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Last week (14/15th April) was Bengali new year (Pohela Boishakh – meaning first month of the Bengali calendar) and it is one of those Bengali events and traditions which I routinely forget about.  It doesn’t help that unlike Chinese New Year in London which regardless of whether you are Chinese or not, is seen everywhere, Bengali New Year is the shy wallflower skulking in the corner at the high school dance.   Apparently the main reason the Bengali calendar (loosely tied to the vedic solar calendar) was created by Mughal Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar was because the original lunar calendar conflicted with the harvest seasons, therefore making it difficult for the farmers to pay taxes out of season.   Traditionally it is the time when businesses start new ledgers, new shops open, business relationships are renewed.  So basically, the Bengali new year is really about the start of a new tax year (!) and since it closely follows the UK tax year, I will now have something to remind me that it is coming up.  Hardly an exciting way to remember it but as taxes are unavoidable for most of us, it is a reassuringly predictable reminder.

As I mention in an earlier post here that Bengal is very left-leaning politically and Bengali people haven’t really blazed an entrepreneurial trail.  So the fact that Bengali New Year is connected to business and money strikes me as very funny and ironic.

The new year starts with Sankranti (new year’s eve) which involves a complete spring clean of the house.  I quite like idea of literally starting the new year with a fresh and clean outlook.   Baths are usually taken and then children swallow bitter neem leaves, turmeric and a piece of jaggery.  As neem and turmeric are anti-bacterial, the body also goes through a bit of spring clean.  And new year itself starts at dawn, not midnight.  And yes, included in the festivities and fun, is a liberal scattering of Tagore songs.  For anyone who has read my entry about Tagore, you’ll know what my opinion is on this. Spoiler alert: lets just say when the ladies of the Bengali community (my mum and sis included) have performed at various functions, I have been kindly told to move from the front row to go sit at the back of the audience because my bored facial expression is distracting.

I digress.  We don’t go through all of the above anymore but as with any event like this, food plays a central role. And my family does food really well.   However, since the new year fell on a Monday, we didn’t feast.  Indigestion is a nuisance – more so when you don’t have the weekend to suffer lazily.  But the menu was still a treat: Shorshe Maach (fish marinated in mustard), Shukto (a Bengali preparation of vegetables), both of which I blogged about here and here.  The third dish we had is also a favourite of mine – Shaak – of which the main ingredient is any green leafy vegetable.  Sounds quite dull but not the way my mum cooks it!  It is common to use spinach for this dish but my mum doesn’t like to use spinach as it reminds her too much of the soggy mess dumped on plates in her college hostel!  So one of the ‘charms’ of my family is that my mum cooks it with Swiss chard, having tasted it for the first time when we lived in Sweden.  Less soggy mess, more texture and taste.

IMG_20130421_1Here’s the recipe:

  • 2 bunches of white/ red Swiss Chard or a combination of both
  • 1/2 of a smallish cauliflower, broken into small florets
  • 1 small khol rabi (instead of potato), it is sweet and crunchy), diced into small pieces
  • 1 small aubergine. diced into small pieces
  • A handful of frozen soybean (for higher protein content than green peas)
  • 2 green chillies,
  • 1 tsp of panch phoron (Bengali five spice)

Method

  1. Wash the green leaves thoroughly and drain well.  Chop into approximately 1″ wide pieces.  Do not discard the stems. Cut them finer.   These are crunchy and add texture and taste.
  2. Pre-boil the khol rabi until tender but it should still hold some bite. Drain and keep aside.
  3. Heat 2 tbs oil in a pan.  Brown the diced aubergine but make sure it is still firm.  Keep aside.
  4. Add another tbs oil to the pan.  Add the panch phoron to the pan.  As soon as it starts spluttering add the green chillies and the cauliflower florets.  Stir fry for a couple of minutes.  Add the greens.  Cover it briefly and cook on a high heat to allow the leaves to wilt, probably not more than a couple of minutes.  Remove the lid. Add the remaining vegetables and salt to taste.  Stir to mix.  Cook over high heat until all the water from the leaves has evaporated.  Stir for few more minutes more.  Remove and serve hot with either rice or chapati.

Note:  It is important to cook over high heat and mostly uncovered to avoid an overcooked, soggy mess!!!

Happy new year everyone.   Sort out your taxes!

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So far the family events and stories I have written about in this occasional blog have been set in the past, relying on memories that are not as fresh as they once were. My big sister’s wedding day (13.03.13) deserves to be captured in the moment, the precious observations and thoughts immediately scooped up in Tupperware, ready for the memory fridge. Now each time we open a corner of the box to take a peek, the sight and smell will be as sweet and delicious as when the memories were made.

Partly due to the fact that this wedding started out as a simple registration which then morphed into something else, the short time frame in which to organise it so that Ankur can move to the UK sooner rather than later, and also due to Sohini and Ankur being independent drum marchers, this wedding defies a simple categorisation. It was Indian and thoroughly non-Indian at the same time. There were elements taken from a western wedding, a few token nods to Bengali customs, but also many touches which set it apart from both sides. It was fuss-free and devoid of pomp and ceremony. But like Jane Austen’s stoic characters or in Northern Exposure when Joel leaves for New York, Maggie says “everything I never said” http://bit.ly/WAwEaD, the emotions ran deep in this simple, small but heartfelt Indian wedding.

