Monday, December 19, 2005

lost addresses

Can anyone tell me where Dwarik Ghosh is located today or Sen Mahasay or Jalajog or Ganguram or Bhim Nag? The young persons know the location of Mc Donald’s and other pizza joints, to them these names are not likely to ring any bell. But for those who are in the fifty plus age bracket, these will certainly bring back pleasant memories of an era gone by, a period that has been lost forever to modernization.

The last I remember of Dwarik Ghosh is the large glass showcase in Shyambazar with the owner sitting behind the counter and delivering what the customer ordered. The shop was famous for the kachuris made of green peas – the process was unique, the first green peas of the season had a taste of their own. These would be boiled, mashed and spices added. Then they would be stuffed into balls made of maida and deep-fried in ghee. The final product had a distinct flavor of its own; you just could not hide it. People standing around you in the bus stop or the tram stop would know for certain that you were carrying the products of Dwarik Ghosh. The shop was also well known for a sweet called chhanar murki – a simple preparation, it was of the dry type. Chhana (or paneer) would be cut into tiny cubes, and cooked in a syrup of sugar. Flavor would be imparted by addition of the essence of attar. Once cooked properly, they would be laid out to dry. These could be preserved for some days.

Jalajog was renowned for its payodhi – it was a different variety of sweet curd. It had a reddish tinge and tasted heavenly. The shop in Shyambazar had a large painting of Rabindra Nath Tagore and in the bottom, his appreciation of the payodhi of Jalajog. Similarly, Sen Mahasay located in a tiny lane of Shyambazar in the vicinity of the cinema hall Talkie Show House served delicious Tal-sansh sandesh. Ganguram and Bhim Nag were other shops that had their specialties. In those days, advertisements used to be by word of mouth – the culture of North Calcutta was different from that of South Calcutta. When guests dropped by in the evenings, the local shops would be patronized – sweets were a must and, if the guest discovered something new, he would carry back samples. Later, he might become a patron of that particular outlet. That was the USP of these pioneers of sweetmeats – offer variety. Like the shop just a few steps away from Metro cinema – it was named Kalpataru and was one of the main outlets for North Indian, Gujarati and Rajasthani sweets.

Monday, December 05, 2005

winter means nalen gur

Nalen gur (or date molasses) is a specialty of Bengal – both West Bengal and Bangladesh - and is used extensively to prepare delicacies of winter. Nalen gur is a preparation from the juice of date trees that are collected and heated to obtain the final product that leaves one wonderstruck – the taste is heavenly. It is said that the heating is an art. Those who have seen the movie ‘Saudaagar’ starring Amitabh Bachhan and Nutan will realize that a lot of dedication has to go into the process. Unfortunately, this year, there is a complaint that the nalen gur has lost its flavor.

‘…… Regrettably though, the date trees are now more in use for their fuel wood value than as a source of the traditional juice which is made into cake called nalen gur (boiled and condensed juice of date plant). However, the numbers of these date tree are dwindling in the division. Production of nalen gur, too, has fallen sharply compared to the previous years …..’

‘ ……. The date palm sap is made into three types of gur: liquid, grainy and the solid chunks of patali. The sap is heated in huge karais over wood or coal stoves and it is only an expert who can gauge the different degrees of cooking to achieve the right textures. The arrival of gur in the market is the signal for the professional sweet-makers to start preparing one of their most popular products, sandesh flavoured with the new gur. This nalen gurer sandesh has a brownish-pink tinge and is very dear to the plump Bengali's heart. At the beginning of the season. Gur is sold in its liquid form, jhola gur. This comes in earthen ports and disappears fast enough. In our home it would be used like maple syrup in America, poured over hot luchis or chapattis and as a sweetener in the milk. It ferments easily and so has to be eaten quickly. In rural areas the fermented gur is made into a kind of cheap liquour which tribals and poor villagers drink. It was this same jhola gur which inspired committed following from exceptional Bengalis like Sukumar Ray, our version of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. In one of his delightful poems he spun out an absurdly contradictory list of the good things of life, and the very best of the best was bread with jhola gur. The solid patali gur can be stored and used for quite a few months after winter is over, and refrigeration gives it even longer life. The most notable application for its use is in payesh, in place of sugar. The pure nutty sweetness of the gur makes this winter payesh a Bengali gourmet's dream……’

