It is that time of the year again in Kolkata. The sound of the dhaak, the fragrance of incense in the autumn breeze, fleecy white clouds, and the ethereal white kash phool—all herald the biggest festival in the city, Durga Puja. This time it will be even more special because, one, it is being held after two years (due to the pandemic), and two, the festival has been given a UNESCO intangible heritage tag.
Though Durga Puja has several daily rituals (the aarti, dhonuchhi dance, etc.), it is the serving of bhog that people in Kolkata look forward to. The bhog is a simple vegetarian community meal—an offering to the goddess, much like a prasad. It is made up of the special khichuri that is made with gobindobhog rice and mung dal (preferably a variety called sona mung), and assorted fritters like begun bhaja (brinjal fry) and alu bhaja (potato fries) on the side.
Then there is the labra, a dish made with mixed vegetables laced with paanch phoron, a Bengali five-spice mix. Another dish served as part of the bhog platter is the chachari (a vegetable dish generally made with mustard paste). And to wrap up, the bhog desserts include a chutney, payesh (kheer), Bengali sweets like roshogalla, and an earthen bowl of mishti doi.
It may sound like a plain meal, but every day, people in Kolkata dress up in their pujo finery, and line up for a bhog platter in their pandals. Sometimes for hours.
The Diversity Of The Pujo Bhog
The basic bhog platter is given a twost by some paara (community/neighbourhood) pandals. While the khichuri-labra remains the same, some may serve luchi and alur dom on one day, or mishti pulao with kosha mangsho on another day. The bhog served on the day of Ashtami is non-vegetarian in several places.
Another way that the traditional bhog differs is between what you generally get in the city pandals versus the ones served in bonedi baris (the traditional Bengali houses that belonged to the zamindars). At these ancient, palatial homes, you will find traces of heritage recipes for dishes that have been cooked for generations. For instance, at the Pathuriaghat Ghosh Bari puja, you get a special kheer which has the fragrance of sandalwood. At the Sabarna Roy Choudhury Atchala puja, you will get a delicious basanti pulao with dry fruits, fried vegetables, and different kinds of fish dishes. The Shovabazaar Rajbari in North Kolkata has an evening feast with lotus-shaped nimki (namkeen), and extraordinarily large motichoor ladoos, and radhaballavi (poori or fried bread stuffed lentils).
The Laha Bari pujo in North Kolkata has special confectioners who make a variety of nadu (round laddoos), some with sesame seeds and coconut, others with sooji (semolina) and lentils.
On Dashami, the last day of Durga Puja, some may serve some panta bhaat (soaked, fermented rice), khesari daal, stir-fried kochu saag or taro leaves, and a chutney made with chalta (elephant apple). In places like Serampore and Chandannagar, the bhog dishes in a bonedi baari can include dishes prepared with banana stems and green amaranth, or hilsa with paranthas, or a fish dish cooked with radish.