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)

What time is dinner?


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.

Mustard oil in my relationship.


Mustard oil is an integral part of Bengali cuisine. My memories of childhood have the strong smell of mustard oil weaved within them. If you have not had the experience of being in a home where dry red chili is added to smoking hot mustard oil it will be hard for you to imagine the effect. The sharpness and jhaanj (do not know the English word for it, just imagine extreme pungent and sharp smell) of this deadly combination will clear your sinuses, will make your eyes water and will certainly make you sneeze. But you want to know what is food heaven? It is a drizzle of mustard oil on Hilsa fish cooked in mustard gravy (bhapa ilish) or mashed potatoes with onion, green chili and mustard oil, or alu posto, dhokar dalna, bati chocchori – all cooked in mustard oil.

Now, mustard oil is an acquired taste. I don’t know many Indians outside of Bengal who appreciate mustard oil as much as we do. They simply can not handle it. The strength, the sharpness, the jhaanj. So think about my poor, white husband who had to experience the first jolt of mustard oil in our house. He coughed, sneezed, hiccuped at the same time when he breathed in the air laden with double dose of mustard oil tempered with nigella seeds and dried red chilis.

“Oh my goodness, what is that? What are you cooking? What is this toxic gas? Are you trying to kill me?” Cough, cough, sneeze, sneeze!

I calmly answered, “That is just mustard oil.”

“It is deadly.”

I needed to assert how our way of life was going to be in our newly formed partnership and had to lay down the rules.

“Listen buddy! I love you to the moon and back. But my love is not unconditional. If you come between me and my mustard oil, this relationship is not going to last. I don’t buy fish heads so as not to gross you out and I only cook dried fish (shutki mach) when you are traveling. I have given up a lot for love. I will not give up mustard oil.”

He backed off. Now when I cook my Bengali food he quietly turns our big exhaust fan on and knows not to say anything. You can take the girl out of the land of mustard oil, you can not take the mustard oil out of the girl. Especially a girl who was massaged in mustard oil and laid out to bake in the sun during winter months as an infant because the grown ups during those days thought massaging a baby with mustard oil and laying them out in the sun was beneficial to skin, circulation system and muscles of the infant. So yes, my relationship with mustard oil is deep and long. NO one messes with it! 🙂

Leftover queen: Part 2


See if you can follow my leftover transformation process:

From a cook book called The Arabian Nights Cookbook that I checked out from the library, I made baked beef kebabs. My kids and I had a few. Then I packed the remainder and stored them in the fridge.

I knew the children (why do I still call them children? One is 21, the other is 16) would not eat the kebabs any more, they move on to greener pastures (new food, not leftovers) during meal times so I crumbled the kebabs up, cut some potatoes, chopped some onion, ginger, garlic, tomatoes, threw in some spices along with bright green peas and transformed my kebabs to keema mutter. I ate the keema mutter with rice for 2 meals. There was still a lot left. I really need to learn to cook in smaller amounts.

Yesterday, I made home made paneer for Sean. This time, instead of throwing the whey away, I saved the liquid. After reading up on the nutritional value of whey, I made home made rotis, and used the whey to knead whole wheat instead of water. I made a few rotis for Sean. I left some dough to make mughlai paratha, or a version of it to use up leftover keema mutter.

Mughlai paratha is generally meat stuffed bread and the bread is cooked with egg. I made balls with leftover dough and rolled them out to about 7 inches in diameter. Once the griddle was hot, J placed the roti on the griddle. I had 3 beaten eggs ready and right away put 3 or 4 tbsp of beaten eggs on the roti on the griddle and spread the egg all over. Then I spooned in 2 tbsp of keema and folded the roti on both sides over it. Poured a tsp of vegetable oil around the sides. I was supposed to make a pocket but I failed. I let the folded roti cook till egg had set and flipped to cook the other side. Once done, I had a very poor relation of the delicious moghlai paratha. The poor relation did not taste like the real deal but it was quite good. Both kids approved.

I was so thrilled with myself that I proclaimed myself queen of leftovers yet again.

I reused, recycled, reimagined! There is such joy in transformative creations.

Masala kaju (cashew)


Although I met this young man at work, he quickly became more than a coworker, he became family – my adopted brother in my adopted land. What does that have to do with the photo above? I will get there. But first I must ramble, as is my habit.

One day, my friend who I mentioned above brought me a Tupperware full of roasted cashews. I ate a few and the tastebuds in my mouth did a happy dance. The nuts were so flavorful. He had fried the nuts and mixed them with Thai red chilies, lime kefir leaves, salt and the flavor was divine.

Cashews (kaju) were, and still are, expensive in India. We could afford them once in a while in small quantities and only at the beginning of the months when we were flush with new paychecks. Cashews were for rich people, peanuts belonged to us.

One of my most popular gifts that I take back home are big jars of cashew nuts from Costco. They bring smiles of joy in people’s faces. The weight of carrying a heavy jar of cashew nuts is totally worth all those smiles.

If you want to spice up your cashews, and if you have some Indian spices lying around, you can have jar full of spicy, savory cashews to snack on when hunger strikes.

Heat a tbs of vegetable oil in a large skillet.

Fry whole Kirkland jar of unsalted cashews on low heat till they attain a golden color.

