My Dida(maternal Grandmother) was a very Decent and well mannered lady and was an excellent cook. She was very modern yet practical,. When I was leaving for my higher studies, against my Parent’s wish she advised me to find a man I like. I can very well remember she told Maa ‘Let her live her own life, I have full faith on this girl. She will never let us down”. In a middle class Bengali household that’s not something you will hear every day but she was way ahead of her time. She had a very distressing childhood as she lost her father before birth. Her mother whom we lovingly called Pachama lived with her brothers and brought them up on whatever meager means she had. Dida got this sense of pride from her and later many a time she remembered those days with twinkling eyes. At that time neither their fund nor the society in a village permitted higher education of a girl child. Dida couldn’t attend school for long and was married at a very young age. My Dadu or Maternal Grandfather was an officer with The Forest Dept and at that early period of his career he was mostly posted to jungles. Dida and her three children had to tag along wherever he went. During this time she started to experiment with food more for necessity than of passion. In a jungle a decent shop selling normal grocery and vegetables was a distant dream and so was a refrigerator. She later told us it was only once in a month when Dadu travelled to Sadar (big city) and brought all household items. For fruits and vegetables they had to depend upon the local tribes who sometime brought wild varieties of potatoes, greens or berries. The thing that was abundant was meat of any kind. So Dida started experimenting with whatever items she had to feed her family a round meal.
When I grew up sometimes I got amazed with the variety of food she could cook with equal perfection. Be it fish fry, roast, cakes, jams n pickles, wadi, soups or normal Bengali everyday meal just one touch of her would have incorporated a wow factor to it. Still today my Paternal Aunts fondly recollect the amazing taste of her normal pumpkin curry. But the striking factor was her knowledge and use of ingredients. She cooked with bamboo shoots (now a days because of the globalization this is common to us), soft white inner skin of tender coconut or wild oranges and came up with innovative yet amazingly tasty dishes like onion kheer (which my Hubby always wants me to try), daber Dalna (young Coconut in gravy) or kamla tak (sour fish dish with wild oranges). Often she came up with surprising pairing of ingredients which we would not think of normally. Once when we reached Mamabari (maternal uncle’s house) at a very late afternoon they already had their lunch and she wasn’t having much vegetable at her kitchen to feed five of us. So she went to the garden, brought some very tender ridge gourds and cooked with raw jackfruit. I still drool at the taste of the curry. I believe the kumro posto’r chutney was also her invention but am not sure as she never talked about it. She never wasted anything. She dry roasted pumpkin, jack fruit or watermelon seeds for us kids to munch on between meals. Apart from her culinary skills she was well known of her friendly nature and carried herself stunningly. Not much educated but she mingled with very educated colleagues of Dadu with ease. She loved sarees and her trunk was like a treasure trove for us. I attended all my exams wearing her sarees and considered her to be my lucky charm. My Maa and Masimoni (maternal aunt) is carrying her skills and ….in a good way. Ma who is extremely busy with her work still finds time to cook our favorite dishes, sits when we eat and insist on a second helping. She always remembers to make pithe on Poush Sankranti or payes on our birthdays. Believe this is the way traditions are kept alive and runs from one generation to the next.
I was very fond of Dida but never had time to discuss recipes with her. I owe her everything, be it this quality of cooking and feeding with love or whatever cooking ideas or skills I have today. Whenever I try out a new dish I think of her fondly. The way she sat on the kitchen verandah, checked the spices, scolded the maid for not cutting the fish properly and cooked in her clay oven, it’s her who inspires me and shows me way as my guardian angel.
This dish that I tried today was her specialty but none of us knew what spices she used. Maa or Masimoni never cooked this but they always remembered how Dida threw in this and that and made this mouth watering dry curry. This was a common dish in villages where poor villagers mostly widows cooked even the peels to add another side dish for the rice. This is a normal everyday dish and is best eaten with steamed rice.
This time I am giving approaximate measurement as I had stored peels for 3-4 days and then made this dish. Also I peeled the vegetable skins thicker than normal to add more taste.
Pumpkin peel: finely chopped; ½ cup
Bottle gourd Peel: finely chopped; ½ cup
Potato skin: ½ cup
Eggplant: 2” piece, thinly sliced
Potato: 1 very small
Onion: 1 small; sliced
Mustard and poppy seeds paste (2:1): 11/2 tbsp
Dry red chillies: 2 pieces
Panchforon: ½ tsp
Prawn or lentil wadi: 3-4 pieces
Mustard Oil: 11/2 tbsp
Chop the vegetable as finely as possible. Wash and drain the water.
If using prawn fry it for a minute with salt and turmeric and blend with mustard, poppy seeds and 1 dry chilli. Otherwise fry the wadis and keep aside.
Heat 1 tbsp oil in a pan and temper with Panchforon and dry red chilli. When it’s lightly brown and aromatic add the sliced onion. Fry for a couple of minutes then tip in the veggies with salt and turmeric.
Mix and cover. Let it cook on low till all the juices dries up and veggies lose the crunch.
Add the spice paste and stir fry on low until it’s soft. Add the wadis in this stage if using. Sprinkle some water in between if it becomes too dry or stick to bottom.
When the veggies are soft and spice coats evenly add ½ tbsp reserved oil and again give it a good stir for a minute.
Serve hot on a bed of steamed rice.