Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The foodie explains the Durga Pujo bhog

Every Durga Pujo morning would have my mother packing a picnic bag for us; into it went spoons, bottles of drinking water, one bottle of water to wash hands, paper napkins, and maybe a tiffin box or two. These said tiffin boxes didn’t contain anything, if you thought these would hold the picnic food, no, it was to bring back bhog for anyone who couldn’t come for bhog.

This was the annual pre bhog eating ritual , at our home .

The mid day meal at the Durga Pujo pandals aka bhog is open to all, from any caste ,c reed and religion, atleast in the ‘sarvajanik pujo pandals’ , also almost every Durga Pujo pandal (no matter how low on funds they are running that year ) will serve atleast the ONE bhog on Ashthami afternoon, and thus my blog post for our #bloggersdurgapujo is about demystifying the Pujo Bhog.

Most of my blog followers would find similarities to my post on “The foodie explains the Goan Fish Thali” , well this one is the “the foodie explains the Bengali pujo bhog”
Let us begin at the very beginning; the name-bhog.

Bhog , essentially means partaking of Prasad, but here in Bengalis, it is an entire meal in itself. For bhog to be served , it must essentially be served to Ma Durga before we can even think of having it ourselves.

That brings us to the concept of ‘ma –er bhog’ or Durga ma’s meal/lunch. It is not just for her, but for her kids as well, namely Ganesh, Kartik, Lakshmi and Saraswati. If you find a distinct lack of veneration among Bengalis while addressing their Gods, it because more than adulation there is a sense of Adoration, after all they are the children of Durga. And even Durga is hardly one to be feared, especially since she is considered to be coming home to her ‘maternal home’ she is the ‘daughter of Bengal’ (even if she does carry 9 lethal weapons ).
As a child watching Ma durga eating was one of the great mysteries of Durga Pujo, frankly because she ate behind closed doors! Not exactly a door, but come mid day, a curtain made of tied saris, or a big double bed sheet, would be stretched across the idols, such that we could not see the God’s eating.
never before seen 'parde ke peeche' scenes of Ma being served bhog.

“How long will Ma Durga take to eat?” I would ask, hungry to get at the bhog myself. I even imagined her using her three pronged trishul as a fork to feed the food to her kids and herself.
Seemed  like half an hour is a good enough time for the celestial family to eat their meal. And then amongst the rustling of heavy silks, and the cacophony of children running around the pujo pandal and mothers calling out to them , one singular “ BOLO BOLO DURGA MAI KI …” followed by a resounding “JAI”  will send down shivers down the spine, with the realisation that Pujo is indeed here.

And thus began the long and arduous journey for us to get our bhog.
A bit of history here. A few years back, maybe 10 years back. When the crowds were much lesser at the Pandals, most of us enjoyed a sit down meal; rows of chairs and tables were laid out, and people ate in batches. But even back then there would be a mad rush to book our chairs using handbags and even hair clips to ‘reserve’ seats for friends and families. And then someone came up with the concept of ‘buffet bhog’ where a group of volunteers stood in front of each dish and served the people who walked by in an orderly fashioned line. Finding seating after you have been served bhog was another matter in itself. Also in the early days fried sal leaf plates were used to serve bhog, which were more biodegradable, and nature friendly, but now they are either served in thermocol type white plates, or plastic plates.

Now,  the Food itself, to make it uber simple for non-bengalis,(with whom you may want to share this article) I am going to colour code the food.

Yellow- Khichuri, made with rice and moong dal lentils cooked with whole spices is the center attraction of Bhog. Cooked previously by the women of the organising committee, it has now been outsourced to men clad in white banyans, who have the upper body strength to keep stirring the giant couldrons of khichuri over an open fire. Once the khichudi comes to boil, it is covered and allowed to simmer until the rice and lentil meld into one wholesome and comforting meal.
khichuri, p

Green- Labda is made with a mix of seasonal vegetables such as potatoes, pumpkins, beans, green leafy vegetables, brinjals and what have you. This is perhaps the only time one can be convinced to have such a nutritious meal. Labda againis cooked over an open fire, with use of spices and a generous bit of alchemy, Labda is the most delicious vegetarian dish and when mixed with the khichuri is ‘fit for the Gods’. The only catch is that it can never be made this tasty when one makes it at home, and I can just here Ma Durga tell her kids, “ you seem to be enjoying the Labda here, but at home I cant even get you to have one vegetable!” 

photo credit jonaki bhattacharya, note the assortment of veggies!

