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Salmon cooked in mustard

Bengalis are obsessed with fish.  No surprise really as the land (West Bengal and Bangladesh) is permeated with thousands of rivers and freshwater lakes.  But using the word ‘obsession’ is not an exaggeration.  It is common for Bengali families in India to have fish in various preparations twice a day. Yes, you read correctly: two times every day.  Having lived abroad for so long and eating so many types of other food, eating this much fish on our annual visits back to India always takes getting used to.  Also, while I love fish, the exactness and thoroughness with which other Bongs eat fish is a sight to behold.  Heads, tails, the fatty bits are all consumed with relish and the flesh is painstakingly chewed upon to expertly remove the bones.  And then the fingers are licked clean with satisfaction.  A job well done.

The recipe I’m about to write out involves cooking the fish in mustard, the favoured way to cook fish the Bengali way.  Usually freshwater fish such as hilsa, rohu are used but while these fish are available in Asian food stores here, they usually come frozen which spoils the taste.  So whenever Maa cooks fish Bengali style, she tends to use fish that is freshly available like salmon and seabass.

A couple of other things to point out with this particular recipe.  It has Maa’s unique touches which make it all the more delicious. This is a fact.  Firstly she adds yoghurt to the mustard paste, which brings out the flavour of the mustard and gives the paste a slight hint of tanginess.  She also adds grated coconut.  And in terms of cooking, this recipe involves baking or steaming.  A more healthy.  But you can also fry the fish, pour over the sauce, add chilli, turmeric, salt and then simmer until fish is cooked and sauce is reduced.  Here goes:

The fish in the paste before going into the oven for baking

Serves 4

Prep time: 20 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 4x salmon fillets (cut in half so each section gets best chance to absorb the mixture)
  • 15g mustard powder
  • 15ml Colman’s mustard
  • 1.5tbsp rapeseed oil
  • 1.5 tbsp yoghurt
  • 1tbsp grated coconut (if dessicated, soak in boiling water and cover)
  • 4 green chillies (slit just the top part)

Method:

  • Set oven to 180C (A lowish temperature is used as yoghurt curdles on higher heat)
  • For the mustard paste: slowly add water to the mustard powder until it becomes a paste-like consistency.  Add salt. Leave for 10 minutes to ensure no bitterness.  Then mix in the Colman’s mustard
  • In an oven-proof dish, put the chillies in.  Add the oil, the yoghurt, coconut and mix together.  Then add the mustard paste. A dash of salt and then mix
  • Add the salmon fillets to the oven-proof dish and mix them well with the mustard marinade.
  • Cover the dish with foil
  • Put in oven for 15-20 minutes.
  • Serve with rice

Note that this isn’t a dish with lots of gravy but it makes up for it with maximum flavour impact!

Rubber band families

Eight months after the initial idea was floated by Shikha didi to have a family reunion, it finally took place in Pune on 26th – 30th December.  And what a reunion it was!  Most of the family at the reunion were the Choudhuris (including spouses and kids) while we are Chaudhuris (from Ma’s side of the family), meaning that Shikha et al. are third cousins to didi and I.  For many, third cousins aren’t even considered family.  Well that’s a missed opportunity because in many ways, the Choudhuris are the closest relatives I have outside my immediate family.

It helps to go back a little to understand how the Choudhuris and Chaudhuris are connected in the first place:

  • My Dadu (see Searching for a Bengali Entrepreneur) and Baro dadu (Sajol mama’s baba) were first cousins and grew up together because my great-grandfather took care of Baro dadu, paid for his education etc. after his father died
  • Ma is second cousins with Baro dadu’s children – Sajol mama, Kajol mama and Shukla mashi
  • Didi and I are third cousins to Shaibya, Dibya, Shikha (daughters of Sajol mama and Abhi mami), Rupa and Rahul (daughter and son of Kajol mama and Suman mami), and Sandeep and Bishwadeep (sons of Shukhla mashi)

    Baba, Ma and didi with the Bombay Choudhuris (except for Sajol mama) in Lucknow

Dipu mashi visitng us and Sajol mama, Abha mami and Shikha didi

But really that doesn’t explain much.  It’s just an abbreviated, bulleted version of a family tree.  Our close connection with the Choudhuri’s started when Ma was studying at Lady Brabourne College in Kolkata, and Kajol mama and Suman mami became her second family in an unfamiliar city.  And then, Sajol mama and Abha mami lived in Bombay at the same time my parents did. Abha mami and Ma were pregnant at the same time with Shikha didi and didi respectively.  Then I came along six years later.  Shaibya didi used to babysit me and the others used me as a) a cute toy to play with and b) a target for their teasing.  I have no complaints about this.  As the youngest spoilt brat in that clan, my fate was pretty much sealed when I was born.

