Thursday, 14 May 2015

Ginseng Tea by the Window

I'm drinking tea
that tastes of black pepper,
old pages, mountains
in the monsoon.

I'm in a cafe in
Cambridge. I'm on a
road in India,
curving around
Coonoor,
back in the car
with Ma and Baba,
my brother
and everything is green,
green.

I take another
sip, another,
and mountain walls well up. 
Deep green, like thoughts.
A mossy wall of thoughts
left behind
by weary travellers,
happy travellers, travellers
throwing up from bus-windows
at hairpin bends,
sleepy travellers, heads
nodding down down,
jerking up.

Those thoughts, here
in my cup of hot water
and Ginseng flower. Tepid
now, but brewing great distances.

...






I don't know where that came from today; I haven't written in verse in years. I'll leave that with you as we pack our bags to go were the cicadas sing. To a little village in Provence. We've always wanted to do a road-trip in the south of France, without a map, without an itinerary. And here it is now.

I hope my tea took you somewhere too.


...


Friday, 8 May 2015

Eating like a bad Hindu

“Now look who’s being a bad Hindu!” my colleague chortles. He’s white, British, in his early seventies. He’s lovely. He’s also from a generation that often feels a kinship to India (and, in this case, to me as an extension); with a father or a grandfather who served in the British Indian Army, an older sister who was born in India before the family was shipped back to England. Leaving the life they had settled into like well-worn mojris, leaving the mango trees, the sun-soaked porches with red chillies drying on yards of muslin, the brown-skinned servants hovering with trays of tea.

I’m confused. Bad Hindu, what are you talking about? My brows furrow, I smile. I like his glee at having ‘caught me’; I don’t know at what. I’m curious about my crime.
He points to my lunch. “You’re eating lamb, you naughty girl! Not very vegetarian, is it?”
Ah! My smile turns into a laugh. We swap roles. He’s the confused one now.
“Haven’t you heard: what you know to be true of India, is also not true of India?” I say. I take another bite of my lamb chop. I’m enjoying this.
“So you’re not vegetarian?”
“Nah.”
“But you're a Hindu.”
“The last time I checked,” I nod.


I can’t blame him for thinking I’d lost my religion over lunch. I know most in his place would think the same. I went to a dumpling restaurant with my husband and daughter recently where the Chinese waiter, without being asked, informed us that they didn’t do vegetarian dumplings. “Only phork, chickin!” he said, withholding the menu, expecting us to leave. On a different day, an order for a slice of quiche at a cafe was met with, “Just so you know…that has ham in it.” We’ve also grown accustomed to our European friends being taken aback by our non-vegetarian table at home.

I tell my colleague about the many Indias in India. The many ways of being Hindu. The many ways of being part of an -ism that dances as wildly as Shiva, open to interpretation, encompassing everything and nothing, the orthodox, the free-spirited, the undecided.

I open Google Maps on my phone and zoom into the subcontinent. I point to parts where meat-eating Hindus roam free. Punjab, Rajasthan, Delhi in the north. Bengal in the east; where I come from. The beautiful, undulating states of the north-east. Kerala in the south. Goa in the west. Bits in between.

Christians pray for their daily bread, the Bengali Hindus pray for their daily fish and weekly mutton, I tell him. Meat is a part of religious festivals like Kali Puja. Choosing a vegetarian dish from a restaurant menu (which I often do) would bring clucks of concern from my Bengali friends and family back in Kolkata. Am I ill? Is it cholesterol (a fond topic)? Have I been warned by a doctor with dire consequences?

Vegetarianism here is a reminder of austerity. Meals for the ailing. Meals of the mourning. There are still parts and pockets of India where Hindu widows, young or old, are expected to turn vegetarian to honour the husband who has passed away. The more unspoken reason, of course, is that non-vegetarian food would fire their blood with wild aphrodisiacs, and turn them into wanton widows. And that would never do!

And so my colleague sits, listening to me, reconfiguring in his mind an -ism from a country of confusions, and no doubt, silently reconfiguring me. He holds out a little paper bag. “Try some of this sausage roll, it’s fantastic,” he says with a wry grin. I take a bite. It’s good.

