Sunday, September 11, 2005


Mouth watering Bengali dishes

When we are living away from home in surroundings, which is totally new to us, we can then realize all the conveniences we took for granted when we lived with our family. As I am far away from the house for last few years, with many other things the thing I missed most is my mother's cooking. Last Sunday while I was trying to cook chicken curry (probably the easiest way of preparing chicken). While eating it, I realized that it would never match the pleasures of eating home cooked chicken curries prepared by mother.

We Bengalis are one of the greatest food lovers in the world. Most of us are great eaters. Our lunch or dinners are considered incomplete without fish. In a normal weekday our lunch or dinner will generally comprise of bhat (rice), alu siddho (mashed potatoes), dal (lentils), bhaja (fries), tarkari (vegetables) and macher jhol (fish curry) and ghore pata doi (homemade yogurt) etc. Although these are multi-course meals, for special occasions like marriage ceremonies and anniversaries, the numbers of courses were even higher and variation in taste was more.

In my childhood and teen days holidays meant relatives coming at our home and vice versa. Then along with the regular things the menu also included Shukto(bitter dish), chaatni, maangsho (meat – generally chicken or mutton) etc. While I was busy in playing with my cousins we could smell the delicious smell of the preparation from the kitchen. In the kitchen, I remember, we can hear the various sounds of cooking mixed with the voices of mother and aunts, their red faces sweating from the oven's heat.

Food tells a lot about the culture of the people. There are also geographical reasons for food habits. It depends on the availability or the absence of different kinds of foods. Bengal for instance have countless sweet water rivers, ponds and lakes where freshwater fish like Rui(Rohu), Katla, Pabda etc. are found in plenty. These made Bengalis the greatest fish lovers in the world. A true Bengali will consider a meal incomplete without fish and celebrations are never done without a fish preparation. Even as a symbol of wealth and fertility, fish are touched by husbands and then sent to their brides before the wedding ceremony.

Talking about fish preparation reminds me about my aunts who have a special expertise in cooking a dish called “Horo Gouri” (Krishna- Radha). It is prepared with medium sized fishes like Koi, Bata etc. The name was given such because the two sides of the same fish will have two different tastes. One side of the fish is chilli-hot and the other side is sour. She also tells a story where a son asks her poor mother to prepare two types of dish… one hot and another sour. But the poor mother had only single fish. So she made this preparation with a single fish with double taste, which would satisfy her son’s taste bud.

As I jumped into the fish story first, one can misinterpret that Bengalis cuisine mainly consists fish. Although fish is an integral part of Bengali menu, it is generally a "multi-course" thing -- where there is some sort of an unwritten rule as to which course should follow what. For instance, meat always follows fish which always follows veggies.

A typical Bengali meal starts with a bitter dish Shukto. There is a belief that bitter things takes care of abdominal troubles, but the logic in starting with a bitter taste is that it makes the taste buds more sharpen and prone to accept other differentiating tastes. It consists of different type of vegetables, such as pungent mulo(white radish), bitter tasting korola (a bitter gourd..the pronunciation is like Toyota’s renowned Car model Corolla ), stiff vegetable like seem(a hard skinned flat bean), starchy vegetables like sweet potato and some delicious stems and leaves which only Bengalis seem to eat. To this are added bori (sun dried morsels fashioned out of ground split peas). At the end of the cooking ghee is added to it, which results in an outer worldly ultimate taste. As I’m not sure of the spices I’m omitting that part because I never felt like cooking this delicacy and thought I might spoil it.

The other type of starters are Aaloo Bhaate ( mashed potatoes), Begun Pora (roasted eggplant) etc which are not a special occasion dish, but rather a comfort food in Bengali household. In Aaloo Bhaate mashed potatoes are seasoned with pungent fiery mustard oil, onions, salt and chopped green chilies. My grandmother used to add dried chili fries with mashed potatoes instead of green chilies that made the taste different and unique. Begun Pora is flame roasted eggplant mashed with mustard oil, green chilis onions and ginger. Sometimes leafy vegetable shaak (green leaves) like spinach etc. preparation are also used as starters but as I don’t like them much I’d prefer not to discuss them except one. I only like laal shaak (red leaves) preparation with Kasundi (smashed mustard seeds).

