Bengalis like their festivals more food-centred than any other community. The Catholics keep saying feast this feast that, but they don't really mean it – apparently things like joy and spirituality are being consumed there. Bengalis don't call anything a feast; what's the point, its all feastly.
For those idiots who thought Durga Puja was about pandals and idols, you have basically missed the point. Ma Durga's annual visit is basically an excuse to gorge. In Kolkata the para pujas ply you generously with food for free – calling it bhog (food offered to the god) tags enough religion on it to avoid any guilt pangs. And what feasts these are!
Mumbai pujas do bhog too; lunch and dinner. Dadar's Shivaji Park had a nice bhog spread at lunch (vegetarian, but thats how it is on some days) – hundreds of people in queue being doled out some very nice khichudi along with begun bhaja (batter fried aubergines), a veg curry, a tomato-date chatni (chutney) that was wonderful and mishti – the obligatory rossogolla perched on some payesh (rice pudding). All very traditional, and all very well executed. We tried a repeat in Powai the next day, but the lines were longer than the American consulate in student season – we
Mumbai's bhog can never quite achieve the intimate but lavish scale that Kolkata (where every housing complex has a puja) manages. Here, food stalls rule the roost - usually at prices that make even petrol and alcohol look cheap. What is on offer does not vary much - a dubious array of Bengali sweets, rolls of various kinds, breaded chops and cutlets both veggies and not, biriyanis, and a few standard gravies – kosha mangsho, prawn malai curry, pabda shorshe, ilish bhape, bhetki paturi. All this of immense value to the non-resident Bengali forcefully brought up on a diet of butter chicken and vada pao.
Most food on offer, unfortunately, is crap at the price of gold – the only reason we venture anywhere near is nostalgia. The mishti is dubious at best. The chops – prawn or mocha are usually the most desirable - is usually far more chop (read potato) than either prawn or mocha. The Bhetki - a wonderfully tasty fish – is also very expensive so don't wonder so much why your fry tastes of the more pedestrian rui (rohu). A traditional paturi has a thin layer of marinade covering a generous chunk of fish, nor surprise that things are reversed here. Then, of course, there are generous doses of incompetent cooking. Its great social fun, just do not mistake it for culinary satisfaction.
Here's a quick summary of what was truly worth eating. At Notunpolli Bandra, the Taste of Kolkata stall fed us (at a steep 600 rupees a prawn) some fantastic prawn malai curry – the prawns were massive and the curry to die for (their bhetki paturi was also quite worthy of mention). The stall next door had some very light, fluffy radhaballabhis with ghugni. Powai fed us some truly lipsmacking kosha mangsho and some fairly nice veg chops (Bengali ones are, uniquely, made of peanuts and beetroot). The biriyani at Kandivali Lokhandwalla's rather secluded puja were both worthy of repeats. Rolls and mishti was disappointing everywhere – none of the real Kolkata confectioners ventured anywhere this side. The best mishti doi was from Sweet Bengal at Andheri Lokhandwalla.
Unfortunately, no pheesh phrai made it to the great list this year.