I’ve always marveled how taste and aromas have strong connections to memories. Even today when Aparna fries onions to make “bhaji” (the potato filling) for masala dosa, I’m transported back to the Saturday evenings as a kid. I would’ve returned after a game of cricket or football, the Fauji Jayamala would be on the radio and I would be curled up on the bed reading James Herriot, Illustrated Weekly or whatever was available to read. My mother would be preparing bhaji and the aroma of fried onions would fill the air. A holiday the next day, masala dosa for breakfast and no homework for the evening – life could not be better!
I had a similar flashback a few days ago when on a trip to New Jersey, my sister-in-law Anu, served up some delicious banana halwa. This is a delectable sweet made out of ripe Nandarkai or Malabar bananas and is a delicacy of the coastal regions of Karnataka and Kerala. As a kid I remember my mother mashing ripe bananas and cooking them for a while with sugar. I was delegated the job of powdering cardamom. So there I would be on the kitchen floor, hard at work with the mortar and pestle while the delicious aroma of bananas caramelizing with sugar would waft through the house. No Indian dish is complete without ghee (clarified butter) and so after a generous dollop of ghee and cardamom powder were added and the mixture had pretty much coagulated into what looked like a heaving, volcanic ball, my mother would spread the mixture on an upturned steel plate that had been greased with ghee.
I would wait impatiently till the mixture had cooled down and amma could cut the halvas into rectangular pieces. The result was sweet, slightly sticky and thoroughly delicious! I guess one could call it a banana fudge. I remember the act of stirring the halwa was fairly laborious, those were the pre non-stick cooking days and my mother battled with a hindalium wok.
So I was very impressed when Anu served what was a perfectly cooked, perfectly sliced piece of banana halwa. Now Anu is a fantastic cook and I would not doubt her ability to cook this but somehow cooking this tropical delicacy on a New Jersey winter day seemed incongruous. It was then that Anu brought out the “Anand Banana Halwa” box. Anand is a company that specializes in distributing South Indian snacks and sweets in the US. Their Ashtami laddu is pretty good, Kerala mixture is spicy and awesome, I’ve had mixed luck with their Peanut chikkis. The banana halwa though is a winner. It has the right amount of ghee and a smooth consistency and tastes as good as any banana halwa that you can buy at a “Mangalore store” in India. I’ve not found this in MA yet, NJ is the epicenter of all things Indian in the US and I guess this will slowly work its way around. If you do happen to find this in your local Indian store, give it a try!