In Bengal, the three winter months of Agrahyan (November – December), Poush (December – January) and Magh (January – February) evoke agriculture, food and festivities. The celebration consists of making and eating pithey, pooli and payesh (pancakes made with rice, dumplings and kheer or boiled and thickened milk).
Nobanno in Agrahyan is the time when households pray to the Mother Goddess for bounty, once the rice sown in Bhadro (August – September) is harvested. Nobanno literally means new cereal – new food. The attics are full. Agreements have been concluded with traders. A feeling of abundance prevails.
The month of Poush arrives, new seeds are planted. It’s time to celebrate the seed that brings new life. It’s time to celebrate.
These winter months have a special tug in a Bengali heart. From Nobanno (mid-November) to Poush Sankranti (mid-January) and then to Maghi Poornima (full moon between January and February), Bengal savors the fresh Notun (New) gud – which is the Khejoor gud or date palm jaggery.
This hyperlocal jaggery is very expensive because its availability is only short-lived – when juice is extracted from date palms during those three winter months. This natural sweetener is the main ingredient for making different types of pithey, pooli and payesh. Once made, the sweets should be offered to everyone, including the birds. It is believed that food reached the ancestors through birds, especially crows.
When date palm sap is boiled, the intoxicating scent – smoky, moist and earthy – fills the air. Add the thickened cow’s milk and small grain gobindo bhog rice. The aroma is enough to bring two warring clans together over a meal and become best friends! So, you could say that this gud Notun is making a Bengali swoon at the mere mention of that!
“This natural sweetener is made in West Bengal and Bangladesh. Date palms are also tapped for their jaggery juice in nearby districts of Nainital, where people from the former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) came to settle at the invitation of the Chief Minister of India. Uttar Pradesh, Govind Ballabh Pant. But a true blue Bengali will never want the Nainital version,” says Ratan, a salesman at Delhi’s mini Bengali, Chittaranjan Park. “We have our ‘connections’ to get the good stuff from West Bengal.”
A brief history of date availability will take us to the Fertile Crescent of the ancient lands of the Middle East. Greek and Egyptian mythology is full of saving dates. There are carvings from 640-620 BCE where prisoners are seen walking through date palm forests. Called ‘Fruit of Paradise’, in the Quran there are countless mentions of dates. The Virgin Mary is said to have been instructed by the gods to eat dates before giving birth to Jesus.
But this is another variety of Pheonix Dactilyfera. What gives Bengal its gud Notun is the wild palm called Pheonix Sylvestris. The crunchy nutty flavor is relished in various candies produced throughout the region. Bengalis all over the world take their Notun gud so seriously that they store enough for use throughout the year.
Dr. Colleen Taylor Sen in her book “Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India” (pub. Speaking Tiger, pp 60, 2015) mentions that “the conversion of sugar cane into products was carried out in India, probably during the first millennium BC.” She goes on to say that the juice extracted was cooked, concentrated and dried and the solid pieces were jaggery or gur – which she says derives “perhaps from Gaura, the ancient name of Bengal… Jaggery was also made from the juice of palm trees; its particular flavor makes it the preferred flavor of certain confectioneries.
Thus, the greedy Bengalis have appropriated jaggery since time immemorial. So why not celebrate it during the short time when it can be fresh from the trees! But why only during the winters? Just as apples need a certain number of days of chilling when the temperature should neither exceed 24 degrees Celsius nor drop below 7 degrees Celsius, collecting date palm sap also requires about the same temperature. In addition, fog and humidity are also decisive factors for the quality of the extracted juice.
Bhaskar Roychowdhury is a man who relishes his gud Notun well. He explains, “Date palm jaggery is of two types – Patali or the solid form, and Jhola or the liquid. Jhola gud is for connoisseurs. Slurp it just like that. Spread it on your bread like jam. Or for a health-conscious person raised in the city who wants the gud but watches the calories, a simple roti dipped in the slurpy syrup will be heavenly.
Even Satyajit Ray’s father, a genius in many ways, wrote a humorous poem Bhalo Re Bhalo (“All is good”), where he says at the end: “Kintu shobar chaite bhalo, pauruti aar jhola gur” (But the best is Jhola gud with bread).
Bhaskar, who left the corporate world to work in rural home-based industry several years ago, explains: “The date palm sap collectors, called Shuilis, have a precarious job to do. This sap collection should be done when the temperature is low, i.e. after sunset and before sunrise. Their trained eyes know where and how to give the right cut to extract the juice. A tree about ten years old will give enough sap, which is collected in earthen pots attached to the trees. Resting the tree for about a fortnight between two harvests will provide good quality sap.
So when winter comes, Rangaaloo (sweet potatoes) may be far behind! I do not think so. Along with fresh winter vegetables came sweet potatoes. Some will be boiled for Inji, our pet, who loves to gobble them up – and some will be kept aside to make Rangaaloo the piti to be gobbled up by his hooman friends.
Boil or roast 500 g of sweet potatoes, as well as a potato (30 g). Crush properly.
Add a tablespoon of maida or rice flour to help knead them into small portions.
Keep them aside.
Grate the coconut. Add Gud Notun / Gud Khejoor. To mix together. Stir in a wok until the coconut and gud combine well to a thick, dry consistency.
Notun gud syrup
Boil the Gud Khejoor with enough water to make a smooth syrup. Add a bay leaf or two once it begins to boil. The syrup should be fluid but not runny.
Make Rangaaloo Pithey
Brush your hands with atta/maida (flour). Take a spoonful of sweet potato. Take it in your hand. Put some filling in the hollow of the cup. Redo it in the shape of a ball, cylindrical or oblong. Brush it with atta/maida (flour). Heat the oil in a wok and fry them until golden brown.
When done, dip them in hot Notun gud syrup. Since they are very soft, dip them in a wide-mouthed container or serving platter. Or dunk them in kheer (thickened milk) – sweetened, of course, with Notun gud.
(The author runs a small family kitchen, Luchee Food Story)