THE NOVELIST AND BENGALI FOOD MAVEN TALKS ABOUT RITUAL, MODERNITY, AND VANISHING FOOD TRADITIONS
INTERVIEW: ROHAN KAMICHERIL
met Chitrita Banerji the week before Thanksgiving at her Cambridge home, where we shared a pot of fine tea and she plied me with homemade Bengali snacks—sandesh, the milk sweet so popular in Banerji’s native Kolkata, and postor bora, fried croquettes made out of white poppy seeds and rice flour. The bricked-in alleys and mews outside were deserted from the piercing cold and it was a delight to speak with Banerji about everything from Satyajit Ray (whose Feluda stories she has translated) to the history of chhana, the milk solids that famously form the basis of a wide variety of Bengali sweets (sandesh included).
Banerji is a formidable figure in the study of regional Indian food. She is the author of several books, among them Life and Food in Bengal(later published in an abridged version as Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals), Eating India, The Hour of the Goddess, Feeding the Gods, and Land of Milk and Honey. Talking to her, it’s abundantly clear how much the twin subjects of food and India captivate her. She avidly shares stories about her travels and discoveries, punctuating anecdotes with wiggles and circumflexes of her impressively arched eyebrows. Apart from the breadth and depth of her study of “Indian food”—a meaningless term for a cuisine so variegated and regional, she tells me—Banerji is remarkable among food writers (Indian and otherwise) for her frank and penetrating approach to food.
Life and Food in Bengal, her first book, weaves captivating accounts of regional dishes around fictionalized stories inspired by Banerji’s own life, lush with details about food rituals, changing social attitudes, the pains and benefits of modernization, and the inevitable heartache of slowly disappearing tradition. But as fond as she is of traditional cuisine, she’s clear-eyed about the complications of incorporating it into modern ways of living. “I’m not against progress,” she tells me, listing the numerous positive ways in which progress has come to Indian daily life. Still, she laments the fact that so many Indian cooks feel forced to choose between culinary tradition and social progress. “I just wish that there were more people documenting these things before they’re gone forever,” she says, ruefully.
Banerji’s writing manages to evoke something that so much writing on Indian food misses: the specificity of regional food, and how the cuisines of India are inextricably tied to class, season, religion, and so much more. She shares with equal relish the food of the laborers in rural Bengal and the meals of wealthy city-dwellers in Kolkata and Dhaka. Both, though they tell different stories, cohere in the larger portrait of the cuisine of a place. Her writing repeatedly enacts the small miracle of conjuring up everyday dishes that have begun to recede from the repertoire of home cooks (and which have hardly ever existed outside of the home).
As Banerji talks about fantastical dishes from remote corners of Bengal and Bangladesh, you feel the real weight of Brillat-Savarin’s assertion that, “The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of the human race than the discovery of a star.” Her elation as she describes a dish of freshwater climbing perch cooked with orange, or the season’s first hilsa (an estuarine fish much prized by cooks in West Bengal and Bangladesh alike) is palpable and infectious. But Banerji isn’t inventing dishes, she’s looking for ones that are on the brink of disappearing, relegated by years of disuse to the margins of the culinary spotlight, and she’s eager to bring readers along on the journey with her.
Rohan Kamicheril: I suppose the best place to start is at the beginning. How did you first start writing about food?
Chitrita Banerji: No one ever believes me when I tell this story.
RK: Those are the best stories!
CB: [Laughing] Really, though, I only became a food writer by accident. In the ’80s I was working at Sunday, which was a news magazine in Kolkata, published by Ananda Bazar Patrika, the largest news magazine in Kolkata at the time. I was the assistant editor and had the opportunity to travel, which I enjoyed, and to write stories and meet interesting people. I had already done some translations—of novels, plays, short stories, and had already been working with Satyajit Ray.
"I kept thinking, Do I want to be a translator, do I want to be a journalist? Or do I want to be something else?"
