One thing Indians love is eating. When you love eating, cooking good food automatically becomes important. (Eating out was considered more of a luxury when I was growing up...not so much now)
In Kolkata,surrounded by working mothers and fathers, the burden of cooking still fell on my mother. My dad approached the problem in his own way. He knew how to make everything but chose not to do so, unless pushed to a corner. He was cornered more often than he liked. Holding a transferable job made him easily susceptible to living long periods of time in distant locations without us. He learnt to cook by necessity.
My mother tried her tactics to get him to cook at home, when he came around staying with us in Kolkata, after yet another transfer. On some Sunday afternoon, when she was least interested in making any food, she would try to train my dad tactically.
"You know how to make the the khichdi, right? Just put a few vegetables, just the way you used to make while in Maharashtra and make it no? Even the kids like it that way." She smiled genuinely, with hope and advance appreciation. [Khichdi is a dish prepared of rice, lentils and vegetables all boiled together with spices]
My dad was a wise man. Domestic happiness was important to him, but not at the cost of his own. He was lazy,and loved his couch, his newspaper, his two-time tea and his sleep. Down below this just mentioned list, lay his family, his kids, and his deep concern about their future.
My dad peered over his newspaper.
"Khichdi? Why? There is no food left from lunch?"
"No", said my mother, gradually losing her smile.
"Hm mm...I think Khichdi is not what I like. Not too good for my stomach.I don't want khichdi. So what's the point of making it?"
My dad was right- only in his own way. He didn't assume anyone's preference mattered more than his own and why make something that he wouldn't be able to enjoy?
My mother didn't see his point. She saw his laziness. She scrunched her eyebrows together.
"What would you like to eat then?"
My dad smiled broadly. He loved this question.
"How about that "mocha ghonto", with "methi saag vada", and "chingri machher malaikari? A little white rice with it would go very well." [The items listed are traditional Bengali dishes. Mocha ghonto is a way of preparing banana blossom, methi saag vada is deep fried balls of a bitter leaf and chingri machher malaikari is shrimps in coconut gravy.]
My mother smiled, even as her eyes almost rolled over in disbelief.
"Sure, I think we all would like those. Why don't you start making these one by one?"
My dad felt slightly trapped. Just slightly.
"But I don't know how...", he said believably.
"Don't you worry, I am here. I will guide you through it. Let's begin."
My mother stomped off in the direction of the kitchen. My father looked at us in dismay. We had been mute spectators of this scene. Our inputs were never sought in these matters. I gave a smile. So did my sister. We meant no harm.
My dad made a face at us. Murmuring under his breadth he said,
"These two daughters are their mother's disciples! Never taking my side! Humph!", he said angrily.
Thus uttering, he neatly folded his newspaper, following the crease lines closely, placed it on the exact same spot on the table where he placed it a zillion times before, , got hold of his manly wrap-around ("lungi") and followed my mother into the kitchen.
The dinner we ate later was , as my dad put it, "Entirely his effort." That was very different from what really happened. My mom cut cleaned and fried the vegetables, my dad looked on. My mom de-frosted the shrimps, prepared the coconut gravy with spices while my dad used a ladle to twirl it all together-twice. The rice was his only genuine effort. The pressure cooker made his work easy. Tired from all the supervision, he vented his anger on us.
"Why don't you two help out in the kitchen? Why do we have to do everything even after we have daughters? That too two of them? You should help out from tomorrow- follow my footsteps."
We smiled as before.We were following his footsteps.
Bengali cooking, like every other cuisine, has an art and heart to it. You relish and enjoy the simple flavors slowly. The cook revels in joy when you take longer to finish your plate. I have seen such variety in the very same dish. My father and my mother were from two different kinds of Bengali backgrounds. The East and the West. ("Bati" and "Ghoti" respectively) Their cooking styles and recipes were different. Factor in the cook's skills and you have way too many things influencing one dish.
As a child, I enjoyed my grandmother's, more than my mother's , more than my dad's. Whenever my dad was asked to make anything , all on his own, we had a difficult time. We were obedient and mostly hungry so no fuss was made on our part. My dad however tended to make a humongous deal whenever he cooked. We ran into neighbors and family friends occasionally, where my father would begin a sentence with, " It was raining the other day when I made the khichdi." It was an exaggeration but my dad was widely admired as a helping hubby, father and cook.
I have seen the real Bengali cooks. They are called "Moharaj"(The Emperor of the Kitchen). They are males, usually pot-bellied, humorous and extremely adept in blending spices and melting hearts with their mouth watering preparations. Technical term in Hindi is "Bawarchi".
I met one not so long ago. During my sister's wedding, we hired a Moharaj to handle the cooking while my mother and the other women busied themselves in "Satya Narayan Puja" ( Worship of Lord Krishna). He was prolific. In one hour he had seven dishes under control. When we all sat down to eat, he single handedly served all of us.
"Oh babu ,eat slowly...let your tongue then your soul relish the taste."
He asked of me, as I tried chomping down my food all at once.
I smiled. He treated the adults like children, taking utmost care to ensure we tasted all his dishes and enjoyed them. Sitting like a patriarch he oversaw our moves. Every time any of us asked for a second helping, he beamed. It was pure bliss for him. He never ate with us. In his own words,
"The happiness to cook and feed were far greater than eating food."
From "shorshe illish" (mustard salmon), "aloo bhaja" (potato fries), "arhar daal with machher matha" (Lentils with fish head), "aatop chaal" (rice), "mangsher jhol" (meat curry) and "payesh" (rice puding), every dish tasted better than the last. I ate with my fingers. Eating with hand is the traditional way of enjoying Bengali food.We are a tactile bunch. "Kobji dubiya khaawa", or eating with your elbows inserted is an expression of deep appreciation of food.[Don't take it literally -it is just an expression]
When Moharaaj urged me to eat some more, I was beyond full.
"Aar kheley ebaar potol tulbo!" I said gathering my steel plate. [ "If I eat any more I might just die"]
Maharaj looked disappointed.I guess he assumed I was capable of consuming endlessly. Perhaps my size beguiled him.
The meal finally came to an end. Smiling with hands folded, Maharaj collected his fees from my mother. As he left, he said, "Don't forget me for your other daughter's wedding."
I never saw him again.
I cook too. Nearly not as much nor as well as did my grandmothers, my mother, my aunts and the legendary cooks I ate from. I cook in my way - with mild hint of Bengal in the dishes I prepare. It would be a misnomer to call me a Bengali cook.
The cuisines that I enjoyed once, have not come alive in my kitchen. Only when my mother was visiting, did I feel an old aroma, taste coming back. It brought back memories of food served on freshly cut banana leaves, with earthen bowls of five dishes and dessert, served on the floor as we sat on "satranjis" (mats). It reminded me of the cooks who served them - with utmost love and care. The look of happiness on receiving appreciation- be it in a burp, slurp or spotless plates. Memories that remain forever, waiting to be recreated, in a small utilitarian kitchen in California.
"One day," I say to myself,"I will grow up to be a Bengali cook."