Being one of the most practical people I know, I wasn’t surprised that Sohini played to her strengths. So she got help with her hair but did her own make up.

 

One of the highlights was when after the registration was complete, my dad said a few words as the father of the bride. While it is becoming more common to incorporate this lovely and moving custom in Indian weddings in US and UK, it is not featured much in India. Now usually when my dad is about to embark on a monologue (most often about the failings of the Indian political system), I half close my eyes in preparation for the cringe moment. I had heard the story before about while he was in Europe for work, he received the telegram ‘mother and baby doing fine’ and how he had to wait three months to bond with Sohini. But I didn’t cringe this time. This time my eyes welled up with tears.  And yes I was the only softie in the room.

The food is a key criteria to ‘rate’ any wedding. It was indeed delicious but the more interesting and quirky element was the ‘Love Food. Hate Waste’ postcards set out on each table. Ankur’s pet peeve is food waste so we decided upon a little behavioural economics experiment by placing these postcards during the moment of eating, hence on the tables. Discrete but visible without being patronising. We are still awaiting the results.

The couple mingling with the guests is a common sight in western weddings but traditionally at Indian weddings the couple are made to sit on thrones while they ‘receive’ guests. Thankfully we dispensed with this silly custom here.  As a result the wedding had a relaxed and informal atmosphere.  Sohini and Ankur had the freedom to properly interact with the guests versus just exchanging 3-second pleasantries and posing for the requisite photo opp during the usual meet n greet conveyor belt.

Finally, a moment for Sohini and Ankur to a) eat something and b) just hang out. The ‘feed each other’ was our suggestion. Such cheese would usually give them indigestion.

No wedding, whether it’s Indian, Christian, Jewish, Italian etc. is complete without photos of the full family and the prom pose of the happy couple. Even independent drum marchers want a way to immortalise the creation of something new for both the couple and the families.

So regardless of the differences and comparisons, in the end it was what all weddings are: an occasion to share and celebrate with the people you care about.

Welcome to the Purkayasthas’ Ankur!

Last week was the time of year when Bongs (Bengalis) world over, celebrated Durga puja, which in many ways is our Christmas.  But it comes without the drama and logistical nightmare of cooking the Christmas dinner, buying multitudinous presents and being in the close confines of just family when all the shops are closed.

So for anyone who loves Christmas, enjoys dressing up, likes the sound of free Indian food cooked by someone else, and appreciates Durga’s kick-ass qualities I wrote about last year, here are some tips ‘to do puja’ like a Bong next year.

Do: Don’t:
Choose what days to go. Puja lasts for 3 days (as do most festivals and weddings in India). I’d recommend Ashtami and/or Nobami evenings – the 2nd and 3rd days of puja. Go everyday both afternoon and evening. It’s going to be hard to take that much time off work and seems a bit overkill unless you are a) very religious, b) have run out of food at home and a bit skint or c) have loads of saris that you really want to show off.
Dress up.  When you live abroad, Indian weddings and pujas are the only two real occasions when we get to wear our Indian finery.  For women, saris are standard but churidar kurtas (a kaftan-like top with leggings basically) will also do. Men can get away with just coming from work i.e. trousers and shirt unless you are on the hunt for a traditional Bengali bride. Then perhaps opt for a kurta + pajama to really impress. Come looking like an over-decorated Christmas tree.  We Bengalis are intellectual snobs and therefore believe we are the custodians of ‘good taste’.  We will judge you.
Give Anjali – this is the prayer offering with Sanskrit mantras.  People usually repeat them quietly to themselves after the priest says each line. Loudly repeat the mantras. Some of the Sanskrit words are really long and difficult to say. I still struggle with some of them so I prefer to say them softly rather than have other people be distracted by me mangling the rich and evocative words.
Ask for sensible things during Anjali such as to grow in confidence, work harder in school, be more patient etc. Ask to be rich, to find a nice husband, a son, or the latest Macbook Pro laptop.  It’s not in god’s hands. You know that.  And it’s a little tacky (there goes the Bengali judgement again). Durga is also not our version of Santa.
Enjoy the food!  It’s usually vegetarian but it doesn’t have to be. The standard fare is ‘Khichuri’ –  a rice and lentil dish, a vegetable curry, a veggie pakora and then a sweet.  It is not uncommon for people to choose which pujas to go to on the strength of the food! Go for seconds until after the first round has been and just ask to make sure it’s ok. Once you have the green light, go for it!
Mix and mingle.  Apart for the 5-10 mins spent on the prayer offering, puja is by and large a social get together and not very religious so just join in.  Apart from our occasional snobbery, we are always humbled when anyone else wants to come along to our festivities, so I promise we will welcome you with open arms. Expect there to be booze at the puja.  It is strictly a no alcohol zone.  Instead what tends to happen is that the ‘young folk’ sneak away to the nearest pub once the puja dies away for a pint.  Go with them when you are thirsty.

Here are some photos from this year’s puja at Hampstead Townhall.

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Looking forward to next year but what sari do I wear??

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.