9276923a7ff2a75b55664d39990292c4-2October is a month for celebrating the femi-nine aspects of the Divine in the Hindu tradition. Navaratri-Vijayadashami, the 10-day festival that glorifies womanhood and motherhood starts Oct. 14. While women in South Indian homes are busy decorating their homes with dolls for Kolu, my Bengali friends in the Bay Area are all getting excited about Durga Puja.

This year, according to Bangalinet.com, Durga Puja starts with Mahashashti on Oct. 19 and concludes with Dashami on Oct. 23.

Devi Durga symbolizes manifested energy of the Cosmic Being. As the epitome of Shakti (divine power), Durga appears in many forms, both benign and fear-instilling. In her creative aspects, she bears the epithets, Bhavani, Jagdamba, and Lalitha. In her wrathful moments, she emerges as Mahakali, the dark force of destruction, Cosmic Time that annihilates and absorbs all that it creates and sustains. She bears the combined powers of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

According to Hindu mythology, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva once granted Mahishasura, the king of demons, a boon. The buffalo-headed demonic king asked that no man or god should have the powers to kill him. (He omitted any reference to a woman; so much for male chauvinism!) His invincibility filled him with arrogance and pride. He started to terrorize the heavens and ruthlessly killed the inhabitants of the earth. Chaos and anarchy prevailed. Even the gods were driven out from heaven and Mahishasura usurped the throne.

The gods decided to summon up a beautiful but fearsome feminine form with 10 arms, mounted on a lion. A fierce battle ensued. Finally, Durga beheaded the buffalo and from it emerged Mahishasura in his original form. Durga pierced his chest with her trident and killed him swiftly. As buffalo-demon slayer Mahishasuramardini she is revered because she relieved the world of evil forces and established peace and prosperity on earth.
In California, Durga Puja is celebrated with much fanfare with prayers to the Mother Goddess, singing, dancing, and mingling with friends. Cultural activities include performances by budding talents and professional artists.

What would Durga Puja be without Bengali sweets, special chutneys, and delectable curries?

One of the distinct characteristics of Bengali cuisine is the use of panchpuran in many entrees. Panchpuran, a classical spice mix from India’s eastern states, is a combination of five kinds of whole seeds: cumin, mustard, nigella, fennel, and fenugreek. You will find panchpuran on the spice shelves of Indian grocery stores.

A friend of mine shared this refreshing recipe called Panchtar Curry, which incorporates panchpuran.

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Panchtar Curry

Any five vegetables (cauliflower, eggplant, pumpkin, potato, papdi) cut big
1 teaspoon panchpuran whole seeds
1 teaspoon panchpuran dry-roasted and powdered
2-3 green chilies chopped
1 teaspoon ginger paste
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons ghee
Salt to taste

Heat oil in a pan. Splutter the panchpuran seeds. Add the chopped green chillies and ginger paste and fry a little. Add in the vegetables and sprinkle turmeric powder and salt. Cover pan and cook till vegetables are done. Uncover and cook on high heat to evaporate excess water. Add the ghee and the powdered panchpuran. Serve with rice.

Here is a recipe for simple and sweet tomato chutney, often made during Durga Puja.

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Sweet Tomato Chutney

2-3 dry red chilies
3-4 chopped tomatoes
1-2 tablespoons sugar or dates
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon red chili powder
1 tablespoon panchpuran whole seeds
2 tablespoons raisins (optional)

Heat oil in a pan. Add dry chili and panchpuran. After it splutters, put chopped tomatoes and sauté them. Add turmeric, chili powder, and salt. After a few minutes, add a cup of water and cook till it becomes a paste. Add raisins and sugar or chopped dates. You know the chutney is done when it darkens to a maroon color.

I have a penchant for sweets, especially Bengali mishtis that include a whole array of delicacies drawing from the goodness of milk and sugar. They do not cloy the stomach as many ghee sweets of the South do. Sandesh is a case in point.

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Sandesh

½ gallon milk
½ teaspoon citric acid or juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons corn flour
½ cup finely ground sugar
¼ teaspoon essence of your choice—rose or pistachio
a few drops of food color (optional) to match essence flavor (e.g. green with pistachio essence, red with rose essence)
1 teaspoon slivered pistachios and almonds for topping
½ teaspoon cardamom powder
Small molds (cookie molds)

Dissolve citric acid or squeeze lemon juice in ½ cup of warm water. Boil milk in a deep pot. As it rises, pour lemon juice or citric acid into it. Reduce heat and stir till fully curdled. When the whey is formed, remove from heat. Strain the contents into a clean cheesecloth. Hold the contents under running water for a minute. Press out excess water and let the contents hang to dry within the cloth for 15 minutes. Empty this cottage cheese (paneer) in a large pan and blend in a little corn flour. Heat on medium flame, stirring continuously for 3-4 minutes. Add the cardamom powder. Let the paneer cool on a large plate. Add sugar, essence, and corresponding color, and mix till very smooth. Lightly grease with ghee and dust with corn flour. Mix the topping ingredients and sprinkle a little topping on each mold. Press paneer mixture into it and level the top of the mold. Chill for 3-4 hours. Take out mold carefully. Serve chilled.

May the Divine Ma bless every home with the sweet, self-effacing qualities of motherhood on this auspicious occasion!

Vaidehi Madabushi loves cooking and is a connoisseur of great-tasting vegetarian food.

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