Rimi lives mainly online, and is devoted to mysteries, food and public health. Find her on Facebook for daily tit-bits of her life: facebook.com/rimiofsauce.
The Delta Dreams of Soul Food
This piece was written when I was in a graduate programme in the United States, living by myself for the first time in my life. Through crisp autumn, chilly spring and the unfamiliar snow, I dreamt of home-food and Kolkata’s delicious platter. This piece is about my first home-coming during summer.
While still in Boston–which, despite all my pretend upturned noses, I have deep affection for–I made a list of things I would devour once I was back home, with preferred methods of cooking specified wherever applicable (I’m obsessive that way). Predictably, and aided by the subzero temps, my list began with biryani, and traversed kormas, koshas, rezalas, kalias, chNaaps, pulaos, and malaicurrys to reach the ultimate dessert: a rich, scrumptious, home-made pulir payesh–the pulis crisp with an outer layer of grated coconut and flour, but softened within by the gur (alas, no nolen gur this beastly time of the year) and a small amount of khoa kheer, garnished with slivered almonds and a few strands of saffron, so delicate they’d distintegrate around the neighbouring kishmish, plumped by the thin sweet milk under the thick kheer.
Plus I’d actually have proper Sunday breakfasts. Luchis, which I prefer soft and a golden-white as opposed to crispier and just turning golden-brown, and a basic but delcious alurdom, flavoured with tomatoes and garnished with dhone pata (which Americans call cilantro–quite a pleasing, if strange, name). Aluparathas without onions in the potato filling, and moglai parathas (my talent for killing a dish with words manifested itself once again when I called a moglai paratha “crisply fried thick parathas folded on itself in a triangle or a square to hold in a batter of eggs, salt, chopped onions and chopped chillies”. My audience, who failed to realise frying the paratha cooks the batter too, went “Ewww! Gross!” in unison). And the deliciously deceptive koraishutir, hinger, or daaler kochuri–bloody time consuming to make and gobbled in a flash. I remember trying to describe the difference between hinger and daaler kochuri to someone on the local train once. “One is puri–the small puffs you get Indian restaurants?–with a filling of daal and asafoetida pasted together. The other is a puri filled with a different kind of daal paste cooked with slightly different spices”. The lady kindly nodded her head, clearly not seeing the difference, and I feel like the sort of idiot whose head should be banged against a wall. Any wall. And then I did further damage by stating koraishutir kochuri’s filling is made of a paste of “green peas and hot green chillies”. I think I have put her off Bengali breakfasts forever.
Once I am done with that, I thought, I shall delve into the more mundane but no less heavenly alu-jhinga-posto, which I used to also inadequately translate as “potatoes and gourd in poppy-seed paste”. And moog daal with aloo and begun bhaja. And I’d have prawns and diced pieces of chicken (marinated in garlic, a tiny bit of chopped ginger, salt, and lime juice) tossed and then simmered in chopped onions, chopped green chillies, and a few grated halves of tomatoes. Simple, but delicious. Then maybe a brief detour of Indian Chinese (chillie chicken, bless the US with thy presence!) before hitting the phuchkas, jhalmuris, egg-rolls, egg-chicken rolls, and mutton sami rolls (I really feel for this lady, the poor dear). And every time my sweet-tooth tickled, I could whip up a batch of malpoas in matter of minutes (give or take thirty).
However, what I’ve actually eaten in the last dizzyingly hot three days–bypassing the fragrant biryani and the payesh, awaiting my pleasure–is parboiled rice, mushur daal cooked the Bengali way (NO onions), pNuier dNata chochhori*, a light phulkopir daalna (no ghee, no tomatoes, and careful amounts of gorom moshla wonly), and the predictably Bengali machher jhol made with freshly-caught sweetwater (river) rui, and not aNshte bloody seafish, thank goodness! Breakfast, I’ve slept through, and have had chilled mangoes, lichu and jamrul for dessert and general sustenance throughout the day.
And bigods, I’ve never felt this well-fed in a long, long time. Bless homecoming.
*pNui is possibly Malabar spinach, quite different from regular spinach. And chochhori is a slightly dry curry made of the spinach, the veins of the leaves, slices of potatoes, pumpkins, and sometimes a few pieces of brinjal. When cooked in summer, our cook+my mum+my aunts and greataunts convert the chochhori to a torkari, such that there is more gravy and less shallow frying of the vegetables.
Taste Bud Memories
Looking at her over the rim of warm teacup in the liquid darkness of the room, a sense of the present suddenly connects with an imagined essence of an unseen past.
I’m deeply averse to the moments of bright sunlight breaking through the soft, soothing darkness, but this dawn is beautiful. Cloudy, greyblue, a slight pre-winter chill. The rooms, even with curtains drawn severely back, give the impression of a swimming pale blueness — not really dark, but not quite light either. My mother’s right cheek glows dimly in the magical light, set off by strands of greying hair escaped from the bedtime braid. She used to be very pretty, my mother. But she’s faded with the years, in part, I like to think, because most of them have not been easy. Still, you should see her in the rare moments when she pulls her stern bun down.
