The Milk Alchemist

Manick boils the fresh buffalo milk in a wok over an open flame. He stirs, thoughtful, coaxing his father’s dessert out of the thickening liquid.

I ask him how he will know when the milk has boiled enough.

“The milk will tell me.”

His laughter, made gravelly by the smoke of biddies, spills from the tea stall, into the chaos of Sudder Street. Manick grins at his own magic.

Chai on the Sidewalk

Helene and I met Manick when we sat on the tired wooden bench of his streetside tea stall, inches away from the endless parade of honking taxi cabs, hawkers, beggars, motorcycles, musical instrument peddlers, rickshaw pullers and the occasional goat herd. Manick’s place stood as an oasis amidst the chaos, and his masala chai – milk tea boiled with cardamom, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and a few other spices – quickly marked the pace of our days.

At any time between 6 AM and 11 PM, walk west on Sudder Street from Mirza Ghalib Street, and you’ll find Manick busy at his stall, a little distance away from the statue of Indira Gandhi. Tall and narrow, Manick stands straight and firm, a biddie at his fingertips. Although he was born in the Indian state of Bihar, he and his wife raised their five daughters and two sons in Kolkata.

Manick is one of thousands of street food vendors and entrepreneurs in Kolkata, providing for his family through hard, unrelenting work, every single day of the year. Manick exhudes quiet strength, dignity, and pride in his work.

One taste of his yogurt, and you understand why. “This is the best yogurt I’ve tasted,” I told Helene the first time I tried it. “Like, ever.”

I told Manick. His eyes lit up.

Making Ghee

Turns out my appreciation of Manick’s yogurt was no coincidence. Manick makes his own yogurt daily from fresh buffalo milk, delivered straight from the countryside. “One hundred percent original,” he said.

To illustrate the quality of his yogurt, Manick set a curd to cook in a wok over coals. While the curd itself turned dark over the flames, a light green layer of fat began to float to the top. This is ghee, used ubiquitously in Indian cooking, and the byproduct of a long chain of transformations of fresh milk. The product is an allegedly healthier form of animal fat that has more in common with the lightness and color of olive oil than butter.

From a seemingly useless blob of yogurt curd, Manick had extracted a vital and healthy ingredient of Indian cooking. But the man was not done yet; he scraped the blackened bottom of his wok, threw in a pinch of cane sugar, and handed this to me on a plate. I tasted milk, and its caramelized sugar content.

Manick grinned. “This is called India!”

Here, nothing goes to waste. People make use of anything, from plastic bags to the mud on the streets. Manick, himself, keeps a bag of dried mud in his stand, from which he bakes his own charcoal ovens. By the time he’s done with them, they have turned red, baked for thousands of hours into the color of bricks.

Buffalo Milk Magic

Not content with making ghee, Manick makes a deal with us. I pay him in advance for two liters of buffalo milk, and return in the evening.

Manick’s father was a sweets maker, and knew no less than fifty-six sweets recipes. This recipe is one of them: with just two liters of buffalo milk, and a few spoonfuls of sugar, Manick sets about invoking some of his father’s magic. He sets the milk to boil slowly over coals.

After an hour of diligent stirring from Manick, his wife and two of his daughters, the milk acquires a shade of yellow. As the water boils away from the milk, the fat, sweet content begins to thicken. When the mixture reaches the consistency of cooking dough, I’m staring in amazement and disbelief.

After spreading it carefully about the wok until it looks like maple sugar, Manick throws in a few tablespoons of cane sugar, and forms the condensed buffalo milk into small, yellow balls.

He calls them amrit laddu, sweets made of amrit. The ambrosial substance is the antithesis of poison: whereas poison kills all those who ingest it, amrit nourishes anyone who feeds from it. Manick is right to call it thus: with a refreshingly low amount of unrefined sugar, even diabetics can enjoy the amazingly complex, delicate and fabulous concoction he has coaxed out of a simple jug of milk.

Sharing the Magic

I can see in his eyes that Manick is proud of his accomplishment. When he shares some with his daughters, they exclaim their enthusiasm. “Mind-blowing! You should be called Sweets-Maker.”

I joke to Manick that he will now have to bake amrit laddu every day for his children. Manick smiles, but shakes his head: he doesn’t have the money to make the sweets his father made on a regular basis. At $2 per pound, and two hours of preparation, they are too costly for him, both in terms of cost and time. And without a restaurant of his own, Manick cannot easily bake the recipe, which he could hope to sell for $8 at the market with some effort. So he goes on making tea, yogurt, chapati, rice and curry on the side of the street, day in and day out.

