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Posted at: Dec 2, 2018, 1:55 AM; last updated: Dec 2, 2018, 1:55 AM (IST)FOOD TALK

Grudge that led to finger-licking fare

Harbhajan Kaur started working at 90, but her admirers aren’t just celebrating her indomitable spirit. They are also raising a toast to her besan ki barfi, among other delightful eats

Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu

For some, an innocuous comment tinged with long-held regret spurs a concerted effort to alleviate the remorse. For others, it becomes an inspiring start to a new column. This story begins less than three years ago, in a moment of nostalgia, when a daughter asked her nonagenarian mother whether she had any grudges in life. “Yes, not having earned a single penny for myself,” she had shared wistfully, while clicking away at her knitting needles. Taken aback at the unexpectedness of the reply, the daughter curiously probed further: would she like to rectify it? She was left equally astounded at her mother’s spirited nod in the affirmative. But how, she quizzed? “I can cook”.

No sooner, out came some more nostalgia, this time in the guise of a recipe over a century old. It was the besan barfi she had learnt to skillfully prepare under her father’s guidance. Growing up in a large family in Tarn Taran, and being the eldest, she became adept at recreating the crunchy goodness year after year for an equally large brood of siblings, cousins, children, and grandchildren. It would become a favourite with the extended family, friends and neighbours included, when she moved to be with one of her three daughters in Chandigarh.

An indulgent family immediately rallied around in support and encouragement. Her first order of a couple of kilos came from a pottery group her daughter is part of, and much to her disbelief, was a complete sell out. More than chuffed at having accomplished her heart’s desire, she took her first earnings (howsoever tiny a sum) and did what all mothers would probably do — divide it equally among her children, who, incidentally, assumed she would be happy to hang up her apron, having succeeded in carrying out her longstanding wish. How wrong they were! The indomitable lady insisted on continuing and has since added other family favourites to her repertoire of one.

The actual process takes her a better part of the day to churn out a kilo of barfi. She insists on doing it all by herself, dismissing all offers of assistance (even by the daughters), and slow cooks it in traditional brass utensils. Quality ingredients — ghee, flour, sugar, almonds — are sourced, wherever possible, from organic markets. The melon seeds (magaz), however, she chooses to wash and dry herself; more often than not seated in front of the television with a tweezer in her hand, painstakingly peeling one tiny seed after another for later use. Waking early, she gets down to the task at hand, roasting, flaking, mixing, agitating, and then emptying the hot aromatic mixture from the kadahi into thaals for cooling and setting. The slicing into neat squares follows a couple of hours later, with the squished or untidy ones finding themselves rounded into laddoos instead.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Harbhajan Kaur. That woman who decided to earn herself a sense of self-worth, achievement, and not least, an infinite amount of joy at the ripe old age of 90-something. Come Wednesday, she is found at the Organic Market in the grounds adjacent to Coveda School in Sector 18, Chandigarh, catching up with a growing number of admirers, not just of her spirit, but also her seasonal pickles, chutneys and sharbats under her eponymous brand. No doubt she is well on her way to becoming an incredibly wealthy woman, but not the kind that is likely to find the taxman at her door any time soon. She calls it happiness.


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