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What's cooking at Mumbai's Durga Puja pandals?

Gigantic vessels are out, the cooks are on their way to Mumbai from West Bengal and the city’s pandals are set to welcome thousands of visitors for Durga Puja. Kareena Gianani peeks into the kitchens of two of Mumbai’s grandest and oldest pandals to find out what’s cooking

The second I took my first bite of Khichuri at a Durga Puja pandal last year, I knew just what my Bengali friends meant when they raved about the dish.

The Khichuri was cooked not to dazzle but to inspire, perhaps, spirituality with its simplicity — it had been freshly prepared that morning, and had acquired a comforting, creamy consistency. The Subzi of cauliflower and spinach was flavoured lightly. The Begun Bhaja (fried brinjal), too, barely contained any masala but could give any fried comfort dish a run for its money. I remember the tang of the sweet-and-sour Tomato Chutney and the comfort of the Payesh.

Durga Puja food special

The bhog, says food columnist and blogger Kalyan Karmakar, is meant to replicate a full-blown Bengali meal. “Unlike the Ganpati pujas during Ganeshotsav, which are widely held around homes as well as in pandals, Durga Pujas are largely community affairs. So, traditionally, the idea was to keep the meal simple, inexpensive but representative of the Bengali cuisine,” he says.

The Khichuri acquires its taste from cooking in its own heat for hours after its preparation, believes Karmakar. “That’s also why the same dish at home tastes so very different from the one you’d have at a pandal,” he says.

Kitchen experiments
If you ask 38-year-old Tapan Sahai, he’d say, “Try as one might, it is impossible to replicate the taste of the pandal Khichuri at home because the goddess blesses it so.”

Earlier this week, I meet Sahai, the caterer at the Bengal Club pandal at Shivaji Park. In the makeshift kitchen set up outside the club’s hall is food being cooked for 2,000 visitors for that night. He eggs on a cook to add some more ghee to a gigantic vessel of Khichuri, which will be served as bhog for the goddess for the Amavasya pooja that evening, and every day during the Durga Puja at the pandal. Sahai astutely eyes the contents of another vessel, and asks a cook to stir the cauliflower in it and let it simmer before adding the brinjal to it.

Tapan Sahai prepares bhog. He believes the secret to a delicious Khichuri lies in the timing one puts the ingredients in. PIC/SATYAJIT DESAI
Tapan Sahai prepares bhog. He believes the secret to a delicious Khichuri lies in the timing one puts the ingredients in. PIC/SATYAJIT DESAI

It is too soon to tell, but the large, canopied space near the Devi temple at Shivaji Park will soon resemble Kolkata’s 200-year-old Kalighat Kali Temple. At least 100 workers — some hammering away on the scaffolding, others ambling around during their break — will transform the space for the Durga Puja celebrations by the Bengal Club.

Since a decade, Sahai has been feeding thousands of devotees who come to the Shivaji Park pandal. The numbers have swelled — Sahai began by serving bhog to 2,500 visitors daily and now cooks for 7,000 for three days each — but the taste and sentiment behind his Khichuri, he claims, is unchanged. “Just how much can one do with such a traditional, widely-known recipe, one might wonder,” begins Sahai. “What sets the Khichuri here apart is knowing the precise minute in which each ingredient must be added to the dish. Ek alag cheez ban jaati hai (a different dish emerges),” he reveals. Only after the surti kolam rice, moong dal and the masalas are cooked does Sahai add the ghee and garam masala to the Khichuri.

Bhog typically comprises Khichuri, Subzi, Begun Bhaja, Tomato Chutney and Payesh. PIC/KALYAN KARMARKAR
Bhog typically comprises Khichuri, Subzi, Begun Bhaja, Tomato Chutney and Payesh. PIC/KALYAN KARMARKAR

Sahai is all for experimentation, even in the line-up for the bhog. Usually, the bhog here comprises Khichuri, Begun Bhaja, Labra Subzi (made of cauliflower, sweet potatoes, radish, spinach and cabbage), Tomato Chutney, Payesh and a sweet (such as Mishti Doi or Gulab Jamun). Until this year, Sahai limited experimentation to the sweet dishes, but this year, he decided to push the envelope. He will serve Mishti Pulao, a paneer subzi and Mango Papdi. Apart from the bhog, eight counters set up across the pandal will serve vegetarian and non-vegetarian snacks such as Mughlai paratha, ilish cooked in mustard, mutton cutlets and so on.

“All of this happened by chance,” says Sahai, adding that he came to Mumbai 18 years ago after a fight with his father over poor grades in school. He began working in a Dadar hotel as a helper and was noticed by a fellow Bengali who encouraged him to begin cooking for bigger hotels and catering, too. “I haven’t been to the Durga Puja in Kolkata in almost two decades now,” he says a tad ruefully. “I try to bring a bit of the city in my bhog , though,” he says.

He sources his masalas, and the surti kolam rice from Kolkata. The cooks who set up counters, too, arrive from Kolkata a few days before the Puja.