These starters are followed by dal ( lentils), which is generally accompanied by bhaja (fries) of either vegetables or fish. There are various type of lentils which are cooked in typical Bengali style. For instance Moog Daal cooked with fish head (Maacher matha) which gives it exclusive flavour , Chholar Dal ( split pea lentils) cooked with small pieces of coconut, Arhar dal cooked with ghee etc . The other types of lentils are Matar Dal (pea lentils), Kalaier dal( urad dal), Biulir dal etc. Some people in different parts of Bengal take dals at the end of their meal.

With dal the side dish contains wide range of bhajas. And the bhaja, delicate pumpkin flowers dipped in a chickpea flour batter and deep-fried. Bhajas can be made out of any kind of vegetables and even the throwaway part of vegetables like alur khosa bhaja, made with the potato skins or kumro phul bhaja, made with pumpkin flowers dipped in a flour.

Then comes Tarkari or curries mainly cooked with fresh vegetables and have some gravy. Most common are the aaloo(Potato) r dum which is a slowly cooked potato dish, Bandhakopir (cabbage) torkari , phulkopir (cauliflower) dalna with delicious and spicy gravy. Tarkaris also sometime contains non veg things like small shrimp (in Lau chingri), or fish head pieces (in Muri ghonto). Among torkaris one of my favourite is Aloo Posto (Poppy Seeds) or any other type of postos (One of my friend cooks Cauliflower posto, even mushroom posto..all of them are tasty). Although posto is a delicacy of West Bengalis, it is now accepted to all type of Bengali households across the geography. My another traditional favourite tarkari is Mocha(whole banana flower) r ghonto cooked with ghee, Garam Masala and coconut. One who haven’t tasted it can’t even imagine it’s outer worldly taste. It’s also very hard to prepare where you have to remove the hard stem and hard white at the base from each flower and Soak in to salted water overnight. Other few lovable tarkaris are echor (Green Jackfruit) er torkari or Mulo (Horse Radish) preparation with dhone pata (Coriander leaves ) and one of my mother’s special Potli (oily Parwal preparation).

This is followed by the non veg dishes. First comes fish preparation. Although I talked about it earlier some of my favourites are ‘Ilish Paturi’(Hilsa smoked inside banana leaves), ‘Chingri Malai Kari’ (jumbo prawn in the coconut cream ). I’m also very fond of my mothers Bhetki Kalia’, which is an interesting dish containing bhetki fish, potatoes and cauliflower and Tel Koi (Climbing Perch cooked with mustard oil). Last but not the the least, I also like the chital maacher muithya (my mother in law prepares this variety too good) which is a very delicious boneless preparation out of the thorny (Gaada) part of famous Chital maach.

Meat is always followed by fish. Bengali meat dish commonly are Khasir Mangsho (mutton - goat meat) or Murgir Mangsho (chicken). In case of mutton I generally prefer Kosha mangsho (cooked in a thick spicy gravy). But I think I’m quite addicted to the stew like Murgir Jhol (home style light chicken preparation with butter, pepper, papya etc) which my wife prepares very well.

After meat comes Chaatni (sour pickle type preparation). I don't like this item too much as I feel the taste destroys the other delicious tastes of Fish or meat. But it's good for your digestive system. It's generally prepared with tomatoes, Mangoes etc. I thing that Green Mango chatni tastes better than other chatnis.

The deserts are sweets ranging from Mishti doi ( yogurt sweetened with caramel or jaggery) to paatishapta ( individual crepes stuffed with sweetened shredded coconut and cream) or even the payesh ( rice pudding). Leave aside various sandesh (best is nolen gur er sondesh) and Bengali special Rasagolla.