RK: Had you done the Feluda stories yet?
CB: No. I was working on them concurrently. But before that I had done Sunil Gangopadhyay’s book, Arjun, and his short stories. And I kept thinking, Do I want to be a translator, do I want to be a journalist? Or do I want to be something else? And then one day I got a letter from England from [the publisher] Weidenfeld and Nicolson, saying “We’re doing a series—we think it’s the first of its kind—that intertwines food and culture, but from a regional point of view and we would like you to do a book on Bengali food.”
Well, I thought they’d got me mixed up with somebody else. What did I know about Bengali food? So I wrote back saying, this is not my field, so there must be some mistake. But they were very persistent and wrote back and sent me the books they had already done as an example.
RK: What were some of the other regions they’d done?
CB: They had done Corfu, which I enjoyed, they had done the Dardanelles, they had done Tuscan food. So not "French" food, not "Italian" food. It got me thinking about Bengal in a very different way. So I started talking to my parents about it, and I was amazed at the degree of enthusiasm that came at me—in waves! My father’s response was a revelation to me. I suddenly saw a completely different side to this man I’d known for so many years. He was full of ideas—saying, you can do this, you can research this, you have to write about this. And I kept wondering to myself—where did you hide all this knowledge?
So, in the end I wrote back very hesitantly, saying, if I do this, then I would like to do a book on Bangladesh and West Bengal together—basically pre-partition Bengal. Because I think the two are just too intertwined. The cuisine varies, but that’s what’s interesting about it. Even in Bangladesh, you start with the border with India and as you go farther and farther away the food becomes very different. You go south and you get to Chittagong and, again, the food is very different there. But it’s still Bengali food—there is an anchoring commonality about the food. Even the differences—this whole Hindu–Muslim business—tell a story. We have Muslims in West Bengal, and there are Hindus in Bangladesh. And they’ve all contributed their different ways of cooking and approaching food. So I told the publishers, “I don’t want to do a book on West Bengali food. If you can agree to that, then let’s do it.” And they agreed. So I took a great risk and I quit my job.
RK: And did you stay in Kolkata?
CB: No, I came back to Cambridge. By the time I left I had written almost three-fourths of the book and I’d done a lot of interviews and research. I’d made a special trip to Bangladesh. And before that I’d lived for seven years in Bangladesh.
RK: In Dhaka?
CB: In Dhaka. My first husband was Bangladeshi. I’ve had quite a checkered career! A girl from a Hindu Brahmin family marrying a Bangladeshi Muslim—it was a big scandal. But it gave me the opportunity to know a place that became very close to me. It was a great education on my part. By then [the time of the book] I was no longer married, but I went back to look at Dhaka from a food point of view. To talk to scholars: there’s just so much to discover. I’ll just give you one little example. I’d lived there for seven years, I’d eaten so many different things, been to so many different places within Bangladesh and eaten their different styles of cooking. But on this visit I went to visit a professor of political science at Dhaka University, Abdur Razzaque. I knew that he was very interested in food, but I thought, too, that as a scholar he could give me a historical background to Bangladeshi food. He was not married, so he lived with his nephew and his nephew’s wife—Have you ever been to Dhaka?
"That was a lesson to me: that I could keep digging for the rest of my life and even if I lived to be ninety I’d never get to the bottom of it."
CB: Well, it’s a strange place. The wealthy there are so incredibly wealthy it’s unbelievable. This was one of those homes. Razzaque himself was a very abstemious, scholarly man. Anyway, he came down to meet me and he said, “I’ve asked them to make something for you that you might like. We can, of course, talk, but I would like you to tell me what you think of it.” It was a crepe—a small rice-flour crepe with a piece of hilsa fish baked into it. It was something I’d never eaten before. Hilsa is very emollient, and it has a very strong flavor. Either you hate it or you love it. Most Bengalis love it. Its flavor permeated the whole, very thin, crepe. It’s actually what they would call a pitha in Bengali. I used to think that a pitha had to be sweet. This was an eye-opener for me. Not only savory, but with a fish in it! But it was so delicious. I couldn’t believe it. That was a lesson to me: that I could keep digging for the rest of my life and even if I lived to be ninety I’d never get to the bottom of it.
