There was no snow at the door where I grew up. My memories of winters are very different from the ones my daughter is collecting now. Hers and mine are separated by 32 years, and continental drift.
Her winter looks like a stick-armed snowman. A row of buck naked trees. A line of little lost hats. And night-like mornings.
Her winter sounds like a group of blue-lipped carol singers, Silent-Nighting. And wood in the fire, crackling and spitting.
Her winter smells different too. Like wet clothes on a hot radiator. Like a cake in the oven. The heated upholstery of a car. Chestnuts roasting on street corners.
The winters of my childhood bear no resemblance with hers. They look different. Smell and sound different. When we were growing up, winters in Calcutta were sharper than they are today. And as it approached, thick quilted blankets would be dug out from the depths of deep drawers, and sunned on the verandah. Skin would be oiled before a bath, and sunned on the verandah too. Just like the quilts. Often next to the quilts.
My old winter looks like a taxi-driver in a monkey-cap. It looks like Park Street on Christmas Day. Like a foggy breath; the one that you waited for all year, and pretended was a cigarette.
When I was young, winter was an Anglophile. It demanded picnics in Victoria Memorial. Dickensian musicals on every school stage. And chicken stew with toast. Ma had a red, velvet hot water bag – made in London, and filled up before bedtime. And my brother and I would be dressed in smart sweaters, with diamond patterns, gifted by relatives who lived in the West.
The winter of my memories sounds busy, loud. Like a house full of guests, the clink of whisky glasses, Baba’s anecdotes and a room spilling with raucous laughter.
It smells like Ma’s maroon shawl, and the Diorissimo she would spray on her wrists before going out for a dinner party at Calcutta Club. It smells like a roadside bonfire, lit with newspaper and kerosene. Like fresh flowers from Gariahat Market. And a seasonal table.
In those days, people had a more patient palate. They waited for winter to cook a cauliflower. And to chop fresh, green coriander leaves. And I waited for some of my favourites from Ma’s winter kitchen. Like bhaja mung dal – roasted yellow lentils. Cooked with shrimps, coconut and green peas.
Roasted mung dal, with shrimp, coconut and green peas
The vegetarian version of this recipe is lovely too. Just skip the shrimp.
1 cup mung dal (yellow lentils)
1/2 cup shrimps. peeled and cleaned
1/2 cup green peas
1 tomato, chopped
2 tbs dessicated coconut, or 3 tbs freshly grated
1 inch ginger, finely chopped
1 stick cinnamon
1 dry red chilli
1 tsp cumin (whole)
3-4 cups water
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tbs oil
In a pan, dry roast the lentils till it’s a beautiful golden yellow. Pour water, add the ginger, bayleaf, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, tomato, pinch of turmeric and salt. Boil, then simmer till the lentils are cooked.
Now add the coconut, peas and shrimp. Simmer for a few more minutes till the peas and shrimp are cooked. Remove from heat.
In a separate pan, heat the oil. Add the cumin and dry red chilli. As soon as the cumin starts to brown, tip the oil, chilli and cumin into the cooked lentil. Give it a stir.
Transfer to your serving dish, and garnish with chopped coriander.
Serve hot, with steamed rice.