By financing the milk, I’ve given Manick a rare chance to practice his alchemy of milk. But sitting at his stall, watching his tired but shining eyes, sharing sweets and smiles with Manick and his family, I have no illusion about which of us was the most generous.

“Every man should know everything,” says Manick, who can bake his own ovens, prepare Ayurvedic medicine for his children, and coax amazing sweets out of milk. Watching him sift another pot of chai, I have to agree: my existence is richer for knowing him.

Where to Go

You can find Manick’s stall on Kolkota’s Sudder Street, near the corner of Chowringhee Lane. You will recognize the stand from the words “TEA STALL AND RESTAURANT” painted on the front.

Manick’s stall is unique on a backpacker-heavy street for catering mostly to locals. During mealtimes, you’ll see them crowding the benches, eating rice and vegetable curry.

I’ve seen a few tourists for whom the experience was a tad overwhelming and perhaps too much of India in one sitting. My one advice to you is this: sit on that bench, and stick with it. Once you taste Manick’s food, it will all be worth it. Plus, you often get to chat with local workers on tea break; and at 12 cents per glass of chai, that’s quite the deal.

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, "The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life."

11 comments

  1. You and Helene are on a truly amazing journey, my good man. Please don’t stop telling us about it.

  2. Great blog. Love the travel/food angle. Will check back again.

  3. I can’t imagine what that yogurt tasted like. It had to be absolutely amazing. It’s been a while since I’ve had time to read so I’ve had a lot to catch up on. Sounds like you are having some fantastic adventures. I’m especially enjoying the recaps of Thailand. We loved it there.

  4. Thanks for the kind words! And yeah, the yogurt was stunning. Shows that an open mind (or open-minded tastebuds!) go a long way… It took me a moment to realize it WAS the best yogurt I had ever tasted!

  5. Your posts are amazing, just looking at the pictures makes our mouths water! We love India and are probably going to travel there for 2 months this Christmas after a few months break, outside of our RTW – I think you need a whole different type of energy to travel there!
    Are you headed to the Middle East at all? We’re excited about the food in Eygpt and Turkey…

  6. Hi Manali and Terry! Thanks for the comment!

    Yes, we’re headed to the Middle East right after India – we’ll probably visit Puducherry and maybe Mamalapuram in Tamil Nadu, but afterwards, we’re most likely headed to Turkey. I’m hoping to do a side-trip to Iran as well.

    Everything I’ve heard about Turkish food sounds amazing… I can’t wait!!

  7. Daniel, another amazing post. Your blog is a foodie’s Bible. Keep them eating!

  8. Wow! I wish I saw this post several years ago! I used to go to hi every morning for butter-toast, chai, and biscuits. He is very war and friendly and very knowledgeable about ayurvedic medicine. His wife seems to be sickly, though, and wants only Western medicine.
    y wife and I used to stay in Chowringhee, but now we have moved to Park Circus, so I rarely see him now.
    Does he know that you have written about him? If not, then I can print this post and show it to him the next time that I see him.

    • Hi Micky!

      So great to hear of someone else who has met the amazing man. 🙂 He did share some of his knowledge of Ayurveda with me, and it blew me away, too. I didn’t realize his wife wasn’t well… I saw them last in 2011, I believe.

      When I saw him in 2011, I told him about the blog post and showed him the pictures. His reaction was hard to read, but I like to think he was flattered. 🙂 I don’t think he’s read it, though.

      If you visit his stall again, please say a big hello from me!! Part of me always yearns to be back at his stall, talking about life with him.

      • I went to see him about three weeks ago. I had printed the blog post, but the font was extremely small so I copied-pasted it into Microsoft Word and printed that as well. However, he had gone to his village for a week or so, so I gave the papers to his son.
        About a week later, I went back and asked him if he read what I had given. At first, he thought that this was something that I had written, but then I told him that you had written it. He did seem to remember you; I do know that he was pleased.
        He can be quite philosophical. I remember that, about a year ago, he told a Japanese tourist that he should think about “Who are you?” and then jokingly said that he should provide an answer the following day. He then said that you can think about this your entire life and never come to a complete and accurate answer. It is true.

        • Hi Micky!

          Wow, that’s great!! Thank you for doing this! I admit I was worried Manick might find an issue with what I wrote… I meant it in the most respectful way I could, and I’m glad he responded well to it.

          And now I miss him… Glad to know he’s doing well! Last I saw him was in 2012, I believe. I keep feeling India calling me back, and Manick is part of this reason. Ah, to sit on his bench again and watch the world go by… 🙂

          Thanks for doing this!

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