These two months of September & October make me extremely homesick. The cool air, clear skies and the while floating clouds spill out all the memories of the biggest religious festival of West Bengal: Durga Puja, the community celebration, and along with that very special food.
Someone once said, “There are two kinds of fervent devotees at Durga Puja: one kind has their hearts fixed on god, the other has their minds focused on food, but the degree of devotion is the same.” The food culture is interrelated to the religion & during the days of the religious celebration is also a celebration of food. The food cooked in the communal kitchen is first offered to the Goddess Durga after the morning prayers, & this is called “bhog”. Classicists insist that the aromas in the kitchen should be ignored before the “bhog” is actually offered to the Gods.
The classics of the puja are very humble dishes, mostly seasonal & very basic to the daily Bengali Kitchen. But the extravagant pleasure comes from the communal eating, where everyone sits together to eat food served on either banana leaves or simple plates made by weaving saal leaves.
A small example of food served during these few days:
Khichudi, the rice-and-dal staple you’ll find everywhere in India and labra, a pumpkin, spinach, eggplant, potato, carrots, cauliflowers based mixed vegetable that can contain up to 15 different seasonal vegetables, spiced with panchphoron, are among the very common dishes. I also need to mention that the “bhog” which the community shares after being offered is all satvic in nature; not even onion or garlic is used.
While I missed all the buzz from back home, I did make Labra, (no I did not use 15 vegetables, but what ever was there in my refrigerator). There is actually no restriction to what vegetable may be used. The fresh winter vegetables are usually used.
I sat back and dreamed of being back home at the community, eating all together.
Labra: A Festive Combination of Vegetables and Spices
- 1 cup of yellow pumpkin/butternut squash, cubed
- 1/2 cup cabbage, shredded roughly
- 1/2 cup radish (red or white) chopped in to small pieces
- 2 eggplants/brinjals, cubed
- 3 medium potatoes, cubed
- 1/2 cup sweet potatoes, chopped in to small pieces
- 1 carrot, chopped in to small pieces
- 1 cup spinach
- 2 small zucchini, chopped
- 4 green chillies, slit
- 1.5 inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
- 1.5 teaspoon Panch Phoron (This is a five mix spice. “Panch” means “five”. The following are used in equal amounts: Cumin Seeds, Mustard Seeds, Nigella Seeds, Fenugreek Seeds, Fennel Seeds)
- 2 red whole dry chilies
- a generous pinch of hing/asafoetida
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 5 tablespoon pure mustard oil (substitute with any cooking oil if this is not available)
- 1 tsp sugar
- Salt to taste
Other Vegetables that may be used: Cauliflower, Beans, Broad Beans, Peas, Any squash
Heat about 4 tablespoon oil and add panch phoron, green chilies and whole red chilies. When the spices sizzle and splutter, add the hing/asafoetida. Now add the radish, potatoes and carrots (all the root vegetables) and stir fry for about 5-8 minutes. Then add all the other vegetables, turmeric powder, and salt. Stir and cover it tightly and allow it to cook. Uncover and stir frequently.
In the mean time grate the ginger or make a paste and add this to the already cooking vegetables. Stir in and mix well. Add sugar and about a cup of water. Cover and cook over low heat till all the vegetables are cooked and almost mushy. Increase the heat so that most of the water is absorbed by the vegetables and there is just enough to just coat the vegetables.
Adjust seasonings and water. When done the vegetables should be very well cooked, almost mushy. Drizzle the rest of the mustard oil to finish off.
Serve hot with White Rice or Khichudi