It was early 2008. On a cool, fresh February morning, I arrived at the Garden City with 3 huge suitcases, 2 cardboard boxes, 2 trolley bags and a husband, all newly acquired.
There I was, bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to start running my own household, all by myself! With moderate amount of clothes and just-what-we-need furniture, maintaining household was a breeze. But the running part, specially the putting food on the plate 3 times a day, 7 days a week part, was something I was not well-prepared for.
The Man of the house, after spending 8 bachelor years in the city and surviving mainly on bisi bele bath, Andhra meal, Kerala mutton pepper fry, rajma and soy nuggets, absolutely refused to accept anything but plain old home-cooked Bong food. Of course doi maachh, mutton kosha, patoler dolma and basanti polao is plain, right?
Right. It was too, when I cooked them back home. When Arati pishi or Basanti di peeled, chopped, minced and pounded all the fish, meat, veg and spices! All I had to do was put them together and stir (that too, leaping away when it spluttered)!
No problem, says He, we'll get a maid who would cook and clean and dust and wash; you will just oversee and guide her, ok? OK. Good. And that is how Jyothi appeared in my life. Literally, the saving light, the haloed angel who would take care of everything. All I have to do is ask her!
Great! Just one tiny problem there – ask her how? In what language? This Tamil amma spoke Tamil (obviously), Kannada (understandable), few words of English (quite common in this favourite colonial hangout) and her very own brand of broken hindi. The last two, truth be told, should have sufficed for any normal conversation between two people. But giving detailed cooking instructions is NOT a normal conversation! Giving detailed BONG cooking instructions to someone who doesn’t have a clue? Impossible!
I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’s an efficient worker and a fantastic cook! But Bong cooking is a class apart. Conceptually, she was overwhelmed! What?! You peel and boil a green banana, mash and mix with spices, fry into koftas AND put them in a gravy!!! What food value would be left (she had honestly asked me this once)!! Imagine telling her the steps to prepare maachher chop! I did not dare, for the initial year or two, only meekly asked her to boil the fish with turmeric and salt, chop the onion and tomato, and may be come back in the evening to help fry the finished product? Good, then.
Come to think of it, we Bongs do have a lot of elaborate process involved in our cooking; delicious, absolutely, but elaborate. Think dhokar dalna, patoler dolma, mochar kofta, dalpuri, patishapta, dudhpuli… the list is endless. Comparatively the non-veg items are a bit uncluttered, if you do not count maachher kochuri, mangsher shingara and the likes.
And do we have to have dal, preferably a bhaja, one torkari AND a maachher jhol with rice, every day??? On top of that we sometimes ask for shaakbhaja or chutney!! After a month she came to me asking for a raise! Bengalis cook food differently, she said, takes much more time. And everyone knows time is money! Ok, I conceded. She was happy. And eager to learn.
Then came the second hurdle – technique. How to cook begunbhaja to a soft golden brown and not burnt black and crisp? How to cook aloophulkopi-r dom without water? The perfect chhyanchra – not gravy, not crispy fried, juuust right.
“Cover karke karke low heat mein cook karo. Beech beech mein hilana. Nahi nahi, aisa direct cup se pani mat dalna… haath mein le ke aisa chhhitake chhitake do..” was the instruction, accompanied by the appropriate hand movements.
This dumb charade went on for quite some time, until we discovered the secret language of food. The language of aroma and colour and taste, innate in all cooking styles. Now I can call friends over for aloo posto, English fish fry, shorshe parshe, Kochi pnathar jhol, and not even be there while she cooks. And Jyothi confidently promises the other families she cooks for, authentic Bengali muri-ghanto or enchor-chingri, knowing I’m just a phone-call away.
But a few recipes, I keep to myself, delighting hubby darling occasionally with the treats. After all, I am the head chef of this kitchen!
One such is this Pan-roasted Chicken, his favourite (because it’s his Dimma’s recipe) and mine too (because it’s crazy easy).
1 kilo chicken, cut into medium pieces and washed
4 medium potatoes, peeled and halved
2 small tomatoes, quartered
8-10 cloves of garlic, few crushed
2” ginger, sliced thickly
4 dry red chillies
10-12 whole black peppercorns, few crushed
3” cinnamon stick, broken
2 bay leaves
4 tblsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tblsp tomato ketchup (optional)
1 tsp red chilli powder (optional)
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt or as per taste
2/3rd cup of white oil
Put all ingredients in a large pan, mix well. Cover and cook on low heat. Occasionally stir and check. Sprinkle water if required. Cook until chicken and potato is well-cooked, gravy is brown and sticky. Goes equally well with buttered veggies and bread, or pulao/paratha.