Sheetkal – Winter

Sheet – Winter :-

Brief, invigorating, with vibrant colour standing out in a dry and rough landscape, winter in Bengal is like the perfect love affair. It is our season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, two short months of bliss. The flowers of winter are not like the demure white blossoms of the monsoon and the autumn. Crimson roses, yellow and bronze chrysanthemums, blazing marigolds and multicolored dahlias clamor for attention. In the country you can feast your eyes on fields of mustard awash in yellow blossom, on patches of maroony-red lalshak, on the subtle greens of cabbages on the earth and the climbing vine of the lau spreading over thatched roofs and bamboo frames. In the city markets the rich, purple aubergines are offset by snowy-white cauliflower's peeking from within their leaves, carrots, tomatoes, beet, cucumbers, scallions and bunches of delicate corriander leaves invite you to stop cooking and make only salads. And the infinite variety of leafy, green spinach, mustard, laushka, betoshak, muloshak, methishak – makes you wonder if the impoverished Bengali widow is to be pitied or envied for her vegetarian diet.

All this should have inspired an artistic frenzy of still lifes on canvas. But somehow the most important and joyful thing about winter to a Bengali is the opportunity and ability to eat far more abundantly than during any other season, to indulge in all the rich meats, prawns, eggs and fish dishes. The colonial years have left behind the festivities of Christmas and New Year which the Bengali has enthusiastically adopted and the early winter month of Poush sees the pithaparban, a folk festival designed specially for the making and eating of large quantities of sweet. And even if cannot afford too much of these, he still has a wonderful array of vegetables and fruits from which to choose.

The olden days menus, consisted of bitter shukto made with aubergines, shim (flat beans) margosa leaves as a first course; a combination dish of aubergines, our native pumpkin, jackfruit seeds and phul boris, all seasoned with the juice of ginger, mustard greens and betoshak fried in pungent mustard oil, two kinds of dal, ghonta made with moan, boris, flavoured and cumin and sweet chutney of sour karamcha.

But where are the cabbages, cauliflower's, potatoes, tomatoes, beets or green peas? Nowhere in sight, and the Bengalis managed very well without them. Many vegetables, which are now part of the daily diet, were imported into Bengal during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Dutch, French and Portuguese traders. Like the potatoes as most scholars concede, were the contribution of the Portuguese, while the cabbage was got from the Frenchmen, the tomatoes known as ‘English aubergine’ used in fish and vegetable recipes to create a sweet and sour taste, can definitely be attributed to the British presence. The concept of serving raw vegetables as salad was introduced by our colonial rulers. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the culinary genius of Bengal slowly developed the modern vegetarian classics by combining the old and the new. Cabbages, potatoes and peas became the base for a spicy winter ghanto which rivals the mochar ghanta has been a favourite since medieval times. Cauliflower's, combined with potatoes, were made into a rich and fragrant dalna that was a wonderful variation of the summer specialty, the potal and potato dalna. As for green peas, the Bengali spurned the plain boiled version served on the dinner tables of his British ruler and made delectable savories like matarshutir kachuri or chirar pulao or the filling for shingara (Samosas) with them, aside from adding them to other vegetable dishes.

But, the most amazing import of course is the potato. And, next to the Irish, Bengalis are probably the largest potato eaters in the world, and yet this is such a relative upstart in the hierarchy of our food. With rice, it is an inevitable daily ingredient in the diets of vegetarians and non-vegetarians, alike. And, in no other time does the Bengali do as much with the potatoes as in winter, when the small new potatoes are available in addition to the old ones. From the plain boiled potatoes, to bhaja, bharta to alur dam all are savoured by the Bengalis.

But, the most amazing import of course is the potato. And, next to the Irish, Bengalis are probably the largest potato eaters in the world, and yet this is such a relative upstart in the hierarchy of our food. With rice, it is an inevitable daily ingredient in the diets of vegetarians and non-vegetarians, alike. And, in no other time does the Bengali do as much with the potatoes as in winter, when the small new potatoes are available in addition to the old ones. From the plain boiled potatoes, to bhaja, bharta to alur dam all are savoured by the Bengalis.

Perhaps, one of the major festivals of winter is the Saraswati puja – goddesses of books and the official harbinger of spring. During Saraswati Puja, eating of Gotasheddho is compulsory, whereby none of the vegetables are cut and one just boiled whole. The goddess is offered fruits like apple, shakalu, sugar-cane bits, bananas, dates and kul (a kind of plum) that would be offered to the goddess. The bananas offered to Saraswati are special type, very sweet, but full of large black seeds. The kul cannot be touched before being offered to the goddess. Since, it has very short season, Bengalis eagerly look forward to the sanction to eat this sweet and sour fruit. This variety of kul is called a narkel kul. A sour red species, the topa kul, can be made into lovely sweet pickles with gur or salted and dried in the sun.

Like all other goddess, Saraswati also leaves in the evening for the final ceremony of the immersion in the river.the lavish garlanding of marigold round her neck, signaling the blazing sunshine of the summer to come – summer too is waiting to pounce, behind the immediacy of spring.

Recipes:-