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APARAJITA SEN

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 5/15/2016 |




A series of chance comments by different people sparked off this specific line of thought – a friend talking about making a film of brass cookware of yesteryears, another talking about her mother & grandmother’s kitchen; An old friend from college days waxing lyrical about chancing upon a packet of ‘sattu’ (chatu) somewhere in New Jersey & remembering her childhood. Though I am sure that a lot of very savant studies already exist on this topic, I wanted to write about our kitchens yesterday and today, seen through my own prism.

My earliest memories of our kitchen are made up mainly of sounds and smells. I would often wake up in the morning to the sound of coal scraped into a scuttle for the earthen oven (chulla / unoon) which would soon be followed by the acrid smell of burning coal and ‘ghutey’ – a sort of combustible cake made from cow dung. That happened very early in the morning, I think, and I would once again wake up, this time for good, to the racket of stone pounding on stone as our daily help started grinding the spices that would be needed that day on the ‘shil-nora’(this comprised a large pestle shaped stone that pounded and ground the whole spices on a robust piece of flat stone) – turmeric, coriander, cumin, chili…. arranging the pastes in small separate mounds on a small brass (kansha) dish. The large aluminum kettle would already be bubbling for the morning tea. The smell of boiling milk would follow as the maid brought in the bottles of milk from the ‘Haringhata’ milk booth. I would hear the sound of rice being chaffed by my grandmother in the big household ‘kulo’(a flat chaffing dish made with thin woven strands of cane) while mother busied herself with the morning tea…

Our kitchen had a series of implements that have disappeared from the modern kitchens in Bengal today. I remember multicolored woven baskets for fruits and vegetables (jhuRi), big aluminum bowls for cleaning fish and meat, big iron woks for cooking. My grandmother would squat on the floor cutting vegetables with a ‘bonti’(a long curved blade mounted on a piece of wood, honed and sharpened regularly) on our long verandah, while my mother did the same inside the kitchen for fish or meat, next to the tap – we did not have a sink in those days, but a ‘koltala’ –a small area around the tap and the drain with a low wall. Widowed at a very tender age, my grandmother was a strict vegetarian, and according to the then mores, did not touch anything that was proscribed by the religion – not only fish, meat, eggs etc. but also onion and garlic that was used mainly for cooking non-vegetarian dishes. The vegetable were brought from the market in a separate jute bag and stored far away from all non-vegetarian items. The shelves in our kitchen were full of small containers for whole spices –asafetida, fenugreek, caraway and mustard seeds, in addition to the everyday spices like turmeric, chili, coriander, cumin... In one special corner was stored the whole spices for ‘garam masala’ – cardamoms, cloves, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks. A huge grinding stone (shil) stood in the corner, with two pestles kept separately – one for grinding the spices, the other for making onion or garlic paste or anything to do with non-vegetarian cooking. The grinding stone was kept in its perfect pock marked condition by the wiry old man who banged away at the stone with his hammer & wedge every now and then, to make the grinding process easier. And we had a whole array of different types of ‘boRi’s in our kitchen – small dollops of ground lentil paste painstakingly made and dried in the sun that came in different sizes and colors – they were indispensable for cooking certain vegetable dishes and fish curries. On another shelf different species of lentils were stored in multicolored tins (originally containing baby food or biscuits or Quaker oats). I loved looking at the pictures, I remember – they seemed different every time I looked at them closely. I was certain, for instance, that the chubby baby on one of the tins smiled only on certain days. The boat on another tin seemed to change place regularly. And all this added to the magic of that small & neat kitchen.

My grandmother’s utensils were neatly arranged on a separate shelf in the kitchen – the small pot for cooking rice (hNari), the wok (kadai), a whole range of spatulas (khunti) made of iron or brass, the cast iron coconut grater (narkel kuruni), the tongs (sarashi) along with brass plates, glasses, bowls. She often washed her own things, with the ash from the oven and dark black tamarind – they shone and twinkled in the shafts of sunlight coming in through the window. The three main metals in those days were iron for spatula, tongs, the flat pan (tawa) used for making chapattis and the cutting, scoring and shredding equipment (boNti, kuruni), aluminum for the pots and pans (hNari, dekchi, kadai) and brass (kansha) – plates, bowls, serving spoons. My mother also had a big cast iron wok that was used for making large quantities of things, especially during religious festivals or big family get-togethers. The big drum storing rice was kept outside the kitchen, mainly to save space, I think, with the ‘kulo’ neatly arranged on top.

