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Archive for May, 2011

Ahh behold the glorious Alphonso mango!  I’ve been at my parents’ place during this bank holiday weekend and when Ma announced that we had some Alphonso mangoes at home, both my sister’s and my eyes lit up.  I will also admit to some wooping.  Every year we excitedly anticipate the moment when the Alphonso mango season arrives.  Just like the British summer, it is short ( six weeks from mid-April to end May) so when the mangoes are here plenty of fanfare ensues.  Most people in the West are unfortunately only exposed to the yellow and quite tart mangoes that are neatly sliced up and presented in the little plastic clinical pots for lunchtime by the likes of Pret a Manger, M&S etc.

        

Alphonsos are on another level.  They are the kings of mangoes.  When you smell them, even with the skin on, they immediately transport you somewhere exotic.   They are vibrantly orange and when ripe have a soft, fleshy and juicy texture.  And then there is the taste.  So sweet, tropical and just a hint of tartness right at the end.  Every different way to eat an Alphonso mango, whether just on their own, in a salad, or as a milkshake is a delight, but you cannot forget the seed.  There is something deeply satisfying and basic to suck out the flesh and juice from the hairy seed.  This is a compulsory ritual for me but it is not a Japanese tea ceremony.  It is messy work.  I clutch onto the slippery seed with both hands as I attack it.  The juices run down my chin and my forearms as I make sure I get every last bit of the mango goodness.  Bring on next year’s season.

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Dima had the softest skin.  I used to love kissing her cushiony and marshmallow cheeks.  I don’t have many memories of her since she passed away when I was only nine.   But there are three or four really vivid images that I flick through like the slides in the vintage Viewmaster I played with when I was a little.  Her skin is one of them.  Another one is of her sitting with her paan paraphernalia on her lap and cutting up supori (betel nuts) with her special betel nut cutter like in the picture above.  I used to watch in rapt attention as she used this surgical-like instrument to chop up tiny squares of the nut with focus and precision.  I also remember watching her do puja in the thakur ghar after her daily bath and take note of the offerings she made to Krishna, Ganesh and Lakshminarayan.  I must have followed her around a lot.  But she was more than a Bengali widow who kept the household keys tied to a corner of her white cotton sari thrown over her shoulder.  The sound of the  jangling keys is akin to the modern personalised mobile ringtones.  You knew when it was she who was approaching.

Preetilata Chaudhuri was 17 when she married Dadu in an arranged marriage.  As well as becoming a wife at this young age, she had to adjust to living with his large family and being the eldest sister-in-law, a position in the household which brought with it lots of responsibilities, expectations and obligations.  Quite a daunting prospect as such a life  when viewed through today’s lens seems as not your own.  Part of her married life was quite solitary because Dadu used to be at the tea gardens for long stretches of time during which Dima eagerly waited for his letters.   It would be wonderful if some of them still existed.

Beyond the confines of the roles of wife, mother, daughter-in-law etc, Dima had artistic flair and a keen aesthetic eye.  She had no training so everything that she did just poured out of her naturally and through instinct.  During any auspicious event like pujas and weddings, Dima used to create ornately designed alpanaas ( the form of Rangoli practiced in Bengal but unlike Rangoli, Alpanaa is always done in white) on the floor of various rooms of the house with the help of a small piece of cloth drenched in a blend of water and grounded rice paste.  She used to start in one corner of the room and then painstakingly cover the whole floor.  All by freehand.  Her creative flair could be found in other mediums too.  My stomach is eternally grateful for Ma learning and absorbing Dima’s mastery and love of cooking.  She  made all of Ma’s clothes when she was a little girl and some of my sister’s and mine too.  When I was a baby, she embroidered my bed linen and knitted blankets to keep me snug.  If she was alive today, I would have encouraged her to make and sell her beautiful children’s clothes and linen on Etsy!

Ma definitely got her love of books and ideas from Dadu but Dima’s imprint is there on her talent for cooking and love of the arts, especially music.  It’s been doubly-rewarding to learn more about Dadu and Dima because as well as having the pleasure of getting to know who they were, I now understand Ma a little better too.

