Home >Lounge >Features >The Bengali ‘makha’ is a culinary technique and comfort food

Growing up, I spent many a summer day at my aunt’s house in the town of Chandannagar, a former French colony on the banks of the Hooghly. My cousins and I would while away mornings in a small grove behind the house playing games. Afternoons, however, were reserved for a special treat—tentul makha (tamarind mash).

Every afternoon, once our mothers fell asleep, we would tiptoe into the kitchen to gather ingredients for our secret feast—a splash of mustard oil, a dash of rock salt, a spoonful of sugar or a small chunk of sugar-cane jaggery, a green chilli and a giant scoop of ripe tamarind pulp, seeds and all. We would huddle around our afternoon’s spoils, and the makha would begin.

All of us agreed that my aunt’s eldest daughter had the best hands at makha. So we would watch impatiently as she squashed and mashed the tamarind pulp, rubbed in the green chilli and poured in the oil. The result was gooey deliciousness—tangy, spicy and sweet—that we loved to lick off our fingers.

In Bengali, the word makha can mean many things. It could mean “to smear or daub" or “to apply", “to knead" (into a dough), or to mash. Makha-makhi, on the other hand, may also imply “mixing with someone a bit too much". In Bengali homes, elders often insist “bhaat mekhe khao" (mash the rice properly and eat), in the belief that mashing up the rice makes it easier to digest.

Makha also denotes a significant culinary technique, which involves all or some of a range of methods like mashing, muddling, mixing and macerating, typically by hand, to bring together a range of ingredients, flavours and textures to create a composite dish. The Bengali culinary repertoire boasts of a diverse assortment of makhas, ranging from chutney-like condiments like tentul makha to sweets. Above all, however, makha is a culinary quirk steeped in sentimentality, a token of familial comfort and fond memories.

For Delhi-based professional Tanushree Bhowmik, known for her pop-up Fork Tales, the very word makha evokes memories of long-ago early winter afternoons spent with her grandfather at her Digboi home and his delicious jambura (pomelo) makha. “My grandfather would macerate the jambura with salt, sugar, a hint of chillies and a dash of mustard oil and let it rest for a while," says Bhowmik.

Early winter is also the season for kodbel (wood apple) makha. The tart pulp of fruit, mashed and mixed with spices, powdered jaggery, finely chopped chillies and fresh coriander, is best savoured like a chutney. There is a delightful assortment of such makhas, involving everything from hog plums and star fruit to raw mangoes, jalpai (informally called Indian olives) and topa kul (a jujube variant).

Makhas are also made with vegetables, boiled or steamed. At their simplest, boiled vegetables—everything from potatoes and pumpkin to raw bananas and bitter gourd—mixed with a dash of mustard oil, green chilies and salt. With a little imagination, however, there is no end to the kind of makhas one might drum up. “A personal favourite is the dim-aloomakha—boiled eggs and potatoes mashed with mustard oil, finely chopped onions and green chillies," says Kolkata-based food blogger Debjani Chatterjee Alam.

According to Chatterjee Alam, while bhortas are popular among the natives of what used to be East Bengal, West Bengalis love their makhas. It seems to me that the term makha has more scope than bhorta, even though the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably these days. Bhorta typically means a spicy mash using everything from vegetables and leafy greens to fish, even meat, eaten as an accompaniment. A makha is often simpler and more spontaneous, riding largely on the magic of fingers—the proverbial haath’er shaadh is a crucial ingredient.

My mother often talks about her Thamma’s (paternal grandmother’s) inimitable doodh-bhaat makha. She would mash the rice with a wedge of boiled potato, a dollop of ghee and salt, before adding warm, thickened milk sweetened with sugar or nakul dana.

Doodh-bhaath makha is a token of maternal love in Bengal, and often finds mention in folk tales and the chhoras (rhymes) mothers would sing to their children. One goes, “Khokon, Khokon, daak paari, khokon moder kaar baari, aaye re khokon ghore aaye, doodh makha bhaat kaakey khaaye." A mother calls out to her little boy, urging him to come home at once because crows are eating up the milk-laced rice meant for him.

In her cookbook AmishO Niramish Ahaar, Pragyasundari Devi, Rabindranath Tagore’s niece, writes about the virtues of rice and milk mashed with bananas and new sugar-cane molasses or popped rice soaked in milk and mashed with sugar and pulp of mangoes. She especially recommends a makha drummed up with a mix of mango and jackfruit, a splash of milk, sugar and rice.

Flattened rice, first soaked in water and mixed with milk or sweet yogurt and bananas, along with summer fruits, makes for both a filling and cooling meal, apt for the hot summer. This combination, known as phalahaar (a meal of fruits), also had ritualistic significance.

Doi chira aam is a must on Jamai Shashti, which comes at the height of summer. The idea is simple. Back in the day, when daughters lived far away after marriage, sons-in-law had to undertake a long, arduous journey in the heat to visit their in-laws. A comfort-laden bowl of doi chire (yogurt mixed with flattened rice) livened up with some sandesh, mixed with care, was the perfect welcome meal.

In many Bengali homes, an offering of chire, khoi (popped rice), murki (jaggery-coated khoi), yogurt, sweets and batasha (small discs of sugar) is made during some pujas. Later, these are all mixed together to make a composite sweet dish, which can be distributed as prasad. It is called dodhi korma. A similar preparation is fed to the bride and groom just before sunrise on the wedding day, in a ritual called dodhi mongol.

Another summertime favourite is the moog’er jaala. The yellow split moong dal, first soaked in water, is combined with sugar or crumbled batasha and coconut, and a small banana is mashed in to hold it all together. In my house, the moog’er jaala is also made during Satyanarayan Puja. However, the most crucial part of Satyanarayan Puja preparations is the shinni makha. Shinni, or sirni, is a gooey porridge-like dish made with maida (refined flour), milk, bananas and sugar, garnished with grated coconut and dried fruits, and prepared by mashing, mixing and folding in the ingredients by hand.

No discussion about Bengali’s love for makha would be complete, however, without extolling the virtues of muri makha with finely chopped onions and green chilies, spicy chanachur and pungent mustard oil tossed and mixed by hand. Sometimes, a couple of shingaras (a kind of samosa) would be crumbled and added to the mix; at others, mustard oil would be swapped for spiced oil from the jar of mango pickle. There are other homely versions too—muri tossed with fried brinjals or potatoes and green peas.

But above all, muri makha is a fantastic reminder of good times with friends and family that play out best around a giant bowl right out of your mother’s kitchen.

Makha made with puffed rice.
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Makha made with puffed rice.
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