Saturday, August 26, 2017

M- Malai Makhan in Benares

Been there... done that

Malai Makhan  in Benares

It is pre-sunrise time and the Ghats along the river Ganga in Varanasi are buzzing with action.
The pilgrims have come to take a dip in the holy river. The priests, sages and the common men alike are also getting themselves ready to bathe in the river before going about their daily chores. 

Akhil, my appointed boatman for the day picks me up at the Dashaswamedh ghat and rows the boat to the middle of the river bed. It is a late February morning and the sky is greyish black. I wonder if the sunrise would be clear enough for me to do the touristy thing.  I am here to click the sunrise along the river bank. I am not very optimistic but Akhil says it would be a fabulous sunrise this morning.  I dismiss his optimism as the usual sales talk and take in the sights.

A small boat made of thermocole sails past us.  Akhil asks me if I want to have an up and close view of the Siberian birds and I nod. Akhil makes eye contact with the boy who is now sailing towards us on the makeshift thermocole boat.  The boy hands me over a paper cone filled with seeds from across the two boats.

This is the bird feed that he is selling to me.  It is a part of the package deal from Akhil.  I do not have to pay the boy. He will settle it with the boatman. 

The little boy, not more than 10 years old shrieks out... caw…caw… caw and the Siberian birds come flocking towards our boat as he sprinkles  out the seeds.  He hands me a handful and I repeat after him. Akhil in his practiced tone now tells me to hand over my camera and sprinkle the seeds. 

After all he has been there, done that. Day after day, tourist after tourist.  

Once we have captured the moment in the digital format he tells me about the Siberian birds and their migratory flight from Russia. Apparently when they arrive in November they are white like snowflakes. By the time they leave they turn greyish. But they return  without fail every year before the onset of winter and fly back soon after Holi , the festival of colours in the month of March.
Akhil my boatman studies History and tourism in college and takes the occasional tourist when the real boatman Mukesh is out of action.   He does not get paid for the work.  He depends on the tips from the tourists to earn his money for the day.  

True to his prediction the sun has risen and the views are spectacular. I live in that breathtaking moment only occasionally  remembering to click the pictures of that much awaited moment.
 We then get talking.  He takes me close to the Harishchandra Ghat where a couple of corpses are burning, warning me not to take the picture of the dead as it is considered disrespectful. 

We row past the Dhobi ghat where the washer men are washing the linen by beating them on the stones and dipping them in the river water after scrubbing them with the sand and clay washed down the river bank. 
As we row along I watch the devout pilgrims taking a dip into the Ganges as the sun rises above on the horizon. 
Somewhere in the background a flock of Siberian birds are cawing while in yet another boat, yet another tourist is sprinkling seeds that he has bought from the little boy rowing down in the makeshift thermocole boat. 
It has been more than an hour since I had my chartered boat trip watching the sunrise.  The sun has now risen and I get out of the boat and alight at the Manikarnika ghat. This is main ghat  where the dead are  brought to be cremated.

There are a few corpses that were set on fire earlier in the night that have now turned into ashes.  A group of relatives of the dead  return to collect the ashes that will be immersed into the holy river before they leave the ghat.

As I climb up the river bank, yet another fresh corpse arrives for the ritual. There is never a opening and closing time at the Manikarnika Ghat. The dead bodies  arrive 24/7 and the Dom workers take turns to do the needful.

I cross the narrow lanes above the Manikarnika Ghat that are piled up with fire wood . The fire wood will be used up in a day or two for the number of corpses that arrive to be cremated in Kashi. About Tow quintals of forewood is required to cremate a dead bocy. On an average about 350 dead bodies at the Ghat on any given day.

The narrow Alleyways now merges into a street that is slightly broader. It is still very early in the day and the shops that sell trinkets, clothes, sweets have not yet opened.

A hawker has set up a small makeshift  shop in front of a small but ancient temple and is selling a bright orange milk sweet.

Malai Makhan  - he says as he attempts to catch my attention and convert it into a sale.

 I am tempted to move on but it seems like a moment worthy of a photograph.

He coaxes me to buy one.  Five rupees per cup he says.  I am amazed at how cheap a sweet could sell for.  But I am not a fan of milk sweets.  Certainly not butter and I politely decline.

Akhil who is passing by after mooring the boat stops by and greets me.  He tells me this is a special delicacy of this region.   You would not get it in except in the winter mornings.

Hafeez Mia is an expert in Malai Makhan he says , as if to flatter the vendor.   

Malai Makhan is made from the cream that floats over the unpasteurized cows milk  when it has been freshly milked in the winters.  It is the magic of the dew drops that make it light. soft and frothy. 

As the day’s temparature rises the buttery cream would melt . The commerically savvy restaurants add transfat to it to make to last longer so they can do brisk business throughout the day. 

The real test of Malai Makhan is when the froth bubbles are constantly dipping over.  In a pure one they do not last beyond a few hours after sunrise on a fairly nippy winter morning. By the time the dew drops have evaporated an unadulterated Malai Makhan would also moved beyond its shelf life.   It is a delicacy that has a shelf life of not more than a few hours and that too  only in the winters.

You would not get it anywhere else, says Akhil the boatman  whose sense of salesmanship bowled me over and  whom I had generously tipped earlier in the morning as he takes leave to go about his day as the student at the local college.

I am tempted . Despite the many cautions about street food, my instinct tells me to go for it.   
Anything that does not travel well usually escapes the traps of mass scale commercialization and therefore can be considered to be fairly safe.  
I ask Hafeez Mia for one cup.  A cup made of dried fond leaves is taken out and a generous scoop of Malai Makhan is doled out to me.

I take a spoonful into my mouth from the wooden ice cream spoon with the usual expectation of a buttery and  milky sweet and there  I am taken in for a surprise.

Malai Makhan  melts into my mouth and before I could relish the pure taste of fresh cream and the flavor of pistachio and saffron that my taste buds have just savoured,  the moment has passed.

The gentle cream made of cow’s milk has not been sweetened by sugar. The natural  light sweetness of milk lingers in my tongue for just a fraction of second as it melts away and gets out of reach of the taste  buds.   

By now my taste buds that have been left wanting signal for more.  Hafeez Mia babu has sensed it .  He knows by now for sure that I would order  another cup . This time I make  sure I relish it slow and steady. 

This is what memories are made of.  That crisp and cool morning over the ghats where I was taking in the amazement of a city  that  has existed there for centuries , topped up by a Malai Makhan  that just could not be replicated elsewhere.  I felt privileged for having experienced it at the right time and the right place.

Any other time ... any other place ... I could not have been there ... done that 

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