It is officially wedding or biyebari season, with social media being inundated with countless posts and photographs of happy couples tying the knot. Although we aren’t totally out of the coronavirus woods yet, there is finally a glimmer of light, a new hope. Of course, the wedding ceremony and reception isn’t a matter of joy for just the bride and groom.
With separate stalls dedicated to phuchka, pakoras and paan, elaborate arrays of salads made of pastas, fruits and vegetables, and a range of dishes spanning almost every cuisine of the globe, the modern-day wedding-goer is spoiled for choice when it comes to food. He is constantly bugged by the trepidation of filling up too much on starters and not being able to enjoy the main course. Slow down on the chicken drumsticks, he keeps telling himself, or you won’t have room left for biryani.
Modern-day biyebaris almost always feature a buffet, because considering the variety on offer, most people would be willing to skip a dish or two, even more. My parents religiously avoid the pasta salads and au gratins at any wedding (too much mayo and cheese, they say), and I’ve made it a point to skimp on the vegetarian dishes so that I have more tummy real estate left for the enticing jumbo prawns, bhetki and mutton. Navratan korma, really?
But just a decade or so ago, things were rather different. The concept of the buffet was a rarity, and almost all wedding feasts involved people sitting down at tables and being served an almost formulaic sequence of dishes which despite their predictability, never failed to entice. Food was served in batches, meaning people had to patiently wait for the previous batch to finish eating, a virtue that is lost on most modern diners.
The ritual of the biyebari feast began with a pristine white plate and glass laid out before you, along with a single paper napkin, the sole guardian of your trousers from the stain of oil and turmeric, and the all-important menu, the tiny card listing the names of dishes that were to come. While I would sit down and try to memorize the names of all the dishes, some fussy diners would request their plates to be changed, claiming that they weren’t clean enough. Others would quickly wipe the plate with a little water. After everyone was satisfied with plate hygiene, a tiny heap of salt and a wedge of lime would be placed ceremoniously at the edge of the plate, the harbinger of the array of dishes that were to arrive.
In the olden days, during my parents’ wedding for example, the water used to be drunk out of earthen glasses, and the plate used to be made of kola paata instead of ceramic, a trend still applicable today when serving khichuri bhog. The tactile experience of mopping up the last remnants of payesh off a kola paata or banana leaf plate is an inexplicable pleasure, and for me constitutes an integral part of the bhog experience. You can check out more about the bhog in a previous article.
The first dish to arrive was the loochi, a puffed flatbread we discussed in our breakfast article. Sometimes, the loochi might be replaced by complex variations like the radhaballabhi with a lentil filling, or the koraishutir kochuri with a pea filling. Loochi and chholar dal is a match made in heaven. Unlike North Indian chana dal, Bengali-style chholar dal has dominant note of sweetness accented with bits of coconut, cashew and raisins, which pairs perfectly with the loochi.
The radhballabhi is heavier and pairs excellently with a kumror chokka or a chhoto aloor dom, made with cubes of pumpkin and small waxy potatoes, and accented with chhola (Bengal gram) and koraishuti (peas), respectively. Like loochi and chholar dal, the pairing of koraishutir kochuri with chhoto aloor dom is a winter classic, featuring the best of seasonal produce. Although the first course is delicious, filling up on too many kochuris is a classic rookie mistake, for as the veteran wedding-goer would know, we’ve only just begun.
Course two is usually a fried snack of some kind, be it a simple vegetable chop made of potatoes and beetroot, or the more elaborate breaded fish fry or battered fish orly. While the wedding menus from my childhood always features some dish of this category, accompanied by a much too watery tomato ketchup or kasundi and a salad of cucumber, onion and carrot, my mother says that this is a rather new addition to the list. In their time, the flatbread course was directly followed by the mains.
