Bengalis enjoy competitions at Durga Puja, whether it be children painting pictures or men reciting poetry. But Durga Puja is all about enjoying food and on one evening, families cook traditional dishes and bring them to the pandal. Judges taste the food and decide which family has won the cooking competition. The “Great Bengali Cook Off” happens at home, but the judging occurs under a marquee.
If you visit a Bengali household at this time of year, you will be welcomed with a glass of water and a sweet cake, made from paneer curd cheese, honey, pistachios and almonds, called sandesh. We ate a sample at the start of our night out Pandal Hopping.
Of course, Bengalis also have a reputation as good businessmen, so after the judging, the families sell their food to devotees coming to perform puja. Unfortunately, the judges were too busy doing the final rituals to bring the 107 year old Durga image to life, so none of the families wanted to sell their dishes before they had been ranked.
I had a look outside to see what was being cooked by the local chefs, but they had only just started preparing the food, so we left the oldest Pandal in Delhi (at the Bengali Secondary School in Civil Lines) hungry. The next Pandal was on the east side of the city, at Mayur Vihar. There are half a dozen food stalls selling Bengali food outside the temple. We had some spicy cholar dahl soup, followed by mashed potato which had been formed into patties then dipped in batter and deep fried like croquets. With this we ate fried pomfret, also in a thick batter. I loved this really delicious Bengali version of fish and chips. With mustard oil dressing instead of ketchup.
To keep us going, we had a paper cone filled with puffed rice, cooked potato, green chilli, spices and crunchy bits. I have no idea what the recipe was, but it was a lot better than the “Bombay Mix” you can buy in UK.
The main meal of the evening was at Safdarjung Enclave after visiting the Paris Opera (see previous blog). We looked around the stalls and chose Bengali food. On the wall behind the cooks was the menu, with the heading “Kolkata Special – Cranchi (and) Spicy”. We stayed away from the prawns.
First up was a big chapati, spread with minced chicken (well, I wasn’t sure what it was), folded up and deep fried on a shallow wok. Then I tried a chicken wrap, which contained an omelete. Then there was a chicken cutlet, again deep fried. Finally we had a yoghurty-custard dessert which was light, tasty and NOT deep fried.
All this eating made us feel thirsty so some of us had a frozen slush drink called a Kala Khatta Chuski. You scrape away some ice, add cola concentrate, spices (of course), salt and sugar, then make a snow cone on a stick, and dunk it in the melting mush and suck it off the snow cone. It smelled of fish. I had this vision of the ice which was used to pack the fish from Gujerat being recycled for the Kala Khatta Chuski. And it tasted very strange.
I spent some time taking photographs of the other booths.