Keep the fried cashews in a bowl.

In a separate bowl, mix 2 tsp of chaat masala, 2tsp (or less) of Kashmiri chilli powder, a tsp of garam masala, a pinch of Himalayan salt or rock salt, a pinch of citric acid.

In the same skillet where you fried the cashews, throw in a handful of dried red chilis, and once they give out a spicy smell (10 seconds) add the spice mix. Keep the heat to medium low. Mix the spices for about 15 seconds and add to the fried cashews.

Coat them well. Cool completely and store them in a jar.

Lastly, chomp away.

Sometimes I add a few raisins to a handful of spicy cashews when I snack on them.

Divine!

I will not put sugar in your yogurt drink.


We went to the city for a walk on a gorgeous fall day. It was one of those days when I give thanks to be alive and experience the cerulean sky, sweet sunlight, my loved ones near me. After walking around for a while the inevitable question arose, where do we have lunch? The consensus was a tiny Lebanese restaurant which once turned Sean and me away in the past because they were hosting a private party. They could not seat us and were profusely apologetic. Fortunately this time we were welcomed and guided to our seats outside.

The owner was a pleasant looking man with very gentle manners. He handed us our menus. Sahana and I ordered the yogurt drink ayran and our food. When the drinks came out, I took a sip and was instantly transported back home! It tasted exactly like lassi or ghol (buttermilk drink) and just how I like it, salty not sweet. The next time the gentleman came out to check on us, I mentioned how much I loved the drink. I told him I was from India and this tasted just like home. My comment seemed to make him very energized and happy.

“Oh, I am so glad you like that drink. I get nervous when people order that because they don’t anticipate the taste. When I bring it out, they drink it and then they ask me to add sugar. I say no, I am not going to add sugar. That is not how this drink should be drunk!”

This business owner refuses to sweeten the drink from his country for people here because that is not how the drink is drunk!! I related to this on so many levels. I know and accept that one should eat (drink) according to his/her tastes but I can not help but judge when Sean puts peanut butter and jelly on a daal paratha. He sees my face acknowledges the judgement, eats it anyway, and laughs.

Sean’s first encounter with a server in a restaurant in Kolkata was similar to this gentleman’s outrage. He ordered rice and roti and the server told him roti was not available. I presume there may have been some words lost in translation as well during that particular exchange of dialogue. Anyway, when food was served, Sean noticed that his companion got a roti with his order. Sean looked at it with bewilderment and asked the server, “You told me roti was not available!” The server said with a nod of his head that the dish Sean ordered was meant to be eaten with rice. Food dictatorship!

Some things just go together and you simply don’t mess around. If you do, you hurt food connoisseurs like me, like the owner of the Lebanese restaurant, like the belligerent server at the restaurant in Kolkata in 1994. You just don’t do that. You incur our wrath and disdain, if you do!

🙂

First time griller.


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.

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!

Last day in New Orleans and a broken promise


On Sunday, Sean went to church while I took my time with coffee and shower. After his return we took the street car to the World War II museum. It was a sobering experience to say the least. After seeing photographs of young soldiers, making the ultimate sacrifice to stop evil from destroying our world, after reading narratives, witnessing the devastation that war caused, we wanted to pack up the museum and send it to Washington DC so law makers can do all in their power to prevent another large scale destruction of life and property. As we walked back slowly, both of us were quiet and contemplative. The sights and sounds of war, something that happened years and years ago were still hard to absorb.
Lunch that day was surprisingly easy and delicious. We found Auction House, a conglomeration of restaurants, within a building. I had an amazing Louisiana crab cake and Sean had some concoction that included avocados. We shared a chocolate hazelnut banana empanada from Empa Nola. Instead of getting back to the hotel, we decided to go see the Lafayette cemetery. We waited for eternity, or so it seemed, for a street car to come so I put my time to good use. I watched Ryan’s baseball game on Game changer. You can take a baseball parent out of town for a vacation, you cannot take baseball out of a baseball parent.

But here is the most important information in this blog that you need to know. We broke our promise. We did not take a nap on our final afternoon in New Orleans. We just rested for a while once we got back to our hotel. After church, Sean went scouting for nice restaurants away from the touristy French Quarter, which, in retrospect, we should have done earlier. And he found an Italian restaurant in the downtown area, which, to him, looked promising. Domencina was fancy and delicious. We ended our stay with a truly sumptuous meal and we each ordered a dessert, which we never do. He ordered Cannoli, I ordered Crema cotta that had honey, blueberries and basil. Heavenly.

We walked back to the hotel and rested. No naps. As I said, broken promise and all. In the evening we slowly walked around French quarter absorbing the ambiance and the joie de vivre  that we felt on the first day and which, in my mind, is truly the characteristic of this city. After looking around several sauce shops, we bought hot sauce for Ryan, mask magnet for Sahana,  chocolate covered pecans for both and headed back.
We packed to go back home and watched Cavaliers  beat Celtics. Sean was grumpy and berated King James .

A blog about this trip would be incomplete if I did not mention what we found when we got home. The house was immaculate, my kitchen was organized, counter tops spotless, the lawn was mowed. Ryan did not miss a singe baseball game. Sahana kept everything in order.

The trip was much needed. A little break from routine. But the realization that our daughter was grown up, responsible was priceless.