Baba and vegetarian food


The priest at the Kali temple where I want to conduct a shanti pujo for ma and baba instructed that I bring some food that they enjoyed along with flowers, fruit and their photos. Thinking of ma’s favorite food was easy, she loved dark chocolates. Without missing a beat, I said, ‘Done. Dark chocolate for her. No problem.” I scratched my head about baba’s favorite food. Baba’s favorite food or should I say foods were plenty and they were all non vegetarian dishes. Mutton, fish, chicken, eggs – that is what he truly loved. He was a connoisseur of fresh fish and good meat. But the dilemma is how can I bring a non vegetarian dish to a Hindu temple? So I called up my friend who is helping me organize the puja at the temple and asked her if I could bring meat or fish for him. She hesitated. Between the two of us we decided the priest may perform an ‘ashanti pujo’ instead of shanti pujo if I arrived with a plate of meat to offer to baba. We decided on some roshogolla instead, a quintessential Bengali sweet which baba loved also.

Baba’s joy was food. He woke up in the morning and instructed our household help what should be cooked for the day. He went to Gariahat market in search of the freshest catch or the choicest meat and the fish sellers knew him. They pointed out their best catch to him because they knew nothing but the best for meshomoshai (uncle). I have accompanied him to the market many times during my visit and I noticed true joy on his face as he looked at a sparkling ilish mach or glistening tangra. We have had our disagreements over food during those visits as well. I insisted I wanted to eat vegetarian Bengali food like alu jhinge posto or potol er dolma or kach kola r kopta or dhoka r dalna. And he wanted to show his love by buying lobster or best hilsa. He did not understand why I would like to eat lowly potol (a kind of a small green gourd) instead of kingly lobster. Ma took my side saying “Let her eat what she wants, what she does not get in USA! Don’t impose your desires on her, you glutton!” When I was little and we did not have money, we often had to resort to inexpensive vegetarian fare. The standing joke in our house was baba saying, “Aaj niramish hoye jak, dim er dalna.” (Let us eat vegetarian today. Egg curry.) Side note: Egg is not considered vegetarian in India.

After speaking to my cousin sister who will be with me during the puja, we decided we will eat ilish mach er jhol (hilsa fish curry) and shada bhat (white rice) after we come back home. Baba loved to eat and also loved to feed others. We believe he will smile down at us as we eat his favorite fish. And ma probably will look at him and shake her head, “Khali khaoa, khali khaoa”. (rough translation: all you think of is food)

Bengali New Year: Shubho Noboborsho


Today is Bengali New year. It is the first day of the first month in Bengali calendar – Boishakh. Traditionally, we do not (or did not) ring in our new year with champagne and fireworks. Instead, we woke up to a day of sweets, good food and new clothes. We started the morning by touching the feet of our elders, seeking blessings as a brand new year begun with promise and most importantly, hope. Every new beginning needed (and still needs) to be blessed by our elders. Although I am not religious, I am a big believer in blessings. Since my childhood, I grew up touching the feet of my parents and other grown ups, seeking their blessings before an exam, first day of school, new year, birthdays because I like to believe that the good wishes and blessings create a positive energy which leads to well being. I also think the humility of asking for blessings is a lovely gesture. Instead of saying ‘happy new year’ we used the Bengali wish Shubho Noboborsho. However, I have seen greetings like Happy Poila Boishakh on social media and the purist in me cringed just a tiny bit.

We Bengalis believe morning shows the day or in other words, the first day of a new year is a precursor to how the new year is going to be. If we spent the first day by eating good food, wearing new outfits, and are generally in good mood it would bode well for the rest of the year. Start the year off in the right footing. Or just make it another excuse to indulge in culinary delights. Us, Bengalis love our food. Most of us truly live to eat and we are completely unapologetic about it. I recently went to a small gathering of friends where we literally talked about all the hidden gems of good eateries spread all over Kolkata. Food, politics and art – that is what we talk about. What else is there in life anyway?

Today is a regular work day for all of us. Sean is busy with his work, I have to do mine and the kids are in school. I woke up looking out at the bright sunshiny day and in a very typical Bengali way, I started thinking what can I cook to make the day somewhat celebratory? I had eggs in the house, onions, ginger, garlic, potatoes, tomato paste and …… posto (poppy seeds). I had to log in to work at 10. So I gave up my usual languishing with a cup of coffee in the morning. After talking to my parents to wish them Shubho Noboborsho, and asking for their blessings, I sprung into action. I made onion garlic ginger paste, chopped green chilis, sautéed, stirred, boiled and within 35 minutes I had my dim posto ready. Dim Posto is egg curry cooked with poppy seed paste.

