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Here and There: My experiences with food

By Usha Banerjee

We just have celebrated Holi – the festival of colours, the advantages of living in a campus is that one gets to mingle with friends and neighbours galore – that too from different states of the country. In the IIT Roorkee campus, once we have finished the process of being drenched in buckets of coloured water and powdered colours, we all assemble in the lawns, where each of us bring the food that we prepare in kitchens at our homes and what follows is a delightful gastronomic lunch that consists of recipes of almost all states and regions of India. Gujiyas of different shapes, fillings, some slathered in syrup, some dry, form a principal dessert during the festival of Holi.

I was raised in another gastronomic city – Calcutta – where we dream food, live to eat, and even die to eat. When we moved to the northern part of the country, the first thing that caught my eye was the difference in usage of words. What was my version of gujiya – a small sandesh made out of chenna, typically forming prasad or offerings in small households during the daily puja rituals (more so because of its affordability) – had given way to the north Indian gujiya, which was a flour coated pastry stuffed with either a coconut filling or mawa, with generous helpings of dry fruits, fried in homemade ghee and then dunked into a thick sugar syrup. Two completely different sweets in texture, look, shape, size and also on the pocket. What was gujiya in Calcutta is no longer the same here in Roorkee.

My sojourn with names began way back in 2008, when we moved to Roorkee – a typical campus town housing many central government institutes and research centres. The town lies on the banks of the Ganges Canal, which flows from north-south through the middle of the city. Roorkee is home to Asia’s first engineering college, the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, formerly known as Thomson College of Civil Engineering and is the place I now call ‘home’. It is about 180 kms from Delhi and about 30 kms before Haridwar. In fact, this makes my home the favourite stopover for all our friends and relatives and friends of relatives, while on their way to the hills of Uttakhand. Almost everyone makes a beeline for the beautiful ‘Dev Boomi’ once in a lifetime – with fascinating places like Corbett, Dehradun, Mussorie, Chamba, Dhanaulti, Char Dhaam, the majestic Himalayas, Indo-Nepal border…the list is endless. Most of my friends sigh and tell me that I must be having a holiday each weekend.

The first few weeks after relocating to a place one becomes real busy trying to navigate through the maze of daily chores. Once settled, the next phase involves exploring local markets and trying out local produce. I was amazed when my vegetable-seller looked at me with disgust when I asked him if he sold jhinga (ribbed gourd). We, from Calcutta, love our jhinge posto (ribbed gourd cooked with a paste of poppy seeds and green chilies) – the perfect accompaniment to the watery dal on hot summer afternoons. It was peak summer in the June of 2008 and what more could a family from Calcutta enjoy than this favourite. To my amazement, I soon found out that jhinga is prawns in the local language. That explained the vegetable seller’s disgust. My jhinge posto needed a change in its name. What was jhinga there is now actually a crustacean here and is completely taboo in the holy city of Haridwar.

I remember my childhood days in Calcutta – the badam bhaja wala used to sit at the crossroads of almost every para selling different types of badam, chola, muri, spiced with chopped onions, chillies with a dash of lime. The simple pleasures of childhood involved buying a rupee of roasted warm badam, which the vendor served with a small newspaper packet of black rock salt. When I mentioned that I wanted to buy badam in this part of the country, what I was offered is the highly priced source of protein – almonds. Way back in Calcutta, we hardly ever even used almonds in sweetmeats – primarily because of the cost. In north India, almonds form a feature of everyday lives. In the north, you may only identify almonds when you hear badam; we Bengalis on the other hand used to classify all kinds of nuts known to humankind like kaju badam (cashew nuts), cheena badam (peanuts), kaath badam (almonds), and so on and so forth. During Diwali, the festival of lights, my house became a warehouse of dry fruits including beautifully packed trays and boxes of almonds given by friends. The poor man’s badam appeared only in winters here. Here we understand that the cold dark winters are fast approaching, when we see these peanuts carefully protected within their shell being roasted in sand on open charcoal fires- warm red fires that are so essential for the cold winter days. Peanuts also referred to as ‘time-pass’ in other parts of the country are a poor man’s substitute for almonds – they provide the body with warmth and are a rich source of protein. Thus, my badam wasn’t spared either. I now ask for moogphalli, when I need the warmth of my childhood badam.

I remember on the way back from school, I would alight from the school bus and there used to be a sweetmeat shop. A man dressed in a cotton lungi would make these crispy hot shingaras and I used to dream that once grown up I would set up my own joint making them. As days passed, I actually could visualize myself carving out those beauties and then with a scientist’s precision and timing dropping them into the huge frying pan bubbling with hot oil. Crispy on the outside, the filling in shinghara mostly consists of small pieces of boiled potatoes, peas, along with other optional ingredients like cauliflower (Fulkopir Shinghara) or mutton (Maangsher Shinghara). As an evening snack, shingaras (sometimes they came from my dad’s highly subsidized institute canteen) – whether you had sudden guests at home or wanted to celebrate success in exams –came to the rescue of rambling tummies. Unknown to many, a sweet version is also available in which the filling consists of sweetened reduced milk – another childhood favourite. I was in for a big shock when the vendor selling singharas here was sprinkling gallons of water regularly to keep his wares fresh. Those dark purple water chestnuts were called singharas here, but I knew them as paniphal way back home. This was another identity crisis and this time I decided to do a bit of study into why names were such contradictory. I chanced upon a blog that said, “It is believed that the Shinghara gets its name from the water chestnut (singhara) as the snack closely resembles its triangular contours. In fact, one of the trickiest things to do while making this snack is folding it in its signature triangular form”. I like both forms of the name – the juicy fruit and the deep-fired unhealthy snack.