Didi and Shikha didi

Shaibya didi teaching me (in the red) and friends a game at my birthday party

In addition to regular family holidays to India when we were younger, my generation is independently continuing to build, grow and evolve the connections.  Facebook has definitely helped because lets be honest, writing emails and letters on a regular basis is a pain.  But a little face time helps too.  I reconnected with Dibya didi and Shikha didi in the US while I was there for my MBA, I got to know Sandeep dada when I visited Dubai with baba when he worked in Abu Dhabi and more recently on my work trips, and became good friends with Teesta while she lived in London for a couple of years.  And judging by the family reunion, I feel pretty confident that the next generation will carry this on.

And so what of the reunion itself?  It was extraordinary to be around these 20+ people over the four days.  Sadly Rahul dada, Bishwadeep dada and Adrit were unable to make it but even still, the sheer number of family members just all hanging out was novel.  It is easy for me to forget the power and comfort of having a large family around.  Moving away 25 years ago to places where there wasn’t much or any family meant that my parents, didi and I became the Formidable Four: us against the world.

Unlike the many Hollywood movies around the same theme, our family reunion had no dramatic revelations of closeted skeletons, no return of the prodigal son, no accidents (apart from a minor vomiting incident from day drinking.  Identities will be protected here but everyone knows who it was 🙂 ), and no melodramatic goodbyes.  We had a fantastic time full of laughs, gossip, and A LOT of food.

The clan having lunch at the vinyard

More catching up over food

But to convey a Walton-like image of our reunion would also be inaccurate.  There also were moments of exasperation, minor tensions and tantrums, logistical challenges, a need for solitude away from the noisy horde and several instances of loud shouting in order to be heard by the hard-of-hearing older bunch which frankly only made us look silly and unhinged and them calm and tranquil.  But that’s what families are. We are rubber bands which stretch due to geographic distance, dysfunction, and squabbles but always spring back into shape and hold together what we value.  In the spectrum of rubber bands, our family is in the middle; in between the brand new ones which take a bit of breaking in to activate the elastic and the older/looser ones which are rubber bands in name only given their elastic capabilities are non-existent and hold nothing together.

Top 3 highlights
– The funny and affectionate toasts given by Kajol mama, Sajol mama, Eugene and Baba during our lunch at a vinyard
– The inter-generational dancing at the reunion finale
– Being serenaded by Rahul’s  (Shikha didi’s hubby) operatic arias
– Taking photos of all the three generations

The elder statespeople

My generation

The upstarts (aka nieces and nephews)

The spouses

Funniest moments
– Tarik effortlessly holding court with four young girls at the vinyard.  See picture below.
– Shaibya didi’s effusive oratory on her love of all things pork
– Feeling like we were going on a school trip in the rickety Tempo bus.  We had it all: the panicked headcounting, the fight for the back seats, getting lost, and the passing of the snacks between the front and back of the bus.  The only thing missing was music. Despite valiant attempts of the driver to have loud Indian filmy music bounce around the bus and in our ears, Rahul vetoed it all which is just as well as otherwise prime gossip time would have been lost.

Tarik the ladies' man

Most over-used comments
– “Family is best consumed in small doses”
– “We won’t have to do this again for at least another [insert number here depending on level of reunion fatigue] years”
– “Where are we?”/ “Where are we going?”/ “What time do we need to be there?”/”What’s the plan for today?” x 5 times per day

Sign me up for the next one please.

October 14th, 1971.  The year in which two people fresh from an arranged marriage moved to Japan, a strange and beautiful foreign land where they spent a year getting to know this fascinating country as well as each other.

