mohabhoj


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#Duckface

Sometime in the early 90’s: Pleated navy blue skirt hitting an inch below the knees. White shirt with a slight tinge of blue from the overuse of Ujala fabric whitener. White ribbon on wedge-cut hair. A pair of white socks, its elastic garter slowly losing hold. Kiwi-polished Bata, black, ballerina shoes. Duckback school bag and Milton water bottle.

The best part of packing the school bag was undoubtedly putting the stainless steel tiffin box in its designated slot. The tiffin box representing a break from the otherwise interminable school hours.

One of the most frequent item in my tiffin box would be a duck-shaped sweetmeat. A white duck with black cardamom eyes and orange coloring to highlight its conical beak. The design was not intricate except for the feather-like lines etched on it, showcasing the confectioner’s dexterity. It had an overdose of sugar, but I liked it that way. I used to call it haansh mishti. Haansh is Bengali for duck and mishti for sweet. My father would buy this sweet for me from the local sweet shop, which was on our way to the bus-stop from where I boarded the school bus.

During lunch break I often bartered a part of this confection duck for other treats that my friends had brought along for the day.

Calcutta University

Sometime in April this year: I was at the main campus of Calcutta University, in College Street, to collect my transcripts. College Street is the intellectual hub of Kolkata; it houses Calcutta University and Presidency University. It is known as boi para (book lane) as the street is lined with book stores, one after another, on both sides. There are also a number of legendary local eateries, which have been around for decades like the Coffee House, Paramount and Putiram.

Putiram

Putiram

My sister and I had planned on visiting the famous Putiram Sweets. And once our work was done we headed toward the store. This confectionery shop has been in the area for over 150 years now and is an institution by itself.

There were rows of sweets, of myriad colors and shapes, displayed in the glass showcase. And to my surprise I found my favorite duck-shaped confection displayed on a silver plate. I was elated and promptly ordered a few pieces to take home. I quickly began to take pictures. A customer noticed this. “Haansh er ki shoubhagyo (The duck is really lucky)!” he said sarcastically.

After taking a bite I realized that many things have changed over the years. The duck was missing the cardamom eyes; it had red eyes painted on them. Instead of the whole beak painted orange, it was just a stroke of orange on top of the beak, the rest being white. On top of that the way it tasted didn’t bear any resemblance to the ones that I used to get at my local shop years ago. And not to mention the price had gone up by 500%!

Confection duck

Nevertheless it brought back some sweet memories.

 

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In memory of my grandparents’ house

The afternoon rooftop sojourns in my grandparents’ palatial house remain to be one of my fondest memories. The feel of the uneven cemented floor against my bare feet evoked the sensation of freedom from the mundane routine life in the city.

When my ma and grandma would retire for an afternoon nap, preceded by a scrumptious lunch, I would tiptoe to the second floor — the space that I reigned for the rest of the afternoon. I would climb the cold rust-colored flight of cement stairs to cross the narrow hallway leading to the bedroom.

A king-size bed on one corner of the room housed pillows enough to rest half a dozen heads. The batik printed bedcover had a dusty smell to it — evidence that the maid had ignored my grandmother’s orders to spread out a new one.

Four large windows flooded the room with sunlight, forming a blind-like pattern of light and shade on the bed. I would rest my head on the warm pillows and fight hard not to fall asleep. The droning ceiling fan, sounding like a distant lullaby, would add to the lull. I would gaze at the neighbor’s sprawling unkempt garden where a troop of monkeys in the mango tree would entertain me briefly.

When thirsty, I would reach out for the black earthen pitcher on the bedside table. A steel glass sat upside down on the mouth of the pitcher. The gulps of ice-cold water down my throat would finally break the spell of indolence.

My attention would then be diverted to the concrete shelf, lining the wall on one side of the room. Rusty aluminum trunks and wicker boxes of varying sizes lined the shelf. They housed my mother’s childhood memories — her dolls, books and dresses. Dolls that I often played with; books that I would eventually read and dresses that were redundant. I would ferret through ma’s belongings to get a feel of what she used to be like as a child.

But it was not the room, but the roof adjacent to it that enticed me the most. The brown door, which led to the roof, would thrust me to build a sea of memories that would last me a lifetime.

I would spread a mat on the floor and lie down studying the sky above. I would engage in a staring contest with the sun. I had clouds for allies. They would float by and obstruct the potent sun now and then, bringing relief to my eyes.

