Pujo or Durga Pooja, as known in the rest of the country, is the high point of every proud, passionate Bengali’s life. It’s what Diwali is like in the other states, save for the communal fervency amid myriad colours, similar to Navratri in Gujarat that is unsurprisingly celebrated around the same time. However, while Navratri across most of the country focuses on fasting, feasting in the name of pandal-hopping is the numero uno agenda of Pujo, for both Bengalis and non-.
You may or may not make it to a teeming pandal, but let that not stop you from celebrating Pujo in your heart and in your kitchen. Presenting for your gourmand pleasure ten spectacularly delicious dishes and recipes that will make the bhadraloks go “Khoob bhalo!”.
1. Prawn Chop
Bangalis and pseudo-Bangalis (yours truly included) commence the pandal-hopping routine by first queuing up for the Pratima Darshan, followed by standing in line at the chingrir or macher chop stall. The ‘chop’ in the name may be misleading—these are croquettes rather than meat ribs—but the golden-crisp, spicy, popular street food made with chopped prawns and potatoes will more than shine at a community gathering of delicious meat and seafood dishes. Some people stick in an icecream stick in the croquette to play up to the name, but all variants, non-rib-alluding too, must be served with kasundiand tomato ketchup, with a little garnish of crunchy cabbage and sliced onion sometimes. Think of this as a little prelude to the feast that awaits.
Another variant has wonderfully complex and meaty banana flowers mixed inwith the cooked shrimp—this really is a cross between the chingrir chop and mocha’r (banana flower) chop, essentially combining the best of both worlds—but start with the simple classic to get into the groove of things.
The quintessential pandal announces itself by way of 3 distinct whiffs—the deep woody aromas of dhoop burning in the dhunachis, elegantly dressed women wearing perfume not quite close to the skin, and fish frying. Bengali-style fried fish may or may not be served with chips, but a splatter of the Bengali version of hot dog condiments, a.k.a spicy kasundi and ketchup alongside are non-negotiable. River fish like rohu is a popular choice for frying, but bhetki is equally loved. The fried fish makes appearances in different forms— you have steaks or fillets smeared in spices and herbs, crumbed and fried until they can’t take it anymore, like this one; there’s maach bhaja— fish steaks dabbed with a simple salt and turmeric rub, then fried in mustard oil to crisp deliciousness; and kabiraji— soft pieces in a lacy, egg-turned-to-edible golden net. The last comes from the days of the Raj. Either way, fish fry has been around forever; Pujos may come and go, addas may disperse, but fish fry will be around. Much like the unmistakable aromas in the pandal.
Kathi rolls may be a cult Kolkata export, but not many people outside of the state may have heard about these epic ‘rolls’; maybe because they will effortlessly outshine the meat-in-an-egg-wrap snack? Conspiracy theories aside, fish rolls take the Bengali devotion to marine dwellers (and all things crumbed and fried) to mind-blowing proportions. We’re talking a spicy mix of cubed fish stuffed into marinated fish fillets that are rolled into fat cigars, spun in breadcrumbs and eggwash, and submitted to hot oil. Who would want to settle for kathi rolls ever again? Bhetki fillets are great for rolling, as are tilapia. Use diced rohu meat to stuff the fillets.
So the Bengalis have their own version of fish in banana leaves, along with the Thais, Indonesians, Parsis, Oriyas, Malayalis, and other fish-adoring cultures. What the Bengalis do differently is to pit their favourite mustard against sweet, creamy coconut on a fillet of firm white fish. Since the sharp mustard paste just isn’t enough, there’s hearty mustard oil to ratchet up the heat, along with green chilli paste doing its bit. Tightly bound in green banana leaves to seal in flavours, the fillets (or steaks) are pan-grilled till the leaves show scorch marks on the surface in contact. Unwrapping the leaf parcels is a fragrant experience, one that may give you a head rush with the mustard fumes. Fish en papillote? No thanks, we’ll take the bhetki macher paturi. With a side of white rice please.
Consuming dairy and fish together may be taboo in some cultures, but the long-time presence of doi maach will assuage most fears in a delicately delicious way. Fish fried in turmeric and salt is gently poached in a tangy yoghurt curry redolent with aromatic whole spices. The yoghurt needs to be cooked carefully; a little goes in at a time, and is constantly stirred until well cooked and incorporated into the onion masala. Frying the fish in mustard oil is a given; its smoky depth riffs against the creamy lightness of the yoghurt, resulting in a well-balanced main dish. A side of vegetables and steamed rice will make for an indulgent lunch for one or for a tableful.