“Speaking of sausage,” he says “isn’t this what got the bloody British into all the trouble they deserved?” He bashes the British as regularly as he wears his pale, British skin.
“You mean the Sepoy Mutiny?” I ask.
“Yes, yes. Pandey and the pork fat. Served us right, messing with the Motherland!”
He loves that word. He never says India. Always Motherland.
“Pia,” he hollered, the day after the Elections in India. “Come, sit. Let’s talk about Modi and the Motherland!”

Sometimes, I don’t know who’s more Indian. I love our conversations. This camaraderie hinging on one country, seen from different points in time. His from a colonial time-warp; mine more current, but often dipped in a nostalgia that makes me short-sighted. Both versions a little removed from the truth.
“Pandey and the pork fat, yes.” I can’t help grinning. We’re in 1857 like it was yesterday. I clear my lunch leftovers into the bin. “Some mess, that.”



[This post has also appeared on Huffington Post]
   
   

Friday, 17 April 2015

On repeat

When I like something, I like it and like it and like it till I can't bear to look at it. Or listen to it. Or eat it. My brother could tell you how many times I can listen to the same song. In a row, in constant repeat. We grew up sharing a bedroom and Simon and Garfunkel must haunt him still.

My taste in music changed. House changed, climate changed. But that old habit, I kept.

When D and I were dating, we used to go to a hole-in-the-wall Tibetan momo place in Calcutta. It had light bulbs so dim you could barely see the food, or indeed, each other. These dim bulbs were red, they bathed everything in an eerie red light. No matter what food you ordered, it came with a red glow. Red momos, red noodles, red faces, red teeth. The food was served on red plastic plates. (This wasn't the light; the plates were really red). There was also a red chilli paste on the side, which you couldn't tell since it was the same shade as the plate. This little momo joint was next to a government hospital in front of which metal stretchers clanged constantly, wheeling in a steady stream of ailing. The road was divided into two smells: momo and medicine.

We loved the momos. We ate it obsessively for months. Every other day. Sometimes, every day. Till the thought of momos started making me feel slightly nauseous. Then we stopped. A few years later, a friend dragged me there, and the sweet man who used to serve us enquired about D. 'Dada? Bhalo?' he asked gingerly. Is Dada well? He shuffled, unsure if our relationship had survived those torrid months of red-hued momo lunches. Steamed, deep-fried and pan-fried, with a side of clear soup. It had, I assured him.


You're thinking I'm headed towards a momo recipe, aren't you? She's going to ask us to make a momo any minute now, you fear. But no. I'm headed nowhere near a momo. I'm going left. I'm going off the road, down the dirt-track. I'm going to Rhubarb.

Rhubarb is where it's at right now. I'm repeating rhubarb like it's going out of season. Oh, hang on - it is going out of season. But before it does, do me a favour, do you a favour, and get your hands on some rrrrhubarb. I sang that, yes. I'm writing to music. (I'll tell you about that too in a minute)

So, get the rhubarb, the ru-ru-rhubarb, because I made the most sensational rhubarb pickle a few days ago that you cannot not make. It's not pickled rhubarb, mind you. It's an achaar, a very Indian pickle; tangy, garlicky, spiced with turmeric and mustard seeds, kicked by chillies, screaming good. It also has the most un-Indian ways: I've smeared it in a ciabatta stuffed with avocado and bacon, piled it on polenta, stirred it into mayonnaise for a magnificent dip. I can't sell it any more - just go get some rhubarb!

And listen to some Mulatu Astatke while you're at it; that's the music I'm writing to. Ethiopian jazz, terribly good. Listen to this, and listen to this. Mulatu's my man, and he's on repeat like rhubarb. He goes well with this pickle too; neither pulls any punches.



Indian Rhubarb Pickle

This was Ma's idea. We were talking about rhubarb, and my rhubarb soup, and it's green-mango-like tanginess, when she said: Ah, achaar! And there you have it.



