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Monday, 21 May 2012

Bite-Sized Diamond Crunch

I’ve done some pretty cool things in my life, but I think one of the coolest things I’ve ever done is to have been born my grandmother’s granddaughter.

I simply adore her.

She is a woman of Spirit.
Even at 93.
And really, I am the luckiest little girl in the world to still have her in my life.

She’s always been my number one favourite person. In fact, her periodic visits to us from her home in Calcutta were the out-and-out highlight of my growing-up years. I looked forward to these visits like nothing else. Indeed her visits would cause so much stir in my little world that I’d deliberately never be told that Didima would be visiting until the morning of her arrival.  Because otherwise, all I would do, every day, morning and night and every minute in-between, would be to ask anybody and everybody around me when she’d be coming, up until she came! And that, of course, would be the end of all productive activity.

So, most unfairly, I would usually be told on the morning of her arrival, often over breakfast, and most often by my father, who would turn to me and announce (not without a bit of jealousy)  – “your favourite person is coming today.”

I’d scream for joy and laugh and laugh. And then I’d anxiously count down the hours with a song in my heart and a skip in my step.

And then, at long last, I’d hear her voice – thick and sweet and melty like honey – and she’d be there!

She would pick me up in her arms and I would bury my face in her neck, against her cool caramel-burnished skin that smelled of sandalwood.

Then she would kiss me all over and call me something that only she’s ever called me. She’d call me her Diamond Baby.

And then I would grab her hand and we’d run up the stairs and we’d unpack her suitcases.

One of them would always be full of presents for me.

She always packed her belongings in miscellaneous plastic bags – a fact that confounds me still. What I mean is, she’d fold three or four of her “home sarees” and put them in a plastic bag, then she’d fold another three or four of her “going-out sarees” and put them in another plastic bag, she’d put blouses in a third, socks in a fourth and so on. And then she’d fill her suitcases with the plastic bags! So when you unzipped her suitcases, all you’d see would be a million different plastic bags, each containing one or more similar items.
It’s absolutely bizarre, I know!
I’d ask her on numerous occasions why she packed like this and she’d always say, “habit, dear” Which really isn’t an answer at all, is it?

Anyway, so unpacking her suitcases always meant, de-bagging everything first. Which added to the all excitement actually. Because you never knew what was in what until you opened everything up! My presents were usually a whole assortment of goodies from New Market, or if I’d been extra good at school – AC market, which (duly named because it was the only air conditioned “mall” at the time!!) stocked all the imported stuff – rubber bands with pink plastic teddies on them and multicoloured head bands and toys and stuffed animals and dolls. Whenever she bought me stuffed toys or dolls, she’d present them to me already named, as if they were real people that I was being introduced to. Their names were always followed by a little explanation, her version of an ice-breaker, so I’d have some background information on my new friends: Frenchie because she’s made in France, Rosie because she has red cheeks, Monkey because, well, he’s a monkey!

But ah! She knew me better than anyone else. And nothing she didn’t know about me was worth knowing anyway. Because even way back then, the surest way to my heart was through my stomach. And we shared this, Didima and I, this mad love for food.

So more than the toys and the clothes and the baubles, the one thing that I knew she would always, always bring for me – positively and without fail – was a great, big jar of Nimki: the small, savoury, diamond-shaped strips of fried pastry that she knew I loved with all my heart!

And so we’d go through all the plastic packets in her suitcase and fish out the one with the jar of Nimki and she would hold it up proudly and say “Diamond Nimki for my Diamond Baby!”

And then I would sit in her lap while she sang me old Bengali songs and played with my hair while I hungrily popped the Nimki into my mouth – each Bite-sized Diamond Crunch – crisp and flaky and smacking of flavour.

Here’s what you need:
I’m adding a bit of lateral thinking to the original recipe just to make things interesting. And to make my gran proud, because she is the Queen of Improvisation of all things Food. And to add an Anglo kick to this dish.  Because like most Bengali’s, I love all things Anglo. Ha!

So, my twist is the addition of some Red Leicester cheese, which I’m mixing into the dough. Red Leicester is an English cheese, a sort of crumbly, creamy cheddar, firm and nutty and russet red. Using it in Nimki dough is a rather unorthodox experiment but I’m hoping the mellow sweetness of the cheese will be a pretty tasty foil to the sharp spicy pungency of the Nigella and Cumin seeds. Oh and don’t worry if you can’t get a hold of Red Leicester – really any kind of sharp cheese (Cheddar or Parmesan) should work really well.

