Every winter, I would vie with my sister in an annual contest of sorts. The gauntlet would be thrown when our parents placed a small heap of peas on a table. My sister would set the pace, flicking open the pods and pushing the ovules into a bowl, stopping only to pop a few into her mouth. I don’t remember winning any of these pea-shelling competitions. At times, I would accuse my parents of being poor referees, but mostly I accepted defeat with grace.
Perhaps, my sporting spirits were kindled by what was happening in the kitchen. Black cumin, asafoetida and green chillies were crackling in jubilation at the prospect of having a new companion. How could the peas we had just shelled ignore such a reception? They came together with the tempering to let out an earthy fragrance. The mixture was cooked till soft and mushy. Meanwhile, my mother’s trusted lieutenant, Kalpanadi, was at work making maida balls from a dough that had been resting for a few hours. These would be combined with the pea mash, flattened and rolled into pooris.
Glad tidings were also signalled by the clashing of the two stones that made up the family’s favourite grinding device, the sil nora. Armed with the oblong pestle, the nora, Kalpanadi would sway back and then lurch forward to attack the coriander, mint, cumin, ginger, green chillies, lemon and salt sitting on the pentangular slab, the sil, till the spices and herbs released their flavours. The temptation to slurp the vibrant green chutney was overpowering. But my mother wouldn’t let us come anywhere close to the kitchen, lest we incur the wrath of the oil simmering in the kadhai. She would wave us off, while sliding the pooris one by one into the hot vessel, and, almost as if in thanks, the oil caused the doughy substance to puff up gloriously into the family’s Makar Sankranti staple, karaishootir kochuri.
In the predominantly Punjabi neighbourhood where we spent most of our childhood, the festivities would be announced with drumbeats and bonfires into which peanuts and popcorn were thrown in as ritual oblation. But, for long, we did not really know what the fervour was all about. We thought that the celebrations were about food— karaishootir kochuri and dhonepatar chutney.
That was, perhaps, the way a Bengali family, long-settled in north India, paid its tribute to the weather. This was the time when the winter chill would let up occasionally, as a signal for spring to brace up for its innings. The holiday season was well past, so my parents tried to sneak in time from their schedules to prepare the uniquely north Indian delicacy, the gajar ka halwa.
A day before the festival, they would take turns in grating about a kilogram of our favourite winter vegetable. Ghee, sugar, khoya, raisins and dry fruits joined in the fun, as did milk and cardamom powder. But my parents imparted their own twist to the dessert by making it less moist than what it usually is. When heated on the day of the festival, the carrots would be on the verge of being crispy.
This wasn’t the usual Bengali way of celebrating Makar Sankranti. And Kalpanadi, a recent migrant to the city, could barely conceal her displeasure at our deviance from tradition. She tried to make up by plying us with narkel nadu, a grated coconut, milk and jaggery delicacy. It didn’t take us more than two or three days to finish the boxful.
Years later, we had a taste of the staple Bengali delicacy, the patishapta, on the day of the festival, courtesy my mother’s favourite kitchen lieutenant. It was occasioned by the rediscovery of the one-time cornerstone of the family kitchen, the bonthi. A curved iron blade with a wooden stand, it also had a jagged blade for grating coconut. Small mounds of soft coconut made their appearance on a newspaper as Kalpanadi sat to work on the instrument that had fallen into virtual disuse after my grandmother’s demise. These were mixed with jaggery and stuffed into semolina crepes that my mother had little difficulty in mastering. A long-time probashi in Delhi had rediscovered the cuisine of her ancestors, thanks to a recent migrant to the city.
As I sit down to write this piece, the city I call home, produces another delight — a friend, another migrant, has got me Pongal.
What better way to say bon appetit.