My mother cooked the vegetable dishes first for my grandmother, before starting the non-vegetarian dishes. The vegetables changed with seasons in those days as did the menu. Cooling flavors in summer where the meals started with a preparation of bitter gourd and ended with chutney made from raw mangoes. Raw jackfruits, green plantain and banana flowers were used extensively to make delicious dishes. As monsoon arrived, these vegetables gradually disappeared, replaced by different types of pumpkins, leafy vegetables and pointed gourd. The fugitive winter was marked by more exotic dishes as winter vegetables like cauliflowers, cabbages, carrots, beetroots, sweet peas, turnips and tomatoes flooded the market. The vegetable dishes cooked for my grandmother were stored on a special rack, well away from the non-vegetarian dishes, in brass bowls and dishes of different sizes. Almost throughout the year my grandmother made sour card that we were all forced to eat since it was deemed essential to protect us from the heat. We ate out of brass plates as well – each one of us had our special plate and glass with our names inscribed on the back. Each plate and glass was shaped differently, as were other utensils like bowls and serving spoons that came in all kinds of sizes. We ate a lot of parboiled rice in those days while my grandmother ate the raw variety (atap) – I loved the faint noise of rice being served on those brass plates….

Then one fine day the brass utensils started being replaced by ‘stainless steel’ products that came from Madras in those days. Easier to maintain, cheaper to replace, lighter to carry, steel conquered the hearts of the housewives with the rapidity of a blitzkrieg. Shops set up a brisk business of exchanging brass for stainless steel, vendors made regular forays into residential areas, bartering steel kitchenware against old sarees and all sorts of other things. I remember distinctly the young woman who came to our house regularly for this purpose– simply called ‘Basanwali’(literally, a woman selling utensils) by one & all, she was strikingly beautiful – these days one would use the word ‘sexy’ to describe her. She often regaled us with the colorful stories from her ‘dehaat’(village). So now all those shiny brass utensils were stored carefully in a big wooden chest, only to come out on special occasions like birthdays. And in this way, all other metals, noble and less noble, made room for the modern ‘stainless steel’, which, incidentally, was not all that ‘stainless’ – one could often see the rust peeping out once things got a bit old!  By this time, Hawkin’s Pressure Cooker had become a household name and item, cutting down the hours spent in the kitchen almost by half. Our old chullas were replaced by sleek smart gas burners. We loved the bright red Indane gas burners and the gas bottle. Saraswati, our domestic help, was happiest – she no longer needed to struggle with breaking up coal or spend hours making the scrubbing the brassware shiny clean.

I think that it was around this time readymade ground spices came into our kitchen as well – the famous Cookme brand selling turmeric & chili powder. At first used sparingly by my mother, it soon replaced the turmeric & chili paste, at least for cooking the non-vegetarian dishes. The spice rack now contained different sorts of ground spices in cute steel containers fitted with dinky little spoons. Times were a changing….And the changes continued, as slowly plastic started pushing out the steel – mainly for storage. Totally unaware of environmental hazards and carbon footprint, we happily bought multicolored jars and containers of all shapes and sizes. Over time, melamine tableware became popular in most households – Mother’s beautiful crockery sets, manufactured at the now legendary ‘Bengal Potteries’, was used only occasionally. The first non-stick (Teflon) pans came out, in the early eighties, I think, and made cooking a real child’s play. Used sparingly in the beginning, they soon became indispensable for all types of cooking…

When I go back home these days, I find that almost all kitchens have all sorts of mod cons that have made cooking a real pleasure. Mixers, grinders, choppers and blenders make the preparation stage a real doddle. The efficient burners, cookers, ovens & microwaves are the genial djinnis that make a success out of everything. Exhaust fans whirl overhead & no one cries anymore in the kitchen from chopping onions or from inhaling the fumes. Serving hot food is now child’s play, thanks to the microwave.

I love these kitchens, and I love the fact that women (and sometimes men) don’t have to suffer and sweat for cooking. That cooking has become an art form and is no longer a daily chore for hapless women. And the middle class Bengali lady today has the time and leisure to try, innovate, experiment in her kitchen, and cook with love and passion.

But somewhere, deep down, I do miss my mother’s kitchen.



[APARAJITA SEN]

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