It is a simple dish, nothing fancy. I want this to be a precursor for the days to come. I want simple, uneventful days ahead of me. I want nothing fancy, nothing exciting even. I will take boring, comforting, wholesome. I wish the same for all of you. Whether you are a Bengali or not, I wish you an uneventful year on this day, the day I celebrate the beginning of a new year. May you be healthy, may your life rock back to a steady rhythm, may it be comforting and uneventful. And if there are events, may those be happy.

Shubho Noboborsho.

My attack days


I used to attack people once upon a time. You seem shocked. Don’t be. Nobody got hurt. I will get to it but if you read my blogs, you know I like to ramble before I get to the point.

We lived in New Delhi, India for 6 happy years right after our marriage. Let me tell you, New Delhi apart from other things, was my food nirvana. Sagar Restaurant in Defense Colony for South Indian food, Pindi for North Indian food, Kareem’s in Old Delhi for Mughlai khana, paratha gali for parathas…… I could go on and on. Not only were there fantastic restaurants that kept me in constant food coma, I made friends who fed me authentic North Indian food and on top of that, I had a lovely woman staying with us who cooked all the Bengali food that my heart desired. Life could not have been better.

Then we got the news from Sean’s organization: “Pack up your life, folks. You are moving back.” We moved back to the US.

Moving back to US meant searching for a house and fast since Sahana was going to start kindergarten in the fall of that year. After looking for what seemed like forever we settled for a house that we liked. But I had questions. Nope, not about house inspection or radon level. That was Sean’s department. My first question to the home seller was how far was the library. She said it was just 2 miles away and if I did not mind a long hike, I could walk there. I was sold. The second question, however, I knew she could not answer so I did not ask. Where was the closest Indian grocery store? You can take the girl out of India, you can not take the love of Indian food out of the girl.

We did find 4 Indian grocery stores within a 5 mile radius of our house. I bought the staples, made North Indian cuisine but my soul wanted comfort. It wanted authentic Bengali food. It wanted alu posto (potato curry with poppy seeds), shorshe r jhaal (gravy made with mustard seeds). In India, I never cooked those dishes, they were cooked for me. I had no idea how to crush poppy seeds without sheel nora, or make a smooth but not bitter paste of mustard seeds for the mustard based gravy. How do I describe sheel nora? Bengali version of heavy duty mortal and pestle? Here is image taken from Google:

Life Without Alu?: Shil Nora (Sil Batta)– stone spice grinder

Our moving in to this house is a story in itself which deserves another blog post. Suffice it to say, I was a few months pregnant when we started living in our current house. And my desire for alu posto and shorsher jhaal took the form of a craving of epic proportions. I still did not know how to crush poppy seeds. In those days I was not aware of the amazing kitchen gadgets that are out in the market. I did not have much experience in the kitchen to begin with. But I WANTED to know. I NEEDED to know. So this is where my ‘attack’ story starts.

The first attack happened in a local Sears. Sean, little Sahana and I were at Sears buying an appliance when I heard Bengali being spoken near me. I whipped my head around to see who was talking in my mother tongue. A few feet away from us was this couple who were deep in conversation about their purchase. They were speaking to each other in Bengali. Without a second thought, I left my husband and little daughter, walked right up to the couple and asked, quite unnecessarily, “Apnara Bangali?” (You all are Bengali?) Well, they were speaking in Bangla to each other, of course they were Bengali.

They barely had time to smile weakly and ask me if I was one too, when I launched into how I am new to the area, I need to crush poppy seeds and mustard seeds. Did they know a good way to do it?

I chuckle now, wondering what they thought of me then. You need to understand, though, I was pregnant, I had the cravings and I think I was longing to reach out to something familiar, something comforting in my new land and in my new state.

I believe they told me how to make a paste and also the tip about pulsing the mustard with some salt so the paste does not become bitter. It was many years ago so I don’t recall why, however, I do remember asking several unsuspecting Bengali immigrants what their trick was to make a smooth paste of ‘posto’ and ‘shorshe’. There were several other ‘attacks’ before I found myself on a strong footing when it came to ‘posto bata’ (ground poppy seeds).

I eventually bought a coffee grinder to grind my precious seeds and also a small magic bullet which I do not let anybody touch. While I mastered making smooth paste of posto, my fresh mustard paste always turns out bitter. I have tried using salt, I have tried using a green chilli. I am a failure in that department. So I use mustard powder instead. It is a poor substitute but it works in this foreign land. I have my fill of pure mustard sauce, lovingly pasted (not in a sheel nora anymore, too much work) in a mixer, when I go back to Kolkata.

I smile now when I think about those new, ‘fresh off the boat” days. I did live in US for about a year, right after our marriage, before Sean got transferred to a position in India. When we moved back after 6 years of living in New Delhi, I did not have culture shocks. The novelty was more about how to adjust to life in the suburbs, navigate the education system here and how to nurture and parent my child in a society, of which I knew very little about. And also how to crush poppy seeds and mustard, how to bring back a whiff of home.

