Mustard oil and jalkhabar

NILANJANA S. ROY

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THE fruit cakes, fragrant with dark spices, moist, wrapped in paper, were at the centre of Nahoum’s. Their ancient glass showcases with the old-fashioned wooden frames contained cheese samosas/sambusaks, plaited and glazed challah bread, almond rings and baklava, alongside the more familiar fudge and walnut brownies.

When David Nahoum died in March 2013, every Calcuttan I knew could close their eyes and name not just the confectionary Nahoum’s sold, ringing up the bills on a wooden cash register made in Oregon, but the order in which the challah and the cheese sambusaks were stacked in the shop. Some could go further, drawing a map of the city that no longer exists, a map that connects all of Calcutta strictly by food lines, memories and histories.

In Newmarket, that tight cluster of shops packed densely in a square, with Victoria Memorial on the far side, Park Street just a walk away, some of the city’s communities eddied and flowed into the space. Tiny shops at the back sold barley sugar, glazed cherries, marzipan, almond flour, candied angelica and the dozen other ingredients once demanded in quantity by the Anglo-Indian community.

Hard pungent rounds of Bandel cheese, coated in sour smoke, spoke of the remnants of the Portuguese, who made it as far as Bandel, and who left a fading culinary stamp on places like Tarakeshwar, one of the last villages to keep the tradition of smoking the cheese alive. Aminia sells biryani and chaap, but this is not Delhi or Lucknow’s biryani – this comes from Bengal’s Muslim community, and the spicing is subtly different.

Just a short walk down, on Park Street, a different kind of kabab – kathi rolls, sold at Nizam’s but less oily variants found in hole-in-corner restaurants – commemorates the wave of Bihari migrants who flood into Bengal in search of work, carrying frugal packets of sattu with them to survive the journeys, the heat, the memories of home portable enough to be mixed with water.

 

The fish in New Market is a divisive subject: some of my grandmother’s friends and contemporaries would only buy bhekti fry from here, asking for their purchases in the exact manner of the lady in 36 Chowringhee Lane – that imperious tone of polite entitlement – and ignoring the parshey, the pabda, the ilish and the rui that beckon from the fishmonger’s giant botis. Fish, they argue, should be brought from elsewhere; the best river fish is in Jaggu Bazaar, no, in Gariahat, no, from a local seller who brings in the freshest catch every day and can be found only between 10 and 11 am at some impossible location. Whatever is decided, it’s clear that fish should be brought elsewhere – definitely from a more distinctly Bengali, less loosely cosmopolitan market.

And though the Chinese community has dwindled – migrating to Australia, to America, to Canada, to other places which offer more than Calcutta’s odoriferous memories of Tangra – prawns in sweet sour sauce mixed with the stench of leather drying in the tanneries – the remnants of their home cooking can be found, sometimes, on Bentinck Street, where you can get strings of dried Chinese sausages and perhaps even dimsums in the mornng, a whiff of the lines of soups, congees and char siu baos that used to satisfy the Chinese, and Bengali, appetite for breakfast that skipped the British staples – toast, porridge, kedgereee, so stodgy, so unsuited to the climate.

 

There was a corner of Newmarket where I would always have to stop, having survived the stench of chicken feathers and something that seemed ominously close to bird sweat, even though it is not possible for chickens to sweat. (They lack the necessary apparatus.) Away from the bookshops and the jewellers with their delicate silver filigree ornaments, away from the places where you could pick up old-fashioned tinned button mushrooms, tinned peaches and tinned pineapple – which many did, despite the reproachful presence of Calcutta’s own fruits – there was the sharp slam of fresh-pressed mustard oil, carried in square dented biscuit tins from the cold stone ghani press.

Mustard oil chases you all across Bengal, laying down a trail from village to village that criss-crosses the trail of jaggery. You could, in the right season, count 16 different kinds of molasses, gur, jaggery, some exuding a dark oily sweetness, others light and as crumbly as wheels of cheese, the queen of them all contained in earthenware pitchers that encased the thick, heavenly syrup of nolen gur, the sap from the date palm trees. No two villages would have the same taste to their jaggery, or to their mustard oil, and I remember carelessly ducking my head once to a stone jar of freshly pressed mustard oil in Bankura, only to come up with my nostrils on fire, singed, my eyes watering for the rest of the day.

