As a child, I had a reputation of being a fussy eater. Nothing other than bananas, puffed rice, and roshogollas would catch the fancy of my taste buds. To vegetables, my aversion was notorious. My granny’s strategies like spinning tales in which the greens appeared as characters had limited success. Her patience tested to the utmost, one winter day, she asked me to accompany her on a visit to the green grocer.
A slightly reserved person, grandma seemed to come into her own as she picked out green chickpea ovules from their fuzzy pods and popped them into her mouth. As I followed suit, there was a hint of smile at one corner of grandma’s lips. A portly old man who sat next to stacks of what seemed like small bushes with branches of green pods invited me to try more. They were crunchy and left a mildly sweet aftertaste. That was my first tryst with what has turned out to be a lifelong friendship with chholias — fresh version of dried chickpeas — available only in winter.
At another corner of the market, stood a woman with a pushcart that was toppling with varieties of greens that I had hitherto spurned. Besides spinach and methi, there were pui and bathua, whose splendid resplendence bore little resemblance to the feathery items that grandmother would dish out.
That was to be the beginning of another trial for my long-suffering grandmother. Her grandson had become acquainted with the glorious colours of the saags and wouldn’t countenance any dilution in their brightness. Her friend, our elderly Punjabi neighbour whom we called Biji, came to the rescue.
Her ploy was to lavish me with sarson ka saag and makke ki roti. I was drawn to the dish by a tiny bowl of glistening white butter. It’s homemade, Biji said, as she slathered the butter on to the yellow corn rotis, tore off a morsel and dipped it into a bowl brimming with the luscious green saag.
Biji spoke Punjabi with a smattering of Hindi, while my grandmother, in spite of more than three decades in north India, had a troubled relationship with Hindustani. But language never got in the way of them exchanging notes. And, nothing could have been more compelling than the desire to nourish a grandchild — Biji loved me as her own. It made their friendship deeper. To my grandma, used to the lightly sauteed shorshe saag bhaaja — fried mustard greens — the richly-spiced sarson ka saag was a revelation. The meal was rounded off with a small piece of jaggery.
Grandma would sometimes replace the cane jaggery with the date palm variety. It was an improvisation her Punjabi friend took to with gusto. And, she returned the compliment. Introduced to the phoolkopir dalna — the cauliflower curry is a favourite in Bengali homes — Biji substituted the traditional accompaniment, luchi, with wheat parathas. But there was a place for the maida pooris, as she took to serving them with a chholia curry.
In time, I shed my aversion to vegetables. Perhaps, like all children. The give and take between the kitchens of the two elderly women played no small part. Today, I can’t do without parathas. And, the onset of winter makes me look forward to makke ki roti and sarson ka saag with dollops of butter.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘The Rub of the Green’
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