From the outside, it may look like a celebration that was curated for those fond of eating – but in essence, it is about two families becoming one with food playing the proverbial matchmaker.
Jamai Shoshti. Or a day when the mother-in-law gets to cook all she can and the son-in-law or jamai gets to eat however much he can – and then a little bit more. For the uninitiated, this beloved ritual that brought in the lesser-known goddess Shoshti to the fold of imminent goddesses, may seem like any other Bengali festival that revolves around food, delicious food, and loads of it. “And in many ways,” says Chef Sujoy Gupta (Executive Chef, Taj Bengal, Kolkata), “their assumptions will be accurate, given that it is the feast that often gets showcased these days. After all, Jamai Shoshti is among the few occasions when one gets the liberty to not just sample some of the finest dishes of the Bengali culinary matrix but also see the wide variety of dishes that we have, not just in the meat realm but also in the vegetarian segment, and, of course, the sweet varieties that go beyond the usual rosogulla, sandesh and payesh.”
Food, however, adds Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti (Corporate Chef, Ambuja Neotia) is only part of this age-old tradition that celebrates not just the son-in-law but his relationship with the girls’ family, especially the mother-in-law. “Traditionally, the origin of Jamai Shoshti was,” he continues, “in the form of shosthi puja, which is about the sons of the family and the goddess Shoshti, who is believed to be the guardian angel of all children. Story goes that there once lived a rich, albeit greedy woman who would make a new dish every day and instead of sharing it with her family, would eat it herself and blame it on the cat. Fed up, the feline, who, according to mythology, is the goddess’ soul animal, complained to her and asked for help. To teach the lady the lesson, the goddess made all her sons disappear until she repented. Since then, the Shukla Paksha week of Jayesta month has been designated to celebrate the children of the house, with the sixth day given to the jamai, who is seen as the new son in the family. Back in the day, this day was celebrated as ‘Maa Shashthir Daya’ (blessings of the goddess) for peace in the family and additions to the family for the newly-wed couple. The day is dedicated to the jamai, who comes visiting – and was often seen as a way for both the son-in-law and the rest of the family, especially the mother-in-law, to connect at a personal level. And food became the ideal icebreaker, which is cooked and served by the mother-in-law to her new son.”
Over the years, this ritual has also evolved as an occasion for the daughter to visit her parents’ place given that tradition demanded that the son-in-law, to celebrate Jamai Shoshti, had to travel to his in-laws, usually in another city or state. What, however, remained sacrosanct was the food and the little rituals that used food to create that sense of belonging, says Chef Gupta, who finds Jamai Shoshti one of the few occasions that not only make the son-in-law feel important but also, as a tradition, often showcased the rich culinary legacy of Bengal. “The thali served on this occasion is in fact the biggest one to be ever served for any ritual or festival. The sheer number of accompaniments that are served along with the usual bhaat (rice), luchi and kachuri (fried flatbreads), range anywhere between fifteen to nearly 25 and this doesn’t include the fritters, pickle or the dessert that one is fed through the day on some pretext or the other.”
Such is the value of the meal that is presented to the jamai on this day, that no expense is spared to make it one of the highlights of the year. “In fact,” says culinary expert Chef Sumanta, “the preparation of the Jamai Bhoj (feast for the son-in-law) begins almost a week in advance and is spent in procuring some of the finest things the city has to offer. Hilsa, the signature fish of this occasion, is prebooked, and so are king prawns and meat. Likewise, fruits and sweets are ordered in advance with specific instructions on how it is to be made, in case the dessert or sweet cannot be made at home. The kind of work that goes into the curation of the Jamai Bhoj is akin to a wedding, only smaller in scale.”
Fascinatingly, the custom of providing the best for the son-in-law doesn’t stem from the place of pride that they hold in Indian culture, especially in eastern India, but from the long-held belief that having a jamai is like having a son. In fact, in most Bengali (and Odia) homes, it is believed that when you get your daughter married, you don’t lose your girl, instead you get another son. And the Jamai Bhoj is a symbol of that idea. This explains why the ritual of the mother-in-law having to sit next to the jamai, fanning him, as he eats his food was put in place as this little custom helps build a bond where they understand each other better.
“What appears to be another pampering custom,” says Chef Gupta, “in essence creates this sense of ease between the jamai and his mother-in-law, where they get to understand each other’s likes, dislikes and even favourites – which, in the long run, become the bond that strengthens the ties better.” As a matter of fact, for both the chefs, Jamai Bhoj wasn’t just about getting pampered or having each and every culinary whim of theirs fulfilled. It was also about understanding and valuing the little lessons that they learnt from their respective mothers-in-law when it came to food, flavours and the art of using food to bond.
“Most of my understanding of food, produce and the art of stretching an ingredient to create dishes that appeal to different palates, I have learnt from my sasudi (mother-in-law) and the lavish thali she is able to create every Jamai Shoshti,” admits Chef Sumanta, who finds the traditional thali, an outstanding example of not just the culinary ingenuity of a good homemaker but of sustainable cooking and mindful flavour profile as well. “It is brilliant to see how every single dish in the thali has a purpose in this feast – and no part of a produce or an ingredient goes to waste. In fact, a traditional Jamai Bhoj thali would often have dishes that are seasonal and then would have these amazing masterpieces that would have basic ingredients turned gourmet like the dhokar dalna, where simple channa dal is elevated to a MasterChef level.”
Concurs Chef Gupta, who finds Jamai Shosthi one of the finest occasions to not just take a walk back to the beautiful delicacies that shaped Bengali cuisine but also discover some of the brilliant manners in which ingredients were used to create dishes and beverages that did more than just play to the palate, such as the “aamporar sorbhot (smoked aam panna) or lebur ghol (a kind of nimbu pani that uses the leaves too) that are served both as a welcome drink and during the meal, to help digest the meal better”.
But what truly makes Jamai Shoshti a festival worth reviving is the sheer genius with which food is used to create ever-lasting bonds between two families that turn into one. And, of course, the meal which uses every single technique in the culinary ledger to create a feast that may look overwhelming but is put together to nourish while playing to the palate (gallery).