This year is the 150th anniversary of birth of the great Bengali poet, fiction writer, and songwriter Rabindranath Tagore. On Sunday, May 8 from 5 to 8, there's a tribute to him in the East Village featuring translations of his poetry, stories, and essays, clips from the 1961 Satyajit Ray documentary about Tagore, and Indian food from Mukti's Kitchen.
The tribute is open to all, and it was organized by my new friend Partha Banerjee, a writer and immigrant-rights activist, who lives in Brooklyn with his family. He has one daughter who is now twenty-three, and his wife runs Mukti's Kitchen, which offers Indian cooking classes.
Partha was kind enough to share his story about what Tagore means to him, how he learned to cook more than twenty-five years ago, and lip-smacking lamb curry recipe.
Mira Nair’s 2006 movie, “The Namesake,” showed a first-generation Bengali-Indian immigrant family starting life from scratch in America. But it missed some important elements: Food, music, Bangla literature, film and art are things Bengali immigrants need to survive. I know, because, in the mid-eighties, in my life as a new Bengali-Indian immigrant from Calcutta (now Kolkata), I almost died for them: not spiritually, but rather physically; actually, for the lack of them.
I came to America without knowing what America was all about; I never had a relative, extended family, or even a close friend here. The very first plane ride in my life brought me straight from Kolkata to Chicago via London, and overnight, I found myself in an unknown land, with unknown people, unknown food, and an unknown lifestyle. I felt like Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. I did not speak English (never had to: Bangla was more than sufficient), and I did not know how to cook. Worst, in my hurried last-minute preparation to leave India, I did not bring a single Bengali book, CD, or film tape.
And I left my wife Mukti behind. Only one word can describe my first few months in America: miserable – with a capital M.
The hundreds of Bengali songs that I carried in my mind since I was a child helped me to survive. A large number of those songs were of course Tagore songs: written by our poet of all poets Rabindranath Tagore – poetry tuned into songs either by himself or other Tagore family members. In my extreme isolation, Tagore’s songs were my only oasis.
Urban Bengalis are not particularly religious; in fact, we’re well known for our progressive politics and social consciousness. We worship and invoke, particularly in times of crisis, our music and literary gods. Tagore was perhaps the god I prayed to for strength, for confidence. He answered my prayers. In my extreme alienation from the loved ones, I was able to understand him more than ever before. Soon after, I got his books from my graduate school libraries, and started translating his prose and poetry.
When Tagore and Einstein met in 1930, this was the gist of their conversation:
Einstein : Do you believe in the Divine as isolated from the world?
Tagore : Not isolated. The infinite personality of Man comprehends the Universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the truth of the Universe is human truth.
Einstein : Truth, then, or beauty is not independent of man?
Tagore : No.
Einstein : If there would be no human beings any more, the Apollo of Belvedere would no longer be beautiful.
Tagore : No!”
Great! But philosophical, cultural and spiritual pursuits didn't go very far on an empty stomach. I was hungry. My stomach was growling. Indian men normally don’t know how to cook, and I was no exception. As a result, I lived on rice, butter, and potato chips for weeks. Did I say I was miserable? Very quickly, I also became sick.
A friend of a friend, who lived in Chicago, rescued me. He gave me a few little tips to cook some basic Indian dishes, and after my first, miserable semester was over, took me over to spend a few days with his family in a little town called Lisle.
There, I got my first hands-on training in Indian cooking. I came back from the short vacation, and threw a small party for my university friends, and they were all impressed. The next few months, until my wife Mukti joined me and relieved me of my terrible isolation, I developed and refined my culinary skills – skills that grew with me as I grew older in America.
Over the next few years, when our daughter was growing up, I was really the man in the kitchen. My wife was swamped with her new career as a biologist. Eventually, she left her job and decided to refine her God-gifted skills as a cook and teacher; then she floated her own little business, Mukti's Kitchen. Now that she is a pro, she spends more time in the kitchen than I do.
But when I cook, I cook it all: rice, vegetables, fish, chicken, lamb, dal (lentils), chutney and everything. My favorite dishes are salmon or tilapia with yogurt, spicy lamb curry, eggplant fried in chickpea flour batter, and cauliflower curry. Here is my lamb curry recipe.
Lamb Curry with Potato
- 2 potatoes – cut in four or more pieces
- 2 pounds lamb, cubed
- 1/2 cup yogurt
- 2 small ginger pieces, grated or minced
- 8-10 cloves
- 2" piece of cinnamon, whole or broken into smaller pieces (or ground for a very intense experience)
- 5-6 cardamom pods, grains only
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 4 tablespoons of vegetable cooking oil
- 2 medium-sized onions, chopped fine
- 1 cup water
- Cilantro – a quarter of a bunch
- Salt and sugar to taste
Sauté the potato pieces on medium flame until they turn brownish, remove from pan and set aside.
In a bowl, mix the lamb and yogurt and set aside. This will tenderize the lamb.
Heat the oil in a separate deep pan and on low flame. Add the whole spices (cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ground ginger, turmeric powder). Fry until they turn slightly darker. (Note: high flame will burn the spices). This is your masala.
Add the onions to the empty potato pan and sauté till they turn light golden.
Add the masala to the onions, and sauté for a minute or so -- cook until the oil separates from the masala.
Add the meat and yogurt mix to the masala, and cook through; small cubes of good quality lamb could be done in as little as fifteen minutes. (Note: water will come out of the meat and then it will slowly dry out – this is the end point of your meat-cooking: in Bengali or Hindi, this process is called Kasha).
Add the potato pieces and cook with Kasha about five minutes.
Add the water and salt and sugar to taste. Cook till the gravy is reduced (too much water will make it bland; too little water will make it too spicy and strong). Stir often. The gravy should be thick when done.
Throw in your cilantro pieces, turn off stove, cover, and let sit for about ten minutes.
Serve with rice, roti or naan.
Serves six to eight.