Rohu/rui, beloved of the Bengalis is a favoured choice for doi maach; choose steaksor curry cut fish. Catlaworks well too.
The heartthrob of every Bengali, young and old, male and female is the hilsa, the best of which comes from the rivers of Bangladesh. Also the national fish of the neighbouring country, the Bengalis consider ilish an offering worthy of the Goddesses of Learning, and Prosperity. Cooking with golden mustard and chilli paste flecked with dark bits of the outer mustard husk brings out the beauty of the bony fish; the mustard oil adds a layer of unctuous pungency, the richness of which is augmented by the naturally oily ilish. A side of white rice will be served without being requested, the perfect neutral foil to the sharpness of the crushed yellow mustard. Whether you eat it in a thin curry sauce (shorshe bata ilish), or steamed with a thick smear of the glistening paste (bhapa ilish), ilish is an experience that will make the toughest Bengali heart melt with nostalgia and fondness.
While this Bengali crab curry may not have the silky smoothness of the chingri malaikari, some of the ingredients used and the method of cooking bear a strong similarity to the prawn curry. There’s ground onion, ginger and garlic-small portions of each, so that the inherent crab flavour shines through-, sweet spices like cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and bay leaves, and chopped tomatoes for acidity. The crab is first poached in boiling water, and the liquid reserved for the flavourful curry base. Unshelled crab is not the easiest thing to eat at a pandal, while gleeful droves mill around and you’re trying to juggle several plates of chow together, so a lot of families prefer a doggy bag to go. You of course don’t need to get out at all; stay clear of traffic woes and crowds and order your cut crab here
Bengali cuisine may not use coconuts as extensively as, say, its Konkani counterpart in the coastal region cluster, but it is this slightly restrained presence that catapults the dishes featuring the ingredient into prominent significance. Now you may find variations of the prawn curry that call for ground coconut, but coconut milk—the rich, full-fat kinds—will escalate this dish to sublime superiority. Notice the ‘malai’ in the name? It refers to the creaminess of the coconut milk, no connection to the dairy version. Add to that a dash of whole and ground earthy spices—remember the restraint mentioned above—and a soupcon of sugar to bring out the coconutty sweetness some more, and you have a dish fit for the Gods. Why isn’t this offered in poojas instead of ilish, you may wonder as you mix in soft rice on your plate with silky prawns. Probably because we want to save the best for our selfish selves. We are only human, after all.
Use medium or large sized prawns for this, find them here.
You could call daab chingri the tender coconut version of malaikari, but you would be describing in too-simple terms a delicately nuanced dish. Agreed that both use coconut flesh and prawns, but the flavours of the finished dish, if not only the presentation, couldn’t be more different. The daab or young coconut is an integral component; the flesh, water, and even the shell have a role to play in the making of this regional culinary masterpiece. Coconut meat is blended into a paste which forms the base of the thick sauce; the water is blended with mustard and poppy seeds for a touch of gentle, nutty bite; the shell serves as a sealed vehicle to cook and present the prepared dish. Cook the sealed coconut stuffed with the stir-fried prawns and sauce either in the microwave, oven or even in a pressure cooker on the stovetop. Pretty easy to dish up, and yet so distinctly elegant, this is the showstopper you want to serve at that intimate dinner for two and the dinner party. Serve a Bengali mishti pulav to go along.
A lot of Bengali moms and grandmoms will credit centuries of eating fish for their beautiful skin and hair, and while this may be true, a little part of that could also be attributed to the love of fish heads. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, fish bones, brains, cartilage and fat are nutritious, containing extra-high levels of vitamin A, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc and calcium. Looks like Bongs have been in the know all this while.
Some recipes for muri ghonto, made with rohu, catla or any other fish head of choice, ask for teaspoons of rice, while others put in a whole cup, making it a flavour-packed fish pilaf. The latter is such a convenient option— a one-dish meal that you could serve with a salad. Gobindobhog rice is the go-to choice, but use another short-grained white if that is available. A spoonful of ghee on the prepared dish is how it comes of a Bengali rannaghar (kitchen).