Aambakalyo and oomberioo

Berjis Desai

In wintery dawns, you go out into the backyard (paachloon baar) and bring those dew-cooled glasses of doodh (milk) puff indoors. Hopefully, you have brushed your teeth with crushed neem branches, placed your index and middle fingers deep on your tongue and spat out the bile. Soothe your roughed up throat and mouth with the light-as-air, frothy cream, slightly sugared and rose petalled, with a little cardamom, which occupies three-fourths of the glass and then drink the cold milk left behind. A resounding burp and the lady serves you a railway glass of tea (big, thick fellows in which the Gujarat Express served tea), milky with fresh mint leaves and lemon grass (lili chai); use your index finger to remove the layer of malai (cream) and stick it on the outside of the cup, pour tea in the saucer and drink it with a huge slurping sound, but not before you have dunked some batasa biscuit from a Surat bakery into the concoction. Pour a few karasyas (mugs) of scalding hot water heated in a bumbo (cylindrical brass heater energized by wood or charcoal), apply some chana no aato (gram flour) in the various crevices, viscous Brahmi hair oil on your scalp, and you have worked up an appetite for the rustic breakfast.

 Differently shaped molds of yore and (right) Meherbai Wadia


Duck eggs with ghee sodden ghaoon ni rotli (wheat chapatis), thick enough to give an inferiority complex to the paratha; khurchan (offals and potatoes in thick gravy); and crunchy levtas (mud fish) fried on a black theekra (griddle), some of them jumping off live from the pan onto the floor in a death defying feat. How about some vengna ni akuri made by adding tender pieces of brinjals in the spiced up scrambled eggs.?The last mentioned being a recipe from Vividh Vaani, a Gujarati cookbook published in 1926, written by Meherbai Jamshedji Wadia before she succumbed to bubonic plague in her 31st  year. Two thousand one hundred and eighty recipes, mostly European puffs, pies, pastries and pancakes, but also some priceless nuggets like the above mentioned aubergine-egg mix up.
Parsi rural cuisine, as is common in agrarian communities, was robust and spartan. No part of an animal or bird was too inferior to be thrown away; patio (thick, spicy, sweet and sour gravy) was made out of peeled skin of certain vegetables; ghee was homemade, as oil and butter were costly, and so was charcoal, hence, food was cooked in novel ways. The ubiquitous oomberioo was a prime example. Fresh papdi (green flat beans), young unpeeled baby potatoes, not-so-young sweet potatoes, small onions, mini brinjals were all thrown in a clay pot with a dollop of salt and garam masala added. The pot was sealed and placed on red hot charcoals, in a small pit dug in the ground, which was covered with earth, overnight. The next morning, the veggies had simmered. Most were ecstatic to consume this delicacy in the winter months; others found it insipid. Oomberioo retained the natural flavors of the vegetables and was best relished with fresh toddy tapped from palmyra, until the urine drinking Morarji Desai prohibited the vending of toddy. 
On the other extreme was the aambakalyo, made towards the end of the mango season when the fruit was a bit overripe, and usually not out of Alphonso mangoes. Kilos of sugar caramelized with lemon juice or vinegar, to which were added cloves, cinnamon and cardamom, formed the base for cooking the fruit over a painfully slow wood-fed stove. Gooey and pancreas challenging sweet but with a slightly sour and tangy taste, aambakalyo was hard enough to be sucked like a toffee, and then chewed by Parsis not having dental cavities. It was commonplace to have it at breakfast with chapatis in Navsari homes. Unlike the annually made gor keri nu achaar (not to be confused with the lowly lagan nu achaar) and the crimson red murabbo, the fragile aambakalyo could be preserved only for a fortnight, in the absence of refrigerators.
Our maternal grandfather, Behramji Baria, more popularly called Behramji Popat, due to his house always having a green parrot in a cage hanging at its entrance, was a legendary caterer of authentic rural cuisine (the Jam-e-Jamshed, in his obituary, said that "marhoom ni chamach vakhnayali huti; literally, his cooking spoon was praised;” though it sounds like an awful double entendre from an Adi Marzban farce). His bhoojan (sort of barbecued liver, kidneys, testicles and other exotic goat parts) delighted many Parsi palates. He also had a secret recipe for masala dal, with tomatoes, brinjals and gourd added, simmered over a wood fire. Smokey like single malt (though he downed some locally distilled stuff with mahuva flowers, every evening) with a dash of desi ghee and deep brown fried onions sprinkled on top, his dal was the ultimate triumph of rustic cooking. Its accompaniment was a sookka boomla no patio (SBP, dried Bombay Duck patio). Like caviar, the SBP was an acquired taste. His wife swore that SBP was the prime cause for her dry eczema, though we never understood why she continued to eat it. Paani nu achaar (raw mangoes marinated in salt and brine water for a few months, resulting in the mango looking like a wrinkled old face) strips did a jugalbandi (competition) with Behramji’s masala dal.
Sekta ni sing (drumsticks), guvar ni sing (clusterbeans), garabh (fish roe) were standard ingredients of rural cooking. Cheap, available in large quantities, maybe a little rough on the palate but filling, were the key considerations. The urban palate, accustomed to the creamy and crusty, may not always take kindly to the rough, rural cuisine, like a wearer of silk donning khadi; however, it had its own aficionados.
Varadhvaroo, kumaash, saadhna, coconut milk filled popatji were the Parsi village sweetmeats. Deep fried with kilos of sugar, yet melting in your mouth. Not surprisingly, the intrepid Wadia, in her magnum opus, also provides a recipe for ‘Marda ni faaki,’ a home remedy for diarrhea or persistent loosies. Crush cardamom with khadi saakar (crystal sugar) — better than any antibiotic, to provide relief to that overburdened rural gut.

Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.