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Aamshotto: Sun dried memories of summer mangoes

LiveMint logoLiveMint 07-07-2017 Arundhati Ray

Heavy monsoon rain at our weekly family lunch reminded us that the end of the mango season was imminent. Inevitably, the discussion turned to aamshotto, the semi-hard, flavour-bursting, sun-dried treat beloved of Bengalis. The perfect aamshotto, my mum-in-law pronounced dreamily, is a chewy biscuit or brandy snap gone soft. “Not too thin nor thick, the sweet just right, you can chew on it for a while and your entire mouth is an explosion of intense mango flavour.” The last time we had tasted such aamshotto, we agreed, was when friends from Malda, West Bengal’s top mango-growing district and traditional centre for superb aamshotto, sent us some. Nothing from Kolkata could match it.

Across India, communities have found ways of preserving the country’s favourite fruit so that it can be savoured through the year, using ancient sustainable food practices. One method is to sun-dry the puréed pulp until it hardens, all moisture sucked out, leaving only an amber sheet of intense flavour, which will last for months in an airtight container.

In Bengal, with its many—some highly prized—varieties of mangoes, the ritual of hand-puréeing the fruit and laying it out on a greased steel or stone platter in the hot sun was a highlight of kitchen calendars across villages and towns. Sometimes it was laid out on muslin-covered coarse madurs (woven reed mats), and when dry it would bear the criss-cross pattern of the mat. Girls learnt the art from their mothers and aunts and carried the knowledge into their marital homes. All this is fairly well-known. But as I conducted my recent search for “real” aamshotto, I stumbled upon a lost art of Bengal that few appear to remember or know of—and little evidence of it remains.

Mangoes from the writer’s garden. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

One of the persons I spoke to was my friend Ayesha Mallik because her mother and aunts are knowledgeable cooks and passionate memory-keepers of family history and lore. Aamshotto was no longer made in her home, she said, “but you must see the intricately designed aamshotto moulds made by my father’s grandmother’s grandmother, Akshaya Devi, some 200 years ago, which were in use by great-aunts even 70-odd years ago”. This was the first time I had heard about aamshotto set in moulds, and, moreover, in moulds made by the women of the household. Ayesha’s mother explained: “Every home would have stoneware for widows to eat because stone is considered pure. When a plate broke, it would not be thrown away. Women would plane away the edges till a smooth shape emerged; then using a norul (the small chisel used by traditional hair and nail cutters or napits) they would work on the stone to create artworks that would function as aamshotto moulds.”

As she spoke, she handed me a flat plate. The slate-coloured stone disc, about 8 inches in diameter, was cool and heavy in my hands. The rim was smooth, all jagged edges lovingly, painstakingly, planed away by the woman who had worked on it. The engraving on the surface took my breath away. It was the goddess Kali as she appears in Bengali mythology: four-armed embodiment of earth-destroying rage, caught off-guard by her beloved husband Shiva laying himself down in her path to stop her mission of annihilation, prompting her to stick out her tongue in shame, her fury checked as she realizes she has stepped on her consort. Every detail was etched in, from the goddess’ tongue to the weaponry in her four hands, to the strands of her dishevelled tresses. Shiva, dressed in his customary loincloth, is looking up at her, one foot of the goddess pressing down on his chest. On either side of this central image were the ghoul-like figures that traditionally accompany Bengal’s Kali thakur, etched in perfect synchrony. Every space between the figures on this stone canvas was filled with the emblematic designs of Bengali folk art. I needed to remind myself that this exquisite piece of art was created by a young untutored woman, working in her free time between household chores, equipped with only a norul and her imagination.

An intricately designed stone mould. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

The other piece was paisley-shaped, about 10 inches in length, and it too had no rough edges. Covered with intricate designs, it was a beautiful three-dimensional alpona (freehand wall and floor art that uses rice paste) motif. Ayesha’s aunt, who had seen these aamshotto moulds being used by her grandmother when she was a child, recounted the process. After the mangoes had been washed and peeled, the pulp would be put into huge buckets. Then, using their fingers, the women of the house would work with the pulp to get the right consistency. “It was an art, and not everyone had the expertise or ‘haath’. My grandmother did and once she was satisfied that it was the right consistency, the purée would be spread on to the lightly oiled moulds that had been selected for that day, and these put out on the roof where the sun would be strongest.”

