Monday, 16 June 2014

From the Nawab's orchard

Murshidaba, the erstwhile seat of the Bengal Nawabs, has always inspired in me a sort of reverent fascination, while triggering a kind of melancholy nostalgia. To me, the hoary arches, the magnificent domes, the intricate temple carvings and the majestic palaces of this historic city all seem to narrate an exciting tale of past grandeur, but one that gives way to a heart-wrenching story of stripped glory, hatred, treason and misfortune. The shameful tale of how the mellifluous melody of the sitar and sarangi was silenced by the deadly blare of cannon fire and the mighty pride of the Nawab throttled and stripped, the ignoble assaults on the city’s soul, of treacherous friends, gory murders and unashamed gluttony, is a tale that sends down a chill down your spine.

No, I have never been to Murshidabad, but after all the reading I have done over the years, that's how I see the place! 

And while its history, and its palaces and mosques, fascinate me, what bowled me over recently was the sheer variety of mangoes that Murshidabad produces. I, as part of the Kolkata Food Bloggers, was recently invited to attend the Mango Haat at The ITC Sonar, Kolkata, a joint initiative of ITC Sonar and the Murshidabad Heritage Development Society, which showcased a delightful assortment of mangoes from Murshidabad. A bonus was a sneak-peek at the cuisine and culture of the Sheherwali Jains of Murshidabad, who have metamorphosed the chore of cutting mangoes into an intricate art and their tradition of eating and cutting mangoes, is akin to the hallowed tea ceremony of Japan, or so they say.

Of the 200 different varieties of mangoes that were once grown on the fertile soil of Murshidabad, only few have survived the perils of time and yet the list will fascinate you. There is the small but fleshy Saranga and the prized Molamjam, the exquisite Kohitoor that is so delicate that it rests on cushions of cotton pads and is turned over every few hours for it to ripen evenly and the Bengali’s favourite Himsagar. Kalapahar, Bimli, Jahanara, Bara Sahi, Chandan Kosa, egum Pasand, Nawab Pasand, Bhavani and more. Luckily for us the mangoes weren’t just for show, and I could sample any kind I fancied, cut with delightful precision by members of Sheherwali Jain families, committed to the aesthetics of mango cutting. About that, little later. 

And if the luscious, juicy, fresh mangoes weren’t enough, there was on offer a delectable assortment of mango delicacies like Tangy mango salsa on bruschetta, Mango and Basil savoury tartlets, Mango phirni and Mango maki, an assortment of sushi rolls each of which had Mango as the centre piece. The sushi was delightful but it was the Sheherwali Jain preparations that caught my fancy. So, there was Kachhe Aam ki Launji, a sweet and sour chutney that’ll add that special touch to any meal, the Kachche Aam Chana ka Kutti, which has finely diced raw mangoes and black peas come together in a lip-smacking, tangy and spicy pickle, and finally the Kacche Aam Ka Kheer, a Sheherwali delicacy that enjoys a pride of place in their hearts and palate. The kheer, made with milk and raw mango pulp, with a smattering of saffron is served on a bed of crushed ice – the perfect summer dessert I say. 

Pradip Chopra, the President of the Murshidabad Heritage Development Society has penned a book, Mangoes from Murshidabad, which tracks the history of mangoes in the country and compiles a number of interesting anecdotes, legends, and reminiscences pivoting the king of fruits in its copious Murshidabadi avatars. It also illustrates the hallowed tradition of cutting mangoes so dear to the Sheherwali Jains of Murshidabad. 

The book traces the first mentions of mangoes to the ancient texts like the Brahadarankya Upanishads, and how Kalidasa attributed to mango a glory spot in literature and how under Akbar mango claimed royal patronage.

From Mangoes of Murshidabad

From Mangoes of Murshidabad
The British weren't immune to the charm of mangoes and they had them exported to their home country. The book also includes a letter from 10 Downing Street, a vote of thanks,  for the mangoes sent to the then Prime Minister by the Zamindar of Harawat, of Bhagalpur, dated June 9, 1914.

From Mangoes of Murshidabad
What got me though is the recipe of the Raw Mango Kheer, a Sheherwali Jain specialty, that the book includes. And though it's difficult to find raw mangoes now. I think I managed to lay hands on one of the season's last ones and made t at home this morning. It's yum, try it. 

Kachche Aam Ka Kheer


Milk (full fat) - 1litre 
Sugar - 100 g
Raw mango - 250g 
A few strands of saffron 
Rose water: a few drops 

Bring the milk to a boil. Add sugar and reduce milk to half. 

Wash the grated mango thoroughly and then boil it in a cup of water for about 5-8 minutes. 

Drain excess water from the boiled mango pulp and hold it under running water wrapped in muslin cloth and squeeze out all excess liquid. 

Remove reduced milk from heat and add in the mango pulp, saffron strands and rose water. Cool before placing it in the refrigerator to chill. 

Best served on a bed of crushed ice! 

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