When people think of Bengali food, they talk about the fish and the mishtis – the ilish bhaja and the roshogolla, thick set curves of mishti doi, as firm and as lush as the average Gariahat Mashima’s own soft rolling amplitude, the crisp bite of fried carp, the golden browned skin, the melting white flesh inside. But the oil tells you the story of how obssessed we can get, carrying our love of food around in our pillows, on our skins, using it as a remedy for toothache, coughs and cholera. It was the pungent, unwanted backbeat to all those feasts.

Some households, especially outside the ‘tainted’ cosmopolitan mixology of Calcutta, insist on using only ghee in their cooking – ghee was the sign of affluence, it spoke in an earlier age of the immense purity and not inconsiderable wealth involved in having your own cows.

 

Flipping through a stack of books discarded at one of the Sunday auctions at Russell Exchange in Calcutta, I came across a household accounts book that set down measures of grain for the cows, with detailed instructions about how this was to be mixed with channa and in what proportion, how they were to be rubbed down and also kept entertained. In the unknown housewife’s neat Bengali hand, a note a few pages down attests to the virtue of this: ‘Instruct Khagen to stop buying market ghee at once, cows giving enough for all needs.’

But mustard oil, once considered so downmarket, the oil of the poor and those lacking in taste, began to assert its dark pungent authority over our lives in Bengal. The Magh cooks were arbiters of the kitchen – Magh was the Bengali name for the kingdom of Arakan, and while the Bengalis and the Arakanese sometimes had the kind of relationship you’d expect from two swords stuck in one scabbard, the Maghs were renowned for their skill at two things, coastal piracy and cooking. Both professions demanded a high degree of perseverance, discipline and creative intelligence, and you see a shift in attitudes among Magh cooks, who move from refusing to use mustard oil to incorporating it into some of their recipes.

It was only after leaving Bengal that some of us begin to see how deeply food is woven into our everyday lives. The saris stacked in our almirahs have mango motifs on the pallus, yes, but they also have mi and catla – elongated fish shapes, woven in traditional style – banana leaves, sandesh shapes, as though we must wrap reminders of food around our waists.

 

The memories of mustard oil and seed we left behind so thankfully came back in cities that only knew Dalda or olive oil, where unenlightened citizens wrinkled their noses at the all-pervasive smell. Mustard oil used to be rubbed on our chests, throats and foreheads at the first sign of impending cold; babies were massaged in its pungent amber embrace; mustard seeds were used to fill pillows; and bowls of oil, often as black and as thick as treacle, were placed before Ma Kali as an offering, their fire matching her own. These days, I get a little evangelical about mustard oil.

My old Bengali rannar boi – and the slightly more modernized, translated-into-English versions, or the collected recipes put together by my mother and her friend, or by Minakshie Das Gupta – and cookbooks form a large stack.

Leafing through their pages, I am struck by the Bengali’s assumption that you will spend a large part of the day eating, setting aside a little time for shopping and cooking in the cause of addas and dinners where you will revert to the default mode – eating – yet again. Every culture has a tradition of tea time snacks, but in Bengal’s cookbooks, this widens into the broad category of ‘Jalkhabar’ – literally, food and water – intended to cover those tragic gaps in the day when one is not eating ‘bhat khabar’, the rice and assorted dishes that constitute a complete meal.

Jalkhabar, at its simplest, has a few essential staples – the salted leaves of nimkis, the compact succour of coconut and jaggery laddoos, the ever-present reassurance of puffed rice – that can then be augmented with more and more food. Fish fry, Flury’s chicken patties, home made jhal muri – puffed rice spiked with mustard oil, combining two essential lusts – kachoris of different kinds, the elegant Bengali samosa, where potato yields to a complex stuffing of green peas, cauliflower and potatoes, with perhaps raisins and coconuts included, even a full quasi-meal of luchis and aludom, plus the mandatory sandeshes and misthis – these can all combine (with many other dishes) to make up jalkhabar.

 

Few other cultures would feel this need to define a category of meals that aren’t proper meals, but that are as filling as a ‘real’, rice-as-the-chief-protagonist meal. And the true Bengali can eat about six meals a day, without breaking a sweat, much like the French and the Italians, two other cultures that love their food. But despite the wide variety of dishes on the table, the cooking methods, as my mother and her colleague, the late Kamalini Sengupta, pointed out in their short collection of Bengali recipes, is suited to the climate: the emphasis is on steaming, or light stir-fries, and again, mustard oil makes a triumphant comeback, touted as a lighter and healthier cooking medium than the traditional ghee.

They included suggestions for a typical lunch menu, eaten in courses, which is worth citing in full, just to give readers an idea of the high seriousness with which ‘bhat khabar’ is taken. Members of the household are expected to linger over their food; this is the meal that forms the resting place, the necessary break between the rigours of the morning’s work, often in the rising heat of summer, and the demands of the later day.

