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I went to my friend’s English countryside wedding last week.  It was beautiful, simple, romantic and fun.  But it made me think of how different Western and Indian weddings are.  One is like a roast chicken meal, minimal ingredients, not that many steps but oh so satisfying to eat.  The other is akin to a biryani, a sumptuous dish with an army of ingredients and spices, multiple steps in its cooking, waves and waves of exquisite taste but liable to leave you with indigestion.

It also made me think of my parent’s wedding.  I have some scant stories and seen a few pictures but it would be so wonderful to take the time to capture the event through the eyes of Ma and Baba.  What rituals did they have? What were they thinking? How did they feel?  In their own words.  So here’s Ma’s perspective on the occasion and then Baba’s thoughts will follow in the next entry.

Ours was a very traditional arranged marriage with each other’s consent.   Arranged marriages usually conjure a picture of a practical, well planned affair, devoid of any romanctic aspect.  In my experience, far from it.  One constantly think of the distant person.  The element of surprise and anticipation  of falling in love is incredibly romantic.

Before the actual wedding came the the aashisbaad (blessings) where the groom’s side comes to bless the bride usually with  jewellery, sari and gifts including sweets and a whole fish, usually a Rohu.  Bengal being a river-rich state with abundance of varieties of fish this item has become an auspicious symbol  for weddings.  Blessings are usually done with durba ( a variety of three blade fine grass) which symbolizes long life and unhusked rice which means wealth.  After that the usual feasting.  The ceremony really drove home the point that I was really getting married and would be leaving my home which was a part of me for an unknown place. The uppermost feeling was sadness but probably a little excitement as well.

The next part was getting ready for the wedding.   As soon as the word spread, the jewelers, the cooks, the sweets makers, decorators and others flocked to the house.  Jewellery design was chosen ordered, other necessary arrangements were made, e.g making the furniture etc. which was part of the trousseau.  Maa beautifully embroidered and crocheted the bed linens, cheval sets (for dressing table) runners for sideboards, tray-cloths and teacosy covers.  It was absolutely amazing how much she did in such a short time.  Invitation lists were made.  Mejomamu designed a very simple but elegant invitation letter.  After a week or so Badomamu with badimami and Chinoodidi and chhotomamu arrived.  My three brothers helped maa and baba organise everything.  I bought my wedding sari in Kolkata with Suman mami’s help.  It was an elaborate red Benarasi with intricate gold work.
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Perfumes may evoke and trigger over-romanticized and unreliable memories but for me, old television shows are much more effective.  At this point, you will be scratching your head, an eyebrow will arch but bear with me.  Didi (Bengali for older sister) and I were chilling this weekend (read: sitting in our parent’s conservatory mashing up our media or in more familiar words watching tv, Facebook stalking on our laptops, and texting on our mobile phones) when she came across a highly melodramatic, vaseline-tinted TV movie from the 80s on one of those cable channels that pats itself on the back when it gets 500 viewers.  I believe it was called “Romance on the Orient Express”.  Enough said.  But for us, this movie was hugely significant.  As my sister reliably recalls, this was one of things that had our rapt attention in our Sea Rock Hotel room in Bombay during our last few days in the city before we left for Sweden.  I was not in the least worrying about what Sweden would be like.  I was too busy thoroughly enjoying my plush surroundings.   The first time in a fancy hotel room, glossy TV shows which hinted at other worlds and the revolving restaurant at Sea Rock.  Seriously, tell me who would not marvel at eating in a revolving restaurant??

Bumping into this old movie made us think of all the stuff we used to watch when we were younger.  The usual obsessions definitely obviously featured like 21 Jump Street and Beverly Hills 90210 (fyi, definitely in the Dylan + Kelly camp).  However, there were four television shows which I will always identify with the early years in Sweden.