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The words ‘Bengali’ and ‘entrepreneur’ are unusual bedfellows.  They don’t mesh well.  Bengalis are better known for being intellectual snobs righting the wrongs of the world from their armchairs.  My father and uncle are such specimen.  They like nothing more to debate until the small hours of the morning, get lost in a piece of Indian classical music, and watch the cricket.
Dadu and DimaAnyhow, I digress wildly.  This entry is about my maternal grandfather,  Dwipendra Chandra Chaudhuri aka dadu (the next post will be on my grandmother).   I know he was a tea garden owner and manager in Assam but that’s about it.  I knew very little about his journey to this point and so finding out more through asking Maa questions that I never got round to asking before has been so worthwhile.

I never knew that after completing his MSc in Chemistry from Presidency College, Kolkata, he refused to go to England to take his Indian Civil Service exams..  He did not want to work for the British government.  More than that, he didn’t want to take orders from someone else.  While my great-grandfather was bittely disappointed, he admired dadu’s determination and spirit and so when dadu set out to do his own thing, he earned his father’s respect.

Like many entrepreneurs, Dadu’s path to success had very humble beginnings.  He started by selling vegetables from a market stall.  Amazing!  From there, he won some wartime building contracts and eventually opened a transport service between Sylhet and Shilong.  However, here the story takes a sad turn.  After the 1947 Sylhet referendum which led to Sylhet going to East Pakistan, dadu lost it all, every last thing.   At this juncture, many would have given up but dadu had true grit.  He started again.  All over again.  This time, after shifting his family to Shilong, he took out a bank loan to buy tea gardens.  And so a new chapter in his life started.  I never met dadu as he died before I was born but I am so proud to be his granddaughter.  His spirit, the strength of his own convictions, and his entrepreneurial spririt are immensely inspirational.   I’m not sure if I have this said spirit and this is partly due to not seeing it around me.   However, I do know that an entrepreneurial spirit can take many shapes.   The important thing is to have a go at creating something that is your own and that you can be proud of.  Dadu taught me that.

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Shukto is probably one of the less glamourous dishes in Bengali cuisine but I’ve always loved it.  It has such a distinctive flavour and I like how the spices used in the dish create a very gentle and subtle taste.  Now, there are a lot of purists out there who will tell you what vegetables should and should be in a Shukto (has to include bitter gourd) and when to eat it (lunch time only apparently).  There are some great recipes out there if interested about what a ‘typical shukto’ should be but this blog is about how my family rocks it.  Firstly, and most shockingly for the said purists, my mother doesn’t add kerela (bitter gourd) to her shukto because for her this dish is all about the spice combo.   The bitter gourd would overpower it all.  It’s also important how the shukto looks so she doesn’t cook the vegetables to death, she chops them in similar shapes and sizes and adds carrots to give it some colour.  The colour balance is also the reason why she doesn’t include plantain as when cooked, it becomes black.

Vegetables (chopped in similar shape and size)

Aubergine

Potatoes

White radish

Carrots

Flat beans

Cauliflower

Dried lentil dumplings (boris)

Spices

Tempering:

1 tsp celery seeds (radhuni)

1 bay leaf

1 green chilli

1 tsp mustard seeds

2.5 tsp ground aniseed

2 tsp mustard (my mother uses Colman’s mustard)

1 inch ginger, grated

2-3 tbsp milk or single cream

Instructions

  1. Parboil the potatoes, radish, and carrots.  At the same time shallow fry the aubergine to give it colour and flavour.
  2. After the aubergine is done, set aside in a dish and then in the same pan, quickly fry the dried lentil dumplings.  They’ll only need about 30 seconds to 1 minute.  Any longer, they’ll taste bitter.  Set aside.
  3. Once the potatoes, radish, and carrots are parboiled, blanche the cauliflower and flat beans for 5 mins.
  4. You can start the tempering now too.  In hot oil, first add the bayleaf, followed by the green chilli.  Next add the celery seeds and mustard seeds.  Stir around for 30 seconds while the seeds splutter
  5. Add the potatoes and radish to the tempering.  Sautee for 2-3 minutes until they get some colour
  6. When the cauliflower and beans are nicely al dente, add to the mixture.  After 2-3 minutes of frying, add the ground aniseed
  7. Add a medium size splash of boiled water to the pan and then add salt
  8. Next, add the aubergine and cover with lid.  Let it simmer for approximately 5-10 minutes or until the vegetables are ready.  Ideally they should still have a crunch!
  9. Mix together the mustard, grated ginger and milk.  Add to the vegetables and give it a good stir.  Shukto is unique because usually mustard and ginger are not mixed together in other Bengali dishes.
  10. Lastly, throw in the dumplings and as a final flourish, drizzle some ghee over the dish.

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