The novel Those Delicious Letters by Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta traces Bengali cuisine through the lens of fiction. It is proof that there is no set template for writing food books.
The protagonist, US-based Shubhalaxmi Sen-Gupta, is so pained by her mother’s death that she avoids cooking anything which will stir memories. One day, out of the blue, she starts receiving inland letters from Kolkata every month. Each letter contains family anecdotes, engaging stories of small and big celebrations with menu details, and recipes from a Rannar Khaata (handwritten cook books maintained by Bengali mothers and grandmothers in the past). Each letter is signed-off as 'Bhalo theko, Didan' (translated as ‘Stay well, from Grandma’ in Bengali). The sender, however, is unknown to her.
The book is a light read, but the food aspect imbues the narrative with a deeper look at the culinary traditions of middle-class Bengali families with commentary on how each dish holds seasonal and cultural significance.
This excerpt from the book talks about one such recipe, Niramish Mangsho or 'vegetarian' mutton curry, regular fare during Durga Puja feasts:
Niramish mangsho or vegetarian mutton curry would sound like an oxymoron to most. But not to meat-loving Bengalis, who found a way of offering to gods—a mutton curry cooked sans onion and garlic and thus labelled as ‘vegetarian mutton curry’. The roots of this dish go back to the Hindu ritual of animal sacrifice and offering it to the gods. In Bengal, this ritual was a part of the ninth day, Nabami on Durga Pujo and Kali Pujo. The sacrificed animal was considered as an offering to the gods and cooked without any onion and garlic (considered non-veg as per tradition), the mutton curry was deemed as ‘maha proshad’ – ‘food blessed by the Supreme Being’. This recipe serves four to five adults.
Mutton – 2 lbs/1kg (buy cuts like front shoulder or back leg)
For Marinating the Mutton
Thick yogurt – ½ cup
Ginger paste – 2 tbsp
Turmeric powder – ¼ th tsp
Red chilli powder – ½ tsp
Garam masala powder – 1 tsp, loosely packed
Salt to taste
Mustard oil – 2 tsp
For Tempering I
Bay leaves – 2
Cloves – 4
Green cardamom – 4
Cinnamon stick – 2’ stick
Dried red chillies – 2
For Tempering II
Ginger – 2’ knobs of ginger grated to almost 2 tbsp of it
Asafoetida – ¼ th tsp
Kashmiri mirch – 1 tsp, loosely packed
Mix the above spices in a little water to make a paste.
Making the Masala Paste
Cumin seeds – 2 tsp
Coriander seeds – 2 tsp
Fennel seeds – 1 tsp
Dried red chillies – 2
Soak all the above in lukewarm water for 15 to 20 minutes and then put in a blender to make a wet masala paste.
Tomato – 1, ripe and juicy
Green chillies – 2 or 3
Garam masala powder – ½ tsp
Nutmeg powder – a pinch
Javetri or mace – 1 petal
Salt to taste
Sugar – 2 tsp
Mustard oil Ghee – 1 tbsp
Marinating the Mutton
Buy and wash goat meat thoroughly.
Place the washed mutton pieces in a wide, open-mouthed bowl.
Add all the ingredients listed above for marinating the meat and toss the mutton pieces, making sure the pieces are coated with the spices.
Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Cooking the Mutton
In a wide-mouthed pan, heat about ¼ cup of mustard oil. Add two tsp of sugar and swirl it around until it browns.
When the oil is hot, add the whole spices for tempering. When the whole spices sizzle, add the grated ginger, hing and the Kashmiri mirch paste.
Sauté for 30–50 seconds. It will give off a lovely fragrance.
Now add the chopped tomatoes and sauté for a minute.
Add the mutton pieces, reserving the marinade liquid for now.
Fry the mutton pieces at medium high heat until the meat pieces lose their raw colouring.
Next, mix the wet masala paste with ¼ cup of yogurt and whip it well. Pour this into the pan, stir and mix the spices and mutton.
Cook at medium heat for around 15 to 20 minutes, stirring frequently.
For the next steps, you can continue cooking it in the pot or you can switch to a pressure cooker. It will take an hour or more in a pot and about twenty minutes in a pressure cooker. Transfer everything to a pressure cooker, if you choose to go ahead with the latter.
Add the marinade liquid and 1-1½ cups of water at room temperature to it.
Add the garam masala powder, nutmeg powder and mace. Mix well.
At medium heat let the gravy simmer and come to a boil. Taste for seasonings and add salt/sugar as needed. Soon you will see a fine layer of oil floating on top. Add the green chillies then.
Put the lid on the pressure cooker. Cook for five whistles in a whistling pressure cooker.
In a Futura-like pressure cooker, once the steam builds up, the mutton will be cooked in about 15 to 20 minutes.
Serve with steamed rice or pulao.
Extracted with permission from 'Those Delicious Letters' by Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta published by HarperCollins India