Radha Ballavi – Love Personified

Durga Pujo 2020 has been different for all of us and for myself too. The pandemic restricted celebrations worldwide and for me this year without my Ma was a journey into the self and memories. As I opened my Ma’s wardrobe and tried to feel her and her recently worn sarees, I felt comforted and warmed.Life is vastly different this autmn, there were neither pre Pujo to do list nor any plans for pandal hopping or eating out. Pujo in that way was relaxed but was not happy.The only strand of happiness I tried to integrate in my life this year was to cook, otherwise Bengali households rarely cook during the festive days. Eating out is the norm. It is during the festive days that people veer for traditional delicacies like kheer singara, mihidana,sitabhog,luchi- cholar dal, jibhegoja,kheer takti, narkel takti, basanti pulao , kosha mangsho, khichuri, labra, apart from a deluge of a on the go chicken roll or a plate of biryani while pandal hopping.As I heard a friend ordering Radhaballavi and alurdom for breakfast, my mind suddenly got thinking about the the historical as well as etymological origins of this typical festive Bengali delicacy.

How are Radhaballavis different

Radhaballavis are in its essentials soft deep fried flat breads made of refined flour and stuffed with urad dal or black lentil paste flavoured with ginger, asafoetida and cumin. The art of making a good Radhaballavi lies in fusing the flavours in the filling in a way each flavour remains distinct.The distinguishing element of Radhaballavi is the addition of sugar in the filling. Stuffed fried flat breads are common across the subcontinent be it the Hing Kachori or the Dal Puri or the Bedmi Poori, but the delicate balance of the spice and the sweetness of the lentil filling in a Radhaballavi makes it stand apart. it also stands apart for its festive character distinguishing it from the everyday luchi alurdom and it’s beautiful name.

The root Sanskrit word for Radhaballavi is Beshtonika and in common parlance it is named after Radha and Krishna,the eternal lovers of the world. My imagination runs wild as I get to grind the soaked lentil for the stuffing of radhaballavi for Dashami breakfast.Did Radha and Krishna share love for Radhaballavi?Did they binge on it on their secret escapades? Did Radha make them for his beau? After all food shared is love shared.

Shobhabajar Rajbari
Radhakrishna Jiu – home deity of Shobhabajar Rajbari

Origins of Radhaballavi

Legends have several stories about the origin of Radhaballavi. Myths about Shri Chaitanya inventing these stuffed flat breads to be offered to Shyamsundar Ji of Khardah, a form of Lord Krishna. Since one among the 108 names of Sri Krishna is Radhaballav, it is said that these flatbreads got named after the Lord himself.Another legend points out to a rather late origin of Radhaballavi in the kitchens of Shobhabajar Rajbari. The radhaballavis were offered to the presiding deity of the house Radhaballav Jiu, hence the name. Some other chroniclers trace the origin of Radhaballavi to the Singha family of Kandi in Murshidabad where the stuffed and fried flat bread was offered to the deity. It is also said one Jitendranath Modak learnt the art of making Radhaballavi from Vrindavan and introduced it in the shop of his nephew, the iconic Putiram Sweets in College Square.

Whatever be historically correct, whether it originated in Bengal as part of prasaad offerings or had an origin away from Bengal or was part of ancient food customs as the Sanskrit origins suggest, Radhaballavi has been able to maintain its steady popularity with its inherent festive and celebratory character. The best radhaballavis are undoubtedly made at home but one can choose from Putiram Sweets which serves puffed up Radhaballavis with a sweet cholar dal or Shri Hari Mistanna Bhandar in Bhowanipur which doles out slightly thick ones with red hued spicy alur dum. While the city generally stands divided in food preferences and specialities between north and south ,Radhaballavi stands tall against such disparities.It is loved and popular in both the parts of the city.

Any time Radhaballavi time

The nostalgia associated with Radhaballavi is not only linked to religious festivals and food offerings to God. Radhaballavi was an intrinsic part of a marriage spread till a couple of decades back. It was served as the first course with cholar dal over plantain leaves The Radhaballavi was served piping hot carried from the makeshift kitchen in cane jhuris , an indigenous way of draining the oil. A perfect Radhaballavi has to be redolent with fragrances of the asafoetida and the cumin, with no oil seeping in through small punctures within the flatbread. Radhaballavis were also served for breakfast during marriage gatherings coupled with bonde or mihidana. All that is lost today. Marriage spreads now would rather have a baby nan or a lacha paratha with chole keema or stuffed dum aloo. What still lives on in some community pandals is a queue waiting for a plate full of hot radhaballavis after the customary Ashtami anjali. Some mihidana and a hot milky tea to team up with the aged cousin Radhaballavi. Radhaballavis are also gentle enough to break fasts after rituals like sasthi and several pujos
They still though rarely makes its valiant appearance in packed food packets served as working lunch or for various ceremonies like Sraddh when people stay away from having rice and prefer carrying back token food packs.

Iconic Radhaballavis

Nothing is lost however for good. Radhaballavi remains thriving in our childhood memories, in the memories of college life of our parents and one can ocassionally watch a glimpse of a Radhaballavi served in marriage spreads in the marriage CDs. My memories of Radhaballavi are rooted in my college days at Presidency College and Putiram. Though not a very frequent visitor to Putiram during college days, yet the taste was preserved with much care.Now whenever work takes me to College Street, I make it a point to dip the radhaballavis in the cholar dal and take a big gulp closing my eyes trying to feel better the riot in my senses. The Radhaballavi at Shree Hari Mistanna Bhandar in Bhowanipur is also iconic. Full houses of people of various stratas pairing their Radhaballavi with langcha.

How I did my Radhaballavi

Since Durga Pujo this year was mostly about rejoicing around food nostalgia, Dashami had to begin and the Pujo had to end with Radhaballavi and Ghugni. Late on Nabami night I hurriedly soaked the lentil and went off to sleep with a eagerness to wake up to a good morning.After a hurried cup of my favourite Darjeeling Assam blend of tea, I drained the soaked black lentil or urad dal or biulir dal and made a course paste out if it.Over oil, I put in whole cumin seeds, fennel seeds and a pinch of asafoetida or hing. Once fragrant and spluttering added chopped ginger and green chillies. I put in the coarse paste ,some mace powder, salt and sugar.As the oil left the sides and the filling was well blended, I put the filling to cool. For a soft dough I mixed in refined flour, salt to taste and warm milk.The dough has to be medium soft.Out of the dough made small equal sized roundeks, made a dent in the middle ,stuffed the filling and reshaped it and flattened it on palms.Rolled it like luchis but remember to do with light strokes, the filling should not peep through, if it does your Radhaballavi would become soggy upon frying. Fried it over hot oil and one can serve it either with alur dom, cholar dal or Ghugni.

Love pairs and food bondings

My Radhaballavi paired beautifully with a Ghugni made sans onion, garlic and flavoured with fried coconuts, tamarind sauce and bhaja masala. I dry roast cumin seeds,whole red chilli and whole fennel seeds before grinding it coarsely. As I was pairing Radhaballavi with ghugni I was in two minds over a not do common serving tradition.But I went ahead and let this breakfast indulgence be as different as is the love dynamics between Radha and Krishna. Let Radhaballavi reign the world for ever as the eternal love story of Radha and Krishna lives on in our legends, myths, minds and everyday ritual lives.