“Dalpuri kemon hoyechhe re?” she asks in a voice slightly husky with sleep, lowering her cup between sips of sugarless tea. The puris stuffed with seasoned dal had had a trial run the night before. “Veyee niee”, I say with a mouthful of tea-softened biscuit. “Like the other day?” she asks, mildly anxious. I nod, now swirling a sip of hot tea inside my mouth. “Aaro bhaja guromoshla debo?” I shake my head. Any more of the rich seasoning and at least two of the intended tastebuds will be affronted. The Workings of the Mind of a Hostess and Cook. “The alu’r dom?” she persists, checking all frontiers, while setting her cup down after the final sip and stretching herself a little. “Perfect” say I, taking a sip of my own, “kintu dhone pata debe toh?” “Ah yes” says she, getting up. Then she smiles a little. “Imagine you asking for fresh coriander leaves.” I smile back. Coriander leaves is an acquired taste. “Ami aschhi”, I say to her now-departing back: be with you in a bit.
The family pujas stopped about seven years before I was born. And my family is not given to ruminating about past delights except for an odd sentence here and there between people Who Were There. “Tarpor ek pujoye T hariye gelo, mone achhe?” my mother might ask my aunt over lunch one day, recalling the day their kid sister–my youngest aunt–lost her way while out on a stroll and nobody noticed because they were busy with the puja. Then there would be a brief debate about whether it was on Saptami or Nabami, a few more cryptic anecdotes will be fished out to be compared (“No no, that was the day X arrived with the huge tumbler of sweets, remember?” “No, are you sure? I thought it was the day R insisted we sing ‘Shohag chand bodoni dhoni’ and wouldn’t stop dancing… no?”). And that would be it.
So it’s not even like I have received memories, sights sounds or smells, of the autumn celebrations.
Still, and I don’t know why, knowing there was a busy morning and a long day ahead of us featuring almost all of the family, that it started with a heap of pasted and flavoured dal and soft dough waiting to be made into puris in the kitchen, and listening to my mother take out utensils and the rolling board and pin, this cheerfully grey sunless dawn in our quiet apartment brought back memories I’ve never had a chance to have.
A much younger, plumper and sterner great aunt going about checking and rechecking everything required for the morning puja, calling for prodeeps (brass diyas) and ghee and incense. The hired help giving the prodeeps a quick surreptitious final polish with the edge of their dhotis or sarees before submitting it for her approval. My significantly less religious grandmother and great-grandmother smiling secretly at each other at her whizzing around as they sorted the mountains of flowers that had been picked and bought earlier in the first hours of dawn. And yet more women – great aunts and aunts who’re almost all just a name to me– dicing fruit, setting out sweets on large brass plates, raising their voices to ask for the various exotic things offered in little heaps on heavy brass thalas to the goddess. A male voice anxiously asking after the priest and checking the time. A local woman serenely sweeping the floor with a wet cloth and a bucket of water, paying not the least attention to sporadic calls from several quarters to hurry up and make herself useful elsewhere, there’s so much to do and it’s almost time!
It’s five thirty. I’ve just finished my tea. Briefly, I marvel at how much my great aunt changed after my grandmother died. They were sisters, and lived together all their lives, first in Dhaka, then in Calcutta, then in Midnapur during the War, and then again in Kolkata through the fifties, sixties, tumultuous seventies, eighties, and the transformative nineties. I grew up in their unconventional joint family, full of fascinating people joined by a love of food and books. Under that roof, my personal memories of Bibhutibhushan and fish chop, Tagore and prawn cutlet and koraishutir kochuri have blended with my mother’s and aunts’ memories of mutton on coal stoves, homemade lobongolotika and pantuas, and my grandparents’ memories of food from across the border, gifts from the family lands in Bangladesh. That household had disbanded years back, with people succumbing to age, disease and accidents. The lands are gone, as has the domestic labour capacity of a joint family. To make a simple mochar ghonto these days is too much effort for a couple without a cook. So it was a good thing that this winter, when I was home, my mother proposed a big family day of food to make up for all the missed celebratory meals over the last decade.
And now, in the dawn before family pours in, filling the empty flat with the music of reminiscence and adda, I can smell the coriander quietly infusing with the simmering curry, and hear the sound of the first daalpuri hitting the hot, bubbling golden oil. It’s not light yet.
A Brief Biased Critique of Food (Or, “Crib Crib Crib!”)
