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Taste of Bengal
Elishor hilsais a fish. For Bengalis, it is also an event. Rather like the American shad, with which the hilsa shares its taste, texture and heritage, this elusive, silvery fish spends several winter months in the deep, turbulent waters of the open sea. Then, around late February, it leaves the Bay of Bengal and, in large shoals, begins finning its way up the Ganges and other rivers and rivulets of the Ganges delta to spawn- and to take its chances with Bengali fisherman.
Bengalis are, on the whole, an infectiously passionate lot and few things unite them more than their common passion for foodespecially for fish. No meal is considered complete without it. Symbols of fertility, fish are touched by husbands and then sent to their brides before the wedding ceremony. Fish heads are put into pots of split peas to add peas richness and flavor; tiny shrimp are stir-fried with vegetables; fish are steamed, fried, smoked, made into balls and patties, even stuffed into creamy green coconuts and baked.
In a strange idiosyncrasy, most Bengalis will not touch saltwater fish, complaining that they lack sweetness. Luckily for them, there is abundant fresh water in the spreading fingers of the vast Ganges estuary. The verdant earth, too, is pitted with lakes and ponds. Every ditch, every major puddle seems to swarm with some variety of fishperch, mullet, crab, carp, prawn, crayfish and lobster. All are loved. But it is the expensive, seasonal hilsa that is prized above all.
At a recent soccer match between Bangladesh (east Bengal) and Indias West Bengals fansin shows of good-natured jingoismwaved hilsas from their own waters as banners, the Bangladeshis claiming that their fish from the Padma river were the sweetest and the West Bengalis shouting them down with equal and louderclaims of their own. Bengalis, anxious to satisfy deep cravings of their relatives abroad, have been known to rub fresh hilsa pieces in salt and turmeric the latter being an antisepticdrown them in mustard oil and then pack them in polythene bags and carry them all the way to New York. This, it may be relief to know, is only tried in the winter season and the only accidents reported have been loss of suitcases, not spoilage of fish!
Bengalis not only love fish, they are exceedingly particular about it when they shop. Early mornings, heads of households can be seen in Calcuttas 19th century New Market, sporting plastic of jute shopping bags. They not only examine the eyes of the fish for clearness and the inside of the gills for redness, they know that leta fish is good for invalids and must be bought live, as should be koi or climbing perch, as well as the carp-like rui and female crabs, all rich with roe. They know that only fools discard prawn heads, as that is where most of the flavor resides, and that local hilsa should be snapped up whenever the availability of fish happily coincides with the availability of extra cash needed to buy it.
Hilsa may be cooked in many ways. The hotel Oberoi Grand in Calcutta, an oasis tucked into a crowded thoroughfare, serves a superb Anglo-Indian version, all beautifully smoked and boned, while every Bengali hoe prepares that most elegant of hilsa dishes, elish bhapa. In a breathtakingly simple procedure, cut pieces of hilsa are mixed with a mayonnaise like paste of ground mustard seeds (yellow if mildness is desired, black if a certain bitter pungency is favored), mustard oil, red chilies, green chilies, turmeric and salt. The combination is either wrapped up in an airtight package of banana leaves and cooked along with rice or, if banana leaves are not handy, the mixture is put into a covered metal bowl and the bowl left in a larger pot with just enough water to steam the fish. The fish stays moist and tender while allowing the simple spices to permeate it to its very core.
Seasonings that could be classified, as Bengali would have to include two used in the steamed hilsa dish, mustard oil an mustard seeds. Both have Jekyll and Hyde characteristics. If whole mustard seeds are thrown into hot oil and allowed to pop, they turn nuttily sweet; if they are ground to a paste as many Bengali recipes require, they develop a delicious, nose-tingling pungency. Mustard oil is sharp when used raw; it turns docile and sweet if it is heated. Many Bengali dishes require mustard seeds to do triple dutyas an oil, as a popped, nutty seed, and as a fiery seed paste as well.
Many of the young English East Indiamen lived in a style they could hardly have managed back home. An ordinary household could have as many as thirty servants. There was one to cool the water, one in charge of the wine, others for the garden and the children. There was tailor, a laundryman, a head steward, waiters, and stableboys, a servant to pull fans, and even one to light and take care of the hookah or hubble pipewhich had become quite the rage.
