The desi lingering sweetness of Gur

While appreciating everything and  everybody in his poem Bhalo Re Bhalo (loosely translated ‘All is Good’), Sukumar Ray, one of the greatest poets and humour writers of our time concludes: “Kintu shobar chaite bhalo, pauruti aar jhola gur” (But the best bet/ Is runny jaggery and bread).

Jhola Gur
Image courtesy Pinterest

The pleasure of dipping bread or roti in jhola gur (runny jaggery or jaggery syrup) and enjoying the sweet, sticky flavour on a winter morning. And once the bread gets over, dipping the finger in jhola gur and licking it, relishing it to the last dribble. As a child jhola gur was one of my most sought-after desserts or sweet sauce. As the days would get colder, we would wait for dad to get a tin (container) of jhola gur from one of the near by farms. We would sit on the dining table expectantly with a bowl waiting for mom to serve a spoonful of jhola gur. It would be followed by hours of licking the bowl clean, with eyes often shut and a satisfied chuckle. The happiness and satisfaction that simple jhola gur brought into our little lives!

Khejur gur or nolen gur

Then there is round kejhur gur or nolen gur and chunks of aakher gur. We would wait for Masi to visit from Kolkata with patali gur, very popular in West Bengal. In Agartala, dominated by East Bengalis, jhola gur and khejur gur were more popular. While jhola gur and khejur gur are from made date palm (khejur) sap, tal patali is made from palm (tal) sap and aakher gur comes from sugarcane (aakh) juice. As kids we would love to suck little cubes of tal patali and khejur gur. The heavenly taste and the heady flavour of this crude desi sweetener can’t be matched by candies that kids crave for nowadays.

Nolen gurer patishapta
Image courtesy YouTube

Khejur gur or nolen gurer payesh (kheer made with nalen gur), nolen gurer pathishapta, nariyel naru made of gur are the sweet delicacies mom makes every winter. I still wait in the kitchen to taste the sweet, warm patishapta as my mom takes it off the tawa. Unfortunately, not many people make patishapta at home anymore and those available in sweet shops just don’t taste the same. But I do love nolen gurer sandesh and roshogolla and other sweets made of nolen gur that sweet shops across Bengal are flooded with. In Delhi you can visit the Bengali sweet shops in CR Park for nolen gur delicacies.

Nolen gurer sandesh
Image courtersy A Homemaker’s Diary

When I visited my Uncle in Chandigarh as a child, my aunt gave me small piece of gur after lunch. Gur helps with digestion so Punjabis have gur after meal, I was told. Later I sampled delicious gur ke parantha. Not just in Bengal and Punjab, gur is popular across India. Maharashtra is the largest producer and consumer of gur, I recently read in Wiki. In Maharashtra, during Makar Sankranti, a dessert called tilgul (sesame seed candy) is prepared with gur. In Gujarat, gur is known as gôḷ and is used during Makar Sankranti for similar preparation called tal na ladu or tal sankli. In rural Maharashtra and Karnataka, water and a piece of gur are given to a person coming home after working under hot sun. Gujratis also make laddus with wheat flour and gur and famous Marathi Puran Poli uses gur. Of course, we are all familiar with gur ki patti, gur ke gajak, moya made with gur and other desi healthy and tasty sweet snacks.

And gur is not just tasty, it has many health benefits. It prevents constipation, boosts immunity, detoxes liver, purifies blood, helps in digestion to list a few. However, like most desi delicacies, gur is not glamourous enough to appeal to the younger lot. A kid today will probably not even look at gur, let alone relish it. We Indians somehow pick western dessert and dishes over traditional Indian cuisine. Perhaps, gur is waiting to be discovered by a western chef to make it a happening sweetener.

Chaklis by Keerti Ramachandran

When I suggested that we order some dhoklas for evening snack my Gujju friend looked startled. “Dhoklas from a shop. I eat only the ones my mom makes,” he exclaimed. I would have probably reacted in the same manner if I was asked to buy Patishapta or Malpua from a shop. They are readily available in sweet shops across CR Park but can’t match the taste of Ma’s home-made Patishapta or Malpua. Though I yearn for these traditional Bengali sweets and request Ma to make them whenever she comes down, I never bothered with the recipes. Along with the time, are we going to lose these traditional recipes?

Enjoy reading how Keerti Ramachandran revives the Chakli recipe of her mother-in-law and try making some traditional food this festive season.

It was at dinner a few days ago that my daughter-in-law said, “Mummy, you must start a Keerti’s kitchen” now otherwise all these traditionally home-made dishes will be lost to the next generation. See how popular ….. has become!”

