Traditional Bengali Meal thali to celebrate Bengali New Year

Shubho Noboborsho | A traditional Bengali menu for Frying Pan Diaries podcast

Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark ∼ Tagore

Shubho Noboborsho! As we celebrate our Bengali new year 1425, here’s wishing others who are celebrating their new year too… Vaishakhi in Punjab and North India, Vishu in Kerala, Puthandu in Tamil Nadu, Bihu in Assam and more. Whether you are a Bengali or not, Indian or not, celebrating a new year or not… I pray that each day we wake up to, is a day worth celebrating. For, every new ‘day’ is ushered by a new dawn filled with hope and new possibilities.

Arva and Farida Ahmed of Frying Pan Adventures come home to do their podcast on Bengali food

Yes, every now and then we wake up to some shocking news and shaken up by images of unfortunate events happening in different parts of the world. Sadly, they always seem to belong to someone else’s world and not ours, until the dreadful happens to our near and dear ones. I feel so helpless as my belief in humanity is shaken. And then the above words of Tagore, ‘Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark’, drills faith back into me. I suddenly remember the Georgian grandmas from our recent trip to Georgia – complete strangers to me, holding and hugging me, and feeding us morsels cooked in love. My faith in humanity is immediately restored. My belief is reinforced that as long as there is food cooked by human hands combining the ingredients of love, and connects people… there is hope. I see that hope everyday in my kitchen when Lady M and I discuss the menu of the day. I see the same love while planning the weekly grocery with the Bearded Biker. I remember how my childhood is now secured in the treasure trove of fuzzy warm memories and delicious aromas of my ma and grandmothers’ cooking. Special dishes for celebrating festivities and special occasions remain etched in my mind still. After marriage, the same continued as my shashuri/ma-in-law strived to make every mealtime for us a special one. And if a guest happened to visit us, heaven save them. Atithi Devo Bhava treating the guest as Godis something that we have imbibed from the time we were in the womb!

The Frying Pan Diaries Podcast on Bengali Food with Ishita B Saha

Coming back to the good things happening in this world, when the brilliant sister duo Arva and Farida Ahmed from Frying Pan Adventures, Dubai’s first food tour company (I have walked a lot with them in the alleys of Dubai and Sharjah… with the primary objective of eating of course!) wanted to make a podcast in their Frying Pan Diaries on Bengali food, I thought the best venue would be my home – we could sit around our infamously small but famously food-overloaded instagram worthy dining table… and taste the food too. What will be my menu? The last time I opened my Bengali kitchen for a media preview to Dima Sharif, it was a traditional Bengali menu. But the dilemma I always feel here is this… how many dishes should be included or rather safely excluded so that a person who’s non-initiated to Bengali food gets an elaborately fair idea about the richness of Bengali cuisine? Eventually, I managed to pin down a menu of a sort. The podcast is genuinely beautiful as it delicately weaves through the episode through what we tasted … from Shukto to Dhokar Dalna, Jhurjhure Aloo Bhaja, Cholar Daal, LuchiMurighonto…. Shorshebata, chingrimaacher Malaikari… Kasha Mangsho … Mishti doi and Notun Gurer Rasgolla. My ma’s Rabindra Sangeet in the background track… Rupé today bhulabo na… adds ups the emotional quotient. Although I have spoken about Bengali food many times over on radio, curated Bengali menus for a few special pop ups (at Bookmuch and once at Rang Mahal with Atul Kochhar), I have never felt so complete, sounded so confident or been so happy listening to myself. That may have to do with the fact that the Bengali tigress in me was caught in her own territory – in my own kitchen, talking about my Bengali food to the two sisters who I am very fond of, and who constantly remind me of my own daughters – the Z-Sisters. The passion with which they are pursuing a food business resonates my own passion, specially the urge to speak in an honest voice – notoriously delicious – as I read them mentioning me somewhere!

My menu planning when we have guests at home depends upon two factors – the occasion and the nationalities of the guests. For example, if the occasion is our annual Bijoya celebration, without any doubt I will be making a very traditional Bengali fare. The occasional culinary experiments inspired by our travels are mostly offloaded onto my family and close Bengali friends. But if a guest is a non-Bengali or a non-Indian, the menu tends to be pretty much a summarised CV from my encyclopaedia of Bengali food. There is also always an expectation of a few popular Bengali dishes like Shorshebata maach or the Mishti Doi. Moreover, my frequent behind-the-scene instastories result in friends and guests requesting for some dishes that they may have seen in my instastories… for example, the Kolkata street-style Aloor Dom that I like to serve as a Starter or the Middle Eastern inspired Begun Bhaja, the fried eggplant with yoghurt and fried garlic (picture below). When we lived in Germany, the menu for my German friends would be quite different – I always added a twist to the Bengali recipes that I was learning to cook, as those were my initial days of my foray into cooking Bengali food. The German Kartoffel Purée, thus, would acquired the Bengali status of Aloo Bhaaté, the mashed potato with a twist of fresh grated coconut, a tempering of mustard seeds and a dash of Kashundi. Or say, my phenomenally successful dessert Shondesh Pudding – a fusion recipe of traditional Shondesh and the cream caramel. No such menu trials for my guests nowadays as I have realised that I want to introduce or present them with authentic Bengali food, specially when they are tasting it for the very first time.

