RAMYA KRISHNAMURTHY writes from Bangalore: While the boys of churumuri let their tongues flap around for kodu bale and Kingfisher, may I, on behalf of the party of the other part, unwrap a small packet of sepia-toned memories, one of the simple joys of days long past: the humble haalu khova.
To the undying gratitude of my dentist Dr B.K. Chandra Mohan, my sweet tooth, all 31 of them actually, has since gone on to discover something netherworld about the Mysore pak from Guru Sweet Mart (Mysore) and the obscenely shaped gulab-jamoons from Bhagat Ram (Bangalore); about the dumrot from Ramakrishna Lunch Home (Bangalore) and the badam halwa from Ramya drive-in restaurant (Mysore).
(Feel free to pick your weakness and salivate here: badam burfi/ badushah / basundi/ champakali/ chiroti/ dharwad peda/ gajar halwa / holige/ huggi/ kadubu/ kajaya/ kheer/ kunda/ ladoo / mishti doi/ payasa/ peni/ rasogolla/ rasamalai / sajjige/ shira/ shrikhand / unde/ vobattu.)
While, those forbidden fruits of human toil have their own allure, the haalu khova is at the very apex of personal favourites for me, almost 30 years after I surreptitiously (and innocently) let one of them dissolve in my mouth in Ms Celine Rodriques’ class in the first period after lunch at Nirmala School in Vontikoppal.
(Sorry, Ms Celine, but we were popping a piece of paradise.)
Each one has one, but there were a few reasons why I fell head over heels in love with haalu khova.
a) Because it was not an organised “adult” sweet.
b) Because of its unbelievably low price.
c) Because it had the stamp of “local” all over it.
d) Because it was such a cute, portable product.
e) Because there was a small tag of rebelliousness strung around it.
Like many “middle” middle-class families in the 1970s, my father too used to bring home a small packet of doodh peda every now and then from Indra Bhavan on Sayyaji Rao Road. And there was the odd packet of sweets that arrived courtesy of some maduve, munji or tithi.
But haalu khova was a different story. No cook ever claimed it was his speciality. No sweet shop shouted that it was world-famous for it.
It was made without fuss; it was sold and consumed without fanfare.
It was a sweet you bought from the Rs 20 that was your monthly allocation of “pocket money”. It was a sweet you bought (mostly) without your parents’ knowing. It was a sweet you ate off the street, off Jayamma‘s gaadi that was wheeled into 2nd main road, Vontikoppal.
Above all, it was a friendly sweet that wouldn’t give you away in class; it was so silky soft that it would melt without even your trying. And It was a sweet that you consumed while Ms Madhura and Ms Ponnamma George were looking at the blackboard, giving you a bit of a cheap thrill, as the boys looked on in envy.
The families in Agrahara which (I later learned) put haalu khova on the gastronomical atlas of India probably didn’t know, and probably didn’t care, but in their own way they were making their own contribution to female emancipation every afternoon through their enterprise.
As memories go, there was nothing fancy about the haalu khova. It was light to dark brown, depending on which bylane of Agrahara it came from. It had no great shape or elaborate icing. It was just a small cube of what cookbooks call “whole dried milk” (khoya or mawa in Hindi) laden with sugar that in our time was precut into nine smaller cuboids.
But the real pleasure was in the geometry of its cottage engineering.
Every consignment of haalu khova was packed with absolute precision in butter paper, not a crease out of place. And then artfully tied with cotton thread, two rounds going this way and that way, with a small, seductive knot at the end.
Untying the knot gave the same pleasure that a diamond smuggler got while revealing his booty.
And untie we would after slipping in a packet or two into our skirt pockets after the lunch break, one little piece after another.
Long after our gang—Ashitha Shetty, Kavitha K.S., Kiran Shenoy, Manisha Modha, Preeti Attavar, et al had outgrown the haalu khova—I made my way one dark power-cut evening to the little lane in Sunnadakeri, where the old Iyengar’s Mess was situated, to see the place where the haalu khova was said to have originated.
A bare-breasted, cross-belted man sat on the jagli outside as he protected the “secret formula” like John Pemberton.
Haalu khova, he said, was invented 61 years ago in that very home by his father Gopal Iyengar. Its original name was Delhi burfi. It was made to give the children of the house something more nutritious than the biscuits they craved. And the original packet, eight times the current size, apparently cost 3 paise.
A packet of four slices (in picture) today costs Rs 5. “But, remember, a gram of gold cost Rs 30 in those days.”
“One packet is enough to sustain you for three-four hours,” said Iyengar junior, who it turned out had opened the batting for RBNCC. “Javagal Srinath once gave an interview in the beginning of his international career where he said he had played entire matches on nothing more than a packet of our haalu khova.”
If it was good enough for Babu, it was good enough for us.
Photographs: Prashant Krishnamurthy
Cross-posted on Kosambari