KRISHNAGAR, Nov. 21. — As the winter approaches Bengalis are busy preparing their favourite sweet meats, as it is the time when old Krishnanagariks enjoy a variety of recipes with nalen gur (date molasses) which are now sold even from regular sweet shops. …… In the past few days, it was the best time to have dinner with the hand-made rotis. ….. Now they have found more attractive uses like nalen gurer sandesh and rosogolla, not to forget the payesh that tastes wonderful at this time of the year.
It was during the Bengal Renaissance in the 19th century that the Nadia sweet-makers came up with the nalen gur sandesh, which is now popular not only in Bengal but in other parts of India also.
The enjoyment of Raas festival is now slowly fading out from Nadia but the aroma of the first nalen gur in the earthen pots has started to fill the air. This is the season of molasses, better known as nalen gur. And if you wish to have a taste of the original stuff, then you will have to visit Majdiya in Nadia bordering Bangladesh.

soft targets

Those who are under the impression that soft targets are associated only with terrorists are a terribly misinformed lot. Soft targets are those who do not have the power to resist force and violence – usually, the term is used to mean defenseless persons like the aged, the women and children. Also, areas where no one would ever dream of exploding a bomb- like a park.

Soft targets to ordinary persons of my disposition are those goodies that beckon you from the showcases – the sweets that entice you with their heavenly colors, divine flavors and assorted shapes and sizes. Some of them are hard on the exterior but they melt in your mouth. Others are soft, swim in the large bowl of syrup waiting to be gently lifted and transferred to a plate to soothe the yearnings of the palate. Indians love sweets and the variety that is available throughout the country can vie for world records. Each area has its preferences and, even though you get rosogollas in Delhi and Mumbai and Bangalore and Hyderabad, you cannot get the typical spongy feel of the products of Bengal. Similarly for other products that are made out of milk – the procedure to convert milk into delicious mouth watering soft targets enjoy exclusive proprietary rights. As in other fields, copies are no match for the originals.

Another popular soft target is the chocolate – the branded ones are a must when someone by the name of Pappu passes his examinations. These also come in all shapes and sizes from the tiny gems to the really soft centered éclairs to the bar chocolates. During festivities these come gift wrapped in attractive cartons.

The ice creams hold center stage when it comes to soft targets – from small cups to cones to bars and the family packs, there are many options. These have entered marriage venues also and are served as desserts.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

indian fast foods

Indians love to fast – festivities are an integral part of an Indian’s life and fasting is normally associated with any festivity. The reason is really very simple. On the excuse of fasting, one is able to taste any number of delicacies!!

However, fast food has got no relevance to fasting.

When one broaches the subject of fast food, one normally visualizes pizzas, hamburgers and coke because fast food is supposed to be a Western concept, an indication of a fast lifestyle. How poor our knowledge is!! Fast foods were known to Bengalis as far back as the fifties – there used to be a tele-bhaja shop near Beadon Street where people used to stand in queue to wait his turn of the deliciously hot, crisp tele-bhaja made of thin slices of brinjal or potatoes dipped in a batter of besan. The people standing in the queue would be from six to sixty years of age, men and women alike. It was rumored that the oil used to fry these delicacies was never changed – when the level became low, some more oil was just added to top up the level! The special taste of these tele-bhajas was attributable to this singular factor – that is what people say!! This is not to belittle the moghlai parathas and kaviraji cutlets which used to hold centre stage in the times when people still patronized the cinemas.

Then there are the singaras and the jilipis specific to the Bengalis. In other parts of the country, singaras are better known as samosas and jilipis as jilebis. The only difference is that in the Bengali culture, both these items are normally found in the breakfast menu and are seldom prepared after nine in the morning! The reason is not very far to discover – the fast food menu of Bengalis revolve around the umpteen plus one roadside stalls set up at nearly every street corner. A very practical method of tackling mass scale unemployment, each stall owner manages to break even and earn a reasonable amount of profit. They market various types of rolls – the egg roll, chicken roll, mutton roll along with Chinese dishes like noodles and chili chicken. Variety is the spice, so the saying goes, and the Bengalis have mastered the art of serving innumerable types of fast foods. With hundreds and thousand of hungry mouths to feed, they seldom face a shortage of customers. Whether it is a sultry summer evening or a wet monsoonish one, fast food is always in demand. The ingredients used in all such preparations, when mixed in the correct proportion and fried, emit such an out-of-the-world aroma that you would literally stop in your tracks to taste the final product. Our TV chefs would give millions to learn these secrets!!

