Jaspur’s Singhare( Water Chestnut) Ki Kachari

Coming back from Jim Corbett National Park, on my way to Dhampur, I was feeling a bit hungry as I had skipped my lunch. I was looking for some quick snack and that too non-oily and non junk. On a trisection  of the town Jaspur located on Jaspur-Dhampur highway(NH-74), I noticed a small road side eatery( thela) selling Kachari, made of Singhara or water Chestnut. I had heard that in winters, Jaspur boasts of selling best Singhare Ki Kachari and by some strange coincidence, I was not only hungry but at the right place at the right time. I went around the thela to see what was on offer actually.

I noticed that the boiled and mashed Singhara was kept covered in a cloth and on orders of customers, it was being garnished with onion, tomatoes, Cummin seeds, ginger and few more spices (India was raided perhaps more for spices in history than for gold!) and then heated with some butter. It was really something very appealing to senses and appetising to palate and suddenly I was feeling even more hungry. I ordered one serving for me to try that.

The man who was preparing it, was a proficient man and with clockwork precision, mixed all ingredients too soon and after heating it with butter prepared  the Kachari in no time. Before handing it to me, he garnished it with fresh lime juice. Without wasting any time I put a slice of this thick preparation of Kachari with the help of a wooden spoon. I closed my eyes for few seconds and commanded all my senses to help me taste that instant delicacy. It was really something to relish. The Singhara boiled  and mashed with all Indian spices was tasty beyond description. I polished off my portion too soon and ordered one more. I was just wondering why I had not eaten it earlier and why the hell, we Indians don’t encourage these outstanding Indian delicacies vis a vis junk foods and instant noodles and what not? As Indian we are too lucky to have a lot of these recipes actually and that too at a decent price of 20 Rs for a serving. I finished my second serving too in no time and thanked the man selling it. I also got to know by googling that Water Chestnut is a very nutritious fruit and fulfills the requirements of many vital minerals in the body. I hope more people do realize this and help preserve the great culinary tradition of India which is more healthy as well.

Thanks Jaspur….

Sandila Laddu: The Delicacy That Once Was…..

Sandila Laddoos

Sandila Laddoos

Laddoo……Sandila Laddoo……..Laddoo…….Sandila Laddoo……. Have you heard this clarion call ever? Have these words ever knocked through your ear-drums? Or, can you relate to the picture at the top, which has some sweets in an earthen pot with some red celophene paper besides it? I can presume and predict without the benefit of being an astrologer, that If you have you ever traveled in North India between Lucknow and Delhi on Indian Rail, you would have heard that. I have been hearing these sounds ever since I was a kid. Whenever I travelled on a non super fast train-Sandial being a smaller station so only non super fast train would be stopping here- from Lucknow to Delhi or to Dehradun, it used to halt at Sandila, a small nondescript town of Hardoi district located about 50 odd Km from Lucknow. My knowledge about Sandila town has been limited to the famous laddoos only which the town used to churn out in all probability in near past.

As soon as a train stopped or even entered the platform of Sandila railway station, I would hear very clear sounds of laddoos hawkers calling out for anybody who was interested in the delicacy on the move over a two minutes stoppage. The sound and sights of laddoos would be clearer through the iron grill windows of a second class sleeper coach as compared to black tinted glass windowed AC coaches. I would usually look out of the window and would look out at many small earthen laddoo pots hanging through a rope tied to a support hanging from the arms or shoulders of the vendor. The sight would usually amuse me and more often than not, I would try to assess the probability of buying eatables on a railway platform. I would sometimes ask about the prices and have a closer look at the pot, contents of which would still be little secret. I yielded sometimes to my taste buds and bought a pot. I would uncover them and found the sweets inside it. I would taste them and usually found that to be loaded with more sugar than besan (Bengal Gram Flour). I would still relish that and share with my family members and co-traveler. The taste would not be that great but still, the process of the purchase would leave a sweeter taste in my mouth as well as in my sweeter memories.

