Cooking like Ma

Lipika Dey

Lipika Dey is a scientist by profession, a writer by passion and a cook by inner compulsion. She works as a Principal Scientist at Tata Consultancy Services. She grew up in Durgapur, West Bengal and was educated at IIT Kharagpur. Currently she spends life across the cities of Delhi, Jodhpur and Kolkata for work and family. Nomadic, yet anchored, she enjoys every bit of life as they come.

While the fan still whirrs occasionally in the pigeonhole city apartments, winter has already spread it’s misty veil over the countryside of West Bengal. The luscious date palm trees are brimming with juice. The artisans are ready to tap it with expert incisions just under the leaves. It’s a matter of great expertise. Earthen pots are hung at dusk to collect the juice drop by drop. The liquid juice is no less than elixir. When boiled to perfection, it turns to date palm jaggery or khejur gur. The jhola gur resembling molten gold, is delicious. But my favorite is patali, the crystallized one, set in moulds. Silky smooth to touch, it crumbles when pressed softly, and then melts, unleashing the sap that is trapped in the mould. It’s like the first kiss. Soft, unforgettable and aromatic. I swirl it with my tongue. Drowned in that heavenly aroma, my entire being is flooded with nostalgia.

As all ships come home, so have I. From the Tiramisu to the Red Velvette - it has been an awesome global journey indeed. But now, as we remain docked at home uncertainly, it is a perfect opportunity to savour some forgotten treasures. Like the first Khejur gur of the season. It’s different from the dark chocolaty fare that is sold at supermarkets throughout the year, which is what I had to buy earlier. This year it’s different. I am at home to welcome the parcel couriered by my friend from Kolkata. Made from the first sap of date palm collected from the well-rested trees, it’s sublime.

But khejur gur is just a pit stop in my nostalgic journey. My destination is the patishapta. It’s a pancake filled with a stuffing made of coconut, condensed milk and khejur gur. The pancake can be made with a batter of milk and rice flour, or with milk, semolina and all purpose flour. Once upon a time, making patishapta and other puli - pithe was about celebrating the winter harvest of rice. For the millions of uprooted and land-bereft Bengalis struggling to maintain a decent existence in a newly independent nation, patishapta became more of a winter tradition, than about celebrating new yield. That is how it has come to me. Newly harvested rice was not easy to catch hold of. The batter was recreated with whatever available. The whole mattered, not the details.

Poush sankranti was a date in the calendar for which we waited eagerly. After lunch, Ma would sit in front of a portable earthen chulah, frying heaps of patishapta, neatly folded small pancakes stuffed with the delicious coconut and jaggery filling. My mother adds a little sugar and date palm jaggery to the batter. It adds an extra dimension of flavour and makes even the ends deliciously sweet. Her patishaptas are a visual delight with a quaint reddish tinge. Grandma on the other hand made dainty little snow-white patishaptas topped with a layer of sweetened khoya. They were fluffy, creamy and dreamlike.

Born in the sixties, gourmet food was a part of my growing up, without being aware of it. My school-life food experiences though were strictly restricted to eating. We were to dream big, stand on our own two feet as my mother would say and not bother about cooking. Years later, when I married and moved from a girls’ hostel to a married hostel, my first task was to set up the kitchen along with the study table. I realized “home” to me was synonymous with “good food”. That I was no more bound to eat the insipid mess food everyday was a liberating thought. Though I struggled to differentiate between the black nigella and the back sesame seeds, cooking came to me as naturally as swimming comes to a fish. And like many in my generation, my experiments in the kitchen were about mastering the art of cooking biriyani, pasta, fusion pizzas and hilsa with equal elan. Admittedly, we were a handful in number. Going out for food with family and friends was way more fashionable for working professionals like me then. Pop ups were not heard of. But I liked to cook for my guests. I didn’t follow any grammar. I created my own dishes fusing the East and the West. I infused the cheesecake with flavours of khejur gur. Till one day I felt a strong urge to return home, to the aromas of childhood.

Since then, making patishaptas at least once every winter is a self-imposed ritual. It is my way of paying homage to my ancestors. Every year, I keep aside at least one afternoon to dabble with khejur gur, grated coconut, milk and semolina, trying to perfect the art of frying patishaptas without breaking them. Every year, I call my mother for the exact proportions, and as usual she says everything has to be taken “andaj-mato” which roughly translates to “as per intuition”. After three decades of breaking many claustrophobic traditions, here is one that I love to cling to.

Unlike earlier years, when such an afternoon had to be literally snatched away from seminars and meetings, often at the fag end of winter, this year I could indulge in it the very first week of December. It was easy to track and procure the first khejur gur that was gathered at far away Raigunj through a friend who couriered it with care. It was easy to stroll into the kitchen from home - office and prepare the filling, with the laptop set up at the kitchen counter itself, popping in with an expert comment whenever I am required by the IT world. There is a chill in the wind at this corner of Rajasthan now. A perfect setting for patishaptas. A gift from the otherwise deplorable pandemic.

I try out the first one. As usual, it curls up. I spread a generous spoon of stuffing over it. Golden sap oozes out as the imperfect pancake sizzles on the fry pan. This one is always mine. I make a cup of coffee and sit down to savour it - bite by bite. Can’t imagine my ma or grandma doing it. Theirs would be the last piece, if any were left after feeding sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, grandchildren and neighbours and their relations. I have walked far away from my childhood. Though others get their fair share, I don’t really make it for anybody but myself.

Rejuvenated by the coffee, I now start frying the rest. Wrapped in the warmth of memories, as the aroma of softened gur wafts around my house, I am transported to another home, where ma is sitting in front of a chulah, her face glowing in the warm light of the embers. While the cold wind howls outside, patishaptas pile up on the plate. Some of them will be packed for my hostel buddies. She goads me on to try as many as I can before I leave the nest. My ma and grandma did not have much control over their lives. Ma never complained, she just made sure that I write my own story - which is what I do today.

But stories are not born out of void. My stories have my mother and grandmas embedded in them. Every time I make the patishaptas, it is a bit of giving back for me. I am amazed at how they made the pancakes with so much perfection, even though it was an annual fare for them too. No Internet, no cookbooks. It must have been in their blood, encoded in their genes, and thus handed down to me, stamped in my DNA. I happily share my legacy with the world. For I strongly believe heritage is best preserved through food. Traditions like these don’t have to be broken.

1 comment :

  1. Even the name "Setu" is so appropriate for this beautiful rendition...


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