Note: This post is inspired by Abaniko who had written about foods that were popular in childhood.
Food by itself is such a subjective thing. No two people can cook the same dish to taste exactly the same. And no two people remember or associate food in the same way. I don’t have any horror stories when it comes to food. (I have heard about Castor oil fiascos. Thankfully, that never happened to me!) I was a non-fussy eater who ate whatever was put in front of her. Regular Bengali food is what we got at home but since I am a probashi Bengali (expat Bong), I also grew up eating the food that was available all around us.
Let me start with a simple homemade dish. At home it is usually dal-bhath (rice and daal) which was accompanied by some torkari (vegetables) but we kids freaked out on alu bhaja (French fries). Nice deeply friend alu bhaja is still a favourite with many. I know my brother has some strict preferences when it came to alu bhaja. For him the perfect alu bhaja should be wheatish in colour – not red, which means it was over fried-, crisp, and non-oily. I had no such preferences. But yes, over fried alu bhaja may taste slightly bitter.
As a child, I couldn’t stomach spicy stuff. I have since grown up to be a major chilli fan. It stood to reason that children would prefer non-spicy stuff, as their delicate constitution would not be able to handle it. But when Mom was exchanged with a very old family friend who lived in the next street it used to be spicy. So I used to ask my Mom why, since I was known to shy away from spicy food. And she gave me a fantastic explanation that I took to be quite a natural process. She said while she was walking with the food in her hand to the next street, a few chillies from the trees fell down and made the food spicy. I didn’t bat an eyelid at this explanation then!
My one major weakness remains rice. I love rice so much that I can eat with just plain without salt or ghee or any other accompaniments. Panta bhaat (yesterday’s rice or stale rice supposedly not as good as fresh rice but I have yet to come across anybody who doesn’t like it) was a special favourite. In Calcutta, where I used to spend my summer holidays, everyone knew this. Consequently, my aunt started calling me Bhaat budi (I shall try to translate this: bhaat is rice, budi means an old woman but is also used to refer to (female) children affectionately. The alliteration makes it sound very good in Bengali.) In fact, when I was very young, my mom used to feed me rice three times a day: for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can guess: never did I once complain.
Sometimes I was fed dudh-bhaat (milk, rice laced with sugar). It’s another variety of spice-less food. To this dudh-bhaat would be added either kola (banana) or aam (mango) depending on which was in season. Dudh-bhaat-aam/ dudh-bhaat-kola was eaten as the last course in order to cool the body in summer.
Alternatively, chiré (pressed rice) could be substituted for rice and the entire dish would become a snack. Chiré-dudh-aam or Chire-dudh-kola was a summer teatime snack. We still eat them. But this is a slightly heavy snack. If you want a lighter one, the same chiré was fried in mustard oil and garnished with chopped chillies and onions. Chiré bhaja (fried chiré) was ready. Crispy chiré bhaja was eaten all year round. Recently I read in a Bengali recipe book that this was a snack from rural Bengal.
Another staple childhood food (I hasten to add, it still is) apart from the regular maach bhaja (fried fish) is Bhaaté bhaat. Boiled rice with boiled vegetables, which could be either potato, or other seasonal vegetables. The boiled vegetables were kneaded to a smooth consistency to which ghee and/or mustard oil and salt were added. And divided into equal portions for all members of the family. In winter, just looking at the vapours escaping from the hot rice and vegetables gave me enough warmth. Those who loved spices got one kaacha lonka (green chilli) along with the bhaaté bhaat to spice up what some people thought was a bland dish. Sometimes, instead of vegetables, boiled eggs were eaten along with boiled rice with mustard oil/ghee and salt. In times that ghee was not available, butter was used instead though it did have a different taste. Some people preferred butter to ghee. This was considered to be healthy food. So if you have an upset stomach, bhaaté bhaat will be prescribed for you, minus the chilli of course.
Sweets were a standard affair. Here in Chennai no one stocked up on the sweets because they didn’t taste as good as in Calcutta. But there, the refrigerator was chockfull with different kinds of sweets. Rosogolla was always there. Panthua (Gulam jamun) was brought from the neighbourhood mishti dokan (sweet shop). And of course Sandesh! Sometimes when everyone was engaged in adda late into the night, my cousins would need a midnight snack. Rabdri was their preferred sweet.
Sweets were bought from the neighbourhood shop and yet they tasted just like it was made at home. Today, we have moved into an age where fresh food has become a rarity: I saw chats that were packaged. What’s the fun in that? Is jhalmuri/bhelpuri better in a polythene packet? What about pani puri then? Not just snacks, but nowadays even dal and rice are packaged. (I’m not against packaging dal and rice for our soldiers who live in impossible conditions.)
In one sense, Bengali food has fared a bit better than say Punjabi food. All the dishes that I have discussed are made at home. They can’t be found in restaurants. Only recently was Bengali food made available in restaurants. The exoticisation of Bengali food is yet to begin in full spate. And I’m glad for that though I hope it never does. Food is a kind of memory. How will a restaurant package that?