We like to taste the local food of every new place that we go to. But in every culture there is a subset of hidden foods, the food that you eat at home. Home cooked sweets often fall in this category. So we were happy to see in a fancy restaurant in Bhubaneswar a selection of Odisha’s pitha.
The three that you see in the photo are the manda pitha, with its steamed rice flour coating, the deep fried kakada pitha, and the enduri pitha, which is made by enclosing the pitha in turmeric leaves before steaming. All had fillings of grated coconut sweetened with palm jaggery. You can also see a serving of rice kheer, that staple of home sweets across the rice growing parts of the country. This one was sweetened with the same gud that was used for the pitha. I finished one serving before The Family reminded me to take a photo.
You can tell the year is beginning to come to a close when Ganesh puja comes about. Soon enough there will be a wave of little festivals leading to the crescendo of Durga puja, and then a diminuendo of several others, until, with a final flourish, Diwali brings it all to an end. What will be left are strenuous exercises and diets to shed the extra kilos you put on. And it all starts with a little plate like this, given by friends: a home made modak redolent of rice and juicy when you bite into the jaggery and coconut filling, a laddu coloured with saffron and embellished with the usual silver foil, a piece of a nameless homemade sweet with nuts embedded in a paste of figs and other fruit, and some peda from a store.
Sadly, in the last two months of medically enforced inactivity, I’ve put on weight. My indulgences this year will be mild, as I begin to work at shedding the adipose. But then maybe this year I can indulge in the East Indian Christmas sweets which we go so easy on.
“Feels like we are back in lockdown,” The Family said. Our cook tested positive for Covid a few days back. We are negative, but back to cooking for ourselves. I took a look at The Family’s morning’s prep. The leaves of Malabar spinach harvested from our balcony were cleaned and ready. They’ll go into a Bengali style mixed veggie with pumpkin, cauliflower, and a few other ingredients. Drumsticks and potato came to my mind, but The Family says we don’t have them right now, so she’ll just stick to two veggies. I knew what the tomato, garlic and curry leaves are for: she’s been planning to make ribs. Looks like a nice Sunday lunch is in store.
Have you ever forgotten about the existence of a memory but acted on it? I think that’s what I did on Friday evening when I broke three eggs together into a bowl, dropped a few cleaned prawns into it, shook a few balls of pepper and a spoonful of mixed dried herbs over it, and then beat it together. I took out my trusty steamer and put the bowl into it. A little thought, then I realized that I’ve used this bowl in an oven at 200 C, so it should be okay with steam. Another pause, and I decided to cover the bowl with a plate to prevent steam from dripping into it. Then a seven minute steam bath, and my accompaniment to beer was ready. The Family tasted it and asked “How did you think this up?”
I had to think in order to answer. And I realized that this dish had stuck in my memory ever since I had dinner with two younger Indian colleagues in 2019 in Wuhan. I’d even written about it, and then completely (or not quite completely) forgotten about it. Among the several things we’d asked for, this “stew” had completely surprised me with its lovely custardly consistency and its fishy taste. Later I dug up this photo and realized that it must have been flavoured with fish sauce and some broth. I had lost the memory of the memory, but not the memory of the taste, and it had haunted me until I re-created it unknowingly. Now I recall the name (蒸蛋羹, zhēng dàngēng, ie, steamed egg tart, or 蒸水蛋, zhēng shuǐ dàn, ie, steamed water egg) have to look for recipes and try again.