October 14th, 2011.  Forty years later they returned, along with their grown up daughters to knock at the door of old memories as well create new ones.

1971

A young couple

Suvesh was going to embark on a post-doctorate fellowship to do research at the prestigious Tokyo Institute of Technology with Prof. Furuta. We arrived in Tokyo in the late evening at the end of autumn 1971 after a long flight from Kolkata. Fortunately we had two refuelling stops, first in Bangkok and then Hong Kong. The last stretch was longer and except for a pair of companion wing-lights blinking at the tips we were piercing through the darkness until Tokyo’s neon skyline came into view.   One of Prof. Furuta’s student, Ken Tomyama came to receive us at Haneda Airport and brought us to the hotel.  Looking through a window on the 10th floor Tokyo looked like a dazzling fairy land.  The next day, Ken and Professor Furuta took us to the tiny one room flat which became our home for a year.  Our initial reaction was shock.  Just one room!!!  It was a very steep learning curve but surprisingly it did not take long to feel completely at home in our little nest.

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It’s that time of year again when Bengalis fold away our usual sensible, introverted character and spread out a more joyous, and dare I say it, carnival-esqe side to us like a beautiful, jewel-coloured bed throw from Fab India.  It is Durga Puja time.

But who is she and why do we celebrate her so enthusiastically?

It turns out that Durga is quite phenomenal.  She is the Hindu Mother Goddess, a warrior, a killer of demons and the personfication of energy (“shakti”).  Amazing, given that Indian culture can be so pro-man.  The story goes that she was created to fight Mahishasura, a demon who couldn’t be defeated by man.  The gods became so angry at his destruction that beams of fierce light emerged from their bodies, from which Durga emerged.  She has 10 arms, each of which holds a different weapon including a chakra, bow and arrow, and conch.  Oh and her ride was a lion.  Her battle with Mahishasura was epic, with him taking many forms like a buffalo and an elephant, each one slain by Durga with grace and power.  She finally kills him after 10 days of fighting.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer could learn a thing or two from her.

Durga in action

So Durga is a powerful, multi-tasking, graceful slayer of badasses.  And just like women the world over, she is also a wife and mother.  She seems to have a taste for bad boys as her hubby is Shiva, the cannabis-smoking destroyer of the universe. Rock and roll.

I can’t think of a better deity to celebrate.

My 31st paayesh

Maa has made 31 paayeshs for me, one on each birthday.  And so yesterday was my 31st.  On the morning of every birthday, she patiently stirs the milk mixture forever (actually it’s probably around 45 mins but this is a very long time to stir continuously, although on a positive note it’s probably really great for toning the arms) to make the sweet and silky paayesh.  Obviously, as fitting for any special occasion, the paayesh does not touch my lips until a small portion of it has been offered to god ( in the form of Ganesh in the photo) and until I shower and say a little prayer myself.  I’m not religious at all but this little ritual provides comfort and balances out the other more hedonistic aspects of birthday festivities.  That minute in front of the offering is a quiet moment in which I can reflect on the past year, give thanks to all the good things in my life, and look forward to next year.  It puts everything in perspective.

Maa’s paayesh has that perfect consistency of being a little less thick than condensed milk.  I find it is so uninspiring and spirit-deflating when the paayesh limply spills over the spoon because it is so thin and watery.  Also importantly, Maa’s paayesh has NO RAISINS.  Nothing against raisins as such but we just don’t like them in the paayesh.  Instead she adds flaked almonds which gives it a lovely and different texture.

Ingredients

  • 2 pints full cream milk
  • 2 tbs rice (in UK, Maa uses Basmati but if back in India, she would have used gobindo bhog rice, which is a short-grained, glutinous rice that cooks quickly and has a creamy quality, perfect for paayesh)
  •  2 tbs sugar
  • 2 tbs palm jaggery
  • Handful of flaked almonds

Method

  1. Put the milk in a saucepan and bring to boil.  Stir continuously
  2. Once brought to the boil, add in the rice (wash it first).  Reduce heat a little and stir until the rice is cooked.  This should take about 20 minutes
  3. When the rice is cooked, include the sugar, jaggery and flaked almonds.  Stir until the water from the sugar and jaggery have evaporated and the milk has thickened to the consistency preferred.
  4. Grate a little nutmeg on top (optional)

Can be served warm or cold

India’s independence day was on the 15th August and friends and family all over replaced their facebook profile pictures with the Indian flag.  It is great to see such patriotism even in the face of our national team’s abysmal performance at the  India-England 2011 test series.