RK: What do you think accounts for the dearth of knowledge around regional food from India and the subcontinent in general? Why would a homey but distinctive dish like this pitha baked with hilsa not be better known?
CB: I’ve often wondered about that. Many Indians who belong to the more affluent or Westernized classes develop a sort of lowest-common-denominator attitude when it comes to food. I think they’re embarrassed at the thought of presenting you with something homegrown and low-key—and yet very typical of their cuisine.
RK: Did you find this to be true when you travelled outside of cities and asked people for recipes?
CB: I found that when I went to homes that were more lower-middle class and said, “I know nothing about your food and I would like to eat something that you eat everyday,” I always managed to have an interesting meal. But that’s often not the case in more affluent households. In Bangladesh, for instance, if I went to an affluent person’s house and I mentioned I was writing a book about food, they would offer me things that were very heavy on meat and fish. Sometimes I’d have to say, “why not make me a meal of rice and bhartas—just two or three vegetables cooked differently from the way we make them in West Bengal?” That’s what I would like to see. But there’s this common perception that you can’t give a guest that! Even when I wrote my first book, I said, “Why can’t Bengalis think of serving a guest a plate of spiced mashed potatoes?” It’s a dish that can be a real treat if made well. But they won’t. There’s this thought, that what is ordinary is only for the family.
RK: It seems, even in the rush to represent regional Indian cuisine, like the so-called peasant cuisines of India—the non-courtly cuisines—aren’t being represented. This seems like such a shame, especially since so many of them make use of specialty ingredients that tell such a compelling story about the place where they come from.
CB: That kind of cooking really shows the richness and variety available to local cooks across India. In comparison, I feel like Indian restaurant food in the US condemns itself immediately—before you’ve even had a chance to try it. It’s essential to get people to consider regionalism in Indian food. I cannot stress enough how important the idea of regionalism is. This notion of “Indian” food is just ridiculous. It’s such a big country and each region is so wildly different from the other.
"Women can now work in fields that they were once kept from. When my mother was a young woman the only 'respectable' job she could have was as a schoolteacher or a college teacher."
RK: People in India, at least in urban areas, are also eating out more, which is having an effect on how these rustic cuisines are considered. Do you think that’s related to increased wealth and the loosening of proscriptions around food?
CB: It’s definitely related to both. It’s also related to something that I cannot criticize: freedom for women. Women can now work in fields that they were once kept from. When my mother was a young woman the only “respectable” job she could have was as a schoolteacher or a college teacher. And so she spent her whole life being a teacher. The idea of her going into an office was unthinkable—to have meetings with anybody and everybody, and travel all over the country for meetings, and come home late at night? It just wasn’t possible.
Many young women in India these days may be married, they may have kids, but they still work very long hours. They come home late at night, and then who wants to cook? I can understand that and I cannot criticize it. It’s a dimension of freedom for women in a country that has historically been very oppressive and patriarchal. At the same time I wish there were some way one could integrate the secrets of regional cooking into one’s life. Because I’m really afraid that they will be forgotten.
RK: Is that a hard balance to strike—between traditional culinary ways of being and cultural orthodoxy?
