Freshly Churned Butter and Peeled Almonds
Some mornings I wake up to a parade of memories—whiffs and tastes of childhood emerge from a dream and linger on vividly and wistfully. Moments ago, not quite awake, I savor the rich, warm buffalo milk in the kitchen of my early years. Then, in a flash, I am back in Mummy’s kitchen of long ago.
Mummy prepares every meal afresh, starting with basic ingredients. Fresh means fresh, not a redefined word conforming to some regulated definition of an adulterated 100 percent. Mummy churns the butter fresh every morning from yogurt, which has been prepared to set the evening before. Milk for the yogurt is also fresh, like freshly milked from the buffalo a couple of hours prior.
Our house is a new building on the main drag in a very young New Delhi (circa mid-last century). Behind it and beyond is Old Delhi spilling over the ancient city walls. The scene here is more small-town and rural, with wide-open spaces. A small dairy exists a few streets away in a vast scrubby area. A pond, fed by rainwater, is convenient for the animals. The dairy has a mix of well-fed, healthy cows and buffaloes with day-long access to feed-filled troughs and fresh water. Morning and evening, the animals are milked and steaming warm milk sold at a makeshift table in front of the dairy. This is not good enough for Mummy and Daddy, who are all too familiar with the dilution process, milk being squirted in a pail quarter-filled with water. Early on, Daddy visits the dairy and talks to the owner, who proudly takes the good doctor on a tour of the animals. A hoary buffalo is identified for our daily milk supply. Mummy has specified a Bhoori Maj (buffalo with gray fuzz). It is understood that Jagat Singh, our trusted servant, will be present at each milking to ensure a dry, empty pail. Daddy negotiates a long-term deal and a rate.
The milk ritual established, we now have warm, fresh buffalo milk daily, morning and evening. On a few rare occasions, on the weekend, Sudhir and I accompany Jagat Singh to the dairy. It is a rustic smelly operation. The place buzzes with men with a sprinkling of women and children as they wait for the pails of warm milk to be brought out. Sudhir, Jagat Singh, and I can watch the milking. Buffaloes, heavy with swollen udders, line both sides of the long narrow troughs, lowing and gorging on the feed. We gingerly stepped between the rows, careful not to step in any dung which has not yet been swept up. Jagat Singh points to the tail of a buffalo. A stiff, slight lifting of the tail is followed by a soft plop of a stinky, steaming, swirly-patterned turd. Jagat Singh laughs as Sudhir and I watch, fascinated!
Our special buffalo is covered with light gray down—the Bhoori Maj. The milkman squatting on his haunches glances up at Jagat Singh, turns the pail upside down first, then grabs it right-side up between his knees. The steady squirting streams rhythmically splash into the frothy pail. The aroma of fresh warm milk mingled with animal smells swirls around us. The easy banter between the milkman and Jagat Singh fades away as Sudhir and I watch, transfixed at the skill and steady tempo of the milkman’s hands. Both of us relish the unsavory smelly wafts as a very special treat.
At home, the milk is boiled on the inghiti (portable clay and metal cooking grate fired with wood or coal). As it cools, a thick creamy skin forms on top. Occasionally Mummy treats Sudhir to a small scoop topped with a sprinkling of sugar. After watching Sudhir lap up the cream puppy-style, Mummy laughs and elaborates, “Cow’s milk is thin and watery, but buffalo’s milk is thick and rich, giving this delicious heavy cream.” I don’t really care for it, so there is no argument. Sudhir can have it all.
The morning milk is consumed mostly at breakfast. Everyone, including Mummy and Daddy, must have a tall glass of milk. Any leftover milk is stored in the ice box to be used for tea or cooking during the day. Yogurt is made from the fresh evening milk, boiled and cooled enough to add the starter, and placed in a warm place to set overnight.
Occasionally, the evening milk routine has a variation. Instead of boiling the milk, Mummy places the fresh raw milk in the ice box. By morning a thick layer of heavy cream has risen to the top. Mummy cheerfully beckons Sudhir and me as she scoops out this miracle of nature. We know we will have dessert for dinner —diced fresh fruit with cream and sugar! Daddy frowns on this, but since it is not frequent, we all relish it. We also listen to Daddy on how unhealthy it is to consume unpasteurized cream. Sudhir and I, watching Daddy enjoying it too, exchange smiling looks even as we slurp and try hard not to grin.
