Wishing you all health and happiness for the New Year from our new home in Chennai, as we start a new chapter in a new city!
We moved to Chennai this October after two decades of living in Dubai. I can’t wait to explore, learn and know more about the city that is going to be my fourth adopted home after Colombo, Frankfurt and Dubai. “How are you liking Chennai?”; “How does it feel to be back to India after so many years?”; “How are the Z-Sisters adjusting to their new school?”; “Have you all settled down?”; “Given the long stint in Dubai, surely making new friends at this age would be the most challenging?”… to all the questions that are coming my way, my answer is the same. It feels quite surreal that we have finally moved. It also hasn’t sunk in that we have moved. With all the developments that have been happening in the world over the least few months, there must have undeniably been an army of visible and invisible human forces, also some mighty divine forces at play to keep the process going for moving countries and settling into a new city. The other day, I asked the Bearded Biker, “ How are you feeling?” He replied, “I can’t feel yet”. In some sense, it’s pretty much the same for me too. Although we haven’t been moving around the city as such, whatever sights and sounds I have seen and heard of Chennai, I already feel at home.
For every house in every neighbourhood that we have driven past in Chennai, I could almost point to its twin in some para in Kolkata! The city feels so familiar with its kaleidoscopic traffic – be it the crowded buses, the gatherings of people at various crossings, a myriad of food stalls by the roadside, the tangled electric and telephonic wires running precariously across streets and more. Naturally, there were differences, but the warmth and readiness in accepting new people (us, in this case) was exactly the same.
What makes a new city feel like a home – making new friends, embracing a city’s idiosyncrasies… or is it home cooked food churning out of the kitchen?
I have realised that the criterions for feeling at home have changed over the years. While in my earlier days in Srilanka, making a few good friends and meals arriving at the dining table when I was hungry (preferably not cooked by me) was all that it would take to make me feel at home! Fast forward to two decades later, specially this year – after maintaining social distancing, keeping in touch with Dubai friends over zoom calls, months of staying in a limbo in our Dubai home in anticipation of tentative dates for our move and then finally landing in Chennai, moving into a temporary accommodation (although in the lap of a luxury 5 star hotel) and finally moving into a proper home, I find solace now when simple Bengali food rolls out from our kitchen. Or, when our home is filled with the aroma of Z-Sisters‘ wonderful baking. A simple meal is all it takes to win my heart. Like the other day when I cooked khichuri, a dish made with rice and lentils, accompanied by the humble aloo bhaja / fried potato and begun bhaja, signing off with a tomator chutney. It was more in the manner of a bhog, an offering during any pujo and marked our new kitchen’s ribbon cutting.
A Bijoya get-together at our place with a traditional Bengali spread for our friends had become an annual ritual for us. This year was an exception for obvious reasons and also because we had just moved into our temporary hotel accommodation in Chennai. We moved into our new home on the day of Diwali and although it couldn’t have been a more auspicious day than this to move in, I wasn’t ready to cook yet. The day when I cooked the above mentioned dishes, it kind of felt like a cosy house warming pujo. However, unlike the elaborate festive Bijoya spreads at our home, this time the menu was humble and reminiscent of the Lokhi pujo that used to take place at my ancestral home in Naihati.
Khichuri and aloo bhaja, as would be cooked for bhog or offering during a pujo at home
Begun bhaja or fried eggplant smeared with turmeric and salt, is enough to perk up a simple khichuri
Potatoes cut into round pieces, with skin on – kind of a Bengali version of sliced jacket potatoes … fried, but of course!
Ghee has to be Jharna ghee – a gaowa ghee, which is ghee prepared from cow’s milk; and green chillies acting more like oxygen for the Bearded Biker
Tomator chutney as a sweet sign off, specially in absence of more formal mishti or desserts
Even before we moved into our new home, the Bearded Biker had made sure that our kitchen was the first room to be in one hundred percent working condition. In spite of that, I didn’t rush into cooking proper meals on a daily basis. Instead, I focused on unpacking and arranging the house. We quite fell in love with the ease of ordering in food through food delivering apps like Swiggy and tried out various restaurants for the first two weeks.
In Dubai, we hardly ever ordered from out. From the elaborate Lucknowy Biryani to the complicated Georgian Khachapuri, we cooked everything at home. If we did ever order, it was never through food delivery apps. I had been very conscious about the high commissions charged by these apps that seem to eat into the restaurants’ margins, specially the small eateries. In India though, I gathered it was a different scenario. Due to sheer volumes of these home deliveries, specially during the Covid period, the delivery apps managed to become instrumental to the F&B business. Through the period of our transition and settling in, we ordered from a variety of restaurants – a few Biryani houses, desi Chinese and even a restaurant serving Kolkata rolls and street-style tawa noodles.
