Hostel life can be an interesting experience. I have spent a few years of my initial working life in a hostel and I made some really good friends. It was a mixed bag of women from all walks of life, living in perfect harmony – well, almost. I benefitted a lot from the mix, getting my saree draped like swank airline cabin crew, gorging on occasional cakes from a five-star bakery, getting my documents attested, and getting fake medical certificates for those sudden French leaves, courtesy my resourceful roommates – ah the pleasures of outsourcing.

The canteen food was a usual mess. We often wondered and asked the cooks how did they manage to dish out such faeces-equivalents despite all the spice and oil that went into it. We always devised ways to escape it. Easiest of course was eating out, or ordering Pizza. But eventually we got tired of it and craved for home food. Somebody discovered that the Nirula’s chicken curry tasted very close to how moms of the world would make it – simple and non-greasy. But we soon outgrew that too. And eating out outgrew our pockets – we were all in our initial phases of employed lives when savings were part of a luxurious demi-utopian concept. 

Eventually, on one of their visits, my folks gifted me a tiny 1.5 litre pressure cooker. Inspired by this, I bought a couple of other kitchen items, including a frying pan. We had crude heating coils to keep us warm in winters. They now doubled up as my stove. And so it started with stir fried chicken and porridge (khichdi). Sometimes I would boil vegetables like okra or potatoes and mash them Bengali style with mustard oil, green chilly and a pinch of salt. I always kept a jar of ghee (clarified butter), add it to some rice and voila, you have a meal. My minimalistic cooking created quite a stir because it clearly tasted a lot better than the canteen turds, and more importantly, it tasted like home. Especially on days when they would cook tinde or lauki, people would be seen flocking to our room for leftover stew. It was then that I learnt the joys of feeding someone a nice meal. And of course, compared to the canteen dud of a cook, I was a star.

My first and easiest option was the ‘Sheddho Bhaat’. It translates to a mere ‘boiled rice’ but in fact implies vegetables boiled along with rice.
Just take any vegetable, a potato or a couple of ridge gourds (tori)/pumpkin diced into cubes/okra/any vegetable that does not take an eternity to cook. And drop it in boiling water, preferably boil it while you are boiling rice in the same pan. I think rice takes about 8-10 mins to cook in a microwave, and about 15 mins on fire. Once done, remove the veggies, add a few drops of mustard oil, salt and green chillies and mash it all up. In case of boiled potatoes, one would add chopped onions and fried red chillies to the mash.

We often make ‘sheddho daal’ with this. The daal, usually masur, is soaked for about twenty minutes, and then tied into a thin cotton/muslin cloth bundle which is dropped into the rice and left to boil alongside. The bundle is removed and left to cool. The daal doesn’t cook into a pulp, it usually has a bit of a bite. It is mashed with chopped onions, salt, green chillies and the quintessential pungent mustard oil which is the star of every Bengali kitchen.

To be served with ghee and rice. Fry or boil an egg if you feel like it. I prefer a sunny side up. Also, since it is a relatively bland combination, it is nice to use an aromatic variety of rice. We bongs use a small-grained variety called ‘Gobindo bhog’.