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Seeking roots in ranna
Being a deracinated urban individual is a bit like being a time traveller. You criss-cross the worlds of tradition and modernity
belonging to both but comfortable in neither. It’s not always fun and often you find yourself asking a question that sounds terribly cheesy but is actually quite elemental: who am I?
As a Bengali twice-removed — neither I nor my parents, of which only one is Bengali, have spent any quality time in the ‘maatharland’ — I’ve often meditated on this doubt. Since I don’t live in Bengal, an entire way of living is alien to me. I don’t listen to or sing Rabindrasangeet, one of the cornerstones of Bengali culture. So that’s another major part of Bengaliness that I have no claim to. My Bengali is above average. But just about. The only thing I realised I knew with some degree of facility, on account of having been raised by my paternal grandparents, is the food, another anchor of Bengali identity. I can tell ghontos (veggies cooked almost to a mush) from chenchkis (stir-fried vegetables) and pabda from telapiya. And that’s more than what many of my genre can manage.
This moment of realisation coincided with reading Bill Buford’s Heat, an outrageously funny account of the former Granta editor’s adventures in the kitchen. He gave up his job to plunge into the gruelling world of the restaurant business as a bumbling apprentice in the kitchens of Mario Batali, one of New York’s top chefs. Later he went to Italy to learn the bloody art of carving cuts of meat from the country’s best butcher.
I was inspired. It was clear that in order to reclaim my roots, to know the self, as Socrates had once wisely suggested, I had to enter the rannaghor (kitchen). It meant learning how to cook from scratch. That, in turn, meant cleaning, peeling, de-seeding, chopping…doing all the boringly repetitive tasks, the enervating thought of which had kept me out of the kitchen all these years.
I began my education under the guidance of B, our cook of 25 years. B is a short, squat misanthrope who has the scowl of a Rottweiler and a temperament that teeters perennially on the brink of hysteria. Her knowledge of Bengali ranna (cooking) is vast and she is well versed in the culinary styles of both West Bengal, where she is from, and the erstwhile East Bengal, where we are from. But the quality of her food is as erratic as the state of her emotions. At times her food is sublime, at others it’s borderline average. Surprisingly, B is a good teacher. She instructs with an uncharacteristic degree of equipoise, I observed during one of my first lessons: chingri malai curry. Now chingri (prawn) malai curry is one of the standard bearers of Bengali food, along with shorshe maachh (mustard fish) and kosha mangsho (the Bengali version of bhuna mutton). All those who go to Oh! Calcutta to see what Bong food is all about are recommended this item. The ‘malai’ is said to derive from ‘Malay’ and not, as it is commonly thought, from the flesh of the coconut. Though it does have coconut milk. From the 19th century till a forceful expulsion by the government in 1962, a large number of Indians, including Bengalis, lived in Burma. The country has a significant Malay influence in terms of ethnicity and culture. Naturally, some of the region’s food made its way into the Bengali repertoire.
First, I had to clean a kilo of prawns that had been soaking in a tub of water, murky from their vestiges of the river, and gag-inducingly smelly. The prawns were clammy and curled like fat worms. With a knife, I had to make a precise incision along the spine and remove a vein of dirt. At the end of it, I smelt like how I imagine mermaids smell.
B was waiting for me. “I will teach you everything, so you don’t make a fool of yourself in your in-laws’ house,” she said. Over the next hour, B taught me several things that seem commonplace in retrospect. But on that steamy day in the kitchen, in the exhilaration of making an item of some complexity for the first time, her words carried the weight of religious maxims. Lightly frying fish before adding them to gravy makes them firm. Otherwise they could disintegrate. Sugar evens out the taste of a dish. The spatula must be held like this, not like that. Stop dipping your fingers into the gravy. There is a precise moment at which the heat should be turned off. If cooked for longer, the prawn becomes chewy. (It will take me many attempts till I can identify this moment on my own.)
At the end of it, I got a sense of what the authors of the wonderfully informative The Calcutta Cookbook call the “essence of Bengali cooking… the delicate balance between the main ingredients and its seasoning.” Though I suspect that’s true of all Indian food. The curry turned out rather well and was a hit at the Bijoya (the last day of Durga puja) family dinner. It was approved by people firmly ensconced in their Bengaliness. Did I feel closer to my roots? It’s too early to tell. All I felt after the strenuous exercise of cooking was the desperate urge to nap.
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