Once upon a time

A few weeks ago, I found Once Upon A Time.

It was in my secondhand bookshop locked in a glass cabinet unlike the other books, which stood on open shelves bare to a stranger’s browse. It seemed appropriate that something called Once Upon A Time should be locked up – by an evil queen no doubt – waiting to be rescued.

I rescued it with a few pounds that afternoon. Its pages felt like the loose skin on the underside of my grandmother’s arms – soft, thin, giving. It’s a magazine that was born in the late sixties; a weekly for children.

There is something more personal, more generous, about print productions from the pre-digital age. Like homemade cookies, they had a pureness of intent. You can imagine people stooped over, setting type by hand, the page layouts tweaked slowly, manually. The publication of Once Upon A Time ceased years ago, but its beauty still breathes. In its large pages, inked with abandon. Brimming with childhood.

It reminded me of the magazines Ma used to collect when I was young, and which I would spend hours leafing through in my teens. Old issues of LIFE, large in size and in content, and with the same wise smell to its yellow pages. I remember The Illustrated Weekly of India – the cartoons by RK Laxman and Mario Miranda. And the old Indian comic books, filled with stories of small-town India, and of kings and simpletons and wily pranksters.

Somehow, when I think of me pouring over those copies of LIFE, the memory is always set in winter. Sitting on the long, low settee in our living room where the sun fell after lunch. It would’ve been the Christmas holidays. I remember the nip.

December in Calcutta is a lovely time. The air is cool, people calm. They’ve passed the humid clamminess of summer and the torrents of the monsoons. During Christmas, we would always go out to see the lights on Park Street. Ma would have fresh flowers in every room. ‘Boro Deen’ – that is what Christmas is called in Bengali. ‘The big day’.

Between Christmas and New Year, our house would be filled with parties. Some with family. Some with Ma-Baba’s friends. The table heavy with food. The drinks flowing. Laughter, conversations, evenings that didn’t end. Baba would be at his best, armed with his anecdotes, humour and stories from history. Ma would cook up the most perfect dishes; creative; recipes no one had ever tried before (not even Ma) – baked, steamed, stirred. Mixes and mash and combinations that would work beautifully. My brother and I would wait for these evenings. For the excited throb that took over the house, but mainly for the food.

One of Ma’s appetizers – which became so popular that it was always on our party-table by popular demand – was a simple aubergine dish. A dish that I now make for my guests. It’s a thing to pass down. And like most of Ma’s recipes, and mine, it’s very quick and low-fuss. I’ve never made it without having to tell guests the recipe.

I’m going to share it with you today. And then, I’m going to find some pretty paper and wrap up Once Upon A Time and put it under the Christmas tree for Chotto-ma. She decorated the tree this week, and now it stands by the doorway dressed for Christmas Day. Different from my Boro Deen in Calcutta, but just as big. Years later, these Decembers are what will be Chotto-ma’s ‘once upon a time’.

Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Happy Whatever-lights-up-your-winter.
Happy holidays, everyone! xx

Β ***

Ma’s Pan-fried Aubergine with Yogurt and Red Onion Topping


1 large aubergine, cut into inch-thick slices
1 cup strained yogurt (hang yogurt in cloth to strain it)
Half a red onion, finely chopped
Fresh coriander leaves, finely chopped
1 green chilli, de-seeded and chopped (optional)
Paprika powder

For the topping: mix yogurt, onion, coriander leaves and green chilli. Add salt and sugar to taste (I like mine salted with a nice sweet edge). Beat till smooth and keep it in the fridge.

Brush the aubergine slices with oil on both sides.
Heat a flat pan with 1 tsp oil, and add the aubergine.
On medium heat, pan fry till cooked and both sides of the slices are nicely browned.

Place on serving dish and spoon on the topping. It should be a nice combination of hot and cold. (Though even all-cold tastes lovely).
Sprinkle with paprika for a slash of colour, and a tiny bit more onion if you like, and serve.

PS: When I have guests, I keep the topping ready in the fridge. I pan-fry the aubergine early on, and line them up on a baking tray. When guests arrive, I just heat it in the oven on high for a few minutes, spoon the topping and serve.

Have the most wonderfully festive holiday!

31 thoughts on “Once upon a time

  1. I LOVE the sound of the aubergine starter. Have bookmarked this post. I am so going to try the recipe out. Thanks for posting it! πŸ™‚

    The magazine looks so interesting. I am sure Chotto Ma is going to love it.

    This reminds me – I should get my Christmas tree and ornaments down from the loft. We are too late to put up the tree already! We do it by the start of December every year. This is going to be the baby's first Christmas (I call her Bubboo on my blog, BTW) and I want her to see the tree going up and for her to stare at the colourful lights. πŸ™‚

    Your post reminded me of Target, a magazine that I loved to read in my teenage years. Have you read it ever? I remember it was sold only at one particular newspaper stand – it wasn't commonly available then.

  2. As someone in whom Christmas evokes such fond, warm, happy memories, this post felt all kinds of Christmassy. Not fancy, not shiny. Just warm, cosy and comfortable, like a well- worn, much favored sweatshirt. And, as someone who loves her begun, I am going to make this as a snack for myself today. Incidentally, I use the same topping as a dip (with the onions sliced tinier and a generous helping of finely chopped coriander) for the regular, oily, spicy India 'potato chips'. It's my favorite way to eat them.

