food Mythology and More

when you don’t know how to make mishti

i was sacred. the deep ravine of failure lay in front of me. desperate desire chased from behind, flanked by extraordinary craving and complete lack of skills. the other side, safety, success, joy, lay so far away, in fact, it was moving further away even as i stood quaking on the ledge.

then memory took my hand gently, and we were flying. ravine or safe landing, it didn’t matter, we had to take that leap. i had to make those mishti this bijoya.

mishti is the bengali word for sweet, and covers all desserts and sweet dishes practically, it also describes disposition as well as looks, and is a favourite pet name. “besh mishti dekhtey,” pretty sweet to look at, ranks just below “shundori,” beautiful, or even “dana kata pori,” fairy without wings: read flawless beauty.

“mishti byabohar,” sweet behaviour gets much approval and wins many friends. mishti is important to us bengalis. and why not, we make such lovely and unforgettable mishti after all.

that unforgettable got me.

sitting deep in secret sleeper cells in my memory are chom chom, lobongo lotika, chhanar jilipi, malpua, danadar, kheer kodom, pantua, lyangcha, lady kini, narkel naru, talshañsh shodesh, kañcha golla, notun gurer kañcha golla, chondropuli…

of course, the indomitable roshogolla. currently the people of odisha and bengal are warring over who invented it. i am loath to give it up to the neighbouring state, but theirs or ours, some day i must try to make it.

and why am i overcome by such thoughts now? i who have never attempted to make a mishti before, other than the relatively easy payesh and a couple of simpler goja? why suddenly, why now? because, bijoya.

the largest festival of bengalis is durga pujo. you have durga pujo celebrated with abandon not just in kolkata – where the scale and spectacle rival rio’s carnival – but everywhere, where there are bengalis. from tokyo to timbuctu (this isn’t for the sake of alliteration) with “bishorjon,” immersion in the thames in between, durga pujo is all over the world during those four days in september/october.

people talk a lot about the festival, it’s pomp and artistry, its song and dance, its history, etc., but what comes after the pujo, that’s truly spectacular. especially if you’re a kid who loves to eat.

bijoya is an after party like none other.

a little bit about that word. “bijoya” means victory, for some reason “bijoy” is feminized, i’m not complaining. it is believed on “bijoya doshomi,” or the victorious tenth day durga finishes off mohishashur, the buffalo asura (baddies in our mythology, who sometimes have positive traits, however this one has none) memorably etched as a green monster in the array of images with her spear right through his heart and her lion about to pounce on him. “vijaya dashami,” as it’s pronounced by most of the rest of india, is also the day when ram is said to have vanquished ravan, with durga’s blessings. after conquering evil, the goddess departs. once she is gone, immersed in deep waters, we wish each other “shubho bijoya” or auspicious victory.

blessings are sought from elders and men do “kolakuli,” a bengali term for embracing in a particular way, and usually for this occasion only. this is the bijoya period which comes straight after pujo, leading up to the next festival, lokkhi pujo, five days later.

and in these five days, you get to tuck into mishti like i can’t tell you how. gleefully, gorgingly, madly. there’s some nice “nonta,” savouries to go along with it too. the norm is, you’ll touch the elders’ feet and ask for blessings, and they will ply you with fabulous mishti, as this is the hour of “mishti mukh,” sweet mouth, to translate literally.

a time set, a calendar event, to eat sweets. this is serious love. and it presents five days of unrestrained mishti eating. as kids we’d go house to house, visiting aunts and uncles, great aunts and great uncles, grandmother and grandfather, and count the number of sweets we’d had. my brother would beat us hollow every time. in five days, crossing forty was easy peasy. back then many of the sweets would be home made.

but kids grow up. mishti eating sprees decrease, then cease. times change. no one makes mishti at home, well almost. the mishti makers pass away… memories linger and get embedded. years pass, then one fine day, as pujo goes by and you don’t even notice for you’ve outgrown all that long ago, when you’re pottering about least expecting the attack, the assault begins.

chhanar jilipi leads the charge. the one mishti my mother used to like making. she was not into cooking, but she made the fried chhana mishti with aplomb. chhana is a bit like cottage or ricotta cheese, however it’s made without rennet, instead we use lime juice or a little vinegar, even curd to “cut” the milk and separate the delicate solids.