Food and us


Long, long time ago when I was very little and was just learning to read English, my mother bought a picture book for me. It was mainly pictures of two blonde children, their white dad, their white mom and their yellow dog. The few sentences in that book talked about their usual day. For example, they woke up at 7:00 am, ate breakfast, played with their dog, went for a picnic – mundane things like that. The most surprising element in the book for me was that the mother started making dinner at 4:00 pm and the family ate dinner at 5:00 pm. I remember reading that line again and again in amazement and wonder. I always wondered what the family ate and it confused me to no end that dinner was prepared in one hour. Since I was a wee lass, I have seen and observed a very different rhythm of life, not only in our household but in the society in which I was nurtured. The rhythm of our very middle class Bengali life was completely food centric.

When I was 4 or 5 years old, the morning started with intense smoke. The household help put fire to the earthen stove called unoon. It required coal and cow dung patties. Experts could get it going with minimum smoke but if one was not an expert or the coal was not completely dry, the smoke permeated the whole neighborhood. Water for morning tea was boiled on the burning stove, followed by breakfast. Generally the menu for breakfast was decided the night before. Tea was accompanied by biscuit (cookies), while real breakfast was cooked. After breakfast, the household help came to my grandfather asking what the menu for lunch and dinner would be. My grandfather held the purse for family expenditure so the menu for lunch and dinner was a joint decision by my mother and him. Sometimes they disagreed and then there would be problems.

When I was older, we first had kerosene stove and then gas stove with two burners. Ah, the luxury!! Two burners were so appreciated and the hassle of not having to get the earthen stove going every morning was the best feeling ever by those responsible for cooking family meals. This is how the day went in our house and it is safe to generalize in this case and assume that this is how the day went in most houses when I was growing up. My mother, at that point, decided the menu for lunch and dinner, the household help went to the market to pick up ingredients for the meal. She came home and started the process of chopping vegetables, gutting fish or cleaning meat, preparing spices. When I was young, we did not use ready made spices. Cumin paste was made from scratch, turmeric paste obtained from turmeric tube, gorom moshla was made by crushing cardamom, clove, cinnamon sticks in a mortar and pestle. I still remember the sound and smell of fresh spices being prepared and the noise of sheel nora in our kitchen. Lunch menu was definitely different from dinner menu. In between, there had to be elaborate breakfast – luchi torkari, and evening snack – porota alu r torkari or Bengali chowmein or alu r chop (fritters of different kinds). We had tea (milk for young ones) and biscuit when we woke up, around 9 there would be a hearty breakfast, lunch around 1 or 2, tea again around 4, evening snack around 6 and dinner around 10:30 or 11 pm. This was typically how much we ate during a day off. So one can imagine, the household help’s day was spent in the kitchen. With the advent of gadgets and ready made spices, life became much easier but for many families the number of meals in a day remained the same.

For me, someone used to seeing life revolve around preparing food, it was incredible that the mama in the family started preparing food at 4 pm and the family sat down to dinner at 5 pm.

Being a mama in the family now who loves to cook but hardly has time anymore, I now smile at my amazement at the book. Most days we scrounge around, make do with what is lying in the fridge, boil some pasta and slap some pesto on it, make peanut butter and jelly sandwich and make dinner in less than half an hour. Those days I think that mama in the book must have made some elaborate meal – it took her a whole hour!

Tease worthy.


If I hear any didactic speech about not having Facebook envy I will be very angry. A few friends went back to my city, Kolkata, to attend not one but TWO weddings of mutual friends. I had invitations to both but I could not make that trip. That thing called life got in the way. Instead, I did the next best thing, I hung around Facebook and kept track of their every move. They made it easy by documenting their every move on Facebook also. I am pretty sure, their aim was not only to keep us connected but also to evoke envy (in a fun sort of way, of course). They were wildly successful at that. I was so envious that I glowed green – Hulk like.

But this is not about my Hulkness. This is about Bengalis, their culture, their city…..and last but not the least their pet names or dak naam. The boys were primarily named Buro and girls Buri during my parent’s generation. Buro in Bangla means old man, buri? You guessed it, old woman. Why would anyone call little babes, Buro, Buri is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps because of the ‘child is the father of man’ concept, or the resemblance of a toothless child with toothless old age. I don’t know!

When I was growing up, girls were called some form of ‘mother’ in our vernacular, and boys – father. Different variations of ‘Mam’, Mummum’ Mamoni, Mamon, Mammai and boys were Bapi, Baban, Babai so on and so forth. My parents, however, called me Piyu. Piyu has no particular meaning really, it is how a particular type of bird’s call. Piyu is a bird song. How beautiful and ethereal is that concept? When I met Sean, he called me by my pet name too. I liked that. However, Americans pronounce the letters P and B with a puff of air which Bengalis do not. So Sean’s Piyu became Phiyu.

