Friday, January 15, 2016

নাৰিকলৰ লাৰু আৰু ভোগালী বিহু– Happy Bihu, everyone!!

If you hail from the beautiful state of Assam in the North East corner of India, your Facebook (or any other social media) feed must have been flooded with “Happy Bihu” wishes and “laru-pitha” photos from everyone. And just like me, if you live somewhere that is not Assam, you must be utterly nostalgic reminiscing good old days spent amidst family! You are also probably wondering when you can go back and participate in the hustle-bustle of the festivities.

নাৰিকলৰ লাৰু (Coconut balls)

Magh Bihuor “Bhogali Bihu” is one of the main cultural festivities in Assam. We celebrate 3 "Bihu"s that corresponds to the distinguished phases of harvesting season. “Bohag Bihu” is celebrated in the month of Bohag (mid-April) at the beginning of Assamese New Year to celebrate the start of the harvesting season. Kati Bihu is observed in the month of Kati (mid-October) when the harvest in the field is just in the growing stage, and the farmers’ granary is quite empty. Today, the first day of the Magh month, Magh Bihu is being celebrated to mark the end of the harvesting season. Bhogali comes from the word "bhog" which means to feast, and enjoy in luxury. The granaries are typically full around this time and the markets are abundant with seasonal vegetables and also with different type of poultry and meat. There is almost a month-long eating and feasting during this bihu. On the Sankranti between Puha and Magh month, Uruka is celebrated where communities, neighborhood or families get together to have a good hearty dinner with many mouthwatering delicacies. While typically the male members lead this meal preparation, the women stay back and prepare all kinds of sweet and savory traditional pancakes ("laru-pitha") and later join in for dinner. Meanwhile, young folks prepare makeshift huts known as “bhelaghar” or “meji” made from bamboo sticks and hay. Very early in the next morning, everybody will take bath and join each other to lit the meji and pray to the "God of Fire" for a happy healthy year ahead. "laru-pitha"s made the previous night are also served with a cup of tea which is savored while warming up to the heat of the bonfire.

I grew up in the city and while we did not have the most perfect and authentic version of Bihu celebration, my parents tried their VERY best to perform as much of the rituals as possible. Mine was a closely attached neighborhood and I remember there was a time when we had as many as 15-20 families joining in for “Uruka”. As we grew older, time changed and number of participant’s slowly started to decrease. But Bihu is still Bihu and no matter where you end up being, that longing to celebrate among your loved ones never goes away! The craving for the traditional laru-pitha becomes severe around this time as well.

My parents did a great job in helping us absorb all these cultural festivities and their signifance, and I now know enough to whip up one or two such “laru-pitha” during every bihu, whenever possible :-) Not to brag, but my kid sister has almost become an expert in making tilpitha; mom tells me she now single handedly takes care of the tilpitha section of our household! Proud sister over here :-) Today, I am going to share the recipe that my mom follows to make narikolor laru (narikol=coconut, laru= round ball)! I am hoping to particularly help anyone that craves for pitha-laru but finds the process intimidating and unattainable. I can assure you that it is not as tough as you may think. But like many other delectable delicacies, it needs a little bit of patience.

So, what ingredients will you need?
= Sugar, milk (or powdered milk), cardamom (smashed), coconut

