Winter Special: Kolkata’s Sweet Secrets
It’s lunchtime at Suruchi, the 50-year-old Bengali eatery situated in central Kolkata. Set up by the All Bengal Women’s Union as an income-generating vocational training centre for women in need, today it is run entirely by the women themselves. Always a busy time of day for the city’s first Bengali restaurant, in winter the regular crowds swell exponentially with an influx of visitors returning to spend the holidays in the city they once called home. They have braved Elliot Road’s midday snarl of erratic auto-rickshaws, slow-snaking trams, dangerously weaving two-wheelers, honking cars and jaywalkers, because a Bangla meal at Suruchi is a chance to savour home-style favourites like cholar dal, luchi, bhetki paturi. And the appropriate way to end their meals is with a selection of pithey—the quintessential winter sweet treat of Bengal.
Pitheys celebrate the winter harvest using fresh produce like rice, sweet potatoes, green peas, golden moong dal, dark-husked beuli dal, coconut. The pantheon comes in myriad shapes, sizes and flavours. There are savoury varieties but the vast majority are sweet, deriving their smoky sweetness from another winter star of rural Bengal, nolen gur, the freshly-tapped juice from date palm trees, slow-simmered over wood fire in fields right next to the palm groves, till the clear thin sap reduces to a thick amber syrup. Pitheys abound in Bengali folklore and nursery rhymes, and embellish Bengali humour and wit.
The feasting on pithey peaks with Poush Parbon, a three-day festival dedicated solely to making and eating pitheys of every kind, which takes place in January to mark the end of the Bengali calendar month of Poush. Poush Sankranti, when the sun migrates from the house of dhonu into makara, was the time for rural communities to reinforce old ties and reiterate ancient rhythms of life through homely rituals by serving visitors pitheys made by dexterous womenfolk.
I’m with two school friends visiting from the U.S. This December lunch at Suruchi has become an annual event, a time to catch up over the deeply satisfying tastes of our growing up years, today rarely available, lives having shifted to different, hectic grooves. The meal’s high point is always the pitheys, packing flavour and nostalgia in equal measure.
As children, winter was a time we looked forward to pitheys made by various didas—the Bengali term for grandmother, used generically to address great aunts and various older female relatives as well. These women are typically skilled practitioners of the demanding kitchen arts of Bengal, the keepers of seasonal rites and rituals. But with that generation passing on, the number of homes making these moreish, time-consuming treats is dwindling. Spotting a market opportunity, Kolkata’s sweet shops like Balaram Mullik & Radharaman Mullik and Mrityunjoy today offer a limited winter pithey selection of unpredictable quality. Now there’s also the annual Rajdanga Pithey Utsav, a three-day fair held in mid-January during Poush Sankranti that showcases a mind-boggling variety of pithey. You’ve got nakshi pithey, each ground rice confection a chiselled gem with its intricate floral design; choshir payesh, the comforting simplicity of this rice pudding belying the skill required to make the tiny rice paste dumplings cooked in gur-infused milk; and deep-fried golap pithey, named so because the dough is shaped to resemble roses (golap).
Rajdanga is located in Kasba, a newly urbanised area of eastern Kolkata that still bears the faint imprints of its rural past amidst the concrete jungle of highrises. Eating pithey here, against the background of strobe lights and blaring music, is a strange experience, at once surreal and poignant.
For us though, it all goes back to Suruchi, with its homely atmosphere, extensive repertoire, and women working collectively to recreate family recipes passed down the generations. We order a platter covering the day’s specials: plump white pillows of patishapta, delicate lacy rice flour crepes stuffed with grated coconut, thickened milk and nolen gur; a burnished heap of ranga alur puli made with the season’s first sweet potatoes, each fluffy deep-fried croquet glazed with gur syrup, concealing at its centre a treasure of sweetened grated coconut and kheer; bowls of pink-tinged puli pithey, delicate ground rice shells filled with gur-sweetened coconut, poached in gur-laced milk till tender, and served with a thick splash of the same milk; a tottering mound of rashbhara, made from an aniseed-fragrant moong batter that’s fried then immersed in liquid gur.
As we savour the sweets, Papiya Chowdhury, Suruchi in-charge comes bustling up to check on us, starched cotton
sari still looking remarkably fresh. She has been working here for almost 15 years, starting as a trainee. “Today we use non-stick cookware, steamers and gadgets that make pithey production easier, but when I started out we had heavy chakis (cast-iron griddles) that we greased using the stalk end of a sliced eggplant smeared in oil, terracotta haris (pots) of different depths and sizes, and chullahs (wood/coal stoves),” she recalls. But the mantra is quality, so rice and dal is still ground using a traditional sil nora (grinding stone) to ensure the right texture.
Papiya says with pride that the nolen gur is not bought from city shops: Suruchi accountant Subroto Roy sources it from his village, Rajghat. “We need around 20 kilograms every week in season, and during Poush Sankranti we can use that much in a day!” she laughs.
On Sankranti she hopes to reintroduce some old favourites that haven’t been made for a while: the dosa-like shoru chakli, made from rice and dal batter, eaten dipped in gur; chitoi pithey, dense little steamed rice balls enjoyed splattered with gur. My friends are distraught: they are booked to leave early January. “Next time,”
Worlds away from the noisy chaos of Elliot Road, in her elegant home in the South Kolkata Mayfair neighbourhood, textile archivist and heritage food consultant, Sangeeta Dudhoria is making pitheys whose provenance tells a fascinating and little-known tale. The Dudhorias belong to the small Sheherwali community of wealthy Jain traders who settled in Murshidabad over 300 years ago and who, over the years, developed a unique culture where nawabi and Bengali elements seamlessly blend within the strict framework of Jain practices. Sheherwali cuisine is a fascinating fusion of Jain vegetarian fare imbued with nawabi nuances and local Bengali ingredients and cooking styles. Potol (wax gourd), the Bengali five-spice mix, paanch phoron, and mustard oil have entered the Sheherwali cooking pots. So it’s no surprise to discover that an ancient cultural icon like the pithey has also been adopted by the community—of course with a Sheherwali twist.
The Bengali puli pithey has morphed into pitha, steamed rice flour dumplings stuffed with khoya and given the Sheherwali stamp with the exotic splash of rosewater. The first time I had it, Sangeeta laughed at my obvious confusion as the familiar and strange flavours exploded in my mouth and my palate tried to make sense of this delightful mix.
A savoury steamed pithey of the Bengal kitchen made from golden moong dal has entered the Sheherwali repertoire as bhapia, the simple earthy flavours of the original lifted by the addition of asafoetida and red chilli and served with the hot, spicy pickles of the Rajasthani larder.
Sangeeta and husband Siddharth have been working tirelessly to preserve and promote awareness about Sheherwali culture and cuisine. Thanks to their efforts, this sophisticated, distinctive fare—including the community’s variants of pithey—can now be enjoyed outside homes. Sangeeta has trained the chefs at the recently opened ITC Royal Bengal and the hotel’s vegetarian outlet, Royal Vega, now offers a Sheherwali thali that changes with the seasons. The winter thali includes two kinds of savoury bhapia. Sangeeta hopes the sweet pitha, currently not included because of its time-consuming preparation, will be on offer in the future.
An old Bengali rhyme ritually incanted during Poush Shankranti tempts the Harvest Spirit to remain with an array of pithey. Let’s hope these homely enticements never fade away from Kolkata’s winter spread.