It’s a sultry summer morning, the ancient fan whirring above struggles to provide any respite from the tyranny of the scalding heat.
Didi is seated on the red oxide floor of the dalan that separates the rooms from the backyard. A bowl of panta bhaat, rice that she had left to soak in water overnight, rests patiently in front of her, as Didi, with deft movements of her experienced fingers, plucks stalks, one by one, from at least a half dozen green chillies. This is her breakfast, she shall now relish her panta bhaat with salt, a whole red onion that she has already quartered and those fiendish chillies.
Oto lonka khash naa, (Don’t have so much of chillies) Grandma makes an entry.
There’s no novelty in this, this is an everyday scene from our household.
That Grandma dotes on Didi is an understatement. And why not ? Didi is Grandma’s shadow in the house, inseparable from her, we joke often that Didi knows what Grandma wants even before Grandma does.
But this is the one thing about Didi that annoys Grandma to no extent – her love for chillies. Didi savours her chillies, despite Grandma’s reprimands, she is not able to overcome what I have now come to believe is an addiction for chillies.
Lonka guloi jhal nei, (The chillies are not hot at all), Didi alleges.
Manikkaka smiles. It’s a perennial pet peeve of Didi that the chillies that he gets from the local market lack the punch. Manikkaka has gracefully accepted that there is no point debating on this.
And then to prove her point, Didi snaps a chilli into two, holds one of the halves close to her nose and takes a deep breath.
(Later in the day, spurred by curiosity, I try this when no one is around, the paroxysms of cough that follow make me wiser that this is not for the faint-hearted.)
Didi opens her eyes, displeasure stark on her face and quips to Manikkaka who is now smiling, This is the way to check if a chilli has oomph. I am sure you don’t even check the chillies before buying them.
No counter-argument whatsoever from Manikkaka.
He knows it’s futile.
One day, from a visit to a distant relative of hers, Didi gets a chilli sapling home. Indigenous Naga chillies, she flaunts to Manikkaka, now we don’t need those insipid chillies from the local market.
The chillies might be tiny (years later, I would realise they were variants of birds eye chillies) but their minuscule size belies their numbing heat.
I cannot handle the first chicken curry Didi cooks with these beasts, even Bapi and Maa, not really averse to hot dishes, (after all we are Sylhetis, Bapi would say in jest at times) admit that these fiery bombshells are not easy to tame.
Maa advises me to be super careful if I ever touched these fiends. Wash your hands thoroughly before you touch your eyes, she reminds.
Didi relishes them though. She savours her chilli-loaded Aloo Makha, adds a liberal punch of chillies to her Dal Bhorta when Grandma is not watching and even indulges in a curry that’s just chillies and tomatoes.
Once when I continue to nag obstinately that I want to have a taste of her curry, she puts just a tiny drop on my palm.
I lick it in a flash.
Something explodes on my taste buds. I stand stupefied, my head spins, my senses go numb.
Didi rushes to offer me a glass of water, then another, my tongues still burns.
Didi chips off a piece of patali, slowly the jaggery starts doing its magic and the devilish rage of chillies is pacified.
Enough pain though to make me pledge that I shall never brave these fiends again.
But there was one chilli dish of Didi that all of us savoured at home – her Lonka Pora Katla. A dish close to her heart and one that even we would implore her to prepare whenever Manikkaka would get Katla home from the market, especially during chilly Karimganj winters.
Lonka Pora Katla. Gorgeous Katla steaks. The heady aroma of burnt red chillies. Perfectly balanced with tomatoes.
Try this for sure.
It’s food heaven !!!