A proverb in Bengal that despairing mothers of girls averse to cooking and other domestic accomplishments are fond of quoting goes thus: “Je radhe, she chul-o badhe (Loosely translated, the one who cooks also dresses up)”. In short, multi-tasking can well begin in the kitchen. To bolster their argument, they often turn to a thin, well-worn copy of a cookbook that is very unimaginatively named, Rannar Boi (The Cook Book, Ananda Publishers). Don’t turn away in disdain. The women, who put it together almost four decades ago, knew the way into a modern girl’s heart: you can eat well and still be a rebel. Just keep your time in the kitchen minimal and if there’s a shortcut in sight, grab it with both hands.
In an interview to Anu Kumar for the webzine Parabaas, Srilata Banerjee, granddaughter of its co-author Lila Majumdar, mentions how her grandmother was never quite the quintessential cook, “…although she did cook as and when required… But she loved food, not just eating but the intricacies of preparing and cooking a dish, and how certain spices would go with certain fish or veggies and others would not. She used to say that cooking was like creating a story and she would collect recipes from everyone because they had a history attached to them,” says Banerjee, in the 2011 interview.
A must for every Bengali woman venturing out to set up her own independent establishment (or being reluctantly inducted in the art of wielding a ladle), Majumdar’s cookbook, written in collaboration with Kamala Chattopadhyay, comes with recipes ranging from basic to intricate, and advice that has remained relevant over time. In the preface, the authors write, “The kitchen is the centre of a household, keep it clean…In foreign countries, including in America, women cook themselves and there’s little to distinguish their kitchen from the living room and dining room… They have also mastered the art of toiling less over food…They usually cook a main dish and something convenient to go with it… we can make it easy for ourselves too.”
The daughter of Surama Devi and Pramada Ranjan Ray, Majumdar was the niece of pioneering children’s writer-illustrator and publisher Upendrakishore Ray Chaudhuri. Growing up in a family at the forefront of Bengal’s cultural renaissance, the convent-educated Majumdar was encouraged by the literary environment at home and the company of cousins such as Sukumar Ray to dabble in writing from her teens. She would go on to become one of Bengal’s leading writers of children’s fiction (Kheror Khata, Shob Bhuture, Podi Pishi-r Bormi Baksho, to name just a few).
Majumdar believed that a woman’s place was not just at home but also in the larger political and cultural life of a nation and that one could manage both with aplomb. The tips in the book are practical and expedient, but never without room for improvisation. Sample this: If you add a teaspoon of unadulterated glycerine in 500 gm flour while baking a cake, it will be softer and will last longer. Or, this: to remove rust stains from cloth wipes, pour a little bit of stale rice starch on it and then wash gently.
The recipes, divided into 10 sections — soups, breads and rice, lentils, vegetarian fare, eggs, fish, meats, desserts, restorative diet for convalescents and a segment on entertaining — reflect how the writers were open to different influences and traditions. Many of the recipes are adaptations of Anglo-Indian dishes or have been influenced by Kolkata’s large Chinese community or Muslim settlers, while others are an amalgam of recipes from East (Pre-Partition) and West Bengal (chochhori, ambol, jhol and jhal). Most are easy to do (easier still if you can coax someone to do the chopping for you).
Take the recipe for the Chinese omelette, for instance (serves 5), which goes roughly like this:
Ingredients: 5 eggs, a fistful of noodles or sewai, broken into large pieces, 2 tablespoons of boiled shrimps, 2 tablespoons shredded ham, 2 tablespoons each of diced onions, peas, cauliflower florets, 5 mushrooms finely sliced, salt and pepper to taste and 5 tablespoons of groundnut oil.
Method: Chinese noodles become soft as soon as it is put in hot water. Drain and keep aside. Parboil the veggies and keep aside (You can use only those ingredients that are readily available). Separate the yolks and egg whites and then beat them separately before mixing them together. Add salt. On a low flame, fry the noodles first in a frying pan. When one side is done, turn it and add the diced onions and the other ingredients. When they are lightly sauteed, add the egg batter so that it covers everything. When the bottom is cooked, fold it gently. When it changes colour, it’s ready to be served.
Or, the strangely named begun-puri (aubergines with mutton keema) (serves 6), whose excellence I can vouch for:
Ingredients: 3 medium-sized aubergines; 250 gm keema or some slightly rough fish, 2 onions, 1 teaspoon of ginger, 2 ripe tomatoes, parsley, breadcrumbs, salt to taste and 3 tablespoons groundnut oil.
Method: Cut the aubergines lengthwise and scoop out the flesh in the middle, keeping a ½ inch radius. Don’t forget to keep it immersed in water, skin up to avoid discolouration. In a pan, heat a tablespoon of oil, saute the diced onion, ginger paste, tomatoes. Add the keema or the boiled, deboned fish. Mix the scooped out flesh of the aubergines, too. Cook till the oil separates, but don’t make it too dry. You can add raisins and peas if you want. Now, remove the aubergines from water and pat them dry. Grease a flat tray and lay the aubergines on them, add the stuffing and then sprinkle breadcrumbs on top. Bake it for 20 minutes. Some prefer to fry the stuffed aubergines in an egg-and-flour batter.
My favourite, though, is the pish-pash, a one-pot tehri-like dish made with chicken and short-grained rice, from the section on meals for the ill and infirm. It is tied up in memories of my grandmother cooking for me while I convalesced from some illness or the other, hunched over my copy of Sandesh magazine or Anandamela in bed, the smell of cardamom and clove wafting through my attic room in Kolkata. In my memory, we called it “fish-fash”, even though, every time somebody suggested a substitution with fish, I created a ruckus. I still cook it whenever my child falls ill, rifling through my yellowing copy of Rannar Boi, that had once belonged in our family kitchen, to ensure that I have not missed any step. It doesn’t come out like my grandmother’s or mother’s, but it never fails to taste like home.