Some of my fondest memories of my grandmother have to do with food. Ma (which is what I called her) wasn’t a foodie in the strictest sense of the word. Eating, she believed, was almost akin to meditation — gluttony stood in the way of the senses imbibing the flavours and smells.
This contemplative manner was the hallmark of Ma’s running the kitchen at our home, almost till the day she passed away. I would often wake up to the sound produced by the clashing of two stones. That was Ma using the nora, a black oblong pestle, to grind mustard seeds on the sil, a pentagonal slab of stone. This, I realise now, would have taken some doing for my frail grandmother.
She would squat in front of the sil, then bend forward with the nora, attacking the mustard seeds, chillies or the ginger with the gusto of a soldier till they relented to release their flavours. At times, I thought that the sil and the nora were my grandmother’s best friends, so much so that the relative tranquility of our middle-class existence seemed threatened when my parents purchased a mixer-grinder. Ma used it but was immediately put off by its performance. The spices had been almost ground to dust, the mustard seeds had lost their sharpness, and the paste was nowhere close to the desired sunshine hue. Suitably chastened, my parents packed away the mixer-grinder for those rare days on which Ma took a break from the kitchen.
One apparatus did vie with the sil and nora for my grandmother’s affections in the kitchen: the bonti. A curved iron blade arising out of a flat wooden stand, which Ma would hold in place with her feet, the bonti was sharp enough to cut fish and safe enough to dice vegetables. My grandmother would rarely use the blade to cut fish, though. Among all her kitchen tasks, I thought she enjoyed peeling vegetables the most — cubing pumpkins, slicing gourds, dicing potatoes, chopping tomatoes and cutting aubergines into shapes that gave the platter the look of an artwork. Each vegetable had to be given a shape that would enable them to imbibe the qualities of the panchphoron, Ma would say.
The panchphoron, the five-spice mixture, is the foundation of Bengali cuisine. It is made up of equal portions of mustard, fennel, fenugreek, cumin and nigella seeds. A pinch of this thrown into hot mustard oil produces an aroma that is at once sharp and delicate.
My grandmother had not given up on non-vegetarian food — unlike most Bengali widows. But it was vegetables she seemed to relish most. Though I would have liked to have non-vegetarian food every day, I should admit that I did not always dislike vegetables. As I grew in years, I developed a love for chorchori, the medley of pumpkins, aubergines, potatoes and a few other assorted vegetables, that was a regular feature of our meals. Suffused with the smells of spices ground on the sil nora, the panchphoron’ s pungency, and the sharpness of mustard, it reminded me of my grandmother long after she left us.
Two years ago, I moved to Mumbai for what turned out to be a very short relocation. While sorting out items in my house, I chanced upon a notebook with recipes written in my mother’s neat handwriting. My mother loved collecting recipes — from TV cookery shows, friends, publications. The notebook, though, also had dishes that were quotidian. Amongst them was a chorchori recipe with a note that the sil nora is always preferable to a grinder. Perhaps that was my mother’s way of honouring her mother-in-law.
Half a cup each of peeled and chopped potatoes, kumro or pumpkin (with skin and pith), chopped brinjal, chopped broad beans, and stringed and chopped drumsticks (optional)
* Chop all vegetables in roughly same size. Drumsticks should be two-and-half inches long.
* In a karahi, add two tbsp mustard oil and heat it till smoking point.
* Break in a green chilli and throw in half a tsp of panchphoron.
* Throw in all the chopped vegetables. Saute a little.
* Add two spoons of mustard paste (made on sil nora with mustard seeds and one green chilly). Mix everything well.
* Add some salt, a very small pinch of sugar and a quarter teaspoon of turmeric. Again mix well.
* Reduce heat and cover and cook till the vegetables are tender.
* Open lid and ensure all water is dried. Add a spoon of some mustard oil in the end.
* If you don’t have a sil-nora, make a powder of dry mustard seeds in the grinder. In a bowl add warm water, salt, turmeric and mustard powder. Keep aside for five minutes and then cook with it.