The Bitter End

Bongs are very fond of bitterness. I'm not talking attitude or psychology; this is something that's far more important to the bhadrolok - food, or more specifically the first course at lunch. Now the whole business of a bong lunch is ridiculously elaborate. The full ceremonial version, usually served when someone is dead, goes to fifty plus courses and is supervised by a stern grandmother. More common, however, is a managaeable ten-odd choices in a very strict order and the first course is, traditionally, a bitter dish. The most common bitter is the pedestrian karela - usually steamed and mashed with potatoes in mustard oil - but there are more exotic choices None more than neem-begun and sojne phool. Neem, of course, is India's wonder herb - able to cure everything from bad hair days to tropical malaria, minor infection to major infestation. Its fruit is inedible and its tough, fibrous leaves taste bitter enough to deserve every wonder-drug epithet. The persistent bong, however, is not so easily dissuaded. It turns out that at the end of winter, the neem tree sprouts tiny, soft, non-firbous new leaves that can be fried with aubergines for the most fantastic bitter-sweet first course ever. And, you won't die of the pox, malaria or malnutrition. That's not the end of the story. Neem trees are fairly huge trees, and these tiny interesting leaves (they're purple when at the most tender) sprout at the end of the branches out of reach of all but the monkiest. The only ones accessible to ordinary people are neem saplings, and even in a countryside dotted with neem trees there aren't that many saplings. The leaves, therefore, are not an easily acquired taste; you might have expected demand and supply to dictate that they be expensive but this is bongland. In Asansol market an old man sells small, two-portion bunches of these leaves for two rupees each - he has maybe ten or fifteen of these laid out on a small piece of cloth, neatly divided into really tender purple leaves in front, or slightly bigger bunches of older lightgreen ones at the back. Bunches sell at a brisk pace, almost as quickly as he can make them by digging into the stash of leaves in a bag on the side. The bag looks like it holds enough leaves for another maybe fifty bunches. His take on demand-supply is that the higher the demand the quicker he can go back and home and sleep, so getting hold of these leaves means going early. Cooking neem begun is deceptively simple - small cubes of aubergine (begun) are deep fried till completely tender, and then mixed with the neem leaves, which were fried seperately till crisp (though be careful, they burn very easily). The two fry at different rates so it takes an expert to fry them together ; adding the neem and some magically accurate point in the process of frying the begun so that both end up done. Much better to do it seperately or outsource to a bengali housewife. The resultant dish is a marvel of balance of both texture and flavor - by now the neem leaves have become crisp and crackly while the aubergine is mushy and sweet. While still bitter, it's only a pale reminder of the poisonous bitterness you have just tamed. It's had with rice, which gives bite and body. Sojne phool, or drumstick flower, is different. Neem begun is strong bitterness barely tamed; sojne phool is a faint flavor that could easily become a mushy tasteless mess. Even the potatoes it is cooked with can overpower the flowers, so proportion is all-important. It has all those medicinal benefits that people make you swallow bitter stuff for - quite disproportionate to its gentle bitterness, I'm told - which is a big reason for it being eaten. Again, the season for it is only a few weeks at the end of February, and the process of getting hold of the flowers involves old men and their economics. Don't let all this fool you into thinking that sojne phool is merely something to be swallowed under the stern eys of your mother as you head for bigger things. The faintly bitter flowers, mixed with tiny cubes of potato and a touch of mustard make for a dish that's impossible to describe but difficult to forget.

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