For a family who takes a lot of pride in their love for Awadhi Biryani (even travelling to Lucknow for an evening only to eat), the Aatu Erachi (mutton) Biryani from BVK (Bai Veetu Kalyanam) cooked in traditional coal and firewood really impressed us. Equally impressive was the packaging. Covered with Banana leaf in a round re-usable tin container, the serving portions were really generous and came accompanied with a curd raita, brinjal chutney and bread halwa. We also enjoyed the Bengali food and Kathi rolls we ordered from Bayleaf restaurant on the day of Bijoya. Compensating for not having cooked for our annual Bijoya dinner, we ended up ordering an elaborate spread of khichuri, luchi, mochar chop, deemer devil, kosha mangsho, katla kalia, kaancha amer chutney and malpua served with rich rabri. Amongst the few desi Chinese restaurants we tried, we realised that chilli chicken dish isn’t the way we Kolkatans are used to. It is more like chicken cooked in a light soya gravy. Again, the chicken lollypops from most restaurants were pretty phenomenal and came with a spicy Schezwan kind of a gravy sauce. Special mention goes out for chicken lollypops from Red Box.
An elaborate spread of traditional Bengali food from Bayleaf restaurant
Aatu Erachi Biryani from BVK
When Sundays start seeming like Sundays again – not the first day of the working week… with kochi pathar jhol, a slow cooked mutton curry for lunch and a promise of a bhaat ghoom, the special afternoon siesta induced by bhaat, or rice!
In Dubai, we had got used to Fridays and Saturdays being our weekends. Switching to Sundays being our first working day took a longer time than switching back. Soon I would message my Dubai friends on a Sunday asking whether they would like to hangout over zoom! While we bought our poultry products over apps like Licious, Tender Cuts, Fresh to Home and others, the Bearded Biker practically obsessed over buying mutton from a local butcher shop. The butchers here refer both lamb and goat as mutton, but for us Bengalis, it is the kochi patha or tender goat curry is what we fantasise about. As if by destiny, there were two good butcher shops just outside our community gate, highly recommended by a friend I had recently made. Our Sunday ritual has now become quite like this – the Bearded Biker scurries to our star butcher Tejuddin as early as possible, so as to get hold of the best cuts. I then marinate the meat and slow cook it in the manner of my mum-in-law’s cooking. This is the taste of traditional mutton curry that I have always associated with our Kolkata homecoming meals. Ma uses a pressure cooker, but I resorted to a deep bottomed pan on Tejuddin’s insistence on the tenderness of the meat. The indulgent bhaat ghum, or the lazy afternoon siesta induced by bhaat or rice, hasn’t yet materialised because many household logistics are requiring tending during the weekends… inshallah soon!
I always say this very proudly to everyone – people do many things when in love. I have nailed the legendary Kolkata Biryani and now this… the slow cooked mutton ala mum-in-law!
Leaving aside the rich mutton curry, a simple paanchmeshali torkari with bori, or a mixed vegetable cooked in gravy along with dried lentil dumplings and white rice does make an amazing prequel to the mutton curry. A few other simple Bengali delicacies have already graced our kitchen in Chennai – pulao, bhaja moonger daal and simple begun bhaja in all its avatar, radhaballavi or deep fried flat breads with spiced stuffing with aloor torkari and more. While our weekend menus most often reflect our Bengali roots stirred up by culinary nostalgia and childhood memories, its completely different on the weekdays. In between online office and schooling, lunches are mostly grab and go. Dinners are a bit more leisurely and the menu is quite casual that can be prepared easily by all of us – pastas, grills and wraps or a simple curry with plain rice.
