Sampling Bengali delights in Tagore's hometown
As I learned more about cuisines around the world, I saw how Bengali ranna (cooking) was as evolved and as complex as some the most celebrated world cuisines.
“Ektu aar neen na, didi,” (please have some more) the elderly woman smiles even as she places two fluffy kachuris on my plate. She then gets me a portion of alur torkari, a potato curry, and a rosogulla. The kachuris are soft, flaky, and crisp; the curry is light and flavourful, and the mishti is made with nolen gur, date palm jaggery, an elixir found only in the heartland of Bengal. I have already eaten at least four kachuris, two servings of the curry and uncountable rosogullas, but I am happy to accept her offer.
It is odd that I should be sitting in the heart of Bengal, 1500 kilometers away from home, indulging in kachuris at a shack, and cherishing every bite of it. I had after all shunned these flavours for the past fifteen years.
My first brush with Bengali food happened right after my wedding with a Bengali man. For a girl born and raised in the Hindi heartland, the flavours were unknown and intimidating—some were too subtle, others too strong. To a vegetarian, looking at everyone going gaga over fish and meat was annoying. I had found it hard to eat anything, let alone relish it. Thankfully, I was to get back to my town and my food soon after the wedding. Bengali food stayed on in my life though, even if in parts—when my mother-in-law came visiting, when friends invited us over, on our annual trips to my husband’s hometown.
Over the years I opened up to panch pholaran flavoured curries and kalo jeera dals. While the fragrant five-spice tempering, panch phoran, and the earthy nigella seeds were unlike the cumin and fenugreek tadkas of my childhood, they were not very hard to adapt to. I also learned about the significance of fish in a land of rivers and ponds, and noticed how there was much more to this food than meat. But most of all I marveled at the use of ingredients, the variety of produce, the layering of textures, and the balancing of flavours. As I learned more about cuisines around the world, I saw how Bengali ranna (cooking) was as evolved and as complex as some of the most celebrated world cuisines. And even though I have yet to fall in love with it in its entirety, my appreciation for the cuisine and my willingness to try new things have grown manifold.
It is this appreciation that has brought me to the land of Tagore today, and I am only too glad to have started the journey with the kachuris, even though one too many.
A small town in the heart of rural Bengal, Santiniketan is the epicenter of literature, art, music, and crafts in Bengal. This humble land of raanga maati (red soil) and the Kopai River is also home to some of the best Bengali food you will ever sample. No, there is nothing extravagant about the food here. The sleepy town does not have any specialty restaurants or fine dining places; there is hardly any variety either. There is, however, an earnestness and purity in the food here. The simplicity and honesty of flavours reflect the simplicity and honesty of the people. The lack of too many options tell you about their limited means; the love and warmth with which they feed you tells you that food is not business for them, but a way of life.
“Doiii.. Rabriii…” the calls catch my attention from afar. It is not long before the man, calling out to people roaming in the University campus, is surrounded by customers. Students in uniforms, aunties in cotton saris, uncles in monkey caps, all want their share. “Kudi taka,” he says when I finally reach him. Fortunately, he still has some portions left. I hand over two ten-rupee notes in lieu of a small clay pot, of rabri; my husband wants doi, which costs thirty.
Peddling the quintessential street snack in Santiniketan, these men, young and old, carry earthen pots of caramelized sweetened yoghurt, mishti doi, and reduced caramalised milk, rabri, on their cycles all over the town. While the setup for every hawker is identical – multiple steel plates tied together with a rope on both sides of the cycle – no two cups taste the same. The doi and rabri are made in the homes of these men over a wood or charcoal fire, which not only gives them the caramel colour and subtle flavour but also a distinct taste. The bhaar, made with clay, adds an earthy aroma.
The rabri turns out to be creamy and smooth, with just a hint of sweetness. The doi, unlike most mishti dois I have eaten, is mild too. We want more, but the man has already taken off. It is perhaps a good thing though for soon we come across an entire fair full of food.
The Paush Mela ground is buzzing with people. There are hawkers and vendors, artisans and craftsmen, and many, many tourists who have travelled to the town for the annual craft fair. In Bengal where there are people, there has got to be food. Shops heaped with jilepi, (thick jalebis), misthi, (various sweetmeats), and nimki, (a savoury snack), dot the mela. Noisy machines make sugarcane juice at every corner; elderly men dish out varieties of pithe, Bengali pancakes and dumplings; carts laden with puchka can be seen everywhere. After sampling everything, we spot a man sitting behind a makeshift stall with guavas, star fruit, and gooseberries. He is busy mixing some stuff up in a steel jar. The large green guavas, tart star fruit, and juicy gooseberries are enough to draw my husband in. On closer inspection we find that he is making some kind of chaat. We ask for one and wait.
Watching people prepare your food is a delight in Bengal. The amount of care, time, and effort these men and women put into every single portion is amazing. The process does not change for anyone: you could be a prince or a pauper, but if you have come to their shop, you would get the same product, same time, and same respect.
The man weighs the fruit and washes it. He then goes on to cut large chunks and puts them into the steel container. Over this he pours a generous amount of Kashundhi, a mustard sauce native to Bengal, some ground green chilies, coriander, lemon juice, and rock salt. Then he tosses everything together, while we salivate. Once done, he brings out a stack of newspaper, pulls a sheet from the middle (so that it is clean), makes a large cone and empties the container in the cone. By the time we get the cone, complete with two toothpicks, we are drooling. The chaat, for want of a better word, is nothing like anything I have eaten before. Flavours burst in my mouth; textures play with my palate. The heat of the chili, the fragrance of coriander, the pungency of the mustard, and the sourness of lime lingers long after the cone has been duly deposited in the bin.
Evenings come quickly in Tagore’s town and they are best spent sipping tea and indulging in bhaja, shengara, and adda* by the river. The shengaras (Bengali samosas) are ready when we reach the konar dokan, the corner shop. The bhaja (fritters) however will take time. “Aapni boshun, aami ekhuni beguni kore debo,” (please sit, I will quickly make the fritters), the lady says while serving us tea in clay cups and shengaras on Sal leaves. In no rush to leave, I settle with mine on a narrow bench. Made on a wood fire, the samosa is hot, crisp, and has been fried just enough. I break it open to reveal small chunks of spicy potatoes, bits of green chilies, and what I am looking for—the odd peanut. As I pop the piece with the peanut in my mouth, I cannot help but remember the 23-year-old who hated the sight of peanuts in her samosa. I am glad she has finally understood their importance.
*Adda is the classic Bengali session of friends getting together for social, intellectual, and cultural exchange. The word is a part of the Oxford dictionary because it is hard to define it in any other language.