The Sceptic’s Guide to a Vegetarian Durga Puja
To some, Durga puja signals a surplus of hissing-red mutton curry, polished off between rounds of pandal hopping. To others, it means golden-fried chicken rolls bought by the dozen and split between college friends reuniting at the neighbourhood temp stall. From the mustard-lathered bhetki (fish) fry to mutton kabirajis oozing oomph and egg batter, the seduction of meat and fish reigns stronger than ever—often overshadowing the equally exquisite vegetarian specialties of the period.
But at the Roychowdhury house in Howrah’s Shibpur, things are different. All five days of the puja, women of this aristocratic bonedi bari—known for its 338-year-old Durga puja—rise before the sun. After a quick shower, they head to a makeshift kitchen set up especially to prepare bhog, food offerings for Ma Durga that are primarily vegeterian. And if you think vegetarian fare is easy to rustle up, brace yourself for a chiding from the Roychowdhury women, who have their work cut out for them.
There is the sacred staple of naibedyo—made of soaked rice and dal mixed with homemade narkel naru, a home-sweet made of coconut and jaggery. Then there’s luchi, the quintessentially Bengali fried flatbread, in its element only when it’s puffed up and piping hot. Khichudi—the far-too-jazzy Bengali variant of the humble pan-Indian khichdi—revels in an aromatic union of gobindobhog rice, moong daal, and an assortment of ginger, coriander and cumin-spiced veggies like potato, tomato, green peas and cauliflower florets. Gourmet legend has it that khichudi made any other time of the might ape the taste of the autumnal bhog, but the off-season imposter can never quite smell as delectable. Bhaja, a large assortment of fried-up vegetables to go with khichudi, makes for an appropriately extravagant accompaniment. That’s not to forget the Sooji—semolina spruced up in its puja avatar with milk, raisins and oodles of soaking rich ghee.
The bhog at Sri Sri Roychowdhury Durga Kalimata Debottor Estate, as the puja is formally named, is far from unidimensional. A testament to its variety is the shada bhog, a separate all-white platter comprising rice, shukto, shaak, chutney and payesh. What’s special, you ask? Let’s start with the shukto. The shukto is a fragrant vegetable broth cooked in milk, tempered in Bengal’s favourite spice paanch foron, a quick-fix masala that bands together the potent flavours of cumin, fenugreek, fennel, nigella and celery seeds. The gravy—part milky, part fierce from bitter jibes of mustard and the well-loathed karela—also makes room for vegetables like potato, raw papaya, raw banana, pumpkin, drums sticks and aubergine. All greens with a dubious popularity score, made delish with a magic mix of spices. Served at the start of the meal, the shukto’s job is to prepare one’s palate and soothe the nervous Bengali stomach. Traced back to the 16th century with multiple references in medieval age poet Mukundaram Chakravarti’s Chandimangal, it is also special for its use of bori or fried lentil dumplings, in this case homemade from scratch. While shaak is simply fried and salted leafy greens, the Bengali version of tomato chutney fancies itself flashy with the sweetness of sugar and sting of mustard, molten chunks of preserved mango sheets locally called aamsotto, dates, and sometimes even tamarind pulp for that sour kick. For the purpose of bhog, payesh, in its purest form rice cooked in sugared milk, draws additional richness from cashew nuts and raisins. One of the 23 dishes said to be cooked by goddess Annapurna in the 18th century text Annadamangal, the payesh, also a strict staple for all auspicious occasions, brings the meal to a comely close.
Kakali Roychowdhury, a key player in the grand operation of the Roychowdhury’s October kitchen, reveals, “We add kolar bora or deep-fried banana fritters to the payesh to give it texture.” Of the khichudi, easily the star of the show, she explains that rice and moong daal are boiled in giant vessels and then cooked without tempering, the spices added with ghee later on. “Generally we put coriander, cumin, ginger, tomatoes, green peas and chillies once the rice is boiled. We keep adding ghee or oil until the bhog is ready,” Kakali says.
Outside the classic routine of bonedi pujas, barowari or community pujas also weild the attractions of bhog. Ask any Bengali what he is doing on ashtami afternoon, and chances are he’ll struggle to answer between mouthfuls of bhog at the neighbourhood pandal. These open-to-all feasts, accessed with the sufferable currencies of coupons and snaking queues, boast their own standard fare. The usual suspects are khichudi, occasionally replaced by basanti or yellow pilaf; five types of bhaja, commonly fried potato, pointed gourd, ladyfinger, cauliflower, and peanuts (some add shredded coconut and brinjal to this list); luchi with a side of niramish aloor dum, or spicy curried potatoes cooked sans onion and garlic; badhakopir torakari, a home-style dry cabbage curry smattered with green peas; phulkopir dalna, the ginger and asafoetida-laden cauliflower curry with potatoes; labra or mixed vegetables; and of course, the credit rolls of payesh and chutney. Shukto makes an appearance sometimes as well, along with steamed rice at the beginning.
Dig deeper and you’ll realise that bhog covers all four types of edibles—charba (items best chewed, such as pilaf/ khichudi); chashya (items best sucked, such as shukto); lehya (items relished in licks, such as chutney) and peya (items for drinking, such as payesh). Fitting, for all-consuming sensory experience that is Durga puja.
As colour and chaos topple your daily routine for these five days, the time might be ripe to shed biases and dig into some finger-licking pujor bhog.