I would however always think about the probability of getting the tastier Sandila laddoos sometimes when I could get inside the town of Sandila by some chance and would get to the best shop of town selling authentic laddoos, unlike those on railways platform. Last week, I was travelling with my family by road from Hardoi to Lucknow and had some liberty of time as well. My kids too had been hearing about the laddoos and when I took their opinion of trying some good shop selling famed Sandila laddoos, they too acquiesced in. The next challenge was to know the best shop in town. I called my friend Yogesh over phone as he was a native of Hardoi and was most likely to know about those. He referred to me the name of Babulal Halwai(sweetmeat shop owner), whose shop was inside the town just after railway crossing and adjacent to Police  Station Sandila. I thanked Yogesh and headed for the destination.

I was there soon. The shop is really a smallish one and normally only locals would notice that. The seller at the counter was one Prakash, a man in mid forties. I asked him to suggest his shop’s specialities. He suggested to me, Bundi laddoos and Gond(Gum) Laddoos. I asked him to give an half Kg of both. I could notice that at the back end of the shop, fresh laddoos were being produced and Ii was therefore happy to know that I would be getting the fresh product. I asked him if he could pack the ladooos in earthen pot. He told me, that now he was not using the earthen pots as the locals now don’t prefer that. I was little disappointed at the prospect of not getting signature Sandila Laddoos in attractive earthen pots, but having no alternative, agreed to normal card board packing.

I got both the variety packed soon and boarded back my vehicle with the happy anticipation of a great delicacy so dear to my sweet tooth memories. I ate the Bundi Laddoos first, followed by Gum Laddoos. The taste was good, but not something to match with great popularity of the icon. Laddoos were better than those sold on a platform but still were no less sugary. The kids too tried each and were not eager to repeat them. Perhaps the price of Laddoos was responsible for that or how else could you afford to sell a Kg of Laddoos for a paltry Rs 130? A kg of Arhar Dal now costs no less than Rs 140! It may also be possible that hardworking Sandilaites could be digesting that much sugar easily, than fatty morons like me.

I was still happy to fulfill one of my long cherished wish to eat Sandila Laddoos right at Sandila town. It was a mission accomplished sort of. This fulfillment was in fact sweeter and yummier than Laddoos! That day, I perhaps ticked one more item in my ‘Bucket List’.

The Bukhara

Rated as one of the top restaurants of the world due to its authentic north western frontier province cuisine, Bukhara is the top class eating place in India. It is one of many restaurants of respectable ITC brand and surpasses all others in popularity. It’s signature ‘Daal Bukhara’ is irresistible and once you had it, the taste lingers in your mouth for days if not months and years. Its uniqueness is based on the perfected and fine cuisines of north western frontier province of pre-partition India. The rugged area was known for earthly charm of tandoor (Earthen Oven) and roasting. The stress is on right way of roasting after marinating the fine quality meat and non meat products with other essential ingredients. The secret recipes have continued to flow from generation to generation and the chefs at Bukhara are privileged to treasure them.

I had been to Bukhara few years ago. At that time I was a vegetarian and had relished the ‘Gobhi Ka Phool’ with Daal Bukhara and the naan. The taste of tandoori vegetarian dishes with a whole cauliflower was really mouthwatering and with sprinkling of special masala over them, I felt like paradise. Now with larger choice of non vegetarian food too, I decided  to revisit Bukara last week.

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The entrance to restaurant is noticeable by a large hanging wooden menu card. You can have a look at it and can also decide the orders, before even entering the restaurant. It may not be a bad idea, because once you are in , you don’t want to wait even for seconds before plunging your teeth in succulent recipes prepared in glass partitioned open kitchen.7001091-Bukhara_Jan_2014_New_Delhi

I had to wait for sometime outside as the restaurant on a Sunday afternoon was filled to capacity. I utilised the time to finalise the order therefore. After some time we were ushered into the restaurant by a pathan suit clad gentleman in the tradition of North Western Frontier British India. After being comfortably seated the menu card came in form of a wooden plank. It had all the dishes written in two categories of vegetarian and non vegetarian. I ordered a ‘Sikandari Raan’ and Daal Bukhara with Pudina Naan and plain Naan.