  3. Aaah.. December it is now and I am loving the city.. I feel it is one of the best things that Kolkata can offer amid all the present disappointments..
    I love to be here in the winter ..
    Isn't begun bhaja a winter staple.. Your version seems more on the healthy side..
    Anyways pan fried or deep fried .. it is all good …
    Loved the post …

  4. How things remind us of old times! Beautiful Christmas gift for Chotto-ma, full of memories to cherish in a lifetime! That book looks mesmerizing – I feel like reading those stories πŸ™‚

    This recipe is so simple! Will definitely try. Thanks!

  5. When I was reading the prelude to the recipe, I thought of just this one…and I can still remember an afternoon after school when we ate this along with a smashing alu dum…

  6. Bubboo's first Christmas, yes! You must get the lights twinkling then. I remember Chotto-ma's first. She was 2.5 months, and hypnotised by the shiny balls and fairy lights.
    I do remember Target, though I've never read it. Old magazine-memories are always so lovely though – the stories, the saturated colours πŸ™‚
    Happy first Christmas to Bubboo, and happy first Christmas to you as parents!

  7. You've described my perfect kind of Christmas, Roxana – like a well-worn sweatshirt yes. And I'll probably be wearing just that, put my feet up and sit with my hot chocolate in from of the Christmas tree.
    I know your dip well, and use it much. For me, garlic yogurt is always a mayo-substitute. Hope you enjoy the Begun.

  8. Aubergine is a sponge – one lone Begun can easily drink up a couple of cups of oil. I was never a fan of the oil-soggy Begun bhaja, the Bengali staple πŸ™‚ I love it pan-fried though.
    Enjoy the wonderful Calcutta winter, Simple Girl. And say hello to it for me.

  9. When I started writing the blog post, I was only planning to write about the book, Meera. Somehow, it trailed off elsewhere, and into old places.
    I hope you enjoy the recipe – it's one that I can't recommend enough.
    Happy holidays!

  10. :)) Those after-school lunches were the best, weren't they? Yes, she's an ace with alu-dum too.
    The next time I'm at yours, I'm going to photograph your kalo-mutton (or roshun-toor) for the blog – lots of memories there. The room in Bangalore.

  11. I love the memory it brought back for you – there's something about holidays and grandmas πŸ™‚
    Happy holidays, Kyra! And your first NY Christmas πŸ™‚ I hope it's glittery and shiny, and not freezing you into an icicle.

  12. Sometimes I think how sad it is that the new generation will never be able to treasure little things such as old magazines with colorful prints from another time. I always get this warm feeling where I am transported back into childhood whenever I hold an old magazine in my hand. The print and colors make me smile.
    I have never had aubergine with topped yogurt. I sometimes marinate and fry aubergine slices for my husband but that's it. Thanks for sharing your recipe and memories. =)

  13. Yes, there was such pleasure in going to the newstand or bookshop and picking up another issue of a magazine you knew well, with part five of a story you'd been following πŸ™‚ I also feel sad that children today will have no memories of handwritten letters arriving in the post.
    Thanks for writing in, Helene – it's lovely to have you here xx

  14. The aubergines sound delicious, and I love that book, what a treasure! I come from a printing background, my grandfather started up a fine art printers many years ago, and when they first started out they also printed school reading books that so many of us grew up with! Vintage now sadly, although when I look at one it seems like yesterday! Emma xx

  15. Love all of this. It reminded me of when I worked for a daily newspaper and working with the typesetters, telling them fonts and point sizes and column widths. Pouring through pages of clip art books and creating overlays of CMYK to get the total affect…memories…the feel of the hot wax, working with a proportion wheel, chemicals from the camera room…I could go on and on. And I love eggplant. The idea of hot and cold or all cold works well for me as well.

  16. How wonderful to have grown up reading school books which were printed by your grandfather, Emma! Not many can say that πŸ™‚ I hope you still have some of them – what a nice thing to pass on to your two xx

  17. Oh your comment made me smile, Tracy. Such familiar ad-agency ground – reminded my first days as a copywriter when things were more 'manual', me and my art partner hunched over those clip art books, sitting at work till 2 am waiting for layout proofs to come in from the printers, tweaking the CMYKs, drinking obscene amounts of coffee to get through the fourth all-nighter. All good πŸ™‚

  18. I had a suggestion – why don't you write about the books you read? Irrespective of whether you like them or not? From what I could see from your blog posts, you seem to read pretty interesting stuff. I am always on the lookout for interesting books to read, and your posts would be pretty helpful! What say you?

    If you don't want to write reviews, you could always mention the books you are reading in your posts, right? πŸ™‚

  19. You're right about one thing – I don't want to review books on this blog πŸ™‚ See, reading taste is a subjective beast. I've often been led astray by reviews; and similarly, I could make someone buy a book they hate, or put them off reading a book they would've loved. I'll stay away from that responsibility for now πŸ™‚
    But here's something you might like – if you look on the right, you'll see my Instagram window where I'll keep updating my #amreading posts. I just finished 'Everything I never told you' by Celeste Ng, a favourite of the big booklists this year (also a NYTimes Editor's Choice).

  20. Pia…such a pleasure to be back on your gorgeous blog! I am guilty of not checking in often enough – entirely my loss! I love how visual your nostalgia is! so many colours and textures to your memories…and here you are, painting some beautiful moments for your little one to remember years later. πŸ™‚

  21. And it is always such a pleasure to have you here, Heetal. Thanks for connecting back, and for your lovely, lovely words. Hugs to you and Little Girl πŸ™‚

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