City’s oldest
The Bombay Durgabari Samiti, which organises Durga Puja at Gowalia Tank is the city’s oldest, and prefers being low-key as compared to other pandals in the city. Convenor of the bhog, Sajlendu Chatterjee, says the pandal prides itself on its homely feel.

For this pandal, the significance of the celebration lies in bringing the neighbourhood together, says Chatterjee. On an average, the pandal caters to 3,000 visitors on the saptami and ashtami (seventh and eighth days) and the committee members here are closely involved with the preparation of the bhog. “The women in the committee prepare the bhog offered to the goddess which is later mixed with the Khichuri prepared by our cooks,” says Chatterjee. Unlike other pandals in the city, the Gowalia Tank pandal does not serve non-veg and egg dishes or those containing onion and garlic even at the counters at the pandal.

This year, the bhog at the pandal will comprise Khichuri, Phoolgobi and Mixed subzis, Mango and Tomato chutneys, Payesh, Gulab Jamun and Boondi. “There will be one counter set up in the pandal which will sell vegetarian snacks. When it comes to food, our bhog is the star of the pandal,” says Chatterjee.

Chanar Payesh

Ingredients
>> 3/4 cup fresh home-made paneer
>> Milk 4 cups
>> Sugar 3/4 cup (or more as per preference)
>> A pinch of saffron soaked in a tablespoon of milk
>> 1/2 tsp cardamom powder
>> Mixed nuts (pistachios, cashews and almonds)

Chanar Payesh

Optional ingredients
>> Condensed milk can be used to make it richer. It reduces the cooking time
>> Corn flour/rice flour can be used as thickening agents

Method
>> Knead the fresh paneer and make small roundels of them and set aside
>> Boil milk under a reduced flame until it is reduced to half or three-fourth of its quantity. Add sugar and the saffron. Stir continuously to ensure the milk isn’t burnt
>> Gently drop the prepared paneer balls into the simmering milk. Let it simmer for a few more minutes
>> Remove and refrigerate upon cooling. Serve chilled

(Recipe and picture by Harini Rupanagudi, who blogs at www.tamalapaku.blogspot.in)

Khichuri

Ingredients
>> 200 gm surti kolam rice
>> 200 gm sona moong dal
>> 50 gm ginger paste
>> 25 gm green chilli
>> 10 gm coriander powder
>> 10 gm turmeric powder
>> 10 gm cumin powder
>> 2 cups hot water
>> 10 gm paanch phoron (roasted seeds of fennel, black mustard, nigella, fenugreek and cumin)
>> 2 red chillies
>> 2 bay leaves
>> 10 gm garam masala
>> 2 tbsp ghee
>> Salt to taste

Method
>> Heat oil in a pan and fry the dal along with the paanch phoron
>> Add ginger, green chillies, coriander powder, turmeric, cumin powder, red chillies and bay leaves. Saute for two minutes
>> Add the water and bring to a boil
>> Add the rice and let it cook
>> After the dish is cooked, add the ghee and garam masala

Mangsher Chop (Mutton kheema chop)

Ingredients
>> 200 gm mutton kheema
>> 1 onion finely sliced
>> 1 green chilli, minced
>> ½ tsp (each) of turmeric, chilli powder, jeera powder and garam masala powder
>> 1 tsp ginger garlic paste
>> ½ tsp sugar
>> 20 raisins, sans stems
>> 2 tbsp mustard oil
>> 3 potatoes, boiled and mashed
>> 2 eggs, beaten
>> Bread crumbs
>> Oil for frying
>> Salt to taste

Mangsher Chop (Mutton kheema chop)

Method
>> Marinate the kheema for some time with salt, dry spices and ginger-garlic
>> Heat some mustard oil to fry the onions. Add the sugar and let the onions turn pale brown. Add green chillies, fry for a minute and then add the marinated kheema. Stir well and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, and break up the lumps till the kheema is well-cooked. Add the raisins and cook covered for a couple of minutes. Dry out the water to make a dry kheema stuffing for the chops. Check for salt
>> In a bowl mash the kheema thoroughly. Add half a boiled potato and mix well. This helps bind the kheema while shaping the chops
>> Mash the potatoes with a little salt. Make sure you have a smooth lump free mash. Make a ball of potato in your hand and flatten it out. Put a little log shaped bit of kheema on the potato and cover it from all sides to form a squat drum shaped chop. Make all the chops in this shape and set out on a plate. In another plate spread the bread crumbs. Beat two eggs in another flattish bowl.
Heat a kadai and pour in a generous quantity of any neutral oil — sunflower or peanut
>> Dip a chop in the egg and coat it well. Then roll in the breadcrumbs pressing the crumbs lightly so they stick. Remember to coat the two ends of the chop too. Fry in hot oil till it's golden brown
>> Serve hot with kasundi (mustard sauce), chopped onions and green chilli.

Recipe and photograph by Rhea Dalal (blog: www.euphorhea.blogspot.in)

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