Few notes before we start
  • Traditionally ripe coconuts that has hardened flesh but still water has not dried out) are used. Back home, we use a traditionally designed tool to grate the flesh. I don’t have that grater here and I have not researched much about any substitute tool either. But I have found an easy way! If you have an accessible Indian store near, you will find frozen grated coconut packets. The coconut is not grated as finely as I like but it does the job. 
  • You will need a wide pan with a rather thick bottom. This is to provide constant but minimal transfer of heat. Over the years, my mom has experimented with all kinds of cooking pans and pots before she settled with wide, thick aluminum pan. If you have a pressure cooker, that will work great too. That’s what I use.
  • The whole process needs time and patience. So, be mentally prepared!
After being completely cooked!
Here is the phase-I of the process -
  • Grate the coconut if you are using whole coconut. Be sure not to go all the way in to the hardened shell while grating, the brown residue from the shell will not be good if you want your larus to come out pristine white.  Or use the shredded coconut packet like me :-) 
  • I don’t adhere to strict ratios and measurements while cooking. But per my mom’s instruction, it should be 1 cup of sugar for each 2 cups of grated coconut. If I am being health conscious I reduce the amount to ¾ of a cup. Sugar acts as the main binding agent so if you put less it will get difficult to bind the larus properly. 
  • Mix coconut, sugar and smashed cardamom together in a big bowl and knead the mixture using your hands. At this point, you can check the sweetness level too and adjust accordingly. After mixing well, keep it refrigerated for 2 hrs. This is not absolutely necessary but my mom follows this step and her larus always are “oh-so-perfect”! Because I make these once or twice a year, I make time for extra two hrs. You can keep it overnight too!
  • Heat up your pan or cooker. Slow and steady heat is what you need. Typically I keep it at a lower than “medium”. I also keep an eye on the temperature and adjust accordingly. Too much of fast heat is not good.
  • When the cooker is heated up, add the mixture. No need to put anything else. The mixture is purely white in color at this point.
  • Keep stirring; don’t let the content stick to the pan. You may need to readjust the heat if the mixture is sticking a lot.
  • Keep stirring regularly. You will see that the sugar has started to melt and the coconut oil is slowly emerging.
  • After a while (say 20-30 minutes) you will see that the mixture has slowly turn more viscous and sticky, much richer, slightly yellow or creamy in color and also a bit transparent in nature. It is almost cooked.
  • Add milk (just a bit, I added about a ½ cup for 6 small cups of coconut) at this point. This will make sure that the final product remains white! We love our narikolor larus as white as possible!
  • Stir for some more time.
  • After 45 min to 1 hr., it should be properly cooked.
Before we go to the next phase, you will need,
A small bowl of water, a plate to take out scoops of the cooked mixture while making the larus, one bigger plate or tray to keep the larus that are formed.

Here is the phase-II of the process -

This final phase is where it needs some effort. You need to be a bit fast. The main complaint from anyone who has tried to make this is that the larus don’t bind and it becomes difficult to build and maintain that round cohesive shape getting crumbled. When you remove the mixture from heat, the next 10 minutes or so it retains the heat and the warmth from the melted sugar and oil from the coconut. So it is easier to make the larus within that time. That is why you need to be fast! If you have larger amount, the mixture may get cold; go ahead and reheat for some more time. This is also the reason why I will scoop a little bit out, make 4-5 larus out of that portion and then scoop the next portion. I remember my mom putting us to help her at this point; me, my sister and at times my aunt will work together to finish using up the entire cooked mixture. It was fun.

This little scoop will make 3-4 larus
Now that I have all the important points covered, let’s make the larus.
  • Scoop out a small amount of the cooked mixture.
  • I like small size larus! I can only manage to make smaller ones with my rather small hands :-)
  • From that portion take just a little bit guessing what size of laru you want. Keep squeezing it in your palms as shown; it will be a bit hot, so be careful. It will start to bind. You have to adjust the pressure from your hand because you want the laru to nicely stick together and form the round shape but not break under too much pressure.
  • Keep squishing and rolling for around 45 seconds to 1 mins. You will see that the original volume has shrunk into a somewhat rounder and tighter ball.
  • After I am happy with the shape and make it rounder to the best of my ability, I give it a quick swirl in between both my palms to smooth out any uneven edge and make it even rounder.
  • Follow the process. After every 3-4 larus, your hand may get a bit sticky from all the oil and sugary syrup; quickly dip your fingers in the water bowl and it will remove the stickiness.
  • Pull out another scoop and complete the process in batches till you are done.
  • The larus are ready; you can definitely try them at each point. Keep it on the tray for a few hrs. or overnight to make them firmer. Whenever I return here after vacation, my mom makes these and she always lets them dry overnight before packing them and they survive the overseas journey without breaking.

The entire process!!
I hope you enjoy them :-)

This year, Uruka was celebrated on Thursday night and by the time I am preparing this , the main rituals of Bihu are almost over, back home. But I have invited a few friends tonight who are also going to make another kind of pitha. We have a pretty hearty meal planned.

Hope you also have enjoyed this Bihu :-) and ate a lot :-) Here are some of the pictures that I collected from my sister, Ani and cousins Gyanashree, and Deepa.

Happy Bihu!!! 

Cake, Telpitha (Courtesy: Kakoli), Narikolor laru and Narikolr Bhoja Pitha
Laru Pitha from made and photographed by Ani, my little sister :-)
Laru Pitha from Aunts place, PC: Deepa!
Bhelaghar/Meji from my ancestral home. PC: Gyanashree
Post a Comment