Fish head


“Don’t dig too deep into the freezer.” I warned the family after my recent trip to a Bangladeshi grocery store.

“Why? What did you put in there?”

“Fish head. A big head of carp (ruhi).” I gleefully replied.

“Ugh! Ewwwww!” I expected this response from my half Bengali daughter. My white husband skillfully hid his “I am also disgusted” emotion from his face.

You can take the girl out of Bengal, but you really can not take the fish head loving Bengali out of the girl. Fish head was/is my favorite. Even when I was a horribly picky eater, I loved fish head. Macher matha diye dal (fish head in mung dal), muri ghonto (no idea what this is in English), macher matha r chocchori (again, no idea what this is in English). I, however, only got to eat fish head when I went back home. I did not know those were available here as well. So when I found them neatly wrapped and frozen, I did not hesitate. Once I came home and safely ensconced it in my freezer did it hit me that I have never cooked fish head in my life. I only ate them once they were lovingly prepared by whoever was cooking. Till this day, a traditional birthday lunch of a Bengali must include a fish head and payesh (rice pudding). If one has the means, the bowl of payesh would be a silver one as well as the spoon.

Sean has had a funny relationship with fish heads too. He claims those are the reason he went vegetarian. When he got transferred to Kolkata, he had to travel to remote villages of Bengal for work. Wherever he went he was treated royally by locals and was generally the guest of honor. When they served him lunch or dinner, the best portion was given to him – along with rice and vegetables, a huge head of fish generally adorned his plate, looking up at him with dead eyes. This American man was repulsed by the sight of it, forget trying to eat it. But the villagers looked on with such pride that he did not want to hurt their feelings either. He turned vegetarian so he could refuse the fish head. He perfected the art of a huge smile, folded hands, bent head and the words, “Oh I am a vegetarian. These all look so delicious. I will eat the rice, dal and vegetables.” The fish head, at that point, was removed while the women and men tsk tsked at Sean’s choice. What joy is there in life if you don’t eat fish, mutton, chicken? We Bengalis (many of us, not all) live to eat.

Anyway, the fish head rests in my freezer. I think of it often, with equal measure of anticipation and apprehension. I want to eat it and I also am a little unsure how to cook it well. Yes, there are YouTube videos but will my cooked fishhead bring back memories of home?

Here…eat!


This blog is about our recent trip to Kolkata. No, not about the emptiness and grief but about love. Gouri, as I have written before, took care of my parents till they died. And Breshpati, Khushi’s mom, also took care of them but she did not stay with them. She came to work and went back home after her work was done.

As I wrote earlier, this blog is about love. Love through food and feeding. My days in Kolkata were fraught with anxiety compounded with grief. And while I felt the impossible amount of love being showered upon us by the women who live in our house, I was too distraught and anxious to fully appreciate it. Looking back, I can feel the warmth of their love, their tireless efforts to show us that although my parents were gone, they were there to love us. Breshpati made my favorite food every single day. Gouri got the ingredients and did the prep work for cooking. Breshpati’s mother did our laundry, swept and mopped the floor. Although I sat down to eat, I did not have any appetite due to the intensity of grief and anxiety of cutting through bureaucratic red tape. But I made an effort. Since I am older, they listened to my refusal to more and more food but young Sahana had no such escape. They showed their love upon her by constantly trying to feed her.

Here is what happened. Sahana would eat lunch around 1 pm after we got back from our various errands at banks. The ladies would eat their lunch after us and settle for their afternoon siesta. Breshpati woke up from her nap within an hour to break a sweet pomegranate and bring the seeds to Sahana on a plate because one day Sahana mentioned she loves pomegranates. Sahana, not quite hungry after her sumptuous lunch only an hour before, would take the plate so as not to offend Breshpati. Having fed Sahana yet again, she would go back to resume her nap. After about an hour of pomegranate, a chocolate bar would appear for Sahana, brought in by either Khushi or Gouri. And then naps would resume for them again. Within 45 minutes of chocolate, the ice cream vendor would go by our street. Naps would be forgotten at the deep cry of Kwality icecreaaaaaaaam. Tremendous excitement would ensue among the ladies as they called down to the ice cream wallah to wait. Khushi and Gouri would run down to buy ice cream for all, whether you want it or not (they can not fathom why one would not want ice cream) and offer us those with triumphant smiles. I would forcefully refuse and request Khushi to eat my share. And right after ice cream would be tea time.

Before we left, Gouri said to me, “Didi, we can never give you the love that your parents gave you. But we tried our best to make sure your home coming was at least somewhat similar to what it used to be.” She said all this in Bengali as she shed tears at our departure. Now I think back to those few days and realize that with everything going on about settling affairs, I really could not appreciate their immense love towards us. But I think back on it now and know that despite my horrible loss, I am lucky in love and also wonder what did I do to deserve it?

Sibling relationship and food


Since Sahana started working, she buys some of the groceries. And not often, but sometimes those groceries include salt and barbeque chips or takis or hot flaming cheetos. She is a generous kid, who buys enough for herself and her brother. She keeps her brother’s packet of junk food out and promptly hides her own packet. The brother storms in from his boarding school over the weekend, opens the refrigerator door, devours whatever he finds to his taste and then complains, “There is nothing in this house to eat.” He finishes his packet of junk food and hunts in the hidden corners of the house for more. He has often gotten into trouble for eating his sister’s portion and once or twice there have been aggressive exchange of words. Expletives have been used and their mother has shouted at both of them.

Last night, Ryan came home mid week for a doctor’s appointment. Sahana and I had purchased our choice of chips – one packet each, to enjoy while the eating fiend was away at dorms. Ryan located our packets right away and helped himself to a generous portion from mine. He tried one or two from his sister’s too but he (fortunately) did not enjoy the flavor. He then hid both the packets of chips in a cabinet and asked me to tell Sahana that he came and took the packets with him to dorm. I was also asked to report to him her reactions. He was laughing his head off imagining how angry she would be when she came back from work to discover her packet of chips had disappeared. He cautioned me though, “Mom, if you see her balling her fists in rage, tell her I hid the chips. I don’t want her hurting my mother. Hee hee hee.”

Sahana came home from work and after she settled, I told her nonchalantly, “Oh, by the way, Ryan came home and took our packets of chips with him to the dorm. That boy is trouble.” As expected, Sahana got angry. “He has a eating problem. Do you realize that he has a problem?” She said a few more sentences about it, none of them complimentary to her brother. I could not keep the laughter bottled in anymore so I told her he hid her chips to get a reaction out of her. She laughed, “He is an idiot.”

I have not written about the kids for a while. This blog started as a record of my parenting journey. The journey continues and will continue as long as I live. There are exasperations, laughter, sullenness, successes, failures as we live our lives together. However, I have stopped writing about them now that they have grown up. I simply had to write down this anecdote to read later and remember this moment of laughter. Moments like these make life precious.

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.