Tuesday , 18 June 2019
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Wonderful Bengali Pujo

Zubin Dsouza

Recently an oil company stirred up a bit of a controversy.

They put out an advert in the digital media.

It was apt, it was creative and it was funny.

These are all the ingredients required for our straight-laced, pseudo culture guardians to take umbrage.

It depicted a lady in the avatar of the goddess Durga. She used her many hands to churn out loads of wonderful festive dishes for the entire family.

There was a riot of pique and indignation.

The lady in the advert was laying a spread that included food that was non-vegetarian.

This ad was targeted at the Indian community that was in the midst of the Navratri celebrations which to a vast majority is a time for austere fasting and vegetarian practices.

The oil company apologised and withdrew the ad from circulation.

This caused a backlash from the Bengali community that also celebrate this festival albeit in a manner where indulgence in non-vegetarian fare is mandatory.

To the Bengalis, the Pujo is something that they look forward to the entire year.

The Pujo is held usually over four to five days and the length and dates vary in accordance with the Hindu calendar that uses lunar months and solar sidereal years.

It celebrates the Goddess Durga and her vanquishing of an evil demon Mahishasura. It is a triumph of good over evil; of righteousness and light over darkness and injustice.

What is actually does in terms of food is creating a triumph of taste, creativity and variety over the regular offerings of average and mundane food.

The kick off to all the feasting is usually with a very traditional vegetarian meal which follows the prayer service and is served at the community puja pandal or right next to the enclosure where the community altar and deity resides. This is called ‘bhog’ and it is a representation of a meal blessed by the goddess herself. It usually consists of a very simple rice and lentil porridge coupled with spiced grilled eggplant called ‘begun bhaja’, a sweet and tangy tomato chutney, a spicy cauliflower stew called ‘kopir dalna’ and for dessert there is almost always an extremely traditional and auspicious rice pudding called a ‘payesh’.

The meal may be rustic and plebeian but the combinations of flavours and textures make it an absolute delight and awakening for the gustatory senses.

This is just the beginning.

The Bengalis are the only community within Hinduism to actually embrace non-vegetarian food during this period. Since this is an auspicious occasion, most meals warrant the use of auspicious ingredients and chief amongst them are fish, rice and bananas.

Fish apart from being very auspicious, is also extremely dear to the community.

Nothing can be more prized than scoring a find of ‘illish’ or ‘hilsa’ which is an endemic sturgeon variety and should you want to get more refined and impress all your relatives and neighbours, then you should try and get yourself the extremely rare and expensive ‘Pabda Illish’ which comes exclusively from the Padma river in Bangladesh.

The fish is expertly converted into a divine stew fragranced with home ground mustard called a ‘Jhaal’. To the unfortunates who have had their illish denied from them, they could use any other possible river fish prepared in the same way.

But it doesn’t just end here – there is steamed fish called ‘bhapa maach’, a banana leaf wrapped fish dish called ‘maacher paturi’ and a batter fried fish preparation borrowed in some way from the French called ‘Fish Orly’.

I could go on and on but then I wouldn’t be able to move to the next awesome dish that involves bananas. The one dish that I always look forward to is the ‘mochar ghonto’ which is made from banana flowers cooked with coconut and potatoes. It is a hell of a task getting each individual flower ready for the dish and so I am happy to wait a year and have someone else do it for me. Then there is the exquisite ‘aloo posto’ or potatoes simmered with a poppy seed paste, the amazingly textured mixed vegetable and dried lentil cake dish called a ‘shukto’ and the wonderful carrot, spinach and pumpkin stew called ‘chorchorri’.

Having being exposed to centuries of Islamic influence, they have adapted the use of lamb into their own unique way. They make a spiced lamb stew with fragrant browned onions called ‘kosha maangsho’ which is served with a soft and pillowy fried refined flour bread called a ‘luchi’ or the amazing Bengali biryani which is distinct for the inclusion of potatoes in the recipe.

I can’t even begin to mention the number of amazing Bengali desserts. At last count they numbered over a thousand and they just keep growing. If you did have to take a crash course then I would definitely recommend a ‘Gurer Sandesh’ which is a steamed dessert made with palm sugar or a ‘channar payesh’ made with creamy curdled milk or ‘mishti doi’ which is palm sugar sweetened yoghurt.

Now that Durga Puja is over and the goddess has travelled back to her heavenly kingdom, I am wondering if it is safe for the oil company to put their ad back into circulation.

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