  1. Sinhá Moça (Young Lady) – a Brazilian telenovela about a slave-owner’s daughter set in Sao Paulo in the late 1800s.  Looking back on it now, I probably only understood 10% of what was happening in the soap.  It was obviously in Portugese and since my comprehension of Swedish was still at beginner level, the Swedish subtitles didn’t really help.  Why on earth did we watch it?  We were entranced by the high drama (would the Sinhá Moça ever get together with Rudolfo, the anti-slavery fighter?), the gorgeous dresses and a sensual language we had never heard.  The show was a gateway to a whole new world.
  2. Barnen i Bullerbyn (The Six Bullerby Children) – a Swedish miniseries based on the stories of Astrid Lindgren.  This was pure nostalgia as it tells the story of a little girl’s life and adventures in the small and neat Swedish village Bullerby.  It is the sweetest and most innocent story that is a throwback to a childhood which is more about good ol’ fashioned play, adventures and ‘scrapes’ instead of being on your nth diet by the age of 12.  Ok rant over but you get my point.  The show also reminds me of my childhood in Sweden.  I was outside a lot.  In the summer, it was about going on bike rides to the lake, grilling hot dogs, picking mushrooms and bluebells in the forest outside our house, swimming in Nalsta’s public pools and in the winter, sledding, making snowmen and climbing on top of the snow mountains stacked along the pavement.  Good times.
  3. If Tomorrow Comes – another American TV mini-series.  We recorded this on VHS tape so I watched it constantly.  I used to come home from school, drink my daily glass of O’boy chocolate milk, do my homework, and then watch part 2 (inexplicably this was the only part recorded so until very recently I never knew about the first part!) in a state of bliss.  Again, the glamour totally engulfed me.  The big hair, 80s shoulder-pads, and the exotic locations.  But the story was about a jewelry thief so Baba got a little concerned with my obsession and feared for my future.  He needn’t have worried.  My one attempt at stealing happened at our local supermarket was intercepted by the security guard and the humiliation henceforth made me never enter that shop and also crossed off larceny as a potential career.
  4. Eurovision Song Contest – Yeah yeah, I hear you snigger.  But I promise that this show was a big deal in Sweden.  It was one of the television moments of the year.  My family were really nerdy about it.  We used to all squeeze onto the sofa, tear out sheets of paper, armed with pencils and actually score each country’s song entry.  This was back when there were only 20 or so countries in the contest and the political voting was limited to France and UK awarding each other the dreaded ‘nul point’.

It’s funny to think of how these old TV shows have triggered family stories and memories.  I really don’t think sniffing Revlon’s Charlie would deliver the same results.

Lamb curry

You know the question about ‘what would be your last supper?’.  I don’t like this question.  I find it impossible to answer as I love all kinds of food.  How can I limit it to one type of dish?  However, if I could have a Top 5, then Ma’s lamb curry would definitely make the cut.  I love the taste of the soft, succulent lamb with the rich, smooth and aromatic gravy.  Oh and the potatoes.  They are a must.  They have to be soft and completely soaked in the gravy.  Mmm.  The recipe below has a Bengali/Kashmiri slant.  Ingredients such as the cashew paste, fennel, and the garam masala composition give the curry a more delicate, aromatic flavour versus the spicy lamb curries more commonly eaten.  Check out a great book which beautifully describes the history and differences of Indian regional cooking called ‘Eating India’ by Chitrita Banerji.  Ok back to the lamb curry.

Ingredients (for 4 people):

  • 1 kg lamb (shoulder or lamb) chunks
  • Potatoes (waxy), peeled and cut to similar size of the lamb pieces. Dima used to make small cuts in the potatoes for maximum gravy + flavour absorption!

Marinade:

  • 150g plain yoghurt
  • 1.5 inch ginger, grated
  • 1.5 onions, grated
  • 4 garlic cloves, grated
  • 2 tbsp cashew paste

Other

  • 1/2 onion, finely sliced
  • 3 tsp ground coriander
  • 2 tsp ground cumin (less than the coriander because it has a much stronger flavour)
  • 1.5 tsp ground fennel (this is a very Kashmiri touch)
  • Chilli powder
  • Kashmiri/Bengali garam masala (2 inch cinnamon, 4 green cardamom, 5 cloves, 0.5 tsp nutmeg – all powdered and mixed together)
  • 1/5 tsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp oil

Pre-prep

– Soak about 15 cashew nuts in milk for approximately 2 hours.  When soft, grind them up in a grinder to make a smooth paste

Method

  1. Marinade the lamb in the yoghurt and the juices of the ginger and onions.  Ma only uses the juice so the gravy doesn’t become too chunky and overpowering.  Then add the cashew paste.  Let the marinade sit for at least 30 minutes.  Obviously longer the better and the marinade can be left overnight for more special occasions
  2. After the lamb has been marinated, add the coriander, cumin, fennel and chilli powder to the mixture
  3. Heat the oil in a pot
  4. Add sugar to lightly caramelise for colour and flavour
  5. Put in the chopped onion.  Saute until soft and lightly browned
  6. Put in the meat.  Toss around a couple of times so all the pieces get coated with the oil, onion and sugar
  7. After, 5-10 minutes, reduce heat and cover with lid.
  8. Keep checking the softness of the lamb but this should take approximately 1 hour
  9. Half-way through cooking, put in the potatoes and give it a good stir
  10. When the lamb is nearly cooked, add a little boiling water if the mixture needs more gravy
  11. Season and cook for another 15-20 minutes
  12. Add 2tsp of the gravy and ghee to the garam masala.  Mix together and pour over the curry.  Stir
  13. Serve with rice and sprinkle over some chopped coriander and flaked almonds for an added flourish

Bon apetit!