The day itself also made me think of India’s national anthem, ‘Jana Gana Mana’.  Since we left India when I was just six, I was not lucky enough (no sarcasm intended) to have it drilled into me during school assemblies.  And in Sweden, there weren’t many occasions to catch up so as a result, I guiltily confess to not knowing my national anthem.

Luckily with the help of YouTube and Wikipedia, I can hear and understand the complete version of the song (only the first stanza out of the 5 composed by Tagore is sung as the national anthem).

Here is the wiki link to the translation:

But here’s the interesting thing about this song.  Apparently Tagore wrote the song in honor of King George V and the Queen of England when they visited India in 1919.  Is this really true?  If so, I find it highly ironic and sad that our national anthem is sung in praise to our former British rulers.

If someone can set this straight, please do!

Some more Tagore

 

Song of the City, photograph courtesy of Akademi and Southwark Playhouse

In my last blog entry, I admitted that I find Rabindra Sangeet boring and wished it could be set free from its traditional interpretation.  Well, it seems as there are other people who want this as well.  Last night I attended an interesting dance production called ‘Song of the City‘ by Akademi which uses Tagore’s songs in a contemporary way.   The piece is about three characters – Muse, Artist and Man who fall in and out of tune with the city.  The dance blends ballet, bharatnatyam and modern dance while the music mixed stripped back Bengali vocals, pulsating big beats, clarinet ( played by Arun Ghosh who also composed for the production) and an electronica-tinged soundscape.  And then the actual setting.  It was a character in its own right.  Dark, atmosphere and musty vaults underneath London Bridge where the subterranean space was given a golden dirty hue by the naked lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling.

All in all, quite an interesting production.  I didn’t come away spellbound as some bits worked well, others less so.  However, what was most interesting for me was that the Rabindra Sangeet wasn’t boring to listen to!  No harmonium, no irritating bells, no monotonous singing.  The songs were rendered full of emotion and momentum.  Why?  The accompanying music lifted the lyrics from the doldrums, gave it life and meaning.  Layers of dub, electronica and beats along with the modern dance gave the songs the much needed atmosphere and context that has been sadly lacking in other Tagore dance dramas.  Sacrilege for some, a surprising evening for me.

 

 

 

More Tagore anyone?

Rabindranath Tagore

It’s the 150th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth this year and so as seems fitting, there have been lots of concerts, talks and events to mark the occasion.  He is a cultural gem for both India and Bengali people.  Having being the only Indian who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the quintessential Indian Renaissance man (he was a poet, novelist, playwright, musician, painter, educationalist…the list goes on), he thoroughly deserves his star on India’s hall of fame.

However, what makes Tagore so unique and unlike other cultural icons is that he is so integral in Bengali family lives.  Virtually every Bengali family I know has a Geetabitan (Tagore’s 2000+ collection of songs) in their house, knows many of his songs by heart and has taken classes in learning Rabindra Sangeet during their adolescence.   It is a rite of passage similar to children in the West learning ballet or joining a scout group.  It is what we do.

My family is no exception.  Didi started singing quite early on.  She initially started singing classical at 5 from a neighbour and then when we moved to Bandra, Ma enrolled her into a well known Rabindra sangeet school called Sahana, not too far from home.  Didi even got the 1st prize in a singing competition at Bandra Saraswati Puja.  Oooh.  So far so normal but interestingly, Ma’s relationship with Rabindra sangeet was less ordinary.  Unlike Didi,  Ma didn’t learn the songs at school or from a singing teacher.  She was entirely self-taught and as a young girl she had no interest in it.  Funnily enough, she opted for dance as an extracurricular activity at school.  Sadly, I have not seen Ma throw shapes on the dance floor. Ever.  As for Rabindra sangeet, she got more into it when the family got a Philips record changer at home and used to play all kinds of vinyls including the aforementioned songs.  They had a full album of the dance drama Chitrangada which she learnt to sing from beginning to end, aided by the trusted Geetabitan from which she could learn the lyrics.

