Koraishutir Kochuri, Cholar Dal and Niramish Aloor Dum: Classic Bengali vegetarian dishes to celebrate the autumnal Durga Pujo

Koraishutir Kochuri, Cholar Dal and Niramish Aloor Dum: Classic Bengali vegetarian dishes to celebrate the autumnal Durga Pujo

The writer recalls the nine-day Navratri festival and shares her favourite Bengali recipes

Koraishutir Kochuri, Cholar Dal and Niramishi Aloor Dum
Koraishutir Kochuri, Cholar Dal and Niramish Aloor Dum Image Credit: Supplied

Pujo eshe geche! The autumnal Durga Pujo has arrived. The festival welcomes the mother deity to her matriarchal home by cooking up a storm, everyone wearing new clothes and celebrating her short sojourn back.

I am all ready to embrace its festive fervour in our Chennai home, in India. Like the past two years, this year too, we have planned an evening during the nine-day festival of Navratri, where we will showcase the Bengali way of celebrating Durga Pujo in our residential community.

Mainstream Indian movies have an influence in popularising regional cultures beyond their specific regions to different communities. "Surely, you are arranging 'Dhunuchi Naach' and 'Sindoor Khela, ' right?" I am asked by my non-Bengali community friends. These two vibrant features of Durga Pujo have been depicted in Bollywood movies aplenty and have had an impact on them just like many others.

Dhunuchi Naach, the devotional dance with incense, is naturally an absolute must on the list of our programs. The sign off to the celebrations will be done by the traditional Sindoor Khela, where we smear vermillion on each other's faces.

Our stage and venue is our community clubhouse, which may not have the larger than life grandeur of movie sets, but the creative brilliance in the decorations make up for it. The fragrance of flowers like marigolds and night jasmine, Kolams or patterns drawn on the floor in the traditional Bengali style Alpona, with dominant white and red colours, and women wearing white sarees with red borders all recreate the emotion of Durga Pujo successfully.

The devotion of the guests during the 'Pushpanjali', an offering of flowers to the deities amidst the chanting of traditional mantras and the beating of 'Dhaak', the drums that are so intrinsic to Durga Pujo, is a definite testimony to that.

The festive celebrations and the opportunity to share my Bengali roots through its culture and cuisine, Bhoger Khichuri and Mishti Doi, were icebreakers in Chennai after relocating from Dubai three years ago. I can never forget how such a simple rice and lentil dish cooked as an offering during worship won many hearts! 

Passing on the tradition

An exciting thing in my Pujo itinerary this year is a short visit to Kolkata with our teenage daughter, Ilaakshi. While she has never experienced the rhapsody of the city during Durga Pujo, I, too, will be revisiting the autumnal carnival after 16 years. I have carried the emotions of Kolkata and West Bengal, its festivals, cultural and social idiosyncrasies. I may have incorporated a few of them into my present. Not force fitting them, but letting 'them' choose to sink into my timeline in an organic way.

 Passing on the tradition
Traditional Bengali dishes prepared for celebrating Navratri Image Credit: Supplied

Embracing different cultures

I also love learning about regional folklore, cultures and festivals of different places that I have travelled. As we made homes in a few cities - Colombo, Dubai, Frankfurt and Chennai, I picked up elements that appealed to my creative and spiritual senses and embraced them in the celebrations at our home.

I delved into Buddhism while living in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and our tenure in Germany inspired the traditional and elaborate Christmas dinners that have become an annual event at our home. In Dubai, too, it was our home, which had become the venue for our friends' annual Durga Pujo dinners. Now, our residential community in Chennai has embraced Durga Pujo in their Navaratri celebrations and Golu, the festive display of dolls that takes place in South India during this time.

I sometimes wonder if I am subconsciously digging into nostalgia because I wish that our two daughters, who have been raised on foreign shores, get a sense of anchoring and belonging to their origins. While my husband Subir encourages me, he also reminds me that this shouldn't be the primary reason.

He insists that we should do things because it's important to us and makes us happy. It's enough if our two daughters imbibe something from them or make a few good memories they can look back to.

Memories of the Durga Pujo celebrations

For me, exploring my Bengali roots has been a way of discovering myself. For my husband Subir, his work has been his 'home' calling, and I have followed suit. Much like a flowing river, our lives have been meandering through different cities and cultures. While we have discarded a few old thoughts and beliefs, we have also collated new memories and built new relationships.

Our parents had never imposed any of their faiths or beliefs onto us in our childhood or our latter years. I label that a 'Bengali' upbringing, a privilege many of us Bengalis can boast of. As I speak for myself, Kolkata, as a pulsating city, has also had a tremendous effect in nurturing my curious mind.

With a bureaucrat father having a transferable job, I spent a lot of my primary school years in different districts in the Indian state of West Bengal before settling down in Kolkata. I was fortunate to experience an array of religious and cultural festivals across the state. These were unique and sometimes very different from their interpretations in urban locales if at all there were any.

