The entropy of Food: A Bengali epicure’s survival in food lockdown

    by Adrija Chatterjee

    The veracity of memory is often, associated with the aspect of perception. To that extent, culture, circumstance, and perception has a subtle yet steady incursion into the notion of food. As we, as humankind find ways to navigate post pandemic life, am frequently brought to wonder if we think of how the covid 19 lockdown life brought about radical or nuanced changes in ways more than one. I, for one, lost too much in the pandemic era. Spiritually, socially after losing several battles mustered enough courage to seek mental health help. Curiously enough, the first blow started off with food. As a quintessential Bengali with genes instinctively drawing up parallels of happiness and food, my equation had never been problematic with eating. Till COVID happened. One session, my then therapist asked me to explain the absurdity of indulging into cooking as a healer for all the pandemic bred insomnia that hounded me in 2020-21. Honestly, it was difficult, to elaborate especially for someone who watched Julie and Julia merely for the sake of getting inspired with new ideas of recipes. Reason? Well, all recipes and BBC good food had fallen short of running their trial versions in the kitchen. Mr therapist probably did not know, how food transcended into my only remaining hope during that audacious darkness of pandemic. I heard him refer, quite frequently, of a certain dopamine- the happy hormone. For me it was dopamine and it’s poetic relationship on days I watched Michael Lim’s recipes on YouTube. In that jiggly cheesecake I would find all the enthusiasm to survive the next day. With a diabetic and recently gall operated mom stuck with me, my arthritis medications forever getting stalled, a husband wife domestic game of work from home in full swing, Covid-19 in ways more than one metamorphosed my sense of humour. To include the otherwise deadline and panic-stricken weeknights into ambits full of experimentation and fancy. Through food, that too in rationed measures and strictly limited range of choice.

    A Bengali by birth and language, our unique conceptualization of food sums up our ethnic identity as no other factor can equal in. For the uninitiated, India has West Bengal in its eastern flank –whose native language Bengali essentially forms the basis of the nomenclature of our ethnic identity. Fish, a general Bengali’s and my own survival and comfort food- it took a Covid-19 to test that threshold. As a Bengali settled in non-Bengal premises, of the Hindi heartland, the virulence forced us to reimagine the indispensable attributes fish brought in our diet. The severe lockdown, in Central India, in an odd and irrational turn of events, (that went undocumented in the large scale) unofficially declared non vegetarian food as a source of coronavirus. The otherwise reluctant restrictions prevailed little, for containment. Most administrative actions were saved essentially for the fear-mongering punitive actions against people who dealt in the trade and retail of meat and fish. All this, while a scorching summer of Central India ran it’s due course. Diurnal temperatures soaring an average 100 degree Fahrenheit- surviving on vegetarian food, was not even the nightmare I imagined it to be. 

    Life lessons you see! A forced survival upon vegetables and grains. Overnight something as trivial as eggs transformed into luxury- fingers counted their smooth bodies because there was zero certitude regarding the next time, I could even have access to a handful of them. One was grazed down: to search, experiment, and savour in eggless, flourless, cream-less chocolate mousse cakes. Food assumed the centre stage as the primordial necessity. Also, a compulsion of the highest order for a hungry family, varied levels of nutritional requirements. The compulsion that made me curry in the potatoes, a my version of Kashmiri dum aloo, stirred in a gravy of heavy milk (one’s golden accessory in difficult times), sans raisins instead substituting it with a concoction of long refrigerated sunflower seeds and jaggery. Finally, the gravy out of the limited spices, no nutmeg no mace. As my ladle stirred to the extent where I felt a stretch on my arthritic rotator cuff, but gloated at the fact that the potato curry tasted better than meat! That, by no means meant that our identity as food lovers, could let go of our loud sobs of the fish-less existence and enslave our gastronomy to bland mundane food of the vegetarian tyranny. The torment of a choked supply of groceries for the lockdown notwithstanding, I summarily rejected the monotony of being trapped into cycles of Poha and/or Rajma roti. Our genes unfortunately constituted a gastrointestinal mechanism where we are gluten intolerant, prone to H Pylori, need loads of dietary calcium and potassium. With due respect to all things vegetarian, especially, in this part of the world- Madhya Pradesh, that takes pride in its indigenous and primarily vegetarian cuisine. Here food, more often than not is a background affair. Unlike Bengalis where food is not just kitchen, it is a way of life. 
    Food= Kitchen = Hunger – the simple equation here, in MP. Combination of ingredients: enough carbohydrates meet little protein. Some substantial heat from green chilies dashed in and it satiates cravings for the bigger belt. 

