Come October and the feasting season begins for Bengalis all around the world. While modern gastronomical behaviour includes almost everything under the sun for the all-consuming Bengali, the traditional feast or bhog and its components is defined by three faith systems – each resplendent with their typical ingredients and quirky additions.
I’ve always been curious about the word Bhog. I am not sure of the connotations and nuances it has in other regional languages, but in Bengali it has many dimensions – from the base to the divine, from denoting an action of greed and exploitation, to the purity that permeates through ritual feasts, the word has many meanings.
A wide selection of different foods is on offer for Bengal’s varied pantheon of gods and goddesses. Each one is offered his or her special dish done the way they like it. For Durga it is paantaa bhaat (fermented rice gruel) and kochur shaak (colocasia stalks). Kali demands parboiled rice and lesser fish such as boal, magur, shol and greens such as colocasia and bottle gourd cooked with fish head and sacrificial meat, given her tamasik (dark) nature. It is plain greens and rice for Annapurna, the Eternal Mother who makes do with whatever is at hand; ilish (hilsa) and koi (climbing perch) for Laxmi, signifying expensive fish reserved for married, well-to-do ladies. These are some of the foods we see being served ritually at traditional family puja feasts.
Niramish Mangsho or “vegetarian” mutton curry cooked without onion and garlic
The 10-armed Mother Goddess, Durga, along with her offspring Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik, descends to earth this month. Myths abound around this 5-day visit. According to one tradition, Durga, as daughter Uma or Gauri, is back home. It’s a joyous time for her mother who lays out a banquet each day just as any mother would for a precious daughter (read sanction for traditional, multicourse gourmet cooking); in another, Durga, as the powerful Mahishasuramardini (she who killed the bulldemon, a form of Shakti), has just slain the demon Mahishasura and blood has been shed (sanction for ritualistic sacrifice and hence eating the meat too); and Durga as Jagatdhatri and as Annapurna, the universal mother and goddess of fertility, exuding femininity and pure maternal instincts (the need to maintain the sanctity of life through shakahari or vegetarian food). What we see then is the diversity of a ritual eating that delights the body and soul. The licence to eat for the faithful begins once the Goddess herself has been offered portions of the food cooked first (bhog, here meaning offerings made to the deity, the connotation that is understood around the country), the rest being consumed as Prasad.
Durga Puja Bhog offerings are therefore steered by the three main schools of rituals in the worship of the Goddess — Vaishnav, Shakta and Tantric.
The first (Vaishnav) upholds non-violence, peace and universal love and hence the tradition of sattvik vegetarian food sans onion and garlic. This is also the cuisine preferred at the community pujas and most temples in order to be inclusive, comprising a Khichuri (Khichdi), an aromatic sweet pulao cooked in pure ghee, five different types of fried vegetables like potato, pointed gourd, brinjal, pumpkin, bitter gourd etc., two kinds of vegetable curries, mostly Labra (a delicious combination of mixed vegetables cooked to mushy consistency) and a Phulkopir Dalna (cauliflower curry) and a Chatni (chutney, eaten as a dessert course), which could be any seasonal fruit stewed in sugar syrup. The piece de resistance is the Payesh or slow-thickened milk cooked with the finest quality heirloom rice, raisins and sugar with a hint of cardamom.
This is just lunch. For dinner the menu changes to Luchi (Puris made of flour and fried in ghee) and Aloor Dom (spicy potato curry), Begun Bhaja (deep-fried slices of brinjal), Chholar Dal (chana dal) with coconut, Sooji Halwa and mostly coconut-based sweets. Any Bengali worth his or her salt would rather starve than not eat that feast at least one day of the pujas.
Needless to say, the Tantric cuisine represents a complete shift. An ode to the powerful procreative energy that rules the cosmos, bringing in its wake creation and destruction, Durga is worshipped as Kali (the Dark Goddess) or Chamunda. The meat from the ritual sacrifice is offered as Bhog and curiously enough cooked without onion and garlic. It’s called Niramish Mangsho or vegetarian meat. Liquor and intoxicants also receive sanction here, and therefore, cutting across age barriers, community drinking of Shiddhi or Bhang is a tradition for Bengalis during Kali Puja.
The famous Kalighat Temple in Calcutta cooks Bhog every day of the year that is partaken of as Prasad by the hundreds who visit. The menu comprises of five kinds of vegetable fritters, a moong dal, Shukto (the Bengali appetizer cooked with bitters), Chorchori (sauteed mixed vegetables), Chhyanchra (vegetables cooked with fish head and entrails), different kinds of fish with scales like hilsa in mustard or a rohu kalia and last but not the least, the sacrificial meat curry.
Now for the last— the Shakta tradition. Here Durga is worshipped as Shakti, the Divine Energy, the multifaceted woman with ten arms, the eternal mother (Jagadhatri), the creator (Annapurna, the goddess of fertility), the daughter (Uma or Gauri), wife (Sati or Parvati) and so on – a composite picture of Stree Shakti (woman power). Like Durga’s ten arms, the cuisine too is at its varied best here, a thanksgiving for being blessed by nature’s bounty. Durga Puja then is as much a celebration of the spirit, of good over evil, as it is about gastronomy and I have discovered traditions, rituals and menus that are a revelation.
A few years ago, I walked into a family puja dating back 490 years. Here the tradition is the Matsya Bhog, or the use of fish in every dish that is cooked for the Goddess. Through the four days, different dals – with Kalai (urad) dal holding a very special place – are cooked with fish head and bones. An interesting dish is the Jholer Byannon, an unusual combination of pumpkin, banana stem, ash gourd, unripe bananas and unripe papaya, cooked with fish head and every other part of the fish that does not go into a curry, along with shrimps. Two or three kinds of fish are usually cooked as main courses. On Navami, the ninth day of Durga Puja, an assorted fish platter comprising of fried hilsa, fried Koi (climbing perch) and fried prawns is offered to the Goddess, to be had with Pantaa Bhaat or fermented rice gruel. The final delight comes in the form of a rather unique chutney, made with colocasia stem paste, jaggery, tamarind and Paanch Phoron (the staple Bengali five spice) and had with an equally unusual Pantaa Bhaat. Kochu Saag or colocasia greens are important because it represents the Goddess Kalika, one of the Goddesses who form the Nava Patrika or the nine Goddesses who are worshipped during Navaratri.
The Goddess is offered a wide variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, fruits and sweets for lunch and dinner on every day of the festival
At another traditional family puja, I find, apart from the usual fish curries and chutney made from the season’s first gourds and colocasia greens, a signature dish called Shol Maachh Pora. Shol or the snakehead murrel is marinated in fresh mustard oil and roasted on coal and wood fires. At yet another I taste a fascinating sherbet called Shitol Panta. Made on Dashami day after the idol has been immersed and no fires are lit in mourning, it is prepared with uncooked ingredients like unboiled fresh milk, grated coconut, sugar, colocasia stem paste, waterlily (Shapla) stem paste, fine rice flour, all mixed together and flavoured with a few drops of Gondhoraaj lime juice and lime leaves.
This was like finding the key to a whole treasure trove of so far unknown ritualistic cuisine. All it means finally is that the food we consume is who we are. And the festival feasts gloriously celebrate the fact that even ritual food can have a vast gourmet repertoire, crafted and rooted in the local and the seasonal.
Luchi and aloor dom – the Bengali favourite for every feast