Sunday, March 16, 2014

Of Achars, Chutneys and Halwas: A Lifestyle Getting Lost Through Branding and Mass Production

Mangoe Flowers: Bur
Yesterday I heard the Koel's cu-ckoo and I could hear my nani jan (grandmother) calling from the past saying that this is spring time. There is now "bur" (small flowers) on the mango trees. "Remember Irfan, you need to go to the market to get the kai-rees (unripe mangoes)". Planning for the annual ritual of preparing the mango "achar" would then be underway.


We used to have two or three murtabans (earthenware urn) that were pulled out from the top shelf of the cabinet in the store under the sharp supervision of my mother and carefully brought down to avoid breaking or chipping off. The top shelf was for achar murtaban because it had to be stored in a dry place and also because it needed to be kept away from the casual prowlers like us kids. Only the determined could get there, those who had a purpose and also had the clean and dry serving spoon of a kind that could go in and take out the achar even from the bottom of murtaban. Using of a wet or an improper spoon was a crime because it would spoil the achar and would lead to the growth of fungus. 

Murtaban
Once on the ground, the martaban were emptied and the residue of achar from the last season, which often then  just be the leftover oil, was taken out and transferred to other utensils, and the murtabans were thoroughly washed, cleaned and dried in the sun. The murtabans we had were  larger in height and size to the one shown in the picture. The opening was smaller and it had proper lid. We would also often receive four or five murtabans from my mamoos (maternal uncles) who would not like to eat any achar except the one made by their mother (my nani jan). Of course, how can any other achar compare with the one that has the love, affection and care of the mother oozing out from each bite!

The arrival time for the correctly formed kai-rees was carefully monitored. The guthli (seed shell) of the kai-ree ought to have a well formed jaal (mesh), neither too soft nor too hard. The ripening of the mangoes should not have begun. So, for the purchase my mother would send my sister(s) and me to the sabzi mundi (Old Raja Bazar, Rawalpindi). We would buy at least several darhi (unit of 5 kilos) of kai-rees along with other stuff and were then supposed to haul the purchase back to the bus stop at committee chowk and then loaded in the bus, and then from the bus stop in Islamabad had to be carried to our appartment. Hard work for twelve-fifteen year olds, but we never complained and took such assignments in our stride as an adventure and part of the responsibility that comes with the growing up.

The next stage was to cut each of the kai-rees into four or six pieces depending upon the size using a bigger kitchen knife and a hammer as a mallet. This would end the manually intensive part of the work which also included purchase of the sarson (mustard) oil and other ingredients. The rest of the process was then taken over by Nani Jan assisted by my sisters. It included putting the cut pieces in the oil and adding of the ingredients at various points in time. My only contribution then was transporting the heavy murtabans from place to another as they went into the sun and back into the shade. Some time later, the murtabans were ready with the delicious achar. And up they went back again to the top shelf of the store for safe keeping and avoiding of the moisture. Mammoos who were typically outstation, would get their murtabans shipped and we would be left with our murtabans to enjoy the achars until the next season.

These kai-rees were eaten in various forms and were also turned into chutneys. One was the gur-umba, prepared with desi sugar (gur) along with flour and kai-rees, which I was very fond of eating especially with fresh balai (cream). There were two others that were prepared around the same time and these could also be kept for a long time. One was called nau-nachra and the other was I think prepared from the dried juice of the ripe mangoes in the form of flat transparent strips. Both would survive without referigeration for a long time.

There was that fragrant fresh chutney of lehsun-podina (gralic and mint) and dhuniya-podina (fresh coriandor and mint) that would add spice to a simple dish like dal and chawal (white rice and lintel currey), which is also delicious with a small portion of achar. Chutneys like these would liven up simple dishes and make that simple meal memorable. These were prepared by the women folks in the house in no time.

