Love Bengali food and culture? There is no better place to do so at a Durga Puja ‘pandel’
It’s Durga Pujo time again. Which means the time to indulge, mainly by dressing up and tucking in, is here! Head for the pandels (yes that’s how Bongs pronounce it), which not only serve exquisite bhog, they also do it gratis – well as bhog should be! There’s paid grub too, but more that shortly.
Bengali cuisine is easily one of the most finger-licking ones around. The question is more of availability, for loquacious as the tribe may be, they have still to work out a way to serve the food in restaurants at any level approximating to what traditional home style food is. So barring some pretensions to it, or a visit to Kolkata, one is dependent on the largesse’s of friend’s moms, mashis and pishis – remember her from Vicky Donor? And pandel bhog during pujos.
During Durga Puja, yes, on the same days as Dusshera, there has been a tradition of serving langar style food to anyone who wants to queue up. And yes, very rarely will they be by invitation only. However, queues are long, but the result entirely worth it. The most basic servings include a version of rice / pulao/ spicy khichuri (choose pandels with the latter, they are the best), a mixed veg labda or sukto, a bhaja, chatni, paesh and on the final day, fish. Yes, fish is veg and part of prasad for Bongs, did you not %&#^@$ know yet?
Then there are the stalls where you get a dazzling array of food on sale. Most pandels will have some, but to get a really wide choice go some of the bigger ones, such as the Chittaranjan Park pandels in Delhi or Shivaji Park in Mumbai. In Kolkata of course the whole city transforms itself into a giant Mardi Gras type celebration, with matching sounds, art, attire, conversation, crowds, evening laser displays, and sheer frenzy. Do not miss Baghbazaar or Jodhpur Park or Ekdalia, or College Square or Mohammad Ali Park or…
It is highly recommended that you do not try everything in a single day, sadly advice that is often ignored. Pace yourself. After a morning of fasting – those exempted include children up to ages 25, the elderly, those who have to go to work (?!?), the infirm, men who can’t fast, women who sneak in a snack, non believers, anyone who feels tempted by morning luchis and begun bhajas (oh, heaven!) at home – you will have satiated yourself with multiple helpings of afternoon bhog and desserts. A quick few winks, a shower, and a sporting a whole new third set of fancy rustling silk saris / panjabis for the day, you are ready for the evening highlights.
Well, pandel hopping is a tiring affair, and you will need to keep your strength up. Evening choices – at all pandels – include a dazzling array of Mughlai rolls, radhabollobi (a tastier if oilier cousin of the chola bhatura) and fish fry or chicken cutlets and the highly avoidable veg roll and even noodles!!! Combine that with ghugni – sort of rich chana curry with meat chunks. You might be groaning, but what’s a churmur followed by a few phuckhas to round off amidst such joy. Damn, we forgot the biryanis, have go back for a round. Just as a digression, gentle and-some-would-say greedy gourmand, most restaurants in Kolkata also come up with fancy dishes for this period – expect Iilish Barishali or Kochupata Chingri or Chitol Macher Borar Roast… yes, yes, use the online translations.
To round off, spot those huge spherical red cloth covered aluminum handis – they are stuffed with flavoured kulfis. Why Bongs with such a rich tradition of fine sweets prefer kulfi during pujo is one of those eternal queries, but who’s providing answers. For sticklers of tradition, of course the rosogollas, rajbhogs, rosokodombos, a zillion varieties of sondesh, and all their new fangled avatars – look up baked rosogolla and daab ice cream, are of course still there. Tradition says you must have eight. At least.
Meanwhile, to recover, while traversing between pandels, there’s cha served in bhaarns – read hot milky masala tea, over brewed and sickly sweet – a perfect antidote to the rich stuff that is beginning to make itself felt. But do not worry, tomorrow’s another day. Come on, pujo comes around only once a year, and you definitely won’t put on double digit kilos in four days. Though you might miss it by a whisker. Or may be not, but winter’s good for dieting, right? Such gastromonic pandels aren’t around then.