Chitrita Banerji’s “Bengali Cooking: Seasons & Festivals” , much like the sweets from Bengal, is delectable. I find the book was originally published in 1991 as, ” Life and Food in Bengal” and has seen several re-prints since then. Well, that title just about sums up what this slim volume covers. I read the recent 2017 edition published by Aleph Book Company. I have briefly lived in West Bengal, for about 4 years and visited there often, although decades ago. Reading Ms. Banerji’s book brought back innumerable memories of Bengal and Bengali food. If they could evoke such emotion within me a non-Bengali, I can well imagine how much it would instigate a Bengali to debate (and don’t they just love to do that?) on the merits and demerits of the recipes which dot the book from time to time.
In that sense, this is not your conventional recipe book. Far from it. It does contain recipes of the most famous of Bengali dishes but they are scattered all over the place and come in as interludes as you read about the landscapes of Bengal and life there during the principal seasons of spring, summer, monsoon, early and late autumn, and winter.
That was a brilliant move by Ms Chitrita Banerji – to tie the recipe with a season and the important festival in that season! Just as the American associates turkey with Thanksgiving but not with Easter, the Bengali has his own list of what is cooked when. I guess this also has to do with availability of the ingredient during a particular season. Like fish, mangoes too vary in quality and quantity from season to season, if you get what I mean.
I found the author’s bundling in a host of information on culture and customs in each of the chapters to be of great interest. The descriptions of the neighbourhood “adda” or even the village tea shop make you feel as you are actually sitting there holding a earthenware pot of hot chai as you munch on the goodies (often smoking as you eat) and talk like there is no end to the day.
I understand that Ms Banerji is herself from Calcutta but West Bengal’s loss was Bangladesh’s gain when she married a gentleman from there and went off to live there for seven years before moving to the United States, presumably to take a more neutral view on whether the cooking of one part of the undivided Bengal was more delicious than that of the other. As an aside, politics and history apart, aren’t many Bengalis undivided in spirit still?
The Bengali boatman, the famous ” majhi”, the Padma River, the expectations that fate has cast on a widow, and the significance of the Pujas ( or should I say, Pujo?) , and a Hindu wedding, are a few of the images that stay in your mind long ago after you have read the book. From “Akhni” to “Vaishnav”, the notes at the end of the book adequately guide the reader unfamiliar with India and more specifically Bengal. Last but not the least are the suggested menus, so that even if you are far away from the Padma or the Hooghly, you can still sit back and dream of fried aubergine slices, shukto, patol in yogurt sauce, hilsa with mustard, carp roe boras, orange-flavoured sweet rice or payesh as per your choice, the food from the good old homeland!