The year is 1987 and I’d just reported for my first job and was sent off for a training programme covering Ranchi, Bokaro, Delhi, Calcutta (as it was then). Never having traveled much in the north of India, this trip – all made by train – was full of excitement. The little stations where the train passed through, the lichi trees actually growing on the platforms in Bihar – urchins plucking these, folding up a bunch of lichis in the leaves from the tree itself and selling each bundle for a buck or so – you ate the lichis, spat out the skin and seeds into the leaf packets and threw them away – the most bio-degradable packaging in the world! Those lichis, still warm from the afternoon sun, the juice dribbling down your chin as you bit into them – I had never tasted anything so delicious before!
You topped off a packet of lichis with chai in an earthenware matka – and threw that away when you were done!
Bihar was full of delicious surprises – litti chokhas – had never even heard of them – forget about eating them – littis dripping with ghee and the wonderful baingan or aloo ka chokha that accompanied it, the thin, almost clear soup kind of dals that you basically drank rather than ate – the state was a treasure trove of unusual dishes…
….until I landed in Bokaro – in the middle of the May when the thermometer went over 47 C – and we were being trained in a steel plant – got a glimpse of what Dante’s inferno was all about when we spent a day in the SMS – no, not what you’re thinking – it’s the steel melting shop!
The food at the plant canteen was just as bad – with rotis like thick brittle papads and a subzi of indeterminate provenance, ingredients and vintage! Ran out after my first mouthful, bought myself a couple of mangoes and ate them in a little park outside the canteen – repeating it for the next seven days every day at lunchtime!
Delhi was a dream after that with its variety of restaurants and cuisines from all over the world. But the real McCoy was Calcutta – as it was known then… even for a Hyderabadi used to ‘cheap and best’ places to eat in, Calcutta was a cornucopia – 3 spring rolls or 6 momos for two bucks! As for the rosogullas, I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t go into a trance when you mention the Cal rosogullas!
In Cal, I joined a group of trainees from another batch – 21 trainees and me the only woman. Nothing averse to all the attention I received!
The morning I joined, everyone was very friendly, came up and introduced themselves. One decided to steal a march on the rest and asked if I’d like to go out for lunch. “Don’t they provide lunch along with the training session?” I ask. “Sure, but there are bound to be better places outside,” comes the slick response!
I grin to myself and say okay. As soon as it’s half past one, our pal, D, hustles me out of the training room in case I should change my mind or someone thinks up a better line!
We walk and we walk… and we walk… not a restaurant around the place. Finally I stop and refuse to walk any more in the sultry heat of the Calcutta summer. We look around… there’s a rather shady looking Kashmiri joint but I don’t care! We walk in and order… Kashmiri dum aloo, pulao and something which looks very interesting – palak mutter. The food comes. Sundry conversation but much concentration on eating. Then I decided it’s time to put my pal out of his misery – or maybe put him into misery! “You know, dum aloo is my husband’s favourite dish,” I let drop…
The aloo drops from his nerveless fingers… “Your husband???!”
We join up and work in the same office for a few years becoming great pals – but I never let him forget his reaction! It’s great fun to be a woman, sometimes!
And the Kashmiri dish that stays in my memory…
- 1/2 kg very finely chopped spinach (palak)
- 1 cup boiled green peas
- 2 cloves (laung/lavang)
- 1″ stick of cinnamon (dalchini)
- 1/4 tsp asafoetida
- 1 tsp chilli powder
- 1/4 tsp turmeric powder (haldi)
- 1/4 tsp dried ginger powder
- 1/2 cup milk (or cream for a richer curry)
- 2 tsp oil or ghee
Heat the oil, add the cloves, cinnamon and asafoetida.
Add the spinach and stir till it wilts.
Add ½ cup of water and bring it to a boil.
Simmer for 10 to 12 minutes till almost all the water evaporates. Add the boiled peas.
Add the chilli powder, turmeric powder, ginger powder, milk and salt and mix well.
Bring it back to the boil and serve immediately with rotis.
Oh, and if you have a good line, be very demure when you let it drop!