What sweet libation is this…Nectar fit for the Gods!
The date palm is not among the more famed offerings of the east Indian state of Bengal. Sweets like rosogolla, fine cotton and silk textiles, umpteen variety in freshwater fish delicacies and a penchant for the artistic temperament – yes! But date palms? Isn’t that part of the usual desert landscape? Or the mandatory prop of an oasis scenery ?
But come winter and the date palms that dot the Bengal countryside – unlike anywhere else in the world – offer the most delicious liquid molasses, known in Bengali, as jhola gur. The sap from the date palms is collected in earthen handis tied to the trees and then after a bit of cooking on wood fire results in a golden brown liquid very similar to maple syrup in appearance but much more fragrant.
Further cooking on the fire leads to a thickening of the syrup which is then poured into moulds made within the earthen floors of the thatched huts of gur-makers.
In fact the final product may be of two types – a lighter brown jaggery that is mellower in taste and smoother in texture
And one that is harder and slightly grainier with a more intense sweetness. Where this variety scores over the former is in its longevity as the lighter coloured version tends to spoil sooner while this harder version keeps well in the refrigerator, over an entire year even!
I wish this blog post could reach Champaka Haldar, and her family who are among the fast dwindling tribe of creators of this truly delectable variety of jaggery.
Unfortunately the range of skills involved in its processing – starting from the climbing up the palm trees and tying the handis to collecting the sap and cooking it on the firewood stove for varying lengths of time to get different textures is on its way out. With fields being cemented into urban settlements, younger generation migrating to cities in search of work, lack of government support for such cottage industries and winter setting in later or temperatures not dipping enough, I fear that the art of making patali gur may not survive for long – and with that Bengal will not only lose the flavour of nolen gur in its prized winter sweetmeats but the distinction of being the only culture with the knowledge of processing this tree nectar into the tastiest of molasses and jaggery.
On a sunny Wednesday morning, three of us set out for Tenerife, an elegant bungalow cradled within the emerald slopes of tea bushes in Coonoor. We had signed up for a tea tasting tour at a private plantation which marketed its gourmet teas under the brand, Tranquilitea. After a winding walk through tea bushes, we arrived at the bungalow which serves as a plantation farm-stay and was now to be the venue of our journey through the finest Nilgiri teas.
Currently the third-generation owner of the plantation, our host Sandip at first took us out to take a look at the tea plant which if left untrimmed can actually grow to the height of a small tree as well. The ancient method of plucking “two leaves and a bud” is apparently still the best harvesting method and the phrase took me back to the similarly titled novel by one of India’s earliest English fiction writers, Mulk Raj Anand. But before I could warm up to the issues like class exploitation and migrant labour that the novel deals with, I found everyone walking back to the bungalow and so, followed as well.
Upon our return, we took our places at a round dining table, glowing with finely polished wood. As Sandip guided us through the stages of tea processing, his soft, cadenced explanations were the perfect complement to the wispy mist building outside the bungalow. In all we tasted 6 types of classic teas – neither blended nor flavoured – ranging from the rare and highly aromatic silver tipped leaves to the widely available and robust CTC, crossing an entire spectrum of colour, fragrance, taste, body.
Our tea-tasting experience ended with an invitation to refill our cups with a brew of our choice and then share our perceptions. Looking at the six carafes with variously coloured brews, I mused, how very like Life this was. How Life too, brings us experiences infused with varied emotions, sensations and hopes. Our host’s gentle voice wafted through my reverie, responding to the guests’ suggestions of a woody after-taste, a citrusy note or mellow texture, “there are no wrong answers, ladies and gentlemen, no wrong answers…”
India for centuries has been home to some of the most exotic spices in the world. For the same reason, it has long attracted explorers and traders – indeed the country was a prominent stop on the famous Spice Route that at one time extended from the west coast of Japan to the Mediterranean.
And it is here, in the Nilgiris, that many of these coveted spices are still grown. A moist climate throughout the year together with moderate temperatures and rich soil works wonders to sprout these jewels of exquisite flavours.
Fresh peppercorns look like garlands of plump, green berries. Depending on the kind of processing, they turn either black or white – while the former is hot and pungent, the latter is milder and smoother. When soaked in brine, the white peppercorns acquire a luscious pink hue. Black pepper in traditional medicine is believed to be a digestive, diuretic and stimulant.
Cardamoms again can be of two types – the green is smaller but more fragrant while the larger brown variety has a bolder taste. Besides refreshing the breath, cardamom is believed to aid the digestion and act as a heart stimulant too. A small shopping tip – buy cardamom that is still encased in its pods so that its flavours remain intact. After using the cardamom seeds, you can put the pods in jars of sugar or rice to impart a sweet aroma.
Cloves are actually dried flower buds that have a sharp astringent taste. Apart from flavouring food, clove is used for dental hygiene and its oil applied to treat toothache. However use clove sparingly – a little of this intense spice goes a long way.
With its warm, sweet flavour, Cinnamon is a must-have for any self-respecting gourmet. And believe it or not, it is actually the inner bark of trees of the Cinnamomum genus. Apart from jazzing up cakes and curries, cinnamon is again thought to alleviate symptoms of acidic peptic diseases.
Isn’t it wonderful how our very own corner of the Western Ghats is home to such flamboyant flavours? No wonder then the masala chai brewed from all these spices turns out to be the perfect accompaniement to cold, misty Nilgiri evenings.
Famous for warming up any dish or drink with its intense colour and delicate aroma, Saffron is undoubtedly the most attractive of spices. And the fact that it is the most expensive too, only adds to its luxury quotient.