আমি রূপে তোমায় ভোলাব না, ভালোবাসায় ভোলাব।

I shall not entice you with my beauty, but with my love ∼ Tagore

Ma’s rendition of the above Tagore song weaves through the podcast and brings back so much of nostalgia. Do listen to the full track here and let me know how you liked it. And this was the menu for the day… if you are a Bengali reading this, I hope that I did justice to the representation of the vast repertoire of our Bengali cuisine.

Shukto, the Bengali ratatouille as I like to call it, served with shada bhaat, or plain white rice
• Dhokar Dalna, Lentil cakes cooked in gravy
Begun Bhaja with Middle Eastern Twist, fried eggplant with yoghurt dip and fried garlic (sometimes I also garnish the dish with pomegranates and sprinkle of sumac)
Jhurjhure Aloo Bhaja, fried julienne potatoes
Cholar Dal, chana or Bengal Gram dal with coconut
Moong Daal with fish head
Moori Ghonto – rice cooked with fish head
Chingri Maacher Malaikari, the sweet water Tiger Prawn cooked in a coconut gravy
Shorshebata Salmon, mustard salmon. Usually, this preparation is done with the extremely boney Hilsa fish, but I use salmon as there are less bones
• Kosha Mangsho, slow cooked lamb, although back home, this preparation will use goat
Tomato Chutney with dates and raisin.

Desserts:
Bhapa Mishti Doi or steamed sweet yoghurt
Notun Gurer Roshogolla – rasgulla filled with season fresh jaggery


Shukto


Begun Bhaja


Chingri Maacher Malaikari


Shorshebata Salmon

Bengali Tomato Chutney
Bengali Tomato Chutney

Arva and Farida Ahmed from Frying Pan Adventures at home

Do listen to the Frying Pan Diaries podcast on iTunes and iPhone or on their blog, subscribe to them and share the love. Frying Pan Diaries is the first food podcast from Dubai with a focus on food stories from the city and the surrounding region… and to reciprocate the love to the sister duo, they too are a notoriously delicious bunch! In addition to the dishes that I had cooked that day, I had also ordered a few dishes from the Bengali restaurant Zaika Hub in Al Nahda so that I could present a more elaborate menu to the Ahmed sisters. I have also mentioned the restaurant in the podcast. Sad to inform you folks that the restaurant has recently closed down… well, c’est la vie! As we sign off, let us pray for a safer world where faith in humanity may prevail. Let food unite us all despite our varied heritages that make us more distinctive and unique… may we all speak in the common language of food, compassion and love. Shubho Noborsho to all of you… may our celebrations lent themselves to your celebrations as we harvest love and hope for tomorrow and the days to come, for people all around the world. Coming back to my safe haven, we mostly cook up the whole Bengali universe in our kitchen – starting from shukto to murighonto. But apparently, that’s only when we have guests! To be fair, that’s not completely untrue… so the million dollar (or chingri malaikari worth of) question that needs to be addressed first and foremost tomorrow morning – what will the menu be at home for the night!

Unblogging it all… Ishita

PS: Also sharing my thoughts that came out in Gulf News a few days back on the essence of being a Bengali in the wake of the recent disturbances in Bengal – it seems quite relevant with our Noboborsho wishes hoping for a bright future. The Bengali Mishti and Maach never fought over religion or borders, so why should the people? Do read the full story here.

Disclaimer: All images are shot by me, excepting the ones with Frying Pan logos, which have been shared with me by the Frying Pan Adventures. This isn’t a sponsored post, nor are there any affiliated links. The subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own and all my bills have been self paid. While you enjoy reading my posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from these posts. Do join me on my daily food and travel journey on Instagram, Facebook, Twitterand Pinterest.


Do try out these Bengali recipes from my blog:
Shorshe Bata Maach – Mustard Salmon In This Case
Spicy Baby Potatoes or Aloor Dum – Kolkata Street Style!
Mashed Potato Bengali Style/ Aloo Bhaaté
Luchi Featured In Ahlan! Gourmet | My Ode To Phulko Luchi!
Bhapa Mishti Doi and A Food Safari of Bengal | BBC GoodFood ME
Notun Gurer Payesh/Traditional Bengali Rice Pudding | Remembering My Dida
Payesh or Rice Pudding For My Birthday | Power of Gratitude Messages
Shondesh/Sandesh Pudding | Guest Post For Cook Like A Bong!

