It is sharat kal in Bengal now–a fleeting season after spring and before fall. A season of receding rains with tranquil sun, blue skies specked with nonchalant white clouds, air heavy with pollens, sideways sprinkled with shiulis and dried flower petals, and lakes and ponds encircled by kans grass–all of this occasionally ruined by begrudged showers. The streets of Kolkata are teeming with overenthusiastic shoppers carefully avoiding a billion (no exaggeration) potholes created in an effort to hold bamboo/metal poles that support a billion (again, no exaggeration) decorative lights to brighten the city; with sprouting fast food vendors; and with extremely slow moving traffic. The pavements are beginning to be enclosed by frail bamboo banister in anticipation of millions of visitors, roads are being barricaded to hold up or divert traffic during the pujos, and the thousands and thousands of pujo pandals are getting their finishing touches. The city is almost ready for the greatest festival and spectacle of the year.
For Calcuttans, there’s no escape from the pujo. The festival has absolute, even authoritarian control over the city and its people for as long as it lasts. For months, therefore, people plan and over-plan every detail of their pujo days. They plan, via a series of telephonic conversations, texts, facebook group messages, and pre-pujo-planning-meetings with family and friends, the excursions to admire the pandals all over the city. They, both men and women, plan every attire with careful details. Women wait in long lines for hours to match blouses with saris, and to pair every garment with junk jewelries. And you have never seen shoe-stores as crowded as they are in Kolkata a week before the pujo (no, not even in the outlets on black Fridays). Pujo is no fun if it does not involve wearing uncomfortably new clothes and completely inappropriate shoes for walking (I am pretty sure that Kolkata sells more band-aids on these 5 days than any other time in any other place on this planet).
Durga pujo–despite its name, which means worship—is more or less a secular festival. The festival is more about coming together as a community, reveling in song, dance, art, food, and friendly banters even with random strangers than about religion or devotion. The most important markers of Durga pujo, dhaaks (drums) and dhunuchi dance, are not religious, but Bengali cultural symbols that make the whole city gooseflesh together. Then there is the bhog, the ritual food offering first made to the goddess, and then traditionally eaten for lunch by rows of people seated next to each other. The egalitarian nature of these communal feasts is the distinguishing feature of Durga pujo. Anthropologist Jack Goody remarks that while all Indian religious ceremonies come with “large-scale feasting”, the “Durga pujo bhog forms part of a silken cultural continuum”.
Basically, Durga pujo is about experiencing the Bengali cultural expressions to the fullest. Of pretending (or not) to pay obeisance to the goddess as an excuse to wear khadi kurtas or white tants with red borders on ashtami mornings, or to whiff the intoxicating smell of dhuno, or to dance to the dhaaks, or to play with vermilion on dashami, or to eat narkel naru and nimkis. As a Bengali, I am genetically programmed to feel the aching nostalgia of Durga Pujo in Kolkata. And I do; I miss all of that. But an advantage of living away from Kolkata during the pujo is that I am spared the bittersweet surprise that overwhelms you when months of planning and anticipation come to an abrupt end. I don’t miss the empty pandals, or the billion potholes that suddenly seem pointless, or the feel that the city is made of bamboos and ropes.
Finally coming to today’s recipe: the one dish that I think is most quintessentially Bengali and most representative of Durga pujo is potoler dorma. Potol (parwal/pointed gourd) is a rare vegetable outside of Bengal, and entirely unavailable in the US. It is, however, a significant vegetable in Bengali cuisine, with potoler dorma being the star of all potols. Traditionally it is stuffed with either fish or minced goat/lamb, but my mom makes this vegetarian version for bhog that is divine. Recipe follows.
Potoler Dorma recipe
Level: difficult Prep time: 30 mins Cook time: 1 hr Total time: 1 hr 30 mins Serves: 4
8 large pointed gourds/parwal/potol peeled and cored (use the thin end of a spoon to scoop out the seeds)
oil for deep frying
1 tbsp vegetable/mustard oil
150 grams paneer
1 small potato, peeled and boiled
1 green chili, chopped
1/2 tsp ginger paste
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp garam masala powder
1 tbsp cashews, chopped
1 tbsp raisins
1/2 tsp sugar
salt to taste
grated coconut for garnish
Fry the peeled and cored pointed gourds over medium heat until they are cooked, but not too soft, approximately 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with tissue paper and let cool.
Using your hands or a spatula, thoroughly mix all the other ingredients, except oil, in a bowl.
Heat the remaining oil in a fresh pan over medium heat.
Add the mixture and cook, stirring continually, until it does not smell of raw spices, approximately 8-10 minutes.
Adjust seasonings, remove from heat and let cool.
Using the thin end of a spoon, stuff the fried pointed gourds with the paneer stuffing.
Garnish with grated coconut.
Serve with steamed rice or luchi or as starters.