Born in a family that originally belonged to the Chittagong district of undivided Bengal, I was conscious of my roots and my other ‘desh’ (country) since my childhood days. The Ghosh-s were residents of Dhalghat, a place that prominently figured in the nationalist movement of Bengal, as it was one of the centres of the revolutionary activities carried out by ‘Master-da’, Surya Sen. Sen, the renowned freedom fighter, was the key figure behind the Chittagong Armoury Raid or the Chittagong Uprising in 1930.
The Ghosh family, like thousands of others, had moved from Chittagong to Calcutta in the wake of the Partition of Bengal. It was my Boro Jethu (my father’s eldest brother) who moved first, around 1945, followed by my Mejo Jethu (the second of the three brothers) who arrived in Calcutta in 1948. The aftermath of the Partition greatly affected the family and my father, who had stayed on with his widowed mother in the ancestral house at Dhalghat, finally moved to Calcutta in 1954. My three Pishima-s (paternal aunts), all senior to my father, had also migrated, following their marriages and had settled in places as diverse as Chinsurah (West Bengal), Rangoon and Bombay. My grandmother moved in with her sons at my Boro Jethu’s rented flat in south Calcutta around 1955 and was possibly the last one to leave our home in Dhalghat.
By the time I was born in 1974, the family no longer remained a ‘joint’ one and the three brothers had set up their individual nuclear units. But the bond of among these three units was a strong one, and the essence of the joint family persisted. Though uprooted and now divided, the family continued to hold on to certain aspects of life that were central to it: strong sibling and familial ties and the cuisine of Chittagong.
Brought up entirely in the urban environment of south Calcutta, my connection with Chittagong strengthened over the years through the Chittagong dialect in which my father, my uncles and aunts would speak whenever they met, and the items that my aunts would cook whenever they stayed over at our place. My Mejopishima (who had relocated to Howrah in West Bengal during the 1950s) and my Chhotopishima, both being widows, would cook separately in kerosene stoves, items that were strictly vegetarian. Never having tasted my grandmother’s dishes (she passed away when I was only three), my first acquaintance with authentic Chittagong cuisine was through these lip-smacking vegetarian dishes cooked by my aunts. One such item was the posto or poppy-seed curry (posto is called morichut in the Chittagong dialect) cooked by my Mejopishima. I would come back home from school, eagerly looking forward to a plateful of rice and posto-curry. This dish was a special one, its unique taste could never find a match with the posto-curries of the West Bengal variety. Cooked with potatoes and vegetables like laudoga (tender branches of bottle gourd) or lal-shaak (red spinach), bori (dried lentil drops) and dhone–pata (coriander leaves), this posto-curry had an other-worldly taste to it. Among the other vegetarian items that were carried over from Chittagong and found place in our kitchen was the holud paatar dal or dal cooked with turmeric leaves, a rare item, now being revived in some five-star Kolkata hotels. This dish too had a unique flavor; the aroma of the turmeric leaves mixed with sonamoong dal, left an unforgettable taste in the mouth when mixed with gorom bhaat or warm rice.
The dish that is an all-time favourite with us and with Chittagong folk living across the world is the non-vegetarian shutki-maachh or dried fish. Though intolerably smelly while it is being cooked, shutki-maachh still remains the quintessential Chittagong delicacy. Its taste is an acquired one and the residents of West Bengal find it unpalatable. But it is a dish close to our hearts, specially the Loitya-shutki or Chingri-shutki. I would never forget the taste of the shutki–maachh cooked by my Borojethima (wife of my father’s eldest brother), with ingredients like mustard oil, lots of onion, garlic, red and green chillies, all of which imparted to it a rich, spicy taste. Another item that has left its indelible taste on our taste buds is the chingri maachh (shrimps) cooked with kochur loti (taro stolon), in mustard oil with garlic and chillies.
After almost about seventy years since the Ghosh family crossed the border, these dishes have continued to titillate our taste buds till date. A lot had been lost, but my grandmother’s and my aunts’ culinary expertise was a source of inspiration for my mother (who hailed from the Myemansingh district of undivided Bengal and knew nothing of Chittagong cuisine prior to her marriage) and my Jethimas (my uncles’ wives), whose kitchens had produced the most authentic East Bengal dishes. Our gastronomic tastes have evolved with time, but our generation still relishes the taste of these dishes and our kitchens still churn out these. Alongside the memories of tales told by my father, uncles and aunts of our ancestral village, of our joint family at Dhalghat and of our extended family at Chittagong town, we proudly carry in us a sense of inheritance of our ‘desh’-er ranna, or authentic Chittagong cuisine.
Dr. Sanmita Ghosh (Assistant Professor in English, Hooghly Mohsin College)