My best friend Raka has a maternal grandmother who is 96. Today she lies infirm and barely coherent after a lifetime of eating what must rank as an extremely spartan diet. It was not economics that imposed the diet: It was a mixture of societal expectations and her own conscience.
Up until three decades ago, Bengali widows were expected by society to cook on a separate stove, using their own cooking vessels—mainly kaasha or bell metal—and maintain a separate set of tableware. They would sit on the floor in the kitchen for their meals, which had a long list of don’ts: no meat, fish or chicken, no onions or garlic. No garam masalas such as cinnamon and cloves. Not even masoor dal (type of lentil) was allowed, probably due to the pink colour. No parboiled rice for sure, though Gobind Bhog was accepted. Raka’s grandmother stuck to sendha namak, the mountain salt that is the norm all over north India for Navratra fasts. In fact, one of Raka’s earliest memories was of her grandmother pounding salt with the other spices on the grinding stone that nobody else in the family used.
If this sounds like prison fare, it sure isn’t. Raka—as indeed all my other friends who have widowed aunts and grandmothers of a certain age—speaks with eloquence about widows’ food. Raka’s parents used to quarrel with her grandmother’s brothers about where the grandmother was going to stay for the next three months. And it was all because of the dal that she used to cook. When she dry-roasted the dal in a bell-metal vessel, the aroma would drive the family mad. She had to keep cooking larger quantities because, widows’ food or not, the entire family would pounce on it.
Sweet tooth: Bengalis use 2 tbsp sugar in tomato chutney.
Other friends recall with trembling voices the dhokar dalna and ash gourd with grated coconut that only their widowed grannies could prepare with such precision—these dishes would taste sublime with the least amount of spicing.
So what exactly is the secret of Bengali widows’ cooking? Could something so simple actually be made to taste good? Yes, because of the labour intensive processes that were involved. Which leads to the question: Do the rest of us overspice our food as a short cut to making food tasty without necessarily taking time and effort over the process?
Another theory is that whatever you tasted in your childhood will stay with you as a pleasant memory. But whatever the truth, it couldn’t have been pleasant for the widow herself. Raka’s grandmother was married at the age of 16 and was widowed slightly over a year later, which means that she has been a widow for upwards of seven decades. And imagine having to end it all at the mercy of someone else’s culinary skills when you are too ill to carry on a lifestyle that has been yours for all that time.
In the old days, no self-respecting widow would have cooked this chutney because of the presence of garlic; today, even fish is par for the course.
½kg tomatoes, chopped
A knob of ginger, peeled and julienned
½tsp panchphoran (Bengal’s five spice mixture containing jeera (cumin seeds), saunf (fennel seeds), kalonji (nigella seeds), methi (fenugreek) seeds and radhuni; the last is available only in a Bengali store).
2 whole red chillies, coarsely crushed
6 cloves of garlic, crushed
Sugar and salt to taste (the Bengali standard would be two generous tbsp, which may be too sweet for some tastes)
5 dried apricots cut into pieces after being soaked for an hour in hot water
1 raw mango, cut into cubes
2 green chillies
2 tbsp oil—mustard or vegetable
Heat the oil in a heavy pan, add thepanchphoran, red chillies and ginger and garlic one after the other. Put in the tomatoes, salt and sugar. Bring to the boil and then leave to simmer till 30 minutes or until the tomatoes thicken. The more sugar added in the beginning, the quicker the process will be. Add the green chillies, apricots and green mangoes, tasting as you go along. What you should try and aim for is the blend of sweetness and sourness that you are comfortable with.
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