Boil and bubble

It was Saraswati Puja last Saturday. Now I always heave a sigh of relief when this particular puja rolls up in Bengal around the end of January or the beginning of February. That’s because it marks the conclusion of the stream of pujas (read raucous merrymaking) in these parts that begins with venerating Vishwakarma – the god of artisans -- in the middle of September and continues for nearly four months with spectacular obeisance being paid in turn to goddesses Durga, Lakshmi, Kali, Jagaddhatri and perhaps a few more I’ve missed out. However, to me Saraswati Puja is not just about the temporary close of Bengal’s puja calendar. Since I have a somewhat one-track mind, I never fail to think of it without dwelling pleasurably on the hearty eating that takes place on this day. Like most religious festivals, this too is celebrated with the cooking – and eating -- of certain signature local dishes. What’s interesting is that there are two distinct culinary traditions at work here – Saraswati Puja food that is typical to what was once called East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and that which is characteristic of the region to its west, or West Bengal.

For example, if your family had its roots in erstwhile East Bengal, Saraswati Puja would be quite incomplete without that quaint ceremony called jora eelisher biye (the wedding of a pair of eelish fish). Two silvery eelish, undoubtedly the queen amongst all fish in Bengal, are brought home, anointed with oil and sindoor and, "married" off to each other with much ullulation and blowing of conch shells. This is supposed to mark the formal opening of the eelish season. Of course, it’s a matter of dark irony that no sooner are the hapless fish united in holy wedlock, they are chopped and cut and a variety of dishes cooked with their delectable body parts. So in an east Bengali household, the actual puja, which happens in the morning, is followed by a sinful eelish extravaganza throughout the rest of the day. The fish is had bhaja (fried) as jhole (spicy stew), jhaal (hot and spicy curry), bhapa (steamed with ground mustard), tauk (a tart preparation with tamarind) and so on. This is over and above the no less desirable bhoge or offering to the goddess, which can be a range of goodies like luchi, kheer, khoiyer moa, narkel naru, etc.

Happily, since my mother’s family came originally from East Bengal and my father’s belonged to the west, I kind of had the best of both worlds on Saraswati Puja day. So while eelish was very much on the menu, one also got to stuff oneself with khichuri (rice and lentils cooked with potatoes and cauliflower -- a dish claimed by both Bengals) and such typically West Bengali Saraswati Puja fare as begun bhaja (batter fried brinjal), gota sheddho (boiled whole vegetables), and kuler aumbol (a sour broth made with a type of berry).

I have to admit that I wasn’t always a great fan of gota sheddho. In fact, I tended to give all veggies a bit of a wide berth in my salad days. But now that I am older and wiser, I never cease to marvel at this wonder dish. It’s whole vegetables cooked almost entirely without any spices, and with negligible oil. You’d think it would taste horrid. On the contrary, it tastes exceptionally good – partly because the veggies are at their seasonal best at this time of the year and partly because it’s slow cooked until everything amalgamates into that flavourful mix. Gota sheddho is traditionally had on Saraswati Puja day, but you can make it any time this season. It’s one of those unbelievable things – high on taste yet bursting with nutrition.

When cooking it, take care to get the sequence of adding the vegetables right. Different veggies have different cooking points. Chucking everything in together may seem simpler, but it will definitely compromise the taste of the final dish.




Gota Sheddho
(Boiled Whole Vegetables)
(Serves 4)

Ingredients
1and 1/4th cup whole moong dal
400 g unshelled peas
3 small sweet potatoes
6 medium-sized new potatoes
6 broad beans
6-7 small brinjals
½ kg spinach
4-5 green chillies
1 and a ½ inch piece of ginger
1 and a ½ teaspoons of aniseed
2 tablespoons of mustard oil
Salt to taste
 
Method
Dry roast the whole moong lightly in a deep wok. Remove from fire, wash it in several changes of water and keep aside. Put six cups of water into the wok and bring to boil. Add the moong, lower the fire and let it simmer. While the dal is cooking, wash all the vegetables. Peel the potatoes. Snip the stems of the brinjals slightly and slit each brinjal four ways, taking care to keep it attached to the stem. String the beans. Shell half the peas and leave the rest with their shells on. Retain a bit of the stem on the spinach as well. Grind the ginger and the aniseed into a smooth paste and keep aside.
When the dal is half done, add the new potatoes, bring the mixture to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer once more. Stir occasionally and keep adding hot water if needed.
Once the new potatoes are half done, add the sweet potatoes, the broad beans, the brinjals and the shelled and unshelled peas. When this is almost cooked, add the spinach. Then add the whole green chillies with their stems on. When the mixture is thoroughly cooked and almost entirely homogenised – the whole process may take a little over an hour - add the ginger and aniseed paste, and salt to taste. Stir, and boil it for some time more. Now add two tablespoons of mustard oil, stir it nicely and take it off the fire.

 
 
 
 

Comments

  1. Gota Sheddo is a precursor of modern low calorie cuisine. An authentic Gota Sheddo is served baasi (stale) after Saraswati puja while it is cool. There is some religious connotation-- Bengali mothers used to eat it praying for long life of the children while offering pujas to Maa Sheetala (the goddess of smallpox). Perhaps the dish was considered an antidote to the dreaded disease. I guess this is why you won't find the wonderful dish served at regular lunch or dinner. I agee that one can relish the dish anytime in January-February (spring season) when vegetables are fresh-- bathed in dewdrops. Especially begun (brinjal) and palong shaak (spinach) taste so delicious during this time. And the dish tastes awesome if served hot--free from religious moorings.

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  2. You are absolutely right, gurucool. Gota sheddho evolved because all that goodness of whole vegetables was supposed to fend off small pox -- which struck around this time (spring). However, I always prefer to have it hot, rather than the next day -- because that brings out the flavours so much better.

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  3. Wow i feel gym maniacs like me can opt for gota seddho as a healthy option...sounds better than dahlia

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