Noshtalgia Food

Laung lata: Sealed with clove

The Banaras Hindu University campus. Photo: Getty images/ istock

The Banaras Hindu University campus. Photo: Getty images/ istock

July 1980. I reached Limbdi Hostel in Banaras Hindu University (BHU) a week late. I was 16 and this campus would be home for the next five years. There was almost nobody around in the quadrangular hostel. Another murga (fresher), also with his father in tow, was waiting for room allotment. A few seniors eyed us lustily. Ragging was still quite a thing then. But we had dad cover.

We were hungry from the train journey and the cycle rickshaw ride to the hostel. Narsingh, the lobby janitor, showed us the way to the canteen. It was a large bare room with six tables, and creaking ceiling fans beating the hot, dry air around. A single glass cupboard on stilts had all that was available — four forlorn trays with malai chaaps, samosas, bread pakoras, and laung lattas (of course, we learnt some of these names only later). We hesitantly placed an order. And thus began a five-year-long gastronomic journey.

Choosing the mess

We needed to choose a mess. There were four in Limbdi Hostel. Each mess was basically three rectangular tables placed end to end, with benches on either side. Each had a dedicated kitchen, headed by a maharaj. The kitchens were dark caverns that used clay bhattis fired by coal. The maharaj reported to a student manager, whose job it was to fix the menu, collect and manage the money, compute the charge, and in some clever cases, make a little profit. The messes were usually named after the maharaj. I ate at Moti Mess, then later at Ramnivas Mess. There was also the occasional Madrasi Mess or Bengali Mess, catering to homesick palates. We would learn over time that the dosas in Madrasi Mess tasted like wet cardboard and the sambar like dal in disguise (which is exactly what it was). But dietary longing does strange things to people.

There was an unwritten rule in BHU that each student had to consume a tonne of alu every year. So, we had alu in combination with every vegetable in the plant kingdom. Baingan, bhindi, parwal, peas, cauliflower, beans, cabbage, shimla mirchi, palak, methi... When you couldn’t take it any more, you asked Dungroos (a serving boy, who got his nickname from Naseeruddin Shah’s character in Mandi ) to bring plain alu sookha.

What we really waited for, however, were the Saturday and Sunday feasts. The paratha feast was an all-time favourite. The servers would emerge from the kitchen balancing great trays stacked with stuffed parathas — mooli, gobhi, dal, kheema, mutter, khova, and alu (but of course). They couldn’t keep pace with the relentless appetites of young stomachs craving for a break from the routine fare.

Chicken feast

Then there was the chicken feast. You sat down on the bench, rolled up your kurta sleeves, and asked for either a leg or a breast. The server would then carefully manoeuvre his way from the kitchen with a dish filled to the brim with gravy that would make even the Srinivasans and Venkatesans drool. In the middle of the dish, like an island, would be the chosen portion. Puris and bread would be served for mopping purposes.

Festival feasts took it up several notches. The maharaj would untie his heart strings, and the manager his purse strings. Puris would replace rotis. Rice would yield to pulao. Papads and fried snacks would make an appearance. Alu would make a disappearance. And then, of course, there would be sweets. With mouth-watering names like vaikunth bhog, madhur milan, kheer kadam. Saucer-sized chamchams (spell it with a vowel of your choice — a, u, or o), soft, spongy, juicy, garnished with dry fruits, and oozing with mawa goodness. For Holi, there would also be thandai (and bhang if you chose the right jug).

On Saturday nights, the mess staff took their weekly off. And we’d explore the budget options of Banaras. For under ₹5, there was Sewak’s Dhaba at Lanka, just outside the campus main gate. Rotis at 25 paisa each, a sabji for about ₹3, and dal on the house. For ₹10-12, we could go for masala dosa-cold coffee to Kerala Café or chole bhature-lassi at Sindhi Hotel. Or we could go to Kashi Chat Bhandar, Konamay, Rajan’s café, any one of several places tucked away in the winding lanes of Banaras. Usually, we chose a restaurant close to a movie hall screening the latest Jeetendra-Sridevi-starrer.

Returning from the movie, we would invariably stop for chai at an all-night shack outside the campus, where chillum-smoking sadhus gazed through dull eyes at the world. All this at less than ₹20. Bliss.

I leave you with a recipe for the juicy, drippy, messy laung lata. The Bengalis call it labong latika, and they make it look more petite than its brawny cousin from Uttar Pradesh. The Banarasi version is as big as a fist, and packs a sugar punch to match. It’s served in a mud pot, and is best eaten leaning forward so the sugar syrup doesn’t drip down your kurta. And when you sink your teeth into the khova, it compels you to roll your eyes heavenward in silent thanks.

The recipe calls for each sweet to be sealed with clove. The ‘c’ could well be silent.

SUNDAY RECIPE

Laung lata

(Half a dozen)

INGREDIENTS

50g maida

200g ghee

A few cloves

1/2 tsp cardamom powder

25 gm khova

1/2 cup chopped almonds/ cashew/ pista

1/2 tsp grated coconut

1/2 tsp khus khus

100 gm sugar

I tsp rose water

METHOD

1. Knead the maida, first with some ghee and then add water to make it of chappati dough consistency.

2. Heat the khova in a pan while stirring, to a golden aromatic stage.

3. Mix in the chopped almonds, cashews, pistas, khus khus, and grated coconut to make the stuffing.

4. Make a not-too-thick sugar syrup. Add the cardamom powder when it boils, and rose water after.

5. Roll out slightly thick discs with the dough. Heap a big spoonful of stuffing in the centre. Fold the disc to close it. Repeat with the other two sides to make as neat a bulging square envelope as you can. Seal it with a clove.

6. Fry in ghee, till crisp and golden. Dip in the sugar syrup for 15 minutes. Eat, or serve if you must.

The writer runs an ad agency (some say it’s the other way around) in Mumbai, and pretends to know more than he actually does on Twitter @ramkid


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Printable version | Jul 1, 2022 3:52:30 am | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/sealed-with-clove/article28294654.ece