A gastronomic journal
Our next stop was Natore on our way to Rajshahi. The morning trip was filled with meetings on the way as well as mandatory visits to local educational institutions. What with the heat rising with the relentless sun, and dusts gathering all over my body, I longed for a dip into one of the way side dighis that Natore was famous for. But that was a wish that would remain unfulfilled.
We stopped for lunch at Singra, the home base of the local MP who invited the minister for lunch at his house. The spacious house was fronted by a large pond and was surrounded by different kinds of fruit trees, mainly mango and lychee. We quickly got into bathrooms to get rid of the tons of dust and dirt that our bodies had gathered. We were ushered later into a large hall that served both as an assembly hall and a dining room for the family. The treats for us that day came from the neighboring Chalan Beel.
Chalan Beel is an extensive lowland that spreads across several thanas of Natore, Faridpur and Serajganj. It consists of a series of beels connected to one another by various channels to form a continuous water body during the rainy season. Although the beel area expands into a vast water body during the monsoon, it dries out in the winter months, leaving only patches of water in the central parts of this zone. During wet season the Beel is the harvesting ground for a variety of fish, large and small, which are caught by fish nets by fishermen in the area. In the winter months the beel becomes a habitat of migratory birds, ducks being a common variety.
The most common fish in Chalan Beel were shoal, gajar, chanda, chapila, tengra, and punthi. For our late lunch that day, the host had arranged mostly dishes made from local fish. We began our meal with a mash (bharta) made of steamed Shoal fish mixed with raw onions, green chilies, and mustard oil. This was followed by Mourala Maachh Charchori, a wonderful dish made with tiny Mourala fish fried in onions, red chilies, and diced potatoes. The next item was fried slices of Pangash topped by tomatoes and roasted red chilies. It was followed by fried Chanda fish cooked with potol in thick gravy. With four dishes already served I thought we had concluded the lunch menu; but to my surprise and delight more dishes were to follow.
The next dishes that arrived also originated from Chalan Beel. The first was Chapila cooked in a light sauce with lemon leaves, and the second was Rui Maachher Jhal – an extremely hot curry of famous carp of the area cooked with fiery North Bengal chili. The curry was so hot that my head was steaming with sweat. Luckily the fiery lunch was brought to an end by a mouthwatering payesh (rice pudding) made with mangoes, and the most delectable Natore Kacha Golla. The Kacha Golla was brought by the host from Natore town, where this legendary confection was created. Made from casein (chhana) of full cream milk, the sweet is prepared as soft balls that melt in your mouth. It is utterly delicious when eaten with mangoes. Kachagolla reportedly originated from the kitchens of Natore Maharajah, and it was popularized by Darik Bhandar, a sweet shop near Kalibari, Natore.
We moved on from Singra to Natore town where more political engagements awaited the Minister. In the evening we lodged in the old palace of Maharaja of Dighapatia, which was taken over by the government and run as a rest house. (Later that year it was converted to Prime Minister’s official residence in North Bengal and named Uttara Ganabhavan.)
The evening dinner was arranged by the Deupty Commissioner of Rajshahi, and it brought out the very best that the cook in that rest house could produce. The dinner was very late since the Minister had a marathon session of meetings with officials, political workers, and other visitors. But the waiting was worth the while.
We started the meal with fish—large steaks of Rui fried and cooked in a heavenly sauce of chilies and garam masala. This was followed by roasted Bagari—a unique species of migratory birds tiny as sparrows that assemble in Rajshahi area in the dry season and feed on recently harvested paddy fields. (The birds are caught by throwing nets on them. Although these birds are only available in winter, what we ate that night was procured from the Freezer of a local businessman, a known hunter in the area.) They are so tiny that cleaning these birds and cooking them require enormous patience. One could eat half a dozen of these roasted delicacies easily.
I will mention only two other items among the many that were served that evening because the other dishes were not un- common in the rest of the country. One was whole Hilsa cooked in mustard sauce and garnished with green chilies, and the other a curry made with crushed goat head. I had eaten Hilsa preparations of different kinds in many other places, but this one in the Dighapatia Palace defied all others in taste and presentation. The fish was first marinated in green and red chilies, mustard, green coriander and yogurt and then cooked in a wicker basket over boiling water. The result was a succulent fish with melted bones. The goat head curry may sound bizarre, but its taste was superb. The cook had boiled the entire head for several hours before and then broken it in manageable parts. The split parts and the brain were cooked slowly in a paste of onions, garlic, ginger and garam masala. Each dish was accompanied by polao made with the famous Kalijira rice that Rajshahi produces.
