Friday, November 07, 2008

Remember the Rajanigandha

Last week, I was walking through the bustling Santa Monica Farmer's Market, picking up a few fruits here, a strawberry confit there, and generally enchanted by the happy buzz of freshly scrubbed people amidst fresh produce. I was walking towards a stall selling butternut squash when I suddenly stopped. I sniffed. And sniffed again. Yes, it was unmistakable.

At that very instant, I was transported back to a night in a Bengali village many, many years ago. To a house bustling with people, all running around. Some ordering the cook to hurry up and finish cooking the last batch of sweets, some arranging garlands of marigolds and mango leaves around the house, and some painstakingly decorating the nicest room in the house with a profusion of tuberoses, rajanigandha in Bengali.

In the confusion, a little girl had slided in unnoticed into the room, and the heady smell of tuberoses made her dizzy and enchanted at the same time. In the middle of the room stood her aunt, looking strangely distant and yet so exquisitely beautiful as a bride, with four other aunts fussing over every detail of her dress, her saree pleated perfectly, her make-up expertly applied. That day the image of the bride and the smell of the rajanigandha fused together in the little girl's mind, and to this day she cannot smell the flower's fragrance without it invoking the most wonderful memories of family weddings.

I retreaded my steps back, to a flower seller who was selling a large variety of blooms, carnations, orchids, lilies and so on. I was puzzled - where were the rajanigandha? Certainly they were there - I had smelled them, and no other flower could smell the same. And then I saw them, hidden from view, just a few stems bunched together, ignored by the patrons who seemed more keen on the dramatic orchids. I leaned towards them and took a deep breath. And was slightly disappointed. These were Mexican rajanigandha, and their fragrance is not nearly as mesmerizing as the Indian rajanigandha. But the Indian varietal is delicate and fragile, and cannot survive the journey across seven seas. So, I had to be content with not the same, but close.

I'm always amazed by the ability of some smells and tastes to immediately conjure up the most vivid memories. What surprises me even more is how sharp and intense these memories are for the most mundane things. Things that I seem to have prioritized over more precious memories that have become faded and threadbare over time.

When I was in school, I had once been invited over to the house of a friend of mine. It was the very first time I had been invited to spend an entire day at the house of school classmates and it was as exciting as any adventure. We spent the day gossiping about boys (13 yr olds have an endless reserve of boy gossip), watched videos and then were served lunch by my friend's mother.

She had made chholey-chawal (chickpea soup and rice) which is a classic North Indian comfort food. Now chholey that is sold in restaurants is usually heavily spiced, but this version was `
very delicately spiced, almost bland in comparison. We ate our meal and then went back to more boy gossip. After finishing school, I lost touch with this friend of mine and never saw her family again.

Years later, when I moved to the US, I was suddenly struck with the desire to recreate the chholey I had eaten that day in my friend's home. Now usually, I am a pretty good reverse engineer cook and can recreate a lot of dishes that I might have had somewhere and liked. But this one proved elusive. Try as I might, I just could not get the spicing and texture right. And the oddest thing was that even though it had been more than 15 years since I ate chholey-chawal at my friend's home, I could remember the taste like it was yesterday. And nothing ever seemed to measure up. I still keep trying, hoping I'd have my eureka moment and hit the magic formula one day.

In a similar vein, let me tell you about the time that I was invited to the house of my friend ME for dinner. He had invited a whole bunch of us from the department and had cooked a fantastic salmon. The conversation at some point turned to the rice we ate and he said that he only bought Basmati rice. He had cooked some of this rice and wanted to show it to me and get my opinion on it. I took a whiff of the aroma of the cooked rice and then said

TM: "M, I'm really sorry, but this isn't Basmati rice"

ME: "What are you talking about? Here, see - says right on the label - it's Basmati rice from India"

TM: "Yes, I know. But this isn't Basmati"

ME: "Why do you say that?"

TM: "Because I've had Basmati only once in my life, and I'll never forget that aroma."

If you think this is an odd statement coming from someone who grew up in India, then hear me out. It is true that as a Bengali family, our standard everyday rice was parboiled rice, with the Gobindobhog varietal used for making things like kheer (rice pudding). For making pulaos, my mother would use the long-grain rice that is widely sold labeled as Basmati both in India and in other countries. So why am I saying I've only had Basmati rice once in my life?

Many many years ago, when I was a little girl, one of my aunts and her husband visited us in Delhi and wished to travel to Mussourie, which is a lovely little town up in the Himalayas. My father and I agreed to go with them and we set off on our journey to Mussourie. Now the town of Mussourie lies above the town of Dehradun which is nestled in a valley and is the birthplace of the Basmati rice varietal. We decided to stop for a night in Dehradun before continuing our journey on to Mussourie.

In the evening, for dinner, my aunt and uncle decided to eat at the small restaurant attached to our hotel. We ordered a simple meal of vegetables, chicken and rice. The waiter told us that the rice they served was real Dehradun Basmati rice and then brought two plates of the rice to the table. It was one of the most ethereal smelling dishes.

I did something that I had never done before and haven't done since. I picked up my spoon and proceed to polish off the rice on its own, without any of the accompanying vegetables and curry. My father, uncle and aunt were extremely amused at my performance, but they knew that the rice was very special and launched into a discussion of how it was becoming more and more difficult to find real Basmati outside Dehradun.

I think I was about 8 0r 9 at the time. Ever since nothing had come even close to that memory of Basmati rice. I would get very puzzled when I would buy bags labeled Basmati sold in US markets and then on cooking, the rice would smell nothing like the Basmati I had many years ago. I even thought my memory was playing tricks with me. Surely all this is traditional Basmati rice, and I'm just being over picky and delusional.

And then on one of my trips home I met an old friend who was then working for one of India's biggest Basmati rice exporting companies. This friend had grown up in a town near Dehradun and had access to Dehradun Basmati growing up. I discussed with him how I just couldn't seem to find any Basmati that matched up to my memory of the rice I ate a long time ago and I was wondering if my memory was playing tricks with me.

He laughed and said

"You know TM, your instincts are spot on. Just think about it - the Dehradun valley is a tiny strip of land that can barely grow enough rice to support local demand. And there are huge quantities of so called Basmati rice consumed in India and internationally every year. Something doesn't add up, right?"

And then he told me of how the Basmati rice sold by his company was grown from a hybrid variety of Basmati developed by agricultural scientists in India that was different from the traditional Basmati varietal grown in Dehradun. Of course if you've never had real Basmati in your life, you'd never know the difference. Legally, the rice is still Basmati, but the hybrid just does not match up to the delicate yet intense aroma of the traditional varietal. I have since tried to find rice wholesalers who source directly from the Dehradun valley but have been unsuccessful so far. And given the rate at which urban sprawl is gobbling up agricultural land in Dehradun, that rice may remain a memory forever.