And if you are interested in reading more on Bengali food in my blog:
A-Z of Bengali Fish
Traditional Bengali Cuisine | In ‘Slight’ Details

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A-Z of Bengali Fish

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food ~ Hippocrates

My in-laws left yesterday for Kolkata after spending a month with us here in Dubai. The house seems so empty suddenly, along with the fridge. We had lunch and dinner with all the leftovers from my shashuri – ma-in-law’s cooking…  a few pieces of traditional Bengali fish like Pabda (two more pieces to go), bandhakopir torkari, a cabbage dish, and the summer favourite aam daal – a sweet-sour lentil soup with raw mango. From today, our kitchen will stop showing any semblance to my ma-in-law’s Kolkata kitchen that’s always been aligned to how my shoshurmoshai – father-in-law wants/loves to eat. There will now be pastas and sandwiches with some occasional Bengali cooking over the weekend splattered with the nostalgic reminiscences of how much we overate the past one month. The sadness of their leaving is being compensated to an extent with all the wishes and love that are still pouring in for my birthday (which fell on this Thursday but the celebrations still continue). After a month of eating only Bengali food, with traditional fish preparations holding centre stage, I feel the sudden need to write a post on these lines… A-Z of Bengali fish. It’s also a note of thanks from my side, for the love I get from all of you and how you keep on embracing me unconditionally and repeatedly as a citizen of this world living in this cosmopolitan city, despite my constant proclamations of my Bengali roots.

I am making a home in Dubai …. 3,307 kms away from Bengal, raising two third culture kids and perpetually in a quasi Bengali state of being – I crave for dupurer ghum – afternoon siesta on a Sunday afternoon when all of Dubai are busy getting into the groove of the week with the first working day being Sunday! There’s also the myth (okay the pseudo-truth) that I can never get away from – the Bengali’s love for fish – maach, and sweets – mishti, that I have kind of embraced nowadays. In fact, I have started to relish the curiosity and the talks surrounding these two topics. On the hindsight, I didn’t grow up loving fish as much as I loved sweets. But I seriously – seriously do now, and that’s all because of the two decades of living away from Bengal and also the constant questions and queries that I get from so many people – via emails and messages and DMs – on the topic of FISH. Nowadays, I have started getting whatsapp messages too from strangers, asking for Bengali fish recipes and all that’s related to Bengali fish. ‘Didi, nomoshkar. Apni to Dubai-te onekdin achen. Ekhane Bangali maach paoaa jay/ Hello Sister! You are living in Dubai for a long time. Where can we get Bengali fish here?’ or ‘Please mind korben na eto raate message korchi bole. Ami Meenabazar-e dariye achi. Ekhane kothay Bangladeshi dokan jekhane ilish paoa jay?/ Please don’t mind me messaging so late. I am standing in Meenabazaar right now, where is the Bangladeshi shop here which sells the Ilish?’ From Non-Bengalis, the questions would be more on these lines… ‘Can you share the Bengali fish recipe – I have just bought some Rohu from Lulu!’ or ‘I heard you can have fish from breakfast through dinner!’ Friends, there’s no ONE Bengali fish recipe. And, yes, SOME Bengalis love fish but they don’t exactly brush their teeth in fish oil, although I wished they could (it’s high in omega and good for the skin, hair, heart and eyes), nor do they catch fish in their sleep. Also, we can’t eat fish like the bony Hilsa – the Ilissh, with our eyes closed, as we too are as prone to choking if we don’t concentrate on the fish bones while we eat, as much as any Non-Bengali. But I will let these myths persist. It works towards our advantage and as I say, let’s bask in the glory of our fishy and sweet heritage!

Bhetki Maacher Ghonto
The special bhetki macher ghonto my shashuri made for my birthday – it’s a recipe from my side of the family that she took from my ma over the phone. A nostalgic recipe that ended up in transcending variations of cooking across borders and connecting two families together. 

A conversation started over my birthday instastory where I have shared the Bhetki Macher Ghonto that I had for lunch (above). My day had started with payesh, the traditional rice pudding that ushers in every auspicious occasion for a Bengali… as early as 7:30 in the morning, made lovingly by my shashuri. Dinner was luchi and murgir jhol with aloo. As I hesitated a bit to explain my lunch – my exact words being… ‘Not mentioning the lunch which is a bit complicated to explain ~ ghonto if you know what I mean’, a sudden barrage of comments started pouring in. If you know, ghonto is more like a vegetable ratatouille with pieces of fish, fish head, tails and bones thrown in. I started receiving curious comments on Bengalis’ fish habits.

And a few knowledgeable Bengalis asked, how was I so sure that it was a ghonto and not a chyachra. For the uninitiated, these are complicated terms in Bengali culinary dictionary – preparations as different from macerated fruit to a poached one. I replied saying that my thamma (paternal grandma) used to make this ghonto and my ma picked it up from her. Since it’s my favourite, my ma-in-law who is visiting us, learnt the recipe from her over a long ISD call and made it for lunch – skype is banned in the UAE currently, hence the final product ended up being a very expensive ghonto. So, I know… this was a ghonto. Period!

