The final part of the three-part series
Our next destination was Bogra where we arrived the following day. Like all other places that we had visited, Bogra visit was jam-packed with meetings. Hundreds of meetings had to be concluded before we could rest for the day in the local Circuit House. I was hungry that day as we had a perfunctory lunch in a school earlier. As usual I had to wait till conclusion of my boss’s engagement for dinner, but it was worthwhile.
The dinner was prepared by the Circuit House cook with help from a local maestro known for his culinary marvels. The fish items were Dahi Maach (fish cooked in yogurt), and Muri Ghonto (crushed fish head). The meat dish was a masala curry of wild ducks (pintails) that were caught near river banks.
The Dahi Maach was an absolute delight. A large sized Katla fish cut in steaks was marinated in yogurt, mustard, red and green chilies, and garam masala, and slowly cooked to perfection. The Muri Ghonto was different from the kind that is usually cooked elsewhere in that it was cooked without daal, the other accompaniment. The fish head was cooked in ghee, fried onions, garlic, and green chilies.
For the duck curry, the ducks were cut into small pieces and slowly cooked in a thick sauce of onions, garam masala, garlic, and ginger with a generous dollop of red pepper. The meal ended with the famous Bogra Dahi served in clay bowls. To the millions of Bengalis, the Bogra Dahi is the ultimate in yogurt experience. It is an especially rich, sweet yogurt so thick that legend has it that it can be wrapped in a towel and carried around.
In the past, during the dry season, large temporary cowsheds and buffalo sheds used to be erected in pastures in North Bengal. Around these sheds grew a flourishing yoghurt industry. These sheds were called bathan. To make yogurt at these bathans, farmers used to boil milk and render it down to one-fourth its original quantity. This is why Bogra Dahi is almost like kheer.
We stayed in Bogra for next two days visiting several thanas, one of which was Akkelpur in Jaypurhat Subdivision (now a district). At the end of the meeting there, we were invited to have lunch at the local MP’s house. The lunch was served in the outhouse, a tin shed building that served as the meeting and greeting place of the MP. The MP did not spare any effort to provide a huge lunch that mostly comprised of food from the area.
For starters we had a bhaji made with the famous potol of the area, followed by another concoction of the same vegetable—potol stuffed with dry fish. I was a little squeamish to eat a dry fish stuffed potol, but I was egged on to try it by the MP. It was superb. The smell of dry fish was completely gone because of generous use of aromatic spice, helped by the fragrance of mustard oil in which it was cooked.
Another memorable item that day was Shorputi, baked whole in green chili paste with ginger and coriander in banana leaf. A side item was thin slices of carrots ooked with diced brinjals. The lunch was completed with another great serving of Bogra Dahi and a famous local chamcham.
We arrived in Dinajpur the following day to begin another three-day ordeal of meetings, visits, and endless solicitations from the public for redress of one kind or another. It was already dark when we reached the Circuit House where a large throng of political workers and district officials were waiting. The long line of visitors indicated to me that our dinner would be late, but I had no alternative.
It was close to midnight when dinner was served. The dishes were nothing spectacular, but I was so hungry that I could have devoured any edible item that night.
The minister had a large public meeting next day in Birol Thana, close to Dinajpur town. At the end of the meeting we stopped at the local District Council Bungalow for lunch, which was arranged by the local MP.
Birol was known for its large Koi fish, and it was sketched in my childhood memory from the writings of Narayan Gangopadhaya, a famous son of the soil. I was hoping that our host would give us a taste of the famous Koi, and we were not disappointed.
The Koi fish, the largest of its kind that I had seen, was prepared in two different ways. The first was simple Koi Bhaja, one large Koi for each person (about twelve inches in length) fried in garlic and onion. The second was Tel Koi, cooked in mustard oil, tomato puree, and other spices. For this dish incisions were made on the Kois, and a marinade of tomato puree and spices was applied in the incisions before cooking in mustard oil over slow fire. At the end the Kois were garnished with green chilies and green coriander.
There were several other fish dishes also, principal among which were a Jhol of Pabda (a hot, soupy curry), and a Magur Maach (Catfish) and eggplant curry, which was equally hot. We had the famous Gopalbhogh mangoes of Dinajpur and a payesh for dessert.
We left Birol for Thakurgaon en route to Tetulia, our ultimate northern destination. By the time we arrived Thakurgaon it was already late in the evening. We hurriedly ate and went to rest in the local Dak Bungalow.
The road to Tetulia those days was not strewn with roses, suffice to say. From Thakurgaon the rickety road wound up to Indian border passing through two thanas (Boda and Panchagarh, which is now a district).
The minister had several public engagements en route, finally ending in Tetulia on India-Bangladesh border. The high points of this memorable visit were our night stay in the famous Dak Bungalow on the banks of Mahananda; and the grand dinner that was organized by the local MP for the Minister.
The bungalow, which was originally a Bagan Bari (recreational home) of Maharajah of Burdwan, sat on a precipice overlooking the great Himalayan mountain range in the distance on the Indian side. It had a very well-maintained garden that time with stairs that led down to the river bank. (The bungalow also offered a unique view of the Kanchanjanga in clear months of October and November that I had a privilege of watching a couple of years later when I was posted in Dinajpur.)
The dinner that evening was prepared with everything locally produced or procured. The cook of the Dak Bungalow, we were told, had spent nearly three decades in the same job. The evening began with a special beverage, Jeera Pani, a flavorful drink made with tamarind water, jeera, lime, and molasses. This was followed by appetizers of Chingri Bora (fried shrimp balls), deep fried Mola fish, and Daal Bora (fried lentil balls).
The fish served that evening were all caught in Mahananda, and these were Bhetki, Katal, and Ayer. The Bhetki was roasted and served whole with plenty of green chili, onion, and fresh coriander garnish. The Katla was cooked in a light but peppery sauce, while the Ayer was cooked in a fiery sauce of red chili with Potol (Ayer Bhuna).
The evening’s only meat dish, but most memorable, was wild pheasants (Bon Morog) that were hunted down by the MP’s brother previous day. (Wild pheasants and Partridges were fairly common in the woods of Panchagarh area that period.) The pheasants were marinated overnight in garam masala and yogurt, and cooked whole in slow fire. It was one delicious treat that I would never forget. All fish and meat dishes were accompanied by polao made from a wonderfully fragrant local rice called Ninya.
For dessert, I was introduced for the first time to yet another North Bengal sweet, Chhanar Polao. This dessert—a masterpiece creation of Dinajpur confectioners – is an elaborate dessert that consists of hand-crafted tiny pieces of channa and flour that resemble rice grains, and topped by slightly larger pieces of sweets called Nikhuti. Along with that we had two different types of local mangoes, Himsagar and Khirsapati- so named because of its Kheer-like sweetness.
After we finished dinner, I slowly ambled out of the dining room to the patio outside barely able to take the steps. The sky was dark but dotted by thousands of stars in a clear sky. Looking beyond at the silhouetted mountain range across the river Mahananda that night I thought that the Tetulia experience was an excellent conclusion to my gastronomic introduction to North Bengal cuisines.
Ziauddin Choudhury is a former civil servant in Bangladesh. He currently lives in the United States.