My mother-in-law and I built our relationship on a foundation of cooking, eating and talking about food. It all started with fish, and it wasn’t easy.
Unusually for a Malayali Nair, I was brought up a vegetarian. When I first announced my intention of marrying a Bengali, it was the prospect of fish that most horrified my mother and aunts. “They won’t let you off,” I was told. “They eat fish and only fish every day, at every meal. You’ll have to swallow it or starve. Just wait and see.”
Sure enough, on my first morning in the family headquarters in Howrah, I found myself engulfed in fish. Swathed in a prickly Banarasi sari and loaded with bullion, I was handed a little wicker basket and hustled through a bewildering series of rituals. The basket, my sister-in-law whispered gleefully, contained a live fish.
I froze in terror – even though I couldn’t see the fish, I thought I could feel it flopping around. The fish basket was soon whisked away, but there was no escaping the fishy theme. Intricate fish motifs drawn on the floor, fish-shaped sindoor boxes, saris with fish-scale borders, fish-shaped earrings, huge platters of fish-shaped sandesh and finally, at lunchtime, an enormous whole fish as the centrepiece of my shining silver thala.
Nearly fainting with hunger, I scrabbled clumsily at it, watched by a circle of smiling and bejewelled ladies clad in red-bordered white silk saris. Thankfully, before my ineptitude became too obvious to ignore, my sister-in-law came to my rescue and took over the fish, demolishing it effortlessly and efficiently while I polished off everything else I could see (all of it vegetarian, thanks to some manoeuvring behind the scenes by my mother-in-law).
To the surprise and delight of my mother and aunts, it turned out that my Bengali in-laws had an excellent vegetarian repertoire, more than a match for our sadya in the number of dishes and range of tastes on offer. Even more impressively, they had a separate vegetarian kitchen presided over by my formidable grandmother-in-law in her pristine white sari, tulsi beads and sandalwood paste tilak. The Malayali contingent (guilty of ulli sambar and ulli thiyal and ulli chammanthi) retreated abashed when told that not even onions and garlic were allowed to cross the threshold of this holy of holies.
They went back to Kerala satisfied that their vegetarian girl had nothing to fear in this family.
But I couldn’t get away from fish for long. Various branches of the family tree would descend on us for long weekends in our lovely corner of the Eastern Himalayas. After a few feeble attempts, I stopped pretending that I knew what I was supposed to do. The senior ladies would take over the kitchen and turn out massive meals, tut-tutting at the state of the larder while our cook (sober on these occasions and therefore completely nonfunctional) hovered grumpily on the margins.
Fresh fish of various kinds would appear every morning, and would be turned into bhaja, kalia, ghonto and paturi. It was magical. No one seemed to care about my casual approach to housekeeping. The fact that I had a field job and came home only on weekends was accepted as sufficient excuse for the sorry state of domestic affairs.
But things changed when I had a baby, left my job and became a full-time wife and mother. The holidaying hordes still swept northwards to engulf us at regular intervals, but now my son was the focus of their attention. I wound my pallu round my waist and prepared to prove my credentials as a domestic goddess. After three years of eating Bengali food, I was fairly competent at putting basic daal-bhaattorkari meals on the table, apart from my own interpretations of South Indian food – the authenticity of which was never questioned. I had also acquired a rudimentary oven and could turn out a creditable cake or cottage pie in my precious Pyrex dish.
But fish was my downfall.
On their first visit to our new home, my mother-in-law and her sisters watched in horror as I tackled the mountains of fish that Baba ferried home from his early morning trips to the market. I would plop the thick steaks of rui and katla into half-heated oil and then nudge them around impatiently, poking and prodding until they disintegrated completely. My ilish macher paturi was redolent of burnt ginger paste and my chingri jhal had a distinct tang of vinegar. My bhetki fries were misshapen and soggy, my doi maach floated in a sour and curdled gravy.
It was hard for my victims to swallow these abominations – the fact that they did so with equanimity is a tribute as much to their strength of will as their affection for me.
It was my mother-in-law who taught me to cook Bengali food. She lived with us off and on for two years after Baba’s return to India from his final overseas posting. She was already well into her last illness, although we didn’t know it then.
Standing in my hot and stuffy little kitchen made her breathless, so she would lie on the sofa in her room and tell me what to do. I would run to her from the kitchen with, “Okay, done that, now what?” and then run back for the next step. Since I had little idea what the final product was supposed to look or taste like, the jhols and chorchoris and chenchkis I dished up were sometimes far removed from the canonical versions, but – to my own surprise – always edible and sometimes even delicious.
Sitting at the dining table after everyone had finished lunch, Ma would conduct a detailed post mortem of the day’s experiment. This is where her genius as a teacher revealed itself. She would taste my offerings once again, thoughtfully licking a drop of gravy or fragment of fish off the tip of her finger and working out exactly where I had departed from practice.
Very often, it was my ignorance of the basics that caused the derailment. I had no idea that the moong dal for khichudi has to be dry roasted and cooled before being washed (I washed it first). No one had told me that the ginger-cumin paste for dalna needs to be fried till it begins to stick to the bottom of the korai, with careful sprinklings of water to keep it from burning (I either under fried it or scorched it).
I did not know that gorom moshla has to be added at the end of the cooking process, with its components in the right sequence (I powdered everything together and added it too early). I was unaware of the importance of adding a spoonful of sugar to the boiling payesh and waiting for it to cool before adding the jhola gur (I poured the gur straight into the boiling milk and watched it curdle).
I was not aware that potatoes have to be halved or quartered for dalna, cut lengthways for everyday macher jhol and cubed for chorchori (I went by the mood of the moment). It was those after lunch sessions with Ma that helped me to internalise these precepts – things that I now take so much for granted that I forget to mention them when I’m passing on recipes, just as she did when she was instructing me.
