Dr Joya Mitra sent us an old Bengali lullaby: it calls the sleep-bringing aunties (ghoom-paarani maashi-pishi), promising them all the delicious foods in the house if they will come and sit on the baby’s eyes. In four lines, it mentions three varieties of rice–and three different ways of preparing them!
আম কাঁঠালের বাগান দেব ছায়ায় ছায়ায় যেতে,
উড়কি ধানের মুড়কি দেব পথে বসে খেতে ।
শালি ধানের চিঁড়ে দেব বিন্নি ধানের খই,
মোটা মোটা শবরী কলা গামছা বাঁধা দই ।।
I’ll give you orchards of mango and jackfruit —
Take a walk in their shade —
And a fistful of sweet, soft murki,
From the kernels of the Urki,
To munch on your way,
Parched rice made with Shali kernels,
Puffed rice from the Binni kernels,
Nice, plump Shabari bananas,
And rich yoghurt I have strained.
When we talk about the thousands of varieties of indigenous rice that were available, we have to remember that food culture revolved around rice. It was not only eaten as part of a meal, but permeated the day, showing up in snacks, sweets and even drinks. And of course, different varieties of rice were best suited to different foods. So much of this knowledge has been lost, but this lullaby tells us that puffed rice (khoi in Bengali, kheel in Hindi) made from the Binni paddy was better than that made from the Urki variety — but the Urki one could be coated in sugar or jaggery to make murki. Parched rice (chire in Bengali, chivda/poha in Hindi) would have been made from the Shali rice. And visions of all these delicacies would have danced in the heads of the babies, as they drowsed to this lullaby.