By Nina Mukerjee Furstenau
KOLKATA, India—On Sunday, I was making patishapta, an Indian crepe, not quite as I was taught. Okay, not at all as I was taught. The classical dancer Priyadarshini Shome invited me over in December to learn how to make this Bengali treat, and I witnessed a sort of choreography of motion and aroma by Srikanta Pramanik in her kitchen. While he made the crepes, the scent of the delicious filling, nolan gur (winter jaggery from the date palm) and fresh narcole (coconut), lifted into the air from its bowl waiting nearby. He deftly spun the base of his ladle to spread perfect-sized rounds of batter on the hot chatu with pleasing calm. There was filtered light coming through the window. There was tiny tinking noises to be heard from utensils. In my kitchen, none of these things happened, or I was too busy being furtive to notice.
This may have been caused by my flagrant altering of the recipe. As some of you know, I am in Kolkata this year as a Fulbright Global Scholar researching food heritage. I feel sure recipes are among humankind’s first code. Peel back the reasons and whys and hows of each ingredient and you get to the root of culture. Literally, I see visions of soil nutrients and rolling land and fruiting trees, not to mention aunties and other sundry ancestors, lift off the plate when I eat, which might disconcert a lesser diner. So, you might well ask, what exactly was I thinking altering a classic recipe?
The winter air in Kolkata, laughably mild or so I thought back in September, chilled me into wearing a wool shawl, two tunics, leggings, and wool socks with flip flops in the house (#needfingerlessmittens). And in this bundled fashion, stooping over a two-burner stove, I simmered cocoa, honey and water to make chocolate sauce. It occurred to me I was missing home. Why else mess with a good thing? I imagined my heritage food friends glancing over in dismay. My own eyebrow lifted in disdain. This patishapta was, in essence, offering up a vehicle for chocolate which I had not tasted in months. Without any baking powder or baking soda in the flat, patishapta was doing double duty by filling in for our Sunday-at-the-farm pancakes in Missouri.
Srikanta used only fine white wheat flour soaked in water for the batter, the patishapta rolling up the dense jaggery, coconut- and cardamom-flavored filling favored in Bengal. Other versions use rice flour and sometimes semolina as well. And, indeed, in rice-rich Bengal, rice flour recipes pre-date wheat, a late-comer from the north. I, however, ignored any such musings and reverted to how I make crepes at home, adding butter and egg to white flour for the batter. Not necessary, I categorically confirm, after eating every one of the entire batch. Just soaking the flour as they do here without adding eggs is enough to create light and fine crepes.
This dessert, made with true anticipation by Bengalis, heralds winter winds and cool nights that cause the date palm syrup to flow, much like maple tree syrup does in the U.S. And the result is light, fragrant, and delightful to be sure. Chocolate has a darker story. One that is never a straight-forward affair when you think of its history rooted in Old World explorations of the southern Americas, routing into North America via the Columbia Exchange, and then, more slowly nudging into Asia. Its food trail alone is enough to make your head spin, even without considering what happened to the native peoples of chocolate. Nolan gur is right to hand. Local, seasonal and mellow. The food trail is rather easy to trace: most in Kolkata markets comes from the Bankadaha forest range 132 miles (213 km) away.
I had none of these thoughts in mind. No history floated up to me via the stove top or, later, from the plate as is usually the case. Nada. It was just me, chocolate sauce, and crepes, my very own food trail loop. Sometimes, the taste of home is reason enough.
Did you know? Date trees are tapped much like maple trees and when temperatures oscillate, the sap runs. In Bengal, men climb the trees, make cuts in the upper section of the trunk, affix a pipe at each cut and catch the flow in earthen pots. The sap is collected and boiled, often in large shallow pans heated by wood nestled into hollows underneath. The liquid is sold as a deep brown yet light-on-the-tongue syrup, or cooked further and poured into molds to form dried jaggery blocks which can be store and used over time.
Pitha Patishapta Narcole Gura
Recipe courtesy of Priyadarshini Shome and Srikanta Pramanik
2 cups white flour
2 cups or enough water to cover flour
½ tsp salt
300 grams or about 10 ounces gur, date palm jaggery found in Middle Eastern or Indian groceries, broken into pieces (brown sugar will do in a pinch)
Fresh coconut from one whole coconut, grated (about 10 ounces)
3 pods of cardamom, seeds extracted and ground
Put water into a large bowl. Add flour and salt and set aside for 30 minutes. In another bowl, mix grated coconut and jaggery with you hands until well combined. Put mixture in a skillet and add cardamom. Heat and stir for 7-10 minutes or until aroma rises and mixture is dense and begins to pull away from the pan edges. Take off stove to cool. In the meantime, stir the water and flour mixture with a large spoon. It should be the consistency of a thin batter. Heat a large flat pan on the stove to medium hot. Add a little oil or butter to the pan surface. Pour a ladle of the batter onto the pan, spreading it into a round about 5-6 inches in diameter. Cook for 2 minutes and flip. Cook for another 1 minute, careful not to let it get too brown. While the crepe is still on the pan, place a spoonful of the coconut/jaggery mix onto its surface and roll the whole patishapta into a log. Heat through, rolling and slightly flattening the filled crepe.
Options: patishapta is also often made with rice flour. To try an easy version of this, replace the 2 cups white flour with 1 cup white flour, ½ cup rice flour, and ½ cup semolina, and 1 T sugar. Mix this with a little salt and let the mixture soak in 1 cup warm milk instead of water for 30 minutes prior to cooking. I haven't done it yet, but skipping the wheat flour altogether should work as well, just add a binding element such as Xanthan or guar gum.