Food

Nobody in India is as mad about mangoes as the Sheherwali Jains of Bengal

Meet the community from Murshidabad that takes mango mania to eccentric levels.

In the early 18th century, a group of wealthy Oswal Jain merchants from Rajasthan migrated to a thriving Bengal in search of business opportunities. Most of them settled down in and around the twin towns of Azimganj and Jiaganj near Murshidabad, then the capital of the Nawabs of Bengal. Bankers and financiers, the migrants emerged as one of the most influential business communities in colonial India – and came to be known as the Sheherwali Jains.

The Sheherwalis (city-dwellers) gleefully embraced the local ways of life. They wore the koncha dhuti and Punjabi, discovered the virtues of the ingredients mocha and kathbael, flavoured their food with the panch phoran spice blend, and above all, swore by the exquisite mangoes of Murshidabad – the exclusive molamjam best savoured the moment it ripens on the tree, the comfortingly sweet dilpasand, the sandalwood-scented chandankosa, the delicate kohitoor, and a myriad others.

Under their patronage, the Murshidabadi mangoes emerged as an icon of flamboyant sophistication, a lifestyle statement. “The Sheherwalis took it upon themselves to perfect the art of splicing mango saplings with those of other fragrant fruits and flowers to produce unique cultivars of mangoes, each one with a distinct flavour and character – a tradition initiated by Akbar and continued by the Nawabs of Bengal,” said Sandip Nowlakha, a Sheherwali Jain and vice president of the Murshidabad Heritage Development Society.

Even after the Nawabs were long gone, the orchards of Azimganj and Jiaganj continued to produce some of the best mangoes of the region. Such was the pride Sheherwalis took in the fruit from their orchards that elaborate mango banquets were hosted at their havelis to showcase prized cultivars.

Sripat Singh Dugar’s annual mango gala in Jiaganj, in particular, was legendary. In The New India, 1948-1955: Memoirs of an Indian Civil Servant, Asok Mitra writes, “Once a year, Mr Sripat Singh Dugar used to throw a mango party in his house where he used to serve anything between fifty to sixty varieties of the choicest mangoes that would have put Patna-Digha, Allahabad, Benaras and Lucknow to shame.”

Nowlakha fondly remembers the daily mango feasts at his ancestral bungalow in Azimganj. “Every evening, at around 4 o’ clock, all the kids in the family would be summoned to the patio where we found our mothers, grandmother and aunts sitting in a circle peeling and cutting mangoes. We sat on the floor, our shirts off so we don’t stain them with sticky mango juice, and ate all the mangoes we could.”

Vikram Dugar, a Sheherwali Jain, has carefully archived letters of recognition his family received from Buckingham Palace for the yearly tributes of the season’s best mangoes it sent to Queen Victoria.

The community’s collective memories are peppered with such reminiscences of this mushy fixation with mangoes. Then, there are tales of eccentric connoisseurs ready to go to any extent for a heightened mango experience.

“There were ones who would keep certain varieties of mangoes carefully laid out under the bed at night and wake up several times during the night to inspect them,” said Siddharth Dudhoria. Once the mangoes had attained the right degree of ripeness, the entire household would be woken up, the staff summoned, large brass vessels of water brought out to soak the mangoes in, the fruit painstakingly peeled and cut and finally devoured, in the middle of the night or sometimes, the early hours of dawn.

Slice of life

While there are those who might dismiss such accounts as hyperbole, it is true that a true Sheherwali is passionately fastidious about mangoes. She treats mangoes with tenderness bordering on affection, has an uncanny knack for detecting how long a mango would take to ripen to the right degree, and the exact time at which its flavours would be best realised. Finally, she cuts the mangoes with near scientific precision and a keen eye for aesthetics.

“The Sheherwali-style of cutting mangoes is inimitable,” said Devashis Kuthari, another proud Sheherwali with an avid interest in his community’s culinary feats. “We avoid eating mangoes outside our homes, simply because there aren’t cut properly.”

