Monday, June 6, 2011

Memories Of Daya

Orissa is an unusual state - mired in poverty, hit periodically by cyclones and violence yet known for its natural beauty, wondrous temples, unique weaves (that create the ikat and bomkai sarees), its sensuous classical dance and uniquely talented people. Oriya cooks are considered amongst the best in the country and to me, Daya was amongst the best of the cooks I have seen.

He came to work for Mashi, my husband's aunt in Calcutta, when he was a young boy and stayed on until his sons grew up and it was time for him to return to the village. Trained by Mashi, over time his repertoire grew and in his last few years (when I got to know him), it was modified by his own views on how food should taste.

Thus I saw changes and innovations introduced based on some picture he had in his mind - a technique I often use myself when cooking. But each person's mind brings forth its own images and the dishes he created had his own signature of simplicity, lightness and of course - a wonderful flavour.

During my visits to Calcutta, I would spend each morning watching him cook and discussing politics (a subject he was very fond of) - a ritual that both of us enjoyed immensely. Thus I watched him grinding the masalas, the marinades, the powdered spices by hand on the grinding stone, watched him slicing vegetables dextrously, frying fish - large and small with an ease and fearlessness that I admired!
Buying live crabs at one's doorstep (Calcutta style!)

I learnt how to gauge the temperature of oil suitable for frying without using a thermometer, the best way to crumb fish, to fill 'chops' (stuffed Bengali cutlets), to lighten the heaviness of mustard paste (a favourite Bengali ingredient, very hard on the stomach!), to make unusual shukto (a mix of specific vegetables and seasoning), rosella chutney and murighonto (my favourite - a slow cooked preparation using fish head). Bengalis are very particular about the way each vegetable is to be cut (the size and shape depend on the specific dish that is prepared) but Daya never stuck to the traditional. He preferred long wedges of brinjals (aubergines) to thin round slices, large cubes of potatoes to small ones - and who were we to argue? Everything tasted so good! His speciality was making things crisp on the outside and tender within, something I have not properly mastered yet.

He is back in his village now and all I have is a tiny notebook with scribbled notes and recipes to remind me of those morning cooking sessions. Whenever I pull out my kadhai or grinding stone and my Bengali ingredients- the mustard oil,
the river fish, the pui daata (tender stems of pui), the panch phoron (mix of five spices) and more, I unconsciously think of Daya and try and recreate those flavours in my mind before I am ready to begin. Since then, several cooks have come and gone in Mashi's house but I have never had the same level of interaction with any of them. They cook well, but something is missing for better or worse - it's Daya's light hand with the spices, his general concern about everyone in the family, his hovering presence in the dining room - and his strong views on various political parties!
Daya - what is he holding?

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