Shorshebata Iliish or Mustard Hilsa
Shorshebata Iliish or the Mustard Hilsa, one of the most epic dishes from Bengali cuisine – with absolutely no filter! I often chat to my family how the food in my book should look like (if and when it materialises)… should it be stylised or should it be kept just like this… simple and homely? The poll feature in @instagram has been amazing in that sense and thank you for giving your verdict… 87% of you want to see the food like this… ready to attack!

With all the conversation relating or leading only to fish over the last one month with a freezer overflowing with Bengali fish starting from Aar to Bhetki to Chingri to Ilish to Pabda, stocked from the Bangladeshi supermarket (do read my post where you will get an idea to what extent we can go to get the right fish) … thanks to my shoshurmoshai who travels with a menu and routine that he is used to in his Saltlake home, I decided that this was probably going to be the best time to use my (fish) information overload. Also, the protagonist in the bone of contention between my shashuri and shoshurmoshai most of the times, is also the fish – what fish to cook – for lunch and then again for dinner, what preparation and how many pieces she should assign for him. At the dining table, our conversation then would revolve around whether the particular fish that has been cooked here, would taste better and fresher than the one he buys in the fish market and Kolkata. Don’t forget the prices – whether the dirhams spent here was worth the rupees that he generally spends back home. However, the Z-Sisters had the final say – apparently, our Dubai home apparently smelt like Saltlake when their Oma-Dadai when here! Kudos to Bengali fish bought in Dubai then… also, the A-Z of Bengali fish post couldn’t be avoided any longer.

Parshe Maacher Jhaal
Pabda Maacher Jhol

A bit of a dig into my family history here… the preparations and availability of fish in Bengal in India and in Bangladesh is quite different. While my family is based more in Epar Bangla – the Indian side of Bengal, hence termed part-Ghotis and the Bearded Biker’s family is predominantly Bangals originating from Opar Bangla or Bangladesh, the fish preparations that we both have grown up eating are a bit different. My experience of fish eating had been limited to Rui, Iliish, Bhetki and Chingri and my marriage introduced me to a wider variety of fish and fish preparations. While we – the Ghotis can boast of a few iconic preparations like the Chingri Malaikari, the Bangals, as I discovered via my shashuri’s cooking, have a magic wand when it comes to cooking any fish. A simple fish gravy in black cumin paste from Opar Bangla can alone compete with all the elaborate fish kahlias and shorshebatas from Epar Bangla! As an ode to my heritage, here’s the list, A-Z of Bengali Fish and the best possible preparations for that particular fish… admitting that these are only the few where I have had the good fortune of laying my fingers on the fish bones, hence a few alphabets are still sitting empty.

Ilish or Hilsa
Ilish or Hilsa cooked in a light gravy of turmeric, black cumin and chilli with pumpkin. Sometimes, the pumpkin can be substituted by cucumber or eggplant – a preparation that I wasn’t familiar with before my marriage.

A-Z of Bengali Fish

A: Aar – less bones, delicate and very fleshy; Calls for a turmeric-black cumin gravy with aloo and slit green chillies, garnished with fresh coriander leaves.

B: Bata, Bhetki, Basa – While Bata is a long bony fish to be cooked in its entirety in the traditional mustard preparation with a tempering of nigella seeds, Bhetki is a well sought-after Bengali fish and versatile. One of its signature preparation is the Bhetki Paturi, where fillets are cooked in steam in a thick mustard and chilli paste while wrapped in banana leaves. Bhetki fillets are also coveted for the fish fry with an outer covering of breaded crumbs. Basa is one fish that is looked down upon by the Bengali fish snobs as a cheaper substitute for Bhetki fries, so beware!

C: Chitol, Chingri – It’s almost a dying art to scrape the flesh off the main spine so that they can be made into fish balls for the signature gravy – Chitol Maacher Muitha; also the Peti or the abdominal section of Chitol is exceptionally oily and calls for a gravy made with ginger, chilli, turmeric and white cumin. Chingri or the Prawn has many variations – depending upon the size. Galda, Bagda, Chyapra etc. Galda Chingri is the giant fresh water prawn and is most popularly used in the signature preparation – Chingrir Malaikari, a prawn preparation in coconut gravy. Bagda is the Tiger Prawn also used for Malaikari preparation while the Chapra is the smaller variety (both fresh and seawater) that goes well in a spicy fried preparation or as Chingrir bora or spicy fried balls.

D:

E: Eilish… see I!

F: Foli, Fyasha – Foli is more like Chitol while Fyasha is very bony. The former is tasty in a light turmeric, cumin and coriander gravy with vegetables like potatoes and snowpeas thrown in along with bori – fried lentil balls. Like many other Bengali fish, Like Foli, Fyasha is also a small fish that can be cooked in a mustard gravy.

G: Galda Chingri (see Chingri above), Gurjali – Interestingly, Gurjali has been referred as Indian salmon and is brilliant in a traditional mustard gravy with a tempering of nigella seeds.

H: Hilsa… see I!