Nowadays, the southern versions of fast foods are also making inroads into the cosmopolitan culture of large cities. Idli, dosa, uthappam, urid wada and upma are just a few names that have become popular in Bengali homes as well as in Punjabi homes. Cutting into a three inch diameter rawa idli with a generous topping of cashew nuts and a spoonful of pure ghee gradually vanishing into its innumerable pores is an experience by itself. The urid wada (spongy, like the soya bean doughnuts I had once tasted in an American exhibition in Calcutta in the fifties) comes in two versions – one, the dry type and the other with an accompanying concoction called sambhar in which tiny bits of pumpkin, onion, tomato, drumstick and brinjal float in a gravy of pulse and tamarind juice garnished with ground coconut.

In the north, the vote invariably goes to chats, golguppas, moong-ki-halwa and different types of pakoras. I specially remember the pakoras made of cauliflower. Large chunks of cauliflower would be dipped in a batter of besan and deep fried in a really large container. If you tasted one, you would certainly long for another – kya kare, control nehi hota! Moong-ki-halwa is another favorite of the north – if prepared with an abundance of ghee and garnished with cashew nuts and kish-mish, it converts into a dish fit only for the Kings. I had the pleasure of tasting the delicacy in a roadside stall in Delhi in the seventies and the taste still lingers on in my palate. Similar is the case with the chana-batura. A dish patronized by the north, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it on the menu-card of Kamat Hotel in Bangalore!

All these tiny examples go to prove that India is really a country where unity exists in diversity. During my first visit to Bangalore in the seventies, I was compelled to have curd rice packed in paper bags at the roadside eateries. Non-vegetarian dishes were taboo. Today, practically all hotels and restaurants cater to non vegetarian customers.

With every passing day, we keep on re-discovering our beloved India, in bits and pieces and our love keeps on growing. Corrupt politicians will come and go but there will always be people like you and me who will ensure that our tradition and culture are never lost.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

milky way redifined

Milk is normally identified as the raw material necessary to make butter, cheese, ice creams and condensed milk. Pizzas are considered to be incomplete without a generous topping of grated cheese! In India, however, milk is the basic ingredient of innumerable varieties of delicious sweets found from Kolkata to Coimbatore. In the sixties, Dr Kurien and his ‘Operation Flood’ created a revolution of sorts and gave rise to a phenomenon called ‘Amul’! It has, since, become a household name associated with practically all types of preparation involving milk, except, possibly, rosogollas! Gone are the days when the milkman would milk the cow or buffalo right in front you and transfer the fresh warm frothy milk from his bucket to your container. The complete system of storage and distribution of milk has undergone a tremendous change – with pouches being delivered at your doorsteps today along with the newspaper!

One of the simplest of sweet dishes that can be prepared with milk base by anyone is ‘payas’ (in Bengali) and ‘payasam’ (in Malayalam). It is the end product of raw rice being boiled in milk. When the mixture starts to thicken, sugar is added apart from cashew nuts, pistas (pistachios) almonds and kish-mish. Bay leaves and ground cardamom impart a heavenly flavor. The preparation should be allowed to cool to room temperature before serving. This special dish is a must in birthday parties. The Malayalam version adds grated coconut.

Another simple dish involves a great deal of time and patience and is to be attempted only if you have an abundance of both. All you have to do to have a helping of ‘kheer’ is to take about two liters of milk in a large vessel and simmer for at least four hours over a slow flame. After four hours, you have to ensure that it does not start to stick to the walls of the vessel hence you must continuously stir the contents. The final product also should be served when cool. In Bengal there are innumerable moulds made of clay or wood which are used to give attractive shapes. No flavoring agent is necessary because, when two liters of milk is reduced to two hundred grams, it automatically acquires a distinct flavor of its own.

