Vol. 5 Num 390 Sat. July 02, 2005  

Short Story
A Barisal Winter

The pleasantest surprise I had with eggs was in Bangladesh, during my first experience of the great Muslim festival of Shab-e-Barat, night of destiny. On this night, all devout Muslims are supposed to visit the cemeteries where their family members are buried, to light incense sticks and say special prayers. These observances are important because on this night the fate of every believer is determined in heaven for the coming year. For an outsider like myself the most memorable aspect of Shab-e-Barat was the quaint custom of eating bread ( mostly made with rice flour) with different kinds of halua on the following day. Most households will make huge quantities of bread (flat discs like chapattis) and distribute them to beggars who come in droves. This obligatory sharing of food of festive days with those who possess nothing is one of the most beautiful aspects of Islam. It was only on that occasion that I realized what infinite variety and skill goes into the making of halua. It could be made out of flour, arrowroot, ground yellow split peas, eggs, carrots, gourds and even meat. Some of the bewildering array was on display in the houses I visited on that day, and the taste of them, eaten in succession, was like an ascending scale of notes. But to my mind the tastiest and one of the easiest haluas was that made with eggs.

My sister-in-law would sometimes make a variant of this which was firmer in consistency and could be shaped into diamonds or squares. It tasted divine on a wintry morning with porota. It is also an ideal tit-bit to serve the occasional guest, for it keeps better than the halua.

Such memories of rich food in winter also take me back to the Bangladeshi village during this season. Going to Dapdapia, my husband's village in Barisal, was a whole different pleasure during the astringent crispness of the Bengali winter. None of the magical lushness of the monsoon was in evidence. No river in full spate, nor ponds brimful of water and water weeds. The kutcha roads were dusty beneath our feet as we walked from the landing place to the family home. This of course was not a traditional thatched cottage but a concrete structure built by one of my brothers-in-law for occasional visits to the village. The ancestral home stood close by, though it was in very poor condition. Next to it was an overgrown plot of land where my father-in-law lay buried. But no ghostly presence marred my pleasure in that wintry landscape where the large trees had lost some of their leaves, the earth looked dry and brown, and yet burgeoned with various kinds of crops, and the khejur trees stood in rows with earthen pots tied to their trunks to catch the ras or sap as it trickled from the tapping cuts.

The morning after our arrival in Dapdapia I woke up to find the shutters raised from without and several pairs of curious eyes looking at us. When I came out, the group of giggling girls scattered in haste but not before one of them had invited me to our cousins' house for breakfast. It was a short walk across the garden, but that was the first time my bare feet sank into soft grass wet with the tender dew of a winter morning. As often happens, it had been misty earlier, and I saw the moisture gleaming in glassy beads on the shrubs and branches. That breakfast was the first time I tasted the gur, undiluted sap of the date-palm, naturally chilled in its earthen pot from exposure to the night air. It is the most natural and uncloying sweetness that I have ever encountered.

As a child I had heard my father talk about drinking this khejur ras straight from the tree. In fact village boys often incur the wrath of farmers who have tied their pots to the trees by climbing and drinking the ras, quietly replacing the pot and disappearing. Though the date palm tree looks the same round the year--a shorter, less attractive cousin of the tall coconut--the best sap is generated only during the winter. The first tapping takes place in late autumn and successive tappings go on throughout the short winter. Some parts of Bengal provide better habitats for the date-palm and the coconut tree than others. The districts of Barisal, Faridpur, and Khulna are particularly well-known and a popular adage in Bangladesh says that the district of Faridpur is noted for its thieves, swindlers and khejur gur! But though the trunk provides such a delightful sweetener, the actual dates from the date-palm tree are nowhere near as tasty as those from desert climates.

The date palm sap is made into tree types of gur: liquid, grainy and the solid chunks of patali. The sap is heated in huge karais over wood or coal stoves and it is only an expert who can gauge the different degrees of cooking to achieve the right textures. The arrival of gur in the market is the signal for the professional sweet-makers to start preparing one of their most popular products, sandesh flavoured with the new gur. This nalen gurer sandesh has a brownish-pink tinge and is very dear to the plump Bengali's heart. at the beginning of the season. Gur is sold in its liquid form, jhola gur. This comes in earthen ports and disappears fast enough. In our home it would be used like maple syrup in America, poured over hot luchis or chapattis and as a sweetener in the milk. It ferments easily and so has to be eaten quickly. In rural areas the fermented gur is made into a kind of cheap liquour which tribals and poor villagers drink. It was this same jhola gur which inspired committed following from exceptional Bengalis like Sukumar Ray, our version of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. In one of his delightful poems he spun out an absurdly contradictory list of the good things of life, and the very best of the best was bread with jhola gur. The solid patali gur can be stored and used for quite a few months after winter is over, and refrigeration gives it even longer life. The most notable application for its use is in payesh, in place of sugar. The pure nutty sweetness of the gur makes this winter payesh a Bengali gourmet's dream.

The house in the village where I had breakfast belonged to distant relatives, my in-laws, but the shyness between town and country limited our conversation mostly to smiles and nods. As I sat looking at all the activity in the large kitchen a young girl came in with a bunch of greens and sat down in front of a boti to chop them. The leaves and stems lost all character and fell in a pile of minute green fragments on the plate placed to catch them. Some of the others noticed my amazement and explained that skill at cutting this koloi shak was one of the factors that went in a girl's favour when the prospective bridegroom's family was appraising her. The greens were fried with chopped garlic and just before serving, some dry red chilies were roasted and crumbled over them. I have never forgotten the taste nor the magic speed of the hands that went into the cutting.

Along with koloi shak there were many items cooked for our lunch that day. But for me the most wonderful experience was seeing the huge rui that was caught from the pond to be made into a jhol. It was a beautiful specimen, weighting at least 5 kg, its pinkish scales gleaming in the sun as it lay gasping on the beaten earth of the courtyard. The taste of a fresh and mature fish caught immediately before being cooked was ambrosial.

Evening in the village was mystery and heightened awareness. We walked out to some fields in the late afternoon to admire the vegetables and dals growing there against the infinite distance of a horizon unencumbered by buildings. The green and maroon of low-lying leafy greens were harmoniously countered by the white of cauliflowers and the higher plants of the dals, the tomatoes and the aubergines. Soon the darkness came hurtling down on batwings and we hurried back to the house to pick up our shawls, for it was much colder in the village than in the city. Then, with one of my husband's cousins to guide us, we set out along the beaten mudtracks and raised embankments dividing the fields, to eat dinner with a friend of the family at the other end of the village. The darkness was impenetrable, our only visual aid being the lantern carried by our guide. And above was a most unfamiliar sky, cold, moonless and starry.

From A Matter of Taste: The Penguin Book of Indian Writing on Food, reviewed on this page. Chitrita Banerji's book is titled Life and Food in Bengal, Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Friends.

Artwork by Amina