Sunday, 21 July 2013

Book review: Bengali Belly Laughs - Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta's 'Bong Mom's Cookbook'

 Total disclosure, thrice over.  I am a cookbook addict. They spell perfect bedtime reading to me.   I do not cook Bengali food at home. Whenever I want some desperately, I drop in on friends who have Bengali mothers. Yes, Bong moms.  

Believe it or not, I have never read a cookbook that made me laugh out loud at midnight or into the wee hours. Till now.  For starters, sample this:

Question: What do Bongs eat?

Answer: Anything and everything, as long as it is followed by Gelusil, Pudin Hara, Jowaner Aarak or Nux Vom 30.
           Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta’s got the recipe just right. She’s a New Jersey-based engineer who set up her own blog, Bong Mom’s Cookbook, in October 2006. It gets 120,000 hits a month. In a new avatar, it is this delicious, authentic, LOL book for Bongs – and the larger world beyond.

Her heady mix? One part US-based nostalgia for Bangali  cookery or ranna. Two parts real-time motherly zest for Sukumar Ray and rooted-in-India culture. Garnished liberally with humorous anecdotes, starring an extended cast of family and friends, her husband (a.k.a. H-man), and her two twinkle-tongued little daughters. Her light touch ensures that the fare dished up works like magic. Via kitchen and blog, she busts the myth that Bengalis survive on a diet of fish and rosogollas.    

Sandeepa deftly adapts traditional fare to everyday American reality. For instance, tossing mushrooms into a poppyseed-paste aloo posto. Just as smoothly, she whips up an image beyond Spiderman on weekend TV during her childhood:  “Ma spent those mornings entirely in the kitchen, her cotton sari damp and turmeric-stained, smelling strongly of Sunday, of mutton curry.”  It makes you want to cook Mangsho’r Jhol at once.

A tech-savvy woman, Sandeepa  sketches in Excel sheet estimates of mutton/ per head in grams as she toils over a dinner menu for 60 to mark her little daughter’s birthday.  She evokes her cross-legged Baba packing her flight-to-the-west suitcase with a pressure cooker, mustard oil and Bela De’s cookbooks in Bangla. She recalls her widowed Choto Dida feeding her leftover ruti  (chappati) with the bati chorchori of potatoes that weaves through millions of Bengali childhoods. Her diary-like stories make time and place collapse in a trice, creating a notion of Bengaliness sans borders.

 My favourite anecdote recreates the melodious tinkling of red and green glass bangles on the wrists of Manu’r Ma, the household help, as sun-dipped colours dance on the floor. With the acuity of a word artist, she brings alive the grinding of posto on the pockmarked black stone sheel-nora .  As deftly, she conjures up memories potent enough for Sandeepa to recreate vegetarian Fridays, a la her Ma, in the US.    

Her recipes worked brilliantly, whenever I reluctantly took a break from her stories. I tried the Posto’r Bora (poppyseed fritters) and Dhone Pata Chicken that H-man wooed her with in Bangalore. Her pages occasionally reach beyond boundaries to include sharing Machha Besara (an Odia fish curry). For, to Sandeepa, food “is life wrapped in a soft egg roll with slices of crunchy onion and bites of feisty green chilli. It has something to tell. Always.”

To me, her family-centricity ripples through this laugh-riddled cookbook.  It is about how Sandeepa mastered Dhokar Dalna step-by-step from her Ma  in Kolkata over Skype, while the latter concentrated on her maid’s mastery of dust under the table. Or her Ma’s theories of why pizza-scoffing children are less intelligent than those on a diet of macher jhol- bhat.  

Sandeepa’s attention to detail seasons her pages. As do her jottings on a perfect onion paste for curry or the Bengali addiction to mustard. Tongue-in-cheek, she addresses questions like: Are Bengali Brahmins vegetarian? What do Bongs eat for breakfast? How come folks originally from East Bengal can eat hilsa on Saraswati Puja, while those from West Bengal cannot?

She brushes aside carping about her non-authentic cabbage sabji or the demerits of making bhapa-doi in the oven.  Denied the green chilli chicken at ‘Oh Calcutta!’ en route from Kolkata airport to her parent’s home, she recreates her own version.

Cook, eat, blog. That was the game plan when Sandeepa set out on this journey. Her authentic, slice-of-life sharings of Bengali life in a wired world win over both the reader and the cook. Take a bow, Bong Mom’s Cookbook, no matter the avatar.  

(Originally published in The Hindu Business Line on June 28, 2013)