By the 19th century, amusements included amateur theatricals, riding in the morning, promenading by the water in the evening, fancy-dress balls and all manners of banquets. Almost every major English family had a relative in Calcuttaand the history of the city is filled with names like dickens, Turner, Thackeray, Macaulay and Cornwallis.
Because of the heat, mornings started before dawn, often with a ride for the men. According to the diary of a 19th century East Indiaman, breakfast could be a preparation consisting of a little butter, two or three green chilies, a pyramid of boiled rice, a ditto egg, and a pound of dried fish, with salt and cayenne at discretion, all mashed up on a hot water plate and baled down the throat with a spoon. This Anglo-India dish, sounding suspiciously like what the British were to call kedgeree, was served with tea, coffee and lots of Indian fruit.
Ice began coming into Calcutta in the 1830s strangely enough, all the way from America, as the ballast in ships. Up to then it had been collected in small quantities and hoarded like gold dust. The day it came, everybody invited to dinner, to taste claret and beer cooled by the American importation. Banquets, already glittering affairs, glittered even more with lumps of ice shining from butter dishes and water goblets. Such banquets served soups, beefsteaks (Americans, it is said, marveled at the beefsteaks, saying that they were better than those in their homeland), quails or ortolans piled up in hetacombs, an overgrown turkey, ham, a sirloin of beef, a saddle of mutton, legs of mutton boiled and roasted, geese, ducks, tongues, pigeons pies, curry and rice, mutton chops and mutton cutlets. Wine was served in petticoated bottles (wet clothing to keep them cool), port; claret and Burgundy in crimson with white flounces, sherry and Madeira in white. Dinner was followed by the gurgle gurgle of the hookahs, which were placed behind each chair. Many people died in Calcutta during this period of what was called the vapors. This may well have been a euphemism for over-indulgence.
But, just as the Bengali- however westernizednever gave up his language, neither did he give up his Bengali food and his passion fish, riceand sweets. In face, Bengalis havewith justification such high regard for their food that one gentleman at a dinner turned to me and said with quiet conviction, There are only four great cuisines in the worldFrench, Chinese, Italian and Bengali!
Today, a Bengalis day in the country might well begin, gastronomically speaking, with a big bowl containing moori (puffed rice), thick creamy milk and healthy dollops of freshly mashed fruit such as sweet, ripe mangoes or musky jackfruit. In the city, a clerk rushing to the office in a white kurta and dhoti (voluminous lower garment) might hurriedly partake of a steaming cup of tea and moori in its savory form, just tossed with mustard oil and chopped green chilies. Being Bengali and terribly sweet toothed; he might nibble a lump of date palm jaggery on the side to balance the savouriness of the one with the sweetness of the other. Then, he is likely to pick up his brolly and rush to catch a clanging tram or careening red double-decker bus already bursting at the seams with a profusion of humanity.
Date jaggery is quite a delicacy and is made by tapping the date palm. An elegant hostess in Calcutta laid out-as one of the final dinner courses- a jaggery board, just as one might a cheese board, with six different varieties of jaggery. Only one of them was made from the juice of sugar canes. The others were made from date palms, varying from dark brown and ochre lumps sitting on the board to golden and brown treacle-like
syrups in bowls. They were to be eaten with loochi; a deep fried bread made out of white flour, and were delicious beyond description.
Any Bengali will confess to you that he has a great weakness for sweets. Because millions of sweetmeats are consumed hourly in Bengal,
A singhara is a Bengali samosa, consisting of vegetables such as cauliflower or potatoes, all nicely spiced, wrapped in a triangular pastry, and deep fried.
Perhaps the most classical, and perhaps the oldest as well, of all the chhana sweets is sondesh. Chhana is simply mixed with thick sugar syrup and cooked over a very low flame until the moisture evaporates. It is then pressed into pretty wooden moulds, emerging with imprints of flowers and trailing vines. Sondesh is a delicacy served throughout the year but is specially good in spring when, instead of sugar syrup, it is prepared with the seasons new jagery. This nutan gurer sondesh has a lovely, caramel colour and flavor and is quite a rare delight.
Once the mornings jalkhabar is done, housewives can rest, read, shop sing Tagore songs, or begin preparations for lunch.
