“Hono loia zao..” (*take me there) a refrain that resounds each year as the monsoon reaches the eastern part of the country, Shapla’s home, not really, she prefers to call it “the residence” – this just can’t be her home, even her beloved fruit, “the Bubbi” has a name that’s unknown to her, they call it the “Lotkon” or the “Leteku!” The sweeping rains lashing into the valleys of the river Barak acts precursor to the memories of her home, a home she had to leave behind not for war, poverty or the plague…it was just a curious case of manmade boundaries based on her faith which probably she never took that seriously as those country creators. Thoughts traversed the hills and vales of the Surma, flowing eloquent at times, mostly surging with swarms of the freshly spawned silver shot and golden purple hilsa or the “jatkas” that always came back unlike her who could never go back to the place that once was her home. Home where the mango trees bowed their branches laden with the lucious “aams” that her “Thamma” the beloved granny fed her with the a bowl of soaked sabudana, milk, jaggery and a piece of sondesh – the “Sabu Makha,”
Perfect non cooked but a complete meal for the hot Sylheti summers. The feel of the soft gooey sabudana pearls on the tongue interspersed with juicy bits of the mango slices and an overwhelming sweetness of the jaggery and diced bananas all fused in unison with the warmth of the thick milk – the ubiquitous “Sabu Makha” – a soul food…a comfort food for the soul searching for her lost home!!
Sabudana (tapioca pearls) – 1cup
Milk – 2 cups
Gur (jaggery) – to taste
Sondesh – 1 piece
Fresh Mango – 1 cut into slices
Banana – 1 diced
Grated coconut – a handful
Soak the sabudana pearls overnight in warm water.
Warm the milk, mix the soft sabudana with the milk and jaggery. Add the grated coconut, diced banana, sliced mangoes and the piece of sondesh which is optional.
Mix well and serve.
Shapla left the bounties of her home in her early twenties along with her family of another twenty people entering “the residence” another valley surrounded by hills with the Surma taking another name and form. It was her “lost desh” in another state though the only thread that kept her alive all these years was the fortunate presence of the geographical and cultural continuity of the land where she belonged. The Hilsa, her favourite carp was called the ilisha but the flavours remained the same, though Shapla in her die hard sylheti spirit always named the fish dish as the “Ilish Barishali” (Barishal being a district from the erstwhile East Bengal)
“Dhan, nadi, khal ai teen e Barisal” – paddy, the rivers and the canals that’s what makes up Barisal says anyone taking pride in his hilsa or the ilisha which teems in perfection with the special basmati rice “the Balam” produced in the Barishal district of East Bengal. And to finish off this fancy meal with the king carp and the queen of the paddy is the special “phan” or the betel leaf relished with the “guwa” or the betel nut.
Hilsa/Ilisha – 4 large pieces
Tumeric – 1and a ½ teaspoon
Salt – 2 teaspoons
Chilli powder – ½ teaspoon
Kalonji/Kal jeera -¼ teaspoon
Mustard seeds – 2 tablespoon
Poppy Seeds/Posto dana – 1 tablespoon
Curd/Dahi – 2 tablespoon
Coconut paste – 2 tablespoon
Green chillies – 3 – 4
Mustard Oil – 2 tablespoon
Marinate the hilsa/ilisha pieces in the salt and tumeric Make a smooth paste of 1 – 2 green chillies with the posto dana and the mustard seeds.
Heat some oil in a frying fan and lightly fry the fish pieces till light brown. Drain the pieces and keep it aside.
In the same pan and the lfetover oil splutter the kal jeera, add the mustard/posto dana/chilli paste along with the coconut paste, remaining salt, chilli powder and the tumeric. Mix well and let it cook on medium heat for a few minutes. Mix the curd or dahi well in a bowl. Add it to the masala on the pan along with a cup of water. Mix well and allow it to simmer for a while.
