There’s more to pandal hopping than dhunuchi nritya and dhaks

When I was growing up in a village in Muzaffarnagar, I don’t really think the Pujas touched me in any way. But in recent years, I have really taken to Durga puja. And there’s mainly one reason—before the start of the Pujas, many localities in the city spring up all kinds of food. This is called Ananda Mela, and I must say it gives me a lot of ananda (joy).

The neighbourhood’s mashimas and boudis— and some dadas, too— prepare all kinds of delicious food and sell it for a nominal amount at the mela. For the last three or four years, I have been diligently going to one of the Ananda Melas in I.P. Extension. I take a lot of empty boxes— and come back with all kinds of goodies such as mutton chops, biryani, ghugni (chickpeas, sometimes cooked with coconut, and sometimes with minced meat), payesh, pithey (a family of sweets) and so on.

This time, my job was a bit more onerous — I had to not just eat, but judge the food too. I was asked by the Aram Bagh Puja Samiti to judge their Ananda Mela. So I went there, resplendent in my new red kurta, accompanied by two able assistants. I sat demurely at a table while a bevy of women lined up with their home-cooked delicacies. I tried out some 15 kinds of dishes (thankfully some 5 or 10 contestants had by then packed up and gone home). I took a bite out of each dish— and was again struck by the variety of snacks that we have.

Let me tell you about some of them. The most popular is the ghugni. This time, I ate some ghugni with bits of paneer (cottage cheese) in it and another with keema (minced meat). Two of the dishes consisted of chicken biryani. There were two kinds of payesh – one regular (with rice) and the other a delightful concoction of nuts and thickened milk. I had some nice momos dribbled with chilli sauce and, dimer devil— a kind of chop with a boiled egg in it. Then there were two kinds of fried chicken, one served with home-cooked chilli and green chutney. I had some spicy chatpata aloo and also ate a special paneer cutlet— which was made memorable by the presence of grated coconut in the filling. Then I had malpua. Somebody else had cooked chicken noodles— and I was most impressed to see that the noodles had been prepared fresh at home with kneaded flour.

I know some of you are grinding your teeth because this year’s Ananda Mela is already over. But do not fret. One, the delicious food that I have listed out will prompt you to keep this important date in mind next year (in most places, it’s held on the fifth day of the navratras— that is one day before the Pujas begin). And two, the food fest is not yet over. In almost every big Puja pandal, you’ll find one or two— if not more— stalls selling food. Chittaranjan Park’s Mughlai paratha— a deep fried paratha with keema and egg — is a huge draw, as are the chops and the cutlets. People queue up for the biryani in Kashmiri Gate. And Kali Bari has a line of people selling everything from jhal muri and lal chhola to gola (flavoured ice popsicles).

So this Puja, as good conquers evil, let good food prevail too.