Durga Puja feast's signature dish Bhoger Khichuri has a divine taste at temples and pandals

The khichuri is the mainstay and is generally accompanied by one or two varieties of subzi (tarkari or chochhori), brinjal fried or fritters (bhaja or beguni), chutney, papad and a dash of payesh.
Bhoger Khichuri made in small batches at home can never match the taste of the dish in mass kitchens (Photo | kitchenofdebjani.com)
Bhoger Khichuri made in small batches at home can never match the taste of the dish in mass kitchens (Photo | kitchenofdebjani.com)

Many years ago, I used to volunteer as a helper for the cooking of Durga Puja Bhog at the Khar Math of the Ramakrishna Mission in Mumbai. That is a huge affair with thousands of devotees coming on all four days of the pujas for prasad. On each day, between twenty to thirty huge cauldrons or degchis of Khichuri prasad -- now it may have gone up -- are prepared for distribution in the afternoons. A young cousin who visted the math much later boasted to the senior monk of the centre that her brother cooks bhog for the pujas. And I became the butt of a joke among the monks who compared me to the politician who apocryphally sold tea at railway stations as a child. The senior monk would tease me about it everytime I met him till he passed away during the pandemic. But that experience taught me, much like making a good batch of masala chai, why Bhoger Khichuri tastes so different from anything one can produce at home.   

Recently, on an Air India flight from Kolkata to Delhi, on the domestic leg of an international sector, I was pleasantly surprised to find “Pujor Bhoger Khichuri and Cabbage Tarkari” on the menu. I went for it over the non-vegetarian option of “Kolkata Mutton Biryani”. It was more out of curiosity and I was quite prepared to be disappointed. However, it turned out to be quite passable. Now, like Ona-Sadhya, Durga Puja Bhog has become a culinary event with many hotels, restaurants and social clubs hosting special Puja Bhog banquets. With Durga Puja tourism catching up, I found some tour operators are offering the authentic “Bhog” experience for their guests by special arrangements with traditional (“bonedi barir”) family pujas. With “probashi Bangalis” living outside Bengal and the large Bengali diaspora overseas, the Bhog ritual has always been an integral part of Durga Puja festivities everywhere. Just like Onam, it is more of a joyous occasion than religious, of which feasting is an essential component.

However, unlike Sadhya -- which often runs into over forty dishes -- Durga Puja Bhog is a simpler fare. The khichuri is, of course, the mainstay and is generally accompanied by one or two varieties of subzi (tarkari or chochhori), brinjal fried or fritters (bhaja or beguni), chutney, papad and a dash of payesh (rice pudding). The khichuri is made of gently roasted moong dal and aromatic short-grain gobindobhog (akin to jeera sambha rice of South India). What makes this khichuri different is the tempering and sambhar that is added to the dal and rice mixture after it is boiled as opposed to before cooking the mixture. However, Bhoger Khichuri made in small batches at home or by restaurants can never match the divine taste of mass kitchens at temples or puja pandals even if one follows the same method and recipe. The scale and the temperature are key in bringing out the taste of the ingredients. Fortune Foods launched a ready-to-cook Bengali Bhog Khichuri kit, which was quite close to the original but I have not tried it in a while.

The vessels, source of fire, level of heat and the medium used for cooking are the key for entry into any temple or mega kitchen. This is true for the Langar at gurudwaras or the Mahaprasad at Puri Jagannath Temple -- where the cooking of Bhog is a science in itself. Sujata Shukla Rajan has written a whole book -- Bhog Naivedya -- about the tradition and history of prasads at different temples across the country. She has done extensive research through her travels on the shashtras and principles from which the culture of temple food has evolved over the ages, delving into fascinating details starting from the location of the kitchen, utensils, ingredients (often based on what is available locally) and when the Bhog is to be offered to the deities. Similarly, Damayanti Datta, in writing about the deadly effects of sugar, has devoted a full chapter on “Eating with the Gods”, where she has explored the Bhog and Naivedya practices, starting from the times of the Buddha, and the holy trinity of milk, rice and sugar.

National Geographic ran a series on mega kitchens of India in which it featured the Annapoorna Kitchen in Dharmasthala in Karnataka which feeds more than 50,000 people daily. I had the opportunity of visiting Dharmasthala and was amazed to see the discipline, efficiency and use of modern technology in managing this mammoth operation. Even bigger and more ancient is the Puri Jagannath Temple. It is reputedly the largest kitchen in the world. A unique method is used for cooking where five pots are put one over the other with fire placed only under the lowest (and largest) pot and the heat is transferred to the pots placed on top through a tiny hole at the bottom of each. The great Bengali inventor Indu Madhab Mallick had borrowed the concept to develop the ICMIC cooker in which rice, pulses and vegetables could be cooked in steam -- very useful for singles or while going on picnics and tours. Alas, it has become extinct now.

During Durga Puja one of the most sought after persons is the President or Secretary of the local Puja Committee - or rather her or his spouse - who controls the distribution of Bhog ‘VIP Passes’. My friend Amitava Sinha is the honcho of the Ballygunj Cultural Association Puja which has one of the best Bhog arrangements in South Kolkata. Therefore, needless to say, his popularity soars in Kolkata’s club circuit in Puja season. Some years back, a common friend -- a neurosurgeon -- spotted a young lady eating prasad sitting all by herself. She looked familiar but he could not at once put a name on the face. Overcome by Puja time chivalry, he walked up to her checking if she would like a second helping and in passing asked, "You don’t live here do you?" "No," she said, "I am visiting for work." Still clueless, the good doctor asked, "What kind of work?" She replied in all modesty, "I am an actor. We are shooting a film at the Puja Pandal -- a crime thriller called Kahani -- and my name is Vidya Balan. Since I love Bhog, Amitava Da kindly invited me over." There ends the ‘Kahani’ of Bhog. Happy Pujas to all.

Read all food columns by Sandip Ghose here

(Sandip Ghose is an author and current affairs commentator. He tweets @SandipGhose.)

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