‘My mother fused elements of Bengali and Khasi cuisine to make amader barir ranna—our family cuisine’ | Condé Nast Traveller India | IndiaMay 31, 2021
Family recipes may be the only connect some of us feel to our roots—and what a legacy it can be! In the freewheeling Spiced, Smoked, Pickled, Preserved, the recipes are stitched to fantastic tales of family, rich with the attachments, dreams, heartbreak and legends that make life stranger than fiction. “This memoir about a place, people and food is placed in the east of India, specifically in Shillong, in the Khasi and Jaintia hills,” Indranee Ghosh writes at the opening, “when life was quite different from what it became for many of us now in our sixties and seventies.” Take a sneak peek below at the foreword by the author’s daughter, alongside a recipe, excerpted with permission from Spiced, Smoked, Pickled, Preserved by Indranee Ghosh, published by Hachette India.
In the summer of 2008, at the ripe age of 20, I flew the familial coop in Kolkata for the capital. Of course, I considered myself entirely capable of living as an adult—I knew how to press buttons on a washing machine, how to make a bed and how to dial for takeaway. I was raised in a household that championed good, diverse cooking, but outside of an occasional jhol, my culinary skills were as sadly limited as my concept of adulthood. Meals at home and weekend meals at my two sets of grandparents’ were uniformly good, but I hadn’t paid much attention to either the process or the result.
During my first months in New Delhi, while working various jobs as a writer, sharing the cheapest available digs with two friends, we were all perpetually broke and on a budget. There never seemed to be time to cook, and even if I did have the time I just didn’t know how. I knew how to make eggs and toast, but I usually found myself with just enough time in the morning to brush my teeth, bathe and dress before rushing off to work. So I skipped breakfast, ate gas-inducing dosas near the office for lunch, followed by street-side paneer parathas for dinner.
Of course, I wasn’t the only one suffering from diminished pleasure at mealtimes and dealing with the consequences the mornings after. In a moment of disillusionment, a colleague my age burst into the editorial room one morning declaring, ‘What the hell am I working for? I can’t bring myself to eat any more of this stuff!’ She left for her home in Pondicherry soon after.
Her words set me thinking. I called my mother.
And ever since then, Ma has taught me, long distance, how to cook quickly and creatively. At first I made pish-pash, dal, soup and some of her interesting sandwiches, later graduating to full meals. This took a couple of months or so, but by then I had got the hang of cooking, which was invaluable to my digestive system in my early twenties – and for the rest of my life.
My mother was a working woman with kids—and she was frugal with time and money. Her everyday meals, at least a three-course affair plus carbs, took no more than 40 minutes to put together. There were no obscure, expensive ingredients involved—and her advice on how to splice various leftovers together to create something new gave me the tools and courage to experiment. A little carrot or a bit of pumpkin and one potato in the crisper tray and a few pieces of leftover chicken could give me a stew, or they could be cooked and blended into soup, or used in fried rice. Bits of lentils, too little to be cooked on their own, could be made into a mixed dal; if there were no onions or garlic for the meat, she’d give me a recipe without them.
And this was the way of her family—fusing disparate elements of Bengali and Khasi cuisine to make what we referred to as ‘amader barir ranna’ (our family cuisine). For instance, a typical Bengali fish curry with the thick, dark green mustard leaves peculiar to the hills of eastern India, would create a totally different flavour. Or if we were to consider chutneys: Bengali chutneys are generally sweet with just a hint of tartness, with no garlic, chillies and onion. But if one were to make tomatillo chutney (a variety of tomato, called tree tomato in the hills), popular both in Khasi and Nepali households, with regular tomatoes and chopped garlic or spring onion and green chillies thrown in with mustard oil, you’d get a sweet-sour-spicy chutney, which is not part of Bengali cuisine.
Ma’s recipes are my go-to whether the occasion is special or mundane. A number of these recipes were passed down the generations: her grandmother’s aloor dal (potato dal; recipe below), her uncle’s beef curry, her aunt’s masoor dal with butter and parsley. Some recipes were borrowed from Nepali cooking—Ma having spent close to a decade in Darjeeling – while others were entirely her own inventions, the result of practise and imagination. Some recipes were even lifted from novels and adapted to available ingredients, such as French beans cooked with fresh mint and her different recipes for mashed potato.
Every time she listed the instructions and ingredients for a recipe, my mother also told me stories of the family members it had come from. It was always a screwball mix of characters, the tragicomic nature of their lives fascinating because of their narrative quirks rather than them being blood relations. By the time I was born, most of them were dead. I had also never been to Shillong, my mother’s home town. I knew she missed it and often wanted to visit with her husband and kids, but the trip somehow never materialized. The Kolkata (then Calcutta) of her childhood and adolescent life was also gone. I dimly sensed the alienation she felt at times from life in the city, expressed in moments of frustration when she felt no one knew where she actually belonged, although she’d spent more years here than she had in Shillong. Nevertheless, she seemed reasonably adjusted to her present situation: enjoying and enduring her job in the West Bengal Educational Service, posted in various district colleges as well as the city, and the family and friends she had here. Her past remained in stories and recipes, and I enjoyed both.
When she retired a few years ago, I encouraged her to assemble all her recipes and anecdotes into a coherent account of growing up in the Khasi Hills before they were lost. So little is known about that part of the country and its trudge through the twentieth century, it is as if the east ends in Kolkata. More than a little cultural arrogance rides on this myth, and because I grew up in this domineering ambience of the elite West Bengali, I became critical of the superciliousness that came with it. And so, in May 2017, my mother, Indranee Ghosh sent me the first draft of her book.
It is possible that I am biased on my part, but I found it delightful. Her stories make for light reading while encompassing the profoundly poignant nature of the cultural dynamics that shaped her. Most important, as with all my favourite cookbooks, it has taught me to show affection for myself and others through the act of feeding.
18 February 2019
Aloor Dal (Potato Dal) Recipe
If you ever run out of lentils, this is a handy ‘dal’ made with potatoes.
500 gm potatoes
2 tbsp ghee
½ tsp onion seeds (kalo jeera/kalonji)
2 dried red chillies
2 1-inch sticks cinnamon
Coriander leaves (optional)
Chopped tomato (optional)
- Cook the potatoes and mash them. Add a little water, approximately 1½ cups, to make a thick soup.
- Heat the ghee in a kadhai and add the onion seeds, dried red chillies and cinnamon. Add this to the potato mix and stir.
- Garnish with coriander leaves and chopped tomato.
- Serve with chappatis.