WITH Durga Puja having entered its most frenetic day, Mahashtami, and tomorrow being a holiday (the government may treat the day as Dussehra, but for Bengalis, it’s Mahanavami, the last day of celebrations), eateries that blossom like the hibiscus flowers in full bloom in honour of Maa Durga, are gearing up for their busiest two days.
The regular bhog at the Durga Puja pandals consists of everyday fare — a dry no-onion, no-garlic, yet highly aromatic khichdi sometimes with plenty of seasonal vegetables thrown in (the Bengalis call it bhoger khichuri); bhaaja (vegetable fritters, aubergine being the traditional favourite); and labra (a delectable hotch-potch of mixed vegetables, mainly potato, sweet potato, radish, pumpkin, long yard beans, green beans, flat beans, parwal or pointed gourd, cauliflower and carrots).
Simple cooking has never tasted better — and the labra is evidence of the extent to which Bengali women can extract flavours out of the simplest vegetables. Of course, when we were small, my mother would insist that it was because the Divine Mother would add dollops of her special masalas to the vegetables.
The moment you step outside the pandal, you’ll be overcome by the aromas dancing to the beat of the festive dhak (drums) from the food stalls, operating from a respectable distance so as not to sully the sanctity of the puja pandal, selling non-vegetarian delicacies dating back to the time when Kolkata used to be the second city of the British Empire.
Here’s my list of the Durga Puja delicacies that you have to eat to live life fully:
Topping my list is the priceless Dimer Devil, which people mistakenly compare with devilled eggs, but unlike the latter, it’s not a stuffed boiled egg. On the contrary, just like the Mughlai nargisi kofta, it is a boiled egg quilted by spiced minced mutton, washed with egg yolk, crumbed and fried. But why that devilish name?Blogger Sukanya Ghosh (SaffronStreaks.com) informs us that “the word ‘devil’ was coined in the year 1786 to describe a food preparation that was deep-fried and seasoned with hot spices and condiments, extremely pleasing, and certainly not relating to satanic thoughts.” Pepper and other spices, Ghosh writes, were prized commodities in that age, so seasoning any food item with them was considered stylish, fashionable and premium.
Moghlai Parotta, a greasy delicacy (mutton mince and egg yolks stuffed in a parantha) invented in the kitchens of the Nawab of Murshidabad that attained perfection at Anadi’s Cabin on S.N. Banerjee Road in Kolkata. Don’t count calories when you’re bingeing during the Pujas.
Fish Fry, or marinated fillet of fish (preferably bekti), coated with egg yolk and bread crumbs and deep fried. This used to be the reigning dish at wedding dinners in Kolkata, till Bijoli Grill, the city’s most important catering firm, ousted it with its batter-fried Fish Orly. It started life being called ‘Butter Fish’ (butter being an allusion to the batter), but it soon acquired the fashionable tag of Orly, as in the French l’Orly, the cooking term used to describe a fillet of fish that is skinned, coated with batter and deep fried.
Kosha Mangsho, the addictive sweet and tangy, melt-in-the-mouth mutton preparation, which is a must-have on Vijaya Dashami day. It is this dish that has made Shyambazar’s Golbari in Kolkata a pilgrimage spot for gourmets in the eastern metropolis.
Keema Chop (spicy mutton mince stuffed into a shell of mashed potatoes and then deep-fried); and the sole concession to vegetarians.
Radha Bollobhi (deep-fried flat bread lined with urad dal filling) served with the deliciously spicy Aloo Dum made with baby potatoes.
Durga Puja is your time to get hangla (‘gluttonous’ in Bangla). With the weather getting friendlier and the air laden with the festive spirit, there’s no escaping it.
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Sourish Bhattacharyya, co-founder of the Delhi Gourmet Club, is a freelance writer, editorial consultant, food columnist, restaurant critic and blogger. He has contributed regularly to the Mumbai Mirror, Times Life, BBC Good Food, Travel & many more publications. Nothing is dearer to him than the joy of writing, which he blends with his passion for food.