Other popular milk preparations in the North and the East are made from ‘chhana’. This is nothing but milk intentionally curdled by using lime or alum or some sour substance. The curdled mass is drained of all traces of water and used to prepare mouth watering rosogollas. Recently, these are being compressed mechanically and marketed as slabs of paneer. The preparations with paneer very seldom fall in the category of sweets. They are used to make tasty wholesome dishes with plenty of spices. Alu paneer, matar paneer and palak paneer, to name a few, taken with tandoori roti or roomali roti are relished by young and old alike.
And, of course, a brief on milk products will be incomplete without a mention of curd and raita.

indian bites

True to tradition, Indians bite the dust yet again.

This time it is in the ICC Champions Trophy in Edgbaston ODI.

The defeat was a foregone conclusion from the moment the toss went against the captain. His body language read abject surrender. Be it cricket, football or hockey or any other team game, it has been established that, as a team, we deliver very seldom. As individuals, there have been some remarkable exceptions like in chess, billiards etc. but the fact remains that Team India, as an entity, has yet to emerge even after more than fifty years of independence and a variety of political combinations experimented with at the centre!

However, Indian bites can become a rage of sorts and can capture the imagination of millions if marketed aggressively. We can be assured of the highest of honors should such a competition ever be organized. The offerings on ‘khana khazana’, ‘mirch masala’ and so on pale into insignificance in front of the ingenuity of simple village women who have to churn out dishes with the barest minimum of ingredients in the shortest possible of time.

A favorite question put to would be brides of yore was aimed at trying to ascertain the extent of creativeness the girl was endowed with.

The question would be a simple one – ‘suppose some elderly relatives suddenly descended upon you and planned to stay over for the night, what would you serve for dinner?’ It has to be remembered that the scene is a remote village where bullock carts are the only means of transport, where kerosene lanterns provide the only source of light after sunset, where shops are absent hence, getting something off the shelf is also absent and where no one would venture out in the darkness to pluck vegetables from the field or throw a net in the pond to land some fish! The girl had to, perforce, rely only on what was physically available in the kitchen at that moment. Naturally, her options were extremely limited. In some cases, the girl would be told what ingredients were to be used, in other cases, the choice would be left to her. If she was able to conjure up some good recipes and managed to obtain pass marks, she would be assured of favorable placement in her new house – after marriage. In order to pass such examinations, these girls were taught how to make umpteen plus one preparations out of a simple vegetable like potato. It can be fried. It can be boiled, mashed and converted into quite a number of mouth watering dishes. Small freshly removed potatoes can be boiled and cooked with green peas to present a fantastic dish called ‘aloor dum’.

Girls today do not have to face such critical examinations and undergo humiliation. Questions asked of them would probably be like – ‘do you know where pizzas originated from?’ or ‘how many varieties of pizzas have you tasted? Which is your favorite?’ or ‘how many pizza outlets are there in your locality?’

the chips are not down

Couch potato is a term coined in recent years to aptly describe an addict of the IB (Idiot Box, for the uninitiated!)

His world revolves around the couch and the remote. He loves to curl up on the couch and stray away only for brief moments to attend to other more necessary and mandatory duties like having his lunch, dinner, releasing excess pressure etc..

Potato, in many Indian languages, is called ‘aloo’.

The episode in a cricket match in faraway Canada, where a cricketer was referred to as ‘aloo’ and the ruckus it subsequently created is still not erased from memory. This multi purpose vegetable can be readily converted into any number of eatables in the hands of experts.
Let us start with the simplest – the potato chips.

Sliced into wafer thin pieces after peeling and cleaning, these are allowed to soak in a salt solution and then deep fried. These miraculously transform into crispy chips – a heavenly delight, as some may say.

In olden days, when the matinee and evening shows attracted young and old alike to the cinema halls, sharing a packet of such chips inside the darkened hall trying to ensure that the sound of munching did not distract others, posed a tremendous challenge. If you had persons of the fairer sex for company, it was all the more necessary to suppress their giggles because girls have a habit of giggling whenever something unusual happens. In this case, trying to stifle the munching sound, when a certain amount of sound is inevitable!!