behind the squiggly jilipi comes, stealthy and lethal, lobongo lotika that my paternal grandmother excelled at. the fried dough envelope packed with kheer stuffing, sealed with an aromatic clove. oh, what deliciousness this. story goes, once nani, as i called my paternal grandma, had covered a fresh batch with a lid on which she’d ground a knob op smelly hing, asafoetida. the definitely not compatible with mishti aroma had permeated the lobonga lotika, yet everyone fell upon them and chomped away eagerly, no question of rejecting her mishti. this is power, i say.

chom chom rushes at me next – chhana nuggets stewed for hours in a lilting sugar syrup, changing colour, adding texture, mixing sorcery with intoxication. tubu mashi, my mother’s dear friend, and my favourite mashi or aunt was a marvellous cook, and only she would dare to make the most tricky mishtis at home. her chom chom were legendary.

even as i reel from this concerted strafing, narkel naru, coconut laddoo, hits me hard. didn’t my father’s kakima – his aunt married to his father’s younger brother – make wonderful ones? how about the ones with chini, sugar… beautiful snowy white naru?

i heard my mind caving in. let’s make mishti, it said. one mishti on each of the five days of bijoya.

fools rush in… i yelled at myself. how will you make these things? you have no idea how to do it. it’s tough, you know that; no no, it’s impossible. needs endless skill. the chhana has to be just so, you can practically write a book on it. the pastry can go so badly wrong. and rolling, who’s going to roll the thin sheets? if the syrup is not right… what if the fire is too high… and who has the time to reduce milk to a solid… and what are you going to do when they say knead the dough to the right consistency when it’ll take thirty years to know what that is…

banish the thought, desist, run away. my fingers were already typing chhanar jilipi in the google search bar. up popped several videos, hmmm, i liked the sound of subhra’s kitchen… maybe… and wasn’t the bong eats’ lobongo lotika just like nani’s… was there a nice one for chom chom?…

i realised i had failed miserably to dissuade myself. and here i was standing on that ledge, the deep ravine before me.

think my mother had a wry smile on her face and my grandmother was looking satisfied, tubu mashi would have given her characteristic cheeky smile and handed me the recipe, my father’s aunt, chhordi, would have said, take “andaj moto,” as is appropriate grated coconut and sugar and… happy memories i realised can restore, give courage.

i started boiling the milk to make chhana.

chhanar jilipi, a delightful variation on the jalebi or jilipi as we call it. this was the first mishti i made. turned out more or less ok, though was a little harder than i’d like. next time.
lobongo lotika, bijoya mishti no. 2. exactly as i’d thought, mishti making is not easy, tonnes of things can go wrong, but when you hear a five year old after trying your lobongo lotika was greatly disappointed they were over, and has demanded that she wants more right now, you understand why women (and maybe men too) across the centuries have ventured on this nerve wracking journey.
chom chom on day 3. all was going well, when suddenly the underside of the happily simmering in the syrup chhana went brown. panic. is it burnt? no. but chom chom should be the same creamy shade all over. never mind, let’s invent a variation. ebony and ivory said a friend. dhoop chhaon, sunlight and shade, said another. i decided to serve the two tone cc with light kheer.

chini diye narkel naru mishti no. 4. i called my aunt in kolkata, an inventive and talented cook, the eldest daughter in law of my chhordidi, for tips on making the coconut laddoos. the recipe on youtube i chose to follow had this nice trick of rolling the naru on coconut flakes to get that dreamy look.

five mishtis were made on the five days of bijoya. i made four and ibi did one. ferolyn, ibi to all, is our cook, and a wonderful cook she is. she baked the filipino dessert tupig in banana leaf.

…………………………………………………………………………………..

i can’t thank technology and those who post their recipes without holding back secrets on the net enough. the mishtis all turned out more or less right. something tells me, pictures floating through the mind, feelings tucked here and there, a sense of loving and being loved were essential ingredients.

thanks to these recipe posters on the net: subhra’s kitchen for chhanar jilipi, bong eats for lobongo lotika, banglar rannaghor for chom chom, and simple and sizzling recipes for chini diye narkel naru

and many thanks to my friend achala srivatsa for that “thirty years to know” thought, my shojokakima krishna mitra for the chat on narkel naru, ibi for her patience and help in the kitchen, my family for bravely tasting my first ever cj, ll, cc, and nn.

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