Romancing The MitthaiMARKETA HOLTEBRINCK
If you ever were a commuter, you may understand the deep, anguished yearning for sweets that befalls one on the daily journey back home. The depletion of your energy, the desperation over the state of the human race as it immediately affects you, the decline of your sugar levels, the deprivations of the everyday transfer (including but not limited to strangers loudly abusing their cell phones) – the brown bag of home goodies is simply empty.
As my commuter cravings mingled with temporary addictions to new tastes ten years ago when I first came to Canada, I can’t tell what came first, the cinnamon roll or ‘Oh Henry!’.
In my memory, nothing matches the intensity of the combination – the trick-or- treat sized candy bar in rapidly increasing numbers devoured in the coffee lounge of the State Farm office in Burlington where I spent the first four months of my ‘Canadian experience‘, and my famished fatigue subsiding after swallowing half a Cinnabon at the Union Station en route to Hamilton.
After a few years I graduated from a life on the inter-city commuter bus to living in downtown Toronto. I recovered my tastes for sophisticated, old-world things and, by chance, settled within a walking distance from three Portuguese bakeries.
Having tasted the casual excellence of a hit-and-run espresso and a pastel de nata – the famed Portuguese custard tart – in mainland Portugal, the somewhat chewy moulds filled with what looked like powder-based custard on Toronto’s Bloor Street West could only partially quench my lingering saudades for Europe.
I managed, though, with a couple of tricks. When the visual inspection of natas left me wanting, I splashed out on pudim flan. I made it a rule never to eat an entire piece, out of caution, so as not to spoil the soft tissue of my platonic desire for that sweet.
When, nevertheless, the thin veil wore off one day, my Eritrean friend and nearby restaurant owner filled in with my first Toronto baklava. Soon I was treated a regular in the shawarma hot-spots of the neighborhood, always greeted with a broad smile and the question, How many today?
But fake loves won’t last. More often than not, I went home sulking and made sweets on my own – a Black Forest cake with chocolate, cherries and whip-cream, or the Austrian appropriation of the Levantine sophistry, the strudel. I spent weekend afternoons baking, and then shared the exploits with less fortunate friends, roommates in my mental confitería.
A year ago, my life got shaken to its foundations: I had my first taste of mitthai.
To say the least, I was completely unprepared for an event of such magnitude.
My brief affair with the laddu 25 years before, in one of Lisbon’s famous second-floor eateries, rested with other, similarly short-lived romances in the rubble of the past.
The memory of roasted chickpea flour, ghee and pistachios was too faint; as with many memories from the pre-internet times, it didn’t come with the paraphernalia of Google pictures, Twitter recipes, DIY YouTube videos and Facebook feeds. It lay in analog twilight.
(Let’s not forget either that living west of Yonge Street in Toronto, there was no danger that I might spot a formidable laddu in downtown’s restaurants - Little India, Babur Restaurant, et al - which I periodically, nostalgically toured with my children.)
And then, one day, I discovered heaven on earth. New loves are tempestuous with a sudden clearing of skies so dazzling that it leaves an imprint on your soul. My lips opened to take in the first bite of a rasgulla – refreshing cold, with some of the sugary juice replaced by water, the velvety ball squeaking against the enamel of my teeth.
There was no end to this until every crumble was swallowed and I was left with a distinct, slowly receding feeling on my soft palate. I was infinitely charmed.
I unearthed my German edition of Julie Sahni’s classic on subcontinental cuisine and learnt the words khoya, chhena, rabrri. I acquired Adamic powers and upon every new word in our visits to Brar’s in Brampton, mitthai of my choice ended up in small boxes for instantaneous consumption.
As time progressed, the primal visitation was taking on multifarious forms. Sometimes I would assemble what a linguist might term a ‘synchronic group‘, one consisting of only barfis, other times I would listen to my initiator and got a more diachronic collection (also entering some breaks between eating one and the next piece of sweet).
All that was before I got high on elaichi and bought my first pound of Mathura ka Perra – a small, pear-shaped sweet with the color of burnt butter, softly shining with ghee (when fresh). The delight of this sweet that infuses all tissues in one’s mouth with an intense, khoya-tempered taste of cardamom is difficult to describe with words other than perpetual rupture.
You break off a small piece and place it straight on your tongue, the rest is magic. The best way to elate yourself is indeed homeopathic. Small pieces imparted to your system every hour or so with an onset of desire keep your mind and spirit in lucid clouds.
The ‘stuff’ even has measurable medical effects: when I fell sick with carbon monoxide poisoning at the end of last year, a perra turned out to be the emergency katapotia (an ancient-Greek term for a medicine-infused ball to be swallowed, in old Egypt routinely prepared with bread dough, honey and grease). It cleared my dizzy head and calmed down my agitated stomach.
You won’t find Mathura ka Perra everywhere, and it’s good that it is so. It makes you self-induce the effects of the cardamom grace in the absence of the substance itself, feel gracious enough on your wife, husband, or lover to consider sharing the sweetness with them, and, on a more general level, be positively disposed towards humanity at large.
Even if the perra quality inexplicably changes and you pass by its sanctum sanctorum in Brar’s and don’t inflict damage on your wallet, you feel one with the universe which is now permeated with elaichi-cum-khoya essence.
You’ve arrived at home, no more a commuter.
You can now move on to the criminally delicious ‘Milk Cake‘.
June 11, 2016
Conversation about this article
1: Jaswant Singh (New York, USA), June 12, 2016, 4:48 AM.
You've made my mouth water! Off I go to our local mitthai shop today.
2: Kiran Kaur (Liverpool, United Kingdom), June 12, 2016, 4:51 AM.
That's exactly how I remember my own discovery of mitthai when I was a child. You've captured my experience so vividly, albeit yours being in adulthood.