Nina Mukerjee Furstenau
FAYETTE, Missouri -- In August, clear-yellow cloudless sulfur butterflies coast past my kitchen window heading for Florida. The two-to-three-inch lemony butterfly migrate south of the frost line for sustenance, for welcoming petunias, lantana, morning glory, impatiens and zinnias. The taste of azaleas in season, too, make the cloudless ecstatic. Imagine happy prancing, the cloudless making use of the taste sensors on their feet: dancing for the food of their gods.
Growing up in Kansas, and more recently from my Missouri farm, I watch all forms of life move over the planet. Walking, trotting, buzzing and flying where they need to go for survival, and perhaps for their souls. For this and more, I am in Kolkata, India, on a migration of my own. Four meals in, with delicious-ness abundantly obvious, I am smitten.
But first, a small tale. My grandmother, called Rani by the family, was renowned for green mango chutney and for pickles. No one, it seems, has her recipes any longer. Her chutney jars sat in the darkened and cool kitchen at Rani Villa each autumn after the abundance of summer heat ripened the mangoes on the trees in her back garden. The fruit would hang like pendulums from stems there, swaying in enticement. They were plucked from their rhythmic dance with the wind, left unmoored in a bucket to be cleaned, peeled and cooked. Later, the suctioned pop of a lid marked a transition from what was readily picked off a branch by family or visiting monkeys, to what was stored up from the past.
The sweet-tart mango, chili, and Bengali lime were alive with the history of the land. This was what sustained us as a family. Those jars, perpetually on her shelves, in which chunks of fruit gave just the right amount when you sank your teeth into them, linked me to family landscape.
For centuries, food has symbolized the sacred: blood, truth and transformation. The alchemy of grain to bread, water to wine, and fruit on trees to love of a grandmother is worth more than a passing thought. Seeds, flavors, food medicine that, with biodiversity, enables the world to recover from dangerous organisms and restore health to the planet as well as our bodies; dynamic soils that create delicious plants; none of it is trifling.
The kernel of connection between these—between traditional foods, what they offer in taste, in human health, and in cultural significance—to the health of our world is what brings me here to Kolkata, clearly south of the frost line, in the heat of September just as monsoon departs for another year.
Before leaving Missouri, I received a book in the mailbox from New Delhi. The words written in 1982 by Minakshie Das Gupta in Bangla Ranna hold Bengal on the page. East as well as West Bengal, Anglo-India Bengal and long-ago Bengal. I flip the pages as I walk back from the mailbox and begin to see the pattern of Rani’s kitchen. There’s a recipe for green mango chutney. Not quite hers. The two tablespoons of sugar couldn’t be enough. There’s a recipe for Mango Murabba, a preserve using powdered lime as a rub on the fruit. Rani had done that. Her green mango chutney seems tantalizingly close. I bend my head and read the two recipes again. A little more of this, a bit less of that. I step quickly over a pile of acorns that hurt my feet as I walk. Here. Rani did this combination. The two recipes could work together. Yes.
Here she is.
*Author Nina Mukerjee Furstenau is researching her upcoming book, Green Chili & Other Impostors, about, among other things, the heritage foods of Bengal as a Fulbright Global Scholar in Kolkata, India, 2018-19. Join her journey at A Likely Story.
Finding Rani* Green Mango Chutney
Makes 20 ounces
6 raw green mangoes, peeled and cubed, discarding the pit
½ teaspoon slaked lime
4 cups sugar
½ to 1 full chili (optional)
6-8 whole cloves
4-inch piece of cinnamon, broken into pieces
6-8 green cardamoms, peeled, seeds extracted (about ¼ teaspoon)
2 tablespoons raisins, soaked in water and rinsed
2-3 cups water
Salt to taste
Peel and dice the mangoes. Prick the diced pieces with a fork. Coat the mango pieces in the powdered lime and let soak in water to cover for 6-8 hours. Remove the mangoes and wash in several changes of water. Place the mangoes in a pan with enough water to cover. Add a pinch of salt. Bring the mango and water mixture to a boil and then remove from heat and drain. Dry the mangoes slightly by patting with paper towel. In a deep saucepan, bring the 2-3 cups water to boil, add sugar. Remove the foam that forms on the surface as the syrup simmers. Add the mangoes and optional chili and continue to simmer. Add cinnamon, cloves and cardamom seeds. Add raisins. Mix well. Simmer the
mixture in the sugar syrup, stirring occasionally until the mangoes are soft and syrup is quite thick. Remove from heat. Cool. Store in a glass jar in the refrigerator for several months, or to store longer, can with a pressure cooker.
*or my best guess for now at Rani's famous chutney recipe