Sikandari Raan

Sikandari Raan

Raan recipe is prepared by raosting a marinated meaty leg of a lamb or goat and is cooked delicately. The recipe comes in a big size and you need at least 2 persons to devour it. The order came soon. The restaurant does not  places the forks and knives on the table and therefore we used our hands in right earnest to feed our salivating mouth. The taste of the ‘Raan’ was really great. It was so perfectly cooked that it dissolved in mouth with a little pressure of teeth and tongue. We had it with pudina naan and it tasted like heaven. After finishing a good portion of the recipe, we decided to taste the signature ‘Daal Bukhara’.

Daal Bukhara

Daal Bukhara

The black lentils are cooked in special earthen pots over night and is garnished with perfect and ancient mix of herbs and spices along with dollops of cream. As you get a spoon of daal inside your mouth, your eyes are closed automatically and you want to feel the recipe with a roll of tongue over a spoonful of daal inside your mouth. I had tasted it before too and was missing this perfect rich taste for years. I had few more spoonful and in no time my brother and me finished the recipes. We were feeling fully happy, that is ‘full’ and ‘happy’ both.

Phirni

Phirni

The order for sweet dish was now made with ‘Phirani’ and ‘Kulfi-Faluda’. Phirni is made with rice and other ingredients while Kulfi-Faluda is made with condensed and sweetened milk. We had it and smacked our lips like a happy cat. The experience at Bukhara once again was  really mind and tongue blowing. I thanked the staff at restaurant for their great food and their service and came out with a smile.

The Gulab Jamuns and Me

Gulab Jamuns

Gulab Jamuns

If I presently weigh some short of 100, the most responsible person for this state of affairs is man who before his death, left a legacy of churning out the yummiest and softest Gulab Jamuns you can think of. His name was Tularam, the man who set up the famous Tularam Gulab Jamun shop at Nagina, Bijnor in 1945 at NH 74 linking Uttarakhand’s Garhwal and Kumaon via Nagina.

Nagina though a sub divisional headquarters, is a small town. It is also famous for inlaid wooden craft and the material carved here, is sold out across all parts of India. The sweet shop of Tularam would had been set up of course for the local consumption and particularly for passengers coming to and fro, to the smallish railway station located at the entrance to it. If you are not a local or not aware about the shop in advance, you may easily miss the shop as there are thousands of such road shops in thousand various mofussils and cities over entire India.

I was introduced to this delicacy when I was posted as Sub Divisional Magistrate at Dhampur, a town very close to Nagina. I had a sweet tooth always and 15 years ago was not forever calculating calories while eating these recipes. As SDM, I had a Tahsildar, one Tewari Ji who had mastered the art of VIP duties. He used to stay at Nagina as he was earlier posted there and despite being transferred to Dhampur, continued to keep living there. He was a smart man and a typically successful Tahsildar, by his instinct to judge the officer’s liking and disliking in all fields including food of course. He once came to meet me and as is customary, came with a well packed earthen bowl containing Tularam’s Gulab Jamuns. Uninitiated to the taste,  I was oblivious to their speciality. He told me that, I might like those Gulab Jamuns as they were from one of the most famous and old sweet shop of Nagina. I said nothing and did not realise that, that first earthen bowl full of Gulab Jamuns will become my weakness soon and will also add few inches to my waist soon.

After Tewari Ji left, I retired to my house and had dinner. As I used to have sweet dish after dinner daily at that time, Gulab Jamuns were suggested as the sweet dish. I was offered two Gulab Jamuns only. I scooped a part from one of them and kept it in my mouth. As soon as I rolled my tongue over it, it melted like cream. It was really tasty and very soft. I had not ever tasted softer than this Gulab Jamuns despite being from Lucknow, a city famous for food and cuisines. I had more and very soon devoured almost 7 or 8. I would have eaten more if I had not finished my dinner just then. I had few more next day and my wife could get only a few of them. Soon there were no more left.

