The dekchi of milk, golden yellow, sits patiently on the mud oven. The first rays of the nascent sun, yet Grandma is up, going about the house, reciting her chants while doing her regular morning chores. Gesticulating to the maid to clean a corner that has seen an overnight spider invasion. Arranging the pots and pans just returned from washing in a regimental array in the soot-blackened kitchen. Stepping out to the yard to pluck the fragrant jasmines that have bloomed overnight. Patting her favourite calf that has come bursting from the shed the moment she saw her.
Now she’s back in the kitchen and gives the milk a loving stir, scrapes the bottom of the dekchi to ensure there is no crust forming, signals to the maid to stoke the fire of the oven and disappears again to her morning chores.
These cycles of stir-back to chores-stir-back to chores continue uninterrupted till Grandmas experienced eyes are convinced that the milk is of exactly the consistency that she needs.
She now halves some lemons and squeezes the juice into the bubbling milk. A stir again.
And then the magic starts.
The milk starts to curdle, tiny islands of pristine milk solids forming in the ocean of milk that gradually metamorphoses from its golden yellow to a pale grey-green. And a starry-eyed me, all of five years or even less, watches, enraptured and enthralled, as more immaculate white islands take birth, floating blissfully on the ocean of whey, now boiling rapturously with a furious frenzy. (My first brush with chemistry, to be my profession many years later, and for the next couple of years, I remember persisting doggedly with Grandma to wake me up, however early it was, if she were to curdle milk.)
With her deft hands Grandma drains the whey out, endearingly collects the milk solids, places them gently in a soft muslin cloth, ties a firm knot and hangs the cloth onto an ancient hook on the wall to drain any extra water.
I know that the paneer shall get into the Chhanar Dalna which Dada and I had been pestering Grandma since last evening to prepare.
I smile in silent anticipation.
Grandmas an angel.
Decades later, as I go about the rituals of making paneer at home, these images come fleeting back. Nostalgia. Memories honey-sweet. A life of blissful days and sublime evenings. No tensions. No worries. The innocent pleasures of childhood.
I pair the fresh paneer this morning with cauliflower, Chhana Phulkopi, a delectable curry Grandma used to prepare, in a tomato- milk gravy perfumed with whole spices and coriander.
Enjoy my Chhana Phulkopi with a bowl of piping hot rice !!! Divine !!!