Ma taught me the basic rules of Bengali cooking and then encouraged me to break them. Many times, she declared my version of some classic preparation better than the original. Like my own mother, she believed that simple everyday food was the true test of a good cook.
A mishap with a kalia can always be rescued with ghee and gorom moshla, she would say; but the perfect balance of flavours in a simple macher jhol or plain moshurir dal cannot be achieved without a complete mastery of technique.
Ma got me hooked onto green chillies – I’m as addicted to them now as she was. I remember her cure for my morning sickness: a tiny mound of gobindobhog rice topped with a few drops of golden ghee in the exact centre of a shining brass thala, a pinch of sea salt, a slice of lime and two glistening green chillies on the side, and Ma egging me on to bite into them, promising me I would feel better. Sure enough, I did.
She encouraged me to experiment with vegetarian versions of meat and fish dishes, telling me the story of how her own father, horrified to see a live catfish being chased round the kitchen by a cleaver-wielding cook, turned vegetarian in his last years.
Her mother, unusually for the times, refused to give up eating fish just because her husband did not want to. Instead, she invented a vegetarian mirror image of every fish preparation that emerged from her kitchen. Many of these creations – like her vegetarian version of muri ghonto – were so outstanding that they became a part of the family heritage, cooked on special occasions and eaten with ceremony.
When I think of our cooking conversations now, I am struck by how rarely Ma ever declared anything a complete washout. Failures – even curdled payesh – could always be reconstituted into something new and surprisingly good. Nothing need be thrown away – not even vegetable peelings or the spiced oil at the bottom of an empty pickle jar. This parsimony was a legacy of her time as a young bride faced with a house full of hungry relatives pouring in from the other side of the border, with Baba’s salary the only money coming in. People came and went from day to day – she never knew how many she was cooking for.
Very often, there was only rice left for the women of the house when they sat down to eat after feeding everyone else – every drop of jhol and every tiny fragment of fish would have been polished off by the visitors. The women would scrape the dry rice off the bottom of the pot and wolf it down with a quickly concocted relish of tamarind pulp mashed together with salt, sugar, chopped green chillies and a smidgen of that leftover pickle oil.
I replicated this relish one day as a surprise for her. Tears came to her eyes as we sat there licking our fingers, the taste bringing back her memories of life in that claustrophobic household with no money, no privacy, no rest, no fun, no time for anything but an endless cycle of cooking and cleaning and caring for a house full of people.
The anger and despair of that time came alive for me in her stories. The feckless brother-in-law who every morning offered to go and buy fish, took money from Baba and disappeared for the day, returning at dinner time to grumble about the vegetarian fare even as he devoured more than his share. Another, a gambler, who would bring home a small leg of mutton on the rare occasions when he won, and then hover over her as she cooked it, every now and again spooning out a chunk or two to see how it was coming along.
When the curry finally came to the table, it would be more gravy than mutton, which gave him an excuse to wink and nudge her, asking her if she had been tasting her own cooking, and telling her to make sure his children got their due share of what remained. Her father-in-law, loving and kind but forever lamenting the fact that he never got a cup of tea quite as hot as he liked it; she would race from the kitchen to his room at the other end of the long veranda with a glass of boiling tea, insulating it as best she could with the end of her sari, but still either spilling it or letting it cool before it reached him.
I already knew all these people, the subjects of Baba’s stories about his eccentric family. Now, hearing about them from Ma, I seethed and wept angry tears for her. The prickly boundaries I had erected around myself – my protection from being swallowed whole by this frighteningly boisterous and demanding family – dissolved and disappeared. We became friends.
In her last days, exhausted and weak, Ma would turn away from fish. “Give me something different,” she would tell me. “Something from Kerala.”
A few sips of rasam with green peppercorns, a morsel or two of coconut rice, a baby-sized idli or a tiny appam with a spoonful of stew – that was all she could manage. But she would smile, kiss my hand and say, “What a wonderful cook you are mamoni – ki bhalo khelam!”
Chaalkopi (my grandmother-in-law’s vegetarian version of muri ghonto)
Take two medium-sized clean cauliflowers, separate the florets, wash and drain. Toss with salt and turmeric when dry.
Heat a ladleful of good mustard oil in a kadhai and fry the cauliflower florets, putting in a few at a time and removing them when nicely browned. Drain and keep aside.
Peel and cube two large potatoes, deep fry in the same oil. Drain and keep aside.
Now reduce the quantity of oil in the kadhai and temper with one large bay leaf, two or three green cardamoms and one small piece of cinnamon.
Add the paste of one large onion. Fry till the oil separates and the paste becomes light brown. Add two generous teaspoons of fresh ginger paste, a couple of slit green chillies and one teaspoon of ground roasted cumin. Fry this masala for a couple of minutes, sprinkling water if necessary to keep it from burning.
Add the fried potato cubes and saute for a minute.
Add 1/2 cup of washed and drained gobindobhog rice (you can substitute with basmati if you like). Saute for a couple of minutes and add the fried cauliflower pieces.
Add salt and some red chilli flakes, mix well. Now pour in a cup of water and cook at low heat, checking from time to time and adding more water if necessary.
Grind a couple of green cardamoms, two or three cloves and a tiny piece of cinnamon in a couple of spoonfuls of water.
When the rice and potatoes are done, turn off the heat and finish with a sprinkle of the masala water and a big dollop of good desi ghee. Mix lightly and serve hot. The final product should be moist, but not soggy.
Kalyani Menon-Sen is a feminist researcher and writer.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty