Ma never enjoyed cooking and often wondered if her baby had been switched at birth as I spoke about my love for cooking, but she got very happy when I asked her about tips and tricks of a certain recipe. I was making panch mishali torkari (veg medley in Bengali way) this morning and I thought of her tip. “Jol dish na, shobjigulo nijer jol e sheddho hobe. Jol er chhite dite parish.’ (Don’t pour any water while cooking. The veggies will cook in their own juice. You can sprinkle a little water to prevent burning.)
She did cook a couple of dishes that I loved. One was dim kosha (egg curry) and begun diye tangra macher chocchori (a fish preparation with eggplant). Whenever I asked her to make those for me she beamed. She told Gouri to chop onions and whatever she needed. She would tell them with immense pride that I love those two dishes made by her. Sean loved a certain paneer dish that she cooked and praised her to high heavens everytime he ate it. “Ma, no one can make paneer like you.” And her rumbling laughter started in her face and flowed through her body.
I cooked all morning as I smiled at memory of cooking together with ma in our kitchen in USA and sharing all kinds of thoughts, laughter, gossip as we chopped, sautéed, cleaned. Those were special moments. I have a life time of memories to unfold and relive in my head.
Interracial, interfaith, transnational marriage like ours had and continues to have certain novelties, discoveries, realizations. Realizations about our differing norms, cultures, way of doing things, comfort zones. After a marriage of 24, almost 25 years, we feel like we dealt with most of them but there are times when the differences in our upbringing come to the forefront. One such realization came to me during the holiday season in 2020. It is the question that Sean asks, “What time are you planning dinner?”
I did not grow up with that question or truly planning a meal time during festivals or even during daily life. In Kolkata, when the family got together for any occasion, food was, of course, the epicenter of all festivities but the time when that food will be consumed was anybody’s guess. There were perfunctory questions about what time is lunch or dinner but nobody knew. We ate when the food was ready. And even when the food was ready, the guests had to be coaxed to the dinner table if they were involved in a ‘jomati adda’ (rough translation would be engrossing gossip, although gossip is not really a proper translation for the Bengali word, adda). The concept of ‘adda’ is so quintessentially Bengali that there is no accurate translation of the word in any other foreign language or even any other Indian languages to the best of my knowledge. During a gathering, food was eaten in a certain hierarchical order that I have noticed – children were fed first followed by the men folk, lastly the women sat down to eat amidst much chatter, laughter and camaraderie. As many know that in Bengal we eat with our hands. Sitting with others just laughing and chatting long after one’s food has been eaten with sticky fingers is one of my most fond memories. Time, during the days of celebration, was only of importance when one had to maintain the auspicious moments when a puja had to be performed. During the rest of the day, time was relegated to the back ground, it did not control us. We controlled our day. We were propelled during those special days by our needs – desire for togetherness, hunger, laughter, puja, rather than routine. Those days were refreshingly freeing, unbound from time.
My experience in USA has been different with my American family. During most of our celebrations – Thanksgiving, Christmas, there is a specific time for dinner. I observe in the torrential flurry of activities of my extended family, who prepare the big meals for our get togethers, how flustered they seem to get everything on the table by a certain time, all hot from the oven or stove top. Dinner will be served at 2 and that is the goal! I still can not get used to rigidity of time on a day of celebration. For me, the languorous stretch of time defines how a festival or gathering of family should be celebrated.
Sean asks me, always, what time is breakfast or dinner or lunch when I plan to celebrate bhai phota or a special breakfast or a special dinner at home. The question bothered me at the beginning. I felt the day was being segmented by tying meal times within a set time frame so I used to respond, “When it is ready!” That answer threw him off. I realized he planned his activities around the time I will give him for the meal I was preparing. So I adjusted. I give him a time and now I prepare food with one eye on the clock. It takes away the spontaneity of celebration, so when I go home celebrations take on more meaning when the chaos of meal times return.
The trick is to keep expectations at a minimum from your husband and children. And maintain the bar low. I was smart, I did just that. I had the kids make their own lunches for school as soon as they started third grade. I kept a loose eye on what they packed. Since I bought the groceries for our house I knew the extent of junk food that was available to them. They got money once a week to buy food from cafeteria but Sahana disliked the cafeteria food so she ended up packing her own lunch all 5 days. The deal was, I would pack their lunches on the last day of school each year. That one day, when mom packed their lunch was a day of jubilation. They were excited, happy and most importantly, grateful.
Similarly, both of them started doing their own laundry since they were 11 years old. Once in a while, when they were very busy I did their laundry for them, for which, I got many words of gratitude.
I like to cook so I primarily cooked for the family yet I made sure my husband simply did not expect me to cook ALL THE TIME. Till date, he remembers to thank me for the meals I cook. During pandemic, I became more of a purist – using natural oil for moisturizer and hair care, squeezing oranges for fresh orange juice, making rotis and recently making homemade paneer from scratch. Sean was extremely grateful and told his family in video calls that his wife was making homemade paneer, his favorite. I got kudos from my in-laws for taking such good care of their son/brother.
I was feeling pretty special about my domesticity till last night when I met 2 other friends who happened to be Bengali. As many of you may be aware, when Bengalis meet two topics take precedence over others – food and politics. We were discussing food. I told them I have recently started making paneer at home and I use lemon to curdle the milk. Both of them nonchalantly mentioned they have always made paneer at home and they never buy it. Store bought paneer is never good and did I try vinegar to curdle milk instead of lemon juice? I was slightly crushed.
The question here is, did I mention to my family that homemade paneer is the norm and not the exception in Indian homes out there? Nope, nope, nope. Why would I? I want to see the glimmer of gratitude in Sean’s eyes at the cooking prowess of his queen wife who makes things from scratch just for him for the love that she carries in her heart for her husband.
If you have read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake, recall how the story starts. Ashima reaches for the tin of Planter’s peanuts to mix with her puffed rice. She is attempting to recreate the popular street food available at every corner, every lane in the streets of Kolkata – jhaal muri. She adds the peanuts, some mustard oil, green chili to her puffed rice but it is not the same as what she remembers. Something is missing. The book stole my heart just by that vignette at the beginning – Ashima trying to recreate a comfort food in a land where she is new, everything is unknown. That is every immigrant at some point in their lives, isn’t it?
Papdi chat, as pictured above, is my absolute favorite street food that I make often at home. Either I have forgotten what the real thing tastes like or I have managed to create perfection or my palate has been compromised to think what I create is the epitome of papdi chat. No matter what the reason, I don’t feel like anything is missing from my concoction of papdi chat. Often I don’t have all the ingredients so I improvise. Today’s version included the following:
Papdis (wheat crisps, available in the snack aisle of Indian stores) – this forms the base. Top these with…
Half a cup of canned chick peas (garbanzo beans)
Half a boiled potato chopped into little cubes
2 tbsp of finely chopped raw onion (optional)
1 green chili finely diced – optional. If you like spicy, make it 2
2 tbsp of chopped cilantro leaves
1 cup of beaten yogurt poured over the mixture
2 tbsp of Chunky Chat masala
Half a cup or more, if you prefer, of tamarind date chutney
All this is topped with Haldiram’s Alu Bhujia (again available in Indian grocery stores)
I sometimes make it fancy by sprinkling pomegranate seeds on top.
Talk about burst of flavors in the mouth – crunchy, tangy, savory, sweet – perfection!
I say perfection and I am the only one who eats chat in our house. The non Indian and the part Indians do not care for it. I even go as far as to proclaim it as healthy – garbanzo beans, fat free yogurt, potatoes……healthy! At least that is my story and I am sticking to it.