 

You might start with boiled rice (of course), and fried bitter gourd, as well as a light vegetable curry – either a mixed chorchori, which often includes peels and stems, or a bitter vegetable shukto, deemed to be good for the blood in hot weather and the monsoons. The next course might include banana flower crumbled and fried, or ridged gourd in a poppy seed paste, as well as a fish head curry with mung dal – or perhaps, if it’s a vegetarian loving household, a cubed Bengal gram curry. Fish will follow next: steamed fish in mustard wrapped in banana leaves, perhaps, or a light hilsa in gravy. The final course might be a pulao with chicken in coconut milk, followed by any ‘tok’– a chutney or a thinner, lighter ambol made of papaya, lauki, tomato or green mangoes – and then mishti.

A classic wedding menu, by contrast, might include far more sumptuous dishes – ‘rich’ dishes such as kosha mangsho, the meat of a young goat cooked with many spices, or daab chingri, prawns cooked in a green coconut with coconut milk, and several kinds of fish in heavier gravies than the daily light jhol. But even here, the Bengali tendency to look for a balance will show up: no other culture would proudly put the humble sheem, a kind of broad bean, on a wedding menu with spinach, for instance.

Not mentioned in the names of the dishes, but implicit in the cooking, is the other great virtue of Bengali food, its silent insistence that individual spices be given their due. The classic Bengali ‘mixed spice’, panch phoron, brings together fennel seed, fenugreek seed, cumin seed, black mustard seed and nigella in equal measure: it adds a smoky dark layer to any dish, without overwhelming the main ingredients. This is what we miss, when we live or travel elsewhere: compared to the cooking of home, where one spice – poppy seed, mustard seed or nigella – is allowed to dominate, many other Indian cooking styles, however tasty, seem too strong, too much, like a blaring brass band compared to an ektara or a tarshenai.

 

The one area where a Bengali loses his or her head completely has to do with sweets: except for the blasphemous but useful introduction of ‘diabetic sandesh’, none of the region’s assorted patishaptas (pancakes with a sweet coconut filling), pantuas and Lady Caneys (fried sweetmeats, one named after a Viceroy’s wife), or rich mihir-danas speak of any kind of restraint at all. My late mother-in-law introduced me to another kind of culinary map, the complex mapping of various mithaiwalas in Calcutta and the specialities that each house was famous for: this and only this Gujarati sweet house for mango shrikhand, mishti doi (but not sandesh) from Mithai, sandesh (but not sweet yoghurt) from Balaram Mullick, and so on in a lengthy procession.

As you travel out of Bengal, whether in the Murshidabad direction or through Joynagar or towards Farakka, every district and every village lays claim to a different kind of specialty. You would only buy moas – the humble sweet made out of different kinds of puffed or beaten rice and jaggery – from Joynagar, and that too, only from a certain line of sweetshops, not from the upstarts hoping to benefit from the district’s illustrious fame.

 

On an autumn day, travelling in London, I walk past a Bangladeshi restaurant, and then my feet walk me back, at the aroma of mustard oil, heating in a gigantic black wok. Mustard oil must be used heated, for most dishes; raw, it has the savage punch of wasabi, and you use it in dishes with caution, reminding yourself of the origins, and dangers, of mustard gas. As it approaches smoking point, it blares through the neighbourhood, the ghettoblaster of oils, the marching band of oils, the fumes tearing down the streets like a carnival mob, assertive, impossible to ignore, tickling the back of my throat.

The lady at the restaurant assesses me, and I don’t know what she sees – the mad Bengali foodie gleam in the eye, perhaps, the fact that I’m actually inhaling rather than running away from the fumes – but she decides to indulge me. They’re frying fish balls, for dinner, and she pulls out one, puts it on a paper plate, hands it over. I take a bite, and a rhyme comes flooding back from memory, Jogendranath Sarkar’s jingle about Bengali food:

‘Daad khani chal mushurer daal, Duti paka bel, Shorishar tel, Chini pata doi, dim bhora koi...

‘Some rice and some masoor dal, two ripe bels, mustard oil, sweet yoghurt, a carp plump with eggs…’ and so it goes, on and on for several lines of rhyming gluttony.

It’s there on our skins, this love of food, massaged into your babyhood with the fire and jolt of mustard oil, on our tongues, taken in along with your first rice and first words in nursery rhymes. It’s probably there, encoded into our DNA, though the Bengali genes probably spell JALKHABAR and not GATTACA.

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