Mutton slow cooked in Bengali home cooking style
Paanchmeshali torkari with bori, or dried lentil dumplings
Begun bhaja, or fried eggplant
Niramish pulao and bhaja moonger daal
Radhaballavi and aloo torkari
Mishti… a Bengali’s connection to the sweetness of life. And a bit of khuchur muchur or snacky tit bits with chanachur and nimki
“What you seek is seeking you.” Rumi’s words cannot be more true than in my life. I have always been blessed with friends and family who love to eat as well as feed. Our close friend Srikanth, a Tamilian born and brought up in Kolkata and now settled in Bangalore has been instrumental in bringing Banchharam, the legendary Bengali sweet shop from Kolkata to Bangalore. As soon as we moved into our home in Chennai, he sent us a trousseau of traditional Bengali sweets, all the way from Bangalore. From nolen gurer roshogolla delicately dunked in rosh, chanar jilipi, a variety of shondesh – the soft makha shondesh included, mishti doi set in claypots and every mishti that I could imagine. Our fridge that night was reminiscent of my mum and mum-in-law’s fridges… stacked with sweets. I have always wondered the need for stocking so much of sweets on a day-to-day basis. Both mums’ reasoning has always been… what if a guest turns up suddenly? Along with the assortment of sweets, there were some familiar packets of what we refer as khuchur muchur or savoury tit bits. The sweet, spicy and sour Mukhorochok chanachur aptly named tok-jhaal-mishti… and nimki, the diamond shaped fried savoury pastry, both being the ultimate accompaniments during tea-time.
Nolen gurer roshogolla
An assortment of traditional Bengali sweet
Chanachur and nimki
What constitutes my Bengali kitchen?A few quintessential Bengali must-haves in a Bengali pantry… and a few precious cookbooks
Our kitchen isn’t confined to Bengali cooking. There are spices, salts and sauces from around the world as well as different types of oils. However, the must-haves in my Bengali pantry would definitely have to be these quintessential Bengali items… a very strong and pungent mustard oil, a gaowa ghee under the brand called Jharna, the thick mustard dip Kashundi, spices like panch phoron, the Bengali five spice mix of fenugreek, nigella, cumin, radhuni and fennel seeds powdered and blended in equal proportion; the Bengali gorom moshla consisting of powdered cardamoms, cloves and cinnamons in equal proportion, kalo jeere or black cumin seeds and few basic spices that are common to all Indian kitchens. Gobindobhog, the small-grained fragrant rice is preferred for making signature dishes like Payesh, the rice pudding or the Murighonto, a rice dish with fish head. Different types of boris, the dried lentil dumplings make their coveted entry in some vegetarian dishes like shukto, borir jhaal or dishes made with shaak or leafy vegetables. We are also most excited about the availability of posto or poppy seeds which were banned in Dubai. Posto in different forms – bati posto, aloo posto, different vegetables cooked with posto – like begun posto or potol posto have always been such an integral part of lunch in my side of the family with connections from epar Bangla, which refers to West Bengal.
Along with the trousseau of traditional Bengali Sweets that arrived from Bangalore, our Santa from Bangalore also sent some cooked items like the typical Bengali shingara, kochuri and vegetable chops made with beetroots and carrots. On my special request, there were a few ready to be fried radhaballavis too! To add to the punch, there were spices like panch phoron, a wood pressed Mustard oil, kashundi, Jharna ghee, different kinds of boris, Gobindobhog, muri and as mentioned earlier Mukhorochok chanachur and nimkis. Also, patali gur and Dulaler talmichri or palm candy… the latter having a Bengali pedigree as legendary as Boroline, the antiseptic cream!
Some quintessential Bengali items in a Bengali pantry sent by my friend
Panch phoron, the Bengali five spice mix – fenugreek, nigella, cumin, radhuni and fennel
The Bengali gorom moshla consists of cardamoms, cloves and cinnamons in equal proportion
Posto or poppy seeds
Bori or dried lentil dumplings
Mustard oil ; kashundi
Over the years, I have also collected a cabinet filled with traditional pots and pans, utensils and knick knacks that I like to use when I present Bengali cooking. Some of them have been handed over and can be considered as heirloom – like the shondesh mould that the Bearded Biker’s Dida used, the dekchi in which I always cook payesh when I’m cooking for auspicious occasions like birthdays or pujo and the beautifully etched Sheel and Nora, the grinding stone and pestle that are used typically to grind wet masalas. Cookbooks also form a part of my priceless possession, many signed by the cookbook authors and chefs that I have been fortunate enough to meet. Although the internet is abuzz with many blogs on Bengali recipes, I still love going through cookbooks. Interestingly, the most referred to cookbook on my shelf is a simple cookbook, the N.I.A.W. (National Indian Association of Women) Cookbook that my mum-in-law had gifted to both S and me after our wedding, lovingly signed “Cook happily & Eat merrily”! The cookbook is a compilation of recipes from different cuisines around the world. The recipes are simple, easy to follow and there are no pictures. The next most referred cookbook is one by Tanima Ray, a personal compilation of family recipes by my father’s close friend Mridul Pathak, and a more recent one called Taste of Eastern India, brilliantly captured and penned by Kankana Saxena. It’s a precious gift from Kankana and the only cookbook that has got both my mum and mum-in-law’s sign of approval regarding authenticity of recipes. Moreover, the recipes are very easy to follow and the pictures are not only just brilliant but present a lot of signature Bengali dishes in a manner that make me so proud of my culinary heritage. That I have always been, but honestly I still haven’t found too many cookbooks depicting the rich heritage of Bengali cooking. Mallika Basu’s Miss Masala offers humorous read on her early life in London along with quick Indian recipes, also shares some Bengali recipes. Rinku Bhattacharya’s The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles is also quite an easy read. Thakurbarir Ranna by Purnima Thakur or Pragyasundari Devi’s double editions of Amish O Niramish Ahar, will interest a serious culinary reader. The latter published in 1902, is often referred to as the first cookbook in Bengali.
