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Arundhati Nath
25 Aug 2017

Of Food, Longing, and Identity

A few days ago, while attempting to explain the aftermath and the repercussions of the Partition on everyday life, a narrative arising amid the many currently swirling around August 15 in newspapers, at dinner parties, on Facebook and Twitter, I asked my 15-year-old son with his cocky assuredness that children of the digital age naturally possess, “Tell me your most favourite home-cooked food.” “Thai curry made by you, he said, “and the brownies you bake.” I sighed and said, “That’s not technically home food. Think more. Think Bengali comfort food.” He thought a minute more and quipped, “Ok, aalu posto (potato in a paste of poppy seeds), Chingri malai curry (prawns in a creamy coconut milk curry) and the mashed potatoes you do with mustard oil.” {“Thank God, he mentioned the mustard oil,” I thought, my “Bangal” spirit soaring; as the saying goes, you can tell a Bangal (East Bengal native) from a “Ghoti” (originally from West Bengal) if you compare their respective leanings to posto (poppy) and shorshe (mustard)

I looked sternly at him and his brother (who was listening in) and said, “Now think, you have both left your homes and come to a land where there are neither Thai spices, nor chocolates for brownies, not posto, nor mustard. No more favourite foods ever.” They looked stricken momentarily, but then my older son, with the foreknowledge and advantage of age, and a gleam in his eye, said, “I don’t know how you are leading this up to the grief of Partition. Dadu and dida eat all the foods even now which their grandparents did in Bangladesh!”

So there! He had said it: you can take a Bangal out of her home, her state, and her river, but you cannot take the Chitol macher muitha (clown knifefish dumplings) from her kitchen! When countless families left their East Bengal homes in 1947, it was the women who ingenuously brought their culinary skills and rituals with them, and made them part of the kitchen almanacs in their new, most often, much reduced, makeshift homes.

As time passed and life became a long journey of survival, in recipes passed down through generations, they found a sense of comfort, and the cooks’ pride remained in keeping them as unaffected as possible by the change in their location and circumstances. I grew up with so many staples of Barisal – my mother’s family hailed from there – of course, in the ignorance of childhood I took them for granted thinking all Bengali households ate kochu shak (arbi leaf) with laal lonka bhaja (fried red chillies), palong shak (spinach) with the requisite kasundi (a Bengali mustard relish), shorshe chingri in which you could feel the succulently grated fresh coconut and the pungent mustard lodged in perfect unison, steaming hot narkel bora (coconut pakora) with golden Moong daal fragrant with ghee on a mound of Gobindobhog rice, a flaming Ilish maacher jhol (Hilsa curry) with practically no gravy and generous doses of mustard oil, crisp, melt-in-the mouth mangsho-r chaap (a cut of mutton with the ribs).

My first understanding that at least some of these dishes were looked at with askance by the West Bengal Ghotis was when, in my teen years, I mentioned my favourite food was “Chitol macher muitha” to a rather haughty mother of a fawning suitor who stared at me through spectacles perched atop her sharp Ghoti nose. In my mother’s kitchen, the “muitha” is still a prized delicacy as is the “muri ghonto”, fish heads slow-cooked in rice, both made painstakingly only when closest echelons of family come to dine. The muitha, sautéed balls of the minced Chitol fish in a spicy curry, had captivated my heart years ago, the flesh of the fish is delicate and quicksilver in not quite being a kofta but the fiery gravy with the dollop of browned ghee and slivers of green chilli floating on top adds just the right measure of panache. The name “muitha” is probably a Bangal variation of “mutho”, a Bengali word for fistful, referring to the fact that the fish meat is to be taken in the palm of one’s hand and shaped into little balls. Now, when I think deeply, the Ghotis, with their refined and more urbane culinary matrix, probably found this reference unseemly and the Bangal leaning towards all things jhaal (chilli) uncouth. The Bangals, on their part, ridiculed the Ghotis for their “sweet” curries since a true Ghoti can’t help but add a bit of sugar to her curries! That doesn’t mean the Bangals didn’t have a sweet tooth! My dida’s narkel naadu used to be the high point of her winter sojourns at our home in Delhi. She would arrive armed with rock-hard wheels of patali gur (jaggery). While the gur would be set to melt on a large cauldron of steaming water, she would sit on the floor, a bonti (a long, curved blade held at the foot) in front of her and set to work. Soon silver white slivers of coconut, delicately chopped, would emerge, which she would add to the bubbling gur along with finely powdered cardamom stirring expertly with a shining spatula. The naadus, circlets of coconut and jaggery, had to be shaped when the temperature was just right and mixture correctly sticky, which only she could tell through years of practice and instinct. She would them store in “boyams” – tall glass jars to keep them fresh.