At every point, knowledge passed down through generations, learnt through watching, and listening, and practice, came into play. “The purée had to be the right consistency; you needed to spread it evenly and just to the right thickness; the sun had to be strong enough and you had to be confident that you would get the same strong sunlight for two-three consecutive days. I remember how my aunts and grandmother would keep an anxious eye on the sky through the day, praying there wouldn’t be a sudden gathering of storm clouds.” If you got any one of these factors wrong, the aamshotto would turn out too soft or too thick, failing the chewiness and flavour test. But if all went well, she continued, “for us children the most thrilling moment was when the sun-dried layers would be carefully peeled off their moulds, each bearing its unique design, and we would be allowed to take our first bite of this heavenly treat”.

She recalled the varieties of moulds—different shapes and sizes and bearing different designs: alpona-inspired patterns, depictions of gods and goddesses, birds and animals for aamshotto meant specifically for children. “Once the aamshotto had been stored, the moulds would be washed, dried and put into large wooden chests (sinduks) till required again. At one time there was a chest full of these moulds. Today, only these two remain.”

Sunanda Basu, scholar and family friend, also treasures the two survivors of the many moulds that were once in her family’s possession. “These were made by my grandmother’s grandmother,” she explained as she carefully unwrapped the heirloom pieces. “Our ancestral home was in Jessore, in East Bengal—now Bangladesh—and these were passed down from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law. One of my paternal grand-aunts was the last woman in the family to use them. Our family had moved to Kolkata by then, and every summer she would send us aamshotto, each piece bearing an intricately worked design. For us children, there were smaller rounds, each with our individual names embossed on them. Those made us feel so important!”

The two circular moulds she has are exquisite. On one, the entire surface is engraved with intricate floral designs on perfectly round concentric circles. The dimensions and proportions of the flowers, leaves, patterns and curved lines are flawless. In sharp contrast to these curving patterns, straight lines and geometric designs dominate the other mould. Again, the flawless nature of the freehand execution is striking.

The art of setting aamshotto in moulds has died out; and except for the scant few preserved by a handful of families, the intricate and beautiful moulds themselves have also vanished, taking with them a unique art form practised by highly talented women for whom the kitchen was often the only sphere allowing creative expression and agency.

But what of aamshotto itself? My quest for excellent handcrafted aamshotto took me on a tasting trail through Kolkata’s markets and non-profit-run artisanal food outlets promising authentic Bengali aamshotto. To no avail, however. Finally, it’s in Malda again that I found the “real thing”.

Aamshotto has been a cottage industry for Hasmat Sheikh’s family for generations, like many other families in the district. The women are in charge of obtaining purée of the perfect consistency before spreading it out on muslin-lined mats, in a layer of the right thickness. Once it has dried, the men cut the sheets into smaller squares using a ruler, stack the cards in bundles and sell these to the middleman who will take them to retailers outside the district, even Bangladesh.

Different varieties of mango produce aamshotto of different flavours and quality. The Gopal Bhog variety yields the best aamshotto, fetching Rs1,200 per kg. But fewer households are producing the top-quality aamshotto of yore. It’s a labour-intensive, weather-dependent enterprise and the returns are not always commensurate—people are no longer discerning, satisfied with the soft over-sweet candy that has flooded markets. So sugar is being added to much of the commercial aamshotto today, marring both the flavour and texture. Bangladesh remains a big buyer of superior aamshotto, but export red-tape often stymies this trade.

Sheikh has heard that the state government has exciting marketing plans for Malda’s high-quality aamshotto. But an investigation of the Malda “aamshotto” (Rs420 for 200g) currently available at Biswa Bangla outlets in Kolkata (the government’s high-end retail chain designed to showcase traditional artisanal goods) turned out to be disappointing. Seems like we’ll need to depend on the generosity of our Malda friends for our aamshotto fix for a while.

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