Despite opinions to the contrary, Durga Puja isn’t an occasion for senseless gorging. The true gourmand’s responsibility is to pack in as much good eating as s/he can in this week—and that’s harder than it seems.
For many, the most insistent taste memories of Puja come from the legendary pandal “bhogs” served for lunch and dinner at these places, some of which can boast of third-and-fourth generation master chefs. For others, Puja food is snack food, as Bijoli Grill, Benfish, Nizam’s and a dozen redoubtable biryani joints put up stalls that sell everything from fried fish to Mughlai paratha.
And for the last decade, restaurants have joined the Puja feeding frenzy, offering special menus for each day of the festivities. This is, even for the intrepid Bengali armed with a cast-iron, bottomless pit for a stomach, not an easy labyrinth to negotiate. Here’s a day-to-day guide to navigation.
Sasthi: Most puja pandals kick off the first public day of Durga Puja with a local Ananda Mela tradition. In Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park and Calcutta’s larger pandals, the Ananda Mela is a near-corporate affair with some of the city’s biggest Bengali sweet-and-savoury makers participating. The smaller pandals offer a far more home-style experience, with the local Mashimas bringing in home-cooked delicacies for sale. Look for the great Mughlai-style specialties and the old coffee-house/ adda classics.
Aside from the jhalmuri and bhelpuri sellers and the omnipresent biryani and kabab rolls, fried fish and fried chicken chops are big on the menu. So is fish orly and kabiraji cutlets with their frills of egg. If you’re in luck, there’ll be home-made ghugni—a chickpea-and-mutton concoction in a thick sauce (with vegetarian versions)—or dimer devil (devilled eggs) and mochar chop (banana flower chops) besides an array of sweets.
Saptami: This is a good day to stick to vegetarian delights, and sample the overlooked labra. This is a classic vegetable curry, the Bengali equivalent of the Gujarati undhiyo (I say this at the risk of setting both communities at each other’s throats) and requires the skill of a master chef in terms of combining the different kinds of pumpkin, spinach and other leaves in just the right proportion. Timing is everything: a mediocre cook could end up with a messy pulp, but a great cook will stun your palate with a complexity of flavours, no one spice or vegetable overpowering the other.
Ashtami: This is a great day to take advantage of the restaurant specials. In Calcutta, Kewpie’s Kitchen runs classic and delectable menus during each day of the pujas. Tero Parban, Bhojohori Manna and 6, Ballygunge Place in Calcutta have their own set of faithful followers. In Delhi and Bombay, Oh! Calcutta chains have been running puja buffet lunches–good value for money. I associate Ashtami with khichudi, which bears the same relationship to everyday khichdi that a Tagore poem does to doggerel. This is a day of sumptuousness—gorge on the more sinful Bengali sweetmeats—but also a day to celebrate the simple goodness of begun bhaja, perfect quarters or rounds of aubergine fried just as you sit down to eat.
Nabami: Fish rules Nabami, no question. Chital maacher muthai is a dish venerated for its taste as much as for the difficulty involved in scraping the flesh off the very bony frame of the chital fish. Unabashed fish lovers prefer the classic—and hard to get in most restaurants—fish-head curry with moong dal. If you’re wimping out, do it in some style with a smoked hilsa paturi or a prawn malai curry.
Dashami: Cauliflower curry sounds like the most boring vegetable dish on earth, but only the Sikh langars and the Bengali pandals make it as it should be—masses of cauliflower, introduced to quantities of oil and spices, and allowed to get their sizzle on. But Dashami, the final day of the pujas, is also luchi-mangsho day—puri with meat curry to North Indians. Ideally, the meat curry should be kasha mangsho—only very young goats need apply to be the key ingredient for this dish—and the supply of luchis should be inexhaustible, with one cooling luchi held in reserve as a scoop for your post-meal kheer.
For those of delicate stomachs, following this five-day plan might bring other things than satiety in its wake. The hardcore Bengali would have two words for you: Isabgol, and Gelusil. Trust to this combination (and a few prayers in between meals) and all should be well.