On the homemade food trail during Durga puja – By Arpita Bose
CHENNAI: It’s a sultry Saturday and the aroma of cottage cheese wafts out of Kamona Sarkar’s kitchen in Kodambakkam, as she prepares to make the traditional Bengali sweet chhanar jilipi (jalebi). She is among the scores of Bengalis for whom the four-day festivity starts a day earlier by dishing out food for Ananda Mela, where organising members of pujas across the city bring homemade food to the puja pandal.
Away from the autumn skies and fragrance of shiuli (night flowering jasmine), Durga puja in Chennai is all about going traditional and recreating a home away from home. Food being the most important part of the bonding with friends, Bengali or not, people eagerly await the bhog of khichdi, radha ballavi (lentil-stuffed puri) and alu dum. But before the frenzy of eating out takes over from Monday, it is the homemade delicacies that set the mood for celebrations and nostalgia on Sunday evening.
For 52-year-old Sarkar, a housewife, Durga puja is as much about religiosity as it is about revelry. “I love to be involved with arrangements from scratch be it for organising the rituals or preparing traditional dishes,” says Sarkar, one of the oldest members and the puja convenor at the Bengali Association in T Nagar. Her signature dish, chhanar jalebi, a rarity in the city, is one of the most sought after, says Soumya Guhathakurta joint secretary of the puja committee. “The practice of selling homemade food has been there since the 1960s. Though the food is for sale, the prices are minimal as the idea is not about profit but celebrating all things Bengali,” he says.
The idea of showcasing culinary styles has been a part of Bengali associations across the city. From snacks like ghugni, mochar chop, phuchka, to a full meal comprising luchi, kasha mangsho (spicy mutton curry) to pati shapta, malpua and mishti doi for the sweet tooth, there is something for everyone.
The two-year old Dakshin Chennai Prabasi Cultural Association on Old Mahabalipuram Road has many young women participating in their version of Ananda Mela. While savouries like puli and pithe are highly rated, the young crowd tucks into fried rice and chilly chicken with equal gusto. Hence, Mohua Sarkar’s fusion food of a crispy cone filled with chicken keema is back on popular demand this year. “It has been my specialty for years, something that I picked up from a food magazine,” says Sarkar.
The food fest has also helped some, like Aloke Ghosh, turn entrepreneur. “I have always had a passion for cooking. The positive response for my mustard fish and other dishes encouraged me to open a restaurant ‘Taste of Kolkata’,” says Ghosh, member of South Madras Cultural Association in Besant Nagar.