Updated: Nov 29, 2021
It would not be incorrect to say that every child loves sweets. I was, therefore, no exception. I had a sweet tooth and a delightful weakness towards everything with sugar in it.
Even Krishna, my laughing, singing and dancing God, would Go to any length to meet his craving for homemade sweet butter. That is why the devotees affectionately call him Makhan Chor. So strong was his love for sweets that he did not hesitate to lie to his mother. You must have heard the famous lines, Maiya mori mein Nahin Makhan Khayo (translate: mother, I did not steel butter). Krishna is perhaps the only Hindu God who is made offerings of Chapman Bhog (fifty six dishes) on special occasions.
This is a story of my love for sweets and my culinary journey from a young child to an adult. I was born in lower middle class and our means were limited. We had migrated to Delhi after partition of the country and lived in a government allotted quarter in Lodhi Colony. We were a large family, four brothers and six sisters.
As a child, there was no question of getting any pocket money. Getting regular food on the table was considered a big quest. Only snacks available to us were the left-over chapatis of last night.
I used to play a lot and often felt hungry. I would sneak in to the kitchen, pick up the left-over chapati of the last day, apply ghee on it, sprinkle salt over it, roll the chapati and relish it. I used to call it my royal treat.
In nursery, I studied in a sort of play school where we played fun games under the open sky. Those were hard times just after the partition of country. The school was started by a refugee family in their house in Lodhi Colony .
Classes were held in the park opposite teacher’s house. I was really fond of my teacher, a fair and pretty women.She treated me like her son and pampered me with candies and toffees. It was a sort of luxury for me as my parents could never afford such things. I used to sit in her lap, open her purse, take out her lipstick and apply it to her lips. All the children in the class including the teacher would find it very funny and laughed uproariously.
During one of these days, my mother made a plan to get some biscuits made at the local bakery shop. There was some money she had saved for this little luxury for her children. . I was elated on getting this information. I refused to go to school that day. Instead, I accompanied my mother to the bakery shop. We carried all the ingredients like atta, ghee, maida etc from our house and had to pay only the making charges. It was a big occasion for me.
The shopkeeper liked me and in good humour, appointed me the biscuit taster. He said beta, as I bring out out of oven a tray of piping hot biscuits, taste one of them and let me know how it tastes. Also point out the short-comings so that I can improve them. I took the job seriously and graded each tray. As he brought out a tray of biscuits from hot oven, he offered me a piece to taste and tell him how it is. God knows how many varieties of biscuits he made me taste. I loved the job. It was heavenly experience. I must have tasted about a dozen biscuits that day. On our way back, we crossed my school and my teacher asked the reason for my absence that day. My mother laughingly narrated our visit to local bakery and number of biscuits I tasted there. My teacher picked me up in her arms, kissed me and asked, naughty boy, where is my share of biscuits. I looked at my mother who gladly obliged, opened the tin and gave my teacher a handful of biscuits
Atta biscuits were the best we tasted as children. Than I upgraded to chocolate biscuits one day when I was in class fourth. My Mamu jaan visited our house. He was quite liberal with his money. He was only brother of four sisters.I was youngest of my brothers. I touched his feet as was the custom. He patted me, kissed me and placed a chavanni, now twenty five paisa coin in my palm. It was a royal sum for me. I never got any pocket money.
My school, the NDMC primary school, was at a walking distance from my home. There was a small shop outside the school building, selling various things, needed by students. It also sold biscuits and toffees of various kinds.I was eyeing chocolate cream biscuits for a long time. I called my best friend and headed straight for this shop. Now the question was how best to utilise my chavanni.
There were many options. I could buy cream biscuit, chocolate and two kachoris filled with Channas dipped in gravy and laced with tamarind which gave channas redish tinge. We could also go for samosas and jalebi, or burfi. Finally we settled for kachori-channa, chocolate biscuit and toffee. I still remember thrill of that taste.
I was in class fifth now. One day, Sant bhai took me to Connaught Place on his bicycle to show me my first movie inside a cinema hall. It was Plaza cinema. During interval he took me to the cinema canteen and gave me a royal treat, a coke and ice cream. I was thrilled. I was in for another surprise with in a few days. My second elder brother, Shyam bhai was a strict type and all of us stayed away from him. I got the surprise of my life one day when he asked me if I was interested in a big Pepsi and ice cream. I could not believe my ears. I shook my head vigorously and said yes. Alright meet me at Sardar ji ka hotel in Khanna market in the evening. We were living in Lodhi Colony at that time . Sardar ji ka hotel was the place where Shyam bhai used to meet his gang of friends in the evening.
