Haath dhooye cho? Dhooye now! Aeto mukh aar haath niye baire jabe toh Aekanodo dhore nebe!
This Aekanodo, imaginary or not, was a formidable creature to be fought by a five-year-old and a toddler. Especially difficult if you have your belly filled with yummy goodness. And today, almost 30 years later, thinking of Aekanodo makes me hungry and laugh at the same time. I am now hungry for simpler times. A time when my favourite foods would magically appear without me ever having to cook or let alone set foot into the kitchen!
The magician behind this trick was a very indulgent and loving thakurma.
Some afternoons when hunger strikes, I daydream of the piping hot luchis and suji halwa with a dash of kishmish (raisins). My luchis were light golden while my sister’s luchis were deep brown just as she liked them to be. Twenty-five years ago, I took this impromptu afternoon treat for granted. I had to just say I am hungry and this hot plate of yumminess would appear automatically. If there was a picture, I could conjure that defined nostalgia, it would be this- a staple for my sister and me when we were given to sudden pangs of hunger on lazy afternoons. We’d stuff our mouths and then get back to playing or whatever we were doing.
On some days, it was cheede bhaja (lightly sauteed puffed rice or poha) – salted for me and a dash of sugar for the younger one. Other days it would be fryums (this involved a lot of begging). Wherever my grandma was, there was sure to be delicious food. And oh, these dishes were always accompanied by her animated stories. My childhood is filled with fragrances from her kitchen, cooking one dish after another, her oiled hair in a neat bun, her cotton sarees pleated in a hurry, the anchal (pallu) thrown over and stuffed carelessly into her petticoat.
Growing up, a second, piping hot lunch awaited us when we got home from school. Well, the first lunch was cold by the time the long recess bell rang in school, so it did not count. Her logic – hungry stomach makes bad students!
Lunch at home, a vegetarian Bengali household, was simple. Some days it was aloo poshto, daal-bhaath, aloo bhaja, papad bhaja or bhindi bhaja. On rainy days, we stuck ‘gorom-gorom ghee bhaath with aloo bhaate. In contrast to these delicacies, school tiffin paled. The humble aloo bhaja, the OG French fry, was a must-have in every menu for every occasion. It could gol aloo bhaja or kurkurie aloo bhaja but aloo was to be had! We had our set of preferences for aloo bhaja too. I wanted them to be gol while the sister preferred kurkurie bhaja. And the grand dame of the Banerjee household always obliged us. I must add that we (except my sister) ate other veggies too, cooked by the grand old lady.
Memories of khichuri with paanchta bhajas (fried cauliflower, bhindi, beigun, pumpkin and of course, aloo) accompanied by torkari, tomato chutney and payesh make my mouth water to date! Her food was legendary and always the same – delicious and comforting. You ate until you were stuffed. There was no way out.
The only time the versatile aloo disappeared from our diet was when we visited my nanibari – a Jain Gujarati household where my Nani doled out flavoursome Gujarati food and mouth-watering homemade snacks – theplas, khakhras, chivdas, sev, puris and so much more!
Funnily, both these grand old master chefs were at a loss when they stepped out to eat at a restaurant. Puri, torkari, dahi wada and lassi were thakurma’s constants. It never changed even for fine dining outings.
We were never really welcome in her kitchen until she wanted us to help her with the mixer-grinder – a gadget she didn’t trust. She would stand vigil over the machine while we were asked to turn the knobs. The gas stove was out of limits too. In all my years with her, I don’t think I ever cooked or even heated anything. If I wanted to help, I was made to pick dhaniya or methi, peel boiled potatoes—boring stuff. She owned the kitchen. It was a sacrosanct to her just like her mandir at home. So much so that she never shared her recipes with my mom. As she got older and mom got busier at work, we had hired a cook. But the cook was made to sit outside the kitchen. She wouldn’t share the kitchen. Period.
If she were around today, I don’t think she’d approve much of my cooking but would try it anyway.
She was the personification of comfort; always knowing what to make for all of us. So, if nostalgia had a specific smell, it would be her, smells that define her – Afghan snow, ponds talcum powder and tiger balm. These were my grandmother’s staples.