Among the childhood memories which stay with you, there are some which perhaps are universal among all Indian kids, especially those of my era. The raw bite of the unripened mangoes. The burst of sugarcane juice in your mouth as you would bite into a stick after impatiently removing the outer hard skin of the sugar-cane stick. The sour bite of an amla as your teeth sank into this berry. The explosion of icy coolness in your parched mouth as you bit hard and deep into an ice-lolly. The joy of these little life-savers, some had with parental permission, but most of them furtively, when no one was watching!
Can anyone forget the taste of the first bers of the season? The onset of winter would bring the new crop of bers. We could hardly wait for the bers to ripen and would start plucking them off their bushes, raw! No rawness which cannot be cured with a pinch of salt. Bers were banned for some reason till after Basant Panchami. But we would classify bers into two categories: the smaller marble shaped reddish-yellow ones and their light green colored elongated cousins. The former we could have before Basant Panchami while the latter was reserved for consumption only after it was offered first to Ma Saraswati on the Basant Panchami day. The red ones had a slightly khatta-meetha taste; the burnt red coloured ones had a shriveled skin and were sweeter than their healthier looking brethren. The area around our house had a number of ber bushes and many a winter morning and afternoon was spent plucking bers. A prick or two from the thorns of the ber tree were hardly a deterrent to this. And, enterprising as we were, the ber story does not get over with the consumption of the outer pulp; we would extract further mileage from this humble fruit by breaking open the seed with stones and partaking of the soft kernel inside the seed!
Talking about fruits, remember digging into the small juicy mangoes, the biju aam? No sooner these were brought home by Pitaji, the kids would wash them under the tap and proceed to suck out the juicy pulp from within. As one progressed through a whole bunch of these juicy delights, one’s jaws would ache at the effort as one would continue to suck the mangoes, eyes focused in concentration, cheeks sucked deep within the mouth with the effort. A generous quantity of the juice would dribble down from the mouth making irregular shaped streams all along the lower face, around the chin and finally dripping down to the floor if you were not prompt enough to swiftly break this flow with your fingers and suck the juice off your fingers.
The chooran-wallahs, God bless them, were always available just outside the school-gate with their magical concoctions. Especially at the break times. Even now I remember the tangy mix of which there were two varieties, one the dry powdery one while the other the pasty one. The five paise worth of chooran was licked off the newspaper scrap it was dispensed in. As the amount of chooran diminished on the newspaper, one would nearly lick the newsprint off the paper to maximize the extraction of the powder! If one was feeling rich, one could even splurge another five paise for an ice lolly. This was dipped into the chooran powder which was then sucked off its icy substrate. No amount of admonishment from the school teachers and parents could prevent us from enjoying chooran, the birthright of all school children. A cousin of the chooran, sold by the same chooran-Walla was the amaawat, also called aam-papad. An array of these rectangular pieces were displayed on a thaali, and the aforementioned magical five paise coin could get you one of these tasty chewees which would slowly dissolve into your mouth as you munched on them. The occasional piece of the amaawat would get stuck between the teeth and would act as a slow-release mood-enhancing drug as you plodded though the classes. The pleasure of the taste, right in the classroom, with no risk at all of getting caught!
Chewing gum was not a popular thing among the school-kids of that era, maybe there were no good chewing gums available. There was one green-wrapped “NP” branded chewing gum which left a terrible aftertaste, besides being too leathery for chewing comfort. Chiclets with its circus-clown model came in much later and was considered by us as rather elitist. The days of bubble gum were far, far way.
Bhutta has been an all-time favourite of all. The aroma of a bhutta roasting on embers on a road-side cart was enough to get the salivary glands working feverishly. You could barely wait for the vendor to complete the roasting, hold it with the relatively cooler stalk, apply a generous amount of salt with an overused, grubby looking piece of lemon, wrap it up in the light-green leafy covering and hand it to you in exchange for a twenty-five paise. You would dig your teeth instantly into the bhutta savouring the taste. No elegant removal of the seeds with the side of your thumb- that was a silly adult like behaviour- but just a non-stop munch as you sat around or walked around holding the bhutta. Only when most of the bhutta was done with, you would examine the bhutta closely to discover some uneaten corners, some half-bitten seeds, some over cooked or uncooked portions and thus maximize the joy of the bhutta. Only when it was nibbled clean was it reluctantly thrown away.
Horlicks was a favourite comfort food during my growing-up days. Not the Horlicks dissolved in a cup of milk but a spoonful of the heavenly powder tossed into the mouth when no one was watching! The sweet, milky, well, Horlicks-y taste would pervade the senses bringing you to a heightened enough state of ecstasy for you to return to the drudgery of your homework. The problem on cost-of-paving-a-road-around-a-rectangular-field was a song as you unsuccessfully tried to dislodge the stuff stuck to your palate with multiple flicks and contortions of your tongue. While the stickiness was uncomfortable, it was more than compensated by the slow release of the taste as the solution to the problem was worked out. Eventually, your tongue would tire and give up and then the brahmastra was employed. You would release the sticky goo from your palate with the help of your forefinger! Never mind the ink-stains on the finger or the soiled finger nails. This would be slowly licked off the finger tip Can anyone ever forget the delightful flavour of the paste slowly dissolving on the tip of your tongue?
Even now, for no specific reason, and at some very incongruous moment, the taste comes back to you, often with an alarming urgency. Like, while on transit at Frankfurt airport on my way back home from USA after a week’s trip, I had this sudden insane desire to eat bers! No one could have ever guessed what was going on in my mind, but I suddenly felt terribly embarrassed. I thought only pregnant women have such freaky thoughts at equally freaky times!