I have vivid memories of the Durga Pujo celebrations in Surul, a village near Santiniketan in Bengal, later known for its association with the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The 'Rajbari' or the mansion at Surul had been built in the 1750s, and the grandeur of the Durga Pujo celebrations weaved an uplifting magic through its dilapidated pillars and structures.

A contrasting experience has been to witness a festive celebration at a tribal village of the Santhals during the same time. A dance around the bonfire and the bonhomie of togetherness amidst homely food cooked on a wood fire in an open pit is still etched in my memories.

Shiuli or Night Jasmine
Shiuli or Night Jasmine Image Credit: Supplied

The fragrant 'Shiuli' or night jasmine carpeting the dew laden grasses at dawn, the happy chaos amidst the festivities - I have unending memories of Durga Pujo from my childhood. However, on the day of Bijoya Dashami or the tenth day of the destival, I always had a heavy feeling of sadness while bidding adieu to the deities and the prolonged festivities. A year long wait for the arrival of the next Durga Pujo felt like a genuine separation from a beloved family member.

It's not yet time to think of farewell. I am going to immerse myself in the electrifying atmosphere of Durga Pujo in Kolkata, revisit some memories from childhood and make some new ones. The festival has earned the city a place in Unesco's (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) prestigious Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. I am so excited that Ilaakshi is going to witness it first hand. Perhaps she, too, will bookmark this Pujo experience as a pivotal chapter from her childhood!

Regional flavours of Navratri

Today, in my Durga Pujo menu, I am sharing the recipes of Koraishutir Kochuri, Cholar Dal and Niramish Aloor Dum - three classic Bengali vegetarian dishes. If I may, I highlight one thing at the very onset - while the other Indian states mostly refrain from eating non-vegetarian food during Navratri, it isn't the case for Bengalis. Even 'Bhog', the food offered to the deities during worship, may consist of non-vegetarian dishes. The 'Niramish Mangsho', or vegetarian mutton cooked without onion and garlic, is one of the popular traditional dishes that is served for Bhog.

Like the above, there are more dishes in Bengali cuisine, the names of which are oxymorons. Aloor Dum, a potato based dish, seems obviously vegetarian to non-Bengalis, but when cooked without onion and garlic, it assumes the definitive status of vegetarian or Niramish! Hence, the name Niramish Aloor Dum, with the lingering flavours of asafoetida and ginger.

The potato dish finds its suitable match in the delicate Luchi, or deep fried fluffy bread or Kochuri with delicious fillings of spiced green peas and a bowl of Cholar Dal by the side. The highlight of this dal, cooked with split Bengal gram, is the addition of coconut pieces and raisins fried in ghee, along with the regular tempering with cumin seeds.

The sprinkling of Bhaja Masala, a fresh grind of mixed spices, and the special clarified butter just before the dish is taken off the fire allows an everlasting aroma. This act of enhancing the flavours as a grand finale is a common feature in vegetarian dishes, specially on my paternal ancestral side.

The autumnal Durga Pujo is a cultural and emotional showcase for Bengalis worldwide. The festival celebrates the deity Durga's terrestrial homecoming to her parents along with her four children – the deities Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartik. Today, the celebration transcends faith and geographical boundaries.

- Ishita B. Saha

May home cooked food continue to connect hearts and stir emotions this festive season for everyone - as always and forever!

The autumnal Durga Pujo is a cultural and emotional showcase for Bengalis worldwide. The festival celebrates the deity Durga's terrestrial homecoming to her parents along with her four children – the deities Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartik. Today, the celebration transcends faith and geographical boundaries.

It's an opportunity for Bengalis to reflect upon their rich cultural heritage and embrace different communities. A call to their roots, this festive period allows Bengalis to tap into their gastronomic obsession, unravel their innate ‘Pujo’ fashion and host never-ending ‘addas’ or conversations at gatherings and get togethers, amongst other things.

Around the same time, Navratri is celebrated in other parts of India. 'Nava Ratri' refers to nine nights when nine different forms of the deity Durga are worshipped. From the sixth to the ninth day constitutes Durga Pujo for Bengalis. A day prior to the start of Navratri is known as Mahalaya, which marks the beginning of the festivities and the deity Durga is said to arrive upon Earth. On the tenth day, the deity slays the mythological demon Mahishasura after a long battle.

The day after Navratri ends, is the tenth day, which is also called Bijoya Dashami. The day celebrates the victory of the deity over Mahishashura. An appropriate farewell for the clay deities ensues before they are submerged in water. The ritual of bidding farewell to the deity Durga and her four children is warm and heart wrenching.

The women smear vermillion on the deities' faces and each other. The men embrace each other in warm hugs, known as 'kolakuli'. Younger people bow down to touch the feet of the elderly in the reverential act of 'pronam'.

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