The forbidden drink and an unforgettable experience

 

Bhang Thandai/spiced milk and nut drink

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I have never attended any carnival in any city except Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I must say, that’s a crazy carnival. The experience is quite crazy. But, I think the craziness during Durga Puja in Calcutta is incomparable to any festival anywhere in the world. It lasts for several weeks and then the hangover lasts long after the festival is over. New clothes, street food, lights, noise, music, art, all in overwhelming amounts. Far beyond what anybody actually needs. Not that I am complaining though. The over-saturating experience is what we crave for the entire year.

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It was the tenth day of the festival. Everybody was ready to say goodbye to the Goddess. The bhashan/ procession started from her friend’s place and they were headed to the river to immerse the earthen idol, the customary way of sending the goddess back to her husband Shiva. On the way was a stall selling delicious “bhang thandai” (cannabis-laced spiced milk drink). In a scene which is repeated every year without fail, members of the procession stealthily slipped into the stall and bought a few bottles. Fresh Cannabis sativa leaves are made into a paste, mixed with chilled thickened milk, nuts and spices into a deliciously heady concoction (pun intended). I guess it helps to numb the sadness of Devi Durga’s departure. In that procession was a girl, pretty naïve and really lacking any idea of how bhang can mess with your head very quickly.

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Just after she finished a small bottle, even before she could realize, she was transported into an altered state of consciousness. She had the feeling that someone was physically throwing her off the truck. She felt helpless, although this helplessness was nothing compared to what she was about to feel for the next 24 hours. Soon, the majority of her motor nerves were totally nonfunctional. She could hear everything going on around her but was unable to respond. Lying helplessly immobile but painfully conscious for the next 12 hours, thinking this might be the last night of her life. She couldn’t sleep, it was miserable. She was awake but couldn’t open her eyes. Couldn’t say a single word. Helplessness grabbed her with tight arms and was unwilling to let her go. Finally, next morning, after several cups of black coffee fed to her one sip at a time by her caring boyfriend (only slightly less intoxicated himself), she could open her eyes and after much effort say a few words. It was a day of rebirth for her.

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Very early the next morning, the morning she never thought of seeing, she made a promise. A promise to never drink bhang again in her life. And she kept the promise. But remembering how delicious it was, she didn’t want to miss something that good just because of one nasty experience. So, when her friend asked her about a drink which might be equivalent to the bhang thandai in Calcutta, her brain lit up. After a quick Google search, she found something very very similar to that drink, but without that one nasty ingredient. It’s rich, creamy, nutty and unbelievably tasty. The original recipe calls for alcohol but I didn’t add any. If you are a high-functioning alcoholic like my husband, feel free to add some. You can also add the dry spice according to your own choice. You can skip it altogether if you do not like it spiced. I couldn’t find melon seed in my pantry, so skipped that too and increased the nut a little bit.

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Burruf has arrived from Boston and so has the strawberry lemonade

DSC_0772“Do you need ice?” the steward asked. “No, thanks.” I replied. “Are you sure?” he said, looking surprised. I said “yes, I am sure” and took a small sip from my can of orange juice. My immediate reaction was “excuse me, can I have some ice please?” The steward was overjoyed and said “I knew it!” Thus went the conversation during my first airplane flight in the USA. As I was unaccustomed to adding ice to every drink and even water, I didn’t realize that not wanting ice would be such a shock to an American.

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Historically, ice was not a daily necessity for Indians, even though ours is a tropical country and summer is the longest season. Outside of the Mughal court, which obtained it in limited quantities from Kashmir, ice became commercially available only during the British Raj, and even then it came all the way from the United States and was essentially a super-luxury item. As such, the average Indian probably never even got to see ice, but at least the wealthy Babus might have had a chance to have a glass of claret or chilled beer with their colonial masters when it first showed up in Calcutta in 1833 on the S.S. Tuscany. Hard to even imagine now, but the ice that those long-dead members of the city’s elite put in their drinks travelled four months from Boston to Calcutta.

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However, although ice itself may have been a rarity, the concept of ice making was not completely new to Indians. In ancient times, ice was made in small batches by setting very shallow pans of water out in far northern parts of the country where temperatures dropped below freezing at night throughout the year. The thin layer of ice thus formed was stored in pits dug in the ground to keep it frozen, and slowly the addition of successive layers would create a sizable block of ice. It was still extremely uncommon for the common man in most parts of the subcontinent to have ever seen ice during his lifetime. Even in 1833, the contemporary newspapers record that the arrival of ice caused great amazement among the ordinary natives of Calcutta, one of whom asked the American crewmen if it grew on trees or underground. Although by the first decades of the 20th century, ice was available increasingly from commercial ice factories, ice became a domestic item only with the advent of electricity and refrigerators, which in some parts of India (such as my husbands ancestral town of Dibrugarh) were unavailable even to rich people as late as the 1940s.