Ingredients

2 rhubarb stalks, trimmed of leaves, cut in small pieces
4 cloves of garlic, peeled, sliced thin
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 level tsp turmeric
1 level tsp paprika
1/2 tsp asafoedita (optional)
1-2 red chillies, sliced
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 quarter of a lemon
Salt
Sugar



Heat oil. Lower the heat and add the asafoedita (if using) and the mustard seeds. As soon as the mustard start spluttering, add the fenugreek seeds.
Add the rhubarb, then the garlic. Sprinkle in the turmeric, paprika and a very generous amount of salt. Add three tsp of sugar. Stir. Cover and cook for 2-3 minutes.




Open lid, it should be a nice saucy-mushy consistency now, with bits of rhubarb smothered in.
Add the chillies, squeeze in the lemon. Stir well. Taste; add more salt and sugar as required.
Cook for another minute to get the right pickle-consistency if needed.
Take it off the heat, and let it cool completely.
Transfer to a clean, dry jar. Store in the fridge.








Tuesday, 7 April 2015

A well-meaning soup

The minute I open the windows now: birdsong. They're in constant and urgent conversation, the birds, from dawn to dusk. Sometimes even after the sun has set. They're catching up, their chirps like phonecalls bouncing from one branch to another, hey Martin how was Africa, didja have a good flight?

It's been a long winter of quiet; it's good to have them back.



We read a springtime book without meaning to. We started reading it to Chotto-ma at the end of winter, and as the pages turned, the season did too. It was timed like a perfectly improvised tune. Season and literature jammed, and we read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, ate chicken noodle soup, and willed the weather to get warmer - Chotto-ma's introduction to unabridged English classics.




Getting a six-year old interested in a book written more than a hundred years ago requires stealthy planning - the language is heavier, the vocabulary unfamiliar, the pace slower, the pleasures quieter. Inspite of that, I wanted Chotto-ma to start with the unabridged version of a great book. Because if you read the abridged first, you often don't get around to the original. But, I was also sure that I wanted her to enjoy it.

We had almost stopped reading aloud to Chotto-ma, because she was doing so much reading by herself. (The first novel she read on her own this year was 'The Story of the Blue Planet' by Icelandic writer Andri Snaer Magnason, about two children who live on a planet with no adults.) Studies show, quite logically, that even when children become completely independent in their reading, a book read aloud to them by a parent continues to have a special place - there's a sense of comfort and connection in shared stories - and that need not end when a child becomes a fluent reader; it's a bond worth keeping as long as you can. We decided to split her books into two categories: she'd read the ones she picked out - like the Roald Dahl she's reading now - and D and I would read to her the classics, and some poetry.


We chose The Secret Garden to start with. The language is not too challenging, and it's a book filled with the beauty of nature, a couple of loud, ill-mannered children, and a happy ending. It also has plenty of overt racism, and that's not a bad thing either - it gave us a chance to talk to Chotto-ma about prejudices and wrongs and rights. She loved the story, looked forward to it every evening, and enjoyed the drama as it unfolded. We also discussed the racist elements of the writing, of how India is portrayed and Indians described as inferior (Mary Lennox, the protagonist, is a little British girl who was born and raised in India till she moved to England to live with her uncle.) It opened up conversations about India's history, the British Raj.

 
Our next read-out might be E. Nesbit's The Railway Children. But no matter which classic you choose, I'd highly recommend reading it to your child to begin with instead of handing them a beautiful hardbound copy. Guide them into an older time and an older language, till they find their feet and are comfortable enough to read one by themselves. 

Goodness, I'll stop right there. I sound far wiser than I am. Ignore this unwanted advice by all means, but I beg you, DO NOT ignore the noodle soup that comes with it. It's our any-weather soup. It's a soup to read with, to listen to the birds with. It's a well-meaning soup, much like this post.




Chicken Noodle Soup

Ma would often make this soup when we were young. She'd throw in scraps of chicken and bits of vegetables left over from the week, and suddenly we'd have the most wonderful smell wafting out of the kitchen. Our Spring is cold and windy still, and I needed this. Like birdsong, it makes everything better.



Ingredients

The vegetables really depend on what you have at home, but these are what works really well. You also won't find quantities for the vegetables in this recipe - since it's meant to be made with whatever you have left over, feel free to put more of one, less of another.

