“Did you have food?” is “Hello” and “How are you?” in Bengali. I have friends from almost every community across India, but I have never seen any community so genuinely concerned about food, all the time. As a teenager, I also used to crave for fast food, stole money to have little snack parties. It took me almost ten years of bachelorhood that I am living, about three thousand kilometres distance from home, and the countless time I had to order something when I was longing for something else to understand the sentiment. It is not only about the food or tastes it is about the memories that come along.
I have grown up in a family where the focus is the variety of food we have. During breakfast, we discuss what are we going to have at lunch. We decide evening snacks at lunch and dinner over evening snacks. Sometimes we change the topic and discuss what did we not have recently. My mom is an excellent cook. She can make delicious food out of nothing. Sometimes she uses her creativity by putting unorthodox vegetables in a regular recipe and make it yum. Honestly, the father-son duo was not very supportive initially. But she was stubborn, and we did not have much choice.
Bengali culture is very much consumed by food. I miss how people used to bargain on fish. Their weekend adventure used to be to get some rare or fresh fish from afar market. Then they used to discuss it during their evening Carrom party along with cursing Greg Chappel and Rahul Dravid. You could actually figure by the way people are shopping what day it is. “Baro mashe tero parbon”, which translates thirteen festivals in twelve months; Bengalis have many festivals throughout the calendar, and each festival has its specific food elements. And in between, we have special days. Like in Dussehra/ Vijaya Dashami we generally have all kinds of meat, together. In Shiva Chaturdashi, we make this saag from forty different kinds of leaves. The details might be different from district to district but I am giving you an idea here. There is a tradition where a new groom gets a big hilsha fish when he first visits his in-law’s house. If the fish is not big enough his leg will be pulled for the rest of his life.
Once, in school, I was asked how many times I have food in a day. I was in the second standard, probably. I said 4 times. The teacher thought I was kidding and said that’s why I am growing like a tree but the upper floor is empty. I got confused and tried to clarify myself that the count does not include morning and evening chai snacks. The whole class burst into laughter. I understand I am a funny guy but that day I was serious. The human sense of humour is so confusing sometimes. There is so much variety we have in our culinary arsenal that we gotta eat as many meals as we can to have the taste and I think my parents were on a mission. For instance, we have palak saag(spinach), dheki saag(fiddlehead fern), poi saag(Malabar spinach), kochur saag(stems of colocasia), datar saag(stem Amaranth leaf), laal saag(red spinich), lau saag(bottle gourd leave). Now each saag has vegetarian, fish and dry fish variant. Believe me, when I say this hilsha is just the topping, we can talk about different dishes twice a day and after a year we can bearly able to scratch the surface. And in every 200 kilometres, the taste and recipes change.
After a heavy lunch, we like our afternoon nap. Bengal is a warm and humid region. So we sleep wherever we feel convenient. I remember when we used to visit our native during summer vacation, we kids used to take our nap under the big mango and pomelo tree beside the pond. The paddy fields were visible from there. You lay down and watch the leave over your head shaking, sunlight is trying to come through, making shades of green. You watch squirrel running from one branch to another in pairs, having their tropical fruit feast. You can sense the sweet smell of ripe jack fruit and mangos. You watch the monkeys enjoying jam fruit(jambul fruit); you don’t really get involved with monkeys unless you are ready, they are team players and can easily kick your ass, badly. You watch your grand maa sitting in the farthest corner of the pond, trying to catch small fish using her fishing rod. Then there is Kaal-Baisakhi (regular afternoon storm during monsoon) after which kids go out to get the mangoes. The green ones we used to have with a pinch of salt and green chilli and the ripe ones were separated for the breakfast tomorrow.
Fish is undoubtedly the most celebrated ingredient of Bengali kitchen, but we have a wide range of vegetarian dishes as well. From sukto to lau daal and ghet(mix-veg), kumri, beguni and many more.
In winters I remember sitting around the chula and wait for my turn to have yummy pitha, with my cousins. Pitha is rice cakes which we have in winters. We have pati sapta, which is thin crepes stuffed with jaggery, dried milk and coconut. We have bhapa pitha, steam cooked rice cake to have with juice extracted from palm trees and many more.
We cannot conclude without mentioning the sweets. Among dry sweets we have a variety of sondesh, then we have rosogolla, lal-mohan (gulab jamun), khittuwa, amitti, chom chom, misti doi and many more. My mom used to make this black sesame coconut smoothie with lemon garnishing, I have not had anything like this in recent years.
I feel this culture has not been explored enough and it is not possible for a generation to turn the table. The first step should be to start feeling proud of it.
It’s been almost a decade I am out of my home. This distance, the longing made me realise the significance of these small little things. Now when I am writing this blog down at 3 in the morning, the memories are hitting me one after another and I am sitting alone in my apartment, thinking, was all those things that I did or doing even worth it?