You can probably do anything in the name of religion. The Hindu religion is no exception and among others Hindu widows especially became the victims of religious discrimination. They were not allowed to attend any auspicious event even in their own family They had to fast several times of the year and even when they could eat, it was only vegetarian food and that to with absurd restrictions on high-protein lentils. For the rest of their lives, the only clothing allowed to them was a piece of white cotton fabric. Having incurred the intangible but very real stigma of daring to outlive their husbands, it became their inescapable societal and religious responsibility to attain purity through sacrifice and deprivation. Contemporary social reformers have suggested that the actual purpose of these dietary prohibitions was to shorten the lifespan of these unfortunate women through chronic malnutrition. Of course, a convenient early death meant that her husband’s property had one less claimant. The unbelievably cruel aspect of the whole business is that often it would be her own sons and daughters-in-law waiting like vultures for her death. One really does get amazed at how cruel human beings can be.
With time, things changed little bit. After becoming widows, my thakuma and didima (paternal and maternal grandmother, respectively) both ate non-vegetarian food but still wore white cotton saaris. They neither had to fast on every ambubachi (the three day period in the Bengali month Ashar that, according to the almanac, marks the beginning of the rainy season) nor were they forbidden from eating masoor daal (red lentils). Despite this relative liberalization, overall they still lived a simple life and resisted every temptation to transgress the puritanical rules of socially imposed purity.
Within the confines of their wretched existence, Hindu widows nevertheless found ways to keep going. As we all know, necessity is the mother of invention. Having faced centuries of dietary restrictions and being denied all animal (and some plant) proteins, these resourceful ladies responded by creating a mouthwatering array of vegetarian dishes which continue to be cherished as delicacies today. So, the common misconception in some parts of India that fish-loving Bengalis are unappreciative of vegetarian cuisine is completely wrong. On the contrary, the culinary legacy of many generations of unfortunate widows persists in our many Bengali vegetarian delicacies that have outlived the unfortunate historical circumstances of their creation. Of course, not being free from inane societal strictures, we have cynically adapted many of these dishes to add non-vegetarian ingredients. For example, the same dish that widows of yore would have cooked with bori (sundried lentil) is now often cooked with shrimp or fish heads.
Mulo chhnechki (dry stir-fried grated radish) is one such dish where you can add either shrimp or fried and crushed bori according to your liking. Its best eaten in winter, when radishes are in season and taste sweet and crunchy.
Radishes: three 10-12” pieces (the white long variety)
Coconut: ½ cup grated
Cumin seeds: 1 tsp.
Cumin powder: 2 tsp.
Whole red dry chili: 2nos.
Bay leaves (preferably the Indian kind): 2 nos.
Turmeric powder: ½ tsp.
Red chili powder: 1 tsp.
Ginger paste: 1 tsbp.
Oil (mustard or any other oil): 2 tbsp. (or oil 1 tbsp+ghee 1tbsp.)
Lentils drops/bori: 8-10 (optional)
Cilantro: a handful
Garam masala (cinnamon+cardamom+cloves ground): ½ tsp.
Sugar: 1 small pinch
Green chili pepper: 3-4 nos. (depending on your tolerance)
- Grate the mulo/radish very fine. I grate it in a food processor.
- Sprinkle salt (around a tsp.) and let it sit for 15-20 mns.
- Heat up the oil and fry the bori to a light brown color. Take them out and drain them on a paper towel.
- Temper the oil with the whole cumin seeds. Let them sizzle a little bit.
- Add the bay leaves and the dry red chili. Sauté for few seconds until turn a shade darker.
- Mix the ginger-red chili-cumin powder.
- Add the grated coconut to the oil and sauté it as well. You can smell sautéed coconut.
- Add the ginger-red chili-cumin powder paste and sauté until oil oozes out.
- Squeeze all the water out of the radish and add them to the spice paste. Sprinkle the turmeric powder, mix well and stir frequently to incorporate all the spices for several more minutes. Keep it on medium flame.
- Cover the pot and let the radish get cooked.
- Remove the cover and stir for few more minutes. Taste a little bit and check it tastes cooked.
- Add a pinch of sugar, garam masala powder, ghee, chopped green chili and cilantro and cover the pot for 5 minutes.
- Crush the boris over it just before serving.
Variation: instead of boris, you can add shrimp to the dish as well. Marinate small shrimps with turmeric and salt for few minutes. Shallow fry them and keep them aside. Add the shrimps when the radish is almost cooked and let the flavors mix with each other. You can skip both and it still taste good.