    Proudly enough, till COVID settled in, I remained true to my Bengali upbringing that reflected in my kitchen which was always humid and crowded with the miscellaneous pantry items. Where one could find me compressing larger, complex recipes into small and simpler ones. The trend, fortunately, managed to stay afloat: in static existence of the pandemic quarantine.
    My adventures?
    A birthday in April, locked up at home as per national dictums- a hard to ignore craving for a chilled dessert. A craving that was not even sorry for teasing me amidst the food inaccessibility. Numerous travels to the fridge and pantry drawers later I drew up:

    1. Whole full-fat milk
    2. Leftover layers of buttery cream accumulated over boiled milk(refrigerated for long)
    3. Powdered milk
    4. Butter
    5. Cocoa powder
    6. Sugar
    7. Some rice flour

    A deep breath and too many trembles later regarding how the damned thing’s going to solidify- no eggs, no cornflour, yogurt – the milk started to boil over in the pan. There was to be no heavy/ whipped cream coming up in some Narnia motion. I whipped in a small bowl of homemade buttery cream I saved every day, powdered milk, butter, and some hot milk from the pan. A continuous mutter to myself: to stay as economical as possible. For then it was the most difficult proposition to easily part away with half a stick of butter or an ounce of sugar. Those humble indispensables, more precious than I ever gave a thought in life. The next steps? Large motions to mix everything all along- intermittent pauses to add a premixed concoction of sugar, cocoa powder, rice flour, and a little portion of hot milk. Churning it all over again, my shoulder blades turned miserable in numb pain- the milk finally settled into a coagulated batter-like texture. A little more sugar, promise no more. The thing appeared to dodge the presence of egg and gelatine and/or corn starch as it got poured into small stainless steel ramekin bowls- my personal birthday favorites. An overnight refrigeration of those ramekins and finally it came out to be my creamiest and richest ever birthday mousse.

    It is almost symbiotic, the way I feed words into blank word sheets and the way simple, random kitchen ingredients, forever side lined in the pantry find some celebrated way into mundane breakfasts and dinners. At this point, a web platform came to our rescue- titled Bong Eats. To a forever hungry Bengali, it’s video and textual descriptions of both well-known and little known Bengali cuisine, felt like sheer music of gastronomy. Interestingly, as the potboiler of substantial cultures including Islamic, Persian, Jewish, and English traditions, Bengali food has a spectrum that is rather difficult to match. The web platform of Bong Eats, combined itself with:

    • A meticulous detail of weighed ingredients
    • Religious impeccability of processes from scratch
    • Unmatched passion for the food itself more than anything else.

    There it was, my blank notebook of succumbing to every whim. In between the wild tapping upon the qwerty keys- I transformed those whims, the boredom, and my scarce groceries into a rabid expression of curries, custards, sauces, and staples. My bedtime was rapidly consumed by obsessing over those videos. My legs numbed from the day’s work, arthritic pain keeping me up till late hours- the Bengali cuisine videos handed me stuff my therapist could never delve into. Some dates, my kitchen switched onto Bengali Fried Rice mode- Bong Eats’ ingenious ingredients were sadly but excitingly modified to suit my frugal pantry supply. My brain worked overtime, contemplated the easiest to-go with the rice. A smile later, it zeroed in on a baked vegetable patty commonly known as the vegetable chop for the Bengalis. Straightforward savoury nutrition with nothing more than mashed beetroot, carrot, (one is free to mash any vegetable of choice save okra) two potatoes, little ginger paste and a pinch of garlic paste. Swabbed in a dash of salt, black pepper powder, and finally coated the balls in- brownie points for guessing- the humble semolina! Till date I never forget to order a half a kilo of it. A magic ingredient and one of the fortunate pieces of ingredient to stay afloat in Central India during the entire course of an otherwise choked food supply.  

    April,

    May,

    June- Three months straight till it became alright to not fret over some last cups of oil, flour, and milk. Cheese, eggs and sausages (yayy!) announced themselves back to the breakfast table. 

    Food trauma or Food skills– precisely the most impactful choice that crept for my discretion, for the years when we were supposed to move back into our happily ever after worlds. Four years later I try my best to obliterate that OR in between. Trauma, yes, to the extent where I turn shockingly uninspiring whenever a *sold out* appears on the online food retail store or stand in front of near empty racks of basic ingredients in my kitchen. Food skills, yes to that as well, as am empowered with the weapon of erstwhile impossible innovations. Two ingredient, five ingredient things, a ten minute way to satisfy nutrition and taste find their way to my schedule. Almost every alternate day. And I do plan to document them someday especially for the time, ingredient and logistics challenged gastronomic connoisseur. Now as I restock my cheese, singhara flour or munch at keema croissants- I know it’s hard but never impossible to survive without them- the greatest leaf in my food journey I could be ever handed down.

    Adrija Chatterjee writes from India. She holds a M.Phil degree in Foreign Policy and Peace Studies. Her early works have appeared in The Active Muse, The Alipore Post, Life and Legends and elsewhere. She has been a CNF contributor in an anthology titled Narratives on Women’s Issues in India: Vol 1 Domestic Violence published by the IHRAF New York as well as in a publication with Black Eagle Books titled Defy Definitions. She is the author of the chapbook titled Beyond The Night Jasmine, September 2021Her full length fiction work been released in April-2024 by Half Baked Beans publication house. It is her debut collection of short stories titled Pilgrims of Reflection.

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