Saffron’s exorbitant value owes directly to the fact that it takes over two hundred thousand stigmas from around seventy thousand Crocus sativus flowers – grown in roughly the size of a football field – to yield just a pound of saffron ! Fortunately a little of the good stuff goes a long way – you need only a few threads of this to add the rich red colour and honeyed aroma to a family meal.
While Iran today accounts more than 90% of the world’s saffron production, good quality spice also comes from other Meditteranean regions of Greece, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Spain and Italy as well as the Kashmir valley in India.
A parting tip before you buy saffron – check for red threads with orange tips. If the threads lack the orange tips, avoid them as they may be dyed.
While saffron has been used in cosmetics, medicines, fabric dyes and even pesticides in different cultures, today it is most coveted for its power to transform the simplest of dishes into food fit for the Gods. So dust off your recipe book and see what you can make from this most gorgeous of spices.
At a time when the world is looking for ways to de-stress, the good ol’ cuppa has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity. Green tea especially is known to be rich in anti-oxidants and hence to boost the natural immunity of the human body.
But which tea is the most flavoursome? The one grown on the mist-laden slopes of Indian Himalayas, many would agree – more specifically the Darjeeling variety, known as the ‘Champagne of Teas’ for its aroma and delicate body.
And if that is so, some connoisseurs would point out that the equivalent of a Dom Perignon in the tea world would then probably be Makaibari. Shadowed by the third highest mountain peak of the world, the Kanchendzonga, Makaibari is a premier tea estate in North Bengal, India. Comprising over 250 hectares of Camelia Sinesis on slopes ranging between 700 m and 1500 meters of the majestic Himalayas, this plantation has several firsts to its credit – the most significant are being the wold’s first tea factory in 1859 as well as attaining the world’s first organic certification for a tea garden in 1988.
Away from the world of statistics, I prepared for myself a cup of Makaibari Bai Mu Dan or White Peony tea. The brew had a pale green colour – almost white – and it was subdued on the palate with a mild honeyed aftertaste. And though I failed to recognize the aroma of “soft peony and mown hay”, as mentioned on the cover, I realized that my gaze had already drifted to the straggling geranium bushes in my flower beds whose shadows in the gathering dusk appeared like slightly drunk, swaying caterpillers on the garden wall – happily, the tea was doing its work!
What is better than a cup of steaming tea on a rainy evening?
A plateful of hot fritters to go with that steaming cuppa, of course.
I am not sure if there is any complex physics as to why fritters should taste better with the rain pouring outdoors but it just does. Common sense tells me that the cold dampness brought about by the rains is naturally evaporated by the warm fumes of tea and hot fritters. But then why doesn’t other stuff like a plate of scrambled eggs just off the stove-top or roast leg of lamb fresh out of the oven warm the cockles of the heart equally?!
Let’s break apart that fritter and see what goes into it? Variously known as pakora, bhaji, tempura, arancini, calas or latkes across the world, these are fundamentally, bite-sized fried finger foods made from a batter of chickpea flour, cornflour or egg, coating cut, sliced or mashed vegetables, cheese, meats, fruits or starch and then deep fried in some form of fat.
But wait – “hushpuppies” and beignets have no filling to speak of and yet they are lapped away as fritters too!
So, like all things universally successful, the fritter too scores because of its simplicity – lending itself to a whole range of permutations not only with ingredients but methods as well – some can be shallow fried on a skillet too; ideally you just need some stuff for the filling, a batter to bind it all with and away it goes, sizzling into the hot oil…
Tucked away in a corner of the Nilgiris, one gets to appreciate the true bliss of a misty Sunday morning. With arrangements for brunch safely out of the way, I slid back into my snug bed with the Sunday papers and my second mug of coffee that morning. After lazing about for more than hour, I decided to get up. Reheating the said mug of coffee for the fourth time, I strangely felt comfortable in my warm kitchen even as I could see a grey mist just hanging out from the windows. I left the clothes in the adjoining verandah to their damp fate on the line and allowed the aroma of the coffee to swirl through my veins. My eyes fell on two golden yellow mangoes in the fruit basket and I remembered how I had blogged about the divine fruit a few days ago. A thought started taking shape through the wispy coffee vapours…
What extra-ordinary experiences are possible when technology and nature come together! Thanks to broadband connectivity, within 5 minutes I had found a recipe which listed most of the ingredients that were lying around in my pantry. To get me going, I chose to play Tagore’s Megher Pore Megh jomecche in Suchitra Mitra’s powerful voice…
“Clouds gather on the horizon,
darkness descends on my sky.
I stand at the doorstep, My Beloved
You make me wait – Oh why ?”
Perhaps the comforting aroma of baking somehow clashed with the melancholy lyrics but by the time I was tidying up the counters, my senses were awake in a curious way – alive and saturated, as though, in all that was beautiful and evocative…
Oh – in case you were wondering about the recipe:
Pre-heat the oven at 200 degree C and line an 8 inch round tin. Cream together 2/3 cup of unflavoured butter and 1 cup of white sugar till light and fluffy. Beat well 2 eggs into this mixture. Sieve together 1 ½ cups plain flour with 1 tsp baking soda into the mixture and give everything a gentle swirl. Now fold in ½ cup buttermilk (can be substituted with sour milk – for that add a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar in half a cup of milk and rest it for 10 minutes) very gently. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for around 40 minutes. When it has cooled, glaze the cake with warm mango jelly and finish with a mango rosette on top!