Today, a similar offering of potato chips are disbursed in attractive packages and marketed via the electronic visual media with the help of popular personalities who keep trying out new story lines to bring home the point that – ‘nobody can eat just one!’ The amount of money spent on such ads could provide full lunch for a couple of villages in Andhra or Orissa for at least a few days.

But, then, this is the world of consumerism and glamour plays a vital role in promoting the goodies. Many cannot afford such luxuries but the central idea is to create a desire for such products. That itself is half the battle won. Once a desire is created, the individual is bound to discover ways and means of fulfilling that desire. That is the second half of the battle!

Banana chips also have a certain amount of appeal, especially to the Southerners.

It is high time someone started an ambitious project to popularize this chip globally. A new set of personalities can descend on the scene to deliver the goods as per a fresh agenda – and, in turn, increase our Foreign Reserves. The new slogan could be – ‘banana ko na nehi bolna!’

mihidana darbesh etc..

‘Chhola’ (or gram) is a variety of pulse found in abundance in all parts of India. Also known as ‘chana’, it is extensively used in various delectable preparations of both the sweet and the non-sweet categories. The latter category normally uses the grains as available in the raw condition – namely, golden yellow spherical seeds. For preparation of sweets, however, these are ground into powder called ‘besan’ which transforms into beautiful artistic forms once they pass through the experienced hands of the experts. The most savoury of these is the mihidana. Mihi in Bengali means ‘fine’ and dana means ‘grain’. Mihidana, therefore, literally translates into ‘fine grains’. The process of preparation starts with a batter of besan and water. This batter is passed through a sieve into a pot of boiling oil. The holes in the sieve are such that the batter falls into the boiling oil drop by drop! These are then fried to obtain the required color after which these are removed from the boiling oil and transferred to a pot of syrup made of sugar. Within a few minutes, these are again moved and heaped on to a large flat tray (preferably made of wood) for drying. Finally, dried fruits and flavoring agent like nutmeg are added after which the mixture is ready for the artists touch! By the deft movement of the palm and fingers, the artists convert this mass into round balls simultaneously arranging them on trays for the final garnishing with chopped pistas and kish-mish.

At one time, ready made mihidana mix was a rage in Calcutta. One pouch contained the tiny globules (akin to Homeopathic globules) whilst the second one had the ground sugar. All one had to do to have a mouth watering dish was to dissolve the powdered sugar in water, bring it to boil and add the ingredients of the accompanying pouch – and, presto! Tiny drops of ecstasy were waiting to be pounced upon.

One more sweet variety is the darbesh.

The holes in the sieve here are of a larger diameter. The process is similar to that explained earlier except that color plays a significant role. Three colors are popular – red, yellow and green. Boondies are prepared in each of these colors separately, allowed to absorb the sweetness of the syrup separately and are mixed with dry fruits and flavoring agent on the flat wooden tray. Since the consistency of the syrup is lighter, penetration into each globule is more. In areas other than Bengal, coloring is absent and the boondies are drier. The finished product, in these cases, is called Boondi-ki-Laddoo.

For non sweet varieties, salt and red chili powder is mixed in the batter. The boondies are not soaked in syrup but are preserved dry for subsequent use in raitas as required. Boondie based raita garnished with chopped coriander leaves and green chilies are something one can seldom refuse!

indian sweets

In spite of consumerism having a field day, in spite of DINK philosophy ruling the roost and in spite of Yuppie culture having spread its tentacles far and wide, it is a sorry state of affairs that sweetmeat vendors are left stranded high and dry. They are facing a really tough proposition. Apparently, a vast majority of diseases are related to the heart (of which people know precious little!) and news items continuously caution that such diseases can be directly linked to the intake of sugar. Hence, everyone but everyone is wary of sweet dishes – leaving the poor sweetmeat vendors to fend for themselves.

It is not that sweet dishes do not find any takers or that they have become outdated in the era of hamburgers and pizzas. Only, the nature of dishes has undergone immense changes in the last half century or so.

Bowbazar Street in Kolkata used to be known once upon a time as ‘chhana patti’. On this street there used to be any number of sweetmeat shops proudly displaying mouth varieties of their products. These used to come in all shapes, sizes and colors. There were the cylindrical ones, the round ones, the conical ones and the cubical ones. Some had a yellow tinge, others a flush of pink or a dash of green. Whilst one was as smooth as the shell of an egg, the one in the adjacent tray was covered with sand like particles. Some were of the wet family, others dry or even semi-dry! My vote always used to go to the ‘tal-shash’. Shaped just like the tender kernel of the palm fruit, it boasted of am extremely hard exterior with a deliciously soft centre. How the moyras managed to insert the sweet liquid into its very core is, even today, a mystery.