I had to start work from 10 am. So I walked into the kitchen at 8:30, perused my pantry, discovered 2 cans of garbanzo beans and decided to make a quick, nutritious and tasty chana masala with them. I had found not one but 2 opened packets of MDH chana masala powder at the back of my Indian spice rack and decided to use at least one up. They should not have been left open. Who did that? (It was me, of course). I chopped onions, grated ginger, discovered there was no fresh garlic in the house to make fresh garlic paste so used powdered garlic (the purist in my cringed), lovingly washed and chopped tomatoes. I got all the ingredients ready, brought out my brand new kadhai and poured just a table spoon of oil to cook. This was going to be the inauguration of my new kadhai which I bought just 2 days ago. Once oil was hot, I put the chopped onions to cook along with a tsp of salt. This is a trick I learned to brown the onions evenly. Once onions were ready, I threw in fresh ginger paste and not fresh garlic paste followed by chopped tomato. After 5 or 6 minutes, once oil separated from the mixture, I added 2 heaping tablespoons of MDH chana masala powder gave it a good stir and let them cook for a few minutes. Once the masala looked nice and mixed, I added the drained and washed garbanzo beans, mixed them well with the spices and poured in hot water. It was meant to simmer for a while for all the flavors to mix in. That was all. Except this awful morning, this simple recipe backfired. I noticed, to my utter horror, little black flecks floated on top as soon as I poured water over the chana (garbanzo beans). Hoping they were cumin seeds, I picked up one on my finger and put it in my mouth. And crunched on it. They were NOT cumin seeds. I gagged and washed my mouth. The packet of chana masala was open for I do not know how many years and was infested with tiny black bugs, which were now floating on my lovingly made chana masala in my brand new kadhai. What an inauspicious inauguration of my much coveted cooking utensil!
Here is the thing though. If the morning starts with bugs in your food, the day can only get better from here, right? Gosh, it was so disgusting!
…is fun and …..well, interesting. My 21 year old is an enthusiastic, creative and very good cook. She requests cook books for her birthday, she takes cooking lessons once in a while, she reads and tries to explain the chemical reactions that happen while ingredients mingle (I pretend I am listening, I really don’t), she checks out various recipes and then uses the salient features of several of those to make a dish. And they turn out wonderful. She wakes up excited to cook. To say that I am lucky is an understatement. I love to try different kinds of food and she obliges. Happily! Enthusiastically!
I cooked for Diwali, she helped. She wanted to cook for Thanksgiving and I volunteered to help and cook a few dishes. Our Thanksgiving is spent with our extended family where my contribution is generally a pecan pie. My sisters in law and brothers in law do the real cooking. Since we could not gather this year, we decided to cook full Thanksgiving meal just for the four of us. Sahana planned to cook turkey breast, garlic mashed potato, stuffing, brussel sprouts, homemade rolls and quiche of spinach and sundried tomatoes for the resident vegetarian. I was going to make squash casserole with walnuts and Gruyere cheese, cranberry sauce, peas, apple pie, pecan pie and a fruit pie crumble with whatever fruit was there at home. I am sad to report I slightly burned the top of the crumble.
Anyway, the point of this post is to write about my experience of cooking with Sahana. As I prepared to assemble the apple pie, and Sahana got the turkey breast out to brine, she asked, “What should we name the turkey breast?”
“Why should we name the turkey breast? We are going to consume it.” I replied.
She went ahead and named it Harvey anyway. She lovingly massaged Harvey with herb butter, gagging once in a while at touching raw meat. Harvey was then carefully placed in the fridge, uncovered.
“Shouldn’t you cover that?” I enquired, not wanting to see buttered turkey staring at me everytime I opened the fridge. No, she read that the turkey can not be covered. I did not dare contradict the chef who had been reading one recipe after another to cook this turkey.
After that, everytime she opened the fridge she asked Harvey how he was doing in there. It was slightly creepy hearing her talk to a dead bird like that. Morbid even! And comical! Everything she does in the kitchen is done with a lot of love and tenderness. So I was not overly surprised when I heard her crooning to something in the oven.
“You look so pretty, my darling.”
I asked who she was talking to.
“The quiche. It is looking so pretty.”
It did. I write this as she shooed me out of the kitchen because I was in the way. I half assembled my squash casserole. I will finish it once the very happy, very enthusiastic cook has done her cooking for today. To save her some trouble, I suggested that we buy Pepperidge farm stuffing and store made rolls. She looked at me as if I uttered blasphemy.
“Store bought?? No!”