If any of this works at all!!

- 250g whole wheat flour 
- 50g Red Leicester cheese (very finely grated)
- 1/2 teaspoon Nigella (kalonji) seeds
- 1 teaspoon Cumin (jeera) seeds
- Salt and black pepper, to taste
- Pinch of asafoetida (hing)
- 2-3 tsp oil and 2-3 tsp water for kneading. Use a little more if you (k)need to. Sorry, couldn’t resist that one! ;)
- 2 cups oil (for deep frying)

Here’s how you do it:
First make the dough. Now, like all things that involve flour, this takes a little bit of effort. But then, like all things that involve flour – it’s totally worth it. And this is from a yeastophobe like me, so you can imagine how good this stuff really is.

Take flour in a bowl, add Nigella and Cumin seeds, cheese, salt, black pepper, asafoetida, and oil. Knead well and add water to make it into a tight, stretchy dough.

Next, make little balls with the dough, smoothing them between the palms of your hands. Roll them out and flatten them into thin circles (My Didima always made them perfectly circular, but heck! I’m not her – mine always end up being sort of heart-shaped. But heart-shaped is nice too. Very trendy.)

Anyway, now take a sharp knife and make criss-cross slashes across the whole surface to make little diamond shapes.

So now, it looks like a broken heart.
Or a totally shattered heart.


But don’t get too sad, because I promise you’ll get cheered up as soon as you deep-fry these little beauties!

So go for it!
Heat some oil in a wok or deep-bottomed pan. When it’s nice and hot, fry the Nimki in batches. By the way, you’ve got to make sure the cheese is really, really finely grated and mixed completely into the dough, otherwise you will find that the cheese separates and burns. (Disaster.)

Remove the Nimki when golden brown and place them on a kitchen towel to drain the excess oil. Wait until they are cooled to room temperature and then store in an air-tight bottle. They last a long, long time. How long exactly, depends on your will power.

But, there you have it.

Many handfuls of crispy, crunchy, cheesy Nimki.

Your very own Bite-Sized Diamond Crunch

And even as the first one crumbles flakily upon my tongue, I can picture how Didima would have done it, all those years ago…

In my mind….

…I can picture the flat.
Sun-drenched and cool, windows open…to let in the breeze, the cries of hawkers, Tagore’s voice on somebody’s radio. The bedroom, sheer white curtains streaming in the breeze, fan whirring lazily on the high, paint-cracked ceiling, suitcases atop the solid mahogany four-poster bed, mostly packed, filled with plastic bags…

In my mind…

…I can picture her.
In her classic Bengali saree, cream with a red border, long black hair, just washed, smelling of jasmine, cascading in waves down her back, gold-rimmed glasses circling her beautiful green-hazel eyes, sparkling with concentration as she kneads and rolls and cuts and fries. Making my Nimki as part of the ritual of locking up and leaving. One last plastic packet in the suitcase, before it’s zipped and locked and marched of to DumDum.

My Nimki. Each one uniform.  A mirror of the other. Identical in every way and impossible to tell apart. Paper thin and golden brown. Perfectly made - each Bite-sized Diamond Crunch.

And here’s something else I remember. I remember – clear as crystal – the first time Didima came to visit me without the Nimki. My mother had been telling me for some time before then – gently, kindly, in the way mothers do – how Didima was growing old, how little things were becoming hard for her to do.

It never quite sunk in. Until the first time she came without the Nimki. And never came with it again.

Realisation is a funny little thing, eh? What it takes for things to register in the mind of a child.

Nimki was our language of love. Hers and mine.
And suddenly it became too tedious a task.
She is a woman of Spirit.
I know how much she must have fought it. How hard she must have tried. How many years longer than most people, she must have continued to make them. Until she just physically couldn’t.

It was the ultimate realization.

So make this, please. Make it today. Make it for someone you love.


  1. Made me miss my strong, loving, kaanji-making ammiji!! Lovely.

    1. Cheers, Tani - Ammijis, Didimas, or whatever we may call them - they are really the best :)
      Try my Nimki!!!

  2. Grandma's are so special, aren't they? This post reminded me of mine. Sigh, how I miss her! Like you say in your post, she was (and will always be) my #1 person. She made gulab jamuns for me ;-)

    1. Awww, thanks for that Susan! Grans really are special! And whatever it is they cook for us, somehow always manages to have that extra-special something too! I'm sure the Gulab Jamuns were fab! Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment :)