Durga Puja is not only one of the most popular festivals in eastern India, but also an occasion to sample the best of Bengali cuisine, says celebrity chef Ranveer Brar
Food is synonymous with all our festivals, celebrations and practices. Ask a Bengali – or a food lover, even – what Durga Puja means to them and their eyes light up with happiness. The festival that begins with full fervour on Shashti and culminates on Dashami is a grand affair that gratifies the soul at the spiritual as well as the culinary levels. Though the typical association in one’s mind at the mention of Bengali cuisine would be fish, you would be astounded at the variety on offer. Kolkata loves its food to the point of pride, and Durga Puja is a time when the city puts out the best it has to offer, in all its finery.
Rare is the Bengali breakfast that is complete without the phulko luchi, the eastern counterpart to the puri, especially during Puja. Made with refined flour and slightly smaller than a normal puri, it is popularly served with either sweet or savoury dishes on the side, the more common ones being alur torkari and chholar dal. The taste of a true luchi is enhanced when it is fried in ghee. And while this might get the calorie bells ringing, remember – pujo time is for indulgence! And then there is radhaballabhi, a match made in culinary heaven. It is one of those omnipresent dishes at any important Bengali ceremony – a puri stuffed with black or Bengal gram and spices, served with a potato preparation.
It’s difficult to pass by a sweet shop and resist buying a bag full of these stuffed delights right off the wok as they are prepared by the moira, or the traditional sweet and snack maker. A popular breakfast dish, they are enjoyed just as much in the form of an evening snack.
Other snacks worth exploring at this time are the koraishutir (peas) kochuri with alu dum, the humble alur chorchori seasoned with hing and golmorich (asa foetida and pepper) and the tinkona (triangular) porota with chechki (vegetables or lentils spiced with panch phoron), vegetable chop, kathi rolls and dimer devil, which is, guess what – devilled egg!
The bhog or the community lunch is the highlight of Durga Puja celebrations. It is niramish, or pure vegetarian, and is a favourite with one and all. Bhog er khichuri, or moong dal khichri, is an important part of the spread. It is made in the sattvik style – no onion or garlic – and just the fact that it is cooked for bhog lends it an unparalleled flavour that can rarely be recreated elsewhere. Other dishes include the mishti pulao, labdar torkari (a mixed vegetable dish) – and chanchra (a more dry vegetable dish) and all this is served with crispy fried bhaja, or vegetable fritters on the side. Delectable bowls of payesh and mishti doi end the meal on a sweet note. It is also interesting that typically, a sweet-and-sour chutney is served before dessert, to cleanse and neutralise the palate.
For fish lovers, there is much to explore along pujo stalls. The muri ghonto, or fish head curry, served with rice is another favourite. Typically, rohu fish and gobindo bhog rice are used to make this dish, where the fried fish head, or muro, is cooked with rice. For ilish, or hilsa, lovers, there’s also the ilish pulao, shorshe ilish and ilish begun. And yes, you cannot possibly miss the famous Kolkata mutton biryani. There’s much on offer for vegetarians too in the form of shukto, doi fulkopi (spicy cauliflower in yogurt), lal shaak bhaja and an interesting dish made with grated potato called the jhiri jhiri or jhuri alu bhaja.
No account of the Bengali culinary universe can be complete without a few more details from the sweet end of the spectrum. The nolen gurer mishti doi, or sweetened yogurt made with date palm jaggery, and nolen gurer payesh are major attractions. Dashami, or Bijoya, sees togetherness being celebrated with more sweets, termed mishti mukh kora in Bengali.
Komola bhog, a saffron-flavoured roshogolla, is another delight served at this time. And, of course, the sandesh gets its due share of limelight in several variations. Shor bhaja is another must-try sweet, deep fried in ghee and soaked in sugar syrup. Originating in Krishnagar (Krishnanagar) in the district of Nadia, this dish is a labour of love and is made from the cream of milk, called shor. A baked variation of this dish is called shor puria.
The connection of food with the divine is often spoken of in our country, and it is indeed the power of faith and the spirit of cooking and eating together that infuse any spread with a magical flavour.
The author is a celebrity chef and the views expressed in this article are his own
(Air India also serves popular Bengali delicacies during Durga Puja on its metro and international flights, to passengers flying from Kolkata)