stalls make chowmein which goes by the short form ‘chow’. Noodles tossed with julienned vegetables, eggs and sometimes shreds of meat are topped with chili and tomato sauce. I have seen some stalls sprinkle some rock salt on top too. Do not expect Chinese food when you order for a plate of these fried noodles. Just enjoy it for what it is – unadulterated Calcutta street food.
While across the country people refrain from eating meat during these nine days of Navratri, a Bengali cannot imagine Durga Puja sans mangsho (goat meat). Kosha mangsho – mutton braised with onions, tomatoes, ginger, garlic and a host of warm aromatic spices – is spicy with a hint of sweet and is best enjoyed with phulko luchi or typical Bengali style sweet basanti (yellow) pulao packed with nuts and raisins. Most Bengali homes make a meal out of kosha mangsho at least once during the Pujas, typically on Nabami. If you can’t manage to get an invitation, head straight to Gol Bari in Shyam Bazaar (north Calcutta) for their legendary kosha mangsho, unless you find long queues intimidating.
Calcutta loves Biryani, any time of the year, any day of the week and any hour in the day. Biryani giants like Arsalan and Zeeshan do brisk business all year round; only during Durga Puja they struggle to keep pace with the city’s insatiable hunger for the unique Calcutta biryani with its potatoes and eggs alongside succulent chunks of meat. Moreover, during Durga Puja many anonymous biryani makers put up makeshift stalls on the pavements and around pandals. The biryani is kept on low flame in giant pots and served straight out of it. Some of these biryani stalls are nothing short of revelations.
Calcutta’s chop-cutlet culture is legendary and while the Khadyoroshik Bangali often feasts on fish fry and mutton Kabiraji, the Bengal’s obsession with the crumb coated, deep fried delights takes a whole new meaning during Durga Puja. Fish fry, which is nothing but crumb fried fish fillet served with a potent mustard sauce, Bengal’s feted Kasundi, is almost mandatory. Then there is the mangsher chop (minced meatballs, crumbed and fried), fish roll, (fish fillet rolls stuffed with minced fish and prawn stuffing) batter-fried fish and of course the fish and mutton Kabiraji cutlets with their meshy egg coverage.
Radhaballavi and cholar dal/ luchi and aloo dum
Bengalis take their luchi, deep fried, puffed bread, very seriously. Making phulko (puffed) luchis with those tiny bubbles on its thin crust, quite like the lunar landscape, is an art, really. And paired with some aloo dum or shada aloor tarkari (curried potatoes cooked without turmeric) it is the archetypal Bengali’s favourite breakfast. Come Durga Puja it is almost compulsory. A richer cousin of the luchi is the radhaballavi, which is another kind of fried bread stuffed with a delicious lentil stuffing, typically served with a spicy aloo dum or sweet cholar dal. Most sweet shops make it as a breakfast item.
You can’t celebrate Durga Puja without stuffing yourself with Bengali sweetmeats. From chanar jilipi to mihidana, sitabhog and langcha, roshogollas, kamala bhog, sandesh, mihidana tart and Pantua – iconic sweet shops in Kolkata come up with the most innovative sweetmeats. You simply can’t stop. In fact, you shouldn’t.