One of the best things about the hostels of the engineering college at Banaras Hindu University (IT-BHU, Varanasi) was the cuisine on offer at the messes. Fresh, tasty, nutritious, and incredibly cheap! The IT-BHU messes are a subject of a post of their own, more about them later. One of the monthly highlights was the “paratha festival”; a weekend lunch where we would be served several varieties of parathas. Parathas are something I have adored all my life, and you will soon get to read reasons why. Suffice it now for me to say that these fests were just the right antidote to the week’s hard work. And well fortified I would have a grand snooze in the afternoons extending into evenings- till I was woken up by friends to catch the night show of a movie.
I will return to the BHU paratha fests in a bit. I must tell you first about how my romance with parathas started.
I have indelible memories of those triangular, layered parathas. They were the constant feature in my school “tiffin-box” for eleven years, right from kinder- garten till the tenth standard. We called them tikoniya parathas, the three-cornered ones. They were nearly always accompanied with aloo bhunjiya, potato sautéed with onions- sometime gobhi as well. The tiffin-boxe never varied in its shape and size. An anodized aluminum or stainless steel affair with a lid which would be affixed to the body by means of two “clasps” on either side which snap shut with the sharp clicks. The container would have a partition one-thirds the way. This one-third was meant for the bhunjiya and the rest of it was for the three parathas, each folded into half.
Just to complete the story of the tiffin box I must tell you about the days I forgot to carry the box back home. The following day’s supply was rolled into a sheet of paper. Often a glossy sheet torn out of a magazine! Or an old calendar sheet.
Parathas would nearly invariably be made with Dalda, or “khajoor chhap” as it was popularly known as. “Khajoor chhap” being a colloquism for the logo of the yellow-tinned brand from Lipton, two palm trees embracing each other. Sometimes the paratha would be elevated to another cooking fat- the blue-tinned Ghantoor ghee. The actual brand name for the ghee was “CK” (CK standing for Chanda jee, Khuba jee). The “Ghantoor” was the Bihari-speak for Guntur (coastal AP) where this ghee was manufactured.
It is not that the paratha was had only with bhunjiya, there were several other agreeable accompaniments as well. For breakfast at home it could be had with milk, or its derivatives- dahi, kheer and sevai. It could also be had with pickles, sabzi or with plain sugar. For good effect- and ease of eating, sugar was placed along the length of the paratha (the perpendicular of the isosceles triangle, if you will) and the paratha was rolled into a well, cheeni-roll. Just the right thing to munch on as you flipped your textbook pages with your left hand and chomped at the paratha roll held with the other.
Our house was strictly vegetarian, and I discovered later, that a paratha tasted divine with an omelette, a bhurji, chicken, mutton or an egg curry.
Tikoniya paratha is only one in the royal family of parathas. There are the most gloriously appetizing stuffed ones. Aloo Paratha being the most popular one. Staple of a weekend breakfast in many a family. Aloo partha with dahi and pickles or with an egg bhurji. This was the standard daily breakfast on my travels during my sales stint in North India in the early 90’s. Nothing like a large, hot, crisp aloo paratha with some divine, thick dahi at a road-side dhaba in upcountry Punjab on a cold wintery morning before I caught a bus to my next work destination! Mooli partha- ones stuffed with shredded radish- was also a popular breakfast.
The fillings could get really diverse depending on the creativity of the cook. You can use mashed chana daal, gobhi, and even keema. Even khowa paratha, paratha stuffed with the divinely sweet and mouth-watering khowa. And if you can’t stuff them, knead them into the dough. Like, for example, methi paratha!
You thought the people from the Southern parts of India eat only rice and sambhar? Think again! Have you ever lasted the delicately layered Kerala Paratha? The Ceylon paratha is a close equivalent. Have you ever had the joy of having Kerala paratha with Malabari mutton pepper fry? Succulent and spicy lamb pieces with crispy parathas! If you- or your wife- cannot prepare these parathas, fret not. You can always order pre-cooked and packaged “ID Parathas” available at every “kaka-shop” in the neighbourhood. If you don’t know what a kaka-shop is, or if a kaka-shop does not exist in your neighborhood then you probably do not deserve to have these parathas. Amen!
PS: We are on a family holiday to Mauritius. I am taking my kids around the breakfast spread and we are all admiring the vast array of dishes. Cheeses, fruits, meats, breads, my kids are totally impressed! Mostly continental stuff though as Mauritius is hugely popular with European tourists, specially the French and the British.
Suddenly I hear my younger one exclaim: “Papa, look! Paratha!! But I don’t know why they call it a faratta.
“Shut up”, scream the elder son, “this is not India!”
I scramble closer to where the action is, and I spy upon those juicy tikoniyas right next to a large bowl of aloo-sabzi. And then I realize, Mauritius has been largely peopled with men and women from Bihar, wretched indentured labourers who came from Bihar.
You can take a Bihari out of Bihar, But not the paratha out of a Bihari! Partha or faratta, does it make a difference?