And then there are blogs… I have connected to many passionate food bloggers, in my initial years of my blogging or in my food writing journey. Some of them are Bengalis and I have been fortunate enough to meet up with some of them. We all feel the same bond – our mission to write on food and our culinary heritage. Whether it is Anindyo and Madhusree of Pikturenama, Debjani of Debjanir Rannaghor, Kalyan of Finely Chopped, Soma of E-Curry, Sandeepa of Bong Mom’s Cookbook, Sudeshna of Cook like a Bong… these are bloggers who have inspired me and keep me motivated. Asma Khan, who I knew from the time she penned a blog called Darjeeling Express, is now a noted restauranteur and star of of the documentary series Chef’s Table on Netflix. I have often resorted to them for food adda virtually or met up with them in their respective cities. I hop on to their blogs occasionally for tried and tested traditional and non-traditional Bengali recipes or to keep my blog mojo going.
Sheel Nora for grinding wet spices
Shondesh mould belonging to the Bearded Biker’s Dida
Some traditional utensils from my photography cabinet
My collection of Bengali cookbooks
My precious possession of cookbooks – all signed by the chefs and authors I’ve met
Farm freshness delivered to the doorstep
We are still very traditional in the sense that we still prefer reading books, rather than read on kindle; feel, touch and see the fruits and vegetables we buy rather than buy them online. In Dubai, we got every kind of fruits and vegetables from around the world. But I am finding that the freshness of fruits and vegetables here are completely different, whether bought from popular neighbourhood grocery stores like Nilgiris and Freshies. I am not sure whether the food mileage and seasonal offerings have something to do with it. Every Wednesday, there’s a vegetable market within the community set up by a supplier called Ansio Fresh who source directly from the farms. We have a wide variety ranging from seasonal fruits and vegetables grown locally or otherwise, to choose from. Although initially the weekly vegetable market was set up during the lockdown period, it has continued even now and is gradually becoming quite popular with the residents. Apart from this weekly community event, I also look forward to the residents’ whatsapp group, which has been pretty much my lifeline since we moved into the community. Anyone having a good experience with any producer, artisanal or gourmet products, information is immediately shared. Orders are placed within the group and the product is delivered to the doorstep within hours.
Rockin’ around the Christmas tree…
Have a happy holiday!
From Diwali until this Christmas … well, that’s exactly how long it practically took us to unpack all the boxes that had packed in our Dubai home. Day by day, the house is evolving into a home. Bits and bobs are still left, and I am guessing they will still be there for the next few months… but every day we pat ourselves and say we are ‘almost there’! From learning that we will be moving… to have finally moved into a new city after having wrapped up years of living in Dubai … that too amidst the pandemic… it’s been quite a journey. From last December until this December – its a whole year of unfolding of multiple events! There’s something magical about Christmas and just like Durga Pujo and our Bijoya get togethers, the festive season and Christmas celebrations at home with friends who had become like family, had become annual rituals for me. Every year, Big Z insists on setting up the Christmas tree as early as the first week of November, bringing it down only by end of January. To that effect, the Christmas tree was set up a bit late at our home this year – in the first week of December! She kept the decoration very simple, saying that she wanted it to reflect how she felt this year – solemn and lonely. Solemn, because we lost one of our Labrador sons – Cinder in November. Lonely, probably because she had to leave her friends in Dubai without any proper farewell. Unlike Lil Z who has met up with some of her school friends who live within the community, Big Z is making an effort to make new friends. Much like us. We had all become so snuggled up and comfortable within the group of close friends that we had in Dubai, that sometimes it feels like we have forgotten the art of making new friends! Thankfully, the community and the neighbourhood that we have moved into, is very warm and welcoming. Many residents are still maintaining social distancing and most taking all the necessary precautionary measures. This festive season promises to break a few barriers (hopefully not codes) and bring the community together. There was a festive bake sale for the children for which Big Z made delicious homemade brownies and Lil Z baked vanilla muffins, while the other children put up such amazing fare. I also met up with a few residents and got the feeling that we would soon make some good friends here.
