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Friday, January 25, 2013

 

Samosas, Singaras - Mecheda, West Bengal, And a Small Town in Pakistan

***

Train Journeys Between Kolkata and Jamshedpur


The New Yorker never fails to give pleasure. During my subscription of more than thirty years, it has gone through a number of changes in format and in management.The stable of writers and contributors continue to produce interesting, thought-provoking articles, short stories, poems, and photographs.

Tina Brown's tenure as editor was not noteworthy. She went on to do other things. Good riddance.

Reading Sameer And The Samosas  by Daniyal Mueenuddin in the December 3rd issue took me back to the days when I rode the train between Jamshedpur, known as the Steel Town, and Calcutta.  The train stations were Tatanagar and Howrah.  In those days, Jamshedpur belonged to the state of Bihar. In 2000, it became part of  the newly designated Jharkhand State. 

Mueenuddin wrote about his return from America to Pakistan to run the family farm that belonged to his father. The link above is for an abstract, not the complete article.  Always enjoy reading his short stories.  It was his description of samosas (singaras, to Bengalis) that triggered a trip to memory lane.
From "Sameer and the Samosas" by Daniyal Mueenuddin - The New Yorker 12/3/2012.

“At the farm, I lived more and more according to routines, because only that way could I escape the paralyzing dread that sometimes came over me, the sense that I could trust no one, and that soon I would be driven away, to do God only knows what, to leave Pakistan a failure and work in America.  Fezoo brought tea out to me, as he did each evening, in the center of the lawn, and then, returning into the house, came out with a platter covered with a white embroidered handkerchief.

“What’s this? “I asked, sniffing the scent of fried food. I had decided while living at the farm, to keep to a strict diet: no booze, protein for breakfast and lunch, fruit for dinner, no snacks. At afternoon tea, Fezoo was to give me exactly three biscuits, in the evening, none. Thought I drank endless cups of tea and glasses of lemonade, I lived with a little, gnawing hunger, a mortification.

“Chaudhry Sameer Sahib sent this from his own kitchen, made by his wife,”Fezoo answered. “Samosas.”

“I’ll take just one, “I said, lifting the white cloth which was dabbed here and there with the oil that had soaked through.

The samosas were smaller than they usually are, two bites, very crisp, and fragrant, but with a minty fragrance. Lifted one of the carefully folded delicacies, looked at it, and then crunched into it.  Delicious! Hot beef minced with spices crumbled onto my tongue. Fezoo had put the dish on the table, next to the tea things, and now I waved him away.
“That’s fine, that’s fine,” I said.

Six more samosas, like browned pats of butter, sat on the dish. The layered crusts flaked off onto the plate, which had an oily sheen.  Sameer’s wife had even taken the trouble to heat the platter, to keep the treats warm. I washed my palette with the milky tea, then lifted by its corner another of the dainty triangular morsels.  Fabulous!  This one had a different filling, little bits of potato, almost crunchy, and so spicy that my eyes watered. Another bite and it was gone.  I must stop

Pouring myself more tea, adding milk and sugar, I eyed the platter, still charged with five delicate samosas. Each one seemed particular, unique, itself.  I laughed. “For fuck’s sake,” I said to myself “Don’t be such a fucking prune.” My stomach growled with eagerness. I took a sip of the newly poured tea, too hot, almost burning my tongue, then reached for   another samosa. Different again! This one had a tomato and chicken filling, sweetish but generously peppered. I worked my way through all the food on the platter, all the samosas, then finally, completely abandoning myself, licked the platter itself, and even that had a complex nutty Flavor, the flakes of crust melting in my mouth. ”

Mouth watering!

The samosas (singaras) commonly available in Indian and Pakistani stores and restaurants in America are big, lumpy, with heavy, greasy crust, and filled with overspiced mashed potato. A far cry from the delicate mouthfuls described by Daniyal Mueenuddin.   Hard to believe that good samosas have become extinct. Surely they exist in small, neighborhood tea shops in Kolkata that have not yet given in to the "bigger is better" concept. 

Delicious, small samosas were available at Mecheda rail station. In the sixties, when I traveled between Jamshedpur and Howrah, the night train made a brief stop at Mecheda in the early morning. Mecheda, approx. 35 miles past the major rail junction Kharagpur, well known for being the home of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).  Vendors walked the platform carrying baskets of freshly made samosas and pots of tea poured into earthen containers. Nothing fancy, like minced beef, or chicken and tomato filled samosas, just diced potatoes. When winter vegetables were in season there would be tiny florets of cauliflower mixed with the potato. They were great. I hope they have not disappeared, become a victim of progress.

After the morning tea, accompanied by samosas, we prepared to disembark at Howrah and face the hustle bustle of the big city.
 *****

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