4 chicken thighs, skin on
Cabbage, cut in big cubes
Mushrooms, cut in half if small, or quartered
Courgette, diced in thick circles, then halved so you have semi-circles
Carrots, diced diagonally
Cauliflower, cut in small florets
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
A few whole black peppercorns, crushed coarsely (the ready-powered version really doesn't do it!) 
Spring onion, chopped fine, white part and green part separate
A bayleaf
Salt



In a deep pot, heat 8 cups of water. Add chicken, garlic, white part of spring onion, bayleaf, salt. Simmer on medium heat.
After about 15-18 minutes, start adding the vegetable in order of cooking time. In this case - cabbage, cauliflower and carrots together in first, and after about 6 minutes, mushrooms and courgette.
Add more water if needed, check salt. You want a nice, thin broth, full of flavour.
Once the mushrooms and courgette are in, don't simmer for more than 1 minute, and take off the heat.
Take the chicken out. Get rid of the skin. Shred the meat in pieces and put it back in the soup.
Serve with pepper and the chopped green part of the spring onion.




























COMMENT CAVEAT: Many of you have written to me saying that comments you leave here are often not published. So, a little note: if you don't see your comments here in 24 hours, please know that they have not reached me at all! Blogger can play up, and I hate to think that words you've taken time and care to write down have vanished. So please, email me your comments if you find them missing, at peppercornsinmypocket@gmail.com, and I promise to post them them here, and write back.
 

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Stalk

I did not grow up where rhubarbs grow. I hadn't seen a single stalk of it till we lugged our life and luggage to England. Then, suddenly there they were, lying in their market stall. These lounging, stretching, graceful stalks. Pink and slender and as foreign as flamingoes. So, I admired their beauty, and skirted around them the way one skirts around beautiful, foreign things.



But when you live in this country, rhubarb will find its way to you. Rhubarb in ice-creams, rhubarb in pies, rhubarb with its feisty kick aimed at the corners of your jaw. Who'd have guessed? That this slender thing in its pink cocktail gown could kick like a ninja.





I loved it. I loved the coy exterior and the tart within. Rhubarb has personality. It is what it is; you either like it, or you don't. It's Marmite vegetable.

And to me, it's as English as Marmite too. In my technicolour rhubarb-imagination, I can see it's delicate stalks stewing on an AGA in an English country kitchen, then put in a pie and served to a lady, who, as the camera zooms in, I see is Beatrix Potter putting the finishing touches to Tabitha Twitchit's prickles.

But what if you invited this English Rhubarb into a different kitchen, into my kitchen? I bought six pink and well-mannered rhubarb stalks last week. D and Chotto-ma used half of the stalks to bake me a lovely cake on Mother's Day.

And I had my way with the other half.





Rhubarb & Red Lentil Soup with Ras-el-hanout

This soup! It's a very, very, very fine soup. We've had it on a loop for a week. It's a great example of why rhubarb needs to be thrown into savoury recipes more often. The recipe was inspired by a tangy dal we had growing up - a simmered mix of red lentils and raw mango. This soup has the same tart edge, balanced by the natural sweetness of carrots. The ras-el-hanout, which we carried back freshly ground from Morocco adds a beautiful North African moorishness. (You can, of course, buy ras-el-hanout, as well as the turmeric in the recipe, in almost all supermarkets and Middle-Eastern grocers.)



Ingredients

250 gms red lentil, washed
2 stalks of rhubarb
2 carrots, chopped into small cubes
1 medium onion, also chopped small
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tsp coarse black pepper (crushing a few with a pestle is even better)
Bunch of parsley, chopped (or coriander - both work well)
1 1/2 tsp ras-el-hanout
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tbs olive oil
Salt




Cut off the head and tail of your rhubarb stalk; the leaves are toxic, so must always be trimmed off. Not cut your stalks in 1-inch pieces. (Usually, I leave my rhubarb unpeeled and pink, but for the soup, white looked better than the final watered-down pink, so I peeled the stalks. Feel free to leave the pink on with rhubarb that is very fresh and firm.)
Heat the olive oil in a deep pot. Throw the onions, garlic, carrots in together. Stir for two minutes, then add 4 cups of water.
Add the lentils, rhubarb, half of the parsley (or coriander), ras-el-hanout, bayleaf, pepper and salt.
Cover and simmer till the lentils have split evenly. Add more water if needed.