The meal concluded at last with the mandatory Natore sweet dishes and mangoes. Of the sweets, I have already mentioned Kachagolla. The new items at dinner were Obak Sandesh, and Chhanar Jilapi, both exclusive to Natore. Obak Sandesh is a variant of the famous Bengali Sandesh, which is brownish in color because of extra time given to cooking the sweet. Chhanar Jilapi takes its name from the material used to make it, which is pure milk casein in lieu of the normal chick pea flour used for the regular variety.
We left Natore next morning for Shibganj thana in Chapai Nawabganj, where the Minister addressed a public meeting, and later visited a local school. Toward midday we sojourned at the local district council dak bungalow for a quick lunch. The lunch was brief as was the menu. The most important new item at the lunch for me was a typical local dish (which, I was told, was my boss’s favorite), called Kalai Roti (flat bread made out of blended flour of Kalai Daal and rice), and Sharshe Bharta (mashed mustard seed with onions and green chili). I must admit it was one of the weirdest tasting dishes that I had tried; one has to acquire a taste for this very pungent culinary experience. Water welled up from my eyes and nose with the first gulp of this dish. Fortunately for me there were milder courses such as rice and daal that relieved my burning tongue. We ended the lunch with the famous two-pounder Shibganj chamcham that was out of sight. We reached Rajshahi late that night and lodged in the Circuit House.
An unusual breakfast awaited us the next morning. At the dining table we found a plethora of local dishes instead of the hackneyed Circuit House breakfast of toast and eggs. The cook, who was from Rajshahi town, was very familiar with the Minister’s favorite breakfast foods, and had conjured these up for our culinary experience. I cannot recall all the items, but the most delicious items that I still remember were several kinds of Pithas, both salty and sweet. The outstanding pithas were Bhapa or Dhupi Pitha with minced fish, Dudh Pithe (rice dumplings in thick milk), and the all Bengal favorite Pati Shapta that was filled with a most delicious kheer. The other item I remember was rice flour flat bread (Chaaler Roti) served with pulled duck meat in a heavy sauce. The overpowering breakfast was completed with a generous supply of Rajshahi mangoes (Fajli variety that had just come in season). I was so full that I wondered if I could move at all and follow my boss for the day’s engagements.
I will skip details of more mundane food of Rajshahi to a hallmark of my gastronomic experience in the town that came from a wedding feast that I attended there. On the third day of our stay in Rajshahi we were invited by the local MP to his daughter’s wedding. The wedding, as weddings go in our part of the World is an elaborate affair costing enormous sums of money to even those who can ill afford the expenditure. But a wedding being the high point of one’s life, people tend to have a big feast for family and friends. I accepted the invitation hoping that this might open my taste buds to untried food territories.
On arrival at the MP’s opulent house, we were ushered to a large Marquee (Shamiana), with chairs and tables laid out to accommodate more than three hundred people at a time. The Minister was escorted to a corner reserved for VIP guests, while we were seated at a table nearby. We waited as plates were placed before us followed by pitchers of water. Soon the servers (actually volunteer from family and friends) brought aromatic bowls of polao made from kalijira rice and placed them before our hungry eyes. Another server brought large slices of Katla fish in a platter and served us one piece each. The next item was also a fish, a Kalia of Rui fish that I found rather sweet. I would have felt very sated with the first two items, but there were more to follow that were equally irresistible, all of which were meat items. The next item in the menu was a chicken preparation that I had not had before. It was essentially a roast but heavily marinated overnight in high fat Dahi, hot chili pastes, and garam masala. Called Dahi Muragh, it is actually a non-Bengali dish that the host’s family cook specially prepared for the occasion. The roast looked dark, but it was extremely tasty although it almost burnt my innards. The second meat dish was Kasha Mangsho, actually a favorite in neighboring West Bengal. It was essentially a curry of goat meat that has been heavily spiced and sautéed in onions and, chilies. The last item, which I really found to be a novelty, was a sour tasting moong daal cooked with dried mangoes. The feast came to conclusion with a variety of sweets, the principal among which were the famous Rasha Kadamba (juicy balls of casein covered with white pearls of granulated sugar), Shor Sandesh (also known as Raghab-Shai), and plenty of sweet dahi. I was so full that I felt like lying on the table under the Shamiana.