She bought Italian bread, diced it, spiced it, baked it and made amazing homemade croutons for stuffing. Ryan and I stole quite a few of those already. Here is a photo of homemade rolls.
If you are brussel sprouts hater out there, I strongly recommend you try out this roasted brussel sprouts Sahana made with honey lime glaze with pistachios. It was perfection. I was slightly disappointed that this dish got no verbal love from its creator. It got gushing admiration from its consumer, though (me).
I enjoy cooking, sure. It relaxes me. But I certainly do not put so much love to the task. Cooking with Sahana and watching her work with love, joy and tenderness makes me smile.
This Thanksgiving is different. It is isolating and sad for many reasons. Cooking with Sahana will be a cherished memory though. 2020 Thanksgiving gave me that and I am thankful.
As I sat on my couch on a dreary evening during a raging pandemic, I made a resolution. I decided to celebrate all the festivals that came my way without appropriating any tradition or religion which my fusion family does not belong to. Since I am culturally Hindu, I was safe with celebrating Kali pujo, Diwali, bhai phota and since my partner is a practicing Catholic, we were also good with Christmas. For Bengalis, Kali pujo is a bigger celebration than Diwali, although I hear that these days Diwali is celebrated by Bengalis all over with great fervor. I like that. Celebration is hopeful. Especially during these trying times.
I decided to go all out for Kali Pujo/Diwali this year to dispel the gloom that is slowly yet surely descending on me due to the current circumstances. My “all out” consisted of lighting choddo (14 in Bengali) prodeep on the night before Kali pujo (Friday, Nov 13th), wearing a saree and cooking.
Choddo prodeep, or 14 earthen lamps, are lit to respect our 14 generations. A little background on this ritual:
Folklore in Bengal says that the spirits of ancestors come back to the household on this night and these diyas help them find their loving homes. It’s believed that our ancestors are at a proximity to us and bless us on this day. It’s a way to pay homage to choddo purush — fourteen ancestors, seven from each side of the family — requesting them to save everyone from evil spirit and ghosts. This is very typical of a lot of Hindu celebrations where we think of the departed and pray for them before we move on to the ceremonies of the current like nandimukh.
I am not religious. I don’t worship goddess Kali with shlokas and flowers, however the idea she represents, that of female empowerment, has fascinated me since childhood. She is the ultimate boss lady among Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses. She is simply incomparable. To celebrate her awesomeness, I decided to cook on the day of Kali pujo. I fasted too. No, not for any religious reasons. I fasted to cleanse my system so I could feast at dinner.
The menu for Kali pujo was:
Doi begun (eggplant in yogurt sauce)
Malai kofta, paratha and Bangali sooji with ghee, raisins and cashew.
After cooking all day, I donned a saree, lit diyas and invited family to the table.
That was the extent of our Diwali celebration yet it energized me for the next day. We were going to celebrate bhai phota, a ritual where sisters bless their younger brothers or seek blessings from their older ones. My sweetest memories during my growing up years come from the day of bhai phota when we all got together for a day of chaos, laughter, blessings and of course, food.
I woke up early to get breakfast ready before the celebration started. Breakfast was baked French toast with apple and pecans, hash brown casserole, blueberries and bacon. I had done most of the prep work the night before, so all I truly needed to do was pop the baking dishes in the oven.
I had the phota tray ready with sandal wood paste, kajol, diya, some grass and rice for blessing.
Sahana gave phota to Ryan, Ryan touched her feet to get her blessings. We had the computer on so my parents could witness the ritual virtually. Sahana then gave phota to Sean and my father via computer. Since she was little, Sahana has broken tradition and given phota to Sean on this day. Khushi gave virtual phota to Ryan with utmost seriousness. Folks in Kolkata blew on the conch shell, the sound of which traveled through ether to shower us with good omen. We ululated on both sides of the pond. Our two sounds met somewhere in the middle and technology made it possible for us to celebrate it together. Somewhat.
By this time, I was exhausted. Yet the nervous energy within me propelled me on to make narkel diye chhola r dal (chanadal with coconut), luchi. Sahana made a potato curry to go with it. My two days worth of intense cooking was consumed within 20 minutes.