Tired, defeated and hungry from the contest, I would run to the room to get the orange resting at the bedside table. I enjoyed the occasional squirts of juice that irritated my eye while peeling the fruit. Slowly chewing on the orange slices I would extend my feet off the mat to touch the scorching floor. The floor which had been basking in the afternoon sun. I would begin counting to see how long I could bear the burn. I had to almost always stop at 20.

Bored, I would move on to a new game — I would be a schoolteacher just like my grandmother. Ma’s dolls from the wicker boxes played the role of my unruly students.

Next, I would don the role of a runner, like my mother used to be during her high-school years. The roof transformed into my running track. I would run from one end to the other, as fast as I could.

It has been 14 years since I last visited what was once my grandparents’ home. Last week when ma called to inform me that the new owners have razed it to the ground, the feel of my apartment’s cold wooden floor against my bare feet seemed unbearable.

 

My grandmother, like yours, was a treasure trove of recipes. Her simple alu borir jhal — potatoes and lentil dumplings coated with a spicy mustard paste  — is something that holds a special place in my heart. For the past few days, I have been reminiscing about the good times I had at my grandparents’ place and cooking one of her recipes just seemed the right thing to do.

alu-borir jhal

Heat mustard oil in a pot and add some kalonji seeds and a few green chillies slit into halves. Once you hear them crackle, add cubed potatoes and saute them for a while. Now add the lentil dumplings along with some water and salt and let it cook till they are soft. For the final touch add a teaspoon of mustard paste and a generous drizzle of mustard oil. Enjoy!


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Candied memories

With Easter just around the corner grocery stores in my neighborhood have transformed into miniature Willy Wonka chocolate (read candy) factories overnight. Temptation lurks around every corner of the candy aisle with strategically stacked myriad brands of candies vying for attention.

I see children of varying sizes eyeing candies, working their minds to make the most important decision of their lives—which candy to take home? Then again there are those lucky ones who ride in the shopping carts while their parents load up their carts with candies. Oblivious of what’s happening they seem to enjoy their novel ride, a welcome change from their daily commute in a stroller.

As I witness their excitement over candy I cannot help but write about the candies I enjoyed as a child. Mango Bite or Mango Mood comes first to mind. This ripe mango colored candy wrapped in a yellowish orange wrapper held together by a green knot and infused with mango flavor had a tantalizing effect on my palate. The lure of the pleasure of savoring a mango attracted me to it.

The image of Coffy Bite pops up next. The USP of this dark brown strong coffee flavored candy was the dilemma your taste buds were left to battle against once you took a bite—coffee or toffee? Melody was another candy I enjoyed not because it was ‘choclatey’ but because it was voluminous compared to its peers. Tucked within the brown and golden wrapper it gave out the vibe of contentment.

Swad, Chatarmatar, Fatafat and Hajmola formed the sweet and tangy genre of candy. While I could savour Swad and Hajmola on demand there was always a parental control on the other two. Chatarmatar (small red bead like ones) and Fatafat (black ones) came in sachets, each housing around ten to fifteen candies. They were notorious for staining your tongue and even your fingers, red or black depending on the one you devoured. My parents warned it was a sign that it was bad for the liver too.

Remember Poppins, the variegated disc shaped candies, stacked together in a tube like wrapper? Each of the red, green, yellow and orange candies had a distinct flavor but conveyed the same element of fun. If you let your imagination run wild and wonder how a rainbow would taste like I would say like Poppins! Lollipops too belong to the genre of fun candies. Its myriad colors and flavors enticed me but the chocolate Cadbury lollipops with the gooey center had a special place in my heart. I always think of Lollipops as first cousins to ice creams on a stick.

How can I ever forget those Parle Orange candies that my classmates got to sample each year on my birthday? Decked in a ‘colored dress’ and armed with candies I felt a strange superiority over my mates in school uniform. Those simple treats worked its magic drawing both attention and friends.

Another memory associated with my school years are those cigarette shaped peppermint candies that some of my friends enjoyed on their bus rides back home from school. They were packed like cigarettes are and had a little red coloring at one end emulating a lighted cigarette.

Eclairs was one of those lofty chocolate candies that I looked forward to enjoy more so because my sister had an aversion to it. She had a loose tooth once and she happened to pop in one of these super sticky candies in her mouth and voila! Eclairs acted as a surrogate dentist pulling her tooth out!

This article would remain incomplete without the mention of Five Star, Dairy Milk and Fruit n Nuts. They were awe inspiring not only because of their regal taste but also because I could treat myself to these delicacies only once in a while, as the price tags that came along were regal too.

Time has taken its toll on some of the candies I wrote about while the rest, the invincible ones, continue to pleasure. As I look back I can’t help but envy those times when a minuscule candy had the power to strike a gigantic smile on my face.