Also published on Huffington Post India
The furore over the imposition of meat ban in several states in consideration of the Jain festival Paryushan made me realise what a peace loving community we Bengalis are. We don’t care that nobody cares for our religious sentiments. During festivals like Durga Puja, we are so engrossed checking out each other’s saris and ingesting copious quantities of biryani and kabiraji cutlet that we don’t get time to demand bans. Rather, we go for a self-imposed ban on vegetables during those days. True, the bhog of ‘khichudi and labda’ is vegetarian but we more than make up for it in the evening by having protein and bhajabhuji (Bengali-pioneered junk food, way before the West could think) on behalf of the entire nation.
We Bengalis are a contented lot as long as others acknowledge our intellectual superiority, rich kaalchaar and don’t serve us a vegetarian meal. I know of instances where a particular Bengali family was put in deep freeze for a lifetime of indifference because they dared to serve only one non-vegetarian dish on their daughter’s wedding. My Ma-in-law has yet to get over the horrific ordeal of being invited for a meal by our Punjabi neighbour in Delhi and made to eat just rajmah chawal. How can someone invite you over for lunch and serve just one dish and that too rajmah!
I know Punjabis are passionate about chhole and rajmah, but for us it’s cattle feed till generous quantities of keema have been added to it. Our love for maachh is as legendary as our lust for mangsho. My husband often recalls with glee the recipe for dumoorer chop on a TV show that asked for two teaspoons of dumoor (raw fig) to be added to half a kilo of minced mutton. In fact, true blue bongs equate “non-veg” with only mangsho. Fish (phish) is a daily comestible that borders on being “veg”. If your Bengali friend has invited you over for a bhegetarian laanch, you are forewarned that the daal could have a fish head looking dolefully at you and the humble lauki, Baba Ramdev’s favourite vegetable, will have a crunchy splattering of shrimps. We don’t like vegetables to feel lonely.
It’s not as if we do not like vegetarian fare. In fact the things we do to the much loathed karela will put a lover claiming expertise in seduction to shame. We marry it with shuktos, sizzle it to a golden brown and serve as a garnish to daal, knead it to a soft pulp with boiled potatoes and have it with ghee and rice. In a Bengali meal, teeta (bitter) is as important as mishti (sweet). While the former begins the meal, the latter completes it.
In fact, the sure-shot way to hurt our religious sentiments is to pronounce roshogolla as rasgulla and claim you have no idea what nolen gur is. Winter is synonymous with nolen gur (date palm jaggery). We wait the entire year for this seasonal delicacy to make an appearance. When it does, we behave like a thirst crazed traveller who has just discovered an oasis in the desert.
If you hear loud voices from your Bengali neighbour’s apartment, they’re most likely engaged in a bitter debate on which moira (sweetmaker) is the final word on a given mishti! “Sen Mahasay is the best for mishti doi”. “Chhi, they are useless, they mix Dalda! Have you even tried Mallar Chaak? You can hold the bhaar upside down and the doi will not fall.”
Our meals don’t end on a sweet note. They end on many sweet notes of chutneys, mishti doi and an assortment of mishtis, fried and steamed. We may be on the verge of losing the GI war over roshogolla to Odisha (perish the thought) but we can safely lay claim to be the birthplace of diabetes.
As a child, our trips to Kolkata (Calcutta, then) would send a shiver of excitement down my gullet. A visit to a relative meant being served platefuls of just rajbhogs in every conceivable colour. What’s more, I could finish them all on my own without reproachful glances from my Mom. Too bad I did not show the same enthusiasm when the hopeful groom, now my husband, demolished the entire plate of desserts and savouries served to him. He couldn’t care less for Delhi etiquette that demands, as a guest, you display extreme aversion to food and reluctantly break dainty pieces of the mithai only after your host threatens to shoot you.
Mishti for us is not an occasional kuchh meetha ho jaaye. We have it with meals, in between meals, when we get emotional (which is always) or we have some time to spare. Traditional Bengali households will venture where no man has gone before and fearlessly serve mishti doi with Nescoffee. Why, I’ve even had roshogolla with noodles!
When I visit my Mom, she makes it a point to ask me ‘mishti khaabe’ every 10 minutes till I finally break down and say, sure, why not!
I think I know why. Once you’ve bitten through the almost powdery, lightly sweetened kheer of the kheer-kodom and your mouth fills with the sticky sugary syrup of the roshogolla inside, a strange calm descends upon you. The world seems like a much better place and you no longer feel like arguing with your Mom over nasty things she’d said to you 25 years back.
Now you know why a Bengali finds everything including a herd of noisy sheep ‘kee mishti’ and expresses annoyance with a mere ‘uff, kee dushtu’!
But dare you confuse gulab-jamun with pantua, brace yourself for the narrowed eyes, I-can’t-believe-you-just-said-this look and take a deep breath. You are about to be kneaded to a fine paste, fried and throw in a cauldron of boiling syrup of indignation.
Eesh, even bacteria is more kaalchaared than you are!