Saturday, September 30, 2006


Originally uploaded by dalbhat.
Growing up in upstate New York didn't grant me many opportunities to see bananas growing in the wild. That's why I was surprised to learn that a banana "flower" actually exists and is used in a tasty seasonal "mochar" dish here in Kolkata.

In the initial days of growth, the banana plant stem remains under the soil, with the fruit remaining on top. Gradually it grows above the soil in a full-fledged tree with the flower dwindling down from the tip. The extended stem remains inside called 'thor' in Bengali. The flower or 'mochar' in Bengali has three variety - male, female and sexless flower. Along with the typical banana fruit, the flower, when in season, is also sold in local markets.

The banana flower is deep purplish-orange color and forms on long drooping stalks. If you open the inside, you can see small flowers that would turn into banana. This is what is used to make the Bengali mochar curry dish here in Bengal. The process of removing all these small flowers is quite tedious, and then they must be soaked for quite some time in salt water to remove the bitterness before cooking.

'Kaancha kola,' or green banana is also used widely in cooking here.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

D is for DURGA

Originally uploaded by dalbhat

Durga is the demon-destroying goddess worshiped during an annual homecoming festival called Durga puja. She is annually welcomed back each year into the homes, communities and more importantly, the hearts of Bengalis according to the lunar calendar. She is elaborately treated as a guest in the city and in larger family homes until it is time for her to be sent back to the Himalayas, which is symbolized by a parade of music and dance that ends with her immersion into the Ganges.

Durga has ten arms holding Sword, Conch, Discus, Rosary, Bell, Winecup, Shielf, Bow, Arrow, and Spear, all gifts from the gods so that she would be able to slay Mahish, the demon. These tools reflect Durga's supremacy in controling evil and good forces within the universe.

My favorite part of this 4-day celebration and ceremony to welcome the goddess and send her off again is happening right now, long before the drummers and priests get here to do their thing. Laborers who are skilled at making the temporary bamboo structures that house Durga come from the rural districts about one month before the festival begins. With each passing day, these "pandals" rise up all over the city. At first they look just like scaffolding, but gradually take shape as pillars and windows and entranceways are built into them; they are then wrapped in huge sheets of cloth and decorated creatively by these rural artisans who come up with new (and sometimes pretty whacky) ideas each year. Sometimes they build the pandal to reflect a news event that happened during the year (this year it was the little boy who fell into the tubewell) or mold the face of the demon into a head-butting football player, etc. It's all in good fun and works to escalate the excitement for dressing up in this year's best and going hopping from one pandal to the other to welcome the goddess and say a prayer for safety and plenitude.

The pandals had me fooled the first couple of years...I thought they were real cement buildings until I started to notice the actual construction going on beforehand.

As you can see, Durga pervades every nook and cranny of the city during this season -- even the java joints!

durga in my coffee