Can a mutton curry be vegetarian? Of course not. But when you subtract two important Indian kitchen staples, supposedly, it’s vegetarian enough. There are specific rules and restrictions on how to cook sacrificial meat served to the goddess, and that also explains why mutton is the main feature for Bengalis on Kali Puja
Growing up in 90s’ Calcutta, Diwali always felt like an alien word. My mother’s non-Bengali friends would call us on our rotary phone and wish her “Happy Diwali”, and I would giggle at the enthusiasm (completely missing the point that it is, actually, akin to saying “Happy New Year”). Or we would come across that word in school textbooks. Diwali. Deepavali. Festival of Lights. The day Ram came home. To be honest, unlike today — trigger warning — Ram really didn’t feature much in conversations, news, and popular discourse, beyond the Ramayana. Even though the Babri demolition had happened by then, behind the walls of my Catholic school, Ram was, and rightfully so, a fictional character. So, Diwali, that is celebrated a day after Kali Puja, meant nothing for us. Oh, you worship Laxmi on Diwali? Thanks, but no thanks, we worship her a couple days after Durga Puja. Ganesha accompanies her too? Sorry, he receives Bengali prayers on our new year, which isn’t Diwali, but is in April. No one steals focus from Kali.
Back then, growing up, Kali felt more real in West Bengal. Goddesses tend to feel more real for Bengalis because our mothers and wives wield ladles and rolling pins all our lives with the same dexterity required for a scythe. For the uninitiated, a scythe is Kali’s weapon of choice for beheadings. She is a badass warrior, dark-skinned, four-handed and naked, dressed only in garlands of demon heads and hands (which she has chopped off), and you don’t want to mess with her. Even her husband, Shiva, lies under her feet. Here I must mention that those tall-and-muscly depictions of Shiva these days, thanks to a juicy Mohit Raina, do not fly with Bengalis. Shiva is a bumbling, lazy, henpecked husband who is scared of his wife’s temper. Our gods mirror our societies. Also, which Bengali can associate himself with abs?
Kali Puja is a night set aside for debauchery and digging in. While non-Bengalis stick to vegetarian affairs, petit sweets, barfis, snacks, and bites, Bengalis relish meat and alcohol. That’s because Kali has to be served meat and alcohol for appeasement purposes. She isn’t settling for anything less than that. Also, I’m sorry, but the woman has been running around chopping heads off. I am not surprised she needs red meat, and a stiff drink. Which is why alcohol consumption and mutton curries are a part of Kali Puja. Along with firecrackers, but that is such a political issue these days, and I’d better stay away from that. Although, I must mention the irony of Hindus fighting to hold onto a Chinese invention to save their Hindu identity. Firecrackers weren’t prescribed by the Vedas, people.
Goats are offered as sacrifice for Kali. Goat sacrifice is still prevalent in some pockets of Bengal for all Tantric traditions of Mother Goddess worshipping (Durga, Kali, Jagatdhatri, etc). The sacrificed goat is offered to Kali as “bhog” or feast, along with its blood, to energise her to battle the demons. That meat is then served to family, friends, and neighbours as “prasad”, or blessings of the goddess. The meat is referred to as “proshadi mangsho” or blessed meat, and can be cooked into a curry — but without onion and garlic. According to Ayurveda, onions, garlic, and other alliums are Tamasic and Rajasic foods, which increase heat and passion in the human body, and are hence considered inadmissible in cooking prasad, and all blessed food items. While sacrificing isn’t as prevalent anymore, families also serve cooked curries of mutton in this manner to Kali, for her personal feast, which is later served as prasad too. Families also serve her rich fish gravies, depending on independent traditions. But, everything is cooked without onion and garlic. Due to the absence of alliums, these curries are referred to as vegetarian of niramish. This also reflects the Bengali kitchen’s tradition of excluding onions and garlic — originally practised by Brahmin families who were vegetarian, and avoided Tamasic and Rajasic foods — from most vegetarian dishes. Ginger and asafoetida are used to bring in heat and umami. Calcutta’s Chinatown has a Kali temple where the goddess is served a Chinese fare — noodles, Manchurian gravies, soups, and stir-fries — but without the O and the G.
Now, for mutton to be cooked without onion and garlic sounds like an unthinkable feat. A lot depends on skill and, in modern times, the use of alternative ingredients. Ghee and whole spices play a crucial role to overwhelm you with the fragrance. The slow cooking technique renders the meat melt-in-the-mouth. Curd and other powdered spices help in infusing the curry with soft and luscious flavours. This is a different experience from a Kosha Mangsho. Many families use asafoetida or hing to emulate the fragrance of onion and garlic.
For Bengalis, Kali Puja comes a fortnight from Durga Puja. It dispels the sudden low we feel after almost a month of festivities. Kali Puja is about letting loose, celebrating the strength of the mothership, and relishing her bounties. It is a robust festival, quite unlike the prim-and-proper nature of Diwali around the country. And the food is a reflection of that. So, Happy Kali Puja, and may our country’s women take a leaf out of her book — be shameless, be badass, be powerful.
Also read: Bhel Puri and Jhalmuri stories