Then would come the time for halwas. The option of going to halwai to buy sweat mithai was was only exercised during special celebrations. Sweat dish at home used to be halwa, often prepared at a short notice. A guest was served such halwa with tea. There were so many varieties and each variety had so many recipes. However, the customary ones at our home were sooji ka halwa (from semolina), besan ka halwa (from gram flour) and then of course the speciality of the winter gajjar ka halwa (from carrots).
Besan ka Halwa

I still remember the nok-jhok that my elder aunt (mother's eldest sister) used to have with my father when she would come to our place. On any occasion of happiness she would tease by asking for one maund mithai and the resulting good naturedly exchange would end up with the serving of the halwa prepared in a short time, served, eaten with relish and enjoyed. It was the interaction full of affection and care rather than the act of eating that had the value, although enjoyment in eating would always be the ruse.

Achar, chutneys and halwas would spice up and liven up the social interaction that accompanied a simple meal. It was the process of making these simple specialities with that bit of individuality and creativity that would add flavor to relationships. In those simple days, people may drop in at any time at any of their distant or close relatives. There were no phones and announcing your arrival was considered a bad taste. The guests were welcomed with open arms and whatever was in the house would be presented with such specialities. What was presented was not as important as the way it was presented and the way visitors were welcomed.

These were the proverbial "mehman nawazi" traditions handed over from one generation to another over centuries. Traditions where eating alone without some guest invited on the dustarkhwan (cloth on which dinner is laid out) was not OK. There are stories of people waiting to start their meals till such time that a guest could be found. People would often go out to the mosque trying to find a wayfarer or a vistor who could be invited. A person sleeping in the neighborhood without eating was to invite the wrath of the creator. Sharing of meals without the expectation of a return was a lesson taught early.


The lifestyle that was built around the rituals of preparing these tasteful specialities and the traditions of "mehman nawazi" is now being taken over by crass commercialization of brands resulting from mass production processes. How can these packaged and machine prepared recipes compare with the love, affection and the rituals surrounding the preparation and serving of these specialities. The packaged varieties offer convenience at the cost of our lifestyle and social interactions.

The new lifestyle now comes with its own baggage of the transactional nature of capitalist intentions. The social interaction is now viewed in terms of the brand name of the package, its wrapper and the price of the presentation and its venue. No wonder our interactions are now so transactional, transitory and lifeless. We now miss the association, warmth and the leisure of enjoying the company of those whom we loved unconditionally. There was care and affection offered and reciprocated to people as they were, without the makeup and with the effort of keeping up with the appearances. People were accepted as they were, with their strengths and their weaknesses, with their positive as well as their negative points. It was the ritual that was important, the product was just an excuse, and not the end as the mass producers woud have us believe.

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4 comments:

  1. unfortunately these are the consequences of 'modernization'....however, there is glimmer of hope....people who are health conscious have started to grow their own garden and are doing some form of pickling due to its tremendous health benefits..

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    1. What is "Modernization" then except lack of healthy food, lack of healthy living, lack of healthy environment, lack of healthy social interactions, lack of time for parents, lack of time for relatives, lack of time for neighbors and the list goes on and on. Is it "progress" or degradation?

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  2. simplicity has been forgotten. these ready to eat packed items are so readily and easily available from every store that people are alarmed if only two or three homemade things are served. they expect more and if one doesn't provide he is called a miser or not "mahman nawaz".

    i remember my father especially coming to Nana's house and asking for the fried bhindi (lady finger) which was so happily made for him by moomani. and he use to praise it in front of us for days.

    those were simple days.

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    1. I agree. Not only is simplicity forgotten but taking pleasure in small every day things is gone. The example that you have quoted of your father visiting a relative, asking for a simple dish to be made, and then enjoying eating it and thereafter relishing the enjoyment and sharing it around is all gone. We are now even afraid of visiting some one's house uninvited, let alone visiting and asking for some thing! Simple things, simple pleasures and simple enjoyments. Life does not have to be so complicated.

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