I: Iilish – The fact that Ilish takes over three alphabets – E for Eilish, H for Hilsa and I for Ilish is not surprising as Ilish is indeed the celebrity Bengali fish. A topic for political debate involving two countries – India and Bangladesh – whether the Ilish from the Padma river in Bangladesh is better than the Ilish from the Ganges and vice versa. No fish has ever been commercialised so much or catapulted to such heights. Come monsoons, hotels and Bengali restaurants in Kolkata are flooded with Hilsa festivals where traditional recipes jostle for space along with fusion recipes. Amongst all the different recipes that exist, the ones that I love are the traditional ones – definitely the epic shorshebata or mustard fish preparation (I have a recipe for a similar preparation in salmon that praises to carry the same legacy), the patla kalojirer jhol – gravy made with black cumin and red chilli paste with either cubes of cucumber, or eggplants or pumpkin thrown in. I also can’t resist having simple fried Ilish with shada bhaat and Ilisher tel – steaming white rice with the oil that has been used to fry the fish pieces. My dida or maternal grandma also used to make a Ilisher Ombol, a sweet and sour chutney with Ilish in light tamarind and turmeric gravy with a tempering of mustard seeds. My ma has a signature recipe of a Ilish Maacher Raita, a yoghurt raita with Ilish, to be savoured cold. And of course, there is the Bhapa Ilish or the Steamed Hilsa, prepared wrapped in banana leaf.

J:

K: Katla, Koi, Kajli, Khoira – Katla comes from the family of Carp much like Rui, but in bigger size. Katla is used in the famous Kalia preparation, a rich oily preparation. Koi is famously prepared as Tel Koi in a mustard oil gravy, or as a Jhaal prepared with mustard paste and a tempering of nigella seeds.

L: Loite – Loite has different names and pronunciations in different parts of Bengal and is also known as the Bombay Duck in Mumbai. I Although there are recipes where Loite is cooked in a curry, I prefer the way my ma-in-law cooks it – Loite Maacher Jhuri… it’s time consuming and the end result is shockingly meagre in volume as compared to how it appears at the start. The constant stirring of the soft textured fish along with turmeric, red chilli, cumin and coriander lets the water from the fish to evaporate out and the mixture becomes crunchy and real spicy.

M: Mourola, Magur, Mrigal – I grew up hearing that tiny sized Mourola is good for the eyes but the way we have always had it probably defined the purpose… deep fried in oil! Magur is a kind of a catfish and small pieces of Magur cooked in a light gravy made with turmeric and cumin is considered a coolant. Mrigel is quite bony and cooked in a dense mustard gravy brings out the fine taste of the fish.

N/O:

P: Parshe, Pabda, Pona, Punti, Pangash – Parshe is best served in a jhal preparation in a mustard gravy, while Pabda can be cooked in a light jhol or a hot jhal, depending upon the size. Pona comes from the same family as Rohu and can be prepared in a similar way while Chara Pona, is the baby Pona and makes a very good light curry with potatoes, green papaya, green banana and Boris. Punti is one of the more popular small fish and is cooked in a jhaal, the dense mustard gravy. Pangash tastes amazing in a Dopiaza preparation which is not a traditional Bengali preparation. The Dopiaza is is a Middle Eastern preparation with a large amount of onions cooked in a thick tomato gravy.

Q:

R: Rui – Rui or Rohu is definitely the most popular fish used for day-to-day cooking and is available with ease. For example, this is the only Bengali fish that are quite easily available in regular Dubai supermarkets like Lulu or Carrefour. Rui is quite versatile and fleshy, and can be cooked in almost all the Bengali fish preparations that one can think of … jhol, jhal, kalia, doi maach and more (refer below for the definitions). A light gravy preparation of Rui with potatoes, cauliflower and green peas brings back memories of my Dida’s cooking – a nostalgic dish conjuring up the winters from my childhood.

S: Shingi, Shol, Shorputi – Cooked up in a light stew with seasonal vegetables like snow peas, eggplants, potatoes (but, of course), Shingi Maacher Jhol act as another coolant with high therapeutic with high nutritional quotients. While I have tasted Shol in a kalia preparation, there’s also a popular recipe where its cooked in a gravy with raw mangoes. Shorputi again, is another variation of Puti and can be cooked in a jhal or a jhol.

T: Tyangra, Tilapia, Topshe – Tyangra is great for a Jhal chochori – with fried Tyangras cooked in a spicy non-gravy preparation. Tilapia is an import and has been adopted affectionately into the Bengali fish dictionary and serves up brilliantly in a Shorshe Jhaal, the spicy mustard preparation. I have grown up seeing my parents and their friends serving Topshe fried in whole, in a gram flour batter sprinkled with either nigella seeds or posto – poppy seeds, as a starter to accompany their Sunday gin and vodka lunch parties, and I can’t seem to remember if I’ve ever tasted Topshe in any other way!

