It wasn’t easy to find Gouri Ghata. I had to walk the last mile of red earth to her thatched mud house, set in Mohor village among duck ponds, bamboo groves, and spotlessly swept yards. I was looking for Gouri because I wanted to witness the innovative, age-old art of making gayna bori, lentil cakes made like delicate filigree jewellery, used to add crunch to Bengali food.
Bori is the generic Bengali term to describe the savoury, sun-dried pellets made from lentil batter found in most Bengali kitchens. They are an important part of traditional Bengali cooking and can be made in the shape of pyramids or discs, ranging from tiny drops to flat rounds, spiced or unspiced. They are deep-fried before being added to cooked dal and vegetables, for added texture.
However, the intricately designed gayna bori, fit to be part of a bride’s trousseau, are special. These boris are wrought in the motifs of Bengali jewellery (gayna). Unlike regular boris, which are purely culinary in function, gayna or naksha (design) boris have a strong ornamental element that elevates them to the level of a decorative art.
Even when I was growing up, gayna bori was a rare treat, occasionally served in a few homes where the families had connections with Midnapore. It is only in this district that the humble bori evolved into a thing of beauty, worthy of the admiration of leading artists of the Bengal School, like Nandalal Bose and Abanindranath Tagore. This part of Bengal, with its fertile soil, broad rivers, and ponds rippling with fish, is known as a hub of extraordinary creativity. The famous patuas—storytelling scroll painters and singers—are from here. So are the madur makers, famed for their ability to weave local reeds into fine matting—the works of master artisans resembling gossamer veils. Perhaps it’s not so surprising then that the women of this land imprinted the humble bori with their aesthetic sensibilities, transforming them into exquisite pieces of edible jewellery, for a daughter’s trousseau or to share with special guests. But it’s an art form that is slowly dying, and one hardly encounters gayna bori now. It was only after months of spreading the word amongst anyone with links to Midnapore that I was lucky enough to find Gouri.
My journey had started from Kolkata at first light, crossing the Vidyasagar Setu to get to NH6. At Kolaghat, famous for its hilsa haul, I stopped for tea at the sprawling Sher-E-Punjab dhaba and motel. The drive took me through green paddy fields, and stretches of golden mustard. Rows of gently swaying tuberoses and orange marigold reminded me that Midnapore was also the floriculture hub of Bengal’s plains.
Like most Bengali children of my generation, this is the landscape of folk tales I grew up on. It was thrilling to travel through a countryside rich with familiar lore, crossing the Damodar and Rupnarayan rivers, which evoke tales of heroism and romance. Signposts for Tamluk were a reminder that until medieval times, when the river changed course, this area was a bustling port. It was the rich traders of this area who provided inspiration for the unforgettable characters of Chand Sadagar and Behula in Bengali literature. Turning off the highway towards West Midnapore, the road narrowed into a winding, unpaved strip between the fields from where I had walked to Gouri’s home in Mohor.
Gouri told me about the process. “Gayna bori is prepared in the month of Kartik (around October-November), when the monsoon is over, the air has turned dry, and the sun is strong but mellow. The fields of beuli dal (black gram) are ready for harvest. Gayna boris must be made from the first harvest—that’s the best quality. The other boris can be done through winter using subsequent harvests.”
The dal is soaked overnight, then ground to a smooth paste on a stone mortar and pestle. As she worked the batter, I tentatively suggested using a blender, but she dismissed the idea, claiming it results in heavy, inedible boris. Chastened, I refrained from making any more suggestions about kitchen gadgets.
Gouri continued talking as she relentlessly whipped a bowl of the white batter for the boris. I was aware of how lucky I was, to witness this unique art form, as the number of women who still practice this winter activity of the Bengali rural calendar is rapidly dwindling. “Meye jaachhe shoshur baari/shongi holo gayna bori (Our girl is leaving for her in-laws’ home; her companion is gayna bori),” she said. “That’s one of the rhymes we grew up with. It shows you how special these boris are. But, so few homes make them now,” she added wistfully.
When Gouri was satisfied with the consistency, one of the children fetched a bottle of mustard oil. The dark, liquid gold was made with produce from the family’s mustard fields and hand-pressed at the local oil mill. Working swiftly, Gouri lightly oiled a few steel platters, then dusted them with a layer of white poppy seeds (posto). Right on cue, Srabani Majhi arrived: a young bou, or married woman, of the neighbourhood, who is renowned for her skill at creating gayna shapes, and had been requested to demonstrate this part of the process. She tested the batter with her fingers, pronounced it adequately beaten, and began the magic of creating gayna boris.
A square of stiff cotton was pleated to form a wide-mouthed cone, the narrow end pushed into a metal nozzle, which was cut from an old toothpaste tube. Srabani scooped a portion of the batter into the cloth, and began squeezing out the paste into delicate line-drawings. She worked quickly, with concentration, and soon the seed-sprinkled platters were studded with delicate motifs, as if a bride’s jewellery had been laid out.
Once the batter was used up, the plates and their contents were placed in the sunniest part of the yard and we trooped in for a delicious lunch. It included fish from the family’s pond, cooked in mustard paste, steaming fragrant rice from their paddy fields, and dishes made with home-grown vegetables. Accompanying the meal were pendants of gayna bori from the larder, fried crisp, lighter than any meringue, the posto sparkling on the surface like tiny gems and adding a wonderfully distinct flavour. The meal ended with a glass of fresh, creamy milk from the family cow.
By early evening, the sun-drying gayna boris had hardened, came off the plates easily, and were put into airtight containers. As I left, a jar was generously pressed into my hands.
I think it is tragic that the art of gayna bori, like so many artisanal crafts, is disappearing because the patterns of life from where they emerge, and which support them, are being wiped away. Gouri doubts her daughters or their friends will have the desire or patience to learn the art. Although the government is making an effort to revive and promote gayna bori with state emporia putting in orders with village self-help groups, much more is needed to revitalize this art.
There’s another village rhyme that goes: “Khokumoni keno bhaari/ Patey nei je gayna bori (Why is Khukumoni sad? Because there’s no gayna bori on her plate).” I only hope Khukumoni will have reason to smile again.
Appeared in the July 2016 issue as “Jewels of the Bengali Kitchen”.
Where to Buy Outlets of Biswa Bangla, West Bengal government’s chain of high-end artisanal stores, usually stock gayna bori during season (Nov-Apr; approx ₹400 for six pieces). Stores are located at Kolkata Airport, Dakshinapan shopping complex, Biswa Bangla Haat in Rajarhaat, and Bagdogra Airport. Gayna bori is also available at the Aurobindo Ashram outlet in Shakespeare Sarani (₹25 for six pieces).
To Use Deep-fry gayna bori until they turn pale gold and crisp. In Bengal, they are served as a teatime snack, or as part of a main meal where, unlike common boris, they are placed on the side of the plate, or used to adorn a dish of vegetables just before serving.