Cats! That is what you would call them, those who stay near the wood fire in traditional Bengali home. Or would you? Think of those two or three holes in the mud flooring, carefully packed with layers of mud, with a bottom rich with a collection of ash and cinder from burnt wood. An iron tube, to blow into the fire and another iron rod to shuffle and move the burning cinder, large cut-to-size wood meant to light the fire, in order that the days’ meals can be cooked. Ceilings blackened by the smoke. Constant tear-wet eyes. Can you call them cats, these cooks sitting by such firesides in traditional Bengali houses in yesteryears? Gas stoves were unheard of. Would you call them cats, even though they sometimes shared the fireplace with the lazy white house cats?
Ranna mama was not a cat, cat but a real cat in cooking meals and other things in our house. He was always lively and bubbly, eating his paan and drinking his n-numberchai. Apart from many other things I remember him for, I will never forget the way ate. To my child-eyes, it was fascinatingly peculiar. He would take one big morsel of rice mixed with curry, roll it in his palms to a ball and then throw it into his mouth, as if he was bucketing a ball like you do in Basketball! In traditional Bengali homes, you ate sitting on a little stool on the floor. Who had seen the dining table then and who would want that? I used to stare in awe, my head moving up and down with each morsel. We all enjoyed his culinary expertise.
He and his brother had come from Bangladesh. The word visa was unheard of. One just walked across the border and landed in Shillong via Silchar and worked in any capacity at homes and offices in the Kacchar Distt. and in Shillong where there was a huge Bengali population. They left behind them, in Bangladesh, their families in order that they could work and take money back home ones a year. In case of Rannamama, he took the money once a year too and every year he left his wife pregnant with another baby, who would be born in the absence of its father. He would only see his child the next year when he got there. But then he would leave again with his wife pregnant with the next. Back in our house in Shillong, he would treat us to culinary delights.
Rannamama’s Mutton Curry
Mutton – 1 kg washed and cleaned
Onions – 3 whole
Garlic – 2 pieces
Ginger – ½ inch piece
Green Chilies – 4
Red Chillie – 2
Lemon – 1
Elachi – 2
Dalchini – 1 one inch long
Mustard oil 6 tablespoons
Salt to taste
Haldi 1 teaspoon
Bay leaves 2
Water ½ litre or as required
Optional: Potatoes 3 cut in the middle.
Grind one onion, garlic, ginger,red and green chilies to a paste and put them over the mutton. Grind the elachi, dalchini to a paste and put it separately in a covered bowl.
Cut 2 onions into large pieces and along with 4 tablespoons of oil, salt and haldi, mix and marinate for half hour.
Place a kadai on fire. Heat. Put two spoons of mustard oil and heat till the bubbles dissolve. Put the bay leaves and stir till brown. Place the marinated mutton in the kadai and sorte till the emerging water in the mutton dries up totally. Add previously fried to brown, potatoes and cook till the mutton is done, not too soft, but just right. If you are using a pressure cooker, then allow the first whistle, and then put the mutton in low fire for twenty minutes. Open cooker immediately after by releasing the pressure through the whistle.
Once done, add the juice of one lemon on top and also the elachi, dalchini mixture. Stir and place in a serving bowl. Cover the bowl. Serve hot with plain, white rice, roti or luchies*
* Luchi – Fluffy puri made of maida