U/V/W/X/Y/Z:

Aar match prepared in a light gravy with turmeric and cumin
Aar prepared in jhol, a light gravy of turmeric and cumin with potato and fresh coriander leaves

When fish names can be so many, fish preparations must match up to the number… so we have ghonto and ghyat, chachra and lyabra, jhol and jhal. If this is of any interest to you, here you go…

Fish is still cooked daily for main course in most traditional Bengali household. Shorshe Maach/Mustard Fish is one of the most popular fish preparations and has found quite an acclaim outside the Bengali home, but it is not the only fish recipe in our pescetarian portfolio. Bengali cuisine is famous for it’s various fish preparations – and there is a lot going into the fish gravy on whether it should be called Maacher Jhol or Maacher Jhaal. Maacher Jhol is where the gravy of the dish is made with ginger, turmeric, cumin powder, green chillis (the ingredients vary from one region of Bengal to another) and Jhaal is where the gravy is hot and spicy and made with mustard paste, turmeric, chilli and other spices. Then there is the Doi Maach, the yogurt gravy with tomatoes and onion, and the Kalia, a rich oily gravy with a lot of prominence of onion, garlic, tomatoes and garam masala – once the mainstay of a wedding buffet. Fish oil, skin, bones, head and tail – everything can go into a dish… while fish head is considered auspicious and is served to the new bride as she is welcomed into her newly wedded family, the rest of the bony remnants also find their holy space into various delicacies either for special occasions or for a daily casual dish. Kata chocchori uses up the kata or the fish bones along with one or more varieties of vegetables or leafy greens cut into longish strips. In Chhyanchra fish head, bones and and fish oil are cooked along with different vegetables and appears more like a soft ratatouille. And then there is the Ghonto where chopped vegetables are cooked in phoron and spices with fish head and fish bones. Muri-ghonto is a particular delicacy where rice is cooked with fish head and bones. We don’t spare Daals too, and the tastiest one is Maacher Maatha diye Moong Daal, where fish heads and bones spruce up a dense moong daal, the yellow lentil soup. While all the above may sound a bit complicated for the uninitiated or even for many Bengalis, the expertise in determining whether a dish is a chyanchra or a chocchori and whether a gravy is a jhaal or a jhol, hits all Bengalis suddenly like puberty and adolescence… but it will definitely happen once in their lifetimes. For some, it hits earlier than others!

Kata fish cooked in a light gravy
Katla cooked in a light gravy – jhol with potatoes, to be supplemented by steaming white rice. My shoshurmoshai still uses a similar plate made with Kansha, or bell metal, a hard alloy used for making bells and related instruments. Ancient Ayurveda attributes the use of different utensils to extract different nutrients and eating in a kansha plate or drinking water in a kansha glass has been an age-old tradition. Although I have inherited a few of these in my kitchen, I use them sparingly for a one-off photo shoot, succumbing to the demands of the modern day dishwasher!

Like any other cuisine in this world, no Bengali fish recipe is sacrosanct and no one recipe is better than the other. The usage of garlic, onion, tomatoes in some fish preparations may feel like a modern interpretation but if you dig in, you may find that they are as intrinsic part of a traditional recipe in some other region in Bengal. What perhaps remains sacrosanct is the use of mustard oil in a Bengali fish preparation and the use of fingers for bhaat mekhe khaoa – to mix the rice in the delicious fish gravy. If you refer to the picture above, you will realise how there can never be another option! Regional variations have co-existed through times and recipe evolutions can be contributed to geo-political changes that have shaped the history of Bengal – from the undivided Bengal of pre-independence India to the one that is now partitioned by the borders of India and Bangladesh, post-independence. My list here is not comprehensive, and it cannot be as my knowledge is limited by what I have tasted in the kitchens of only a few families – my father’s ancestral home in Naihati (very ghoti), my dida’s cooking (again ghoti as she was from Bhatpara), my ma’s very own style of cooking as she picked up recipes from both Naihati and Bhatpara, my ma-in-law’s cooking which has been influenced by her mother and reflects the Bangal way of cooking… and finally every other Bengali family that I have had a meal with – from the shores of California to Singapore, and from the time we made a home in Frankfurt to all the true-blue Bengali homes that we have visited in  Kolkata.

I have deliberately used all the shots that capture traditional Bengali fish cooked in my kitchen in Dubai. I leave it at this, and am hoping that you will be filling me with more fish names and recipes. I am also curious to check what are the new Bengali Fish words that people have been searching in my blog over the weekend – once someone was looking for a ‘maach-boudi in Dubai’, I don’t really want to translate that here. I am just relieved that no body has called me a maach-didi – a fish sister, yet!

Unblogging it all… Ishita

Disclaimer: This isn’t a sponsored post, nor are there any affiliated links. The subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own. While you enjoy reading my posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from these posts. Do join me on my daily food and travel journey on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.


