Cooking with Pragyasundari: A woman of the Tagore household tells you how to make bhapa ilish

Some cookbooks you don’t just read; you inherit them. They take you back to your grandma’s kitchens in Margaon or Kottayam or Kolkata, and serve up a taste of home. Here, a woman of the Tagore household, who spent her life perfecting recipes, tells you how to make bhapa ilish.

Written by Devapriya Roy | Updated: October 8, 2017 12:12 am
A Puja special chicken thala at Monkey Bar, Delhi.

A couple of weeks ago, my best friend Gee, newly retired from a lifetime of government servitude, came to visit and announced that we should Marie Kondo our kitchens instantly. Except, instead of keeping things that fill us with joy, we should keep only the things that our grandmothers would have recognised — and cooked.

“So, you mean, things that fill us with horror? Chhyaanchhraa, chhenki, ghonto, chorchori, shuktuni, ombol…,” I quipped, safely stashing my chocolate digestives away before Gee got a chance to Kondo them. “Quite right,” Gee insisted, unfazed. “We need to revisit vegetarian Bengali cuisine; it’s packed with nutrients and the taste must be locked deep down in our cell memories. You and I need to have a proper Bengali repertoire.”

The word repertoire struck a nerve. Every now and then, I am known to get severely het up about the subject. Say, the spouse and I land up at the “Ananda Mela” grounds of any random Puja celebration in CR Park, and spot smug uncles and aunties dazzling the masses with their repertoires: fish roll, bhetki butter fry, paati shapta, malai kari and luchi-mangsho.

I would be filled with bittersweet nostalgia for our other selves — which were meant to mope less about the world, cook more, have had several children by now, roll perfect luchis, know the rituals of Saraswati puja pat down and entertain with savoir faire. What is so great about living in a constant cloud of ideas and sentences, wrestling books to pages and never having time to cook one’s grandmother’s recipes?

I march up to our bookshelves and take out two identical, newish volumes that I’d bought a couple of years ago when I’d been planning to turn over a new leaf. “If you truly care about increasing our repertoires, then this is what you need.”

“Who’s Pragyasundari Debi?” Gee asks me, intrigued. “A genius,” I reply shortly.

If I were not a post-colonially savvy sort, I might have described Pragyasundari Debi as the Indian Mrs Beeton. But since I am, I shall simply say that Pragyasundari Debi, a niece of Rabindranath Tagore, was a unique Renaissance woman who emerged from the glorious Tagore household in Jorasanko which, as everyone knows, offered a liberal arts college atmosphere to its residents. In addition to reading widely, writing verse and editing magazines — basically the garden variety stuff that all the Thakurbari girls did — Pragyasundari also ventured into virgin territory. Following the example of her father who loved cooking, she collected and perfected recipes throughout her life, with the precision of a chemist (her father was one) and the flair of an artist (her mother was a painter), writing copious notes and instructions about each recipe in her diaries.

The classic mustard-baked hilsa. (Source: Express photo)

Later, Pragyasundari was to marry a young writer, Lakshminath Bezbaroa, who came to be considered the father of modern Assamese literature. Bezbaroa was also an expansive gourmand. It was his idea that Debi must publish her recipes — a truly novel idea at the time — and after a great deal of hesitation, she mined her notebooks to publish a volume of vegetarian delicacies. It was the first decade of the 20th century, cookbooks were rare, and surprising all expectations, her debut edition sold out quickly.

Over the years, Debi published two volumes of vegetarian and two volumes of non-vegetarian recipes, a book of Assamese recipes, and one final book that collected all manner of pickles and preserves. She passed away in 1950, the year Julia Child enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu and S Meenakshi Ammal, the author of the pioneering Tamil cookbook Samaithu Par, sent her manuscript off to press. The book stayed out of print for many decades till Debi’s granddaughter Ira Ghosh undertook the mammoth task of editing a fresh new edition of Aamish o Niraamish Aahaar, which, while retaining the delicious complexity of Pragyasundari’s Bankimesque Bengali and the delightful quirkiness of her gadgets (do you know what a dal ghuntuni is? You will learn) helpfully converts the quantities into teaspoons, tablespoons and grams.

In the preface to the first edition, Debi wrote that she had given all measures using spoons in her final manuscript. When the book was in press, she realised that most Indian households didn’t use spoons at all and thus the chefs wouldn’t be able to follow the recipes correctly. She managed to stop production and rewrote most recipes converting the measurements to the then-popular system of tolaa-seer-maund.

The week after Gee’s visit progresses slowly; I find myself interrupting my million tasks to admire the two books that, I have decided, shall save me. I dip into one as I sip my tea and I find principles of Ayurvedic cooking according to Charaka listed somewhere towards the beginning; I dip into the other over lunch and find a recipe for “grilled sole” that includes white wine and anchovy sauce in its list of ingredients. Medieval meets Modern Bazaar, I tell the spouse. “There is even a recipe for aspic! Years before Julia Child, Pragyasundari had introduced aspic to Bengali housewives!”