Add the pieces of lightly fried fish and cook for five minutes under low flame.
Garnish with slit green chillies and serve hot with rice.
Shapla loved “Bosonto” or the spring season, she loved everything that came with it, the “khowsa” – greens of the Shojne (Moringa) trees, a sure shot cure for the seasonal chicken pox as believed by the old women’s tale. “Khat Gulab” was another favourite while the “Shuli Phool” filled her winters with the hope of the next spring and the next that may perhaps bloom along her Surma…
Shojne Phooler Bora
Shojne – the miracle plant grew in every backyard of almost all households for generations.The ivory coloured flowers plucked each morning, boiled with the morning tea for its therapeutic properties, mixed with a coating of flour – corn or otherwise to be relished at meal times as the golden fritters of fame…
Shojne Phool/ Moringa Flowers – a bunch
Rice flour – 3 – 4 tablespoon
Water – as required
Salt – to taste
Turmeric powder – a pinch
Kalonji/ kaljeera seeds – 1 teaspoon
Oil – For Frying
Mix the bunch of Shojne Phool/ Moringa Flowers along with the buds with the rice flour, salt, tumeric powder, kal jeera seeds and water to form a lump or ball with the mixed flowers.
Heat the oil in a frying pan.
Pinch out a small bit from the lump and fry in the hot oil as fritters till crispy and golden brown in colour.
Drain and serve hot with rice.
“Shutki khain ni? Koi faimu? – Do you eat shutki? Where can you find it?” a question which resonated this half of Shapla’s life in her residency days! Back home her elders sure knew how to handle their fish – dried, fermented to perfection and used sparingly mixed with seasonal vegetables as a broth or just coarsely ground with garlic, ginger and alot of chillies – yours truely and a sincere accompaniment with your meals – the dry fish chutney!
Kumro Patay Chingrir Bora
With the onset of the rains, the pumpkin vines clamoured any bystander means of support with a profusion of the dark green leaves ready to be plucked and stir fried with a thick mustard paste – the chorchori or as a jacket for the spicy small sized shrimps – the kucho chingri…
Shrimps/Chingri – 200 gms (descaled, deveined, head and tail removed)
Onion – 2 finely chopped
Green chillies – 7-8 finely chopped
Turmeric powder – ¼ teaspoon
Red chili powder – ½ teaspoon
Salt – to taste
For the Batter
Besan/bengal gram flour – ½ cup
Rice flour – ½ cup
Turmeric powder – ½ teaspoon
Salt – to taste
Kumro Patta/Tender pumpkin leaves – 7 – 8
Oil – for frying
Grind the shrimps and a quarter of the chopped onions to a coarse paste. Add the chillies, onions, turmeric powder, chilli powder and salt. Mix it well and keep aside.
Mix the besan with the rice flour, turmeric powder and salt and make a thick batter.
Soak the tender pumpkin leaves in hot water with a pinch of salt for around ten minutes. Take the leaves out of the water and drain the excess water. Spread these soaked leaves on a plate and place a small portion of the shrimp mixture on it. Gently wrap the leaves from all sides and make a small packet. Repeat for all the leaves.
Heat the oil in a deep frying pan. Dip the leafy packets in the hot oil and deep fry till golden brown and crispy.
Serve hot with piping hot chai.
As the sun dips into the horizon, Shapla whispers to herself, “eh Khomla, eh Hoilda, Harai gesi Re Ami…” (these orange and yellow hues of life, I really am lost…) Lost she maybe, life has not lost her though, she still wears those faded pieces of her “comilla cotton” – the dhuti sarees, cuts her vegetables into those uniform dices with the “Bothi” (sharp knife fixed to a stand), makes perfect food with the right touch of the flavours of Sylhet, eats her “Bubbi” as in “Bubbi” spitting out the seeds upon the shadows and the silhouette of the days gone bye…. yet she still dreams of the Surma Valley and a sticky rice called Biroin…