Calcutta, Jan 5, 2012 (Washington Bangla Radio / Penning Creations) If you are a true-blue Bong with a typically sweet tooth and there is a nip in the air, it must be your favorite time of the year. The scents of ‘Nolen Gur’, that delectable and delicious variety of jaggery which is available only during the winter months (like all good things in life, it cannot be found any time one likes!) must already have reached your discerning nostrils. We love our ‘mishti doi’-s, ‘rosogolla’-s and ‘korapak-er sandesh’-es, but ‘nolen gur’ seems to add an extra dimension to the range and taste (slurp!) of sweets in the city. Indeed, ‘nolen gur’ sweets are much more than just another variety of tasty food items gracing the plates of the discerning Bengalis in winter; they have become intermingled with the way of our lives.
For those of you who are not quite aware of the origins of ‘nolen gur’ (the romanticism of which is somewhat lost in its alternative name – ‘notun gur’), it is obtained from the sap of palm trees, which is secreted mainly during the Bengali months of ‘Aghrahayan’ and ‘Poush’ (roughly, from November to January). The manner in which ‘nolen gur’ is collected and prepared has its fair share of charm, beauty and indeed, adventure as well. Traders tie earthen pots right at the top of palm trees at night and they are left there till morning. At the crack of dawn, the pots, now filled with palm sap, are brought down. The collected juices are now boiled and treated to prepare different varieties of ‘nolen gur’. ‘Jhola gur’, the thick and sinfully sweet member of the ‘nolen’ fraternity, is created by boiling the sap for a relatively short period of time. Boil it longer and you will get the solid and equally (if not more!) tasty ‘Patali gur’, which, in turn, is designed into different forms before being sold in the markets. Of course, the palm juices, in their raw form, enjoy high customer demand levels too.
Moving on from the technical (some might even call it mundane!) details, let us now turn our attentions to the varieties of sweets, with ‘nolen gur’ as one of their principal ingredients, that add to the attractions of sweet shops by their gracious presence during the months of winter. Many swear by the ‘gurer kanchagolla’-s, ‘taalshaansh’-es and ‘gurer kalakaand’-s that are available during this period. During January, in particular, certain shops boast of having more than 50 varieties of ‘nolen gur’ sweets in their stock. How one wishes we could taste all of them!
Customers, however, need to be careful while buying ‘nolen gur’ products from sweet stores. A bad tasting experience with sub-standard sweets can rob much (nay, all!) of the charm of a person’s desired date with ‘nolen gur’ sweets. Thankfully, there is no dearth of shops in our city, which serve ‘nolen gur’ sweets of the finest quality.
While stores like KC Das and Bhim Nag have taken it upon themselves to ensure that their customers are never denied the chance to enjoy the ‘nolen gur’ items that they so crave for, the Balaram Mullick and Radharaman Mullick store can be considered to be some sort of a pioneer as far as bringing top quality ‘nolen gur’ sweets to the markets too.
It’s all very well to purchase ‘nolen gur’ delicacies from sweet stores, but, if you want to feel the true traditional and old-world charm of this incredibly magical genre of edibles, you simply have to buy the ‘nolen poira gur’ from the roaming salesmen (and ladies!), who visit houses with clay jars, filled to the brim with the liquid variety of this highly addictive potion. In fact, the sight of these vendors, carrying two heavy earthen pots of ‘gur’, hanging from either end of sticks that are carefully balanced on their shoulders, fills all Bongs who love their sweet dishes with an intense craving to taste ‘nolen gur’ products (that too, on an ASAP basis!).
‘Nolen gur’ weaves its magic in the typical Bengali households as well. The appearance of this brand of jaggery in the markets sparks off a flurry of activities among the female members of practically all Bengali families, who become busy in creating the (slurp..again!) ethereal ‘patishapta’-s, ‘puli pithey’-s, ‘nolen gurer payesh’, ‘gokul pithey’-s and a wide variety of other ‘nolen gur’ sweets – each of them more tasty than the other (or so it seems, really!). ‘Narkel naru’-s (which, when translated to English, become the extremely prosaic and dull-sounding ‘coconut dumplings’!) are another variety of ‘nolen gur’ delicacies that have found considerable favour among us Bengalis from the times of yore. Indeed, what is childhood if one has not tried to steal fistfuls of these ‘naru’-s from shelves (in their own homes!) and got caught in the process (by mothers, grandmothers, aunts and the like)? These experiences indeed contribute a great deal in the process via which a person grows from being a ‘resident of Kolkata’ to a ‘Bong’, in the real sense of the term.
There are plenty in store for those who wish to try out some non-conventional ‘nolen gur’ sweets as well. A new category of so-called ‘fusion sweets’ are generally available in shops during the winter months, which present a heady mix of the traditional taste of ‘nolen gur’ and other, more contemporary, ingredients and designs. Try out ‘nolen gurer rosogolla’-s or ‘nolen gurer icecreams’ and you will know what these ‘fusion sweets’ are all about. ‘Nolen gur’-filled chocolate sweets also deserve an honourable mention in this category.
Adding to the enormous popularity of ‘nolen gur’ products is the fact that, this brand of jaggery is available in the markets at wholesale prices, which are, of course, much lower than what the prices would have been if we had to buy it from individual retailers. The consistently high customer demand levels also help shopowners supply delicious ‘nolen gur’ sweets to buyers at relatively low prices. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that even if the prices of ‘nolen gur’ were slightly higher, that would have, in no way, diminished the attractions of these delicacies in the eyes of the average Bengalis, who are known for their love for tasty sweets.
Christmas has come and gone and we have had our fair share of yummy cakes. New year celebrations are also done and dusted and we have indulged our taste buds on that occasion as well. But hey, don’t these cakes, tutti-fruttis and western-style desserts pale into relative insignificance when we detect that unmistakable golden brownish tinge of ‘nolen gur’ in the sweets, ‘pithey’-s and ‘puli’-s that are presented in front of us by our loving mothers and grandmothers (sorry to all guys, but you do not even come close to matching your better halves in preparing these traditional Bengali sweets!)? After all, even literary stalwarts like Sukumar Ray have proclaimed, ages ago, that, while there are many tasty items available to us Bongs, the fact remains: ‘Kintu shobar chaite bhalo/Pauruti aar jhola gur’!
Phew! All this writing about delicious ‘nolen gur’ items has made me hungry again. Let me raid the refrigerator and hopefully I’ll find a bowl of sumptuous, finger-licking ‘notun gurer payesh’, made by my mom (who else?). Pray for me...