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?

Fusion marriage, fusion food.


Masoor dal

In my opinion, the dal, pictured above, should be enjoyed with fragrant, white rice with a dash of lemon and thinly sliced potato sticks. If potato sticks are not to your taste, (although I cannot imagine how anyone can NOT like jhirijhi alu bhaja, potato sticks in English), you can substitute them with egg plant fritters (beguni), or potol bhaja (don’t know English for potol, it is a small green gourd like vegetable and oh-so tasty). If nothing is available, or you are too lazy to fry anything, boil some potatoes and an egg. Mash the potatoes with some mustard oil, and mix in some chopped raw onions and chopped green chilli. My husband would not choose any of the options I mention above. If I don’t make rotis or don’t have store bought chapatis at home, he would slice some bread, toast it and dip it in dal. That is still acceptable to me. I look away when he dips his grilled cheese sandwich in dal. Or he slathers nut butter and jelly on my carefully and lovingly made alu paratha. He does many other permutations and combinations, mixing my Indian food with food that he grew up eating. I was a food purist. Certain food had to be eaten with the right accompaniment, but he has worn me down over the years.

Today I broke my own rule. I made a gorgeous grilled cheese with this delicious three cheese sesame bread, poured tamarind date chutney that I use for chats (Indian street food) and happily dipped my grilled cheese into ‘very Indian’ chutney. It was delicious and I am a convert.

Our marriage fused two different races, two cultures and now food. It is all great but I maintained the sanctity of food all these years. Eat rice or roti with your dal or dip grilled cheese sandwich in hearty tomato soup, not chutney.

Today I gave in and what a wonderful fusion it turned out to be. 😀

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.

Street food


Papdi chat

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.