The fragrance of home: For the love of Aloo Parantha… and frangipani

“A frog”! “A frog”! jumped two little girls, mesmerized in glee and awe. In the fading dusk, their torchlights shook nervously and then the tiny explorers hesitatingly went on their haunches to stare into the eyes of the scared frog, their own orbs larger than that of their prey who had been stopped mid-way during his routine trapeze.

“There was also a snake once, nani - your [maternal] grandmother found it in the bathroom. At another time there was a mongoose in the garden,” said a laconic voice - mine, and the pair of eyes finally threatened to pop out. The frog found his moment, escaping into the bushes as the old house with its surrounding garden, meandering driveway and giant weary trees became a jungle book.

The smells and sounds of ordinary life - a vendor selling some shady ice-cream in the back lane, another vendor selling glass bangles at the front gate that has never had a formal address, the buzzing sounds of crickets and moths around the evening light - there are many other memories of my sprawling pre-partition bungalow in Jalandhar, Punjab that also keep me going in these times, especially when family for more than a year has remained only online.

Jyotsna Mohan

Away from the stifling urban forest of cacophony and daily lives, the quiet of a sprawling land with clearly visible twinkling stars was an adventure, the open outdoors their ‘Famous Five’ moment. Ant houses, long shadows - it is the beauty of small towns, nature still resides there.

The smells and sounds of ordinary life - a vendor selling some shady ice-cream in the back lane, another vendor selling glass bangles at the front gate that has never had a formal address, the buzzing sounds of crickets and moths around the evening light - there are many other memories of my sprawling pre-partition bungalow in Jalandhar, Punjab that also keep me going in these times, especially when family for more than a year has remained only online.

But nothing quite reminds me of home, like a Sunday afternoon.

The searing humidity of a Punjab summer, the rhythmic drumming of a rainy day or the loneliness of a misty foggy winter all had one thing in common - as a family we rounded up the week with a set lunch menu - aloo parantha or potato-stuffed Indian flatbread (there must be some inherent feminism in our family - we strangely grew up calling it paranthi!), yogurt and dollops of home-made white butter. The meal was never complete without some mango pickle, the raw mangoes picked excitedly by us as children from the garden. It’s a tradition my own children learnt in their summer holidays and have missed badly during the lost years of the pandemic. But we were not the only ones making the most of the summer, birds - mischievous and adventurous, always left their mark both under the mango and the jamun tree on the opposite side of the garden.

The trees were always moody, they still are, never blossoming together but never failing us either. And my grandmother guarded zealously whatever they gave, putting the raw pickle in massive brown and cream stoneware storage containers called martban (this is a story for another day) and then letting the sun do its magic. The trees are ageing - from their lofty branches they have seen the vagaries of time, and yet in their loyalty they are a gift that keeps on giving. Sometimes though my mother who keeps the family tradition going, needs to supplement a few from the market to fill the martban.

The charm of a scolding

If it was the season, freshly plucked carrots and radish from the rows of vegetable garden were the appetizer to the single main course - the aloo parantha. As far back as I can remember there was always a charm to playing hop skip and jump through these columns of vegetables and not always coming out unscathed from a scolding or three. There was no charm in that!

But all was forgiven and forgotten by the time the whiff of the parantha, laced with ghee sneaked to the table, as though announcing the real winner. Many a conversations have happened over those paranthas - report card marks dissected when the bite didn’t go down, politics when animatedly more was eaten or when a family just gathered in, not counting the calories, only their blessings.

So, we took it to school in our lunch boxes, day after day. Later, I took the paranthas to work, week after week and my friends stared enviously, ominously predicting that the generous ghee would someday catch up with me. If it has, I am not looking! They instead talked about the healthy versions - like the beetroot parantha but for me there has never been any music in it.

"I took the paranthas to work, week after week and my friends stared enviously, ominously predicting that the generous ghee would someday catch up with me. If it has, I am not looking!" writes Jyotsna Mohan Image Credit: Shutterstock

Some of my fond memories are of eating it on the train from Jalandhar to my maternal grandparent’s house in Delhi every summer. While outside the window green fields fanned out as far as one could see, inside the train compartment the smell of parantha and pickle was everywhere, most travellers from Punjab had the same idea. Our children unfortunately will never know the simplicity and nostalgia of that smell.

In the winter we ate it outside on the verandah overlooking the porch with the swings that have given three generations countless joy, each one of us finding our spot in the sun and later washing it down with some peanuts and jaggery. But as the seasons rolled on and it became hot, once again we shifted to the lofty dining room on the other side of the verandah, a room that has its own separate identity. Its high roof has always challenged the fan hanging from a giant pole to fairly spread the air.

From Lahore to Jalandhar

Through the mesh windows on all sides of the dining room, we could hear the chirping birds on the trees. Chances are they are still hoping for some crumbs coming their way, but have seldom been lucky, no one ever parted even with a bite. I recently learnt that this Sunday lunch was a tradition started by the family when they were still living in Lahore (Pakistan) before partition. And what value is a tradition if it doesn’t carry on! Today it is not a Sunday for my younger daughter if she doesn’t get her aloo parantha, butter and yogurt, wherever we may be.

This stuffed Indian bread has many versions, and yet there has been no better comfort food through good times and rough, than what came out of our home kitchen. If you ask for measurements of the coriander, onion and mango powder that is added to the boiled potato, you will probably not get a straight answer, because there is none. Andaza or estimate has a very Punjabi usage where everything from pickle spices to the weather forecast finds no concrete answers.

I recently learnt that this Sunday lunch was a tradition started by the family when they were still living in Lahore (Pakistan) before partition. And what value is a tradition if it doesn’t carry on!

Jyotsna Mohan
Frangipani is found in many Indian home gardens Image Credit: Raphael Brasileiro for Pexels.com

In the last year, the girls have perhaps outgrown Famous Five, but they still crave the fallen leaves and the branches of the frangipani tree they enjoy climbing. My parents tell me the rows of vegetable garden surrounding the front verandah and behind the kitchen have only blossomed, my children and I missed plucking the pomegranates and the grapefruits last year and for now this year doesn’t seem much different.

But hope lives eternal, perhaps we will catch the carrots and the dahlias later this year. And of course, some home-made aloo parantha. Only then it will be our homecoming.

Niraja, writer Jyotsna Mohan's mum Image Credit: Supplied

Original recipe from Niraja (my mum):

Aloo Parantha stuffing

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Serves 4 or more

Ingredients:

500 gm boiled and peeled potatoes

Salt to taste

1 tsp coriander powder

2 to 3 tblsp chopped fresh coriander

1 tsp dried mango powder

1/2 or 1 minced onion

1 or 2 green chillies chopped (optional)

Method:

Mash the potato when slightly cold. Add salt, dry coriander powder, coriander leaves, mango powder, onion finely chopped and green chilli (optional) and then mix well.

Take a palm-sized piece of dough mixed for the parantha, slightly flatten it and then place the mix in the center. Seal it. Then flatten into a round parantha with a rolling pin, be gentle. Finally when flattened to about quarter inch thickness, place it on a hot griddle or pan with a little bit of ghee or oil. Cook till one side turns slightly golden and then flip. Cook it again till lightly golden. Serve hot.

- The writer is the author of the investigative book 'Stoned, Shamed, Depressed'. She was also a journalist with NDTV for 15 years.



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