Winter was a great time for eating. Mai was more liberal with poori and pulao in winter as compared with summer and monsoon months. Perhaps winters were supposed to be “healthier” than the other seasons. This coupled with the fact that in the winters the choice of sabzis was far more varied, and far more welcome. Summers and monsoons had all kinds of specimens from the gourd family creeping put: Lauki, konhada, turai, nenua, kaddu. To add to this evil- and foul- list were bhindi, sem and baingan. I will not translate these into English for those who do not understand these terms, let them suffer year-long servings of the aforementioned sabzis. Anyway, coming back to the winters, the royalty among the vegetables would surface: phool-gobhi, patta- gobhi, mooli , gaajar, matar, dhaniya, sarson- ka-saag, and chane- ka-saag. A gourmet’s selection! (Remember, we were a vegetarian family!). So it could be an aloo-paratha for breakfast, pulao for lunch and gobhi parathas for dinner. What bliss! Especially if the dinner was crowned with gaajar ka hawaa, or more commonly, kheer.
There was one coveted fruit, ber, which the elders tried to keep out of bounds for children till the Saraswati Puja. Ber has multiple species, thankfully only the light-green elongated one (called “Kashi ber”) was the one reserved as an offering to Ma Sarasawti, we could partake of the reddish-brown variety which grew readily in the wilds. In my early childhood days we stayed in a place surrounded by a forested area. And a prominent winter feature was a walk through the woods, as it were, hunting for bers. We would return home satiated with our fill of bers and with acres of our skins scratched by the thorny ber shrub! (To all you nerds reading this piece, the botanical name of ber is Ziziphus mauritania.)
Bhojpuri-speaking people in India have this universal “dish”, litti. If you have not had the pleasures of having litti in the middle of winter, let me tell you, you have not lived! It is not the delectable flavours of litti alone, but the entire process of preparing it on a bitingly-cold winter evening. To start with, litti is prepared outdoors, as much smoke is released when litti is prepared. If you want to know what litti is all about, then here is a rather pedestrian description: Atta is moulded into rounded hollow balls into which you fill a spiced version of sattu. (Sattu is a ground form of chana, it is not NOT besan, the preparation of sattu is a process by itself). As the balls are getting formed, you stoke a “barbecue” with dried cowdung cakes (gointha). The atta/sattu balls are then inserted into the smouldering fire with potatoes, baingan and tomatoes following it for company later. After sometime, the vegetables are pulled out manually, followed by the littis. The roasted vegetables are peeled off their burnt skins and mashed along with spices, salt and mustard oil. That is the “chokha”. The littis are sieved free of the ashes of cowdung cakes on a thin muslin cloth and served along with the chokha with bowlfuls of ghee. Aah, the joys of litti-chokha!!
Now that was a rather prosaic description. There were colorful sidelights as well. As the barbecuing happened, the entire men-folk would assemble around the fire and exchange all sorts of gossip as the cooking proceeded. Some puffing on their beedis. Many lolling around with their gamchhas tied around their legs, below the knee, and their backs; see-sawing on their butt around the fireplace.
Waking up in the mornings was a torture. The waking up process would start sometime around 8 am and extend for an hour or so. Within that hour, I would periodically raise my head from under the rajai, glance around and once I was assured that all was well with the world, and that it was too early and cold to wake up, would promptly cover myself up with the rajai and drift off again. There were mornings I would wake up real early and stroll out into the open air savoring the bitter cold. Blowing clouds of vapors in the open air made me feel all grown up, as if I was smoking a cigarette!
And that remains one of the most abiding memories of my childhood.