Taste for salt, simmer for a minute more giving it a good stir.
Serve hot garnished with the rest of the chopped parsley (or coriander).






















COMMENT CAVEAT: Many of you have written to me saying that comments you leave here are often not published. So, a little note: if you don't see your comments here in 24 hours, please know that they have not reached me at all! Blogger can play up, and I hate to think that words you've taken time and care to write down have vanished. So please, email me your comments if you find them missing, at peppercornsinmypocket@gmail.com, and I promise to post them them here, and write back.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Stereotypes and cake

I have the week off. I get almost nothing done when I have time off. For the past hour, I've sat on the sofa staring at this lion that Chotto-ma drew a few days ago. It's such a beautiful lion, isn't it? It has kind eyes. A zebra might have another opinion, but it has kind eyes. It also has a bow on its head, if you peer in closely. What's a big beast of a lion without a little red bow in his mane, right?


We like breaking stereotypes in this house, and ste-reo-types is a word Chotto-ma learnt early. Because, by lord, we're surrounded by them outside, we drown in them when we walk out the door!

We went to the John Lewis store to buy pyjamas for Chotto-ma the other day. Chotto-ma loves dinosaurs, and she loves sharks and penguins and anything that moves on all fours or sixes. But no sir, John Lewis begs to differ. Every interesting pyjama with dinosaurs and sharks had a sewn-in tag saying John Lewis For Boys. Wait. What's wrong with John Lewis For Kids, if you must assume I'm size-blind? I'm sure people can decide if they'd like to buy it for a boy or girl based on the child's personality and taste rather than sex? Yes, there was one lone dino-print pyjama in the girls' section, bless their generosity - but no points for guessing its colour. No, it wasn't pink. It was Very Pink.



And that brings me to the country's great, unspoken colour-code. Pink and Blue. When you have a baby, don't you dare confuse those two! Girls must gurgle in their prams in pink, boys in blue. Cover a little girl in a blue blanket only if you want to hear, "Aww, what a handsome little boy!"

And of course, there's the conversation I had at the hairdresser's some time ago. There was a lovely girl cutting my hair, and Chotto-ma trying to catch my chopped, wet strands before they fell to the floor. The hairdresser and I were chatting about this and that, as we usually do. She was talking about her job at the salon, so I asked her how she'd gotten into hairdressing. And she said: "You know, I was never much into school, so I did what girls do. I got into beauty."



And then there's the fact that Chotto-ma went to a birthday party where all the girls got little purple coin-purses in their party-bags and all the boys got large bugs preserved in glass cubes. And she came home a little sad. She'd really wanted the bug with its black hairy legs and cool shiny green body, but she was a girl, so a purple purse it was.

And there's the fact that at Chotto-ma's after-school club, when she and a friend were once playing with a box of Lego from the Star Wars series, an older boy came up to them, took the box away, and reminded them they they had the 'girl Lego' to play with, and that these were for the boys.

And there's the fact that you might know a little boy who loves playing with kitchen sets but you also know that you can never gift him a kitchen set for his birthday, without incurring the shock of his parents. He must be gifted a car, poor child. Or a football at the very least.

And the fact that a local children's magazine I was leafing through had an article called "Party Ideas for Boys and Girls", where the page was split in two - Boys / Girls, and the boys' section had science experiments, pirates, football and space. While the girls' section had a tutu party, flowers and fairies, cupcake baking, princesses and mermaids. Chotto-ma is obsessed with space and planets and all its galaxies, just as I was when I was young. She loves science experiments, which we often do at home with kitchen ingredients. But never mind all that - let's just put all the girls in sparkly mermaid costumes, shall we?