Orange- Bhaja. This is the customary fried vegetable, mostly brinjal being the vegetable of choice, because again it is one of the vegetables kids love to hate. You see where I am going with this? Most of the items in a typical bhog meal is nutritious and healthy or a sneaky way to make you eat your veggies.

Off white- Ok I have created this just so that Papad get’s it own paragraph. It is after all the most wanted dish in the bhog, “ar ekta papod din” could very well be one of the most heard sentences during bhog. Every one wants another piece, it is the first item to be over long before the bhog serving is over, there is never enough of it to go around for the last batch of bhog eaters. It’s just plain old papad, but the textural addition to the other wise semi solid meal liquidy meal is key to a good bhog meal.

Red- For the tomato chutney, a sweet and sour jam made of tomatoes, soaked raisins, grated ginger and a tempering of mustard seeds is a surprising yin to the yang that is khichuri. Mixing tomato chutney with the yellow khichuri may seem like the most unnatural food combinations, but it works! And sweet tomato chutney turns out great even at home , to recreate the magic later in the year.

White- Payesh. The rice cooked in milk with sugar , spices and dry fruits is the most epic way to end the meal. Payesh seems to be the sweet dish of choice whenever I have visited family , it is the first spoon of food offered during annaprasan, also it is cooked for every calendar birthday in Bengali homes. So it makes sense that it is served when Ma Durga visits her maternal home.

Now , traditionally the meal is supposed to be eaten by hand, and now ofcourse we do that, but as children my mom was worried about unclean hands, germs etc, also if we would touch our new pujo clothes with khichuri smeared hands, and thus we carried our own spoons. The water was also circumspect, and so we carried our filtered, boiled , cooled water. the lines outside the tap to wash hands were long, so we carry our own potable water to wash hands, and napkins to dry them lest we spoil aforementioned new clothes.

While doing my research for this blog post, I read so many many interesting tid bits that I just had to share them here. Firstly, many households serve a non-veg bhog to Ma Durga, especially homes hailing from East Bengal, and especially in the Home style Durga pujas ,bonidir bari pujo, which are more private affairs as opposed to the ‘sarbajani’ barowari pujos of today. Second, not all bhogs contain khichuri! This again was because of the rigid caste system back in the day which allowed only Brahmins to cook rice for the God or to serve rice to others. Many non Brahmin families, till date serve uncooked rice to Ma Durga (and then gift the uncooked rice to the poor), or serve the refined flour puris also known as luchis . infact luchi or the flour puris were the dish of choice served during Durga Pujo, and serving or being able to have rice served from a brahmin home was considered great good fortune. Third, on the last day that is dashami, a meal of old fermented rice (paanth bhaat) is eaten by the ladies of the house before bidding goodbye to their beloved Ma, it is because either everyone is too sad that the festivities are over and no one feels like cooking a fresh meal, or the mythological version where Ma Durga is so eager to return to her husband residing in Mount Kailash, that she eats left overs and leaves for her heavenly abode.

From non-veg fish bhogs, and even a ‘vegetarian goat meat dish’ made without onions and garlic, to the tradition of eating leftover/stale rice , I came across umpteen blogs and articles online about Bhog, and the written word is perhaps the best way to keep our traditions alive.
As I keep my traditions alive , for myself, and share my childhood tradition of picnic packing our bhog, in the form of written blog, I hope you share your family traditions, and stories related to bhog here on the blog with me.

Let’s keep the festive enthusiasm infectious with #bloggersdurgapujo.

Share your bhog pictures with me, all through the festival on instagram using the hashtag #bloggersdurgapujo, and see it featured in this article by the end of the week! 

Durga Pujo is celebrated with immense joy and enthusiasm by Bengalis all over the world. Join Four bloggers from four different parts of the country as they bring to you a kaleidoscope of festive fervour in the form of blog posts and videos for an entire week . We hope to entertain, inform and enthrall you in a quest to involve everyone in our moment of joy. I am happy to be one of the cocreators for this creative team called #bloggersdurgapujo 

Participating bloggers are

Rahul Basu 

Shamik Byabartta

Kuheli Bhattacharya

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