Rural Food 2 – Varuna

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Varuna Thapa is a Ghurkha who comes from a village up in the Himalayas near Kerseong in West Bengal. She left home when she was very young and has worked as a domestic help, a cook and now as my daughter’s s nanny. She’s a great cook. She worked with Punjabis before us and makes good Punjabi food (great parathas – essential skill in a semi Punjabi home). She lives with us and besides looking after my daughter helps out around the house.

She goes home once a year for a month usually in October or November depending on when Dussehra and Diwali are. She takes a train and it takes her 2 days and a night. And then its another 2 1/2 hours to her place by local buses. I have no idea how she does it. It’s a gruelling trip. But she does have the mountains at the end of it. That would be compensation for me. This time she bought a camera and took lots of pictures of her family and home and especially lots that she knew I’d love – pictures of the mountains, foodie pictures and life during the 3 festivals she went home for – Dussehra, Diwali and Bhai Tikka.

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Varuna in her parent’s living room. Dussehra tikka on her forehead

Dussehra is their main festival. They say a prayer to the goddess Durga and then the head of the house smears a paste called Nau Durga Bhavani ka Tikka on to everyones forehead. To make the tikka they soak rice in water, strain it, add a reddish pink colour and mix it with yoghurt.

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Varuna’s grandmother with family. The table set up for the Diwali Puja

Her grandmother lives in Sikkim and she went there for Diwali and Bhai Tikka. Diwali morning they worship their cow and say prayers to the goddess Lakshmi in the evening. They visit friends and families and sing songs. This is called Bhailo. Traditionally a roti called Sel Roti is eaten and fed to anyone coming over. To make the Sel Roti they soak the rice overnight. The next day it is strained and then ground in a pestle and mortar called an Okhli. They mix the rice with flour, sugar, cardamom, fennel and water and then fry this batter in hot oil.

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Sel Roti made specially for Diwali

Bhai Tikka (Bhai Duj in North India, Bhau Bheej in Maharashtra and Bhai Phota in Bengal) is a festival where sisters pray for their brother’s safety and well being. And the brothers in return give presents to their sisters.

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Varuna and her brothers after the Bhai Tikka ceremony

She took lots of pictures for me of mooli (or daikon) being harvested. They call it moola and it is a glorious purple colour. They’re packed into gunny bags or lovely conical baskets and sold. Great pictures. These moolas are used in chutneys, they make pickles out of it, eat it as a sabzi (vegetable) with rice and also add it to meat curries. I had to drag this recipe out of her – she said they get so sick of looking at mooli during the harvest that then no one wants to eat it.

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Mooli being washed and then packed to be sold in the market

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Varuna’s Gurkha Mooli/Moola Chutney

Ingredients

1 mooli

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

3 dry red chillies (more or less depending on how hot you want it)

salt

Method

Cut the mooli into thin rounds and then slice then into thin strips (you could actually just grate it on the thicker side of your grater but this is how Varuna does it). Sprinkle salt and leave for about 15 minutes.

Dry roast the sesame seeds and the dry red chillies till the sesame starts changing colour and the red chillie darken. Let it cool and then grind in a spice grinder.

Squeeze out the water from the mooli and mix in the spice mixture.

That’s it. Simple. And tasty.

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