Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Saraswati Puja, Whole Boiled Vegetables and Ber Chutney (Kooler Ombol)

February 8 was Basant Panchami, this is the day Bengalis worship Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge, music and art. Panchami is the fifth day after new moon or full moon. In case of Basant (Spring) Panchami it is the fifth day of the bright fortnight (waxing moon) of the month of Magh (Indian calendar month) which falls between mid–January and mid-February. Incidentally the day previous to Saraswati Puja, is celebrated as Lord Ganesh’s birthday, there is a ten- day long celebration at Bombay’s most venerated Ganesh temple – the Siddhivinayak temple. Many Bengalis are not aware of this but in the villages of West Bengal people offer puja to Lord Ganesh on this day.
Coming back to Saraswati Puja, the day has special significance for students and artists. On this day little kids are made to write their first word before being admitted to school. I found something interesting this year on a Bengali television channel, I saw that instead of writing their first word, children were made to key in their first word on a laptop, “Computers play an important role today so we are continuing tradition with a touch of modernity,” explained a parent.

Traditionally students place their books in front of the idol of Goddess Saraswati. I remember as a student I took it very seriously, I made it a point to place the textbooks of those subjects which gave me nightmares, as mathematics topped the list, algebra, geometry and arithmetic were reverentially placed by me at the Goddess’ feet; that was my way of ensuring success in these subjects, needless to mention it did not help, I had to study. 
There is another interesting custom which most Bengalis observe during Saraswati Puja; it is related to the Indian tropical fruit, ber or bor – a kind of berry. This Indian berry also called the Indian plum or Indian jujube begins arriving in the markets from December onwards, it is sweet and sour, a very tempting fruit which all kids love to munch on but Bengali kids are prohibited from having the fruit until prayers are offered to the Goddess, I remember I religiously followed this custom for fear of failing in the exams , you see I could not offend the Goddess of knowledge.  Although I religiously followed this custom after all I wanted to cruise through my exams with flying colours, I do not deny I found it a bit illogical too and often wondered what could be the reason for such a custom. My mum reasoned that during winter excessive consumption of this fruit could lead to a sore throat and illness. As Saraswati Puja marks the advent of spring it was safer to eat it after the festival, so our ancestors probably thought of this method to keep the kids healthy. Well whatever the reason, there was a delicious reward for this abstinence; on the day of the festival I could dig into some delicious kooler ombol made by mom ---- confused? Kool is the Bengali word for the Indian plum or bor/ber and kooler ombol is the sweet and sour chutney made with this delicious fruit.

Before I go on to the recipe, I would like to share another interesting Bengali custom; this custom is restricted only to the West Bengalis and not the East Bengalis. On the day after Saraswati Puja we eat  Gota Sheddho, literally translated it means ‘Whole (Gota) Boiled (Shedho)’. The day after Saras wati Puja is shashti  the sixth day of the lunar fortnight therefore six items which have been boiled are eaten on this day. Five vegetables and a lentil (usually urad) are boiled whole, nothing is peeled or chopped, in case of the urad too it is not split or skinless, the whole urad bean is used. Though different families have different customs, it is customary to use potatoes, green peas, aubergine, papdi (the Indian green pod vegetable) and spinach; spinach too is boiled with the roots, in Bombay since  spinach with roots is not available we make do with spinach with the roots chopped off. In my father’s family however the papdi is substituted with ber/bor and it lends a nice tangy flavour to the entire preparation.  
This whole boiled preparation which is cooked without spices and salt is served with rice during lunch and it is accompanied with the kooler ombol  and some fried vegetables. Six types of vegetables are fried while some of it is used for  lunch the remaining is for dinner to be eaten with parathas  made from maida (white flour) or luchis that is puris made from maida.  
 The meal is rounded off with notun gurer payesh which is kheer  (the popular Indian dessert made with rice, sugar and milk) prepared not with sugar but with jaggery made from the date palm. What is most interesting is that everything including the rice is cooked on Saraswati Puja day and is eaten the following day absolutely cold, this day is also called Sheetal Shashti, Sheetal means cool. Well, what could be the logic behind such a custom, my mum and I have come to the conclusion that during winter we tend to a binge a lot on non-vegetarian fare so perhaps this is one way to get us to cleanse the system. Besides that, this is the time when fresh crops are harvested and what better way to enjoy the actual flavours of the vegetables.

Whatever the reason the Gota Sheddho which is devoid of all spices is eaten by adding some mustard oil and salt, though salt is not added at the time of cooking we are allowed to add it while eating it. Those who cannot do without chillies bite into some chillies while eating  the vegetables. Though it is an acquired taste and it is quite likely you may not like it but I quite developed a taste for it (I hated it as a child) as I grew up. 

Now for the ber chutney recipe.

  • 250 grams ber/ bor.
  • ½ teaspoon mustard seeds.
  • ½ tablespoon mustard oil or any oil of your choice.
  • A pinch of turmeric powder.
  • A pinch of salt.
  • Sugar to taste.

