INDIA IS HOME to many unsung chefs. You find them in temple, household, and restaurant kitchens. They are unpublished, unpretentious, and uninterested in fame or fortune. Many work up to fifteen hours a day in the kitchen yet still find time for family and other obligations. One such person was Bhavatarini De, Srila Prabhupada's younger sister.
Before I met her in Calcutta, I learned of her through photographs and stories. During Srila Prabhupada's first visit to San Francisco in 1967, he received numerous air letters from India. A few of them, handwritten in Bengali and smelling faintly of mustard oil, came from his sister. As he sat in his rocking chair, he translated the letters into English, sometimes reflecting on his childhood pastimes with her. On more than one occasion, he spoke of her cooking abilities, though I had no inkling of her expertise. When a grainy black-and-white group photo arrived one day, she was easy to identify. Her face bore a striking resemblance to Srila Prabhupada's.
In 1972, I finally met her in Calcutta. She had come to visit her brother and eat lunch, and I was the cook. From her introduction as Pishima ("auntie" in Bengali), a festive atmosphere ensued, the Bengali conversation sprinkled with laughter. They ate their meal seated on the floor, the meal served on low tables called chonkis. As I brought in an array of Bengali courses, Srila Prabhupada and Pishima critiqued the dishes.
Interspersed in the Bengali conversation was amicable joking about everything from their childhood kite-flying to her then ample girth from too much of her own cuisine. (She insisted it was all water.) As she left, she assured me she would visit Vrndavana in the fall and teach me Bengali cooking.
Radha-Damodara temple, located in Vrndavana's Seva Kunja district, is a small compound surrounded by other buildings. The main gateway opens onto a square courtyard front-ing a central altar. Three sets of Radha-Krsna Deities are installed on the altar, the sixteenth-century Radha-Damodara Deities of Jiva Gosvami in the center. Since the early sixties, Srila Prabhupada had kept two rooms with an adjoining veranda facing the courtyard. One was his study and bedroom, the other a kitchen.
When I was entrusted with renovating his quarters, I put in a low brick wall dividing the kitchen into two areas—one for cooking and staples, the other for eating. Srila Prabhupada would sometimes sit on a low wooden seat against the longest wall. From there he could observe the cooking or gaze out a latticed window overlooking the tranquil samadhi tomb of Rupa Gosvami.
The day in October when Pishima arrived, she established herself in the center of the cooking area. All of the meals in Prabhupada's Radha-Damodara kitchen were prepared on a single portable bucket stove—basically a metal bucket coated inside and out with smooth dried mud from the Yamuna River. Pishima sat stationary on the floor in front of the stove, rotating her body for a multitude of tasks—chopping, kneading, mixing, grinding, and braying—doing all the work rhythmically with her deft hands.
I asked questions in pidgin Bengali and recorded her every technique and instruction. What I didn't understand she expressed through gesture, facial expression, and gray eyes that peered through thick-rimmed glasses.
In two months she never made the same dish twice. I surmised she hadn't ever made the same dish twice in her seventy-plus years. Her cooking style classic Bengali, she was the cook-more-talk-less kind of cook who relies on high-quality produce and native ingredients. She didn't feel the need to define or create her cuisine; it was timeless. Beyond the techniques of the cooking itself, beyond even her cleanliness and purity in cooking, her food was fueled by devotion to the Lord.
In my first week as an apprentice, she gave me the singular task of grinding ingredients on a twenty-pound stone mortar called a sil-batta. Entering the kitchen daily with a basketful of wild leaves and greens, I made fresh herb and spice pastes to season dishes of vegetables, rice, and legumes. Pishima often gave me the task of grinding soaked urad dal into a velvety smooth paste, which she turned into savory fried dumplings called bada. Or I ground pounds of blanched almonds to a paste for her pepper-and-camphor-laced laddu, a kind of marzipan.
The second week I learned how to make fires of coal and cow dung, the next week coat the stove daily in mud, and so on—all Pishima-style.
For an entire week she focused on mustard oil. I returned daily from the bazaar with bottle after bottle of freshly pressed mustard oil, and she rejected them all. Finally, going with me on a shopping expedition, she insisted that the oil be pressed from black, not brown, seeds, yielding a particular aroma and an amber-gold hue. Inferior mustard oil coats the tongue with an unpleasant, greasy feel. When good, the oil is light on the tongue, leaving the palate stimulated and refreshed.
Her dishes with mustard oil exploded with vitality from hot tones reminiscent of pungent horseradish. Sometimes she mixed this aromatic oil with clarified butter for a less assertive flavor.
Pishima's culinary expertise could easily be the matter of a cookbook. In this short space, I can say very little. But I've spent hours comparing class notes with fellow students from the seventies, most prominently Srutirupa and Visakha. Perhaps one of us will take up the task of compiling her recipes and presenting them with text to illustrate her memorable Vaisnava character and way of life.
Until that happens, here's a sample Pishima recipe from her Vrndavana kitchen. She used this seasoning for a sweet glaze she spooned over crispy pan-fried cheese cutlets. I'm sure you'll find several uses for it in your favorite dishes.
With Tellicherry Pepper
The warm flavor of this dynamic seasoning is versatile. A few suggestions: Mix a touch of it with melted butter or virgin olive oil to season any steamed vegetable, rice, or whole-grain dish. You might whisk a little into fresh lemon juice and oil for a light vinaigrette. Or stir a little of the seasoning into a finished bean dish just before serving. One of my favorites is to mix a little into diced, roasted red bell peppers and yogurt cheese as a dip for vegetable cruditis.
Makes about 1/3 cup
1 walnut-size piece of fresh ginger
3 tablespoons lightly toasted cumin seeds
1 tablespoon peppercorns, preferably Tellicherry
spring water, as necessary
Peel and roughly chop the ginger root. Place in a blender or stone mortar and pestle and pound or process until grated. Add the cumin and peppercorns and process until coarsely ground. Add 3-4 tablespoons of water and grind or process until the ingredients are reduced to a loose paste, using additional water as necessary. (Can be kept refrigerated in a jar for up to 2 weeks.)
Yamuna Devi is the author of Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking.