There is more to a Bengali’s winter than the much ridiculed monkey cap, annual tryst with the book fair and the infamous Calcutta smog that often disrupts cricket matches at Eden Gardens.
It is when the frenzy of festivals makes way for never-ending family meals and conversations on terraces as jars of ‘ber’ pickles soak in the winter sun. It is when kitchens churn rare ingredients and complex flavours as seasonal sweets, savouries and curries keep the Bengali sensualist in exceptionally good spirits (especially since we are well known for our dour disposition otherwise).
What makes the winter menu so special is that, it features produce that make a stellar cameo between November to January only. With everything from date palm jaggery (nolen gur), to some rare varieties of fish, rice, vegetables and fruits, it is a celebration of everything precious.
Here’s looking at a few rock stars of the season. With compliments from a Bengali woman who, as they say, always knows best.
Joy to the World
A familiar winter sighting during our childhood was the stacks of white paper boxes, bursting with sweet promise and stamped with the unmistakable blue logo of Joy Nagarer Mowa, a kind of soft laddoo from Jay Nagar, South 24 Parganas. They appeared with the first mist of the season, at sweet shops and doorsteps, courtesy the wandering vendors and thoughtful guests. They disappeared at the first warming.
Much has changed in the way this signature winter sweet is produced and marketed well beyond its best-by date. But if you have had the privilege of tastingthe original, succulent Joy Nagarer Mowa, you will know that no cheaper alternative, no artificial essence can ever recreate this golf-ball-sized wonder.
First introduced in the 1920s, this soft, velveteen laddoo is an elegant marriage of ingredients unique to the region and the season. So you have nolen gur – date palm jaggery that is used to flavour sweets and kheer in winter – and puffed rice from Kanakchur variety of grain, which is harvested only at this time of the year with posto (poppy seeds) – Bengali cuisine’s most popular calling card.
Because of the elusive ingredients (apparently date palm trees are disappearing and yield of the Kanakchur rice have been slumping too) the original Mowa was tough to find or reproduce at home. It was even tougher to store it because the blue-blooded Mowa had no chemicals or preservatives to add to its short shelf life.
On hindsight, maybe it was the Mowa’s elusiveness that made it so attractive, despite its unappetizing brown and white appearance.
On nippy Sundays, the only thing that could entice us to crawl out from the under the quilts was the aroma of this little beauty wafting from the kitchen. Think crisp, fluffy golden puris that collapse when you tap them lightly. Think of a rich, green layer of sweet green peas inside, flavoured with a pinch of hing or asafetida. Think you are in culinary heaven.
Koraishuntir kochuri is a sort of puri or soft kachori with green peas filling.Purists (yours truly included) would scoff the idea of frozen supermarket peas to make this kochuri -it tastes best when the season’s sweetest and freshest green peas have been shelled the previous evening (in the backdrop of the loud Bengali soaps), mashed and seasoned and tempered in the kadhai with hing, and occasional green chilly.
And since food pairing is very important in Bengali cuisine (we believe certain varieties of dals are wedded to certain kinds of veggie dishes, we are THAT obsessive), you should know that the koraishuntir kochuri, the king of winter brunches, is best mated with a semi-dry, spicy and sweet aloo dum with seasonal baby potatoes, garnished with coriander leaves and slit green chillies.
The Social Climber
Australians are reportedly living in dread of the Climbing Perch fish, that is invading its waters and choking everything that comes it way. But in Bengal,this fish, aka Koi (not to be confused with its Japanese namesake) maach, is celebrated in all its fierce glory.
Like so many other seasonal things, the koi is available almost throughout the year these days. But our mothers and grandmothers insisted that the fish really comes to its own in winter. Known to survive without water for hours, koi maach can spring a nasty surprise even when dropped into the kadhai to be fried in bubbling mustard oil. A sharp childhood memory involves a bunch of these warriors springing up from the shopping bag and hopping around the kitchen, before the cook grabbed them by the tail for a killer wallop.
Taming the koi is worth the risk. Everything from a simple oil-ginger-turmeric and nigella flavoured curry, to a more seasonal cauliflower and potato gravy, is laid out to welcome this aggressive and flavourful little fella.
Bit of an acquired taste – it takes a while to negotiate the bones and get to the sweet flesh – the koi is as much a winter classic in Bengali households as are the badminton sessions in the evenings and family picnics over mutton curries. But we shall leave that story for another day.