Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bangali's fascination for chicken

A chicken and egg story
Lost cuisine: Bengalis have discarded their Bangaliana
In Purnima Thakur's delightful little book, Thakurbari'r Raanna, which is all of 97 pages, a huge variety of recipes, ranging from shuktani (vegetable stew) to aam-rosune'r kaasundi (mango-garlic chutney), have been listed. Many of the preparations were presumably popular in the Tagore household at Jorasanko and have a distinct 'eideshi' flavour compared to food as it is cooked and relished east of Padma. Purnima Thakur, known as Bubu'di among her myriad admirers, has included 60 recipes for cooking fish, twice the number of recipes for cooking meat, in her book. Interestingly, of the 31 recipes for cooking meat, only five recommend chicken as the main ingredient -- murgi'r rezaala, Peshowari murgi, murgi'r cutlet, Madrasi murgi'r curry and Filipini murgi'r curry. The first two are what we refer to as 'mughlai dishes', the third and fourth are of Anglo-Indian vintage, while the fifth is clearly of Filipino origin.
This preference for mutton over chicken is not surprising. Till as recently as the mid-20th century, Bengali bhadralok Hindus would not touch chicken or eggs -- both were seen as 'Muslim food' or food meant for the mlechchho, both Muslim and Christian. Even Anglicised Bengalis who flaunted their disdain for conservative Hindu society by eating beef and cooking the prohibited meat at home, would not allow chicken to be served on their tables, leave alone consume it. If poultry had to be consumed to keep up with the Europeans, it was duck meat and duck eggs. The Brahmos were more liberal and chicken was served at some Brahmo homes (that would explain the inclusion of recipes to cook chicken in Thakurbari'r Raanna), but it had to be cooked in a separate kitchen, most often in the courtyard. Later, this became the practice in most Bengali bhadralok Hindu households, although women rarely touched chicken or eggs; their bias against both did not, however, dampen their enthusiasm for maachhe'r jhaal and mangsho'r jhol.
The decline and fall of the Bengali bhadralok samaj and the rise of neo-liberalism and the boxwallah culture, best exemplified by Mani Shankar Mukherjee's Seemabaddha (Satyajit Ray later made an eponymous film based on this novel) that militated against established notions of caste and community, saw the erosion of barriers that kept chicken and eggs away from the middle class Bengali's dining table. In recent years, increased awareness of red meat's detrimental impact on health has contributed to the preference for white meat, most notably chicken, in Bengali, as in non-Bengali, households. A third factor that has contributed to popularising poultry in a State where it was pro-actively shunned is the often pathetic attempt by Bengalis to discard that which is integral to their culture and ape others. Traditional Bengali wedding feasts served on fresh banana leaves have now made way for catered food that includes chholey, panir and tandoori chicken and is served on chipped china. Mouth-watering chochchori has been replaced by chili chicken. Even the snootiest of Bengalis are not untouched by this strange metamorphosis of Bengal's eating habits. The venerable Marxist economist Ashok Mitra once told me that he felt perfectly at home in Delhi's Banga Bhavan because they served an "excellent chicken curry".
There is, therefore, need for neither surprise nor shock on account of West Bengal's Nadia district primary school council's decision to continue to serve chicken curry to children as part of their midday meal provided by Government. In normal circumstances, this would be seen as a grand gesture, since in States like Uttar Pradesh, gruel fit for consumption by cattle is served as midday meal to school children. But these are not normal times in West Bengal where avian influenza, or bird flu, has been detected in 11 districts; Nadia is one of them. Mr Bibhas Biswas, chairman of Nadia district's primary school council, insists that the State Government has banned the sale and purchase of chicken, but not the "consumption of fowl curry". The wise man could have also cited the National Egg Co-ordination Committee's advisory that chicken, even if it is infected with the H5N1 virus, cooked at 70o C is safe for human consumption. That he hasn't is symptomatic of the West Bengal Government's terrifying non-response to the snow-balling crisis caused by H5N1-infected chickens dropping dead in district after district. The virus is now knocking on Kolkata's door.
Ever since the outbreak of bird flu was first detected in a little-known place called Hargram a fortnight ago, the CPI(M)-led regime has demonstrated its incapacity to deal with a disaster situation. Not only has the Government been found to be unprepared -- a fortnight later scarcity of protective gear continues to prevent health workers from venturing forth in many affected areas -- it has once again allowed local Marxist cadre to subvert local administration. The official ban on transporting chickens and eggs out of the bird flu-hit districts is being flouted with impunity because the poultry trade is controlled by the party apparatchiki, as is all trade and business in the districts. And so the deadly virus continues to travel from district to district, although it could have been contained, as was done in Maharashtra where the State Government restrained the virus to three kilometres of the two places where it was detected.
The sheer unpreparedness of the State Government to deal with bird flu, despite there having been enough warnings and sufficient time, not to mention funds, also stands exposed by the methods of culling that have been adopted -- they are cruel and dehumanising. Health workers are decapitating terrified and squawking chickens by pulling off their heads, and in the process getting splattered with their infected blood. In Bolpur, 10,000 newly-hatched chicks have been buried alive. As if this were not bad enough, the bird flu outbreak has once again brought to the fore the corruption that prevails in West Bengal's CPI(M)-controlled panchayats. People are reluctant to hand over infected chickens for culling because they are not too sure the local panchayat will hand over the Rs 40 per bird compensation. Already there are reports of poultry owners who have had their chickens culled being told by party dadas they should not expect more than Rs 30 per bird, possibly Rs 25, that is as and when compensation is actually doled out, if at all.
Meanwhile, at Alimuddin Street, CPI(M) leaders are busy calculating the impact of avian influenza on this summer's panchayat election. Even if they were to ensure poultry owners get the compensation that is due to them, it would be less than half of what they would have earned from the culled chickens. The H5N1 virus may succeed in achieving what the Opposition could not manage. Let's wait and watch.

1 comment:

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