My childhood cannot be described extraordinary in any way. But it was different. I am an only child, a daughter in a Bengali household from a small town of Ajmer in Rajasthan. I grew up in boarding school, without ever studying there thanks to my father. Baba is an educator, he worked at Mayo College for so long that in our generation it is considered unfashionable. His tenure in the school is what makes my upbringing different and it is one of the key factors for my fascination for all things edible.
Well, that and the fact that in a Bengali household food is second only to the gods, and books. Ma and Baba have been the biggest influences when it comes to my love and respect for food. Baba would always take me with him on his shopping excursions; it seemed like an initiation rite of sorts. He would always have a pit stop to the tiny little shop, the only one then in Ajmer, to pick up elusive imported tins of meat and fish. Shopping trips to buy fresh veggies, visits to the fish and chicken vendors were a weekly ritual. And while I don’t squirm when a chicken is slaughtered at the butcher’s, I still can’t tell one fish apart from the other (unless it’s a crustacean, Pomfret or Bombay Duck). Oh and lets not even go near my bargaining skills, or the lack thereof.
As a lifelong educator, Baba’s occupational hazard was being a disciplinarian, something Ma happily conceded to. On numerous occasions I was simply not given permission to get up from the dining table unless I finished the very last morsel of food on my plate. I remember my severe dislike for capsicum (thankfully I outgrew that) and turnips (still the most bland vegetable I have come across) nonetheless it was not an excuse not to finish what was served on my plate. They never gave me the ‘hungry children in Africa’ explanation. It was always, “You should learn to eat everything. What will you do when you are in an unknown place?” and for teaching me that I will eternally be grateful to them.
Ma loved experimenting with food. While she is the single most important person responsible for all that I know about Bangla food, she has been a bigger influence for my love for European flavors. She introduced me to Chinese with her chowmein made from Licia egg noodles. She introduced me to baked fish and meat loaf. Her sponge cakes are the ones I still rate the best. I have friends who are addicted to her dry fruit and chocolate fudges and home made cheese sticks. Maintaining integrity of ingredients and produce is a reasonably new phenomenon, I’ve seen Ma adhere to for the 29 years of my life. Judicious and often miserly use of oil, allowing freshness of ingredients speak for themselves have always been a second nature to her.
As a 24×7 teacher in a school there are perks that Baba got, food was one of them; teachers are provided with meals. In a boarding school all meals are catered by an on-campus catering unit or messing, at Mayo everyone calls it the Mess. A large hall with long tables and benches, one for each house served four meals everyday – breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. It is all very Hogwarts-esque, in fact someone once compared my life to Harry Potter and his entourage; it would’ve been so too had I studied there, it is an endearing thought nonetheless.
Baba was the teacher in-charge for the Mess and had free access to the kitchens. My excursions however were few and far between, but I distinctly remember each time I had the opportunity to visit the kitchens. My first encounter with an industrial refrigerator was in Mayo’s Mess; button-eyed and gaping I thought, ‘a fridge the size of a room. How awesome is that!’ The set-up is pretty similar to any five-star hotel kitchen – separate areas for chopping vegetable, for meats, cooking, utensils and service. They used to and I think still do, cook using LPG. Each evening a truck would come bearing fresh cylinders and take back the empty ones, it was one of the things I used to look out for each evening from the roof of our bungalow.
With Ma around we didn’t resort to the Mess on a daily basis, but the weekends were special. Every Saturday and Sunday a four-tiered stainless steel tiffin carrier would be sent to the Mess, it would come back filled to the brim with weekend special dinners. The top most container had the carbohydrates – rice packed tightly and topped with chapattis. The innermost chapatti in the stacked layers of hot unleavened breads held the sweet dish, Besan ki Chakki one day and Gulab Jamun the next day. The small cake like Besan ki Chakki never survived the heat becoming a ghee soaked mush. Scraping off the mush from the chapatti was too much effort, so Ma would roll up the chapatti with the Besan mash and hand it to me as a pre-dinner snack. The savory salted bread offset the sweet mash and the ghee never let the roll get too dry. The combination is somewhat like Ghee-Shakkar-Roti in other parts of North India but very indigenous to the Bhaduri household.