Written by Sanhita Dasgupta Sensarma
School breaks meant Bhai and I explored the vast Maharaja Bir Bikram College campus in Tripura, cycling with our friends. The college (now MBB University) campus situated on a hillock named College Tilla, flanked by the Howrah on one side and a huge natural lake, was filled with purple lotus-shapla (water lilies). We lived in beautiful tin-roofed English-style bungalows constructed around the 1940s, for college professors by the great educationist Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya Debbarman of Tripura. Each bungalow had large spaces around it. Our garden overlooked a beautiful slope, where Baba cut terraces for growing vegetables. My parents, who are fond of gardening, had a “name-it and you-got it” range of plants — cauliflower, peas, pumpkins, lemons, chillies, bananas, custard apple, mangoes, jamun, guava, and whatnot.
Christmas, called Boro Din (Grand Day in Bangla), would be truly celebratory. Morning to early afternoon was spent with friends by the lakeside. We would then be packed off to Grandma’s home, to allow Ma and Baba time for themselves and some peace to arrange the Christmas dinner and prepare for Bhai’s birthday party the next day. Around sunset, Mejo mama would arrange a projector for screening movies. Grandpa’s spotless white dhoti would become the screen. Movie time meant cakes, pastries, puffs, chops and Bhai’s birthday came with bonus cakes and double the fun, with cousins and friends, sleepovers and feasting. Our house would be the “it” place for social gatherings. The food that my parents put on the table is still legendary; no one ever missed an invitation.
Cakes at home were almost always cardamom-ghee bundt cakes, that Ma made on a stovetop sand oven. But baking was never without its challenges. Unlike cooking, it isn’t forgiving. Precise measurements, temperature and timings are three non-negotiables. The electrical situation in the ’80s was mostly unpredictable, with frequent outages through the day. So, an OTG had zilch utility, unlike sand ovens that were always reliable.
It was also the time when Tripura witnessed a milk crisis. The newly-formed Gomati Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union, though functional, wasn’t churning out enough for local requirements. To overcome the shortage, locals depended heavily on powdered milk — Red Cow (Dutch) and Anchor (New Zealand). In the pre-liberalisation era, these would reach our grocers via Bangladesh, through an extremely porous international border.
Given the unavailability of ingredients in the tiny landlocked state, Ma wisely substituted with available ingredients. For her fragrant, moist cake, butter was substituted with ghee, vanilla with cardamom powder, milk with milk powder and reconstituted milk, while country eggs were the basic ingredients. It was never easy to find vanilla essence, chocolate powder, butter or even granulated sugar in grocery stores. Ma had to grind the sugar on a stone slab with a muller, because the mixie would make it too fine. Sugar supply was regulated through ration quotas. Each family could only get as per their allotment.
These geographical challenges led to interesting off-beat items on our table. One such was savoury cakes, with every kind of vegetable from our kitchen garden and Grandma’s weekly supply of mushrooms and carrots. But, it’s the ghee-cardamom cake that was unique to Ma. Even now, my friends remember its unique flavour pairing. Cardamom and ghee, each have strong fragrant notes but when blended with milk, flour and eggs create a mellow yet potent aroma.
In sand ovens, these slow-cooked cakes were quite the stunner. Ma would pour the batter into the bundt pan lined with paper, greased with ghee. Once the lid was shut firm, the oven was placed on an iron tawa levelled with sand. Bhai and I would affix ourselves at the kitchen door. We were not allowed to enter the kitchen because food used to be cooked over wood fire and coals.
We could barely wait for the cake to cool. Eating warm cakes on winter evenings with a glass of milk are what childhood dreams are made of. Neat slices would be toasted on a tawa with a touch of butter to crisp it up like bread. It would be our favourite snack for the next few days. Nearly 40 years later, when pandemic lockdowns have tested our ingenuity, I have fondly recalled my growing-up years, where parents and cooks had ingenious substitutions to feed their families. Even today, Ma’s ghee-cardamom cake has the power to teleport me home.
Ma’s Ghee-Cardamom Cake
3 cups flour
1½ cups granulated sugar
3 tsp baking powder
3 tbsp skimmed milk to be reconstituted with hot water to for 2½ cups milk
1/2 tsp fresh fine ground cardamom seeds
3-4 tbsp ghee
A pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Combine and shift the dry ingredients together in a mixing bowl. Combine ghee (leave a little aside to grease the baking pan), cooled down reconstituted milk, and granulated sugar in a bowl. Mix well. Pour wet ingredients into the dry ones slowly, to avoid forming clumps. Add the beaten eggs one at a time in a slow steady stream to the mix and blend until well-incorporated. Pour the batter into a bundt pan greased with ghee and flour, to no more than three-fourth full to avoid overflow during baking. Bake for 35-40 mins. Insert a skewer, if it comes out clean, the cake is done. Take it out of the oven immediately and let it cool.
(Sanhita, also referred to as Shanai by a select few, was bred and lightly sautéed in Agartala, a progressive but quaint city marinated in a delicious confluence of cultures. She is the proud and possessive owner of over 3.000 food-related books & titles, and enjoys Bailey’s on crushed ice! In order to fund her adventures in the kitchen, she moonlights as a corporate lawyer.)