My old winter

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.Β  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 bayleaf
1 stick cinnamon
1 cardamom
1 clove
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.

18 thoughts on “My old winter

  1. What a beautifully written post – so poetic and conjured up such gorgeous images. Love the pics too – esp the hats on the gate posts πŸ™‚

    That soup sounds delicious… if my little boy wasn't allergic to lentils I'd make it in a heartbeat!

    Nic x

  2. You always are able to bring forward what is deep inside me and many be many more. I was earnestly waiting to see if you write about the peas and I found it:) Shelling the fresh peas is what I loved to do with ma.
    I could read this again and again. Last summer we were in Kolkata and as we were walking around the familiar places these are the things I was telling my girls.. then and now and pointing to all places that are my own and loved forever. Felt a certain sense of accomplishment when they walked down park street and ate in Flurys and touched the walls of St. Xaviers. They were my accomplishment; not sure if they could really connect.

  3. Thanks Nic! I wish I had some photographs of a foggy Calcutta winter to share with you. But I'm sure the images you conjured up are as lovely! πŸ™‚

  4. You said it perfectly Soma – 'places that are my own and loved forever'.
    We should be in Kolkata this Pujo, and I can't wait to show my daughter the city I know so well. Tea in Flurys will, of course, be on the list.

  5. hello Pia,

    I just now discovered your blog via Orangette.

    It's lovely here! Your photography made my stomach start to grumble – I will definitely try your shrimp and lentils recipe.

    thanks for this beautiful space & I look forward to reading,


  6. Emma, this winter has been unlike any other British winter we've experienced. Lots of blue skies and clear, sunny days. It's Feb, and I'm not sick of it yet. That's something! πŸ™‚

  7. Your writing is soothing. I haven't been around lately and it's lovely to arrive here first. Oh, and that orange sky … timed perfectly. I have only red lentils in the cupboard — will that do for this recipe? Comfort food to add to my repertoire! Thank you.

  8. thanks grace πŸ™‚ i did rush to get the camera when i woke up to that sky πŸ™‚ it was gorgeous.
    i'm afraid red lentils aren't good for roasting. and it's the roasted smell of mung (yellow lentils) that makes this recipe what it is. i can promise you though that the recipe's worth a visit to the asian store to stock up on the yellow πŸ™‚

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