The main course featured an array of fish and meat dishes, prepared in rich, indulgent sauces to set them apart from the everyday home-cooked dishes. You were not going to find a light machher jhol on the biyebari menu. What you would find is a kaalia, usually made using rui or katla, both pretty meaty fishes that can hold up to the rich onion and tomato-based sauce. Another alternative would be the classic mustard-based sauce, great with fish like paabda and if you’re lucky, ilish. One of my favourites is the bhetki paturi, pieces of bhetki coated with a mustard paste and steamed in a banana leaf parcel.
Fish dishes like these pair very well with the Bengali-style fried rice we’ve talked about in a previous article: slightly sweet, adorned with winter vegetables and scented with whole spices and ghee. However, it was possible for some menus to feature some plain steamed rice to accompany the fish course. Fish and rice, after all, is a pairing that epitomizes Bengali cuisine. When it came to the meat dishes however, the accompaniment was almost always a fried rice or polao.
The vegetarians were not left out either. For the people who did not eat fish or meat, there were a number of classic biyebari dishes on offer, indulgent vegetarian fare at its very best. These include the dhokar dalna and chhanar dalna, light curries made using lentil cakes and fried balls of cottage cheese or chhena, respectively. In the winters, it was possible to have a rich dish made of phulkopi or cauliflower, which pairs perfectly with the polao.
The pièce de résistance of the biyebari feast however, was the polao-mangsho combination. The biyebari menu is all about indulgence, so the meat of choice is usually going to be mutton, although it is possible to have a chicken dish as well. The warm spices of the mutton curry pair seamlessly with the slightly sweet fried rice which, by virtue of its rather minimalistic flavour profile, plays second fiddle to the meat, without ever threatening to take over.
As you relished course after course, the servers would return for a second time, in case you want an extra helping of kochuri, a ladleful of kalia gravy or a couple more pieces of mutton. The diner could take a backseat and enjoy the meals, instead of moving from cloche to cloche along a long table, picking out dishes. This is a more leisurely, laid-back way of eating that is unfortunately growing out of fashion.
If the French have a cheese course to bridge the mains and the dessert, we Bengalis have chaatni (chutney) and papor (papad). The sweet and tart chaatni, made using anything from dates and aamshotto (mango pulp candy) to an array of fruit like pineapple, papaya (the curiously named plastic chutney) and in the summertime, green mangoes, mopped up with pieces of crisp papor, provides the perfect transition from the rich mains to the sweet treats that are to come. The simple chaatni-papor duo is, funnily enough, one of my most favourite parts of the biyebari feast.
And then came the desserts. Mishti, to be more precise. It was customary to have usually one syrupy and one dry sweet in the mix, and roles were usually taken up by rosogolla and sandesh (more on these in our Mishti series). A common sight around the table during the sweet course would be that of the gluttonous Bengali who, suddenly realising that he might have eaten a bit too much, wrings the syrup out of the spongy rosogolla as a final measure of damage control. This could then be followed by some mishti doi, the perfect ending to a perfect meal. Ice cream? Forget about it!
Of course, we are not done yet. Soon after the sweets were served, each diner would be given a brightly coloured plastic bowl filled with warm water from a kettle. The water was almost always way too hot for me (pardon my dainty fingers), but there was always leftover drinking water to bring the temperature down. If the wedge of lime had remained unused so far, this was the perfect time to squeeze it zealously in your palm to wring out the juice and wash the oil off your hands.
Take the protective napkin off your trousers, wipe your face and hands with it, crumple it into a ball, throw it in the finger bowl and watch it unfurl and sink. With your now clean hand, courteously take the piece of paan from the server, put it in your mouth, and savour the moment. Now, the meal is done. Leave your seat, and make room for the plump gentleman who had been eagerly eyeing your seat ever since the chaatni was served.
The old-school biyebari menu showcased the best of traditional Bengali food. It proved that we don’t need North Indian chicken tikkas, Chinese chilli fish and Italian alfredos to make a meal memorable. It was closer to our roots. However, the old-school biyebari menu was a lot more than a list of Bengali dishes. It was a ritual, a ceremony. You knew exactly what was coming next, but that didn’t spoil the fun. It enhanced it. Monotony, you say? Experience the old-school biyebari feast, and it will change your mind.