CB: One of the many ironies of authenticity in regional cooking in India and in Bengal in particular is related to the idea of widowhood. Bengalis are very much a fish-eating culture, fish and rice being the basic diet—the most desirable diet, but also the most achievable. You can get a whole range of fish at the market—some cheap, some expensive, depending on your means. So if you’re not absolutely indigent, you can definitely eat rice and fish everyday. But if you’re a woman, and your husband dies, they tell you that you will never again eat fish, meat, eggs, lentils, certain kinds of greens, onions, garlic— nothing! So an entire category of food is taken away from you because your husband is dead. And you may live a long time after that. Traditionally a lot of these young women were no more than teenagers when they were married, because they were married off to older men. They’re considered unlucky, they cannot socialize, they can’t do very much at home. And gradually, over time, because most of the drudgery they’re condemned to happens to be in the kitchen, they develop an incredibly subtle, nuanced form of vegetarian cooking. My mother came from a very large family with plenty of widows. And when I was young I noticed that the variety of vegetarian foods in my family was far greater and better and richer than in my friends’ families. Necessity is the mother of invention. But do I want people to live by these strictures? I really don’t. I think that is where documentation becomes so very important. Before a whole generation vanishes that knew about these things I think it’s very important to write it down so the next generation doesn’t have to suffer from the same social strictures.
RK: And you can take the sweet from the bitter…
CB: Absolutely, and enrich your own cooking with it. But I don’t know that that is happening. Pickles, as you know, were very much a widow’s product, because widows stayed home. And because they only cooked the vegetables, they had more time and energy, which they could devote to making gorgeous pickles. But, are we documenting how many types of Indian pickles there are? And it’s not just the Bengali pickles—for example, we don’t make pickles the way that the Gujaratis do, or the way the Punjabis do, with vegetables. Cauliflower, carrots—in a pickle?!
RK: I remember as a young South Indian boy, seeing carrot pickles for the first time and thinking What is this?
CB: [Laughs] And we don’t make pickles out of onions or garlic or ginger, like they do in other parts of the country.
RK: And Bengali pickles are all—for want of a better word—solar-powered, correct? They’re left to ferment in the sun?
CB: [Laughing] Oh, yes. Solar-powered, totally! Solar-powered, with mustard oil. The transformation process is so wonderful. My grandfather had a Marwari friend—
RK: —Marwaris make good pickles!
CB: They make amazing pickles. Well, his wife used to bring us pickles made with chana dhal. They would tie the lentils in small bundles, the way you’d make a bouquet garni, and the bundles of thin muslin were immersed in mustard oil in a big jar. And there were obviously spices in it and some kind of tart agent. I still don’t know if it was mango or something else—and now they’re dead and gone. But I’ll never forget it. This big jar filled with these tiny little bundles. And we’d all look at it and think, “What is this?” And you’d just take out bundles as needed. I’m sure somebody somewhere still knows how to make it, it’s just a question of tracking it down and documenting it. This is one thing that bothers me. I know that there’s a lot of food writing going on in India. But almost half of it is about restaurants or destination cooking. It’s not documentary.
RK: Which is a shame for all the reasons you already mentioned, but also because it fails to get at something that your books often address: the details of the everyday rituals that go into cooking—
CB: Ritual is so, so very important when it comes to food. That’s more of an anthropological perspective, but I think it’s important. Vaishnavs, followers of Krishna, in Bengal, believe that Krishna’s adoptive father, Nanda, was very fond of taal fritters made from the aromatic fruit of the taal palm. So in most Vaishnav households they traditionally make them on the day of Krishna’s birth, Janmashthomi. My very Vaishnav family would have these big gatherings, and taal fritters would be made. There is a song about Krishna’s father eating taal fritters and dancing with joy, so my uncles and their friends would do the same thing. And we kids used to love it. We would follow them around as they danced. It adds an extra dimension to your tactile enjoyment of the food itself. That is something that we’re losing in the modern world. I’m not just complaining about the West. Indian urban life is much denuded these days of these beliefs, too. And some of these beliefs are poetic and beautiful. They add enjoyment and dimension and richness to your food and to your eating and I would be very sad if they were forgotten.
RK: Early on in your career did you have literary role models you looked up to? Some template on which to base how you’d approach food in your writing?
CB: Strangely, I didn’t. Of course, literature is something that is factored into your brain, almost unconsciously—
RK: Especially coming from Kolkata, which has such an illustrious literary history.