Sheherwali women have turned the innocuous chore of cutting mangoes into a refined art handed down through generations, Nowlakha added. Special knives, crafted for the purpose, are used to peel and cut the mangoes first cooled off in water for hours. “Originally, the more delicate varieties of mangoes were cut with thin, sharp bamboo wedges,” said Dudhoria. The skin is first peeled in clean, deft strokes, with utmost care so the blade leaves no impression on the flesh. With the fruit carefully cradled in one palm, two cross-wise incisions are made into the flesh of the fruit without touching the seed. Finally, a quick horizontal swipe of the knife yields four identical pieces of mango.

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During mango season, every meal in a Sheherwali household packs in platefuls of fresh mangoes. “We eat mangoes for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner,” said Dugar. And then there are chilled glasses of aam panna and aam ras. “The Sheherwali-style aam ras is quite different from the regular version,” said Sandip Nowlakha. “Our aam ras is thinned with generous splashes of milk, and served as a drink.”

And while fresh mangoes are an indispensable part of their meals, their cuisine – a smorgasbord of unique flavours that seamlessly combine Rajasthani, Bengali and Muslim elements, circumscribed by Jain strictures – boasts quite a few stunning dishes trumped up with raw or ripe mangoes.

The wait begins

A prize recipe in the Naulakha family is a luscious curry made with whole ripe mangoes (skinned, of course) that are cooked with saffron and aromatic spices in preposterous amounts of ghee. “It’s an inimitable curry only my father could trump up,” said Naulakha. The dish is usually paired with plain steamed rice or warm chapattis. Another Sheherwali Jain talks about a curry made with the pulp of raw mangoes cooked in ghee tempered with typical Bengali panch phoran – a mix of fennel, fenugreek, Nigella, mustard and wild celery (radhuni) seeds.

“Another summer favourite is the aam ka madiya – a thin, tangy soup of sorts made with ripe mangoes and spices – typically served with khichdi,” said Devashis Kuthari. Plus, there’s an array of pickles and chutneys, mango peda (fudge) and homemade aam papad, made with different kinds of mangoes.

In addition to fermented mango pickles, the Sheherwalis trump up a fresh pickle with finely diced raw mangoes and red gram, liberally seasoned and tossed in mustard oil with spices like shahi jeera (black cumin seeds) and rai seeds. The kachche aam chana ka kuttu is best paired with crusty mathri. Another favourite accompaniment to a typical Sheherwali meal is the kachche aam ka launji, a sapid condiment of raw mangoes cooked in mustard oil tempered with a pinch of asafoetida, fennel and mangrela seeds. Thin slivers of fresh green chillies give the sweet and savoury chutney a fiery relief.

But one of the most treasured recipes in the Sheherwali repertoire is the kachche aam ka kheer. The runny pudding made with cream-laden milk and grated raw mangoes (washed and boiled to discard the tartness) is enriched with a dash of saffron and finished off with a sprinkle of rose water, ideally made from shahi basra aruk gulab – a Sheherwali signature. The kheer is best served chilled, ideally on a bed of crushed ice.

The wait for Murshidabadi mangoes has begun this year. For many a Sheherwali family now settled in Kolkata, the end of May means the arrival of cartons stacked with mangoes straight from orchards around Murshidabad. “In some households entire rooms are cleared out, the furniture removed and the floors scrubbed clean to make special room for the mangoes,” said Dugar. The mangoes often come with the name of the specific cultivars painstakingly inscribed on them.

Sadly, of the hundreds of unique varieties of Murshidabadi mangoes only a small number are still grown extensively. Some are on the verge of extinction. Ever year in the month of June, the Murshidabad Heritage Development Society, in association with ITC Sonar in Kolkata, organises the Mango Haat to showcase and promote Murshidabadi mangoes that are still grown in Sheherwali orchards around the district. A glimpse into the Sheherwali culture and cuisine comes as a bonus.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.