Chitra Gopalakrishnan’s character describes the sublime experience of enjoying a rare Indian delicacy, and tries to learn its secrets – while harbouring a secret of her own.
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It is a fugitive pleasure.
I talk of the act of swallowing intact a single, sweet blob from a frothy landscape of milk foam, without moving it around it in my mouth in any way.
And of polishing off an entire clay pot in this very manner.
I guess it has to be this way when I am absorbing something so gossamer-thin, shocking in its subtlety, one that is a cross between a snowflake and a cloud.
It is an experience that leaves me with a tantalizing trail of aftertastes and a deep yearning for more. My felicity arising as much from how it feels as from how it tastes. Aftertaste included.
I talk of my indulgence in daulat ki chaat, literally meaning a snack of wealth. A cold, feathery delicacy to be savoured only in winter, between November and January. That too only in the older parts of Delhi, one that is willing to share its secrets with those who seek.
Daulat ki chaat is to be admired both for its complexity and beauty.
And its makers make it in only one way.
I have spent months in their company, gaining their trust, to understand just how.
I wish to share my secret pleasure, which for long has been wholly mine, with my husband. A spouse reluctant to cross the city to partake in this tricky delight – one that will melt into a milky puddle if I risk ferrying it across to him.
After much cajoling, the makers, five men of a family, lead me into their home to show me the processes, their labor of love. For, indeed, it is truly this. They lose most of their sleep to earn just a little over what they invest. A clay urn of this slice of heaven costs less than a dollar.
I am asked to be within the confined space they call home at 4pm sharp. A place with peeling walls and cracked flooring within the narrow, crowded alleyways of Old Delhi. One that has several milk pails, pots, churning ladles, shredders, ropes and an assortment of vessels.
When I arrive, they set forty kilos of milk to boil in a large, flat copper-bottomed vat, mix it adroitly with cream two hours later when at its boiling point it gains froth and then they pour it into an enormous clay pot, using a thin covering of white muslin for protection.
I watch how this thickening mixture is left out in an open garden to soak in the night moistness and the dew at dawn. This, I am told, adds to the aeration of the milk, as they churn it before the sun hastens to the sky, and to the fluffiness it is revered for.
As the clay pot sits out in the cool of the winter night, we catch up with our sleep. They on their mattress, tired from their labor, and I, sitting on a chair, fatigued from simply watching them.
I wake up at three am to the noise of heavy utensils being hauled across the floor. Vessels filled with sieved khoya, a concentration of milk to a fifth, and chenna, unripened curd cheese, that are meant to be added to the cooled milk mixture once it is transferred into a huge steel whisking tub.
Much as I plead, the makers will not divulge the proportions of these two items as they endlessly churn. Or the truth of how much saffron, cardamom powder, crunchy dry fruits and lashings of brown, roasted milk they blend to give this light-as-cloud exhilaration the right tinge of colour and crunchiness.
What they do tell me is this. It is only cow milk (not buffalo milk) and chilly, full moon nights that will bring out all the flavours.
I see the effort that goes into churning. Five sets of ropes are tied to a gigantic hand churner fixed to the middle of whisking tub at varying distances. These are used to pull and tug at the milk mixture so that it swirls. The rhythmic unison of their arms, their breaths and ropes build up to a crescendo, creating a strange melody.
After a good four hours, the men dismantle the ropes, the churning sticks to scrape off the gathering foam that looks exactly like sea foam.
A final touch of class comes in the setting of their miracle. Its placing is managed delicately, in a large, open, clay tray, layer upon layer in the shape of a multi-petalled flower. A master stroke really. Perhaps the reason why the word incredible contains the word edible.
Back home with my husband, now that I have charted the journey with the makers of this foam, I try my hand at it.
I work assiduously with my assembled pots and pans and my ingredients: winter, night, dew, milk, cream, khoya, chenna, slivers of pistachio and almonds and fragrant juice of saffron, finishing off with the textural finesse of a flower setting.
I don’t forget the full moon either. I work under her silvery brilliance, seeing her struggling with her loneliness as I do with mine. Every hour.
I set the snowy nothingness I have created in a thin glass platter to enhance its ethereality.
My husband’s sounds of pleasure acknowledge my culinary wizardry. My faultlessly titrated globs of milk soufflé.
Just that I think he happens to be among those men who cannot hold their arsenic.
It was so little that it did not even show up in the forensic report.
Alas, I will have to continue to enjoy this creamy delight alone for the rest of my life.
This as the winter skies turn from gray to slate to silver in the months of November, December and January. One tablespoon to another, one gulp to the next.