A lunchtime favorite is sukto. It starts the meal and consists of melange of diced and fried vegetables, some bitter (like bitter gourd), some pungent (like white radish), some starchy (like potato), some stiff (like sheem, a hard skinned flat bean), and others soft, such as delicious stems and leaves which only Bengalis seem to eat. To this are added bori (sun dried morsels fashioned out of ground split peas). The resulting melange is then cooked with some milk and water and flavored with ground ginger, ground mustard seeds, cumin and turmeric. As a final fillip, some roasted and ground panchphoran is sometimes added. Panchphoran is a spice mixture used only in Bengal and consists of whole cumin seeds, whole fennel seeds, whole kalonji, whole fenugreek seeds and whole radhuni, which resembles parsley seeds.
At this same lunch would follow some rice and dal accompanied by a fried titbit or bhaja. Bhajas can be made out of most vegetables and fish, but one of my favorites remains alur khosa bhaja, made with the potato skins that most people just throw away. (An English bishop, arriving in Calcutta in 1823, remarked that potatoes, once unpopular, (are) now. much liked, and are spoken of as the best thing the country has received from its European masters.) There might be some rui machher jhol, carp; ikeces cooked in a simple sauce of cumin, coriander, turmeric, red chilies and water. This would be followed by sweet and sour chutney (perhaps my favorite), aam jhol, a thin, watery, sweet and sour soup made out of green mangoes flavored very lightly with mustard oil and mustard seeds. Since Bengalis must have a sweet, there might be misti doi, a thick, sweetened yoghurt set in earthen cups, and perhaps some pretty diamond-shaped pieces of sondesh to finish off.
Early evenings might see families strolling near the enormous white pile known as the Victoria Memorial, or along the cooling banks of the Hoogly to enjoy snacks like jhal moori, a spicy combination of moori (puffed rice), potatoes and cucumber. These families may, on the other hand, enjoy the river more with a puchka in their mouths. This mouthful-and it is that-is a scrumptious delight. First you fry up a small, very crisp, ball-shaped poori, crisp enough to hold its shape. Then you poke a hole in the top and stuff in some spicy potatoes. Then-- and here is the best part--- you fill it to the top with tart, cumin and red chili flavored tarmarind water, and, before it can drip, carry it, whole, to your mouth and stuff it in. There is no pleasure like that of eating puchkas, one after another, though I suppose it is not quite the thing for politer circles.
As dusk falls over this Indo-British town, with its ghosts of English damsels who came searching for rich husbands and East Indiamen who seldom lived long enough to enjoy their fortunes or their new wives, the laborers of this maritime city might gather in local taverns to sip liquors made out of distilled jaggery while they tear up and devour the tasty flesh of spicy crabs (kakra chaat). Around this same time, the more westernized rich- those who own advertising agencies and tea plantations might relax with their whiskies and their recordings of Mozart, slowly moving on to a grand dinner served on large kansa (an alloy of tin, copper and zinc) plates.
The leisurely meal, punctuated by accounts of a son at Oxford or a daughter at Harvard, would start traditionally with rice, dal and bhaja. The rice might be an elegant pilaf, the dal, flavored with a fish head (macher matha diye mooger dal). And the bhaja, delicate pumpkin flowers dipped in a chickpea flour batter and deep-fried.
Next would come the fish- perhaps large estuary prawns simmered in coconut milk (chingri malai)- and vegetables such as the pungent sorse dharush (okra cooked with a paste of mustard seeds) and kopir dantar dalna chingri maccher diye (cauliflower stems cooked with tiny shrimp).
Meat would follow- perhaps mangsho jhol nicely marinated lamb cooked in mustard oil with potatoes and onions. The chutney course would be next- this could be made with tomatoes, nicely studded with bits of preserved sweet mango- accompanied by soft loochis (breads). Then would come the sweet yogurt, bhapa doi (steamed yoghurt) perhaps, smelling elegantly-and expensively- of saffron. Finally, would come the sweets- the glory of Bengal: rasmalais (a chhana sweet) floating in cardamonm-flavoured cream, kala jamuns (dark round balls made out of fried chhana), and Lady Kennys (fried chhana balls stuffed with raisins) the last named after a foreign woman, Lady Canning, the wife of a governor-general, who once, a long time ago, admitted that she had a partiality for those dark Bengali morsels. The gentlemen in their fresh bush shirts and the ladies in their crackling cotton saris would now be able to indulge themselves to their hearts content.
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