I live in the Greater Boston Area. It is usually bitterly cold, chillingly windy, and depressingly rainy. Since I come from a place that is murderously hot, horribly stuffy, and in equal parts refreshingly and distressingly rainy, it took some polar-oppositising to settle in. F’rinstance, no sooner had I sweated my luggage down a flight of steep stairs and gone to town to buy a table-fan, that the sun went down on the crisp autumn day and the place suddenly became Calcutta in wintertime. I dropped the new fan and scurried for blankets, of which I hadn’t any. I slept the night in my school cardigan (which I still wear, six years after) and two thin cotton bedsheets folded double and wrapped tightly around. And woke up the next morning, sweating profusely and gasping for breath in the bleeding bright sunshine. New England is, in short, a very climatically confused place that can’t tell its own sunshine from its rainclouds.
And matching it every step of the way is its wonderfully “diverse” food. Never before have I seen main courses being advertised as “entrées” on restaurant menu cards. Or been expected to eat my salad before I am served the aforementioned “entrées”. It’s all very disorienting and fascinating, because frankly, I hadn’t expected America to be quite this different. But more importantly, I hadn’t expected ‘foreign food’ to put on such completely unrecognisable costumes and still dare to masquerade as authentic cooking. I did not expect to see the day when I tasted the first forkful of a Chinese noodle dish, and thought I’d been served dessert a course too soon. And when I bit into an actual dessert, I certainly did not imagine I would yearn for the quasi-bitter semi-sweetness of Kookie Jar. If there’s one thing I can identify as culinarily American, it is the sweetness. The chilli chicken is sweet, the pork fried rice is sweet, the saag paneer tastes like a bowlful sugar has been upended in it, and the pastries can knock a few pairs of teeth out. Now, some people love it. Clearly the average American does, hence the pervasive sweetness. But so does my friend S, him of savoury Indian street-food patronage. (But then he tells me he used to sneak handfuls of sugar into his mouth as a child, so really, what can one expect?)
As if to keep pace, most Indian places around my place really load up on spice. On on green chillies or hotness, but spice. The surplus pastes of cumin and coriander have been accumulating on my tongue, forming a thick, unpleasant layer. It’s probably because the habit of drinking while eating was bred out of me young by my Bengali family, but no one else seems to notice how most curry shops seem to believe heaping on the dhania powder is a substitute for actual culinary skill. And I shall not even bother to comment on the local biryani. Tossing onions, tomatoes and meat with fully-cooked rice does not biryani make, my lads. Go back to being an unemployed engineer and leave the sacred cooking to the suitably reverential and talented.
It’s a pity my tastebuds developed in Calcutta. Leaving the city was like having a vital part of my existence torn out. I miss my phuchka and my rolls. I miss the jhalmuri with boiled potato and coconut slices, extra-hot chanachur and chopped onions and green chillies, mixed with a thin tangy-sweet tamarind chutney and topped with a dash of salt and squeeze of the tenth of a bright green lemon, all of it flavoured with a judicious amount of mustard oil. I miss the alur chop and beguni and lonkar chop with their thin outer later of crisply fried byashon (besan). I miss the subtly sweet roshomalai and the hot-off-the-flames roshogolla. Everyone knows only a skilless sweetmaker will try to cover up for it by making the mishtis extra sweet. And by gods, I miss real tea, made by soaking real Darjeeling leaves in boiling water, somtimes with milk and sugar, sometimes with lemon juice, sometimes by itself. If I have to drink one more cup of mango-flavoured green tea enhanced by the flavour of juniper berries and enriched by added antioxidants…I swear there shall be Consequences. Just give me my regular tea , strong enough to beat back a headache with a stick, and thin biscuits to dip into it. On a winter’s or monsoon’s evening add piping hot phuluri with muri and lonka, and it’s within throwing distance of heaven. Gods, with the rising temperatures I even miss titaar daal (a soothing, cooling moog daal cooked with mustard seeds and large pieces of papaya and kumro, which is called “squash” here instead of “pumpkin”), which my mum would have to force-feed me earlier. Give me this day my daily daal-bhaat, preferably cooked by someone else, is all I cry to the heavens these days.
And paradoxically, my own cooking–not to be mocked at in the days of yore–has become a curiously homogenised, undifferentiated mess of overboiled vegetables and overspiced gravy. I can no longer tell the difference between my phulkopir daalna and my alu-beguner jhol. And I’ve been so far influenced by a growing temporal distance from the subtly spiced, varied Bengali palette that I no longer even care. I merely throw the mess away–a thing I would never have done back home; throwing away food, my goodness!–and order pizza from the local Greek folks.
I detest pizza, but the shop-people like me and I them, so I suppose there is some inherent goodness to the extra-cheesy, extra-oily meat-filled plate of dough.
It’s often said in my family that a helping of green chilli paste takes care of below-par cooking. In the absence of green chillies, I suppose a cheerful smile and happy banter makes up for inedibility.
Well, not really. But when I am out of culinary options, I will take the one that comes with the smile. Without ‘fries’ and ‘soda’, thank you.
This piece was written when Rimi was young, impatient, and new to the wonders of New World food. She now absolutely adores pizza, although in true to spoiled-brat form, she insists on getting her husband to make it at home.