“Furut Zarif! Furut!”
I did and the remaining milk, rice and candied pumpkin on the plate, which I was refusing to eat, were consumed. Grannies have countless tricks up their sleeves, and this was another.
The milk had come all the way from Barail, Brahmanbaria. It was considerably thicker than what we got from the milkman and also considerably richer. And there was the charred fragrance of burnt charcoal that raged havoc on the olfactory senses. But I found it delightful.
That was my first rustic experience as a child.
Some years later, our whole family went to Marichakandi, where lay my maternal roots, to campaign for a relative running for the Union Parishad election. There was much commotion, fun and frolic. I was captivated by the sight of black umbrellas -- the electoral symbol -- tied on the tall end of bamboos. And there was food. Being the foodie that I was, and still am, I took no time to indulge in the country experience.
After an exhaustive day of campaigning and an evening of political chit-chat, which seemed like a never-ending affair, food was duly served -- watery, hot beef curry with potatoes and moong daal -- grainy to the taste, turned divine with a squeeze of lime. And of course, there was yoghurt. Sugar-free, yet sweet to the taste, prepared in large cauldrons overnight.
That was the rustic charm back then. Fast forwarding to this time and age, almost quarter of a century later, life has changed even in the remotest villages of the country.
Fish has now become a staple in our urban Baishakhi menu. As has vegetables. Chicken is favoured over red meat.
I, however, am still stuck with the rustic charm I had experienced at Marichakandi.
Rustic meal to me is a watery, beef preparation. Our answer to the western stew.
Spiked by the extravagant use of spices and accentuated by the chilli paste. As the flavours unfold in the mouth, it makes your hair stand on end. Potato is an essential element of this preparation, which somewhat soak up the spicy element from the gravy.
With certainty, there are countless variations of this basic recipe. Our home makers around the country have all added their signature touch to it. Yet, the most significant part of the preparation remains the runny gravy.
A chicken preparation that I had the privilege to savour, was cooked by a relative with chunks of garlic. The aroma was pungent, enough to shoo away any vampires in the neighbourhood but the taste -- Mild. Aromatic.
Daal is another favourite. This is where a cook must strike a balance. Too much water and the dish becomes ordinary, not much consistency and the taste is lost. Daal stands firmly as the timeless champion of all local cuisines, Moong being my personal favourite. The grainy gravy does not take the taste buds by storm but offers a delightful experience for the glossal sensations.
The secret to a good daal lies in the bagar. This is where true culinary skills are tested. On special occasions like Pahela Baishakh the bagar sometimes involves a hint of ghee, which liberates a certain amount of richness to the preparation
Some prefer the mushur cooked with chunks of sour, green mangoes. As the dish is prepared on a stove, the mango releases its juices, which combines with the boiled lentil serving as a superb concoction.
It's not that we don't like fish, but when there is meat on the table most of us prefer to stick with beef or mutton. In some households, this simply does not apply. There are people who devour more fish than meat throughout the year. In a time when the spoils of the rivers were aplenty, Bengalis grew a taste for it. And for many the love affair with fish continues.
The seemingly simple Pabda, a sweet water fish, holds a special place in the hearts of many. Potol or pointed gourd is harvested during summer time, and suits best for all summer recipes. While being cooked, its high water content makes an excellent succulent base to build upon different tastes. Pabda macher jhol or the fish stew extracts the sweetness of fresh fish and retains it within the juicy potol. Easy to make, this is very thin and light and is always served with steamed white rice.
The secret to success of these seemingly mundane recipes lie in their simplicity. Some may feel they are too simple for an elaborate lunch/dinner on the first day of Baishakh. True. But these are what we consume everyday. Easy to cook and gentle to our now sensitive stomachs, these timeless recipes have passed on from one generation of homemakers to another. Our rustic charms have followed us from the riverbanks of rustic Bengal to the asphalt jungle of fifteenth century city life.
By Mannan Mashhur Zarif
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed
ON PAHELA BAISHAKH
Baishakh is all about getting in touch with our rustic charms. It's all about rediscovering our identity and it is most certainty all about fun and festivity.
Baishakhi cuisine has evolved over time, as has tradition. The panta ilish may seem pretentious to many but has not yet been eliminated from our Pahela Baishakh menu. Rich, greasy meat preparations have been brushed aside favouring servings of fish, vegetables and daal. And there has been a silent transformation in the way we garnish and set table decorations. Chilled jeera pani or bel shorbot (wood apple juice) for a refreshing start, munchies to go along with the gossip session, followed by an elaborate lunch. Fried fish wrapped with silver foils, and rewrapped with lettuce leaves; hilsha rice served on terracotta platters are just some ideas that homemakers can consider.
Lavish does not equate to artsy. It can be as simple as placing pointed gourd (potol) wedges on fried slices of aubergines and tossing carved tomatoes on top. Sprinkle some ground black pepper and you are all set for a delightful dish on the dinning table.