Friday, 20 December 2013

Starting with Dessert

A dish of kheer mahan at Pabna Sweets, Ulipur, Kurigram.
The bell at Ulipur fire station.

Fire. In the long struggle for advancement, since the dawning of the first fireball sun, it is difficult to overestimate its value. For warmth, protection, cooking and light – fire has proved humankind’s ally.

The ability to harness fire is one of those attributes which seperate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. By way of comparison – and a word of warning from Ulipur, Kurigram – cows don’t understand fire much.

Kheer at the Kumar house takes a minimum of six hours of simmering.

But I’m telling it wrong. Let’s start again. You’ll know the bus journey from Dhaka to Kurigram is a long one; you’ll understand if I say those city passengers of haste, hassle, scrambling for attention at the bus counter and trying to squeeze through a traffic jam got down somewhere long before the destination. These are not the sort of passengers to reach Kurigram.

Kheer mahan destined for Pabna Sweets
As you know, in Kurigram you’ll find that old Bengal: life runs slower and there’s not only time to stop to chat to friends met on the street but also an expectation. Kurigram is the quiet courtyard of a mossy, high-ceiling government building. It’s winter badminton, impromptu, time-passing. In Kurigram traditional Bangladeshi hospitality reigns undisputed king – kindling homemade philosophy about fire and words of warning concerning cows are not the way Kurigram begins. Certainly not on an empty stomach...

In small-town Ulipur, for her part – and there’s fame in it – when it comes to stomach filling it’s as well to start with dessert. The best dessert, my friend, starts in the area behind the bazaar that’s dedicated to laneway and pond. Please bear with me – we’ll get there soon.

The area isn’t large, but to take the correct turns and find the exact gate of the Kumar residence isn’t easy. One would just about need assistance from a search and rescue expert to find it – so it was a good thing I had one with me.

Md. Makbul Hossein is my friend Mostafiz’s younger brother. He’s been working as a fire fighter for the Fire Service and Civil Defence for six years, stationed in Ulipur. We met in that most Bangladeshi way – randomly. I’d forgotten, let’s be honest, that Mostafiz was a Kurigramer, and it just so happened he called me at the very moment I sat in an electric JSA auto on the final leg from Kurigram town to Ulipur. “Where are you?” Mostafiz asked.

Md. Makbul Hossein at the Ulipur fire station.
Of course it had to be that before the remaining kilometres were covered everything was organised – one of the officers was on leave so it wouldn’t be a problem to stay at the fire station! The choice of hotels in Ulipur is limited but to stay at a fire station was a first for me.

Unlike at a hotel, just outside the room was a large rusty bell which tolls for shift changes – there’s always someone on duty. It tolls for morning roll call, but I’d let you know visitors don’t need to attend. It can toll at any moment, repeatedly, in case of emergency.

There’s a fire emergency almost every day and the officers are trained to ready themselves and be on the fire truck within approximately thirty seconds. I bravely suggested I could be at the fire truck first: brave only in words – they would’ve been returning home again before I got my act together. My claim was never tested – fortunately those days were quiet.

And one afternoon, I confess, on returning to the fire station to find nobody in the yard for adda, I was tempted to ring the bell – a chatting emergency, conversation within thirty seconds! But of course considerate guests don’t do such things.

Anyway, with his fire fighting training and rescue knowledge locating the Kumar residence wasn’t challenging for Makbul.

The kheer mahan kitchen at the Kumars'.
Makbul makes his living from fire; so do the Kumars. Inside their yard an enormous pot of milk slowly boiled over a pit flame – into it are added bay leaves and cardamom, and other ingredients which Sunil Kumar, head-of-household and the other side of 50, ‘doesn’t want to say just now.’ You’ll understand it’s hardly likely this culinary inventor was going to divulge the entirety of his secret recipe for kheer, that sweetened, thickened milk used in several Bangladeshi dishes.

He did say however – a little tip – that there’s no sugar in it and the slower the milk cooks the greater the sweetness retained. Kumar-kheer requires six hours of boiling and stirring.

The humble but famous Pabna Sweets, Ulipur main road.
There’s history in that fire – in Kurigram town it’s universally acknowledged the finest kheer mahan, that type of sweetmeat, comes from Ulipur. And in Ulipur the recommended shop name is likely to be Pabna Sweets. Sunil, originally from Belkuchi Upazila in Pabna, has passed on business and culinary secret to his thirty year old son Sanjid. They’ve been making kheer mahan for twenty-five years – indeed, Sunil says he invented it.

Kheer mahan, the finished product, is an elongated ball of that fresh, unripened curd cheese called chhana, made in a process similar to ricotta. The milk is boiled, curdled with a small amount of whey, and the resulting coagulated curd is collected, wrapped in cloth, strained, beaten and kneaded until it becomes firm and smooth. The lengthened ball of chhanna, when draped in the attire of the Kumars’ kheer, takes on an altogether new dimension of delicious.

It won’t surprise you that kheer mahan, both the Kumars’ and the many versions from other kitchens, are sold all across Ulipur. You’ll see in the main street an oversupply of kheer mahan vendors.

Three generations of the Kumars, Sanjid with his son on the left, Sunil on the right at home amidst the day's kheer mahan production.
Sunil Kumar first learnt the sweetmeat trade at a shop in Dinajpur where he refined his skills on all manner of sweets – cham cham, rasgulla, rajbogh, chhena jalebi – before he got creative. His innovation starts with an idea that slowly cooks and curdles in his mind – then there are experiments before the new variety emerges. These days his imagination has grown big – you’ll understand as he explains his ‘atomic bomb’ project. A single piece of this industrial-sized sweetmeat, perhaps in the shape of a fish or a boat, can weigh several kilograms. His first atomic bomb involved a 2.5 kilogram chhanna armament sent to Dhaka for somebody’s birthday.

Sanjid Kumar has taken charge of Pabna Sweets.
His son Sanjid meanwhile dreams to expand the business that currently sells 15-20 kilograms of kheer mahan per day. The problem is finance – and Sunil’s atomic programme suffers similarly from a lack of capital.

Yet according to Sunil the most important factor in running a successful sweetmeat business is cleanliness – high hygiene standards bring customers back.

Back at the fire station you’ll be hearing of the rough driveway and the five turns down narrow laneways that the truck has to negotiate before reaching the main road. Vital seconds are lost and it’s disheartening for the fire fighters, well-equipped and ready to be on-truck within thirty seconds. They’ve written letters but it came to nothing.

And the leading cause of Ulipur fires? It’s cows kicking over the mosquito coils their owners thoughtfully placed in the barn of an evening to keep livestock well-rested and comfortable. Cows don’t understand much about fire.

Morning roll call at Ulipur fire station.
Meanwhile Sohel – another fire fighter – is on his way back to the station from a home visit in Rangpur. He’s excited, his head is buzzing because his colleagues have told him to expect a new ‘team member’ on his arrival. Who could it be?

The fire station at Ulipur.
Now that you’re satisfied with a good helping of kheer mahan, a final word of warning: it might be best not to mention Ulipur’s atomic bomb programme – it’s not a good world we live in – weapons of mass destruction – there are those who wouldn’t hesitate to launch a military strike before discovering that Ulipur’s atomic programme is milk-based.

Measuring ingredients in the Kumar household.

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: Starting With Dessert

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