Tewari Ji came to meet me again soon and this time came with some different sweets and fruits. In anticipation however, my eyes were looking for that sweet earthen bowl but that was not there. Being his boss, I could not ask him directly about that, as that would have exposed my weakness. Our discussion continued for some time over official issues and after some time he left for his office. However, before leaving he asked me whether I had liked those Gulab Jamuns or not? I was perhaps waiting for this opportunity to express my appreciation for those softy Gulab Jamuns. I appreciated them with a conservative tone, but my smart Tahsildar got enough clues about my love for them. He said nothing however and left.

Next day, Mr Tewari was again at my residence in the morning and was this time with an even bigger earthen bowl of Gulab Jamuns. I was really happy to see them though I tried to conceal my enthusiasm. He said nonchalantly that he was coming to Dhampur that morning and in the way noticed the fresh and hot Gulab Jamuns and thought of gifting them to me so that I could eat them as hot and fresh. I was really happy. I came inside the house and tasted few more and realised that fresh and hot Gulab Jamuns were even better. I left for office only after getting enough of them.

Mr Tewari sensing my love for Gulab Jamuns now decided to send them to my house every alternate day. Those were really not so expensive and could not be categorised as any undue gratification and therefore I continued to relish them as often as I could. Little did I realise however that, that was adding a good weight to my body and particularly around belly. The smart Tahsildar sensing my only weakness perhaps, continued to supply them aplenty. I continued to relish them and brushed aside any suggestion of my wife to control my urge. This continued for next one year and by that time I had devoured a lot many Gulab Jamuns. I was not aware that my waistline was also smiling more.

This happy and yummy but calories loaded streak got interrupted only, when I was transferred from Dhampur to some other sub division. I, however continued to get them occasionally by sending my man all the way to Nagina. The cost of getting them to my new place was perhaps more than the price of Gulab Jamuns. Few times when I passed through Nagina during course of my official duties and otherwise, I landed at the shop and tasted them, there itself. Tewari Ji too being a true bred revenue department officer, whenever came to visit me out of courtesy, came with a good load of them. No need to say that I relished them a lot. The habit however eased a bit later on but by that time, I was had put on substantial weight due to them alone. I tried to somewhat control my urge in eating them in the larger interest of my health.

Recently, I happened to travel to Dehradun from that road and was with my family. My daughter who was born around the time I tasted them first in 2000, was also with me. I told her about the shop and its unmatched tasty Gulab Jamuns. She was not keen to taste them however. I still stopped my vehicle and   entered the shop. My daughter unwillingly followed me and entered the shop.  I was at the shop after almost  a decade and was little nostalgic about the place too. I ordered Gulab Jamuns for every body. The taste of them was great as always and I was feeling happy and lucky to have passed through this route that day. However I was shocked to see my daughter ordering one more plate of Gulab Jamun. I was really bemused to see her eating Gulab Jamuns with same happiness as I used to 15 years ago. Was History repeating itself?  After all daughters do admire their fathers more. I smiled at the turn of events and left the shop but not before getting a mobile pic clicked in this shop. The Tularam had now made inroad into mind and belly of next generation. What a legacy really!

At Tularam Nagina

At Tularam Nagina

In fact my daughter still keeps on asking me, ” Papa,  when are we going to Nagina again?” I smile at her being my daughter truly and refresh my memory with aroma and taste of Tularam’s Gulab Jamun. Tularam is dead, but long live Tularam, through his Gulab Jamuns of course.

