The legendary Jiggs Kalra once said, “I love being a Punjabi through the year, except for Durga Puja. It is the one time of the year when the city becomes a Disneyland for both the foodie and the foodie historian in me.” The famous author-restauranteur wasn’t alone in this zestful gripe, many who have been a part of Durga Puja, one of the oldest sarbojinin (community-based) festivals of Colonial India, feel the same. It is easily one of the biggest, most elaborate food festivals in the country — where not only an entire city but a state rises in gastronomic euphoria, and supporting them are the thousands of street vendors, small-time restaurants and hotels who every year dole out a magnificent array of delicacies — be it classic or innovation. It is after all the time when one of the most demanding food palates want to celebrate — not for one day but a week.
But how did the feast really evolve given that the earlier form of Durga Puja was home-based, usually hosted by the zamindar to aid farmers during a natural calamity? And what led to the gastromania? Courtesy Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Sovabazar. One of the influential zamindars of Kolkata (then Calcutta), he hosted the first community Durga Puja in 1757 to commemorate the East India Company’s victory over Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah at Plassey. The chief of guest was Lord Clive, who came with Rs 101, baskets of fruits and a goat to be sacrificed. The celebration is said to have last the entire day and night, and had seen one of the biggest feasts of the time with Odia ‘thakurs’ toiling over dishes, both vegetarian and meat.
Bigger & better
The following years, with the patronship of the British, the Puja went bigger and better and the intermingling of communities brought in more gastronomic fare to the Puja. The Calcutta biryani by Wajid Ali Shah is one, then came the Murshirabad raan, Dhakai parotha, dimer chop, fish fry, and the famous Calcutta roll, which many believe was a Bangladeshi cook’s brainchild.
Says Calcutta boy chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “The beauty about the food during puja is that each community added their best to make the feast caldron. While the Tangra Valley Hakka Chinese added chowmein to the fold, the British inspired the innovation of the kabiraji, ledikini, and of course, the all-time favourite chicken fry and vegetable cutlet — an interesting medley of well-spiced vegetables crumb-coated with beetroot playing the hero.”
In fact, says Chef Sharad Dewan (regional director, food production, The Park Hotel), “Durga Puja evolved around the street food scene, which was by 1920 abuzz with puchka, jhal muri, and eventually added rolls, bada, nimki, and others.”
Interestingly, while most of the addition to the street feast may stand testimony to a Bengali’s love for food (and open palate), a closer look reveals another story. “Each,” says adds Chef Avijit Ghosh of The Leela Palace & Hotels, “of the classics, whether it is the biryani, chop radha ballavi-aloo dum, mutton roll or bekti kabiraji, were a culinary representation of Goddess Durga — and has one such element that represents one special character of the goddess.”
“Take, for instance,” adds Chef Ghosh, “the dimer chop. Believed to be inspired by nargisi kofta or the British scotch egg.This delicacy was the first to use spices like pepper and clove showcasing the warm but fierce side of Maa Durga. Likewise, for the vegetable chop.”
“This railway special,” explains Chef Gorai, “was reinvented with pieces of beetroot added to the mix, which gave the appearance of vermillion in food. A blessing from the mother goddess herself.”
Another fine example of this is the kabiraji, which became the culinary synonymous with the dance and festivity that this occasion developed. The addition of kosha manghso, too, was created with spices that were believed to be theobroma in nature.”
“But the classic of all,” says Chef Dewan, “was the creation of the bhoger thal, the one meal that even non-Bengalis flock to taste during Durga Puja, and the reason for this is the irreplaceable taste.”
The story has it that the thali was created by the Thakurs (temple cooks) of Odisha, who also designed the kosher mangsho, who built it around the temple cuisine of the time with a few new twists. One such addition was the sweet tomato khejur chutney made using ripened tomato and dates, the two ingredients that arrived around the 17th century. It was, many historians believe, the thali that ushered Durga Puja into a new-age ceremony by embracing change in food, too. “This,” adds Chef Ghosh, “while making Durga Puja such a 21st-century festival, also adds to the continuing charm of the food, which was a mix of the new and the old.”
As for the Bengali style of feasting which begins in the morning with luchi and dalna, mihir dana, egg roll and ends in the wee hours of dusk with chowmein and addictive tea at Nakhuda Manzil and fried chicken, “the secret,” says Chef Dewan, who has observed the feasting with fascination, “is in the pandal hopping, and the festive spirit.”