It was November last year when my work took me to a major checkpost at the India-Bangladesh border in Agartala. Between the two countries, where the border literally separated backyards from houses and split families into half, I suspected while talking to Bengalis from both sides that it was a partition that still hasn't attained closure in the collective Bengali psyche.
There are too many things that bind Bengalis on both sides. Language, literature, love of a good argument, food and of course the love-hate relationship between ghotis from West Bengal and bangals from erstwhile East Bengal, now Bangladesh. That is why, standing at the checkpost, my thoughts were with Baba, my father, and Thamma, my grandmother.
I am born and raised in a Bengali family in Assam. To many confused fellow citizens, I have tried explaining that one can belong to Assam but speak Bengali. At home, in fact, only unadulterated Bengali was spoken, learning the script was a must and though we would happily eat an Assamese meal at homes of friends, the food at home was always strictly Bengali.
Neither did any of the Bengali families around us, most of which had either been displaced from East Bengal or had roots they could never go back to, deviate from this staunch food affiliation, especially the generations that had witnessed Partition. It was the same with Baba and Thamma.
“Desher barite janish... ”, or “back in the desher bari… ”, was how a lot of conversations began. Desher bari—which literally means “the country home”, but more appropriately translates to “ancestral home” or, in this case, “the home in the motherland”—was firmly Sylhet (in Bangladesh), no matter where they lived.
A few weeks ago, I posted a photograph of kumropata diye illish, or hilsa wrapped in pumpkin leaves, in a food group on Facebook and a fellow foodie commented saying it reminded her of her grandmother’s conversations that began with—what else?—“Desher barite janish... ”
I realized that for a lot of us whose grandparents and parents had roots in opaar Bangla (Bengal on the other bank), this particular phrase is what stories began with. I remember this is how Thamma’s and Baba’s stories would begin too.
Most of these stories revolved around childhoods and invariably turned to food. There would always be a poignant pause for a few seconds before the story began, as their minds went back to their village homes in Bangladesh. You could see it in their eyes—they were back in the fields that produced the sweetest vegetables and wading through the large hawors (a type of water body) that yielded the tastiest fish.
Nothing anywhere tasted as good as the stuff they had in desher bari. I have listened to a well-known, globetrotting octogenarian energy expert talk about his childhood spent eating fish curry and rice with his father’s boatmen in Mymensingh. And a retired government officer talk about small fishes that he and his younger brother caught from village ponds that mother fried to crisp. The taste of sweets that the local shops made in Bikrampur…
They all had the same look in their eyes when they told these stories.
My Thamma would usually pull me close at bedtime and tell me these stories. I was a naughty child and this was a perfect antidote to my revelry. It was awe-inspiring at the age of five or six to imagine that my silver-haired grandmother was once my age.
It was from her I learnt that she and her sisters would forage the tender stems of water lilies from ponds; they would be made into scrumptious stir fries with mustard paste, or covered in batter and deep fried into crunchy treats. Alas, as close as Assam's weather was to Sylhet, water lily stems were not sold in our local markets.
And then there were countless leafy greens like susni (four-leaf clover), halencha (watercress) and kochu (taro) that she said recalled foraging. Some aided in digestion, some were good for immunity, while others provided nutrition.
Then there were stories about koi, or climbing perches, fish that "walk" across fields and on muddy village roads during the monsoon, where they were caught by young boys and turned into the rich tael koi in the kitchens. It was from her that I learned the importance of resting fields, rotating crops and seasonal eating, and the trick of applying crushed leaves of marigold on minor wounds to stop bleeding.
And then there were songs, limericks and personal anecdotes. I never tired of listening to any of this.
It was always difficult, though, hearing the regret in Baba’s voice as he talked about a home to which he would never be able to return. When he spoke, he became a person I did not quite know. We, who have never been forcefully displaced, can never truly understand the pain of it.
These stories were their only milestones of a life left behind—milestones buffed, polished and gleaming with every narration. They zealously held on to the food they carried from the land of their childhoods. It was one of the few things they were able to bring with them.
Kumropata diye illish was one such story. The mild, humid weather of Sylhet made every leaf sweet and tender. The small hawors around the house turned into gigantic rivers during the monsoon and the hilsa that the fishermen delivered on those mornings glistened silver. The smell alone would draw in the neighbours.
The mustard paste was pungent, ground using a stone mortar and pestle; the mustard oil would water everyone’s eyes. When everything came together in the expert hands of my grandmother, it was nothing short of divine.
As Baba would put it, “It is sad tha will never experience such taste.” That taste could never be recreated outside his desher bari.
Author Sybille Bedford had written that “cooking is at once the most and the least localized of the arts; it owes it development to commerce and to travel, and its preservation to stout regionalism”.
Years and many a food journey later, a part of me craves for the food I ate in Assam and can’t find in Delhi. It is partly climate and mostly nostalgia. That is why, when the BSF guard at the checkpost in Agartala chattily informed me that hilsa was one of the most traded goods there, I wasn’t surprised.
Kumropata diye Ilish Paturi
You will need:
Medium-sized leaves of bottle gourd: eight
Ilish steaks: four
Freshly-ground mustard paste: two heaped tablespoons
Turmeric powder: one plus one teaspoon
Red chilli powder: one teaspoon
Mustard oil: one plus one tablespoon
Nigella seeds: half a teaspoon
Green chillies: four
Salt to taste
Method of preparation
1. Wash and dry the bottle gourd leaves.
2. Marinate the fish steaks with one teaspoon each of turmeric and salt and keep aside for 10 minutes.
3. Mix the mustard paste, the remaining turmeric powder, red chilli powder, salt and one tablespoon of mustard oil. Coat the fish in the spice paste.
4. Lay two bottle gourd leaves by overlapping the board ends, with the shiny sides down. Place one paste-covered fish steak on the overlapped portion of the leaves. Put a green chilli on top of the fish.
5. Wrap the leaves around the fish and turn the parcel so that the ends are tucked in. There is no need to tie it up as the tender leaves stay folded in.
6. Heat one tablespoon of mustard oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and temper with nigella seeds.
7. Reduce the flame and carefully place the parcels (folded ends down) in a single row in the pan. Carefully turn the parcels after five minutes.
8. Cover and cook for 7-10 minutes over low flame. Remove from fire and serve with steaming hot rice.
Note: to make the mustard paste, soak one tablespoon each of black and yellow mustard in water for 30 minutes. Strain and grind into a fine paste with a green chilli and a quarter tablespoon of salt.
Tanushree Bhowmik is a development professional based in New Delhi, with keen interest in documenting and reviving old recipes, ingredients and eating customs. She writes on Forktales.in, which is about food that tells stories.
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