CB: That’s right. There’s this very moving passage from Sunil Gangopadhyay’s book Arjun. I’ve never forgotten it since I first read it in 1982. The book is about a family that is forced to leave what was then East Pakistan because of the partition, and become refugees in Kolkata. They’re very poor, and deprived in many ways, and in this passage the youngest son is thinking about a meal back home. I think it’s a very autobiographical book. Sunil and his family had to leave their home during the partition. And even when they lived in East Pakistan they were not wealthy. Anyway, he recalls how all they had to eat was some hot rice, and so they tore off some lime leaves from the tree in the garden and mashed it up with the rice and it gave it such a wonderful smell that the rice became something greater than rice. I’ve never forgotten that small thing. Or—one of my favorite, favorite passages from Tagore involves something that’s very hard to communicate to someone in the West. There are many different kinds of stemmed things that Bengalis eat, like danta—drumstick. They’re things that, even after you chew them, you can’t really eat them. You have to spit them out. There’s this wonderful description in Tagore that shows you why he’s such a great writer. It goes: “Those who say that as Gurucharan lay dying, his second wife was playing cards, are masters of calumny who delight in making a mountain out of a molehill. Actually, she was sitting with one leg folded under her and the other folded upward so that the knee touched her chin, while she consumed, with utter concentration, a meal of fermented rice, raw tamarind, green chilies, and a spicy concoction of shrimp and vegetables. When the call came from outside, she put aside her empty place and the heap of danta she had chewed and discarded, and declared gravely, ‘I am not even allowed the little time I need to eat a little fermented rice.’" Totally indifferent to her husband! [laughs]. And that’s how the story unfolds.
RK: And even with Feluda, it seems like they stop every five minutes for a tea break.
CB: Yes, with the dalmoth from New Market or the samosas from such-and-such place in North Kolkata. Oh, he [Ray] was a great lover of food. One of his favorite things was banana blossom made into a ghanto, which is this complex, lovely dish. It’s mixed with small, cubed potatoes, Bengal gram, and ground coconut and richly spiced. My private theory is that this was the concoction of a Bengali widow. Because it is very rich, very satisfying, and very filling.
RK: Was Ray a very good cook, too?
CB: Oh, no. He was a very traditional man. But some of his films have lovely food shots, which makes me think—he couldn’t have done these if he didn’t really love food. There’s that scene in The Home and the World. Have you seen it?
CB: Oh, I wish you would. It’s so good. There’s this rich landlord with his wife sitting in front of him waving a palm leaf fan to keep the flies away and to keep him cool, and there’s a traditional “affluent” meal set before him—a big bell-metal plate with the rice in the middle, and the many different kinds of vegetables and fish, probably some meat, and then the sweets—beautiful. So beautiful.
RK: Do you think that the rise of restaurant dining in India has had an ill effect on regional Indian cooking? It seems like so many restaurants only want to serve dishes that people already know about. And often people don’t really go out to a restaurant for regional Indian food.
"Here we are talking about authenticity and tradition, but there is, also, in the soul of every people, the desire to invent, the desire to use new things"
CB: I think it’s definitely ruining the subtlety of dishes. But it’s also caused by an overwhelming desire to sample the cuisines of other parts of the world. That’s become a great driving force. Nobody wants to go out for a very traditional, regional meal. They want to go out for Mexican food or Thai food. Even Chinese has now become old hat because people realize that Indian Chinese food isn’t really Chinese food. And then of course there is the “junk food.” Pizzas, McDonalds, burgers...
Yet, here we are talking about authenticity and tradition, but there is, also, in the soul of every people, the desire to invent, the desire to use new things. Like sandesh: chhana is a relatively new addition to Bengali cuisine, it’s not something that’s always been used in Bengali cooking. So, I’m not against innovation, even though I’m so interested in traditional food. I just want these traditions to be recorded and not forgotten. I realize that all gifted cooks want to do something new. They want to create, not just replicate. Especially when the world is so much more open now and so many new things are coming in. They have kiwi-flavored sandesh, they have raspberry-flavored sandesh. They have all kinds of things. I’m not against that at all.