I am referring to the period of the late fifties.

My brothers and I used to stare longingly at the showcases as we waited for our route bus to arrive – longingly because we were not entitled to any such thing as pocket money which could have been diverted to soothe our desires. The concept of pocket money, in those days, was non existant. When we left for school in the morning, Mother would give me one rupee towards the up and down fare for my three brothers and me. There was no question of any emergency fund because emergencies were unheard of and one rupee was quite adequate – the bus fare being twelve paise per head!

Marriage festivities, in those days, were considered incomplete without an abundance of rosogollas, ladykenis. Even sandesh had its ardent followers.

Such celebrations, today, present a totally different picture. Invitees arrive with gift cheques, bouquets, books and smiles. At the entrance, they are served soft drinks. Caterers guide them gently but firmly to their respective tables and dispose them off in a swift and efficient manner. Additional helpings cause raised eyebrows all around, hence not in the menu! And, the sweet dish has been virtually reduced to a cup of ice cream or a bowl of fruit salad.

Women today are more conscious of their figures and men of their cholesterol levels. The basic approach to gaining and guaranteeing satisfaction is not that sweet any longer as it used to be in the good old days. Bhim Nag, K.C.Das, Ganguram and Jalajoga are just a few names that have become history. Today, cheap imitations rule the roost. True sweeties, alas, can now be discovered only in memories.

keep your cool

‘One for the road’ is normally associated with hard drinks, a popular item in any party. An adult is supposed to consume at least eight liters of water every day to quench his thirst and to compensate for loss of water due to exertions and fatigue. In Western countries, drinks mean a liquid that provides energy and keeps the body warm. In tropical countries, on the other hand, drinks are meant to cool the body. Hence, we drink chilled water, iced lemon tea, different types of fruit juices and a combination of aerated drinks endorsed by cine personalities and cricketers. Ad spends run into crores of rupees and participants include old timers as well as up and coming stars who keep chanting lines like ‘yeh dil mange more’ – what their actual demand is remains an unknown entity shrouded in mystery. Storylines keep changing with the changing scenario and moods of people. A second group tells the viewer what ‘thanda’ actually is by having a village as the scene of action. Here the bottles are kept immersed in the water of a well to preserve its cool and to come to surface as and when demanded! Starting with 200 ml bottles, these cold drinks are sold in up to 2 liter bottles and are a rage with young and old alike. In order to keep pace with these MNCs, some fruit juices are marketed in polypack containers and are quite popular for those undertaking small journeys. Then there are the seasonal fruit juices like mango, orange, pineapple and sugar cane that are prepared and served in front of you.

The ‘lassi’ however, is a totally different kettle of drinks!!

Originally a north Indian product, it can today be found in any part of the country. I still remember my experiences when I first tasted this wonderful drink. Its preparation used to be a ritual of sorts. One person would pour some curd, sugar and water into a vessel. He would hold it tight in between his feet, insert a cylindrical shaped wooden ladle into the vessel and start churning the mixture vigorously. Another person would put some pieces of ice in a leather bag and, with the help of a flat wooden mallet, would crush the ice into tiny granules. When the churning was complete, the lassi maker would add these granules into it and serve.

Today, the complete process is mechanized.

In some restaurants, lassi is prepared once a day, in the morning, and preserved in a deep freezer – for withdrawal and issue based on demand. Unlike earlier days when it used to be prepared and served on demand to retain its freshness.

But the drink that is bound to steal a march over all others is pure coconut water. Untouched by hand, preserved in its natural surroundings till such time a demand actually arises, the water of a tender coconut is fresh, nourishing and need no endorsement by any screen or sports personality, young or old!

‘One for the road’, in the Indian context, is, undoubtedly, a tender coconut.

If you are lucky enough, you may be rewarded with the soft sweet kernel deftly scooped out of the shell by the vendors and offered back to you – to munch in leisure.