Shubho Bijoya to all of you! Over the years, our home in Dubai had become the venue for celebrating Bijoya Dashami, the culmination of the five-day long Durga Pujo. It was a tradition where our friends who had become like family, dressed up in traditional attires - the women in white and red sarees draped in the Bengali manner and the men wore kochano or pleated dhotis.
Cooking for this very special occasion soon became a spiritual ritual for me. The menu curated from my childhood memories of Durga Pujo celebrations in Kolkata, where specific dishes were associated to each day of the autumnal celebration.
Sometimes, the dishes I cooked had emotional attachments - either there were specialties of my Dida or my Thakuma. Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers’ cooking has had a lasting impression on me, especially if it was bhog - the food cooked for offering to the deity Durga.
Even a simple preparation with rice and lentils - Khichuri, has a transformation when made for bhog. It probably could be because of the intention with which it is cooked and the energy it gathers from this.
At home, once the bhog arrives at our dining table from the offering altar, the first helping is always reserved for my elder daughter Shrishti. “Why does bhog taste more delicious than your regular cooking?” she always asks. My response, “There’s magic!”
Faith breathes magic into the bhog that one cooks. There’s a direct connect too, from the heart to the hand and the emotion of sharing it amongst your loved ones. I feel that is why the Khichuri offered as a bhog has assumed the term ‘Bhoger Khichuri’ or Khichuri for bhog. As if, it is different from the regular khichuri and has a special recipe with secret ingredients!
The significance of the autumn festival
Durga Pujo is one of the most important festivals for Bengalis worldwide and celebrated annually during autumn. At this time, the deity Durga descends to Earth and comes to her maternal home from her celestial abode in Mt. Kailash. She brings along her four children – the deities Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartik. Bengalis immerse themselves in a five-day long festival that commemorates this homecoming. It’s worth mentioning here that the creativity and the grandeur that surrounds the celebration of Durga Pujo, especially in Kolkata in West Bengal, has earned the city a place in UNESCO’s prestigious Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2021.
In other parts of India Navratri is celebrated around the same time – it is the nine days during which nine different forms of the deity Durga are worshipped - the sixth to the ninth day constitute Durga Pujo for Bengalis. At this time they usually fast or eat vegetarian diets. However, it differs in Bengal, where eating non-vegetarian food during Durga Pujo is a ritualistic indulgence.
‘Niramishi Mangsho’ or vegetarian mutton may sound like an oxymoron, but mutton cooked without onions and garlic (which explains why the mutton preparation turns vegetarian for a Bengali), as well as different preparations of fish are often offered as bhog to the deity. This is often a cause of disagreement between my non-Bengali friends and me!
My journey from Dubai to Chennai
We moved to Chennai from Dubai in October 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. It was only during last Navratri, that we really met with the residents of the gated community we live in. Golu, which is the festive display of dolls that typically take place in South India during the same time, was held at our community clubhouse.
On the last day, my family and I offered to host an evening showcasing the Bengali Durga Pujo. Under the supervision of the extremely talented resident Subha, Alpona - with traditional Bengali motifs and symbols painted with white and red - replaced the traditional Kolam or decorative pattern on the ground done with powdered colours.
Another resident Hemamalini, a Bharatnatyam dancer who has lived in Kolkata for more than 30 years, took center stage. She choreographed a ‘Dhunuchi’ or devotional dance with incense, along with other residents. Shrishti, our elder daughter explained the details of Durga Pujo. The evening culminated in a traditional ‘Sindoor Khela’ or play with red vermilion powder that typically takes place on Bijoya Dashami. As we smeared vermillion on each other’s faces and embraced each other, I felt that we were finally at home, in Chennai.
“Are you cooking Bhoger Khichuri on the day of the programme?” I was asked multiple times. I thought to myself, “Why not?”
This was our new home where we were making new friends. Bhoger Khichuri became important in connecting the dots in my life between two different cities - Dubai and Chennai. It also connected two sets of people - the friends that we had left behind in Dubai and the new friends that we were making now in Chennai.