NB: For a low-fat version, make the curry the day before.  Leave to cool in the fridge.  The next day, the fat will have solidified on the top.  Just scoop out the layer of fat with a spoon and there you have it: a lower(ish) fat version of the curry to enjoy.

The sweetest thing

Ahh behold the glorious Alphonso mango!  I’ve been at my parents’ place during this bank holiday weekend and when Ma announced that we had some Alphonso mangoes at home, both my sister’s and my eyes lit up.  I will also admit to some wooping.  Every year we excitedly anticipate the moment when the Alphonso mango season arrives.  Just like the British summer, it is short ( six weeks from mid-April to end May) so when the mangoes are here plenty of fanfare ensues.  Most people in the West are unfortunately only exposed to the yellow and quite tart mangoes that are neatly sliced up and presented in the little plastic clinical pots for lunchtime by the likes of Pret a Manger, M&S etc.

        

Alphonsos are on another level.  They are the kings of mangoes.  When you smell them, even with the skin on, they immediately transport you somewhere exotic.   They are vibrantly orange and when ripe have a soft, fleshy and juicy texture.  And then there is the taste.  So sweet, tropical and just a hint of tartness right at the end.  Every different way to eat an Alphonso mango, whether just on their own, in a salad, or as a milkshake is a delight, but you cannot forget the seed.  There is something deeply satisfying and basic to suck out the flesh and juice from the hairy seed.  This is a compulsory ritual for me but it is not a Japanese tea ceremony.  It is messy work.  I clutch onto the slippery seed with both hands as I attack it.  The juices run down my chin and my forearms as I make sure I get every last bit of the mango goodness.  Bring on next year’s season.

A quiet artist

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Dima had the softest skin.  I used to love kissing her cushiony and marshmallow cheeks.  I don’t have many memories of her since she passed away when I was only nine.   But there are three or four really vivid images that I flick through like the slides in the vintage Viewmaster I played with when I was a little.  Her skin is one of them.  Another one is of her sitting with her paan paraphernalia on her lap and cutting up supori (betel nuts) with her special betel nut cutter like in the picture above.  I used to watch in rapt attention as she used this surgical-like instrument to chop up tiny squares of the nut with focus and precision.  I also remember watching her do puja in the thakur ghar after her daily bath and take note of the offerings she made to Krishna, Ganesh and Lakshminarayan.  I must have followed her around a lot.  But she was more than a Bengali widow who kept the household keys tied to a corner of her white cotton sari thrown over her shoulder.  The sound of the  jangling keys is akin to the modern personalised mobile ringtones.  You knew when it was she who was approaching.

Preetilata Chaudhuri was 17 when she married Dadu in an arranged marriage.  As well as becoming a wife at this young age, she had to adjust to living with his large family and being the eldest sister-in-law, a position in the household which brought with it lots of responsibilities, expectations and obligations.  Quite a daunting prospect as such a life  when viewed through today’s lens seems as not your own.  Part of her married life was quite solitary because Dadu used to be at the tea gardens for long stretches of time during which Dima eagerly waited for his letters.   It would be wonderful if some of them still existed.

Beyond the confines of the roles of wife, mother, daughter-in-law etc, Dima had artistic flair and a keen aesthetic eye.  She had no training so everything that she did just poured out of her naturally and through instinct.  During any auspicious event like pujas and weddings, Dima used to create ornately designed alpanaas ( the form of Rangoli practiced in Bengal but unlike Rangoli, Alpanaa is always done in white) on the floor of various rooms of the house with the help of a small piece of cloth drenched in a blend of water and grounded rice paste.  She used to start in one corner of the room and then painstakingly cover the whole floor.  All by freehand.  Her creative flair could be found in other mediums too.  My stomach is eternally grateful for Ma learning and absorbing Dima’s mastery and love of cooking.  She  made all of Ma’s clothes when she was a little girl and some of my sister’s and mine too.  When I was a baby, she embroidered my bed linen and knitted blankets to keep me snug.  If she was alive today, I would have encouraged her to make and sell her beautiful children’s clothes and linen on Etsy!

Ma definitely got her love of books and ideas from Dadu but Dima’s imprint is there on her talent for cooking and love of the arts, especially music.  It’s been doubly-rewarding to learn more about Dadu and Dima because as well as having the pleasure of getting to know who they were, I now understand Ma a little better too.