My family got into the spirit of things. Sahana was an enthusiastic participant and even the boys donned kurta pajama to support my desire to summon my childhood joy to my adult life.
For a weekend, we ignored the raging pandemic outside our little home, we ignored that I cannot go home to see my parents, Sean cannot go home to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family, we ignored the fear of us catching the virus. The celebration was a respite from the constant anxiety. Now my fridge is full to the brim. We all will eat leftovers to empty it so Sahana can store ingredients for Thanksgiving meal that she plans to cook. She has even created a spreadsheet with the dishes she will prepare or delegate. We will go from one celebration to the other. And perhaps, pretend for a while that life is how it should be.
I thought I would end the blog there. But no! I came home from work yesterday and discovered that my house elves have been busy. They transformed my plain house into magical just by bringing in a magical tree.
Friends often commented in the past, or rather when we did not live this reimagined life and Sean traveled constantly, “Oh your husband travels so much, you don’t have wet towels lying on the floor. Your house must be clean!”
No, it is not. My husband is truly the picker upper in the house. The house was cleaner when that guy stayed home for more than 2 weeks at a time. Although I should say that travel for the last 8 months has been a distant memory. Sean has not kept the house as clean as I expected him to. We all are somewhat past caring about the little things at this point. Well, he is also working all his waking hours, now that there is no “going to office”, putting in work hours at office and distancing himself from it at home. There is no boundary any more.
Well, the point of this write up is really my choice. I have the day off and the house is …not quite filthy but well on its way there. Last night I went to bed determined to dedicate today to cleaning. I woke up to a gray, gloomy, rainy day. Perfect day for cleaning, right? Wrong, if you are me. I weighed my options. Do I want to clean or do I want to make koraishuti r kochuri (pea filling stuffed fried dough)?
I procrastinated. I talked to my parents in Kolkata. I messaged some friends to chat. I discovered Sahana has used up ALL the ginger in the house. Ginger is important to make the pea filling. I checked the freezer and found a forgotten bag of peas. I have flour and powdered ginger. I have cumin powder and garam masala. Most importantly, I have the desire to put in all the work needed to make this labor intensive delicacy of Bengal. I will go to any length to avoid cleaning, work harder even in the kitchen.
I checked the dirty floor and dust laden surfaces. I introspected within – what does my inner self really want to do? My inner self chose koraishuti r kochuri. As if there was any doubt.
Here I go. Cleaning is for another day. How to make Koraishuti r kochuri? This fantastic cook, who happens to be a friend has got you covered. Here is her channel. See this particular recipe and her other recipes.
We inherited a small grill from a relative. Since we are not big meat eaters and hence, non grillers, the grill collected dust and spider web underneath our back deck. Ryan, one day, excitedly declared he wants to make spicy chicken wings on the grill. I did not pay much attention to him thinking this was a fleeting fancy and if I pay no attention, it will be forgotten. Well, I was wrong. He persevered and requested to be taken to the grocery store to pick up organic wings and accompanying sauces. He had seen this recipe in Tik Tok and could not wait to try.
“Heaven help us! Tik Tok recipe?” I thought, yet I wanted to encourage culinary aspirations thinking I may benefit if aspirations such as these continue like his sister’s has.
“Ask your sister to drive you to the supermarket.”
Sahana, came back from work and like an obliging big sister, turned around and drove him to the market to buy ‘organic’ chicken wings. That night, I heard a lot of noise in the kitchen and smelled some spicy smells as I read my book. Before going to bed, I went to inspect the kitchen and found everything cleaned up. Without investigating further, I went to bed.
After a busy day at work, I came home to delicious smell of grilling. I went to the back deck to see a smiling boy looking up at me with a tong in his hand, grilling chicken wings for the first time. The father, however, was looking down from the deck, with an indulgent yet exasperated expression.
I heard the story from the father of the grilling man. Since Ryan had never grilled before, he needed some advice from his dad. Sean told him to clean up the grill and then he said he would come down to help him fire it up. As Sean worked on the deck, he heard Ryan doing something underneath. He heard the hose going. Then he got the call, “Dad I am ready.”