I think that's all. Hey, now I deserve calls from my readers who will invite me for lunch and dinner with these items. Thanks in advance :-)

Friday, August 19, 2005


Bengali language - some facts

Some readers of my Blog suggested writing something about my state West Bengal. I thought it’s a good idea to start with Bengali Language - Bangla first. Bangla is the national language of Bangladesh with about 150 million speakers and the state language of West Bengal in India with about 86 million speakers. There are also significant Bangla-speaking communities in the Indian states of Assam and Tripura and in immigrant populations in the West, the Middle East and in various parts of India.

Let’s not go to the finer details of various dialects of Bangla and rather keep it for the researchers. Recently there was an article that Visva Bharati University (founded by Gurudev Rabindranath Thakur) is introducing online Bengali lessons, particularly for the children of non-resident Indians who rarely learn their mother tongue on foreign lands. What struck me is that the varsity decided to launch this course after several Bengalis living abroad approached Visva Bharati with the proposal.

For last one and half years, I’ve seen a subset of Non Resident Bangalis, both from Bangladesh and various parts of India (mainly West Bengal). Some of them care about their language and heritage more than a Bengali living in Kolkata or Dhaka. They maintain a rich cultural Bangali tradition of reading latest published novels, hearing Rabindrasangeet, Najrulgeeti and even Band Music. These people teach their child in the same manner as they have grew up. I’ve even talked with a student of seventh standard who knew thoroughly about the "Bhasha Andolan" or "Language Movement". When I asked him how he came to know about it, he told me that his mother told him stories and also presented a book on this subject.

I think it’s the choice of the first-generation and not just the second. The first generation Bengalis immigrated abroad by their choice for better economic opportunities. On the otherhand the second generation was born abroad and they did not choose it. Parents everywhere always expect their children to perform well. The same is true for non resident Bengalis. They allow their children to choose their career as long as the choice would guarantee enough salary for comfortable living. Most of the time they don’t encourage such education that have no goals. And here comes the point where these second generation don’t get attracted in learning their mother language. Many of the second generation even do not speak their mother tongue.

Their identity crisis passes through different phases. It’s sometime really hard to match the Indian Culture and American Lifestyle. What I’ve seen in many families is that, if the second generation understand the values like maintaining close family ties, respecting elders’ etc. ------ they have more inclination to learn their own language and culture. They have the potential of carrying the light of their customs language and tradition.

I think that the online course of Visva Bharati can’t help anyway to those who opt for western mainstream culture. It will only help those people who are willing to know the richness of their own cultural background.

Some Facts about Bengali Language

Bengali is the seventh Most Widely Spoken Languages in the World
Language Approx. number of speakers
1. Chinese (Mandarin) 1,075,000,000
2. English 514,000,000
3. Hindustani 496,000,000
4. Spanish 425,000,000
5. Russian 275,000,000
6. Arabic 256,000,000
7. Bengali 215,000,000
8. Portuguese 194,000,000
9. Malay-Indonesian 176,000,000
10. French 129,000,000

The Fight for Bangla (Courtesy: Wikipedia):
During 1947-1971 , the Bangla language became the focus and foundation of the national identity of the Bengali people, leading ultimately to the creation of the sovereign state of Bangladesh.

Around 1950-52, the emerging middle class of East Bengal underwent an uprising known later as the Bhasha Andolon, or "Language Movement". Bengalis (then East Pakistanis) were initially agitated by a decision by the central Pakistani government to establish Urdu as the sole national language for all of Pakistan, despite the fact that Urdu was only a minority language spoken by the supposed elite class of what was then West Pakistan. At the peak of resentment, on February 21, 1952, Bengali students and activists walked into military fire and were killed in demand of the recognition and establishment of the Bangla language - spoken by the majority of the then-Pakistani population - as one of the, if not the sole, national language of erstwhile Pakistan.

The day is revered in modern-day Bangladesh and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in West Bengal as the Language Martyrs' Day. UNESCO decided to observe 21 February as International Mother Language Day. The UNESCO General Conference took a decision to that took effect on 17 November 1999 when it unanimously adopted a draft resolution submitted by Bangladesh and co-sponsored and supported by 28 other countries.

