araswati pujo came at a peculiar time of the year. The annual examinations of our schools being
just round the corner, as children we looked at Saraswati Pujo with both excitement and trepidation. Excitement because Saraswati pujo meant one whole day off from studies, no homework or better still no revision work. Trepidation because Ma Saraswati is after all the Goddess of Knowledge and just before the all important annual exams we did not want to do anything which could offend the Goddess in any way. The maths was simple: a happy and satisfied Ma Saraswati = good results in the annual exams.
Every year Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge is worshiped on the auspicious day of Basant Panchami. For the knowledge thirsty Bengalis this is indeed a special day and we take praying to Saraswati rather seriously. Saraswati Pujo to me means a host of things---it means the coming of spring, cuckoo's song floating in from far away, excitement in the air, bright orange and yellow marigolds nodding their heads in the breeze, wearing crisp yellow saris with red borders, festive air in the house, the floors of our house decorated with alponas, the smell of incense, trying to follow the mantras and concentrating hard to pronounce the difficult Sanskrit words correctly during the anjali, blowing hard on the conch shell to announce the start of the pujas, the sound of kashor ghonta reveberating in the air during the arati, asking for an extra sweet during the prasad ceremony, steaming hot khichuri for lunch.....
On a reader's request today I want to share with you two recipes which I associate with Saraswati Pujo. Both are made using the very seasonal Indian Plums. These plums start to appear in the markers from the end of Janurary, and stay till the end of February or at the most beginning of March. Traditionally we eat these plums only after they have been offered to the Goddess.
Two varieties of Indian plums are found in the markets of Kolkata. The round shaped brown ones are known as topa kool and is really sour in taste. It is eaten on its own by those who love the sharp sour taste, but mostly it is tempered with sugar or jaggery and turned into pickles or chutneys. The green ones known as Narkel Kool are fleshly and generally have a woody, sweet taste. This is mostly eaten on its own as a fruit.
Topa Kool Er Aachar/ Indian Plum Pickle
1 kg topa kool/Indian plum
750 gms akher gur/ sugarcane jaggery
Salt & red chilli powder according to taste
1 tea spoon paanch phoron (A Bengali whole seed mix including—i. Mauri/Fennel seeds, ii. Meethi/ seeds, iii. Kalo jeere/ Nigella seeds, iv. Kalo shorshe/ Black mustard seeds and v.Ajwain/)
- Wash the plums really well; take off the bota/ short stem at the top of each plum. Once the water is completely drained, lightly press the plums with fingers so that the brown skin is ruptured and the white flesh inside is exposed.
- Spread the ruptured plums on a plate/tray, cover with a piece of muslin (or any other thin) cloth/ jaali and dry in the sun for 2/3 days. Thin cloth or jaali is essential otherwise the sunrays cannot soak through and dry the plums. Each day after sunset store the tray of plums in a cool and dry place.
- After 2/3 days of continuous sun bathing, the plums will shrink a little in size and the brown skin will become dry. Take a broad mouthed stone/porcelain vessel (metal vessels are not used since acid from the plums react with the metal), add the jaggery, the salt and chilly powder (a little at a time) and the plums. Lightly mix it with a wooden spoon (please do not use hand). Leave in the sun, covered with a muslin cloth for 5/6 days. Stir occasionally so that the jaggery does not settle at the bottom, but remains well mixed with the plums. Occasional stirring also ensures that all the plums get uniform amount of sun rays. Make sure to store the vessel containing the mixture in a cool and dry place at night.
- After 5/6 days add 1 tea spoon of paanch phoron to the berry and mix with a wooden spoon. Again dry in the sun for 5/6 days, repeating the above process.
- After that pour in a dry, sterilized glass jar/bottle (metallic like steel or plastic container will spoil it) and store in a cool dry place. The pickle is now ready to be eaten.
- Store the jar/bottle in a cool and dry place. Occasionally put the jar/bottle out to sun. But be careful, excessive exposure to sun will dry out the pickle. This pickle will stay for more than a year, but the instructions have to be followed carefully.
Topa Kool er Ambol/ Indian Plum Chutney
2 table spoons of mustard oil
1 tea spoon of black mustard seeds
2 red chilies, snapped from the middle (can be reduced to one as well, according to heat tolerance)
300 gm of topa kool/plum
250 gms of akher gur/ sugarcane jaggery or at least a couple of table spoons
10 to 15 table spoons of sugar according to sweet preference
A pinch or so of red chilly powder
- In a pan, heat the mustard oil, once the fumes start coming out of the oil, reduce the heat and add the mustard seeds and the red chillies. Once the mustard seeds start popping which should happen almost immediately, add the plums. Fry well, after a couple of minutes add salt and keep cooking. Make sure that the plums do not stick to the bottom of the pan. Now start adding the sugar/jaggery a bit at a time and add enough water so that the plums are submerged. Bring it to a boil, taste the syrup and adjust the seasoning.
- I did not have enough jaggery at home, so I used sugar to make it, at the very end I added two table spoons of jaggery, boiled the chutney one more time and removed from heat. Let it cool down, store in a stone/porcelain/glass bowl.
This chutney is traditionally enjoyed at the end of lunch or we Bengalis say sesh paat ee. I can have it any time of the day. I love it so much that I tend to keep eating it, so much so that I often end up with tummy aches. But I am sure that you will enjoy it much more moderately.