I reached there at the appointed time. Some of Shyam bhai’s friends were already there. Once they knew that I was the younger brother of Shyam Bhai, they called for some pastries and patties for me. But I was afraid bhai may not like it. As they were coaxing me to eat, Shyam Bhai arrived. He gave me a smile and asked me to go ahead. It was a grand royal treat for a small child who only had access to stale chapatis.
We are Saraswat Brahmins and a part of us are non vegetarians. Our family in general is vegetarian but on occasions,most of men and some of women do not mind tasting a non vegetarian meal. My mother was a vegetarian and did not allow preparation of non vegetarian meals in her kitchen. When a special guest, like her brother arrived, she made a compromise by providing angithi with burning coal, separate utensils to cook non veg food in our balcony.
Our uncle would go to the market to buy best portions of lamb meat. Preparation of mutton would start with uncle sitting on a stool in his colourful lungi and kurta, stirring mutton in pure desi ghee over angithi. We youngsters surrounded uncle admiring his skills at preparing mutton. No doubt he was really good at this job. Mutton was prepared on slow fire with aroma of condiments spreading all around you.
As masala started getting cooked and mutton became tender, uncle gave masala and a piece of meat to one of us to taste it. As you tasted mutton and masala, you were supposed to point out weak points of cooking, whether quantity of salt, pepper and other condiments was adequate and whether mutton had become real tender. Believe me, mutton and masala tasted real great with an overnight left over chapati. As mutton was getting ready,my mother had lit her tandoor to make delicious tandoori roti and paranthas. Along with mutton and tandoori roti, we had onions and tomatoes dipped in lemon juice. Believe me, the meal tasted heavenly. But such occasions were rare. Mostly we ate vegetarian meals.
I was 15 now and had completed my schooling. But I was yet to dine at a restaurant. Leave aside restaurant, I had not visited even a dhaba by this time. Opportunity came but not at my home town, Delhi. My father passed away when I was in class tenth. It was biggest shock of my life. I went into depression and suffered convulsions. My Soma Mausi, god bless her soul, visited us.
She was really wise and practical. She told my mother, Janaki, I am taking Harish with me to Ambala. Change of place and atmosphere will help him recover faster. My college education started at Ambala. With in six months , I was back to normal.
My first chance to taste food outside came in second year Of college. My local friends took me to famous Pooran Singh ka dhaba. In 1961, his dhaba was just set up on a trolley parked outside Ambala Cantonment railway station. There were no chairs, only charpoys. His mutton and chicken curry were out of this world, real tasty and sumptuous. Best thing about Pooran Sing was that you could ask for second helping of gravy. He was generous and it was a pleasure eating at his dhaba. Now there are three or more dhabhs outside railway station, all claiming to be real Pooran Singh ka dhaba. People travelling on GT road stop their vehicles even today to taste his good food.
I was now in first year of my graduation. One day, my friend Lalit rushed into my hostel room . Listen buddy, he said, Defence cinema in Cantonment is showing Roman Holiday. You know the cast, Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, a lovely movie. Let us go, was my reply. We took a local bus to Cantonment. You know Harish, Lalit said, we have some time. Why not drop in at Standard restaurant and have a glass of beer with French fries. I know it would be another first for you. I thought for a moment and said why not, let it be another experience. I liked beer. Waiter brought bill. Surprisingly both of us were short of money, each thinking, other one has it. Both of us looked at each other. We were reminded of scenes from movies where hero had to wash utensils under similar circumstances. We were in deep thought when all of a sudden, Lalit stood up and sprinted out side. I was shocked. Sure I was in deep trouble. Then door opened and Lalit entered the room with a smile on his face. He called the waiter and paid the bill. He said, Harish, as we were mulling over the situation, I saw through the window one of my relatives crossing the road. Rest you know. Thank god was my reaction.
Let us go back now I said. what nonsense, he said.We would go to defence cinema for movie. The movie was real good and we loved every moment of it. The best part of defence cinema was its tiny canteen which served excellent hot dogs. I can still feel their taste in my mouth. From college, I was selected as emergency commissioned officer in army. Fine wining and dining became a part of my life. After six years of army life, I shifted to civil life. I joined Indian Information Service and served for more than thirty two years as radio journalist. I got opportunity to taste cuisines of various countries as well as cuisines of various states with in the country.
Well friends, this is my culinary journey starting from my childhood with atta biscuits and moving on to best of wining and dining.