Monday, August 1, 2011

My Experiments with the Bothi

Being in Kolkata implies being immersed in traditional eating (and cooking). Bengalis are passionate about their food and are happiest when eating it and perhaps equally happy while talking about it. It was no surprise then that my thoughts turned towards a long cherished dream - the idea of acquainting myself with a bothi.

A bothi is a traditional sickle-like knife that is nailed to an iron or wooden stand. Traditionally a woman sits down and runs the vegetables along the sharp edge of this knife in different ways to generate a variety of shapes and sizes of cut vegetables that the cook can then transform into various dishes. Using a bothi requires a high level of precision and skill; the blade is very sharp and at times the vegetables need to be cut very fine to generate a particular texture while cooking.

Perhaps it can all be done using a conventional knife, but the traditional way is with the bothi - and so something in me felt that my knowledge of traditional cooking would be incomplete unless I had used it (perhaps mastered it). I felt instinctively that the bothi is more suited to some aspects of Indian cooking, certainly to the Indian way of doing things. A knife is useful for cutting straight and even pieces but when it comes to curves, a bothi is more handy. There is also the advantage of being able to sit on the floor instead of standing for long hours.

So, on a sunny afternoon, I asked one of the maids to show me how to use the bothi and we spent a pleasant hour cutting cabbage and potatoes in different (completely unusable!) shapes according to various recipes. It took a long time because I was assiduously trying not to cut my fingers to the bone!
At the end of this practice session, I decided to buy a bothi and try and use it periodically at home. The movement of peeling and slicing on this knife has a nice feel to it. So the entire family set off on an expedition to Kali Ghat (which abuts the famous Kali temple) where traditional cooking ware is sold.

We were directed to a particular shop and amidst all the modern bothis with iron nailed on to wood, we spotted a beautiful one made completely in iron, with a slender frame and a beautiful slope and curve. I wanted to try it and sat down (on an old newspaper offered by the shopkeeper) on the dusty floor of the tiny shop. I put my knee down on the bothi and held it in place and looked around for something to slice. Spotted some old, used matchsticks but decided to abstain! The bothi seemed well designed and the shop keeper appeared satisfied with our selection.

He said it cost two hundred rupees but he would sell it to us for a hundred and fifty and it would last two hundred years without requiring re-sharpening! To illustrate, he picked up a piece of metal and began shaving off slivers from it using the bothi. Some of the family members shuddered. I was wary but calm as I know that a blunt knife is often more hazardous than a sharp one. The man looked at our pale faces and continued blithely, "This bothi was made in Bangladesh. You can't get these here. They were used in the war to behead people..." We looked at each other and decided it was time to get going.

The man waved a cheery goodbye. "Try it and if you like it, come back," he said and the bothi was gingerly passed on from hand to hand until it reached mine, where it remained, firmly held until we reached home.
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