Monday, January 30, 2023

Will love for fish & football be enough to bridge the East-West gap as Mamata Banerjee attempts a foray into Goan politics?


The All India Trinamool Congress‘ (TMC) launch into Goan politics has got off to a mixed start. Hoardings of Mamata Banerjee were defaced across the state and on her first visit to the state this week, she was greeted with protestors shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’.

More damagingly, the TMC’s attempts to reach out to local parties, like Vijai Sardesai‘s Goa Forward, were rebuffed when he declared he would continue to wait for an alliance with the Indian National Congress (INC), despite their strained relationship in the past. The TMC has been accused of everything from ‘political tourism’, disrespecting Goan sentiments, being obsessed with undermining the INC and helping the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by splitting the vote.

Against this though is the surge of energy that the TMC has brought to the campaign for state elections in early 2022. This energy has been lacking with the INC in Goa, both in its dull performance as the opposition, and its plans for the polls, which have been dominated by party squabbles. It has not shaken off the losing aura it has trailed since 2017 when its win over the BJP was snatched away when the latter formed a government based on defections and independents. Voters might well wonder why vote for the INC if this could happen again.

The TMC, by contrast, comes riding the aura of its victory over the BJP in Bengal. It has a clean slate in the state, unlike the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which failed to win a single seat in 2017. Political junkies – and there’s no shortage of them in a state where education levels are high and the electorate relatively small – are impressed by the TMC’s association with wunderkind strategist Prashant Kishor and his highly motivated team at I-PAC. Even the defaced hoardings could be seen as visual proof of how Banerjee is making the BJP nervous.

Yet it still seems like a long shot, if only for the unlikely prospect of “parties from the country’s east coast coming all the way to the west coast,” as one writer noted disbelievingly in a leading newspaper. He wondered what would have been the prospects of a party from Goa coming to fight elections in Bengal. The TMC has been spreading its wings beyond Bengal, but has only achieved any real success so far in the east, with legislators in the Assam, Manipur and Tripura state assemblies.

Yet there are ways to bridge the social and cultural gaps between east and west coasts. There is football, of course, and the TMC could play this card hard, bringing over teams from Bengal to play for them on Goa’s football grounds.

And Mini Ribeiro, a respected food writer, shows another unexpected way to bridge the gap with her charming cookbook Magical Twists: East Meets West, where she brings together flavours from Kolkata, where she grew up, and Goa, where she now lives after marrying a Goan.

Ribeiro explains that she came to this kind of cross-cultural cooking quite naturally, learning from her mother, who was Punjabi and strictly vegetarian, but who loved food and happily incorporated flavours from neighbours in Kolkata. Ribeiro recalls encountering panch-phoron, the five-spice Bengali seasoning, at a friend’s place when she was 11. She asked her friend’s mother to explain how it worked and went home and told her mother: “the next day I discovered my mother had purchased a packet of panch phoron and was busy experimenting.”

It was this adventurous attitude to cooking that Ribeiro brought to the Goan ingredients and techniques she found in her husband’s family. One result is the recipe for cabbage foogath, a dry stir-fry mixed with grated coconut that is made down the west coast of India, but spiked in her version with the aromas of panch-phoron. Or the dhokar caldin, where the lentil cakes from Bengal are cooked in Goan coconut milk gravy. Or kismur radhaballabhi where the dal used to stuff the fried breads is replaced with a savoury dried shrimp mixture.

Recipes like this sometimes generate waves of social media outrage for tampering with regional traditions. This misses the point that fusion cooking like this has always been done by creative home cooks. One recipe in the book is for potol balchao, where Bengal’s beloved pointed gourd is stuffed with spicy Goan prawns. Anyone wanting to get angry about this should consider how potoler dolma, the stuffed gourd dish which is now a Bengali classic may have come from the traditions of stuffed vegetables called dolmas or dolmades brought to Bengal by past generations of Armenian and Greek merchants.

Fusion cooking can fall flat, of course, and this is where it helps to be a practiced observer of food traditions like Ribeiro. She notes, for example, how the Goan love of potato chops, mashed potato cutlets stuffed with spicy meat is matched by the Bengali love of singharas, small samosas stuffed with potato and cauliflower – so why not use the Bengali cauliflower stuffing in potato chops? Or, more radically, stuff singharas with Goa’s spicy, vinegary sausages? Bengal’s bhetki and Goa’s chonak are the same fish, so why not swap the cooking styles?

Even the marine vs river fish divide which might seem like the most insurmountable difference between the two states becomes less rigid when one realises that the fish really valued in both states are often estuarine (like bhetki/ chonak), living in the part sweet, part salt waters of the rivers that dominate their landscapes. Many of the foods seen as most typical of Goa, like its breads, are less rooted in its landscapes than the fields of rice which bring both states together.

A book like Ribeiro’s is useful for jolting us out of the differences that we come to accept too easily, and to look at the delicious ways these divides can be bridged. And it may not be too much of a stretch to suggest that the TMC’s venture into Goa could serve a similar purpose, regardless of how well it does in the polls. If it shows Goan politics new ways of engaging with voters, new approaches to alliances, and new ways to energise a stagnant political scene, that might be something even the most politically jaded voter could savour.

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