In Bengal, the three winter months of Agrahyan (November – December), Poush (December – January) and Magh (January – February connote farming, food, and festivity. Celebration is about making and eating pithey, pooli and payesh (rice-based pancakes, dumplings, and kheer or milk boiled and thickened).
Nobanno in Agrahyan is when the households pray to the Mother Goddess for the bounty, once the rice sown in Bhadro (August – September) is harvested. Nobanno literally means new cereal -- new food. Granaries are full. Deals have been struck with the traders. A sense of plenty reigns.
Come the month of Poush, new seeds are planted. Time to celebrate the seed that brings in new life. Time to celebrate.
These winter months have a special tug in a Bengali heart. Starting from Nobanno (mid-November) through Poush Sankranti (mid-January) and then Maghi Poornima (full moon betwixt January – February), Bengal relishes the fresh Notun (New) gud – which is Khejoor gud or date palm jaggery.
This hyperlocal jaggery is highly-priced as its availability is only for a short span – when the juice is tapped from date trees during these three winter months. This natural sweetener is the main ingredient to make different kinds of pithey, pooli and payesh. Once made, the sweets have to be offered to one and all, including birds. It is believed that food reaches to the forefathers through birds, especially crows.
When date palm sap is boiled, the heady fragrance- smoky, wet, and earthy- fills the air. Add to it the thickened cow’s milk and some small grain gobindo bhog rice. The aroma is enough to bring two warring clans together for a meal and become best friends! So, one can say this Notun gud makes a Bengali swoon at the very mention of it!
“This natural sweetener is made in West Bengal and Bangladesh. The date palm trees are also being tapped for their jaggery juice in Nainital adjoining districts, where people of erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) came and settled at the invitation of the then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Govind Ballabh Pant. But a true-blue Bengali will never want the Nainital version,” says Ratan, a seller in Delhi’s own mini-Bengal, Chittaranjan Park. “We have our ‘connections’ to get the right stuff from West Bengal.”
A quick walkthrough history of the availability of dates will take us to the Fertile Crescent of the ancient lands in the Middle East. Greek and Egyptian mythology is replete with dates as a life saviour. There are carvings of 640-620 BCE where prisoners are seen marching through date forests. Called ‘Fruit of Paradise’, in Quran there are umpteen mentions of dates. Virgin Mary was reportedly instructed by Gods to eat dates prior to giving birth to Jesus.
But that is a different variety of Pheonix Dactilyfera. What gives Bengal its Notun gud is the wild palm called Pheonix Sylvestris. The crunchy nutty flavour is relished in various sweets produced throughout the region. Bengalis across the globe, take their Notun gud so seriously that they stock enough for use throughout the year.
Dr Colleen Taylor Sen in her book ‘Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India’ (pub. Speaking Tiger, pp 60, 2015) mentions that “conversion of sugarcane to products were carried out in India, probably during the first millennium BCE.” She goes on to say that the extracted juice was cooked, concentrated and dried and the solid pieces were jaggery or gur – which she surmises derives “perhaps from Gaura, the ancient name of Bengal… Jaggery was also made from juice of palm trees; its distinctive flavour makes it the preferred flavouring for certain sweets.”
Thus, Bengalis with their sweet tooth have made jaggery their own since time immemorial. So why not celebrate it during the short time-period it can be got fresh from the trees! But why only during the winters? Just like apples need certain number of chilling days when the temperature should neither exceed 24 degrees Celsius nor dip below 7 degrees Celsius, date palm sap tapping too needs about the same temperature. Besides that, fog and humidity too are deciding factors for the quality of juice tapped.
Bhaskar Roychowdhury is a man who relishes his Notun gud well. He explains, “Date palm jaggery is of two types – Patali or the solid form, and Jhola or the liquid. Jhola gud is for the connoisseurs. Slurp it just like that. Layer it on your bread like jam. Or for a city bred health-conscious person who wants the gud but is watching calories, a simple roti dipped in the slurpy syrup will be heavenly.”
Even Satyajit Ray’s father, a genius of many parts, wrote a humour poem Bhalo Re Bhalo (‘All is Good’), where he says at the end: “Kintu shobar chaite bhalo, pauruti aar jhola gur” (But the best is Jhola gud with bread).
Bhaskar, who left his corporate world to work with rural home-based industry several years ago, explains, “The date palm sap tappers, called Shuilis, have a precarious job to do. This collection of sap has to be done while the temperature is low -- that means after sunset and before sunrise. Their trained eyes know where, and how, to give the right cut to tap the juice. A tree of about ten years will give sufficient sap, which is collected in earthen pots tied to the trees. Resting the tree for about a fortnight or so between two collections will provide good quality sap.”
So, when winter comes can Rangaaloo (sweet potatoes) be far behind! Guess not. Along with the fresh winter vegetables have arrived the sweet potatoes. Some to be boiled for Inji, our pet, who loves to gobble them up -- and some will be kept aside to make the Rangaaloo pithey to be gorged on by her hooman friends.
Boil or roast 500 gm sweet potatoes, along with one (30 gm) potato. Mash properly.
Add a tablespoon of maida or rice flour to help knead them into small portions.
Keep them aside.
Grate coconut. Add Notun gud / Khejoor gud. Mix. Stir in a wok till the coconut and gud mingle well to make a thick dry consistency.
Notun gud syrup
Boil Khejoor gud with enough water to make it into thin syrup. Add a bay leaf or two once it starts to boil. The syrup should be thin, but not watery.
To make Rangaaloo Pithey
Brush your hands with atta/maida (flour). Take a dollop of sweet potato. Cup it in your hand. Put some filling in the cupped hollow. Remake it into a ball, cylindrical or oblong shape. Brush it with atta/maida (flour). Heat oil in a wok and deep fry them till they turn golden brown.
Once done, dip them in the warm Notun gud syrup. As these are very soft, dip them in a broad mouthed vessel or a serving dish. Or dip them in kheer (thickened milk) -- sweetened, of course, with Notun gud.
(The author runs a small home kitchen, Luchee Food Story)