Pohela Boishakh: The beginning of a New Era

And the starting of a new calendar not only for the farmers, but a transformation in terms of food and food habits of people across the state, says Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti.

By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy Sonar Tori

History often credits the Mughals for creating the concept of Pohela Boishakh, especially Emperor Akbar. It is said that when the king wanted to impose tax on a newly acquired state of Bengal, he faced with a unique issue: the timing of ‘kar’ didn’t match. Erstwhile Bengal then followed an agrarian based calendar said to have designed by 7th-century king, Shashanka (some also credit King Vikramaditya for the same). According to that calendar, it was a season when farmers took a break from farming to spend time with their near and dear ones. It was a time when the land that had given food in abundance to rest – and for the farmers to take care of themselves, their cows, their homes, and life. It was a season when most people travelled too. Paying tax during the non-work season was not just part of the plan. This, as story goes, nudged Emperor Akbar to rethink the lunar Islamic Hijri calendar that didn’t work according to the Indian agricultural cycles. And thus, under the aegis of royal astronomer Fathullah Shirazi a new calendar was created that combined the lunar Islamic calendar and solar Hindu calendar, and in doing so a harvest zone called Fasholi Shan was created leading to what we today call the Pohela Boishakh (Poila Baisakh) or the Bengal’s New Year.

Fasholi Shan marked a month that could technically be explained as a phase between the new tilling season and the last harvest. But for Bengali cuisine expert, Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti (Corporate Chef, Ambuja Neotia that owns Sonar Tori among others),  it is also a time when Bengal cuisine shifted from the rich and heavy to the subtle and light. In fact, says Chef Sumanta,  “during this time you would see a lot of bhaja, bora, bhate in our food along with a wide use of bitter in our food. And all this is for a reason. It is around the time when vegetables like bitter gourd, bottle gourd, drumsticks, plantain, eggplant and such are available in abundance along with an array of bitter leaves like neem,  thankuni pata, gime shaak (a close cousin of fresh fenugreek) are readily available thanks to their varying ripening time between April and May.”

Vegetable choices, he continues, that often are not right up there when you talk about favourites, and yet, seasonally, these have the potential of not only detoxing the body, purifying the blood, but also protecting against a wide range of maladies, especially chicken pox. The understanding of how these food combinations can help started what today is considered not just the finer chapter of Bengal Culinary Legacy but also marked the beginning of an era of such using dishes as home remedies for better health – and when I mean both mental and physical, and to some extend spiritual as well.”

Take for instance frying. Be it deep frying or shallow frying, the technique was simply adopted to ensure not just taste but minimal tampering with the nutrients of a produce. What made it work was the addition of either batter or a marination, which in most Bengali homes begins with the basic turmeric, chilli, and salt, that added to the produce composition. The Lotiya macher bara is an excellent showcase of how taste is created through technique. The fish, which is a variety of Bombay Duck available during this time, becomes a preferred choice for not only making some jhuri bhaja (which is fish, lightly coated and flashed fried) but also adds to the bara (pan-fried), which is a subtly flavoured dish that adds the crunch value to the plate.

Next, continues the Bengali cuisine researcher, “the combination of food that can be cooked together to create this superbowl of nutrients that not only help the body but also cleanse it. Shukto and its many varieties (including the more recent ones that use fenugreek seed paste and prawns too) excelled in this case where it provided the palate lightness while fortifying the body with the necessary nutrients to function well.”

Yet another technique is the Bhate. This cousin of Odia Chakata and Poda worked on ensuring a lot of food is eaten in its natural state, as much as possible, with techniques that worked to breakdown the fibre, protein or in many cases the sugar for effective digestion. But from the culinary point of view, adds Chef Sumanta, “bhate or bhorta which begins with either roasting or parboiling the vegetable is an excellent way to create a dish that feels rich (read: fat-like) to the palate and that too by using the natural texture of a produce and then elevating its flavours with addition of textures with onions, garlic and chillies with a dash of mustard or pickle oil depending on the vegetable.”

Fascinatingly, the wellness theme continues to the sweet in the platter too, which take on a lighter version with Channa Payesh and Bell Fuller Rosogulla, where it is the technique that not only bring in different facet of the dish but also create the summer happy taste. In fact, ends Chef Sumanta, “the  Pohela Boishakh thali often is a lesson in how to start afresh, using whatever means available with ingenuity.”