It's hard for children to find their own voice when the world seems to be so organised in their stereotypes. When they're seen as Boy or Girl, instead of People. Girls, especially, are constantly given subliminal hints about their 'role' in life. When you gift a girl a Barbie (I could write an entire post on everything that's wrong with that doll), and you buy a book called 'Facts on Fossils' for a boy, you are sending her a strong message, which will have far deeper repercussions than one might think. [Link to an interesting article on that below]

We do what we can to balance Chotto-ma's world at home, even if it means breaking the smallest stereotypes. I have a blue toothbrush and D has a pink one. We went out and bought them after telling her how people couldn't be coded by colour, how no one had to follow any set notion of 'Obvious'. And when we came back home from the hairdresser's that day, I showed her a photograph of the scientists who built Mangalyaan, the Mars orbiter. The photo showed a group of Indian scientists, all women, in beautiful silk sarees and flowers in their hair, punching the air as they made history in space technology. They'd probably also packed their child's lunch before coming in to work to build that rocket.




Chotto-ma sees D cooking as many meals as I do; because dinner is cooked by whoever has the time to cook it that day. And the house is cleaned, and clothes folded, by whoever has the time to clean the house and fold the clothes that day. There's nothing more to it - apart from the fact that you'll probably eat a little better if I cook the dinner. And you'll probably also get a slice of lovely cake after.

Are there stereotypes that bother you? Moments when you have found them frustrating as a parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt? Stereotypes that annoyed you when you were a child? I'd love to hear your stories, for surely I'm not the only one who has them? My stories come from being the parent of a girl, but which ones do you face as the parent of a boy? I'd love to know, and it'd be good to have this discussed - please share the blog link on Facebook and elsewhere if you like.

And in the meantime, I'll give you a recipe for a mean orange-almond cake, which goes well with good old talk about things that matter. I've baked it thrice in three weeks. Well, Chotto-ma and I baked it together, even as we talked about planets, bugs, prehistoric creatures and other so-called 'boy things'. Because, there might be a set recipe for a cake, but there ain't no set recipe for a girl. Or a boy.



Added on March 10, 2015: A kind lady emailed me an article yesterday after reading the post. This article is from a US perspective, while mine is from the UK, but they say the same thing. It shows why seemingly small, market-created stereotypes can do deeper damage to our social structure, and handicap girls and women. Here's an excerpt from the article

"...contributing factors, according to academic experts I interviewed, include a culture that encourages young women to play with dolls rather than robots and pursue traditionally female careers, as well as the self-perpetuating stereotype that a programmer is a white male. Sometimes women can feel like they don’t belong in a technical world dominated by men.
Those stereotypes are based on reality, according to data released by some of the largest tech companies. Among the top employers in Silicon Valley, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple, 70% of the workforce is male. In technical roles, the disparity is even greater. At Twitter, for instance, only 10% of the technical workforce is female."
You can read the complete article here.


Orange and Almond Cake





Ingredients

1 cup plain flour
1 cup ground almond
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice, pulp in
2 tsp zest of an orange
2 heaped tbsp of butter
2 heaped tbsp yogurt
1/4 cup oil (vegetable or sunflower)







Preheat oven to 160 degrees C (320 degrees F).
Grease cake tin with butter, keep aside. (I like my 6-inch, and deep, cake tin for this)
Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl - flour, ground almond, baking powder, sugar, orange zest.
Make a well in the middle. Crack in the eggs. Add the vanilla essence, the butter, oil and yogurt.
Start mixing it in a circular motion. Pour the orange juice a bit at a time as you mix. Till it's a nice smooth batter, easy to stir.
Pour batter into cake tin. Bake for about 50 minutes, then slide a knife in to check if done. If it's still a little soft, switch off the oven, and pop the cake back in. Leave it there for 15 more minutes.



This cake has a beautiful crunchy crust when it's just out of the oven, so you must have a slice warm. But once it's cooled, wrap the rest in clingfilm and leave it on the table overnight. It's even better a day later, when the ground almond has released all its lovely natural oil.

You'll love it!









COMMENT CAVEAT: Many of you have written to me saying that comments you leave here are often not published. So, a little note: if you don't see your comments here in 24 hours, please know that they have not reached me at all! Blogger can play up, and I hate to think that words you've taken time and care to write down have vanished. So please, email me your comments if you find them missing, at peppercornsinmypocket@gmail.com, and I promise to post them them here, and write back.