Growing Up in Bengal
I was born in Bengal, but grew up
in the heart of India, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. As a child growing
up in a steel township where my father worked as an engineer, my siblings
and I had the opportunity to play in the yard, for our house was on
the first floor of the building. It was part of a block that formed
part of quarters provided by my fathers employer,
a steel plant that spewed red smoke into the sky.
While I played in the garden, I
could smell the smells that came from my mothers kitchen. While
I chased butterflies and dragonflies flitting from flower to flower,
I inhaled, subliminally, the smell of mustard seeds that went pop pop
pop in hot oil in a kadai. (Kadai is a sort of Indian wok,
deeper than the Chinese wok). I also smelled I learned the name
later panch foron, or the Bengali five-spice combination.
They are fennel, mustard, kalonji, fenugreek and cumin.
But, above all, I smelled fish (no
pun intended!). While I ran about the house and tried to trap butterflies
fluttering among yellow cosmos swaying in the autumn breeze, I smelled
the smell of fish frying in mustard oil. And, I heard the sizzle.
For a reason I cant tell,
but guess as instinct, I couldn't stay away much longer merely inhaling
these smells from afar. I meandered into the kitchen and hovered around
my mother. As a boy, I hung on to her apron strings (well, actually,
sari), as it were. I would watch her slide pieces of raw rui
a fish of the carp family over the side of the kadai.
This smell and the sizzle left an
indelible impression on my subconscious mind. I took to cooking as a
duck takes to water. As my mom cooked, I would putter in the kitchen,
looking for things to drop in the kadai or pot over the chulha.
More about the chulha later, but some things I sprinkled into the chulha.
Among these things was salt. The salt would pop and sputter in the fire,
emitting blue sparks. I got hooked to the crackle of cooking right then.
Chulha is an Indian
cooking furnace the shape of a bucket. Its made with clay and
steel rods so as to form a cavity inside for coal, as fuel. Where did
the coal come from? Remember my dads steel plant that I mentioned
in the beginning? We used to get coke, or treated coal, free from the
steel plant because its a by-product of steel making. During those
early times, liquid petroleum gas hadn't arrived in India, at least
in the part of India where I was growing up. So, we cooked on a chulha,
which is actually called unan in Bengali (Chulha
is the Hindi word.)
As fish would cook, I would stir
or flip it with khunti, or a steel spatula. This is another utensil
somewhat similar to its Chinese counterpart, but narrower and straighter.
I just loved stirring anything! My mother cooked all kinds of stuff:
fish, goat meat, vegetables, egg and lentils.
But fish was always a constant.
Ours was a truly Bengali home, and so fish formed a principal part of
our cuisine. Bengalis (folks from Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal,
India) share a passion for fish, especially ilish, a fish of the herring
family very similar to the American shad.
My father bought fish often. During
those early days in his career, when he was raising a family in Indias
heartland, he didn't have enough money to buy a car. I remember him
riding a creaky bicycle, crossing the railroad tracks in front of our
house in the darkness of winter evenings, and traveling several miles
to buy fresh fish. I would sometimes ride behind him on the pillion
seat. I remember the sound of tires rolling over red, gravely dirt roads,
the soil rich in iron ore.
He would buy mostly rui and katla,
both of the carp family, but also sometimes ilish and other fish. He
would often buy whole fish, and at home my mother would cut it up with
a boti, a steel blade attached to a long, flat wooden base
that the user holds in place underfoot. She would squat to use the boti.
My mother would gut and clean up the fish, saving the entrails to bury
under some tree in our backyard for manure.
We had fish almost every day. Two
of the most frequent dishes that she cooked were macher jhal (peppery
fish) and macher tarkari (fish and vegetable curry).
I grew up on these dishes. I went
to America for higher education. Being a Bengali, I had always loved
fish, but when I arrived in America I was never sure I would like the
fish available there, for almost all of it would be marine. In fact,
fish is considered seafood in America while in India a substantial
portion of fish comes from freshwater. I had grown up on ruhi and katla,
fish of the carp family. The only purely saltwater fish I had eaten
was pomfret. I remember the way I winced when, while flying for the
very first time to the United States, I was served smoked salmon on
board a British Airways flight. I ate it, the nervousness of first travel
abroad still fluttering inside me, but I cannot tell if I liked it.
A couple of years later, though,
as I ate at Faculty House, a campus dining club where I worked as a
waiter, I discovered the delights of fish afresh. After working my shift
serving blackened wahoo and broiled orange roughy and baked red snapper
to University of South Carolina professors, I would sit down to lunch
with colleagues. I would eat the same preparations (Ah, the benefits
of working as a waiter!), relishing the fish to my hearts wish.
(Later on, throughout my stay in America, tuna sandwich became my staple
My relationship with fish was restored.
I realized that fish can be tasty anywhere, whether it be or riverine
or marine. In America I cooked Indian food, including fish, first out
of necessity. I didn't have my mama with me. Then I learned to cook
foods of other countries out of interest and curiosity, especially after
my stint as a part-time cook at a Marriott cafeteria on campus. But,
I will always remember those boyhood days when I first stirred food
with my mother, especially the sputtering of mustard seeds in mustard