Like fairytales and family histories, the oral tradition is the greatest repository of Indian food cultures. Cutting across economic barriers, recipes were passed down from matriarch to daughter-in-law, frequently avoiding the daughter, lest she divulge her birth-family’s culinary secrets at her in-laws’. Recipes began to be collated into books for public circulation sometime in the mid-20th century but it wasn’t till 1982, when Minakshie DasGupta published Bangla Ranna: The Bengal Cookbook, that the intricacies of Bengali cuisine were available to someone not conversant with Bangla.
Since then, however, there haven’t been too many books in English that have dealt with the subject in depth. The Calcutta Cookbook (Penguin, 1995) contextualised Bengali food in the larger city story, while Chitrita Banerjee’s Life and Food in Bengal and Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals delved into the history and sociology of the cuisine. My university professor Sheila Lahiri-Choudhury made her mother-in-law Renuka Devi Choudharani’s classics, Rakamari Niramish Rannar Boi and Rakamari Amish Rannar Boi, accessible in translation as Pumpkin Flower Fritters (Permanent Black, 2008), culling workable recipes for today’s kitchen.
Bong Mom’s Cookbook may not be ready for such hallowed company just yet, but its publication marks yet another stage for the Bengali food trajectory. It evokes not the mansions and scores of domestics of a bygone era, or even the clichéd bhadrolok shopping for fish, but work commutes, babysitting hours, glitzy NRI gatherings and a suburban American kitchen umbilical-corded with the mother ship in Kolkata via Skype.
It’s a world Mukherjee Datta recreates well: She has an easy writing style, even if the references to her husband (“H-man”) do seem affected and the occasional wordplay is nerve-grating (‘Not a Dull Day’ for a chapter on dals—really?). But the author is in her element while invoking her growing-up years in Calcutta and elsewhere in Bengal in the’70s and ’80s, referencing packed lunch boxes and lavish Sunday breakfasts, train food and seasonal hilsa feasts. There are poignant memories of eating in the various kitchens of a joint family household, of watching her Dida (maternal grandmother) frying vegetable chops: “She did not share recipes and I never asked. I assumed she would always be there if I wanted to eat something.”
As it happens, when Mukherjee Datta wants to put together a cookbook, her fountainhead is mostly her mother in Kolkata. Perhaps for that reason, in a book aimed at a new generation of enthusiasts, there isn’t anything particularly novel about the recipes, if you discount the half-and-half used for the paayesh (to cut milk-thickening time) or the frozen grated coconut used for narus. “I am a brown, warm person from the tropics and I would like to remain that way,” the author says somewhere towards the end of the cookbook; less explicit is the statement that she would like her daughters to cook the food her mother did.
The sentiment is understandable and perhaps even laudable in a probashi Bong, as the Bengali is colloquially called. But then the question arises: Why describe a classic way of cooking, say, a dhokar dalna (lentil cakes in a gravy) or a kalai’er dal (white urad dal) when there are scores of these recipes on the Internet? As disconcerting is the fact that, barring one or two, no recipe mentions how many people it’s supposed to feed. For the novice Bengali cook, this is a glaring oversight, right up there with the book’s equation of chhana and paneer.
While an index would have been handy, what the newbie will find helpful are the throwaway tips: that the grinder turns mustard seeds bitter, or that it’s perfectly acceptable to arrange koftas on a serving plate and then pour over the gravy. Pick up Bong Mom’s Cookbook for the easy narration; hopefully, it’ll inspire you to pick your mom’s brain for the recipes you grew up eating.