Read my other fish posts:
Shorshe Bata Maach – Mustard Salmon In This Case
Traditional Bengali Cuisine | All The ‘Slight’ Details

Bijoya celebrations with sindoor khela with IshitaUnblogged

Shubho Bijoya to all | Immersing in the bond of food and love

For the wise man, every day is a festival ∼ Plutarch

Shubho Bijoya! The five-day long Durga Pujo (wiki at your service) evokes a sense of pride, love and communal solidarity among Bengalis, in whichever part of the world they have chosen to call their home. For me, Dubai has been my adopted home for the the last few years and we celebrate it in our own non-ritualistic way. In my childhood, Durga Pujo was all about the excitement of school holidays accompanied by new sets of clothes designated for each ‘bela’, so five days of pujo meant ten sets of new clothes – one for each bela… morning and evening. Much later it became my chance to officially roam around the city 24×7 with my squad, the Bearded Biker being one of the squad members. The essence of the goddess’s arrival on earth – her monumental fight against demons and putting the faith back into humanity – that good always necessarily triumphs over evil, lost its significance to our search for the best phuchkawala in town who would still be willing to serve us at an ungodly hour of 4am. This, in turn, would invariably lead to the eternal fight for supremacy between North Calcutta and South Calcutta (yes, before the city was rechristened as Kolkata) – the para/locality battle of global importance – as if the verdict on the phuchka and the double egg double chicken roll determined the fate of a para. What could have been my purpose of dressing up in those days (much before the matured feminist principles set in –  dressing up for one’s own self)? To attract boys from my hood? from other hoods? show off the best curves? earn an ego flattering tag of being quite a chick… I simply can’t remember now. Today this would have probably tantamounted to garnering a couple of ‘likes’ on social media! But the fact remains – the five days of Pujo every year, are still one of the most amazing days of my life… closely followed by the remembrances of a chaotic Holi… and the long wait culminating in the surreal feeling of attending the midnight mass in St Paul’s Cathedral as we ushered in Christmas. An earlier writing of mine talks about my childhood in Kolkata, a city which raised us to celebrate all the festivities that every religion had to offer. A festival was for celebrating and immersing one’s self in its being… irrespective of the religion. I was born a Hindu, but never told to be one. I worshipped Hindu deities, but never asked not to worship anyone else. I have gone on a Ramadan food trail in Kolkata with the same veneration as I have gone pandal hopping during Durga Pujo. Today when we celebrate Durga Pujo at home, it’s hardly the rituals that I want to bring in perspective, specially for the Z-Sisters. It’s the emotions… emotions of being a Bengali, a Kolkatan and finally being in love with the kaleidoscopic life that only a city like Kolkata can bring.

And for a Bengali, that colour of love is quintessentially red and white.

Bijoya celebrations with sindoor khela at IshitaUnblogged's homeA Bengali lady adorned in traditional red and white sari and holds a puja thaliBijoya celebrations with sindoor khela at IshitaUnblogged's home Bijoya celebrations with sindoor khela at IshitaUnblogged's homeBijoya celebrations with sindoor khela at IshitaUnblogged's homeBijoya celebrations with sindoor khela at IshitaUnblogged's home Bengalis in Dubai

Whether it is the nine yard draping of a traditional sari, the shakha-pala adorned by the married Bengali woman – the white bangles made from conch-shell and the red bangles made of red corals, or the smearing of the red sindoor/vermilion on the forehead, the vibrancy of the red and white combination that I have grown up watching, is quite addictive. You may want to try out new things, but come Bijoya Dashami… the duotone outdoes all the others in the colour wheel. This year too, we ushered in Bijoya with a small gathering at home, a day earlier on Nobomi to coincide with our weekend. The menu was traditional and consisted of fish fry and mochar chop for starters (I also intended to make some aam paana vodka shots, which I forgot!) followed by the mains – beguni, potol bhaja, luchi, aloor dom, iliish maach bhaja, bhoger khichuri (a bit different from the khichuri recipe I have on my blog), mangsho, tomato khejurer chutney. Desserts consisted of notun gurer payesh, malpoa and a rum cake (courtesy friends) and signing off with the signatory paan. The requests pouring in from friends were endless – if the menu had mansho, then there had to be luchi and the luchi had to be phulko or perfectly puffed up (and if you still don’t know my obsession with it, read my ode to phulko luchi), begunis had to be crispy and hot, preferably not pre-fried. The same went for iliish maach bhaaja. Calcutta Fast Food in Sharjah very kindly took up my delicate proposal of ‘part-catering’, if there can be a word like that. A small live cooking section was arranged outdoors in the garden for frying the fish, mochar chop, beguni, luchi, ilissh maach. The sequence in which these needed to be fried also required some serious attention (and strategy) – the first two in the above list were to be served as starters, and the rest had to be doled out almost simultaneously during the main dinner. Not to forget the delicate balance of not frying too much too early on, or take the cue that the oil in which the iliish maach was fried wasn’t the same for frying the luchi!

 

♥ ♥ ♥ Lil Z created a cute hand written menu (left) which, I forgot to place along with the food. She is still upset with me and nothing can compensate this, not even posting it on my blog now because the moment is gone – it is a three-fold card with intricate design of a hand holding the card and the fingers wearing glittery rings. That brings me back to an issue that I seriously suffer from – always forgetting to serve something that has been created specially for the guests, for example, the chutney which is always left waiting in the fridge!