I wonder now if the displaced migrant women from East Bengal, soldiering on in their tiny kitchens with focus and forbearance, managed to find equilibrium in age-old rituals and thus kept the thread of their precious Bangal cuisine taut. In my grandmother, always the raconteur, I would sense a melancholy when she narrated to me, her loyal follower, her many stories of Barisal pulsating with fields of rice, groves of mango, ghosts and brehmodoityas (demons). In these stories of loss and longing that the Partition scripted, there lies deeply entrenched the craving for the food left behind.

The numbers of East Bengal migrants in Kolkata swelled even after 1947, specially, in 1971-72, during the Bangladesh War of Independence. The refugees’ identity was defined intimately by their food. And they tried hard in a difficult and alien city to find the familiar. They yearned for “Poddar Ilish”, vegetables infused with their “desher maati” and most of all, for rice from their fields. And soon, dictated by the inevitable cycle of demand and supply, the markets of Kolkata began to stock kochur shak, laal shak, Chitol and Aar. Ironically Kolkata became the largest destination for dried fish, shutki, an East Bengal delicacy. The typical Ghoti or the somewhat effete Bengali babu, perhaps looked down on the “strongly brought up”, rice-loving, agrarian East Bengali populace, comprising almost 40 per cent of Kolkata in the 60s and 70s, and cherished the sweet in his dalnas and jhols. The Ghoti-Bangal divide went far deeper than food – it was embedded in a sense of having to accommodate the unfamiliar on one side and a feeling of rootlessness on the other.

I remember an interesting anecdote about the humble “panta” bhaat (prepared by soaking rice, generally leftover, in water overnight and traditionally served in the morning with salt, onion, and chili), which my mother-in-law recounted after a high level diplomatic dinner some years ago in Bangladesh. The main dish at this do was – hold your breath – “panta bhaat” – with an array of finger-licking bhortas, ghontos and achars! She told me she had rarely eaten such a satisfactory meal. I recalled to myself so many “bhaate bhaat” meals eaten after long train journeys back home – rice, ghee, salt, and an array of sheddhos (boiled and steamed vegatables, potato and daal) with mustard oil and green chillies, were all we sought in the grimy heat of a summer afternoon. And so, rice in its many avatars did endure and amalgamated itself into the refugee’s longing for home and passed down through generations. The deposed Awadhi Nawab Wajid Ali Shah with his grand kitchens and khansammas, settled in the Calcutta of the 1850s, and influenced culinary traditions – the Ghotis thus claim allegiance, as do those in Dhaka, to this distinct nawabi influence. The fluffy, luxurious luchi took off from the puri and the Kolkata Biryani and Rezala originated under the tutelage of the Shah’s many chefs. Ultimately, I guess, despite the ferocity of people trying to protect their “culinary identities”, Bengali food too, like all food groups across ethnicities the world over, is a triumph of varied flavours, bursting with history and craftsmanship over centuries, perfected by the many cultural connects of the regions in which it originated.

My late father-in-law, preferring to be known more as a connoisseur of cuisine than a diplomat, and often scoring many a diplomatic coup with his gastronomic marathons, was half a Ghoti – and so, despite his fantastically elaborate recipes of Mutton Burra and Fish a la Himachal (yes, they named the dish after him!), craved Biuli-r daal (white Urad) and posto baata (poppy seed paste) at lunch; nothing could please him more than a breakfast of luchis accompanied with a pristine almost white potato curry with just a hint of kalo jeere (kalonji), a touch of green chiili and no other spices.

What fascinates me as I grow older is seeing how food is the key fulcrum across communities: this was never more apparent to me till I actually witnessed, on a recent visit to Kolkata, the real fall-out of an East Bengal-Mohun Bagan match. If East Bengal won, the price of Ilish (Hilsa) leapt; if Mohun Bagan got the winner’s trophy, the price of Chingri (prawn) soared in slippery, dank Kolkata fish markets where the incessant call of the fish hawker is still considered music to the quintessential Bengali’s ears.

The obsession with the Ilish is ancient: the Padma River, now in Bangladesh, had been East Bengal’s lifeline, where the Hilsa ruled without rivals. This obsession is now par for course amongst Bengalis all over the world, Ghoti and Bangal, alike – tony restaurants in India are now capitalising on the Hilsa’s unbridled potential – the “Smoked Hilsa”, once the Oberoi Grand’s uber cool delicacy, is now paraded on dinner tables across elite homes. Maybe the Hilsa then can be the symbolic golden finial: capping age-old frictions, and be the final balm to the prickliness of loss. Meanwhile, I am ordering the Bhapa Ilish and the Bhapa Doi both!

Tags: Food