Three men, a goat and a YouTube food series

Bishakha De Sarkar | Updated on July 31, 2020

Pot luck: The cooking process in the show is more or less the same across episodes   -  ISTOCK.COM

A no-frills presentation is the main ingredient of Villfood Kitchen, a culinary show set in rural Bengal

* The food show is in Bengali. The three men wear lungis folded above the knee and cook in huge utensils over a pit fire in a Santhal village in Bolpur

*They open every episode with the words: “Oelkaam to our kitchayne”

One woman’s laugh, I fear, is another’s barf. I must admit I was a little amused when the three men who star in a food show set in rural Bengal went into the woods with a frisky goat. The three were soon back, but the goat, alas, was frisky no more: It was still and tied to a stick that the men carried on their shoulders. On the menu that day was meat curry.

Food shows, which in recent years (and especially in the pandemic months) have taken over our lives, don’t go into the gory details of the gutting and cleaving that certain dishes demand. Villfood Kitchen, a YouTube series that I discovered a few weeks ago, has no such qualms. It periodically shows fish being scaled, cleaned and cut — and then rinsed in a bucket of water that instantly turns red. No, it’s not funny, but its rustic, no-frills presentation does lift your mood.

The show is in Bengali. The three men wear lungis folded above the knee and cook in huge utensils over a pit fire in a Santhal village in Bolpur, which, as all good Bengalis know, is where Tagore’s Santiniketan is located. The youngest and the shortest in the group is the court jester (CJ). He throws up his arms and does a jig, waves out cheerily to the camera, clowns around with a pumpkin the size of his ample stomach and occasionally recites children’s verse. The ustad is his indulgent brother-in-law (CJ refers to him as jamai babu) and the third chef — somewhat shy to begin with but now smiling and speaking out more and more — is the hardworking Shyamal-da.

The three gather at the village, packed in with their cooking ware in some kind of a motorised rickshaw. The camera zigzags through the leafy path that goes into the village, where the old are sunburnt and wizened, children look wide-eyed, and where cows moo and goats run when they see the crew.

The village is remarkably green, with the broad leaves of the sal trees forming a gentle, sun-winked canopy over the cooking area. The ingredients for the dish of the day are rinsed in the gushing waters of a tube well. The chefs get ready to cook the meal: Fish with yoghurt, or masala chicken, mixed vegetables, egg curry, dal, khichuri or meat curry (that poor goat, I must say, gave the villagers some unadulterated moments of pleasure that day).

The cooking process is more or less the same. Cumin seeds splutter in mustard oil, heated mostly in a wok and sometimes in a clay pot. A paste of coriander-and-cumin seeds goes into it, with onion, garlic and ginger. Turmeric and red chillies follow; occasionally, chopped tomatoes. Green chillies are pounded with a pestle in a mortar and then added to the mix. The main ingredient goes into the pot. It is stirred, and then left to simmer.

The food is now ready to be served. Every episode ends with the same lilting piece of music (low strings playing a nice little tune), as the villagers — mainly children, but a few aged Adivasi men and women, too — line up with aluminium and steel plates. They sit on the ground, and the three cooks serve them. Sometimes, large and round lotus leaves are plucked out of the pond and used as plates. The children wave out shyly; some little ones sweat profusely, clearly still not used to the presence of vast quantities of red chillies in their food.

The first few episodes were somewhat basic. But little details are being added to the show every week. The camera zooms in on a little bud on a branch, and there are scenic visuals of paddy fields and the lotus pond.

An episode is often sponsored in the memory of somebody, or to wish someone else on an anniversary. The names are read out in the end, and occasionally there are still pictures, too. The last episode I saw had an advertisement for a cleaning agent. And while there is not much of English in the show (barring the bits when CJ holds up a green pepper and says, ‘I know what it’s called; it’s a capsicum’, and thereafter lovingly refers to it as a ‘capsi’), these days they open every episode with the words: “Oelkaam to our kitchayne”.

The last episode I saw — aired sometime in end-July — marked a celebration: The show had gathered 1 lakh hits. Balloons had been strung up, and a multi-coloured, multi-tiered cake stood on a table. A rainbow-robed baul singer performed surprisingly in tune, and there were young men on percussion instruments. CJ and Shyamal-da danced gaily, and gifts (books and writing material) were given out to the children.

Like every episode, this one, too, ended with these words, attributed to Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. If we cannot smile, we cannot help other people smile, it said.

No, the show’s not funny. But every time I watch it, I smile.

Bishakha De Sarkar

Published on July 31, 2020

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