Fast forward to our wedding afternoon. The beautiful ceremony in the morning was over. My desire as a little girl was to wed in a gorgeous white dress. Having been born in a Bengali family I always knew that would only remain a dream but it so happened I married someone from not only outside of Bengal but outside of India. And in that man’s culture and religion, women did marry in gorgeous white dresses. However when the opportunity arose, I opted to wear a saree. Not a ravishing red one like a Bengali bride wears but a gold and black one. After the ceremony and reception, Sean and I changed into something more comfortable to socialize with the family and eat catered Indian food for dinner. I heard Sean calling my name as I was changing out of my saree: Phiyu, Phiyu!
And I heard my sister-in-law exclaim, “Sean!!!! Don’t say that to her! How terrible of you. Saying that to your new bride on your wedding day!”

I came out of the room and gazed at both their faces blinking foolishly, clueless as to where the conversation was going.

Sean was also perplexed.

“What did I call her?” He asked.

“You said PHEW. You bad man! She does not stink! You have a terrible sense of humor!”

Both Sean and I burst out laughing. He explained that is my pet name and no, he was not referring to his bride as a stinker. We all laughed.

This post started with Facebook envy, went on to talk about Bengali pet names and ended with a story of my life long time ago. Thank goodness I write for myself 🙂 ! I am quite purposeless, even in my writings!

Getting ready.


I am floundering. I am a rudderless, drifting, bewildered ship in a raging, stormy, turbulent sea of teenage. The turbulence is not constant, mind you. There are many, many moments of blue sky, sunshine and gentle breeze. But then, all of a sudden, the storm comes unannounced and leaves me spent, exhausted and very sad.

Some nights, after a particularly exasperating argument over the usage of electronic device or some form of distorted truth that I was told, the sadness in my heart is almost palpable. I don’t recognize this stranger. Yet when I brush the hair off her sleeping face and plant a kiss on her forehead, I fall in love all over again. There is a phrase in Bengali,

Sneha nimnogami. (Love, like water, flows downwards).

Parents feel it. Sneho is indeed nimnogami.

As I watch her sleeping face, I see traces of the five-year old girl, who we uprooted from the land of her birth, India, and planted in the soil of USA.

We moved to this house when Sahana was 5 years old. We gave away all our earthly possessions except our clothes and my books and moved thousands of miles in exactly seven duffel bags. Sahana gave away all her toys to an AIDS hospice and came away with one stuffed toy and some books. When we found this house and camped in due to lack of furniture, little Sahana was left with a very sick mommy, one stuffed toy, some books, a new, unfamiliar house and her imagination. We moved in the summer of 2004 when the obnoxious cicadas were out in full force. Sahana was convinced there was a giant cicada with big, red eyes in the basement of this house. She was afraid to leave my side. I stayed in bed the first few months of my second pregnancy. The simple act of opening my eyes was too much of an effort. I remember Sahana prodding me every fifteen minute or so ‘Mama, are you done sleeping? Can you get up now?’ We were literally joined at the hips.

Slowly but surely the glue that stuck her to me started diluting. I could feel her loosening the grip. These days she is most comfortable in her space, buried in her books, her writing and lately, her device. Life is full of friends, frolic, fear, apprehension, silliness, laughter and yes, some unexplained tears too. Although I understand her need for space, it would be a lie if I say that this aloofness doesn’t bother me at all. It does. I once asked a friend, who was getting ready to send her daughter to college, ‘How does it feel to send your child out into the world?’ She told me, ‘When your time comes to send her on her way, you will be ready. They themselves make you ready for the separation. Don’t worry!’ Can’t say I believed her then. But I believe her now. My daughter is helping me get ready to let go of her hands. As I watch her slowly try out her wings, she writes this letter to me on my birthday:

Dear Maman,

…..so thanks for bearing with us as we learn how to stand on our own two feet. That’s parenting. Once we learn to stand on our own, you can let go of our hands. You can stop chauffeuring, cooking, cleaning and all sorts of housework, and just focus on you and Dad. That is, if either of you have the ability to sit down without napping. Or you still have a house left after both Ryan and my college tuitions! Yikes!
What I said about letting go, Mommy? Don’t. Hold my hand tighter than ever!’

….

Her last line beautifully captures the paradox of teenage. Give me space to grow, don’t crowd me in. I am ready to fly. Yet, hold on to me. Don’t let me fall. The world is exciting, intoxicating, yes. But it is a bit scary too. I need you still.

We are holding on….

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