The words ‘Bengali’ and ‘entrepreneur’ are unusual bedfellows.  They don’t mesh well.  Bengalis are better known for being intellectual snobs righting the wrongs of the world from their armchairs.  My father and uncle are such specimen.  They like nothing more to debate until the small hours of the morning, get lost in a piece of Indian classical music, and watch the cricket.
Dadu and DimaAnyhow, I digress wildly.  This entry is about my maternal grandfather,  Dwipendra Chandra Chaudhuri aka dadu (the next post will be on my grandmother).   I know he was a tea garden owner and manager in Assam but that’s about it.  I knew very little about his journey to this point and so finding out more through asking Maa questions that I never got round to asking before has been so worthwhile.

I never knew that after completing his MSc in Chemistry from Presidency College, Kolkata, he refused to go to England to take his Indian Civil Service exams..  He did not want to work for the British government.  More than that, he didn’t want to take orders from someone else.  While my great-grandfather was bittely disappointed, he admired dadu’s determination and spirit and so when dadu set out to do his own thing, he earned his father’s respect.

Like many entrepreneurs, Dadu’s path to success had very humble beginnings.  He started by selling vegetables from a market stall.  Amazing!  From there, he won some wartime building contracts and eventually opened a transport service between Sylhet and Shilong.  However, here the story takes a sad turn.  After the 1947 Sylhet referendum which led to Sylhet going to East Pakistan, dadu lost it all, every last thing.   At this juncture, many would have given up but dadu had true grit.  He started again.  All over again.  This time, after shifting his family to Shilong, he took out a bank loan to buy tea gardens.  And so a new chapter in his life started.  I never met dadu as he died before I was born but I am so proud to be his granddaughter.  His spirit, the strength of his own convictions, and his entrepreneurial spririt are immensely inspirational.   I’m not sure if I have this said spirit and this is partly due to not seeing it around me.   However, I do know that an entrepreneurial spirit can take many shapes.   The important thing is to have a go at creating something that is your own and that you can be proud of.  Dadu taught me that.

Shukto is probably one of the less glamourous dishes in Bengali cuisine but I’ve always loved it.  It has such a distinctive flavour and I like how the spices used in the dish create a very gentle and subtle taste.  Now, there are a lot of purists out there who will tell you what vegetables should and should be in a Shukto (has to include bitter gourd) and when to eat it (lunch time only apparently).  There are some great recipes out there if interested about what a ‘typical shukto’ should be but this blog is about how my family rocks it.  Firstly, and most shockingly for the said purists, my mother doesn’t add kerela (bitter gourd) to her shukto because for her this dish is all about the spice combo.   The bitter gourd would overpower it all.  It’s also important how the shukto looks so she doesn’t cook the vegetables to death, she chops them in similar shapes and sizes and adds carrots to give it some colour.  The colour balance is also the reason why she doesn’t include plantain as when cooked, it becomes black.

Vegetables (chopped in similar shape and size)

Aubergine

Potatoes

White radish

Carrots

Flat beans

Cauliflower

Dried lentil dumplings (boris)

Spices

Tempering:

1 tsp celery seeds (radhuni)

1 bay leaf

1 green chilli

1 tsp mustard seeds

2.5 tsp ground aniseed

2 tsp mustard (my mother uses Colman’s mustard)

1 inch ginger, grated

2-3 tbsp milk or single cream

Instructions

  1. Parboil the potatoes, radish, and carrots.  At the same time shallow fry the aubergine to give it colour and flavour.
  2. After the aubergine is done, set aside in a dish and then in the same pan, quickly fry the dried lentil dumplings.  They’ll only need about 30 seconds to 1 minute.  Any longer, they’ll taste bitter.  Set aside.
  3. Once the potatoes, radish, and carrots are parboiled, blanche the cauliflower and flat beans for 5 mins.
  4. You can start the tempering now too.  In hot oil, first add the bayleaf, followed by the green chilli.  Next add the celery seeds and mustard seeds.  Stir around for 30 seconds while the seeds splutter
  5. Add the potatoes and radish to the tempering.  Sautee for 2-3 minutes until they get some colour
  6. When the cauliflower and beans are nicely al dente, add to the mixture.  After 2-3 minutes of frying, add the ground aniseed
  7. Add a medium size splash of boiled water to the pan and then add salt
  8. Next, add the aubergine and cover with lid.  Let it simmer for approximately 5-10 minutes or until the vegetables are ready.  Ideally they should still have a crunch!
  9. Mix together the mustard, grated ginger and milk.  Add to the vegetables and give it a good stir.  Shukto is unique because usually mustard and ginger are not mixed together in other Bengali dishes.
  10. Lastly, throw in the dumplings and as a final flourish, drizzle some ghee over the dish.