“Is one going to taste any of this or is the exercise of the literary analysis school of cooking?” he asks, but I am submerged in the book again. There are cakes, puddings, soufflés, kulfis and even eccentric blanc mange recipes in the desserts section of Volume Two; Volume One teaches the art of making different kinds of khichuris. There are oddments I need to call up and ask my mother to investigate on my behalf. “What are ‘dengo-sticks’? They might be similar to drumsticks but I can’t be sure.” (“Don’t you have a book to finish?” my mother asks.) Finally, after another week of poring over the pages, I decide I shall attempt one of the recipes.

Bhapa ilish on a bed of rice cooked the Pragyasundari way.

 

Observing my mounting mania, the spouse requests that I locate the actual cooking enterprise at Gee’s house, ostensibly because the relevant markets are close by.

The truth is possibly elsewhere. He is still haunted by memories of what happened the last time I’d attempted to extend my repertoire: our house crumbled into a war zone, cookbooks and cuss words flew around, and he had to mop me up from the floor where I was weeping into the breadcrumbs that would no longer embellish the theoretical fish chops I was frying. I agreed it was infinitely wiser to select Gee’s house as the venue because in case of emergency — ilish was now in the picture — we would have the deep wisdom of Oporna, Gee’s cook, to rescue us.

I arrive at CR Park on the appointed day. Gee begins telling Oporna about the fantastic sum (Rs 1,700) I have paid for the hilsa and they laugh together. We get started on the recipe of the day: bhapa ilish.

While the mustard-baked hilsa or bhapa ilish is a widely recognised Bengali classic, I am attracted to this particular recipe because of the technique used to cook it.

First, we line up our ingredients: One large (ish) Ganga ilish approximately 1 ½ tsp salt 1 ½ tablespoon mustard paste 1 tsp haldi paste 3 or 4 green chillies 3 large spoons of mustard oil As Oporna washes the fish (“nearly as expensive as gold!”), giggling at Pragyasundari’s formal prose, Gee and I parse the instructions out loud. According to the recipe, if we want to eat the fish with rice (we do), then it is super-simple.

Marinate the pieces liberally with all the ingredients, douse it in mustard oil and place it on a flattish container with high edges. Cook rice in a handi. Throw away the starch water and pour the hot rice on the fish. Cover the container with a tight-fitting lid and leave it for 10 minutes. Fish should be done.

“So we are not cooking the fish at all?” Gee asks doubtfully.

Aamish o Niraamish Aahaar by Pragyasundari Debi.

Do we have the specific kind of dishes Pragyasundari would have used? Will our modern-day fancyass utensils trap heat properly? Will 10 minutes be enough? Doubts; doubts. I look at Gee. Gee looks at Oporna. Oporna finally suggests that maybe since it is an experiment we don’t use all the gold-silver fish at once?

That seems like a good idea. So we select the thinnest pieces, line them up on a flat plate, douse them in marinade. We consider the fish deeply. While Gee and I proceed to have a completely pointless discussion on the kind of rice to be cooked — Basmati versus Gobindobhog, Oporna has already made the rice and is straining it in the sink. “I am in a rush, remember?” she tells us sweetly. “The rice is three-quarters done.”

We rush to the dekchi and decide we shall burrow the marinade and fish in the middle of the rice, cover it up and seal the lid. We decide to let the stove simmer for 10 minutes, after which we shall allow the hilsa to stay in dum for a while.

It is a thrilling wait. Gee calculates how much money will be lost if it’s a flop, Oporna calculates how much time will be lost if we attempt it again, while I read out other recipes that the cooking club will mount in the coming weeks: fillets of eel a la remoulade, mutton roast, rose phirni, Beckti Wilson, thin masoor dal with a splodge of milk, and beetroot hingi.

“What’s hingi?” asks Gee’s naiad-like daughter, N, who has been watching our drama all morning with amusement. Before I can explain, the timer pings and we rush to the kitchen. Oporna pries open the lid, Gee advances a ladle and gingerly prods the fish, and N and I stand mutely in suspense. “It’s …perfectly done,” Gee announces, like one of the Masterchef Australians. Murmuring about the wonders of the universe, we lay the pieces reverentially on soft piles of the mustard-crusted gobindobhog rice.

We eat silently. The fish is tender and delicately spicy; the rice, definitely the most miraculous discovery of the year.

Outside, the day is golden like molten ghee. Far away, we can hear the dhaak. I send a picture of the bhapa-ilish-on-rice to my mother for whom I have never, in all these years, cooked. In her presence, we invariably recede into the past: I am a sulky teenager, she is an impatient goddess. “Next time you come,” I tell my mother, “I shall make Pragyasundari’s bhapa ilish for you.”

Devapriya Roy is the co-author, with Saurav Jha, of The Heat and Dust Project.

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