"But why do I have to eat in stages?" I asked. Everybody looked at me with the kind of disbelief that is created at the slip of a profanity, in the presence of elders. No one spoke for the rest of the meal. Later each member of my family took turns in trying to put sense into me.
What my grand mom said amounted to aping the apes, literally. She maintained, "In the pre-historic ages our primate-ancestors, with their innate but intimate feeling of the vegetation around them, always ate in stages. First the bitter berries, then the leaves and fruits and finally the sweet berries. How can you question their wisdom?"
My mother asked me how else is one supposed to taste the different preparations? "I mean", she said, "I might as well then just put everything together while making it, if you don't want the taste of each individual dish. " Someone else said it helped the digestion process.
But the reasoning centering the tradition appealed to me the most. It not only just came down the ages and established itself as an unquestioned rule but has also survived the vagaries of evolution.
There is not wonder then that a traditional Bengali menu starts with 'Sukto' (bitter) followed by 'Shagvaja' (fried leaves) and culminates in sweets. The space between bitter and sweets has been filled by Bengal's own evolution, and the contribution left by invading Turk, Afghan, Moghal and British rulers.
Like this unwritten rule, there are hundreds more. It could have been the history, tradition, habit, influence or anything really that gives you the feeling of the on flow of time. Food is the primary factor around which every Bengali's life revolves.
Ma likes to discuss the menu of the next course while she is serving the present meal! My father in law wants to know what he should get from the market the next day even while he is putting his bags down from his present trip to the market! Food is in fact one of the most engrossing topics of serious discussions in which, politics, literature, oil prices, current affairs is also dealt with. One can never let that go. Calcutta a land of lawyers, doctors, poets, artists, engineers and scholars is also the haven of the food lover. The demands of the palate have given birth to a myriad of dishes at every nook and corner of every street.
We find an excuse, of the use of food even over and above just consuming it. I have found myself at a loss more than once, when I have had to explain the fish adorned with 'sindoor' and nose ring at Bengali marriages. Because it's pure, is all I could say, more to plunge into an escape route before the next inevitable question popped up.
My father put my agony to rest one day, while casually discussing the history of different recipes. All along the stages of evolution, Bengalis had an abundance of land and water along with matching weather conditions perfectly conducive to growing rice in plentiful. So rice and fish naturally became a source of sustenance. This eventually proved so profitable that growing wheat for many became an agrarian responsibility much below their dignity! Hence even at present and for many years to come fish will remain the symbol of prosperity, sustainability and health. The presence of fish will mean a full life and Bengalis will believe this forever.
There are other confusing habits of course, which one can ponder about at length! My brother in law, a Bengali to the bone, will cancel his appointment for the day if he hears the mention of a banana on his way out. My mother will never fail to make "payesh" on my birthday. My Bengali friend will end all his meal with "mishti doi'. And all of them will mark fish as the most important part of their meal.
The entire world knows that Bengalis and fish go together. But it is amazing how Bengali fish and spices can go together. Bengalis cook fish with poppy seeds or mustard seeds or just mustard oil and 'kala jeera', with ginger, onions and tomatoes or spices one may never imagine. My favorite is the fish steamed with mustard seeds ('Bhapa Maach'). That with rice gives me the satisfaction that I never feel with any other combination.
It takes just about 15 minutes of swirling in the microwave. The ingredients that go in this dish of relish for zillions of Bengalis is below:
1. ½ pound Hilsa /Prawn/Cat Fish
2. 2 ½ table spoons of Mustard seeds
3. 8 (take in as much as you can take)Green Chillies
4. 2 table spoons of Yogurt
5. 2 table spoons of Mustard Oil
6. Salt to taste
7. 1 tea spoon of Turmeric powder
1. Marinate the fish with ½ teaspoon turmeric and salt for 5-10 minutes
2. Grind mustard seeds and green chillies together to a fine paste
3. Mix thoroughly yogurt, salt, mustard oil and turmeric powder to the paste
4. Gently add the mix the to the fish
5. Slit green chillies length wise and sprinkle it on top
6. Microwave the concoction for 10-12 minutes.
7. Serve hot with rice