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Friday, 20 May 2011

Matunga Mango Madness

If cricket is India’s national pastime, the mango is India’s national obsession. So, with the Cricket World Cup proudly won and jubilantly celebrated just a month ago, it’s all eyes now on Mango Season.

And so, this year, as every year, when May arrives, all of India (and for that matter, all Indians the globe over) go Mango-Mad. From old-school (commercials and billboards) to new-age (Twitter and Facebook), the mango talk is ubiquitous. Facebook posts discuss everything from the price of mangoes in Singapore to the benefits of an only-mango diet (I’m not kidding!), photos show kids eating “the first mango of the season,” smiling widely as the delicious yellow juice drips messily down their chins, and – closer to home, I make Sid drive me to Neasden where I pounce on a box of Alphonsos, £10.50, a dozen. Which is a bargain, given that in India, I hear, boxes of a dozen are now selling for as much 2,500 Rupees. Gold dust. Literally.

I still remember vividly, years ago when we lived in Bombay, my father bringing home the first box of Alphonsos of the year (at a considerably lower price of course,) and the entire family going crazy after that for weeks.  We’d eat the fruit for breakfast, lunch and dinner, in every possible form – the whole fruit, as part of a barrage of mouth-watering desserts, in lassi, in milkshakes, as the protagonist of an otherwise boring fruit salad...all the way till the end of mango season. When we moved away to Madras, and later to Bangalore, Alphonsos became harder to come by.  And then, when I moved to the States for college, they became a rare luxury, enjoyed on the occasional trip to India that happened to coincide with mango season, or brought over by a well-meaning relative, bravely willing to risk US Customs by sneaking one or two into dark corners of suitcases. And so, in my mind, the Alphonso is woven tightly into the fabric of my memories of Bombay.

Bombay.  That frenzied melange of extremes where dreams are made and hopes are crushed, all at the same time. A heaving mass of humanity, an island of loneliness. Bombay, with its glitz and its glamour, its wealth and its filth, an inebriating cocktail of poverty and possibility, stress and solace. A city that evokes intense passion in some and unbridled repugnance in others; a city that, for all its faults, I will always love.

I spent a considerable part of my childhood in Bombay, but even after we moved, we still visited often, mostly on account of my dad’s job. I stayed on these trips with my uncle and aunt and my two cousins, Mini and Bena. They lived in Matunga, in central Bombay, in a small but airy ground floor flat, where my father was born and raised. I never knew my paternal grandparents, my grandfather having died when my father was barely twenty-two and my grandmother joining him soon after I was born. But somehow, strangely, in that house, I felt their presence, and staying there was always curiously comforting.

That aside, I absolutely loved visiting my cousins – it was like going on holiday, all by myself. I didn’t have my parents to tell me what to do, and, as an only child, it was wonderful to have the company of someone my age. Mini, older than me by a few months, was the good one. She would study hard, do as she was told, read, and was generally so sensible, diligent and obedient that we all looked up to her. Bena, the youngest of the three of us, was the total opposite. She would run around all day long, playing games with the boys in the colony, eating kaala khatta off the streets much against her mother’s wishes, and come back home in the evening – hair tangled, mud on her face, invariably cut or bleeding or bruised. I loved her!
And so, I spent my days with these two Rao sisters in reckless abandon and total happiness.

When I think back now to the many fun times I spent with them over the years, my memories are fickle, leap-frogging all over the place. Incidents, tastes, events, conversations come back to me in flashes, but I can’t isolate them to a specific trip, age or time. It’s amazing what one remembers and how much one forgets.

Anyhow, any description of Matunga is incomplete without a discussion of the food. And there is no debate on how clearly I remember the food. My aunt, that lovely lady who I haven’t seen in way too long now, cooked so many scrumptious things for us (singlehandedly and with so much love) that it’s taken me a while to decide what I wanted to write about. Her kitchen always smelled delicious, and her food was always simple, fresh, and tantalisingly tasty. She would always wait for my uncle to return from work to serve dinner and the foursome would eat together as a family, with me as the extra appendage, if only for a few nights.

After dinner, we would spread out blankets and duvets on the living room floor and lay down together, three abreast, talking late into the night. Mini, always the conscientious one, would repeat patiently, “Enough now, chup, go to sleep, you two.”  But Bena and I, we always had a never-ending stream of things to discuss, I don’t even know what we talked about half the time, but we talked and we talked and we talked.  

Often, in the summer nights when it got too hot or muggy, we would all tiptoe into the air conditioned bedroom where my aunt and uncle were fast asleep, waking them as we jumped into the bed with them, giggling loudly at our audaciousness.

We were blissfully oblivious to the concepts of “personal space,” or “privacy,” or “me-time” in those days; the notion of complex relationship-defining terminology just didn’t exist. This was family closeness at its most natural – genuine, unconditional and without boundaries. Somehow, life was just simpler this way.

So for simplicity’s sake, I am writing about a dish that may have been the simplest one to come out of Matunga’s kitchen but also – or perhaps because of it – the most memorable. This is something that on sight alone, would always make my eyes light up. It is Aam Ras-Puri. For the uninitiated this must feel like an awfully strange combination, but trust me, this duo of perfectly round, crispy hot puris, and chilled golden yellow, sweet syrupy Alphonso nectar, is absolute heaven on earth.

This is how you do it: 

Puris

-  2 cups wheat flour
-  1 tsp oil for puri mixture and some more to deep fry
-  Salt, to taste

Add wheat flour, oil & salt in a bowl and mix. Add warm water to the wheat flour mixture to form a firm dough, and knead till smooth. Cover keep aside for about 15-20 minutes, and knead again. Now, divide into small balls and roll out each ball into a small, round shape. Heat oil in a wok. Fry the puris, one at a time, holding them under the oil on the first side until they puff. Turn and fry till golden brown. Drain any excess oil and serve immediately.
Aam Ras (roughly translated as mango juice)

-  4 ripe Alphonso mangoes
-  ½ tsp powdered cardamom
-  1 cup milk

Peel the mangoes and extract the pulp (toss the pit after a good suck!). Blend with milk and make a thick paste. You might need to add a little sugar depending on the ripeness of the mangoes, but I generally don’t think you need any added sweetness. Finally add the powdered cardamom, mix well. Chill before serving.

I don’t know how much Aam Ras and how many puris I would go through at one sitting, but given how maddeningly addictive this stuff is, perhaps it was wiser not to count! This was pure madness. Matunga Mango Madness.

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