Growing up in Kolkata – the true spirit of the festival
I grew up in Kolkata and Durga Pujo became an extremely important event in my life. The cultural and spiritual significance of celebrating Durga Pujo for me however, supersedes its religious significance. 44 Ironside Road, a government housing estate comprising 36 apartments, is a prominent address from my childhood where I spent my teenage years right up to my marriage.
It was here that I was initiated into the ‘emotion’ of Durga Pujo. We were a close-knit community and all of us came together during this time and celebrated the festival, irrespective of our religions.
I discovered how it was a Bengali festival and not just a Hindu festival. The creative stimulation of bringing the idols from Kumortuli - the potter’s quarter by the bank of the Ganges, drawing the Alpona on the floor, decorating the Mandap - the place where the idol is placed and worshipped, the daily lunch get-togethers where we served food and ate in successive batches, the long hours of Adda - the chit chats and many more… all constituted what I know as Durga Pujo.
I have carried that emotion with me to wherever I have made homes with my husband Subir - in Dubai, Frankfurt and Chennai.
I continue to celebrate Durga Pujo, in my own way everywhere. There are also people like Hemamalini, who has been in Kolkata for most of her life and carries with her the same emotion for Bengalis’ favourite autumnal festival.
She is also joining hands with me this year to give a small glimpse of Durga Pujo in our community. For me, who’s left Kolkata long time ago and for Hemamalini, who’s lived in Kolkata for many years, to celebrate Durga Pujo and integrating it into the Golu celebrations, is like embracing the true spirit of the festival. Like last year, this year too, I have been cooking Bhoger Khichuri and distributing it amongst our newfound friends.
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes
100 gms rice (typically, a special type of short-grained, aromatic rice called Gobindobhog is used to make Khichuri and other rice based dishes that are cooked during any auspicious occasion in Bengal. If Gobindobhog is unavailable online, Kalijira from Bangladesh or Jeera Samba rice from Kerala can be substituted)
100 gms moong dal or yellow lentils
3 medium potatoes, skin peeled and then halved
1 medium cauliflower, the florets chopped off the core
1 tomato, chopped
1 cup green peas, fresh or frozen
3 green chillies
25 gms whole ginger, skin peeled and then grated
3 bay leaves
3 one-inch cinnamon sticks
8 green whole cardamoms
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp turmeric powder
2 tbsp cumin powder
2 tbsp Bengali garam masala powder (a grind of green cardamoms, cinnamon sticks, cloves, taken in equal proportions)
1/2 tsp red chilli powder (optional)
1/2 tsp bhaja masala (a fresh grind of roasted coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, Bay leaf and dry red chilli)
2 tbsp ghee
2 tbsp of mustard oil (only the strong ‘kachi ghani’ or cold pressed mustard oil is used in Bengali cooking)
1 tsp sugar
Salt to taste
Heat a pan and dry roast the moong dal. Stir in gently until the lentils turn golden brown. Wash the roasted lentils and keep aside.
Wash the rice grains in running water. Drain the water and keep aside.
In a deep-bottomed vessel, add mustard oil. Fry the potatoes lightly, followed by the cauliflower florets. Keep aside.
Heat one-tablespoon ghee in the same vessel and add cumin seeds, bay leaves, cardamoms, cinnamon sticks and the green chillies. Once they start splattering, add ginger, tomatoes and the powdered spices - turmeric, cumin powder, garam masala powder and red chilli powder. Reduce the flame, and stir and fry for a little while over low flame, to not burn the masalas.
Gently stir in the lentils and rice grains. Add 4 cups of water, add salt and sugar. Cook with a lid on for 10 minutes.
Add potatoes and cauliflower. Add green peas if they are fresh or else they can be added at a later stage if they are frozen. Continue cooking with the lid on.
Occasional stirring is required to make sure that the Khichuri doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan and is burnt.
Cook until the vegetables are cooked and the rice and lentils are slightly over cooked, into a slightly thick porridge like consistency.
Once done and the Khichuri has been transferred into a serving bowl, add 1 tbsp of ghee and sprinkle bhaja masala on top. Serve hot.