My son and husband write a film blog for fun, and sometimes my daughter and I join them watching the classics. Recently we all were swept away by Satyajit Ray’s trilogy, “The World of Apu.” They are soon to post a joint review on their blog, and I felt called to join in. This is what I wrote: not quite a proper film review, not quite a proper food blog. Something in between, with a culinary record of how I wanted to celebrate the beauty of this stunning work.
“Pather Panchali” is a transfixing film with a plot that unfolds around carefully revealed characters and personalities, and big themes like love, loss, kindness and pettiness , meanness and generosity, being young and growing old. The Ravi Shankar soundtrack gives constant goosebumps; the cinematography is both sweeping -exploring landscapes, monsoons, the rural industry of electricity and railroads – and intimate: an old woman’s skin, domestic architecture, facial expressions of joy, anxiety, and grief. The acting never feels like acting, the plotlines never scripted, the observations never didactic. It feels to me the most perfect film ever, not least for how I wept towards the end in a state of total lack of separation from the fact of watching a film: I was there, I was “her” in this scene, feeling a mother’s despair at the loss of a child, in this case Djurga, whom the film viewer has watched grow and come to love.
Because the film observes life so carefully and directly, food culture of course becomes central, and I enjoyed this aspect very much. “Pather Panchali” starts on the theme of stolen fruit, and a girl from a family without money pinching ripe fruits from the orchard of wealthier neighbours; this girl is Djurga, Apu’s sister, and she gives the fruits with all love and kindness to her destitute, elderly Auntie as a token of love. When Djurga is called on this by the neighbour, it’s a moment of deep shame and anger for the mother that such trifling thefts should take place at all.
In the film we notice some people “having” and others having-not as a theme that surfaces repeatedly around food. When the sweet seller comes through town peddling luscious wares, Djurga and Apu, for whom there’s not money for these luxuries, experience desire and deprivation as they watch the enjoyment of their wealthier friends.
Though the film is nominally about Apu, the predominant characters of this first part of the trilogy are all women: Djurga, Apu’s sister, Auntie, and his mother. There’s a scene that I love and don’t quite understand. Djurga and her friends from the village are outdoors, in a field, cooking in a pot on a fire and discussing marriage. The friend is such a good cook, the viewer learns, and will “please her husband,” yet we know with foreboding at this moment that Djurga, whose family has no money, may in fact not be getting married too soon. The friend speaks the simple ingredients list to Djurga, and I jotted this down to make for dinner one day. Cooking something from the film was a way I could think to honour its absolute cinematic beauty, along with the other two in the trilogy as well.
- Eggplant (aubergine)
There are infinite kichari (khichari, kichdi, khichri) versions on the web. I based mine on a recipe in Simon Parkes and Udit Sarkhel’s The Calcutta Kitchen, a book with mesmerising glossy pictures and amazingly good and simple Bengali recipes.
This is a summary of how I made their version, interpreting the ingredients to follow the list spoken in the film.
Soak the rice and lentils for a few hours, then drain them. Add to a pot with water 4cms above the mixture, and cook for about 10 minutes, then add chopped potatoes and in my case, in a small town in rural Wales on a Sunday, a green and a yellow pepper to replace the aubergine. Cook for another ten minutes, aiming for a porridge consistency, something soothing, adding a little more fluid if necessary.
Then saute cumin seed, chilis and bayleaves in hot oil, which you stir through the rice/lentil mixture. Salt to taste. It’s that easy, though of course could be fancified. This tasted lovely and simple and comforting. And I could pretend for a minute that I was Djurga, following the instructions of a friend, and that her life had had a happy ending.
I will say the proportions for four in The Calcutta Kitchen yielded such a vast quantity, I had a task to figure out what to do with the leftovers. I learned that there’s also a universe of recipes from around India and diaspora for “rissoles,” “patties,” and “cutlets,” and it was in this direction that my friend Aneela advised me to go.
I wanted to share these because they are members of an international family of foods that make tasty treats of leftovers- without a proper recipe. (There are a few good tips and great links on this theme here.) In this case, Aneela advised me to season the leftover kichari; I added salt, sumac (for souring), fresh chilli peppers and spring onions and more cumin seed. The mixture felt too wet to fry, so I added a little split pea flour (instead of gram flour), made patties, dredged them in more split pea flour and a few bread crumbs for texture, and fried in a mixture of ghee, olive oil and coconut oil. They were so good! Like a fusion food arancini, bread-crumbed and fried treats from leftover risotto. And served with a squeeze of lemon and a yoghurt mixture with mint and spring onions, and a little hot sauce, just because. Had I had a nice Indian Pickle, well that would have been perfect.