First, you have to soak the rice for three days, then you drain it and dry it for 24 hours. On the fourth or fifth day you grind the dried rice and you’re finally ready to start making the dough for the biscuits…" This was me the other night at a book group, regaling my chums with the steps required to make a traditional sweet called anarsa according to an old family recipe I’d been given while visiting a friend’s home in Madhya Pradesh.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that most of my friends gasped in horror and said something along the lines of “Thank God women aren’t chained to the kitchen like that any more." But when I think back to the day I sat with a group of women making anarsas it’s not servitude that springs to mind, but happy hours of sisterly banter while honouring deep-rooted culinary traditions.

In charge of operations was 70-something Meena who, as well as running a sizeable company and serving on numerous committees, still found time to give us a masterclass in the recipes she had inherited from her grandmother. As nimble fingers kneaded and bangles jangled, she frequently chipped in with instructions to keep the younger generation in line, ensuring that the family recipes survive for at least another generation. I know most women today don’t have the time to follow recipes that take the best part of a week to complete but it would be a shame to lose these traditions. As well as being a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, it’s worth remembering there are few things which connect us so powerfully to our families, our communities, our roots, as the food we make.

I’m not going to give you that anarsa recipe today because I’m only on Day 3 of the process. Instead, I have attempted another of Meena’s recipes, chirota, which, on the face of it, should be comparatively straightforward. But don’t be fooled by the humble ingredients and simple techniques—they require a fair bit of practice to get right. The dough is fragile to handle and the pounding requires a bit of muscle power. But the main pressure point is in the frying. The ghee (clarified butter) has to be hot enough to make the chirotas crisp but low enough to keep them pale in colour.

Despite filming Meena making chirotas and watching the clip umpteen times, making several batches and cooking them at six different temperatures, I have been completely unable to achieve the ethereal snowy crispness of Meena’s chirota. But that’s as it should be—in the great scheme of ancient family recipes, refined and practised over generations, I’m still a complete novice. Meena’s were ethereally light, crisp and delicately sweet. Mine were just okay.

Chirotas

Makes at least 24

Ingredients

To make the dough

350g plain flour (maida)

80g semolina (sooji)

N tsp salt

3 tbsp ghee

250-300ml warm milk

To make the paste

2 tbsp ghee mixed with 2 tbsp rice flour

Ghee for frying the chirotas

Icing sugar for dusting

Method

Mix together the flour, semolina, salt and ghee with your hands, then add the milk gradually to form a ball of smooth, firm dough. Cover and leave to rest for 2-3 hours.

Take a golf-ball-size piece of dough and pound it with a little milk in a pestle and mortar for about 2 minutes until the dough is smooth and soft. Place it on a work surface, roll out to a disc about 20cm wide, then spread a teaspoon of the paste all over the surface. Take another golf-ball-size piece of dough and repeat the process. Lay one disc on top of the other, then roll the two discs into a fat sausage. Cut the long roll into six pieces, each piece about 3-4cm wide. You should now have six pieces roughly 3x3cm. Roll each of these into a rectangle/oblong, about 9x9cm, pressing down more heavily in the centre of the chirotas to leave the layers fanning out slightly at the edges.

Heat a few centimetres’ depth of ghee in a kadhai (wok). The key to perfectly-fried chirotas is in the temperature of the ghee. According to Meena’s grandmother, the finished chirotas should be almost white. I tried cooking my chirotas at six different temperatures. At 160, 150, 140 degrees Celsius, they browned almost immediately. The best result came at about 120 degrees Celsius (if you don’t have a thermometer, then it’s all down to trial and error!). Slide one chirota into the ghee, let it sizzle for a few seconds, then turn it over with a slotted spoon. Then move the chirota to the edge of the pan and tip it on its side so that the exposed layers are facing upwards. Hold it there with the slotted spoon, then with a ladle pour some of the hot ghee through the layers.

Do this several times—the layers will open up slightly but don’t let the chirotas brown. Flip the chirota over so the other end of layers is facing you and ladle the ghee through again. The chirota should be fairly crisp but still pale. Scoop the chirota out of the ghee and put it on some kitchen roll. Repeat the process until you have used up all the dough.

Chirotas are sometimes dipped in syrup before serving and you could give them a modern spin and experiment with flavourings in the syrup. But I like them the way Meena made them, with the lightest of dusting of icing sugar over the (hopefully) pale and crisp chirotas. The chirotas will keep for a few days in a tin.

Pamela Timms is a Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at Eatanddust.com.

Also Read | Pamela’s previous Lounge columns

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