The Z-Sisters are ardent bakers and quite proficient in that. The aroma of their occasional baking fleeting though our home is my happy space. While I like to be experimental in the kitchen with my cooking, recipes that require following them to the tee, restrict me. Exactly why Big Z finds baking exciting … she likes having a structure. The Bearded Biker is also meticulous about following instructions but isn’t into baking. He’s more focussed on meat dishes from around the world and follows recipes meticulously to stir up elaborate and complicated meat recipes. Lil Z is still quite young and mostly chooses recipes that are colourful and fun. So I guess, each of our cooking preferences reflect our philosophies in life!
Celebrating Christmas at our home had also become an annual ritual, much like the Bijoya get togethers. This was an honour that was conferred upon us after our return from Germany! An elaborate spread surrounding the roast turkey, mulled wine stirred by a close friend, Christmas rum balls made by another friend, cookies by Lil Z, our garden lit up in fairy lights, s’mores in the bonfire and an impromptu skit by the children and carol singing by all those gathered … our Dubai home embraced it all. This Christmas was a bit different in that sense, reflected beautifully in Big Z’s Facebook update…
We had a family Christmas this year instead of having a Christmas party with friends. We opened gifts in the morning, went back to sleep, ate a yummy lunch, baked for hours, cycled for a bit and then ate turkey for dinner. Lil Z organised easy activities like crafts and cookie icing whilst I screamed Christmas songs at the top of my lungs. Even though today was simple and relaxed, it was super fun. I actually enjoyed this family Christmas more than normal parties because it was slow and felt like a longer Christmas day than normal. Of course, we played with Brownie and he sat under the table waiting for scraps of food and went out on his first walk in a couple of weeks. Throughout it all, for the first time since Cinder left us, I still had fun while remembering him and how wonderful last year was with him.
I realised that while preparing for all the get togethers at our home, whether it was for Bijoya, Christmas or any birthday celebration, I put all my heart and soul into cooking the food and I set out with a lot of intention. This year, everything was different. There were too many things happening all simultaneously in my life that sometimes I am just surrendering to where’s life taking me rather than what I should be doing / or what I want to do. Big Z’s post also made me realise that sometimes in trying to bringing everyone together in the past, no matter what my intentions were … we didn’t get the time to be with each other. This Christmas too, I spent the whole day cooking but somehow, we felt as if we are all together.
It was a fairly elaborate Christmas lunch with mashed potatoes, green peas, German pork sausages – both spiced and non spiced, spicy meatballs and Zwiebelsosse, a typical German onion sauce that I learnt to make when we lived in Frankfurt. We ordered the sausages and meatballs from a Bangalore based company called Meisterwurst. For dinner, it was a roast turkey, steamed vegetables and mushrooms in white sauce. Big Z also made some Yorkshire pudding to be had with the turkey gravy. The Bearded Biker carried on with his legacy of shaving the turkey like every year… alibi a smaller audience this time. Big Z’s chocolate cake and Lil Z’s cookies with DIY icing signed off the festive dinner splendidly. There was so much of happiness in the simplicity of it all. We also ushered in 2021 in a similar manner – cozy, at home with the five of us. Yes, finally we are at our home in Chennai. And guess what? I am also mishti doi ready in our Chennai kitchen… I have bought some claypots on my day out to ECR the other day with my lovely friend I have made from the community. The objective is very simple… to try out my first batch of bhapa mishti doi and to make some new friends!
May 2021 bring in lots of joy and happiness in your lives… and let’s stay connected more than ever – spicier, sweeter and stronger!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Recipes that you might like making for the New Year: Happy Cinnamon Rolls that you can make at home Homemade Bread with Sprinkled Sesame – an ever evolving romance Stuffed Chilli Spring Rolls – because a little spiciness in life is sweet Kogel Mogel recipe Bhapa Mishti Doi
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