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Of fish and feminism: How Maa and I bonded over the Bengali spice basket

As I hunkered down with my parents for a quarter of the year during quarantine, I learned her kitchen secrets — and so much more

Fennel seeds.Urmi Bhattacharya

If you’re lucky, your parent makes a really good something. You know, the kind of dish you’re served at a restaurant, in a group of half strangers, half friends as you volunteer, “my Maa makes that, with an extra dollop of ghee — substituting the maida for atta.” You watch as the information filters through layers of social conditioning down to the familiar kernel of shared solidarity — the memory of a parent homogenizing spices, batters, and oils into a tasty blob on a dish — and acknowledge the unspoken truth: They’d volunteer similar information, on the back of years of family history passed down through pan-Indian kitchens. (“My Maa/Paa makes a really good something, too.”)

My Maa in Calcutta, for her part, always makes the best curries and sweets. She’ll whip up a mustard-slathered side of fragrant fish as quickly as a syrup-coated orb of sugary whiteness; when my sister and I were growing up, our school textbooks — when opened to its last-read page — would carry remnants of whatever Maa cooked the last Saturday afternoon we did our homework: a ghee-streaked beige or a faded turmeric yellow. Maa made the most of her weekends, when she didn’t have to send us to school — and turned the kitchen into a treasure trove of mysterious smells and delicious promises. If I sneaked a peek at her processes, I’d find an actual treasure trove — a wooden chest that she’d extricate from the recesses of her larder and dive into. This chest had tiny compartments — at least a dozen — each filled to its brim with fine dust, reds and yellows, greens and browns. Maa called these her fairy dust — or the Bengali equivalent of it — stuff she’d amassed over years. Her favorite though — shared by Bengali households the world over — was the paanch phoron.

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Paanch phoron, quite literally “five spices,” are an amalgam of earthy, nutty goodness in Bengali culinary history. It is especially used in the cuisines of India’s eastern states like West Bengal and Assam — and in neighboring countries, Nepal and Bangladesh. The spices are methi (fenugreek seeds), mouri (fennel seeds), kaalo jeere (nigella seeds), shaada jeere (cumin seeds), and shorshe (mustard seeds) — bunched, in equal proportion (a tablespoon each), into an airtight container. They’re also always kept whole — simply scooped out of their containers (I’ve seen everything from porcelain tea cups to plastic Baskin Robbins tubs repurposed as paanch phoron-holders) and plonked with a dramatic, noisy splash into a pan of steaming oil or ghee. Once the deposit has been made, the maker stands back in awe — but mostly in self-preservation — as huge aromas lift up into chimneys, splashing and crackling on the way.

I’d watch as Maa cajoled large chickens and starchy potatoes into submission by rubbing her spice blend on the bloated skins. I’d watch as she tempered maacher jhol (fish stew) and pickled mangoes with a dash of paanch phoron. I’d watch as the latter inevitably coated the thing it was meant to coat, its maker and the surroundings in an embrace that smelled like the tendrils of the earth.

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Cumin seeds.Urmi Bhattacharya

A dozen years and two cities have sprung up since, and they isolate two turnstile events — the year I moved away, and the year I (temporarily) moved back in, during a pandemic. When I left Calcutta with its fragrant monsoons and petrichor, its lackadaisical rickshaw bells and the utter silence of unhurried post-colonial afternoon siestas, I left with it the scents that were intrinsic to it. I returned in the spring of 2020, when the world was turning this way and that, to my parents — looking to offer comfort and help as we “bunkered” together. With each passing day, the number of flights out dwindled, and my own home receded to a tiny blip on the corona-meter, until a decisive lockdown islanded me for a quarter of the year. I didn’t complain. I delighted instead in the one avenue I hadn’t yet explored with Maa or Baba — the kitchen.

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As daily news got more and more frightening, the three of us huddled together and discarded most sources of it. I looked instead to Maa to expound on the virtues of immunity boosters in her kitchen. I looked into tiny glass jars resembling potions in an apothecary — and were, instead, pastes and powders that she had ground by hand. “Never buy in a packet what you can make at home” has been Maa’s go-to axiom, and one she repeated as daily trips to the supermarket grew scarce in the light of growing cases in India.

We cut down on processed ginger-garlic pastes and I watched — feeling like I was 10 years old again — as Maa gnashed stubby fingers of ginger against a grater, little brown strings falling like confetti. Baba would sit in the living room and peel (what felt like) thousands of garlic cloves, letting the smell permeate the house — before Maa scooped them up and mixed them with the ginger under an ancient mortar and pestle. To the uninitiated, the sound of a mortar and pestle thud-thudding dully against the backdrop of a tutti frutti Indian summer sky is quite the therapy.

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Mustard seeds.Urmi Bhattacharya

The pestle produced beautiful, thick chunks of ginger-garlic — far squelchier than the ones in store-bought packets — and in they went, into huge pans of chicken curry or mutton curry or fish curry. West Bengal is a coastal state and Calcutta, its capital, a port town — seasonally buffeted by the monsoons. I spent much of that quarter of the year quarantining over a stove top, whipping up meals as condensation fogged the window sills. As cloudbursts harangued the misty, historic city, Maa taught me tricks of her trade. “Funny how women can slave for hours in the kitchen, cooking entire meals for joint families, and receive no compensation for the labor, you know,” she’d muse through the four months we spent together. Three decades of marriage — and the observation of neighboring marriages — had accorded her a sense of the injustices of capitalizing off of female labor while organized workplaces remained closed to them. Hours of Maa fussing over the right proportion of seeds and spices to a dish to retain their medicinal properties would be punctuated by her recounting the stories she never forgot — of tearing up acceptance letters when in-laws made it pretty clear she’d have to make do with the indoors. How many women, like Maa, had done the same, even as they reared entire households with the skill they found no recompense for? How many recite curative properties of the foods they served their families through sickness and health?

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Fenugreek.Urmi Bhattacharya

I think in those four months Maa and I kindled a kindred sense of feminism that perhaps neither of us had thought we shared.

I think, in claiming a sense of control over food through the quarantine, Maa reclaimed a sense of her agency.

I’d like to believe I helped, with my countless questions about curry paste and paanch phoron and attempts not to show exasperation when she critiqued my fish for not being mustardy enough.

Bengali cooking is simple, I grew to realize, if you furnished your own treasure trove the way Maa taught me to. You’ll need your five-spice blend to sizzle in oil/ghee for half a minute as you exfoliate the scales off fish or the innards of chicken and marinate the protein in generous fistfuls of turmeric and salt. You’ll release it into paanch phoron-soaked oil, allowing it to luxuriate, and you’ll bathe your curry in a little ginger, a little garlic, and if you’re feeling fancy, a little fat-free yogurt for richness. Maa, like many middle- to older-aged homemakers I know, make their own curds at home (store-bought is a travesty), but that’s a story for another time.

To those looking for a little medical science, nigella, fenugreek, mustard, cumin, and fennel all have incredible blood-sugar-controlling, digestion-healing, and infection-relieving properties, and there are lovely little odes to them here, here and here.

When flights eventually opened up, I dragged my heels before eventually bidding Maa and Baba goodbye, and carried a suitcase full of memories back to New Delhi. When I emptied its contents, I watched as brilliant blobs of red chilli powder, yellow turmeric, and green-brown splatters of paanch phoron seeds rainbowed my living room.

I’ve brought much of Maa home and, hopefully, a rightful sense of her uncompensated skill.

To those looking to exact their own paanch phoron at home, ditch the packet and buy the seeds: It’ll be 1 tablespoon of fennel seeds, 1 tablespoon of fenugreek seeds, 1 tablespoon of nigella seeds, 1 tablespoon of cumin seeds, and 1 tablespoon of mustard seeds. Saute a smattering of this blend, whole, and grind the spices into a powder to use in eggs, sausages, homemade noodles, and soups.