Eat. Pray. Love in 2013 @ Durga Pooja Bhog

The city’s babu culture had once spawned a popular Bengali saying; according to which Maa Durga, during her stay preferred to have her lunch at the house of Shibkrishna Dawn then visited Abhaycharan Mitter for a change of clothes and finally proceeded to Sovabazar Rajbari to watch bai nautch. The Dawn family prepared no less than 52 dishes as part of Puja Bhog and thus spread their fame. The babus and their luxuriant lifestyle has long disappeared but a lavish spread is still very much part of the Puja rituals of the bonedi baris of the city, 
 

In our childhood days, we had a favourite past time, teasing our old family retainer about what was being offered as bhog to Maa Durga; and as he rattled off the menu we would burst into peals of laughter imagining Maa Durga calling a cease-fire during her fight with Mahisasur and tucking in a sumptuous meal in between.
Jokes apart, Durga Puja also offers a culinary feast with both vegetarian and non-vegetarian fare offset by interludes of fasting. The delectable Puja bhog is a gastronomical enigma considering the simple ingredients used yet gratifying your taste buds to no end.
Generally, bhog in popular conception denote khichudi, prepared with sona moong dal (lentils) and atop chal (a fine variety of rice), apart from vegetables. This is also one of the best kept secrets since bhoger khichudi has an altogether distinct flavour, different from the khichudi we are served all round the year including the monsoon despite the frugal use of spices. Khichudi is an essential part of the spread offered to the goddess on Ashtami and served even at community pujas. In addition the two main stay of bhog are luchi and pulao (a foreign preparation).
The ingredients and recipes of different dishes have also evolved over the centuries proved by the fact that potato, a foreign vegetable, which thanks to the Portuguese, arrived to our country only in 1600, has also been adopted as a significant ingredient with considerable adoration.
Each bonedi family also has its own distinct rituals and custom made bhog. Apart from the usual fare of cholar dal, bandhakopir ghonto or dalna, my personal favourite is the labra, using an array of vegetables and cooked over slow fire, with little water. It is unmatched in taste yet very nutritious and fulfilling; each vegetable retains its own flavour in the medium spice mix.
While the potol or begun bhaja (fried brinjal- also a foreign origin vegetable) are favourities, chicken considered to be nishiddho pakkhi (banned meat) and prawn are not even allowed to cross the threshold of the kitchen. Rather the pride of place goes to mutton and mutton liver.
Grand old families like the one of Chhatu babu- Latu babu family offer bhog comprising luchi with vegetarian side dishes along with sweets, monda and kheer which the guests also get to taste. A special vegetarian pulao cooked in a broth of exotic spices including ginger, cinnamon, garam masala, jeera, marich, bay leaves, cardamoms and jayitri (mace) for a unique flavor is also offered. I have also tried dhokar dalna (lentils grounded in a paste, steamed and then cut into pieces to be fried and cooked in a curry) and chanar dal with nuts and raisins and found them a little overrated.
The Darjipara Mitra family specialises in pickles and daal cooked with exotic ingredients like posto (poppy seeds), coriander and tomatoes. The Deb family of the Sovabazar Rajbari has two branches (the two sons of the founder Nabakrishna Deb) which sacrifice vegetables but on ‘Navami’, sacrifice a fish. Their specialty is the famed mete chocchori, a special mutton liver dish cooked with vegetables. This dish is also a favourite of the Mullick family of Bhawanipore. In fact on Nabami quite a few families also offer meat to the goddess following old traditions although animal sacrifice no longer takes place.
Connoisseurs tell me that mete chocchori comes out best when cooked with liver of a fattened goat. Only then will the vegetables imbibe the flavours of the liver yet stay firm, while the liver itself will be tender inside but slightly stringy outside. Cooking on a low fire is crucial.
Another famous family, the Shaws of north Kolkata, have a signature ‘payesh’ (rice in sweetened milk) which is thickened so that it is served like a cake.
The Sabarna Roy Chowdhury family, the oldest of these bonedi families who owned the three villages prior to the setting up of trading post by East India Company, have a special sweet which includes potol stuffed with kheer (sweet condensed milk) and nuts. Mishti doi one of the rare Bengali specialties is also offered along with homemade sweets like patishapta or puli pitha.
In other words Durga Puja can be an exciting culinary journey from morning to night for every food connoisseur and so enjoy this Puja with a new motto: eat, pray and eat