Taking a cue from that I decided I would revive some of my mother-in-law’s recipes for the benefit of my grandchildren at first then if viable, for other people’s too.

The festive season is round the corner so a good starting point would be to make chaklis at home. Of course chaklis are available everywhere, but we always felt they lacked something – they had no particular character, whereas Amma’s were still alive on our tongues.

So, one day when the sun came out after a particularly long and unseasonal cloudy wet spell, I hunted out my old recipe book, checked the recipe and did as instructed. Wash and put out to dry in the shade, 4 measures (any measure will do) of raw rice, gently roast 1 measure of urad dal (without the skins) till golden brown and fragrant, and keep aside till the rice is completely dry. Get the rice and dal ground into a fine flour, without any contamination of jowar, ragi, besan or wheat flour.

My local chakkiwala was obliging. He agreed to grind plain rice  and then my chakli flour, for a small fee of course! Mmmm…. Smelt good!

When no one was at home, I quickly measured out 1 cup of the flour, added salt to taste, 1 teaspoon of red chilli powder, ½ tsp hing, and 3heaped tablespoons of white til. One tight fistful of white unsalted butter (mine was homemade, yes!) was gently mixed into the flour and all of it then brought together with a little after at a time, soft enough to be easily pressed through the chakli press with the star shaped disc.  (Of course the chakli maker had not been used for years and had to be thoroughly scrubbed with tamarind and pitambari powder since it was made of brass). Ultimately it was the wooden one that worked!

 Oil in kadai, gas on medium high and the dough was ready to press out. Needless to say the hands were out of touch, they were too high above the foil sheet, so the chaklis came out in bits and pieces. Okay, the dough was too stiff. A dash of water to soften it and it pressed out easily, with the right amount of prickles. But oval chaklis? Try lowering the press I said to myself, took a deep breath, slowly moved hands clockwise and there it was! A perfect circle, with a slight gap between the rows. (Amma used to say don’t make the circles too tight!)  After pressing out about 10, the oil had become nice and hot, I remembered to put in only 6 chaklis at a time and then lower the flame. The one thing cooking teaches, or ought to teach you is patience… don’t keep disturbing the frying chaklis, wait until they are nicely golden, and start giving out the butter… you can tell when the oil stops bubbling.  Then take the chaklis out gently – use a piece of wire cut from an old aluminium hanger and pass it through the centre of the chaklis so you get them all in a row. Drain and set aside till cold.

Wah! An hour later they were all done and ready to serve.

“Hmm, too buttery” “no crunch”  “not enough salt,” “good, but …” “ummm something’s missing…”  “arrey just go and buy them when you feel like eating na! not worth the effort!”

“Go, get your chaklis from Malleswaram or wherever!” I snorted and put the dabba away, muttering under my breath, “Gadhe ko kya zafran ka maza” (where will a donkey appreciate the flavour of saffron!)

 A couple of days later I felt nibbly at tea time so I reached for the chakli dabba … and  felt like Mother Hubbard! Mother who?

Now that’s something else that will get lost too!

Keerti Ramachandra is by aptitude, inclination and training, a teacher. She has been a freelance editor of fiction and non-fiction for major publishing houses and a translator of fiction and nonfiction from Marathi, Kannada and Hindi into English.  Among her translated works are: From Marathi: Mahanayak, a fictionalised biography of Netaji Bose and A Dirge for the Dammed, both by Vishwas Patil, A Faceless Evening and Other Stories by Gangadhar Gadgil  Of Closures and New Beginnings short stories and a noella, by  Saniya.

The Dying Sun and other stories by Joginder Paul with Usha Nagpal, and HIndutva or Hind Swaraj  by U R Ananthamurty with Vivek Shanbhag.

Several of her translations have appeared in anthologies, magazines and journals in India and abroad. 

Lau Tales: from a Humble Boy to a Yummy Prince!

Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, a migratory bird dropped a seed in the heart of Africa, that germinated into thick green vines with white flowers that open only at night. From those white flowers was born Lau. Wait, Lau was known by different names then – Calabash, Bottle Gourd (owing to its bottle like shape), Long Melon and so many more. People didn’t even know how to eat this vegetable in those days but made utensils out of it once mature, owing of its round shape.

