Bong Mom’s Cookbook – Stories from (not) my Bengali mother’s kitchen

Bong Mom Cookbook

Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta has been a busy ‘Bong’ (Bengali, for the uninitiated). Not only has she penned her first book, based on her hugely successful blog; she’s only gone and re-written my whole history. Or that’s how it feels, after my father and I spent a glorious week vicariously steeped in her memories, her voice accompanying us on car journeys as I read her wonderful words aloud, haltingly stumbling over Bengali words – probably using pronunciation any true-blue Bong would have just cause to pronounce over.

It’s a rare and beautiful thing to be able to share ones’ heritage so vividly their reader feels reborn. And as the concluding chapter draws to a close much too soon for my liking, I feel my episodic  incantations have somehow invoked a little Bong into my own bloodstream. And, were that the case, I would not object one bit. Not if it meant I’d be a little more like Sandeepa. I don’t think my Dad would mind, either – certainly not if I started turning out Bengali khana just like hers.

I don’t know which of us loved ‘Bong Mom’s Cookbook’ more. From the second I opened the copy she’d sent me all the way from the USA, I had shivers running down my spine. Sandeepa had personally inscribed a message by hand – I could see the way the biro had bitten into the soft paper where she’d overwritten an absent-minded spelling error. Perhaps the H-man had been calling for his dinner… Perhaps her own Bong Mom was on Skype. The tiny detail linked us across continents.

But my Dad was every bit as enraptured. As we savoured Sandeepa’s stories – indeed, her life – in the confines of our little blue car, procrastinating over parathas and lingering over luchis, he alternated between chivvying me along and begging me to slow down so we weren’t so quickly Bong-bereft.  As, of course, we were, the moment the final, (bitter)sweet chapter on mishti finished and we brushed the last of the virtual malpua crumbs from our cheeks and the car seats. ‘Is that IT?’ he asked, dismayed, ‘Can’t you start again?’

Of course I can, and will, quite possibly the moment I finish writing out my own reactions. ‘Bong Mom’s Cookbook’ is destined to become one of my comfort classics, one of those sacred, dependable, dog-eared delights I can revel in when life gets a bit too much. Sandeepa will know what I mean, and that’s one of the marvellous things about her. She’s just like you, me, and everyone else. She doesn’t claim to be any other way and, despite frequent good-natured grumbles, I don’t think she’d want to be.

I certainly hope she never changes. I need her there, brightening up my Facebook feed with a shot of her daughters’ sandals and an expression of pleasure at the summer weather inspiring her cooking that particular day. I need her to tell me what ‘plastic chutney’ is, and how to wow fellow food blogger and Bong-by-birth Finely Chopped with my maachher jhol next time he visits from Mumbai. I need her to help me become a little more Bong. If only for my dear old Dad.

My Dad and Bong boy Kalyan Karmakar. aka 'Finely Chopped'

My Dad and Bong boy Kalyan Karmakar. aka ‘Finely Chopped’

Said dear old Dad was already a committed convert to Sandeepa’s culinary creations. His epiphany came when I pulled up her recipe for bhapa ilish – fish steamed with mustard-based shorshe paste – from the blog, for a quick supper on his lonesome. Since then, he’s compiled a wishlist of ‘must-eats’ – and my beloved book bears almost as many flags as pages. And our kitchen cupboards bear Bengali fruits like mustard oil, posto and paanch phoron.

All the ingredients to introduce a bit of Bong to our daily diet, from dim pauruti at dawn to midnight feasts of mangshor jhol. All informed and inspired by Sandeepa’s stories. She spun me the book as ‘not-really-a-cookbook-more-a-memoir-with-recipes’ in a somewhat apologetic fashion, as if that wouldn’t make it even more appealing. I hate recipe-only books, free from roots, heart and feeling, where all the essential ingredients are missing. The futility of fat-free sorbet when what you really wanted was Haagen Dazs.

In comparison to those spartan tomes, ‘Bong Mom’s Cookbook’ is shahi kulfi. So rich that a single spoonful is too much and a whole bucket is nowhere near enough. I wanted to feast on Sandeepa’s family tales until I felt thoroughly sick, groaning on the floor with a stomach ache and an ice-cream headache. But no matter how hard I tried to ration the words like rainbow sprinkles, my tub runneth empty only too quickly.

So I implored Sandeepa to hurry up and pen the sequel. She stubbornly opined that there needs to be a judicious gap, that I must allow the stories to happen before she can present them for my delectation. I whined that I didn’t care, she could make it up, I was ready for seconds NOW. Like the best kind of Bong Mom, she ignored me until I realised she was right.

And really, I wouldn’t want to read made-up memories. I just don’t want to lose that vicarious connection to something I never actually had in the first place, conjured purely by Sandeepa’s wizardry with words. For the all-too-brief time it took to read the book, it was an honour to have the Bong Mom along for the ride. My Dad might have been driving the car, but it was Sandeepa who took us on the real journey.

11 responses to “Bong Mom’s Cookbook – Stories from (not) my Bengali mother’s kitchen

  1. Thanks Zoe so much. First, I am so very happy that your Dad liked the book so much. His pic with Kalyan is simply awesome. Does he have any connection to Bengal ?
    Next, your warm and beautiful review makes the book that much more special.Thanks


    • Thank YOU for personally sending me a copy – was so pleased when it reached : ) Dad has no Indian connections bar being happily force-fed the food I make at home and take him out for! This pic was from Kalyan’s recent London visit when we all sloped off for Vietnamese food after K accepted an award at the Chowzters.


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