I dread my mother’s phone calls after her favourite food show: Ajker Ranna in Doordarshan. Though many of us have ditched Doordarshan my mother follows this show closely. I tease her that she should win the best audience award. During one of the stray mother-daughter conversations she mentioned with pride Sarmistha (one of the popular names in Bengali cooking shows) has advised to use shil-nora to grind mustard paste as mustard peels get separated in a mixer. The mustard paste tastes better when ground into a paste in shil-nora, concluded my mother as the mustard is pressed with equal pressure which crushes the peels and the seed. Shil- Nora is one of my mother’s favourite tool kits. She has resisted kitchen technology of mixers and grinders and no paste, crushed spice is complete for her without the touch of shil-nora. A very dear friend, a self-proclaimed short cut cook but a great baker swears by her shil-nora for her poppy seed paste (posto bata).
Bata or creating a paste occupies a special position in Bengali cuisine. Mrs J. Haldar in her book Bengal Sweets calls this technique as braying or grating. She points to two derivatives of braying/ grating; i.e., pulp and paste. She explains that shil is the stone slab and nora is the stone muller. It has to be polished regularly so that its edges remain sharp. Some carvers often engrave fish or other designs on the stone slab. It is used widely in Bengali wedding rituals as well. As a child I loved watching the hawker engravers engraving beautiful patterns on the stone slab.
Though its use in most households has been limited to making pastes of poppy seeds and mustard seeds and its use in everyday kitchen like my mother’s can range from making a lovely grainy paste of coriander- cumin and ginger paste used in lightly spiced gravy of a thinner consistency called jhol to grinding spices. The coriander, cumin and ginger paste lends a lovely body and flavour to the daily jhol rituals in everyday cooking in Bengali kitchens. Another wonderful and limited use of shil-nora is extended to pasting leaves and peels. Leaves of the humble bottle gourd vegetable are made into a fine paste and eaten with piping hot rice it tastes heavenly. Similarly raw banana peel paste with garlic, chillies and a little salt tastes divine. Humble pudina chutney made from pudina leaves, chillies and salt is a perfect accompaniment with any fried snacks. Diced small tomatoes (of green and red colour) when ground into a paste with a little dash of mustard oil, chillies, and salt is perfect accompaniment to a rice on a rainy evening. Shil- nora can be also be used for grinding pulses. The beautiful ras bara made from urad dal / biuli/ kalai dal tastes much better when the pulses are soaked and ground into a paste. Similarly, the whiff of lightly soaked green peas paste on a shil-nora signals the preparation of green peas kachori (disc shaped fried bread with a filling of green peas mix). The uses of shil nora are clearly varied so are its looks. My mother uses two sets of shil nora: one for all vegetarian purposes including rituals to prepare coconut paste for chandrapuli ( a moon shaped sweet prepared from coconut and sugar) and one for everyday purposes. Shil Nora in my mother’s kitchen is entitled to a two day ritual rest on account of ranna pujo. Technology’s non-ritual character becomes explicit in days like these when my sister in law and I brought out the mixer grinder to make a poppy seed paste to give a finishing touch to the prized hilsa. As hilsa fish steamed away in poppy seed /mustard seed paste, nobody protested our use of mixer grinder. May be such exemptions do not apply to kitchen tools of industrial giants.
My mother’s fascination for her prized shil-nora has translated into my penchant for stone mortar and pestle which occupies a special position on the kitchen top and it has been part of my culinary life for four years now.
Do you share such obsessions with kitchen tools? Do write in to share kitchen tools anecdotes. Till then happy feasting!