Many years later, after travelling many continents when Bottle Gourd finally landed in a Bengali kitchen, the Bong Fairy Godmother with hands on her hip, looked ponderingly at this long green vegetable and lovingly named it Lau. She then touched it with her magical khunti (spatula), poured a concoction of mild spices and turned humble Lau into a yummy sought-after prince. With her imagination and culinary magic, she gave so many avatars to this vegetable, each one more delightful than the other. Lau became the beloved vegetable of Bengal, folk artists started singing its glory:

Lau

Shadher laau banailo more boiragi
Laauer aaga khailam doga go khailam
Aaga khailam go….
Laauer aaga khailam doga go khailam
Laau dia banailam dugdugi
O Ami laau dia banailam dugdugi

Loosely translated the lyrics mean, beloved Lau has turned me into a wandering ascetic. Having eaten every bit of this delicious vegetable, right from its skin to the stem, I have even made a dumroo out of it. I dare say lot is lost in my attempt of translation. In fact, these lyrics are impossible to translate. Inserting an audio link of this folk song, made popular by Bangladeshi folk singer Runa Laila, for you to have a feel.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbgJI2h9wFs

Lau is indeed one hell of a versatile vegetable for Bongs. Right from its flowers (lau phool), to skin, to stem (lau data) and leaves (lau shaag), we transform every bit of this vegetable into a delicacy. The many preparations of ‘humble’ Lau, a vegetable that often does not find place in fancy meals in North India unless made into kofta, will surprise those unfamiliar with traditional Bengali cuisine. Be it everyday meal or special occasions, Lau is almost always part of the menu in Bengali households in summers.

Lau skin (chilka) can be made into chechki. Lau in moong dal with few pieces of karela thrown in, is probably the simplest and the healthiest way to have this vegetable and trust me it’s delicious. We make different kinds of shukto with Lao that are part of everyday menu in summer. Lao moong is a specialty from East Bengal. Lau ghonto with dal bari, Lau chingri and Lau with fish head are considered delicacies. Lau data or the stem of Lau vine and Lau saag can also be prepared in different ways.  We make Lau datar chorchori, Lau datar dal. Lau saager morich jhol is both tasty and healthy, we even make a delectable paste out of tender Lau leaves (Lau pata bata). You can make mouth-watering desserts with Lau (lauer payesh). There is so much more you can do with this amazing vegetable!

Since Lau is so easily available, often the vegetable we are stuck with in the summers, I will share below few of my favourite recipes that you can try this summer. These easy to make, nutritious and low-calorie recipes will add to your cool quotient in the hot months ahead!

Lau in kacha moong (unroasted) dal, my mom’s recipe that I make very often in summer, can be done in no time.

Lau in kacha moong (unroasted) dal

Directions:Cut the lau into square dice of 1inch size

  1. Cut the Karela into very thin round slices
  2. Boil moong dal in 1 & ½ cups of water, with lau, green chillies, salt, haldi and sugar. I boil in an open vessel since mong dal cooks easily, you can pressure cook as well
  3. In a kadai heat ghee, shallow fry karela & keep aside. Put bay leaf, mustard seeds and ginger paste in the same kadai (add more ghee if required)
  4. Pour the dal with lau once mustard seeds start sputtering, add shallow fried karela.
  5. Add more salt if required and bring it to boil
  6. Put a little ghee on the top and your healthy, aromatic kacha moong dal with lau is ready. Serve with hot rice or just a bowl of this delicious dal.

Lau Shukto

Lau Shukto, or shukta, is a mild, creamy, Bengali vegetable preparation served for lunch. Shukto can be made in different ways and usually has a bitter element. We add bitter vegetables like karela or bitter spices like methi or mustard for the slightly bitter flavour. But it is always mild and usually creamy, that comes from either milk, or posto (poppy seed) paste, or mustard paste. Sharing below the recipe for my favourite mild and creamy lau shukto.

Lau Shukto

Directions:

  1. First make a wet paste of posto in the grinder
  2. Chop lau in thin long slices
  3. In a kadai heat a little ghee, shallow fry dal bari and keep aside.
  4. In the same kadai (add more ghee if required) put sauf & mustard seeds. Once the seeds start sputtering add chopped lau, salt and sugar.
  5. Cooked covered in low flame till lau becomes tender, stirring occasionally (lau usually cooks in its own water).
  6. Once the lau is tender, add the shallow fried bari, posto paste and milk. Mix the paste well. Add more salt and sugar if needed. This mild shukto has a slightly sweetish taste.
  7. Serve hot with rice

Lau Chechki

Made from Lau skin, this is something you can make every time you cook Lau

Lau Chechki

Directions:

  1. Cut the Lau skin into very fine thin slices
  2. Heat mustard oil in a pan. Once hot put red chilli & kala jeera
  3. Add sliced lau skin, salt, haldi, green chilli. Cook covered in medium to low flame stirring frequently.
  4. Once lau skin in tender switch off the flame. This usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes for tender lau skin.
  5. Serve with hot rice