2012 is almost over. Looks like the Mayans were wrong and hopefully the world is not coming to an end. Which means all of us would live to celebrate New Year? Oh, bring on the beer, man and food, as well. It’s a double victory for us bongs since we will have two new years in 2013, the one impending and the bigger one in Poila Boisakh (the first day of the bong calendar celebrated aplomb each year, sometime mid-April). Since the traditional palate can be taken care of in the latter, let’s go experimental this time. This New Year Eve try vegetarian, accha hai (it’s good)! Hold on; don’t stare as if I prescribed jhinger jhol (a soup of boiled ridge gourd) as rugir pottho (potion administered on patients). Let me relate what happened to me on the New Year of Mallus (folks down south from Kerala) and you will find out why, wokay?
Onam, the Mallu New Year is very colourful and occurs early-September. This, according to Hindoo mythology, happens when Maveli (also Mahavali, the ancient benevolent demon-king), was granted a boon by Vishnu. He longed to return from never-land to visit his subjects, once every year, and his wish was granted ~ a reason enough for his mortal lessers to celebrate Onam. Mallus, like Bongs, have a huge affinity for food, and enjoy their new year with a ceremonial feast arranged, named OnaSadya. 100 per cent vegetarian, the variety served in OnaSadya would put any proper non-vegetarian menu to shame.
Maveli sketched by yours truly
The Onam Experience
The date had started just like another day of an average bong; fighting to get in time to office, missing morning breakfast, etc. A queer coconut-tree logo appeared on the Google webpage and reminded me it was Onam. Summers are so intense In Kolkata and the post-monsoon climate is so humid that you hardly get to feel autumn and the pastoral fecundity associated with it. All that you can do to savour a festivity such as Onam is to go to a nearby restaurant and hog. I decided on the same and headed for an authentic OnaSadya meal in one of the swanky restaurants in South Kolkata; all this in the happy oblivion of my extremely health-conscious wife, for if she came to know she would bludgeon the life out of me.
While the hot moisture laden breeze bruised my senses feigning an imaginary boat ride, I bumped into a humble “Kera South Indian” restaurant decked in a joyous orange marigold and white tube-rose pookalam (floral patterns made with chopped flowers). I felt magnanimous as the pot-bellied Maveli visiting a miniature Kerala, my garrulous yellow ambassador cab hardly a match for his graceful gray snake-boat. There was an impatient queue of hungry corporates, petite ungles and aandiees (Mallu accented uncles and aunties) waiting before the narrow entrance, jostling for space. For some strange reason, the chaos gripped me. I dumped the idea of lunch at the joint which had brazenly advertised its over priced menu, and got in.
There were Mallu girls wearing bright-coloured skirts, with curled tresses neatly oiled and tied in a desperate attempt of hair-straightening. Their immersive eyes shone through thick eyelashes and bushy eyebrows. My eyes were tired searching for an elusive Kerala damsel in a white and gold handloom saree. After a point I gave up, knowing that it was like expecting too much in Kolkata.
Mallu Hunk P Raj with Bong Babe Rani M
I did notice a strapping tall youth with stubble who almost resembled a handsome Arab; could be the guy was Muslim (he was wearing a talisman with Arabic inscriptions) but Mallu, nonetheless, he was chirping fluently in Malayalam. No wonder the Arab traders of yore had planted their seed in Mallu maidens beneath the spicy shade of coconut branches 🙂
The flow of guests taking to the freshly mopped tables was faster than quicksilver yet half as smooth. To add to the commotion, Oriya waiters were bawling around at the top of their voices mouthing incestuous expletives in choicest vernacular. There is something with Oriya people and vegetarian restaurants in Kolkata. Wherever I have been, be it the “Vaishnav” Gopala at the ISKCON Temple or the plush “Marwari” Teej restaurant in Russell Street, there have always been Oriya mensfolk serving food, in varying degrees of courtesy. I saw the host (restaurant-owner) proudly flailing about in a spotless white munda (Mallu for dhoti, sarong) before he was confronted by an indulgent Bengali mother, expressing concern whether his kola patas (banana leaves, they were serving food on), were healthy enough for her “frail” son. Bongs!
Mallu Avatara, before the Padmanabhan Temple
Banana leaves were spread, holy water sprinkled and after a bisaal (mammoth) wait, we were served benign OnaSadya. Designed on the lines of an eat-your-fill “thala” (platter), it leaves you spoilt for choice. First they spooned two types of banana fritters on to my leaf, one sweet and the other savoury along with a whole ripe banana. Then they served two types of pickle, one of them had a taste so strong, that I almost choked to death. After this, arrived my favourite Aaviyal (a kind of vegetable mish-mash and drumstick curry stewed in coconut milk and similar in flavours to our Bengali Shukto, sans the bitterness). It tasted so divine that one bite and you could land in heaven. Then came a spicy carrot stir-fry, then another vegetable and another, until I finally lost count. In the centre of my leaf, they heaped an enormous mound of rice which was good enough for three wrestlers to eat and I had to wave my hand to stop. There was hardly room for the pineapple chutney they were serving.
My leaf looked like an open jewelry box of colourful rubies, diamonds and emeralds and I looked pretty foolish to not know what to start with. Confused I decided to go the bong five-course meal way, starting with the fries and moving on to juicier variations. I munched into the crunchiest and fluffiest poppadum I’ve had in my entire life, and again, with so much zest that it broke into a million pieces. This attracted a hard stare from a fellow Mallu diner, visibly annoyed at my ignorance of Mallu etiquette. There was absolute hush in the room filled with a hundred hungry mouths and another hundred swift moving hands. Everybody was having their meals silently unlike us bongs who are a chirpy bunch of appreciators when it comes to food. The only enthusiastic response came from a pair of Marwari chums who’d come for the obvious lure of tasty vegetarian fare (a commodity such rare in a fish and meat rich City of Joy).
