Recently, someone asked my wife, Deepika who is a non-Bengali, to name one thing each that she dislikes and likes in Bongs. She took time to answer what she likes and came up with a standard answer that Bongs are multi-cultured in a way that they like to read, watch theatre and are generally very knowledgeable. However, she was very quick to point out her dislike for Bong’s obsession with food. She said, “When I got married, the only thing I remember was that the first thing in the morning when I wake up was that my mother-in-law was already in the kitchen preparing elaborate breakfast for everyone. And then the lunch, followed by evening snacks and dinner. The whole house was centred on food!!!” She hasn’t changed but I have. Most days we have one sabji, one Dal and chapattis. Only on weekends, do we make food that has some similarity with a Bong household!
The conversations made me think are we, the Bongs really obsessed with food? The answer is a simple YES. And we are proud of it. I remember in my childhood, my mother used to make at least two sabjis (one dry & gravy), Dal and one non-veg item for both lunch and dinner. The same is true in most middle class Bong homes even today. Our indulgence with food is legendary. I have read that Rabindranath Tagore, although was a small eater, would insist on being served with a lavish spread so that he can choose what to eat at that particular meal. We Bongs are also very adventurous with food and would like to sample out a variety of regional cuisine. If we like something, we would cook it at home and make it our very own.
Having said thus, Durga Puja, the greatest festival of Bongs is also a culinary festival. We splurge and gorge food like there is no tomorrow. We may afterwards take a handful of digestive medicines but that never deter us to enjoy the moment with our food. The Culinary Festival begins with Anondomela (Anandamela) usually on the Panchami (fifth) or Shasti (sixth) day of the Navratri. In my childhood days, this was reserved for the Mashimas of the locality to showcase their culinary expertise and make some earning in the process. However, these days with the commercialisation at its peak, when the Puja Committees are spending thousands of rupees to build and decorate the pandals and protimas (idols) to show their superiority over others, the Anondomela too is no longer the exclusive bastion of the Mashimas but has given way to all and sundry. It is no longer a FOOD ONLY mela but brings in sellers of handicrafts, junk-jewelleries etc too.
I along with a friend of mine have just started a catering business in the niche market of children. But are yet to be operational in real sense, therefore we wanted to get the feel of the food business and what a better avenue than Anondomela where lots of children are expected (at least that’s how it was in my childhood. I have not been to any such melas for a long time!!). So, we with manoeuvring, we managed to get our first stall at Durgabari, Kailash Colony. We decided on homemade Mutton Shammi Kebabs and Sheekh Kebabs and had externally sourced Roomali Rotis as accompaniment. Both our families were very excited about this and Deepika volunteered to make Pudina (mint) chutney while Sangeeta made very yum Shammis. I mixed the ingredients for the Sheekh kebab and had it cooked in a neighbourhood tandoor (cooking furnace).
On the appointed day, we were all ready with a Microwave Oven to heat up the kebabs and decorated the stall table with flowers and posters enticing the people to come and savour our delicacies. We noticed that everyone else has done it exactly the same way. We felt nervous, what happens if no one comes to us? What will we do with so many kebabs?
But our apprehension was short lived, because, Bongs do not disappoint you, if you are serving them food! Slowly, the crowd built up at the venue and all they have in mind was food. And the splurging and gorging of food started with utmost dedication and zeal. Our stall was next to the drinking water point and that meant most of the people would venture in to that spot eventually and kebabs are truly a weakness with Bongs. We finished our stock of kebabs almost half hour before the closing time and were elated beyond words. We have surely made money but the elation was that we had managed finish our stock completely. With keen eye, one can observe this happiness in all cooks when their offered food is cleaned of the plate by the recipient/ diner.
Later that evening, we calculated our earnings and spending to realise that we have made a decent profit. We were excited and wanted to explore other venues where the mela was being held the next day. One such open option was K-Block, C R Park; where it was first-cum-first occupy the table. We decided to put up our stall but it was a daunting task as we had to buy the material and prepare the kebabs that very morning. We decided to take outside professional help as they would be able to make the kebabs much faster than us. We would provide the ingredients and supervise the process but use the professional kitchen to finish the cooking. The cooks did not disappoint us made the kebabs well in time for us to put up the stall at K-Block Anondomela.
We were told to reach the venue latest by 3 pm to register and occupy the table. We reached on time and not only occupied the table but had it decorated but there was no sign of any organising committee member who would do the registration. They came around 5:30 and thereafter it took a full hour to officially open the business. Unlike, the Durgabari, where all the stalls were allotted to only amateur cooks and too well in advance, here it was free-for-all with some C R Park street vendors also selling their dishes. There were handicraft and junk-jewellery stalls too and they must have been feeling the heat with all the aromas emanating from the food counters!
Anyways, very soon, we realised that our chosen counter is actually quite a distance away from the centre of food actions. It was almost 20/25 minutes after the opening that we made our first sale. May be because of our previous day experience we had overestimated our chances with a much bigger Puja venue at K-Block that we had increased our quantity of kebabs and Roomalis but looking at the pace of the sale at our counter started to feel little panicky. We also realised that the timings of the places were quite different, the Durgabari mela started around 7:30 pm which meant a lot of the people had our kebabs+roomali as dinner while at K-Block, it started at 6:30 which for Bongs was still a snack time and they preferred to have fish fries and cutlets rather than a full meal of kebabs and Roomalis roti. At K-Block, the organisers had refused to provide any power points for our microwave oven to heat up the kebabs. Though the kebabs were kept in insulated containers but how long can it keep the kebabs hot?
We managed to sell our Shammi kebabs completely and about 60% of the Sheekh kebabs and Roomalis. We also posted a very slender profit for our efforts. In the process, we learned some valuable insights –
- Being amateur, you cannot compete with seasoned street vendors.
- Must keep in mind the time of the day and offer dishes accordingly.
- Keep the bite sizes small as well as the price.
- Must have dishes for both Vegetarians as well as Non-Vegetarians.
- Must have plan-B ready at all times.
Money making was not our objective for putting up the food counters but gaining experience in commercial aspect of the food business. We divided the left-over Sheekh kebabs amongst us which would serve us for at least 2-3 meals!!
My son Ayush was not expected to come for the Durga Puja due to his university festival that was taking place at the same time but he surprised us with flash appearance for precisely 30 minutes and gladly took the Sheekh Kebabs and Roomalis for his college friends.
Next year, perhaps, wiser with experience, will do it again, may even take up a Food Stall for the entire duration of the Puja days.
“There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” ― George Bernard Shaw