For Bengalis, Durga Pujo is homecoming. According to Hindu Mythology, Durga, the daughter of Menaka and Himalaya-- the lord of mountains, returns to her parent's home every autumn and the mortals celebrate her homecoming with Durga Pujo. The Goddess has a short five day vacation to visit Mother earth and is ready to go back to her own abode in Kailash by the fifth day. Bijoya Dashami, the fifth day of Durga pujo and tenth day of Navratri, is when you bid adieu to Goddess Durga.
While a large part of India celebrates Vijaya Dashami as a day symbolizing the victory of good over evil, for Bengalis Bijoya Dashami holds a melancholy note. Bengalis are emotional creatures and the Mother's going back to Kailash is not a day of joy and merriment for them, victory be darned. It is a day tinged with subtle sorrow. Well, it could be also because the day marks the end of five days of intense celebrations, adda and food.
The Dashami rituals are primarily women centric and so my Mother and Aunts would be up since wee hours of morning, rolling perfect balls of narkel narus, and painstakingly molding sondesh, for Durga's farewell ritual.These were the sweets, they offered the Goddess after smearing her head with sindoor, once the symbolic Bisarjan was over. The mere mortals, mostly women, are allowed to touch the Goddess's idol on this day to shower their love & respect and they do so with full enthusiasm. Married women smear sindoor on Ma Durga's forehead as well as on each other's and it becomes a mini Holi with only red color.
Back home from the mandap on Dashami, we followed the age-old tradition of exchanging Bijoya greetings. You touch your elder's feet and seek their blessings, embrace your peers , bless the little ones and exchange greetings of "Shubho Bijoya" -- Wishing each other on the auspicious victory which is in the core of the whole Durga Pujo after all.
It is after this that Bengalis do what they love most. Eat. In a Bengali home, sweets are synonymous with Bijoya Dashami. You eat varieties of mishti and nimkis and naru's, You eat to forget the sorrow of Durga's as well as your vacation being over. I am never sure whether the mishti is offered to spike the sugar level and induce happiness or they are offered as a celebratory offering because Durga defeated Mahisasur. I have a hunch it is the former
Traditionally the sweets made at our home on this day were narkel narus with grated coconut and fragrant khejur gur, malpoas sokaed in sugar syrup, crisp gojas flaked with crystallized sugar on the surface and sondesh shaped like conch made with fresh home made chhana. Roshogolla. Kheer Kodombo and ChomChoms were usually bought in big earthenware containers from the neighborhood mishtir dokan. My Mother fried diamond shaped nimkis and stored them in airtight containers, ready for anyone who wanted a savory break in between the sweets. Ghugni, another savory dish made with yellow peas and small pieces of coconut simmered in large pots as distant cousins and relatives stopped by.
Narkel naru — the coconut balls, were sweets which were actually made at Dashami, after the immersion, to sweeten lives and memories. These were always two kinds.Gure’r Naru, the ones made with jaggery, deep brown in shade and Chini’r Naru, the pristine white ones made of sugar. I never like the gur’er naru much, with a little incompetence on the cook’s side, these would be as hard as marbles. I preferred the white chini’r naru and this is what I make, late in the night after everyone goes to bed.
I cannot afford to grate a coconut, I have no time and the frozen MTR brand works just as fine for me. Unlike my Ma who uses whole milk and reduces it painstakingly, I use condensed milk and evaporated milk, cuts my cooking time by half. Rituals need not be so hard that we loathe & forget them, it is better to find easier means to enjoy them instead.
Shredded Coconut — slightly more than 3 cups. I have used the frozen MTR brand, you can grate and use fresh coconut. When using frozen thaw before use
Sugar — 1 cup
Evaporated Milk — approx. 2 cups. If using Whole Milk, you need to reduce 4 cups of milk to 2 cups
Condensed Milk — 1/4 cup. You can skip this and increase sugar but I prefer this
How I Do It
In a heavy bottomed deep pan mix the shredded coconut and sugar with hand thoroughly
Put the pan on low heat and then stir for 4-5 minutes. The sugar will melt and mix with coconut and the coconut will be lightly roasted
Add about 2 cups of evaporated milk and 1/4 cup of Condensed Milk to the above. Add some cardamom seeds. Note: If you need more or less sweet, taste and adjust accordingly
Mix it all together and at low to medium heat cook with frequent stirring till the coconut is cooked. Keep stirring till the milk almost dries up and the coconut mix comes out clean from the sides. You will know by the slight change in color and the fact that the mix will no longer stick to the pan. Don’t dry it too much, else you cannot make the balls. Note: When you think it is almost done, test it out by trying to make a ball that stays. Approx time to reach this stage – 30-40 mins at medium heat
Take the pan off the heat and cool slightly. When mix is still warm to touch, make balls by rolling between your palms
Store in an airtight container. I usually refrigerate but my Ma used to keep it out.
Written bySandeepa Mukherjee Datta
Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta is Bong Mom, the nom de plume behind the very popular blog Bong Mom's Cookbook (www.bongcookbook.com). She has been entertaining her readers for many years, and is the go-to for Bengali cooking on the web. Her book was published by HarperCollins, India in 2013.She lives with her family in New Jersey, USA.
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