He went down to see the grill completely hosed down along with the coal that was in the grill.
“Why did you hose down the grill?” he asked Ryan, exasperated.
“Why not? There were spiderwebs all over it. I was not going to touch spiderwebs!” Ryan replied indignantly. He is deathly scared of spiders.
“How do you intend to light a grill with soaking wet coal? Did it occur to you to empty the charcoal before cleaning the grill?” Sean asked.
“Oh!” was the response.
They had to throw away the wet charcoal, fill the grill with new charcoal and light the grill. When I came home the grill was going strong and the chicken wings were cooking beautifully. When I laughed and asked if he was sure he was ready for sophomore year, he said, “Absolutely. The first lesson a student is taught is to learn from their mistakes. Hey, I learned from my mistake.” Can not argue with that. Today, he is making burgers and sausages on the grill. Hopefully, the charcoal will be dry if the lesson from mistake was learnt right. I will let you know.
This story begins when Sahana was about 12 years old. She had taken up the challenge of making chocolate chip cookies for the first time, that too for a friend’s birthday. Her pesky little 7 year old brother was flitting around the kitchen, attempting to help. The recipe was carefully followed, the cookies looked perfect when I walked into the kitchen. Little brother was already chomping on one as a taster.
“How is it?” the baker asked, hopeful.
“Mmmmm….it is soooo good Sahana! I love it.” the taster commented, smacking his lips.
“Mom, do you want to taste one?” I was offered.
How could I not try a chocolate chip cookie, baked for the first time by my daughter? I picked up one from the cooling rack and bit into it.
It was SALTY!
I looked at the expectant face, expecting positive reinforcement and I hesitantly commented, “Ummm….. the cookies seem a little salty to me. Try one and see for yourself.”
She did. And her face changed. She had done what many of us have done at some point or another in our cooking career. She used salt instead of sugar.
“SAHANA!!! YOU POISONED ME!!!!!!” screamed 7 year old Ryan, all of a sudden, after finishing one and a half SALTY cookies without batting an eyelid and pronouncing them to be ‘so good’ when asked how they were.
“But why did you say the cookies were good when you tasted salt instead of sugar and why did you eat one and a half cookies? You must have realized the cookies are salty when you took the first bite?” I asked him while Sahana tried not to shed tears.
After a moment’s pause, Ryan replied, “I was trying not to hurt her feelings.”
I think he tasted chocolate and that is all he cared about.
From making salty cookies in her first attempt at baking, Ms. Sahana has grown to be a self taught gourmet chef. I use the word ‘gourmet’ in jest, of course, but the girl has really taken a flair to cooking and we, her family, have benefited from it.
Cooking relaxes her so she does not think twice about making cheese filled tortellini at home from scratch, or finicky chocolate croissants which take hours of folding and rising before going in the oven, or she whips up a spaghetti carbonara: the spaghetti, of course, made from scratch. Store bought spaghetti?? We now frown upon those. (Not really, but she does!) As an Indian mother, I felt she had arrived when she carefully filled a perfect samosa, fried it and made it stand. You need to understand the importance of a samosa standing. That, my friends, is ultimate success. If the dough is not kneaded to the right texture, they fall. They do not stay up. Also, I have never made samosas from scratch. I have only watched and wondered when others did it. Now my daughter does it.
Since Covid brought her back home from Spain, cutting her junior year abroad short, Sahana has calmed her anxiety by kneading dough, grating cheese, stirring sauce or rolling sushi.
Below are some photos of food made by her during the time of Corona. While Corona virus brought a lot of unhappiness and anxiety in our lives, our daughter transformed our mood by providing us with gastronomical delights.
And finally, from salty chocolate chip cookies she has transitioned to delectable chocolate chip, walnut cookie cake that she makes every year for my birthday. All these years, after the first time, she has used sugar instead of salt 🙂 !
The reigning kitchen queen is stepping down, folks. A new queen is picking up the crown and spatula….err, I meant scepter. Bow to her, heap praise upon her. Who knows? You may receive an invitation to her kitchen. Live in hope.