My very Bengali Ramzan

by cookwith2nomads

At this time every year, I am transported to my childhood feasting with our family in Asansol.

I am 10 again and basking in the warmth of wafting aroma of meat cooked all night. For the little me, Ramzan meant a month-long feasting, followed by the excitement of Eid it brought along.

I grew up in Asansol in an interfaith household—Ma, a Hindu and Abba, a Muslim—and lived in a joint family surrounded by Dadi, uncle, aunts and cousins. Every night we were awakened around 3.30 am by the muezzin’s assistant, banging our doors. A ritual so eerie, that it terrified my brother and me.

We sat along the open kitchen corridor, watching Dadi stir up a formidable Shehri— fresh dhuki (rice cakes), parathas with shami kebabs, nargisi koftas, nihari, haleem and paya. I can still smell and taste the succulent paya—its aroma rising from the handi as Dadi removed the lid—cooked overnight on the oven. Had with caramelised onions, coriander leaves and a squeeze of lemon, this dish and its fragrance defined my childhood. Sometimes Dadi made kosha gosht—the meat so intense in colour, that I wondered if she had poured red ink into it.

Iftar was also lavish with dates, juliennes of ginger, black chana with onions and tomatoes, phuluri (flat daal pakoras), pyenaji (pakoras), beguni, ghugni, and fruits, washed down with home-made lemonade—all eaten around a dastarkhan. Sometimes my aunts joined us—each bringing their own speciality of home-made amriti—the size of pinwheels—aloo-kabli (chaat) and rosogollas. If Ma returned from work early, she made peas kachori, malpuas, halwas, payesh and gulab-jamuns—giving the Iftar her very own touch. Iftar was always vegetarian except when Afzal chachaji (Abba’s best friend) sent us trays of keema samosas and an array of kebabs.

You would think, with all this, the dinner would be light, but not so at the Begg household. My aunts showed their prowess in making chaap, rezala and their special meat curries or macher kalia—all Bengali delicacies. After a week of this heavy food Ma—brought up in a Hindu Brahmin household—would revert to vegetarian dinners for us. So, while the rest of the family had meat-laden dinners, Ma cooked us a light raw-banana stew and a dry bottle gourd sabzi, normally the staple for chronically upset stomach Bengalis. On a good day, she ordered masala dosas, chowmein, or Mughlai porota from the ‘it’ places in town.

The intense red-coloured kosha mangsho

Sewai

I was about 10 when I kept my first roja—notice we Bengalis say it with a J. It wasn’t so much the hunger but the thirst that did me in. But Ma was so happy that she bought me a Sound of Music dress—the kind Julie Andrews wore on the poster.

What are festivals without new clothes? And sometime mid-way through Ramzan, Ma would take us shopping. While I had my pick of shararas, gararas, lungis and tops, my brother—a Rajesh Khanna fan—found solace in his guru-shirts. Next stop, the footwear store, which had the most beautiful wedges, platforms and block heels—carefully chosen to match my clothes.

On Eid day we were ready in our new clothes since early morning, impatient to rush to the Eidgah, while the women cooked sewai and parathas. Nearly 40 of our relatives would gather at our house and we would excitedly board our very own Goldwin bus—a ritual I miss so much. For as long as I remember, we had Eid lunch at Afzal chachaji’s house, which Tabassum chachi cooked so lovingly. We started with mattha, followed by biryani, succulent kebabs, a gosht curry—swimming in oil but oh-so-delicious—and sewai. By evening, we were exhausted—satiated with the most amazing food—and sad that the day had ended so quickly.

It’s been more than 40 years since I left Asansol, but every year I am back there in my head for Ramzan. I have tried to recreate Ma’s peas kachuri and malpua, and Dadi’s nihari and paya. But the packaged masalas—in the faraway land that I have made my home now—do not cut it. That touch, and the love with which these foods were created, is missing.

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