Breakfast includes not only the tall glasses of warm milk along with buttered toast or small parathas and eggs, fried or boiled. The butter is freshly-churned every day—more on it in a bit. And, of course, Daddy being a doctor, vitamins are essential to our breakfast. Sometimes a bottle is marked Physicians’ Sample – Not for Sale; Sudhir and I know we are home-tested guinea pigs.
Back to the butter! An intensely vivid memory of Mummy’s daily morning routine is churning butter. First, Mummy measures several cups of fresh yogurt into a glazed stoneware pot-bellied vat. Next, a long-handled wooden whisk, the “madhani,” churns the yogurt. A loose-fitting wooden lid sits on the mouth of the vat. Mummy grasps the long handle between both palms and rubs them back and forth. The whisk rotates and churns the yogurt. It takes a good deal of churning, with Mummy resting her arms in between by turning to other small tasks in the kitchen.
The yogurt goes through a couple of stages. First, it churns to a smooth consistency. Then, as small doses of cold water are added, it forms thick foamy buttermilk. The churning continues with more water and ice being added to it. Then, just at the point when arms are ready to fall off, and it seems butter will never form, I see Mummy smile! The butter has separated and is floating on top. Finally, with more ice and a last bit of vigorous churning, the butter comes together as a soft cohesive mass!
Washing her hands thoroughly, Mummy dips into the vat and swirls her palm around. When it emerges loaded with butter, whey is dripping through her fingers. Mummy tenderly bounces it in her palm and gently plops it into a big bowl. There are a few more repeats, with Sudhir and I watching eagerly, waiting for our two special swirls. With each swirl, a small pat of butter emerges in Mummy’s palm, and shaking off the whey, she gently slides it into two small ‘katoris’ (bowls). Almonds soaking overnight are slid out of their brown jackets and stuck into each little pat, porcupine fashion, and sugar sprinkled on them. This most mouth-watering moment—fresh, cool butter still moist with whey, with almonds and glistening sugar crystals is a delicious combination. Yum! Yum! Yummy! Yum!
I once ask Daddy why we soak almonds and no other nuts. The soaking alters the flavor of the almonds imparting a refreshing soft nuttiness. And these are easier to peel. Daddy explains the ancient shastras specify this method of eating almonds. It increases the grey cells in our brains. Chew the almonds well, it is prescribed, till they turn into milk in the mouth. Daddy has his peeled almonds plain without the butter and sugar, and Mummy has hers with sugar and a large dab of butter melting on a hot paratha, all washed down with a large tumbler of the remaining whey. Any leftover whey is finished by lunch.
On occasion, our older cousins visit us for short stays. They love teasing Sudhir and me by posing riddles which we have no problem-solving. Daddy has schooled us well with his riddles and fun-filled, clever questions. The more obscure the riddle, the more readily we solve it, yelling out answers and becoming increasingly sassy with each correct one. Laughingly, our cousins accuse Mummy of feeding us too many almonds. Come to think of it. Our impudence has something to do with the peeled almonds as well.
It takes a long while for Sudhir and me to realize this daily chore is a rather uncommon practice. Right from when she was a little girl, Mummy has grown up happily watching her Mother (our Bhaboji) raise and feed her large brood, cooking, sewing, and endless cleaning. And Mummy, the perfect homemaker she is, is simply reliving those long-gone happy days, sharing joyful moments from her childhood with us. Mummy’s two older sisters abhor entering the kitchen and certainly do not churn butter from freshly made yogurt! They are raising happy, loving families too, but their kitchens are run by cooks.
A hazy fall sun, edging over tree tops, fills the room with a burst of soft sunlight. My reverie broken, I am up and dressed to take puppy dog for his walkie-walk. Stepping out into a crisp autumn morning, the lingering taste of sugared almonds and fresh butter fades away with the mist.