The Bengali term pet pujo is the flavour of the season. With strict social distancing restrictions in place, festivities have been about going back to basics. Food, inevitably, reigns supreme; for one might be able to resist the urge to buy notun jama (Bengali for new clothes), but a persistent craving for bhog-er khichuri (khichadi from the Durga Puja community feast) is hard to overcome.
Home chefs, restaurants and delivery kitchens have risen to the occasion. Their menus feature items synonymous with Durga Puja; the must-haves include—Bengali fish fry, kosha mangsho, payesh and bhog-er khichuri. The last item, however, can start a conversation on why including it in a food delivery menu, not officially associated with a Durga Puja committee, can be problematic.
Bhog, used in the context of Hindu festivals, loosely translates as an offering to God. When a dish is thus named, it indicates a link to this practice. “To worship Goddess Durga, typically, a large vegetarian spread is prepared and khichuri is one of the dishes. There are strict rules: the cook has to shower and wear clean clothes, he or she needs to fast, prepare the food in absolutely clean vessels, no trial tastings and no onion and garlic,” says Pritha Sen, Culinary Historian and Consultant specialising in Bengali cuisine. The food thus cooked is offered to the Goddess and some of it is kept aside as prasad. Worshippers come in large numbers and it is impossible to feed all. So, a community kitchen separately cooks food and a small quantity of prasad is mixed with it. This is distributed among worshipers who partake in a community feast, also termed as bhog. The menu has khichuri cooked with carrots and peas, tomato chutney, aloo dum and batter fried eggplant or bengun bhaaja. Every Durga Puja celebration is organised by a committee and they have members who are usually residents from neighbouring areas. The bhog is served to them and those who visit the puja venue during lunch. A spirit of service permeates this community meal; no one is refused food. To be inclusive, Sen says the community bhog is vegetarian. This year, with public gatherings disallowed, this bhog is being delivered to members’ homes through Swiggy and Zomato, and the puja organisers are involved in social causes pertaining to education, health and elderly care, or charitable initiatives to distribute food and funds among those affected by the lockdown. The bhog-er khichuri is part of these food distribution drives too.
So, Sen points out there is a disconnect when restaurants or home chefs launch Durga Puja Bhog menus or have items like bhog-er khichuri. She is a consultant for Gormei Travel, a Hong Kong-based food and travel company that closely works with home chefs in Kolkata. When they approached her for planning a Durga Puja-themed menu, she stayed away from bhog-er khichuri, instead she suggested bhuni khichuri. Their recipes don’t differ, but why have different names? Sen says, "You see, in my mind, the bhog-er khichuri is something that has received the sanctity of the Goddess. It is not a recipe. It’s a concept.”
The bhog is not the only gastronomical highlight during Durga Puja. Food stalls set up in pandal campuses would jostle for attention too. There would be signature street food specialities such as puchkas, Kolkata rolls and sigharas (Bengali samosas), complete meals with fish and mutton dishes and a whole host of sweet treats such as kala jamun, chom chom and mishti doi. Some home chefs and restaurants have tried to capture this aspect and not mentioned bhog in their menus. Theirs have names like Pujo Feasts or Pujo Special with items such as Dak Bungalow Chicken, Chingri Malai prawn and fish cutlets. In Mumbai, Subhasree Basu who runs a delivery set-up Hungry Cat Kitchen moved away from the usual suspects to offer Scotch Eggs, prawn cocktail salad and mini puffs reminiscent of Anglo-Indian cuisine from the city of joy. In Delhi, Babo’s Home Kitchen cooking up a storm with aloo poshto, chanar dalna and a special platter of bhaaja (fried gourds, cauliflowers and potatoes). In Bengaluru, there's Esplanade, a restaurant specialising in Bengali cuisine with dishes evocative of memories from Kolkata, home chef Srobona Das with her venture Tinni Ginni has a warm homemade affair with dishes like phulkopi aloo bhaja (cauliflower potato fry) and dry jamun and gurer payesh. Esplanade’s founder and chef Shubhankar Dhar was very particular about not using the word bhog on his menu.
But, on social media, Bengalis are posting photos of home-cooked khichuri and describing it as Bhog-er food with emotional nostalgic captions. Is it erroneous? There are multiple ways to interpret this at a time when authenticity of food is debatable and nostalgia runs high. There is little harm in trying to recreate a puja-feel at home when food is a profound connect to the spirit of celebrations. Srobona Das points out, “For Bengalis, Durga Pujo is an emotion.”