The joy of Ananda Mela in Durga pandals

Durga puja opens with Ananda Mela, the first get-together of the season. And it is a foodie’s delight, with people putting up stalls selling popular home-made recipes

October 20, 2023 12:17 am | Updated 12:17 am IST

A frantic search is carried out for small and large tiffin boxes in our house during this season. Once a motley lot has been collected, we leave home, armed with the boxes, in search of a glorious event called Ananda Mela — or a joyful fair. This usually takes place on the first day, or on the eve, of the Durga Puja, when women and men gather at their respective puja pandals with home-cooked food for sale. Casseroles are carefully placed atop tables lining the pandal. I stop here and there, picking up some ghugni (chickpeas cooked with coconut), a prawn cutlet and various kinds of sweets. And in no time, my boxes get filled.

Ananda Mela came up in areas where Probashi Bengalis — that is, Bengalis who’d moved out of Bengal — lived. Nostalgic about missing out on the fun and flavours of Bengal’s Durga Puja, they organised these get-togethers with delicacies that reminded them of home. The first Ananda Mela in Delhi is believed to have been held at Kashmere Gate, the oldest Puja in the city, started more than a 100 years ago. Others soon followed suit.

For me, an Ananda Mela is a pilgrimage of sorts. When I hear that the Pujas are around the corner, my first question is: And when is Ananda Mela? I get misty-eyed when I recall the gathering at Aram Bagh where I was invited to judge the food several years ago. I still remember the dishes I tasted — including a dimer devil, a minced meat-coated, stuffed and fried boiled egg — and a velvety kheer thickened with nuts.

I love the home-cooked sweets you get at these events and look forward to digging into a patishapta, which is a crepe stuffed with jaggery or thickened milk and coconut. The chops — minced meat or chicken balls, coated with potatoes and then crumb-fried — are delicious. We fill the boxes and take them home for dinner. And I usually end a meal with chhanar payesh — kheer with little pieces of chhaina or paneer in it — and a malpua, a juicy, fried sweet prepared with a batter of flour, seasoned with fennel seeds.

The bonhomie at these gatherings is infectious. You will be greeted with the heady smell of burning incense and the sight of playful children gorging on noodles and ice cream. You will find elegant women in starched sarees and men in pleated dhotis sitting by the stalls, with small placards that tell you about the magic inside the casserole: Manghser ghugni (chickpeas with minced meat), Mughlai porotha (fried and flaky meat-filled parathas), chicken biryani and so on. And the prices are so low that I feel like I am swindling the kind cooks!

You will find some of the old Bengali favourites — from chops and cutlets to shingara (Bengali version of samosa) and ghugni — at the pandals. Rolls, with eggs, prawns, chicken, mutton or veggies, are always there, as are luchis and kachuris. But over the years, with changing palates, new additions have been added to the menu: In recent times, I have had momos, fried rice and podi-smeared idlis. A friend, at an early Ananda Mela in south Delhi early this week, was happy to find haleem being sold.

In many neighbourhoods, Ananda Mela was held yesterday, on Thursday; somewhere else, it’s today. In case you’ve missed it, don’t fret — you can order the Ananda Mela-kind of food from the Bengali eateries that dot the city. Bhojon Roshika in Dilshad Garden (contact: 9315707499) offers six luchis and alur dum or four hing kachoris and alur dum (₹100) for breakfast, and snacks like vegetable cutlets (₹ 30) and chicken shami kababs (₹60). Babo’s Home Kitchen in C.R. Park (contact: 9810016405) has mutton chops or fish chops (two for ₹ 270) and mutton ghugni and koraishutir kachori (₹ 270). Bijoli Grill in Hailey Road (contact: 011-23321233) has a special counter at Dilli Haat where you can snack on fish Orly (two for ₹ 405).

So, get ready for some serious snacking. And pull out those tiffin boxes.

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