Bengali New Year: Shubho Noboborsho


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

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

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

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

Shubho Noboborsho.

My attack days


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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