Roly-poly Cutie Pie enjoying his first OnaSadya
I looked back at my leaf which, by now, was a mess of white (squished rice grains) and gold (the drumstick leftovers) on a lovely bed of green (or, as bongs would say, kochi kolapata sobuj) and asked for a quick refill. The desserts they served were lip-smacking and these sweet nothings were devoured in no time. There was a lentil pudding which reminded me of Cholar Daler Halua (bengal gram pudding) we prepare on Shabb-e-Barat (Muslim All Soul’s Night) back home. They concluded with rice pudding which I felt was a distant cousin of Semaier Payesh (vermicelli dessert) we cook during Eid-ul-Fitr. The ceremony ended and I folded the ends of my banana-leaf neatly as one would close a book.
I believe that food cooked with the simplest ingredients and kindest hearts is invariably the tastiest. You need not pay a fortune or conjure a complex concoction of condiments to have the best when it comes to taste. All you need is the magic ingredient, soul. When you cook with your soul, anything can taste as good as a pretty Italian mince-stuffed Raviola or a fancy French Foie Gras. And my first stint with the delicious OnaSadya, an elaborate feast fit for the gods, was no less.
Vegetables Stewed in Coconut and Mustard sauce:
OnaSadya inspired me; the mallu Aaviyal’s similarities to the bong Shukto made me seriously think of attempting a criss-cross. A daunting task lay ahead of me, the marriage of two great cuisines, Mallu and Bong. I immersed myself in the inkpot of imagination and penned this recipe for YOU.
Before trying their marriage in cuisine, I tried juxtaposing Bong and Mallu cultures with people of contrasting geographies ~ myself and them. Clicked during my last trip to Kerala at the Thekaddy Cultural Village, Periyar, it’s for YOU to marvel at the effect, never mind the smiling devil …
- Mustard paste ~ sada sorshey bata; one cannot be called a bong in the truest sense, if he/she has not partaken of this. Grind yellow mustard seeds carefully with a little salt, some green chillies (kancha lonka) and mustard oil (sorsher tel), else you run the risk of turning this golden paste bitter
- Grated coconut ~ narkel kora; essential to most Mallu dishes and special to some Bong delicacies, this item marries the two cuisines Mallu & Bong, and is sometimes used in combination with mustard paste by Bangals (folks from the eastern half of the bong planet) as a replacement of poppy seed paste (posto bata). Grind this into a fine paste with some more green chillies depending on the heat you wish to explore
- Five spices ~ paanch phoron; a delicate assortment of fenugreek seed (methi), nigella seed (kalo jeere), cumin seed (jeere), black mustard seed (kalo sorshe) and fennel seed (mouri) in equal parts. This lends a lovely aroma to the dish
- Vegetables ~ sobjee; use veggies of your choice. I limit myself to pumpkins (kumro), unripe papayas (penpe), raw bananas (kaanch kola), potatoes (aloo), sweet potatoes (ranga aloo) and carrots (gajor). Avoid using bitter melons (korola), a staple feature in le originale Shukto, lest it takes away the sweetness of Aaviyal
- Drum sticks ~ sojne data; may not be readily available in this cold season but I insist you visit the Asian stores, would be worth the try. Chop them into small rods
- Salt & turmeric ~ noon-holud; marinate the veggies diced into equal sizes for about 15 minutes with these
- Milk ~ ek bati doodh; a bowl of milk should do the trick to milden the spicyness of mustard
- Clarified butter ~ ghee; Corriander seeds ~ bhaja dhone guro; dry roasted and pounded for garnish
- Cooking oil ~ sorsher tel; must, must, must be mustard oil; Bayleaf ~ tejpata; for added flavour (optional)
In case you have difficulties ascertaing the proportionate mix of ingredients to one another, please feel free to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Steam the diced vegetables until they are half-done. Heat oil in a thick-bottomed wok and splutter the paanch phoron. Throw in the drumsticks with a pinch of salt. Reduce flame and saute the steamed vegetables (one by one, beginning with the potatoes and moving on to the rest) with bay-leaves. Fold in the coconut paste and coat it evenly over the vegetables. Fry for some minutes until oil separates. Pour in the mustard paste, toss for a second or two with some salt and immediately pour in water. Do NOT fry mustard, it renders the dish bitter. Bring to a boil and reduce until the vegetables have soaked in half the quantity of water added. Uncover lid, mix in the milk, stir and let it simmer for a while. Avoid letting the vegetables boil after adding milk, else it will curdle. Garnish with melted ghee and dry-roasted corriander powder.
Simple it may sound, but that’s my signature. Smell the bong Shukto romance the mallu Aaviyal in this dish, and get turned on just as the bong babe Rani Mookerji would when she sniffed the whiff of mallu hunk Prithwi Raj in a recent Bollywood flick … 🙂
My trite camera has given way. So I could not produce a brilliant proof of the pudding. But I do have at least something to cheer YOU up, until I get a new one. Here’s a heavily photo-shopped counterfeit of the original poor photograph clicked by my not-so-flashy mobile.
Enjoy the festive season with this delicious veg-fare, and guzzle it down with some wine. Until we meet again, Happy New Year 2013!
P.S. : This recipe is posted at the behest of my “preferably vegetarian” friends who insist that I do share some veg fare as well …