  • Wash the bers.
  • Heat oil in a vessel of your choice.
  • Add mustard seeds, once the seeds begin to crackle add the bers and stir.
  • Add turmeric powder and stir.
  • Add sufficient amount of water for this is a watery chutney.
  • Add sugar,  my mum adds plenty of sugar to make the chutney sweet.
  • Cover and cook on low flame till the water evaporates a bit and the chutney thickens slightly. Take care you do not overcook for the chutney can become too sour.
  • Add a pinch of salt and stir before switching off flame. If you add the salt at the beginning the bers will boil quickly and the chutney will turn very sour and you will have to add plenty of sugar in order to sweeten it.
As I said earlier see that it is watery you will enjoy this sweet and sour syrup. 

Sending this recipe to Sweet and Savory's Let's Do Brunch


  1. Oh, that ber chutney looks so good (the look of it reminds me of timator chutney, which is a favourite of mine). Thanks so much for all that interesting information - I knew about Saraswati Puja, but had no idea there were such unusual dietary customs attached to it!

  2. The chutney looks delicious. Interesting to read about different religious traditions. Us Keralites observe Saraswati Puja during Navatri.

    Great post as always, Shilpi!

  3. This year my mum visited us on Saraswati Puja and we had Gota Sheddo after so many years :) It was yumm. BUt she also put whole Moong dal in it. Maybe next year i'll try it without the moong dal.
    But she did not make Kooler Ombol :( Running to complain now !!!

  4. @dustedoff: You know Madhu I have always found these customs interesting and I am always curious to know why such customs came into existence.I also find that irrespective of religion all Calcutta Bengalis enjoy this Gota Sheddho, my mum has a Bengali Christian friend who looks forward eagerly to my mum's Gota Sheddho and she likes my mum's better than what others make mainly because of the ber, she likes the tangy flavour it imparts to preparation.

  5. @Ash:Thanks, yes I know about the Saraswati Puja of the Keralites.

    1. Hi Shilpi,

      I had Ber Pickle once and it was awesome. It was dry. By any chance do you have recipe of the same too?

    2. Well I do not, I have never made one.

  6. @Sharmi:HA!HA!, no Kooler Ombol? yes that calls for some complaining.

  7. thanks for the recipe and the history lesson I have been lucky enough to fall upon several trivia task today

  8. I enjoyed this post and learning about a holiday, I never heard of. This is one of the best posts, I have come across. Thank you.

    Also, thanks for linking this delicious recipe to Let's Do Brunch.

  9. I have been tortured by picture of good food before..because you can see it but you cannot grab it lol.. but believe it or not you have no idea those bers and the ber chutney is making me drool. I love them sooooooo much but can not find them here at all :(

    Great post n very well written too..

    US Masala

  10. I love this ber...but never had the chutney...This looks super yummy...


  11. The information is very very interesting . The Chatni is good for summers.

  12. Hallo Shilpi, danke, dass Sie mein Blog besucht haben. Ja, natürlich spreche ich Deutsch. Bin seit 3 Jahren hier :-) You have a great space here and lots of interesting, well written posts. I'm glad to follow you too :-)

  13. very interesting...sure must have tasted delicious dear..
    Tasty appetite

  14. Hallo Shilpi, gerne können wir uns duzen :-)
    Doch folge ich dir, ich meine, deinem Blog :-) Aber, als ich "Follow me" geclickt habe, es gab irgendeinen komisches Verhalten. Bitte prüf mal, ob ich jetzt in deinem Followerlist stehe.

    Danke für deine liebevolle Kommentare... 'Mal sehen' bedeutet nicht unbedingt 'must see', aber in diesem Context, kann man schon sagen, ja.

    Du schreibst schon gut Deutsch.. Du hast nichts verlernt.. Darf ich dich fragen, wie und warum du Deutsch gelernt hast?? Just curiosity :-D
    Wenn du nicht antworten möchtest, einfach ignorieren...

  15. Looks like gulab jamuns to me...must be great tasting one too. Never heard and seen this berries before' and thanks for this informative post' good to know the culture behind it.

  16. Tempting.. Kooler Chutney kotodin khayi ni..
    Bhalo Khabo

  17. Hi,

    I am a south Indian born and brought up in Jamshedpur. Needless to say... we followed the kool rule.. i.e. no ber till Saraswati puja. :) We have a similar rule wrt mangoes... no mango till Ugadi( our new year which marks the beginning of summer). It comes around March end. The reason probably is... raw and not fully grown mangoes sometimes cause blisters in the mouth. So the rule was made to prevent kids from eating mangoes before they are ready.

    Another thing I wanted to mention was... We follow gota seddho too... We as in people of Andhra, Karnataka( To my knowledge) only... we do not have to boil our food but can cook in any way. But we do not chop any vegetables on the day and have them gota. This custom is observed on the Ratha Saptami day... two days after Basant Panchami... Saraswati puja. Logic behind it was I guess making 'using beans and leafy vegetables" compulsory for a day. Since these need not be chopped... all starchy vegetables which need to be chopped are not eaten.

    Third thing... Sheetal Shashti and Gota Shiddho is followed in other communities... I know that some Marwari communities follow it... and so do many families from Bihar, UP. I don't know if it is due to Bengali influence or not.

    Last but not the least... I chanced upon your blog looking for Kumror Phool recipes. Am loving all the bengali recipes. They are making me nostalgic about my childhood. :)

    Thanks for sharing them. :)


    1. Welcome to my blog Jyoti and thank you so much for this long and informative comment. I had no idea that South Indians too had such customs. I guess being Indians are customs are bound to be similar.