Traditional Bengali dinner specially created for the Pujo Bengali Aloor Dom Bengali Fish FryBengali Mutton Curry with Aloo             Notun gurer payesh

The Bearded Biker leaves no stone unturned for me to materialise a menu. So a few days earlier, after office, we dashed off to the Backet Supermarket in Rolla in Sharjah, the Bangladeshi wholesaler for Bengali fish and foodstuff. If it had to be iliish, it had to be from the Backet, he said. We decided that we would provide the iliish maach and the mustard oil for frying them, for our part-catering. A 12kgs Katla fish was dangling in our way and was way too tempting but we stuck to our list – for once! The special rice used for making bhoger khichuri and the payesh – the chinigura, which is a good substitute for Gobindobhog and the potol also came along with us from Backet. So did the special gondhoraj lebu, the Bengal lime which has a similar aroma to Thai kaffir limes. Salimbhai (below), helped me to choose the perfectly rounded aloo for my aloor dom and the barrel shaped perfect potols. He also promised that the iliish would taste heavenly and it indeed did so. Although, our need for Bengali fish is adequately met at Mefroze in Karama or from a Bangladeshi shop in Bur Dubai most of the times, this dinner needed to be special. After all, the preparation for a special celebration and it’s anticipation is in a way, a subtle infusion of love and warmth into the moments we create for keepsake memories.

Backet Supermarket in Sharjah Frozen Hilsa available in Backet Supermarket in Sharjah The scraping of scales of Hilsa in Backet Supermarket in Sharjah Salim Bhai in Backet Supermarket in Sharjah

The only time when fashion has to complement food in my blog, is during Pujo. As more and more metropolitan cities in India (and all over the world) are moving towards homogenisation, people are opting out of traditional wear in their daily lives and choosing to wear clothings that are convenient, practical and fuss free. And rightfully so. Festivals and special celebrations are becoming once-in a while special occasions that deserve special adornments. I am hoping that these pictures from my personal album reflect the richness of Bengali culture, despite being diluted in our adaptation at foreign shores. My brother also shared a picture of my Ma and Baba dressed up for Bijoya Sammelani (below) and this was my social media newbie Baba’s first pujo update on Facebook wishing everyone! I also dug into my archives for a picture of my mum-in-law during pujo… she hasn’t yet learnt to take a pujo selfie this year, hence no real evidence of her participation in the pujo. Big Z was a year old in the picture, taken at Iron Side Road in Kolkata, the residential complex where we lived for many years after we shifted from the Magistrate’s House. The stark redness of the sindoor, the crispness of the new saris, the beats of the dhol/ drums from the pandals, the early morning chanting of the priests, and the endless wait for the narkel narus/coconut truffles after the pushpanjali was over – I can feel everything vividly in my senses even today… wherever in the world I am. My brother has been updating live (on social media, of course) from the different pandals that he’s been visiting. I am sharing one of the theme pujos that caught my fancy (do check out his instagram handles @streetbizz and @inbitsnpieces capturing the eclectic world of street vendors and their pursuits). He writes: ‘Modern man’s self obsession with mobiles, is reflected in the theme of this North Kolkata Pujo capturing the attention of the selfie crazy instagram & snapchat generation’. I am sharing a gallery of his beautiful images. And while we are still on the subject, my friend Meher’s write up in Gulf News… ‘Tame that shrew called social media‘, makes for an interesting read.

As I sign off, wishing you all a life filled with happiness, prosperity and peace, my thoughts are with all those people affected by the incidents in Las Vegas today … or Barcelona a few days ago… or the quakes in Mexico… or the stampede at Elphinstone Road Station … or… or… the list is endless. How can we pledge for more tolerance? How can we nurture a non-judgemental society that is more compassionate, kind and respectful than it’s previous generation – and that cares for every fellow human being, irrespective of his/her religion, sexuality, ideology and geographical origin? And I beg you not to ask the nittygritties of my religion (a few challenging remarks have started pouring in recently). For I know nothing. I don’t have a particular religion. All I know is that I have embraced many things from many religion and many philosophies that have resonated with me… I chant Buddhist mantra and seek solace in praying the rosary, soak in the muezzin’s call for prayers and shut my eyes in veneration as I offer flowers to the deities in temples. And I derive the same sense of worshipping when I cook for my family and friends… and try to bring a few hearts together to sew a few good memories!

Unblogging it all… Ishita

Pssst: I have been shortlisted in the Top 10 list in the BBC GoodFood Awards ME 2017 under the ‘Food Influencer’ category. Do cast your votes for me to win!

Image credit: My friends – Bireswar, Soumitro, Nilanjana, Sumana; my brother Aveek and myself

Disclaimer: This isn’t a sponsored post, nor are there any affiliated links. The subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own. While you enjoy reading my posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from these posts. Do join me on my daily food and travel journey on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

 

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