By Aparajita De
PROMPT—I am grateful for ...
“Begin with the bitter first. Then go to the fritters and the fries. Finally, exit through the rice pudding,” advised Maa as I made my headway through the once-a-year coveted birthday meal. The most challenging item on the bowls surrounding my plate would be the mammoth deep-fried fish-head. The deep-fried fish head was for special occasions; birthday meals, especially cooked by Maa, were super special. Even though the fish-head looked invincible, I awaited its presence on my plate. Some of the prowess in rightly attacking the head, I believed, sealed my entry into food lore amongst the siblings, keenly observing the battleground strategy! So, beginning first with the bitters, I launched an attack. For me, a Fall-born daughter of October, it was always the typical Bengali dish made with a bittersweet vegetable stew called shukto that made the cut. Milky, translucent, sweet, bitter, and creamy with ghee came with root vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, in harmony with long beans, drumsticks, bitter melon, plantains, and eggplants, to lend its distinct flavor. That began the midday meal. In food lore, if one perfects shukto , one can feed the culinary gods. I was only mortal!
After I slurped through the special stew, fritters and fries followed with daal, usually a special item with mung. A king-sized potato sliced thinly or sometimes hand-cut into paper-thin strips and then deep-fried was served. I remember plantain fries, pumpkin fries, the humble parval fry, and the special bori or dry pasted spiced lentil fries mixed with fresh leaved sautéed spinach. From the vegetarian’s delight to the pescatarian’s, my next stop would be a diamond-cut fish fry adorning my plate's side. It was a feast meant to make me feel like a queen, even if for one day in a year, cooked by Maa's divine skills. Then came the majestic whole fry of a fish head, usually the carp, soaking in the juice of mustard oil, fish oil, and Maa’s special touch. It looked menacing. Seldom have I dismissed its presence, although it had always eluded my skills. Nonetheless, I lavished it all; sometimes, the leftover fries went to my little sister, who sat down with me and waited with a reciprocal understanding that some of the fritters and the fish head were surely coming over to her plate.
After the initial ambush through vegetables and lentils came the fish. Maa stood guard over me, ensuring that every item went into my plate in the correct order in which it needed to be eaten. I got a rap on my hands if I reached for the chutney before finishing the meal or the glass of water halfway through it. I was reminded that she had been cooking this up in the kitchen the most parts of the day. Baba usually went to work or remained missing from weekday afternoon birthday meals. So, Maa caught up with his part of the reminders too! Anyways, the fish occupied the second half of the meal. There could not be a birthday meal without a minimum of 3-4 fish items. Thus, there was the ilish in rich mustard gravy, the bhekti in a tomato-based red curry, the parshe in a light mustard sauce-based gravy, and the everyday carp or rohu in a concoction of milk, cashew nuts, and raisins. If I were lucky that year, there was the king prawn in coconut gravy. It was an affair where I was made to realize that my birthday mattered more to me, for me, than to anyone else. In my foodlogue through the birthday meal, most of the fish stayed untouched. The meat was traditionally out of the birthday meal. If I barely managed to chew through the parshe, the bhekti and the carp remained unacknowledged. The side bowls were put away intact in the refrigerator. The following day, they would be served again. Maa believed that fish items cooked for the daughter should only go to her. She was open to waiting while avoiding the transfer of culinary goodies to another member of the household.
After my pathetic show with the fish, I looked to the humble chutney, my Maa’s signature tomato-cashews-dates chutney. It was sweet, savory, and deliciously thick with just the right hint of heat. The jewel in the crown of such a birthday meal was the payesh. A porridge with sweetened milk and rice in a heavenly symphony eased into the spoon, left a thick coating of greasy milk fat, and slithered down the throat in an explosion of sweetness coming from the special soft rice into its creation, the gobindobhog. The payesh sealed my entry into the following year in a burst of delicious nostalgia, looking forward to the next birthday, the next meal, the next bowl of payesh.
School days during birthdays could be given a miss unless there was a scheduled test. If I had to be in school, a shorter version of the meal would be served, often excluding shukto, payesh, and the various fish items. It was a deglamorized version of the promise of the meal to come after I came home to the entirety of the meal. If the midday meal could be traditionally carried out, Maa ensured I had my forehead adorned with sandalwood motifs, usually leaf and flower designs. She confirmed that I sat down to eat my birthday meal with folded legs on the asana or the handwoven cloth mat she laid on the floor since the formal dining area was off-limits that day. After a well-deserved afternoon nap, the birthday evening bought phone calls with my birthday finery, usually a formal frock. My cousins, aunts, uncles from my father’s side, and grandparents called me. We discussed the meal I had had, elaborating on the birthday attire while they blessed me repeatedly.
Birthday night meant no rice. It is usually replete with puffed flour cakes called luchis with a delicious and spicy potato curry, another vegetable fry not from the morning meal, a Bengali sandesh, and another deep Bengali sweet that was my favorite, a kalojaam adorned the concluding food gala. Dinner was simple, austere, and Maa ensured that I ate my way through it. Birthday cakes were recent habits, growing out of the culture that cannot replace the old-world charm of a meal cooked from beginning to end by Maa. Metaphorically speaking, my birthday cake was created every year by Maa. Working in her kitchen, Maa imbibed the traditional foods that made me feel especially loved for the rest of the year.
In the many orbits I have taken around the sun, none match those simple, close to the heart meals cooked by Maa. In my kitchen, I have never been able to create the consistency of the payesh that she made or match the richness of the shukto that began the meal. As I journey ahead, enriching the life of blessings from my circle of family, I fall back to remember those birthday moments. In attending themed birthday parties with Amazon made-to-order Little Mermaid or Frozen cakes, candles, tinsels, musical cards, and digital collages, with the cornucopia of glamour and digitization, none match the symphony of the theme that Maa created on my birthdays every year. Me.
Aparajita De, Ph.D. is in higher education, teaching courses on global and diverse literature to college students at the University of the District of Columbia. She is transitioning from scholarly and academic writing to non-fictional writing in search of a more authentic voice for herself. Aparajita writes from Gaithersburg, Maryland.