When it comes to lavishness, history and Bengal’s culinary ingenuity, nothing quite lays the spread like the one during the nine-day festival of Durga Puja, including some fascinating legacy dishes, say chefs as they present some of their own favourites.
Years ago, when legendary food writer and historian Jiggs Kalra had called Kolkata one of the finest “culinary cauldrons” he was stating the obvious. Come Durga Puja, and the City of Joy does turn into one grand kitchen that doles out some of the finest dishes that form the rich culinary ledger of The Crown’s erstwhile capital.
It is also a never-ending food court, says Siddharth Bose (Co-owner, Bhojohori Manna), “You can get just about everything from the good old dishes to their variations and even innovative ones, and in plenty. In fact, for a conscientious food lover, it is the best time to understand the edible history of the state through the many, many dishes that not only originated in Kolkata but those that came from Bangladesh, especially curated by the Thakurs of Odisha, added by the different pice hotel or the more commonly known snacks that became a part of Bengali food lore thanks to its many contemporary rulers beginning from the Mughals to Wajid Ali Shah and the British. And what makes the fiesta so fascinating is that it is one festival that has little rules to follow when it comes to food other than eating and enjoying.”
But that is one aspect of the Durga Puja that the seasoned entrepreneur and historian enjoys immensely, the other is the sheer joy of indulging in some of the old traditional recipes or, as Bose puts it, “those labour-intensive dishes that were prepared by our mothers and grandmothers which were our first impression about Durga Puja, and have almost disappeared from our tables these days”, and which he grew up with. One such delicacy is the jhol’er bannyon, a light curry-style dish made with a medley of vegetables like banana stem, pumpkin, unripe bananas and ash gourd, fish heads and some shrimps that was a markup to the run towards Mahaastami and Mahanavami—the two days that are defined by their prasad.
Bose’s love for legacy delicacies is an emotion that Chef Abhishek Basu, Executive Chef, JW Marriott Mumbai Juhu, completely relates with. For Basu, who has stayed away from Kolkata and Chaibasa in Jharkhand where he spent his entire childhood, cooking these family dishes is a way to stay connected not only to his roots as a food-loving Bengali but also a chance to revisit some of the classics that laid the foundation to some interesting innovation. Says Chef Basu, “Our community’s Sarbojanin Amlatola Puja has always remained a big part of my growing up years. It was here that I also developed my taste of food thanks to the community kitchen where even a teenager was expected to contribute. Of course, like all my peers, I stayed a maach and mishti fan for much of my life but later took on a liking to the vegetarian fare and its many variations.”
It was while discovering the non-meat side of the Durga Puja spread that Chef Basu came across some of his favourites that today feature in his special meals that he cooks at home and for the staff and diners at the hotel on request. Says Chef Basu, “I always grew up liking the Muri Ghanto but it was much later that I discovered the charms of banana flower or mocha as we call it in Bengali. Though prepping them for cooking takes a lot of time and patience, the ingredient is as versatile as any of its meat components, and when prepared cleverly can fool even the most seasoned palate to believe otherwise. But the one dish that I found showed mocha’s taste and texture exceptionally well is Mochar Ghonto, a unique preparation of banana flower, coconut and potato cooked beautifully with roasted spices, salt and sugar. The sugar is added in smoking hot oil which gives the dish a caramelised texture. Although the dish is described as the vegetarian alternative to Muri Ghonto, which is made with rice and fish head, but that is till you have tasted it and transformed.” Among the chef’s other favourites is the Chhanar Jilipi (Jalebi), which is a pretzel-shaped sweet made of chhena.
There is something mischievously fascinating, says Chef Sujoy Gupta, Executive Chef, Taj Bengal, “about these legacy dishes. While they are more rounded and wholesome, they are amazing masterpieces of creativity—of using ingredients that complement each other to create a delicious dish rather than just spices, and are a way forward when it comes to seasonal, sustainable cooking. A bonus is that they are satiating, even if it’s a small bowl that you are having.”
It was this curiosity paired with a love for traditional dishes that nudged Chef Gupta into a journey to explore some of the dishes that inspired innovations over the years. It was around one of the Durga Pujas when the craving for Chital Machher Peti—the mid-segment pieces of a fish simmered in a rich gravy of onion and yogurt and finish with kalonji, a dish that the chef learnt to cook from his grandmother—set him on a mission to rediscover the dishes that once were the high point of Puja at home, which for Chef Gupta began with an early morning visit to the local bazaar to get the freshest of ingredients, root vegetables and fish.
But the preparation would begin, says Chef Gupta, “almost a week before, when an elaborate day-wise list of vegetables will be prepared depending upon what would be cooked that day. A part of the list would be shared with the vendor, and meat, chicken and fish would be booked in advance so that the best catch came home. For me, most of the time, the beginning of Durga Puja would be marked by two things: one, the market visit to get the sauda (grocery) and the delicious breakfast of luchi, beguni, chholar dal and Mihidana that would often be ordered from Bardhaman or from a sweet-maker who had a specialist from that region. This would usually be followed by pandal hopping, a visit to a friend’s place for some payesh and sandesh before heading back for lunch, which remained the big highlight of the duration of Durga Puja.”
And for good reason, he continues, “as it was for this meal that most preparation was done, be it shukto, cutlet, ghonto, chop, mangsho jhol with aloo—which is the traditional Bengali mutton curry—dahi catla and a cornucopia of chutneys and papad along with mishti doi among others. And the best part was none of the dishes were ever repeated.”
But, says the Bengali food specialist, “there were a few dishes that were reserved especially for the puja like the Muitha, a curry delicacy made of fish tail and Pur Diya Potol Dolma, an Armenian community-inspired dish that traditionally had the pointed gourd stuffed with a mixture of shrimp, raisin, cashew nut and potato, which is then sealed and slow poached in a gravy, much like Dhokar Dalna, another vegetarian favourite around this time.”
Another classic is the Machher Matha Diye Moong Dal, a rich lentil preparation made with green peas and cashew nut. The dish, says Chef Gupta, “is said to have originated before Durga Puja became sarbojanin (for everyone), and was a constant during the feast of Mahanavami because of its interesting composition of two such ingredients that are considered pious and Durga Maa’s favourite.”
Yet another favourite is the Lal Shaak Badi Charchari. Made of red spinach, which grows with flourish during Durga Puja, the dish is said to be the decadent version of the shaak preparation in Bengal thanks to its interesting use of radhuni powder and badi or dried lentil fritters that gives the dish, says Chef Gupta, “its distinct taste and addictiveness.”
Luckily, this year’s Durga Puja menu by Chef Gupta boasts of some of these rare gems that were created as an ode to his grandmother and mother’s culinary ingenuity, who, he concludes, during the festival could turn something mundane into a tasteful favourite.
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.