19 May 1961, in Silchar
, a small town of southern Assam (a state in northeast India) witnessed another fight for the Bengali language and 11 people died in police firing to protest against the forcible imposition of Assamese on the Bangla-speaking people there as a state policy. Those killed on 19 May gave up everything for the right to speak their mother tongue, and eventually the Government had to back down.

On 21 July 1986, on another momentous day in the struggle for the Bengali Language, two Bengalis gave their life in Karimganj, also in southern Assam, protesting against yet another attempt by the state government to impose Assamese on the local Bengali population. The protest was met with police firing upon unarmed protesters. This was the pivotal incident that forced the government to withdraw their unpopular legislation.

Let's not forget them.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Renoir's "The River" - A nice movie

Last weekend I’ve seen the movie "The River" in New York’s Lincoln Center of Performing Arts’ Walter Reade Theater. The movie is a beautiful rhythmic adaptation of Rumer Godden's autobiographical novel and I think it’s one of the best movies ever made about India by a non-Indian. French director Jean Renoir's The River, filmed on location in West Bengal, India , was his first color film and also first film in English.

The story was seen through the eyes of Harriet, an imaginative English teenager living with her family near the banks of the River Ganges. Her father was the Jute Mill "Saheb" (White Factory Manager) who adapted the lifestyle of the subcontinent. The family consists of her three sisters, brother, parents and housekeeper Nanny who is superstitious as well as wise in nature.

As the river flows in her lazy pace, Harriet spends her leisurely days observing exotic Indian life of Fisher Boatmen, grocers, factory workers, village women etc. She shares her world with her friend Valerie who just returned from her school in England and Melanie whose late mother was an Indian and father a British Jute mill official.

Suddenly Captain John, a crippled American soldier of WW1, comes to live with his widower cousin (Melanie's father) who lives near Harriet's family along the river. This handsome, young, soldier creates the ripples although to different extent in Harriet, Valerie, and Melanie’s heart. He was like a new flower of spring in the girls’ lazy monotonous life.

Set against the background of an eternal flowing river, Renoir proved that change is the only constant thing in life. The tragedies like death of Boggie (little brother of Harriet) and Captain John’s departure ,was easily forgot as they got the touch of a new life….Harriet’s new born sister.

Alongwith the nice rural scenery of Bengal, Renoir explores deeper into the Indian society through festivals like Diwali and Holi. He also tells the viewer about the socio-economical scenario of Bengal and the human condition in pre independence era of 1940’s.

"At times Renoir's attempt to grasp the river's essence seems about to sink under the film's layers of conventions. The River is brittle with clichés that sound culled from popular romances and Introduction to Eastern Philosophy." Said Peter Keough the American critics in The Boston Phoenix, "But that may be the point. The search for meaning ends not in understanding but in an artifact, which itself demands interpretation." Although from western interpretation, which might sound true, but from an Indian perspective, I think Renoir mingled the two cultures quite well in a balanced manner.

"The River flows, constant yet ever-changing." Said Judge Steve Evans in his DVD review "To those who immerse themselves in these waters, Renoir's stirring love letter to India delivers as great a gift as a cinephile could hope to receive from an artist." The statement does an absolute justice to the great work.

Influence of Renoir on Satyajit Ray is a well-known fact and Ray uttered it in many of his interviews. I think Ritwik Ghatak’s "Titas ekti Nadir Naam" and Rajen Tarafder’s "Ganga" complements Renoirs "The River" with their Indian views. Instead of portraying two families, these films go into more details of the people, who lives at the banks of the rivers, and captures a more wider canvas.

At the time when there was no ‘software boom’, no ‘Hi Tech revolution’, Hollywood stereotypically portrayed India as the land of Tiger, Elephants, snakes and Sadhus. Renoir showed the courage of doing something different. It is of course different and even after more than half century, when people have no time look at themselves, the movie reminds them the basics of their life.


Santanu's First Post

Hello, I'm Santanu Aich from Calcutta (Kolkata) currently posted in New York. This site will specially represent my views on various topics. It is like my Diary. Here I'll mainly post my views , my criticisms and may be something more.

Santanu Aich

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