Food Habits of Thakurbari
Aamshotto dudhey pheli, tahatey kodoli doli,
Shondesh makhia dia tatey
Hapush-hupush shobdo, charidik nistobdho,
Pipra kandia jae paate…
Eng: Aamshotto (sun-dried ripe mango) is dropped in milk, banana is squashed in it, and shondesh (sweet) is smashed in this. The sound of slushing echoes in the silence. Even ants return, shedding tears into the empty plate.
These were the first lines that our bard, Rabindranath Tagore, had composed. Interestingly, his first lines as a child were about food. It can be assumed that as a child, he had developed the taste to appreciate good food. The above lines, for instance, talk about a palatable Bengali breakfast.
Rabindranath Tagore grew up in the Jorasanko Thakurbari, where there was the prevalence of a distinct culture. While speaking about Bengali culture, it is not possible to omit the subject of food. Like all Bengalis, the Tagores, too, were great fans of food. Like other aspect in the Thakurbari, their food, too, was perfect fusion of Indian and western influences. While lunch was served with the family-members sitting on the mat spread on the floor and was eaten with bare hands, dinner was served at the dining table, British style.
The Tagores, all compulsive travellers, picked up recipes from far and wide. Dishes like British pie and Turkish kebab were as conventional in the Thakur household as Bhapa Ilish (steamed Hilsa) or roasted mutton cooked with pineapples. In Thakurbari, one of the most well-known delicacies was cauliflower sweetmeat a deflection from the traditional chana (unripe curd cheese) sweets, or shondesh that the sweet-toothed Bengalis generally indulge in and boast about. In fact, Rabi Thakur's favourite sweet was chandrapuli, made of coconut and kheer (condensed milk).
In fact, Rabindranath's wife, Mrinalini Debi, was adept at making sweets of different kinds, such as paka aam-er mithai (ripe mango sweet), Chirer Puli, Doi-er Malpoa, Mankochur Jilipi etc. She had her own little kitchen, where she delved in the art of cooking. The Tagore women practised the culinary art with great passion, as they pursued learning traditional and international dishes, and simultaneously experimented in the kitchen. While on one hand, they learnt and cooked Narkel Chirey, Aamshatta or Jhuni Rai-er Jhaal Khsundi, on the other hand, they experimented with unconventional and new food items, including dishes made of vegetable parts that people normally throw away, like Potol seeds or potato skin.
Rabindranath's favourite comfort food was chachchori, a dish of mashed vegetables with shrimp, and flavored lightly with chilli, made by his sister-in-law, Kadambari Debi. He grew up among great cooks whose talent percolated to later generations as well, like in case of his niece, Pragyasundari Debi. Having grown-up in a food-centric household, Rabindranath Tagore himself was a food enthusiast, who collected recipes from different countries and encouraged the Thakurbari cooks to prepare their Indianized versions. He had the hobby of collecting menu cards from the different events he attended. While, like a true Bengali, he was in love with fish dishes, he also loved authentic British food like cream of tomato sauce, or salmon in Hollandaise sauce.
Thus, having adapted a cross-over culinary culture enthused by several generations before and after Rabindranath Tagore himself, a new and distinct cuisine was ensconced in the Thakurbari: the Tagorean cuisine, that reflected the modern, adaptive mind-set of the family.