Didi playing the tanpura and I (freshly bathed) attentively watching

As for me, I definitely AM the exception.  While I attentively watched Didi and Ma practice at home in India, I have never learnt to sing, let alone sing Rabindra sangeet.  One of the reasons is that we left India when I was only six so deemed too young to flex my vocal chords.  However, if my skills in crying as a baby is any indication of my potential singing prowess, I would now be wowing audiences worldwide.  Secondly, Stockholm did seem an unlikely place for a Rabindra sangeet school.  Thirdly (and probably most crucially), by the time I had opinions, I decided that Rabindra sangeet was not for me.  I found it (and still do) boring.  There I said it.  Rabindra sangeet is boring.  I can hear the collective sharp intake of breath from every single Bengali mashi and mesho out there.

Let me explain.  The lyrics of the songs are incredible beautiful.  That is not in question.  But as someone whose relationship with the Bengali language is like a shy awkward teenage boy trying to talk to the girl he likes: halting, faltering, uncertain and unable to hold a conversation that goes beyond ‘umm, so like…”  Which basically means that when I listen to the songs, I have no idea what they are about.  And what bugs me is that music and songs should be able to overcome language barriers.  However, here Rabindra sangeet lets me down.  The music which accompanies the lyrics does not do what it is supposed to do.  It does not enhance, complement and reflect the beautiful lyrics.  The music is boring, flat and sound so sad.  As a result, all the songs sound vaguely the same and endless.  If Rabindra sangeet is going to appeal to me and future generations of Bengalis, Indians and just generally human beings from anywhere, it needs to be freed from the strict, traditional chains that imprison it.  I think Tagore would agree.

As I mention in the previous entry, I have only seen a few pictures of Ma and Baba’s wedding, one of which is a photo of Baba wearing a topor, a conical hat made out of paper and shola (a sponge-wood plant). Apparently, the topor was created because Shiva wanted a crown for his wedding but it looks ridiculous and hardly very crown-like.  Indian Hindu weddings can be really sombre (and long!) so I love that the poor groom has to endure such a comedy hat.  I wonder how Baba felt about wearing the topor?

Traditionally, an Indian boy from a middle-class family would be expected to go through an unbroken period of  15-17 years of study; in school, college and a career-linked professional degree or a PhD. I chose to do a combination of both.  Then follows a period of consolidation for the future and moving up the career ladder.  In this period, familiarity and friendships with girls were considered fraught with danger signals and possible distractions from life-goals.

‘Love-match’ as V.S. Naipaul described it so succinctly in his masterpiece ‘A House for Mr Biswas‘ was a rarity. The expected turn of events would to be get married around the fifth year of working, arranged by the family.  I followed the course.  

My wedding preparations were a little more perfunctory than your Ma’s.   My friends and colleagues assumed the roles of advisers. I printed invitation letters for them in English, got myself a custom-made suit, suitable for a Suitable Boy. Working in Hyderabad at the time, I got myself a heavily embroidered silk kurta too. Loaded with these, I took the train home to Silchar.

During those last days of carefree bachelorhood, I witnessed modest preparations at home, streams of relations coming from distant places, canopies for the band-party being put up, guests coming for a little chat, some mishti (Bengali sweets) and tea with my parents while throwing encouraging words at me.  I preferred to spend most of the time with my friends, outside. But my freedom of movement was blocked one day before the date of the marriage. I was strictly home-bound. The hours were filled with a series of rituals of blessings, Sanskrit invocations and tastings of home-made sweets of coconut and milk forced on me by all and sundry, my elders, directly or remotely. Before, I used to look at these home-made delicacies with eager desire but now I really couldn’t look at them.  I was stuffed.  But, I couldn’t say ‘No’. That would be rude.
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Ma and Baba’s wedding.

An intimate retelling of my parents’ Indian wedding nearly 40 years ago in their own words.  The rituals, the food, the clothes and the thoughts running through their minds on the day.