RK: I suppose it’s just a question of making sure that nostalgia doesn’t get in the way of innovation.
CB: I think that’s very important. Nostalgia by itself is a killer. It just makes you stagnate. And speaking of sandesh, there are kaffir lime leaves in this sandesh—go on have one more—
RK: With pleasure. Thank you.
CB: Anyway, this reminds me—in Sylhet they have a lime that they call shatkora that you don’t find in other parts of Bengal. The lime itself is very bitter but the rind is fragrant and delightful.
RK: Sort of like a kumquat?
CB: Exactly, except the rind is very thick. So you throw away the inside. And you can make a pickle out of it—well, you can make a pickle out of anything. But the thing is, they make a wonderful beef dish out of it. And it’s absolutely delicious. And you only ever seen it in Sylhet. Many Sylhetis in Kolkata don’t know about it, so I figured it must be a Muslim adaptation. All my Bangladeshi friends who are aware of it are Muslim Sylhetis. And we don’t have eternity to figure it out. There’s so much to know and so little time!
RK: Are there vegetables that you miss from the Bengali kitchen that you can’t find here?
CB: I do miss cooking with green mangoes. Real Indian mangoes are so hard to get here, except for a brief period in the summer, and even then they’re exorbitantly expensive.
RK: My sister tells the story of an old woman she once shared a train compartment with. She had a giant basket full of mangoes next to her and she cut into and ate them one after the other. She said that, to her, a happy life was one in which you could eat a mango every single day.
CB: There’s a great scene in Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray’s first movie, of the brother and sister stealing green mangoes. Because they have nothing else, the sister, who’s older, mixes the mango in a coconut shell with mustard oil and salt and the two of them sit and eat it while hiding. Now, I’ve had that dish before, but not like that, and I said to myself [sighs] if I had eaten it like that—out of a coconut shell, hiding from people—that would probably be one of the best memories of my childhood.
RK: What are you working on now?
CB: I’m writing a non-food book, actually, but my interest in it is tied to food. I’m working on a life of the great Vaishnav reformer, Chaitanya. He was one of the few mediaeval characters who had—roughly—contemporaries write biographies of him. So I studied his authoritative biography, written in medieval Bengali [shudders]—very difficult language—when I was writing Life and Food. He’s a fascinating character. I mean, he turned these fish-eating Bengali followers of his into vegetarians!
RK: Quite a feat.
CB: [Nodding] So there’s a whole school of Vaishnav Bengali vegetarian cooking. He has a lot of theories about what foods are good for you, and how exactly they’re good for you. It’s almost like Ayurvedic medicine, but not quite. So I have to go back to all that and study it again.
RK: That sounds like fun!
CB: It’s also a bit frightening.
RK: Finally, is there a magic bullet Bengali dish? Something that, if someone unacquainted with the cuisine were to eat it, they would get a glimpse of the ingenuity of the cuisine?
CB: I divide the eating community into two groups. In spite of current trends toward veganism and vegetarianism, there are people who just can’t stand vegetarian food or cannot imagine making a meal out of it. And there are people who don’t really care for fish or meat. Luckily you can say that Bengali food is an arc that embraces both. I can see how, if you are really a non-vegetarian-food lover, you would not be bowled over by the banana blossom ghanto I mentioned earlier, though it is a very fine dish. Another thing that I think people would love would be a shrimp malaikari, a dish made with shrimp and coconut. It’s very delicate and delicious. Or, even though I don’t know if it would be possible to recreate here, a plain fish jhol—a maccher jhol—if made with a high-quality freshwater fish would be something that most people would really love. Really, they would. And then, failing all of these, there’s always the good old mashed potatoes. With mustard oil and green chiles, of course!