It happens. One moment you are doing something and the next, you are transported back in time, aromas of childhood wafting in through the kitchen window. And I am a sucker for such memories, especially when it rains and when mangoes are in season.
There were seventeen mangoe trees. Each of a different variety, planted and brought up lovingly by the matriarch. Sometimes I wonder whether she was as diligent in bringing up her kids. Not for us kids, the sleeping in late. At the first crack of dawn we would run to the verandah in the back, dip our hands into a hanging pot of ‘umikkari,’ that hard blackened remains of , what? I need to check on that. These days, memory is turning out to be an unfaithful friend. The black mess would turn our teeth into pristine white. Another miracle of those days. And we never had to visit a dentist.
A dented aluminium basin, an iron bucket that used to weep profusely, a couple of plastic buckets whose days of fortune was a story of the past, those were our collection boxes. Off we would run to the yard, in search of the yellow and green mangoes that had decided to severe their ties with their mother trees during the night. A competition that taught us it is the journey that matters, not the end or some such thing. For, I remember counting the number of mangoes we collected, but not what or even whether we received any prize. But then, maybe those memories are the real prizes.
My hefty grandmother would have ensconced herself on her throne, an armchair, with her legs extended on a bench in front. A huge container would be on the floor and a ‘muram‘ covering its mouth. The ritual would begin. Out went the skin, never thrown away. Each part was preserved. The dark and tangy ‘mangaatholi‘ pickle is a story for another day. The skinned mangoes would then be ruthlessly scraped against the muram to squeeze their body and soul out. Varied shades of yellow would blend to a uniform mass of an altogether difffernt shade. Fistfuls of rice powder would be added till the desired consistency was reached. And she was the soul keeper of that consistency.
Country mats bought for this specific purpose would be spread out in the sun by then. She would spread the gooey mess in a rectangular pattern, with exactly the same width of margin left at all ends. As the first layer dried, another would be added on top the next day and so on, till the thickness was also to the perfectionist’s satisfaction. Rolled up at sundown, back in the sun the next day, the mangoes that fed from the earth would now soak in all the best that the Sun God had to offer. And of course the sweat and love of those old, calloused hands and the air that had purified itself over the river Pamba. It flowed uninhibitedly then, her waters crystal clear.
As the holidays came to a close, the ‘mangaa thera’ as it was called, would have tanned perfectl and would come rolling off the mat, with those perfect squares imprinted on it, cut into smaller rolls and stored in Chinese urns, to be savoured only when the trees had shed their last mango. I have seen sorry replicas on super market shelves, bought them in longing and spat it out after the first bite. Never dried to perfection, more sweet than tangy, they could not give me back my childhood. Fool that I am , to have even thought machines of iron and steel could replace the love that seeped out from a grandmother’s hands.
Now, why did I start on this trip in the first place? Love came in the form of a carton full of assorted mangoes from my uncle’s farm. Tended purely by nature, not even a drop of the artificial in it, the taste was memories unleashed. There is a limit to the amount of mangoes that a family of four can gulp down in a day. Pulling my lazy bottom off the bed ( that is where I work from normally, the bed that is 😉 ), a mango squash was what I had in mind. As the mangoes were peeled and cut, inspiration struck. Another taste that had me captivated, that of the tomato chilli jam from French Toast. So, in went some chopped ginger, a hand full of raisins, lemon peel and some spices tied in a muslin cloth. Stewed with sugar for a hour and some more.
Out came the pickle, jam and Nescafé bottles that were washed, dried and waiting for their day in the sun. And with it, another set of memories of the other grandmother. If the first one was the queen of naadan dishes, this one was the hourie of the exotic. Cakes baked to perfection in a Racold oven almost forty years ago, in a village in remote Kuttanad, that was my maternal grandmother. Her plantain jam was to kill for. Made in a huge brass uruli over wooden fire, to the perfect rhythm of the iron ladle, the plantains would turn purple with sugar. The secret ingredient ? A handful of red hibiscus petals. Horlicks came in glass bottles those days. Washed and dried in sun, arranged in a row on the wooden ‘korandis‘, with a steel spoon in each to conduct the heat, they would wait, mouths open to receive the warmth of the freshly made jam, their blue lids lying placidly by the side.
What you have seen with your heart remains in your soul for ever. You find yourself following the same rituals, as if guided by an unseen hand. Life goes on, in patterns similar, woven in misty memories.
Mango Ginger Preserve:
Very ripe mangoes, peeled and chopped – 3 cups
Ginger , chopped – 2″ piece
Raisins – 1/2 cup
Sugar – 1 1/2 cups ( adjust according to the sweetness of mangoes)
5-6 cloves, an inch long piece of cinnamon, two sprigs of mint, two pods of star anise – tied into a muslin cloth
Water – 1 1/2 cups
Lemon peel – from two medium size lemons (you can add the juice as well)
Mix mango, ginger, raisins and lemon peel in a thick bottomed vessel. Add water. Dip in the spices tied in muslin and keep it there throughout. Bring to a boil on high flame and the reduce it to medium. Keep stirring on between for about 25-30 minutes, till everything is tender. Mash and mix well. Add sugar and keep stirring, till it turns a deep golden colour and starts coming off the edges. The consistency would be that of carrot halwa. Neither too thick nor thin.
Keep clean dry bottles ready on a wooden surface. Keep a steel spoon in each bottle ( must be to conduct heat. I follow it blindly). Transfer the jam / preserve into these straight from the pan. Leave it open till cooled completely. Close it tightly. Keep it refrigerated, preferably.
muram – large sieve made of natural fibre
mangaatholi – peeled mango skin
mangaa thera – dried mango candy
korandi – low wooden stool, usually used in kitchens