Sanai ke Phool aka Jute Flowers

Buds and Flowers of Sanai (Jute)

Buds and Flowers of Sanai (Jute)

One fine afternoon, crossing a bridge on river Gomati in Lucknow I noticed a very old lady selling vegetables on the pathway. She was sitting besides a heap of red and green pile of seasons’s special, water chestnut called locally as singhara. My taste buds clubbed with the pleasure of buying freshest from the source itself, forced me to stop. I focused on green and red singhara and after some minor bargain to satiate my Indian bargaining instinct, settled to buy two kg of them. While the lady was packing them in a polythene bag, I noticed there was a small heap of yellowish buds and flowers too. I asked her what was that?. She looked back at me with a hint of disappointment at my lack of knowledge and said in a feeble voice that those were the Sanai ke phool. I took hold of Singharas and stressed my memory cells to recall if inside me there were any memories of  that . I had heard this word from my mother sometimes perhaps and it was probably used as a vegetable in the kitchen. But even at my age, I had never eaten them. I paused for few moments and though was not sure about it, decided to give it a try. I bought half a kg of it as the buds and flowers even at this weight were a polythene bag full.

I came back to my house and handed over the singharas and the bag of Sanai ke phool to my mother. She had a look on both of them but her eyes got stuck at sanai ke phool. She looked back at me and said, “Where have you got them from?”. I was little bemused by his query and told her the sequence of my purchase on the bridge. She smiled first and then her eyes got little moistened. She said in an emotional voice that sanai ke phool were prized recipe in her younger days and she had not cooked them for decades. I was little amazed by my found now. Not cooked by her for decades! But what she told me next was even bigger shock. She told those were actually jute plant buds called as sanai ke phool in northern India. She told that in villages in her times people used to grow jute for their native uses like rope making and fuel wood and its buds were used for the seasonal recipe. So was I going to eat jute?. Is it possible to eat jute , from which ropes and other products are made?. Yes, she said. I was fully bowled out by now and understood the disappointment of old lady vegetable vendor. My mother now asked me to wait for the evening to taste what she had not cooked for three decades. My taste buds were salivating already at the prospect of a never eaten recipe of my life.

Jute Fibres

Jute Fibres

Waiting for the evening to unfold , I decided to enrich my knowledge by googling. Jute is broadly classified into white jute or corchorus capsularis and  tossa jute or chorchorous olitorious. It is grown widely in India and Bangladesh and after cotton is most widely used natural fiber. Its buds and flowers are used for culinary and medicinal purposes. It is rich in beta carotene, calcium and iron. Being rich in Fibre, medicinally it is said to be useful in curing constipation and in treating other stomach ailments. Dried up stems of jute are used as fuel wood too. Globally, India is the leading producer of jute, followed closely by Bangladesh.  Recently, The Center for Science and Environment, an NGO run by indomitable Sunita Narain has published a book titled First Food: A Taste of India’s Biodiversity. It enlists the various traditional but now forgotten recipes including the pictured below Jute Pakora prepared from Jute Leaves.

The Jute Pakora

The Jute Pakora

Fed and appetised by so much of knowledge about sanai, by evening I was raring to have a go at the recipe. My mother sensed my eagerness and prepared dinner earlier than other days. The table was set. I decided to taste it first by taking a small spoonful and put in my mouth. I closed my eyes and tried to imbibe the taste and fragrance of the recipe. It was simply mouth watering and amazing. The taste of it was like no other recipe I have ever had. Mother was looking at my face and offered me now a bowl full of it. I polished it off in no time, with few hot chapatis. The taste of it was of course enhanced by the love of my mother. I was really having for the first time, one great recipe of my culinary life. She watched me with the satisfaction of a mother nursing his child. I can’t forget those moments ever. I was also wondering how come earlier, I had not tasted this recipe in my life!. Other members of the family got a leaner portion of the recipe but everybody was happy to see me smiling and my mother thanked me for letting her travel down memory lane after decades. What a day it was for me!. I thanked that old lady who was selling this rather forgotten culinary jewel of India.

Do you feel hungry? Trust me. Throw all caution to winds and just go for it!