Bengali cuisine is popular across the country for its savories as well as sweets. And Bengalis are known for their gastronomical passion. This is reflected in their most important festival, Durga Puja. Dilip Guha describes an interesting culinary ritual, Ananda Mela.

Food forms an intrinsic part of Durga Puja celebrations. This vibrant and lively festival, spread over five days, reflects the depth and richness of Indian culture and one comes away with a feeling of awe at its sheer grandeur and beauty. While fashion meets tradition as the ladies gracefully show off the very finest of traditional sarees ~ beautiful traditional weaves of dhakai, tant and tussar ~ youngsters in trendy outfits and men turning into “Bengali Babus” in dhotis and kurtas, the fusion of modern and tradition is seen in the food as well. Whether served during bhog or in the stalls that come alive in the evening, it’s a tough choice for foodies.

Pandal hopping in Delhi NCR gives one a chance to indulge in some delicious Bengali delicacies while enjoying the state’s culture through music, dance, poetry recitation, fashion events and drama acts that are performed by the locals. Puja pandals thus become the melting pots of creativity and local artistes and children get as much opportunity to display their talent as professional artistes.

As a part of the event and adding colour to the festival, Durga Puja committees organise various competitions and fun-filled activities with exciting prizes. Mouthwatering cuisines, sweets and dishes are an integral part of this celebration. Ananda Mela is one such tradition, where local women share their family specialties on the evening before the puja rituals begins.

This year, the mela falls on 3 October. It is, in fact, the first event that sets the Puja celebrations rolling and is usually celebrated on the evening of the fifth day (Panchami) of Durga Puja. In this mela, a host of local women offer home-cooked food. They set up stalls to display their specialties and sell to all those fond of good food and feasting.

A noteworthy feature of the Ananda Mela, or Ladies’ Fair, is that the local women are encouraged to sell their wares ~ mouth-watering eatables ~ at nominal prices. The food stalls set up at most puja venues offer a rich fare of Bengali and Mughlai cuisine and attract huge crowds. The food on offer can be anything, from pakora to singara (Samosa), spring rolls to egg rolls, and even Biryani or sweets.

This, apart from being a fun event, is also a competition and organisers expect all the participants to follow the rules set and to ensure that only food prepared themselves at home should be displayed for judging.

“Anandamela is one of the first rituals of Durga Puja. It is essentially the first get together of Sharod Uthsob,” informed Lopa Mukherjee, a member of D block Durga Puja Samity, Chittaranjan Park. “The term Ananda Mela literally means ‘Fun Fair’. The concept was established in order to start the Pujo with scrumptious /lip smacking food and, of course, a massive gathering. Residents of CR Park prepare and sell authentic home-cooked Bengali cuisine and welcome everyone with love and warmth.”

Anando Mela, she added, is also the time when at least one of five sellers would offer aloo dum and luchi on their menu to the attendees, thereby providing them the taste of authentic Bengali cuisine. While most people sell savoury dishes like Egg Chops, Chicken Kebabs and Ghugni, traditional Bengali sweets/desserts such as Malpua, Chhanar Jilipi and Rosgollas, are also a big hit during the fest she added.

Echoing her, Shreya Chakraborty, a member of the Co-operative Ground, Durga Puja Samity, said, “Anando Mela, or a Fete of Happiness, is an event that marks the beginning of the Durga Puja celebrations, where Bengali housewives prepare savoury and sweet delicacies at home and set up stalls at the Puja Ground to compete for the best dish award.” ¬†Bengalis are known for gastronomical passion. So when the Bengali community celebrates their biggest festival, Durga Puja, food has to play a very essential role in the celebrations, she added.

Kallol Acharyya, Secretary of Co-operative Ground Durga Puja Samity, said, “We really appreciate the efforts put in by all the homemakers and their families, who lend them a helping hand in putting forth a good show.”