You bump into each other during the morning arati at the para Durga puja. As you dig into the all-time favourite sattvik khichuri bhog and labra for lunch, this is how a typical conversation goes: “Hey, how many pujas did you see last night? And what is good where?” “Don’t miss the mangsher ghugni at B-block. The moghlai porota with kosha mangsho and fish fry at C-block is to die for. And if you can brave the crowds at X block, just ignore everything and go for the bhetki maachher shahjehani and chingri maachher (prawn) pulao at Dada-Boudi’s stall!”
Well, you get the drift. I can bet my last kobiraji cutlet that the over 200 million Bengalis spanning the globe will be having exactly the same conversation over the four days of the pujas. In short, Durga puja and pet puja are BFFs.
Of late, random critics have crawled out of the dredges, questioning this Bengali food orgy, which defies the strict guidelines of Navratri traditions in the rest of India. Let me tell you a story then — of a conversation between two of the greatest spiritual thinkers of modern times.
Author Shankar recounts this in his book Ahaarey Anaharey Vivekananda (Vivekananda: Feasting and Fasting). One day, Narendra (this was before he became Vivekananda) arrived at the Dakshineswar temple and told Sri Ramakrishna that he had just eaten what is considered inedible by the average believer. To this Ramakrishna had replied: “If someone eats pork or beef but remains spiritually strong, that is the equivalent of sattvik food and there is nothing wrong with it. On the other hand, if someone observes ‘purity’ by eating shaak-pata (leaves and greens), yet is totally focussed on material wealth and corrupt desires, then it is equal to having pork or beef. I would not even touch such a person.”
The bottomline, then, is that all food is sacred, provided the sanctity of the spirit is maintained. This is best demonstrated when one of the world’s largest street food carnivals unfolds in Kolkata (and anywhere else Durga Puja is celebrated). It is a live, real-time validation of all that this festival upholds: inclusion, equity and communal harmony. Everyone, from mistress to menial, is at the same phuchkawalla, gulping down phuchkas as if they were going out of style. This mass gastro-orgy is also Bengal’s way of supporting livelihoods and grassroots enterprise. Keep your ears open and you will surely hear: “Hey, let’s go and eat at that stall. It seems to have no customers.” For the less fortunate, it’s a whole year’s saving to indulge in foods that is happiness on a plate and priced reasonably too.
For those uninitiated in pandal-hopping and stall-crawling, let me give you a whirlwind tour of what is usually on the menu. If the festival had a signboard, it would say “Bengali, Mughlai, South Indian, Tandoori, Chinese, Continental”.
Feeling peckish? Head for the stalls advertising tele bhajas (deep-fried fritters), aloo and vegetable chops. An innovation that has happened over the last few years are piping-hot tomato chops. Will not reveal more, let them take you by surprise. Ghugni, for sure, but have you ever tried the churmur? This is a rather unique creation of crushed phuchkas. Right next to that will be the jhalmuri wallah, with the Bengal-special, spiced puffed rice or hot shingaras with spiced potato filling coming straight off the wok.
Vegetarian won’t do? Then make a beeline for the fish rolls — a delectable preparation of spiced shrimp rolled up in fillets of bhetki and then crumb fried — fried chicken, mutton chops, braised cutlets and believe it or not, Chinese chaat. Keep some space for the king among all Bengali snacks, though — the jumbo prawn cutlet. New additions to the Bengali puja food scene are momos, burgers, pizzas and hotdogs. Good food never went to waste in Bengal, no matter where their roots lie. If it’s an all-nighter that you are planning, it’s advisable to space out your foodathon. The Calcutta roll comes with a whole smorgasbord of fillings — alu, paneer, egg, fish, chicken, mutton or specials proclaiming double portions of fillings. Finally, there is the jumbo 1.5-ft family roll made with mutton, chicken and paneer, a recent entrant to the pantheon.
After all that trudging from pandal to pandal, there has to be a suitable dinner to follow, right? Start moving then towards the quintessential luchi or hing kachori and alu dum. Or dosas and utthapams, which is where the sattvik repertoire for festive street food draws the line.
The spotlight is on the Calcutta biryani, paired with a chaap or rezala. There could be a vegetarian version and a soya chaap. Ignore the purists who will scream “oxymoron”. Like I said, Bengalis are a tolerant lot during the pujas— a sinfully greasy chowmein or fried rice with chilli chicken is as welcome as a paratha with rich kosha mangsho. And there’s more news for vegetarians at the Chinese stall — here you will get gobi Manchurian, chilli potatoes and possibly Sichuan paneer.
Time to wrap up now with a sugar fix of various mishtis or ice cream. After such a rich feast, sweets are not advisable. So, like every Bengali worth her rosogolla, make sure you have a stash of Rantac in your pocket.
And to those who had recently trolled the insignificant little country cousin, the egg roll, as a puja favourite — boy, after this list, you sure have your work cut out.
Pritha Sen is a Gurgaon-based development consultant who wandered accidentally into food.