Mothers and grandmothers have always advised us to stick to the quintessential diet of alu posto (potatoes cooked with a paste of poppy seeds) that is supposed to have a unique cooling effect in hot long summer days. In this part of the world, poppy seeds are meant to provide much needed warmth in cold Himalayan wintry days. I always wonder how the poppy seed could have such contradictory effects in two parts of the country. Is it because of the grandmothers’ tales or because of the way they are cooked that brings out the difference in their effects on the human body? Who cares? As long as it tastes good and reminds you of home, all is good.

I have this immense craving for desserts – a craving that transcends all geographical boundaries. Desserts in all shapes, sizes and forms lure me – the craving does not end when I gulp a few of them; it leads me to the depths of how they originated, how they are traditionally made, the modifications that happened down the years. I try to understand the business logic of how the pricing component affects the profit, discover the science behind the recipes, and finally retrieve tips and tricks to ensure that they turn out perfectly, even in the so called, ‘non-professional’ home kitchens.

Uttarakhand is famous for a dessert known as baal mithai. It is typically the counterpart of the Western fudge, made with roasted milk solids (khoya) cooked with cane sugar, coated with sweet white sugary balls (typically found as decorations on birthday cakes for little kids). Initially I was very curious to find the origins of this dessert and the reason behind this unique name because baal in Bengali meant something totally different and is a slang in colloquial Bangla language. I learnt that the baal mithai started in the Almora, Nainital, and Bageshwar regions of the hills in the early twelfth century and was named so because it was an offering for the sun god and was loved by children (balak in Hindi). Another legend tells that this dessert was offered to Krishna, who was also referred to as Baal Gopal. The two meanings of the same word were so different and completely opposite to each other. Whenever we have Bengali guests travelling to the hills and they ask me about the special dessert of Uttarakhand, I am embarrassed and amused to say that it is baal mithai. I literally have to tell them why this dessert is called so.

India is as diverse as it is similar. Most people reckon that Bengalis love their maacher jhol (fish curry), served with hot steamed seddho chaaler bhat (steamed boiled rice). Weird as it may seem, locals in Uttarakhand love their version of the jhol-bhat too. A simple lunch on a work day would consist of hot bhat (rice) served with a simple aloo tamatar ki jhol (a runny curry of potatoes cooked with spices and tomatoes) – very similar in both looks and taste to what a typical Bengali eats for lunch on a usual day. The only addition being a slice of fish that goes along with the veggies to satiate the Bengali’s taste in meat protein. A celebratory lunch in any Bengali household will be inevitably kochi pathar mangsho (tender lamb meat curry) and rice. In Uttarakhand, a celebratory meal is lamb with a slight difference. Many of the celebratory dishes here do not just use the more expensive cuts of meat but often use innards that would be otherwise thrown away. Bhunni is made from the goat’s liver, intestines, and blood.

The festival of colours, Holi, is incomplete without one being slightly intoxicated with flavours of bhang (hemp leaves ground into a paste and mixed with almonds, sugar, and milk solids). Bollywood cinema has made the best use of bhang to flavour and spice up many scenes and songs in mainstream Hindi cinema. In Uttarakhand, bhang ki chutney is an age-old recipe, served by mothers and grandmothers. The spicy tangy bhang ki chutney is served as an accompaniment to meals and is prepared by a manual process of grinding hemp leaves, coupled with mint leaves, lemon juice, salt and green chilies to heat it up. The Bengali version of gobindo bhog chaaler payesh (a milk custard made with a special flavoured crop of rice, known as gobindo bhog topped with cashews and raisins fried in ghee or clarified butter) is completely synonymous with jhangora ki kheer. Jhangora ki Kheer is a sweet dish made out of local millet, called jhangora, available only in Uttrakhand. It is hailed for its rich texture and taste that lasts on the taste buds for quite a long time. This dish is as creamy as the payesh and has the goodness of milk, cashews, and raisins.

The essence of having an old home-cooked food is the feeling of goodness – pure comfort food. Irrespective of where one is located in the world, each of us try to recreate a part of the world, where we were born, where we grew up, and where we are associated with in our present location. This, I guess, comes naturally and is almost like a reflex action. What is ‘Dev Bhoomi-Uttarakhand’ to tourists from all across the planet is home to me now. While tourists flock to these pleasant valleys for some calm, peace, and serenity, I run to board flights that land in crowded bustling noisy streets of Calcutta, the place I call home. Long working days with busy chores pass away easily, when I begin to calculate the number of days remaining for vacations that take me home – my City of Joy – Calcutta for me, Kolkata for others. Life here and life there are still the same for me.

Dr. Usha Banerjee
has a Ph. D. degree in Computer Science and Engineering. Her research areas include network security, intrusion detection, ad-hoc networks, privacy and secure computing. She is working as a Senior Scientific Officer in the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee (IIT Roorkee) and is heading the SAP implementation project there. She is an avid cook and likes to experiment with recipes and writes about her experiences with them. Actively involved with CSR projects inside the IIT Roorkee campus, she pursues cooking as a hobby.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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