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Anyway, speaking of ice, the summer in my area is getting shorter every year; I am also in disbelief that the temperature is struggling to touch 80F in the beginning of August. But, I am determined; the vagaries of weather cannot beat my love for chilled drinks on long hot summer afternoons. Before the winter monster grabs you through ten layers of clothing, go ahead and make yourself a glass of strawberry lemonade. Summer is too short to wait.

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Recipe:

Take strawberries, blend them in a blender, really smooth. Roughly/finely chop some mint or basil leaves and drop them in the strawberry puree. Add the lemon juice and few slices/rounds of lemons. Make a simple syrup with sugar (1:1 sugar to water ratio). Cool it down and chill it in the fridge. Add the syrup to the lemonade and taste it. Adjust accordingly. Chill it in the fridge. Right before you want to serve, add cold water to your preference (I like my lemonade a little thick) and ice to the strawberry puree. You can strain the lemonade if you want. I poured it from a jug which has a strainer (sort of) in the cap. Garnish with few lemon wedges and fresh mint or basil leaves.

You can find an alternative recipe here where the basil leaves are blended with the strawberries.

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Pora aamer shorbot/ Aam panna/roasted mango drink:

Aampora_bottle_glassIt’s not poila boishakh (start of the lunar Bengali year) but this aam-porar shorbot takes me back to my childhood memories of that day. On poila boishakh every store opens a new account book (haal khata) to record the coming year’s sales. At the same time, they balance and close the previous year’s books. Regular customers are invited to stop by and treated to sweet and savory snacks (no doubt softening their minds before they are politely asked to pay their remaining debts to the storekeepers, which is a big help to the book-keeper who has to tally the credits and debits before the day is done). I don’t know much about the state of this custom nowadays, but when I was a kid, it was a pretty big deal. We got invitations from several different stores ranging from neighborhood grocers to cycle stands. To many of you cycle stands might be a new term, but not to people who used to or still commute daily from the suburb to the city for work or to school. These unique establishments were essentially valet-assisted bicycle garages right next to the suburban (or “local”) train stations. We parked our bicycles there and boarded the trains. There was a monthly rate which was cheaper than the daily rate. It was amazing how they knew almost every customer and their time of commute. They would park the bikes according to your time of arrival so that they don’t have to go through the entire lot to find your bike when you came to claim it. They used to get a little pissed off if you arrive at a different time than your usual time (if you had to do this, they preferred advance notice). This made sense, as you broke routine, they literally had to move hundreds of cycles packed like sardines in order of approximate return time to extricate yours.

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Bicycle stand next to Chandannagar station. Photo courtesy: Ramkrishna Basak

Photo1439When I was a kid, there were only a couple of cycle stands next to the station. Among them was Khan Cycle Stand, a large and pioneering establishment where my Baba used to park his bicycle every day. Being a veteran customer, he got the ‘haal khata’ invitation every year. Poila boishakh is usually around April 15th, when the summer has started showing its furious temper. I was an only child for a long time and used to accompany Baba to the stores. Among many other poila boishakh memories, the one which sticks in my mind like yesterday is the taste of the aam-porar shorbot served at Khan Cycle Stand every year. We never had aam-porar shorbot at home. Poila baisakh was the only day we had it and it tasted like heaven. After so many years, I wanted to recreate the aam-porar shorbot at home. I wish I could do it on Poila boishakh, but life in the United States does not always allow for such indulgences. I don’t think I can recreate the exact taste of that particular shorbot, but it tasted very good. Nostalgia always makes things taste better anyway. So, here you go, a small sip from a glass full of my childhood memories.

Aam_porar_shorbotThere is as such no exact measurement. I am giving you the recipe and you can adjust your portion.

 All you need is a couple of green mangoes, black salt, roasted cumin-coriander-red chili powder and sugar. Oh! And few ice cubes if you want it to be chilled.

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DSC_0125Roast the mangoes on open fire, either on stove top or on charcoal. Roasting it in the oven might not give you the best result but if you cannot make it any other way, go for the oven. Roast the mangoes until the entire skin changes color becomes almost yellowish and feels mushy when touched. Cool it off and peel the skin. Scrape off the pulp and keep it in a container. I scraped it with a spoon. It gets really messy but it’s well worth the mess. You can keep the pulp in the refrigerator for few weeks if there is no water and the container is tightly closed.

 Aampora_bottleWhen you want to prepare the drink, take a couple tablespoon of the pulp, add water, sugar and the black salt and give it a good stir. Check for seasoning. Keep it in the fridge for 15-20 minutes or more to chill the drink. Take it out, add the roasted powder, few ice cubes and drink it. If you use ice cold water, you can avoid the chilling part. Trust me, it tastes heavenly on a hot summer day.

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