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Kali Puja, And The Tale Of The “Vegetarian” Mutton Curry

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Can a mutton curry be vegetarian? Of course not. But when you subtract two staples from Indian cuisine, it’s supposed to be pretty vegetarian. There are specific rules and restrictions on how to cook the sacrificial meat served to the goddess, and this also explains why mutton is the main feature of the Bengalis on Kali Puja.

Growing up in Calcutta in the 90s, Diwali has always felt like a foreign word. My mom’s non-Bengali friends would call us on our rotary phone and wish her “Happy Diwali,” and I chuckled at the enthusiasm (completely missing the fact that it sounds like a happy new year, in fact). Or we would find that word in textbooks. Diwali. Deepavali. Festival of lights. The day Ram came home. To be honest, unlike today – trigger warning – Ram really hasn’t figured much in the conversation, the news, and popular discourse, beyond the Ramayana. Even though Babri’s demolition had taken place at that time, behind the walls of my Catholic school, Ram was, and rightly so, a fictional character. So Diwali, which is celebrated a day after Kali Puja, meant nothing to us. Oh, do you love Laxmi on Diwali? Thanks, but no thanks, we love it a few days after Durga Puja. Ganesha accompanies him too? Sorry, he is receiving Bengali prayers for our New Year, which is not Diwali, but which is in April. Nobody steals Kali’s concentration.

Back then, growing up, Kali felt more real in West Bengal. Goddesses tend to feel more real to Bengalis because our mothers and wives wield ladles and rolling pins all of our lives with the same dexterity required for a scythe. For the uninitiated, the scythe is Kali’s weapon of choice for beheadings. She’s a badass, dark-skinned, four-handed, naked warrior, dressed only in garlands of demon heads and hands (which she cut off), and you don’t want to play her around with her. Even her husband, Shiva, sits under her feet. Here I have to mention that those tall, muscular performances of Shiva these days, thanks to a juicy Mohit Raina, don’t fly with Bengalis. Shiva is a clumsy, lazy and crooked husband who is afraid of his wife’s temper. Our gods reflect our societies. Also, which Bengali can partner with abs?

Kali Puja is a night reserved for debauchery and searching. While non-Bengalis stick to vegetarian affairs, small candy, barfis, snacks and bites, Bengalis appreciate meat and alcohol. This is because Kali has to be served meat and alcohol for the sake of appeasement. She doesn’t settle for anything less than that. Also, I’m sorry, but the woman ran around to cut off her head. I’m not surprised that she needs red meat and a stiff drink. This is why drinking alcohol and mutton curries are part of Kali Puja. With firecrackers, but it’s a political problem these days, and I’d better stay away. However, I must mention the irony of Hindus who are fighting to keep a Chinese invention in order to save their Hindu identity. Firecrackers were not prescribed by the Vedas, people.

The goats are offered as a sacrifice for Kali. Goat sacrifice is still widespread in some pockets of Bengal for all the Tantric traditions of worshiping the mother goddess (Durga, Kali, Jagatdhatri, etc.). The sacrificed goat is offered to Kali as a “bhog” or feast, with her blood, to energize her to fight demons. This meat is then served to family, friends and neighbors as “prasad”, or blessings from the goddess. The meat is called “proshadi mangsho” or blessed meat, and can be cooked in a curry – but without onion or garlic. According to Ayurveda, onions, garlic and other alliums are tamasic and rajasic foods, which increase heat and passion in the human body, and therefore are considered inadmissible in the cooking of prasad and all blessed foods. Although the sacrifice is no longer so prevalent, families also serve mutton curries cooked in this way to Kali, for her personal feast, which is later also served as prasad. Families also serve it rich fish sauces, according to independent traditions. But everything is cooked without onion or garlic. Due to the lack of alliums, these curries are called vegetarian or niramish. It also reflects the tradition of Bengali cuisine of excluding onions and garlic – originally practiced by vegetarian Brahmins families and avoiding tamasic and rajasic foods – from most vegetarian dishes. Ginger and asafoetida are used to provide warmth and umami. Calcutta’s Chinatown has a Kali temple where the goddess is served Chinese cuisine – noodles, Manchurian sauces, soups and stir-fries – but without the O and G.

Now, cooking mutton without onion or garlic seems like an unthinkable feat. Much depends on skill and, in modern times, on the use of alternative ingredients. Ghee and whole spices play a crucial role in overwhelming you with fragrance. The slow cooking technique makes the meat melt in your mouth. The curds and other powdered spices help infuse the curry with sweet and succulent flavors. It’s a different experience from a Kosha Mangsho. Many families use asafoetida or hing to mimic the scent of onion and garlic.

For the Bengalis, Kali Puja comes a fortnight from Durga Puja. It dispels the sudden depression we feel after almost a month of partying. Kali Puja is all about letting go, celebrating the strength of the mothership, and savoring its bounties. It is a rugged festival, unlike the primitive nature of Diwali across the country. And the food reflects that. So happy Kali Puja, and let the women of our country take a leaf from her book – be shameless, be badass, be mighty.

Also read: Stories of Bhel Puri and Jhalmuri

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