Vegetarians, proceed with caution

On Sunday mornings, I would often accompany my father to the local butcher; I was in my teens then. We would walk down our long driveway, Baba greeting neighbours returning from their morning walk, me swinging the little jute bag Ma gave me, trying to not have to greet anyone.

Our butcher Munna’s shop is a short walk away. Past a Mother Dairy booth where people queue to collect the day’s milk in aluminium cans, past a small roadside shrine where people queue to offer flowers to the gods, past the ration shop where people queue for sugar, soap and rice. We would walk to the end of the road, turn the corner and queue for meat at Munna’s Meat Shop.

We never had to queue for long, because Baba – or Doctor-saab as he is called – enjoys a few privileges. He would always be waved to the front of the queue to the chagrin of others in line; he would even get a discounted price. This was because Munna, apart from being the butcher, was also Baba’s patient; quite regular in his ailments.

So, there Baba would stand, in his spotless white kurta-pyjama, with all of Munna’s attention, pointing to shanks and shoulders, which were duly cut to size, or deboned and minced, according to the needs of Ma’s kitchen. I would stand outside the crowded shop, waiting with the jute bag.

In India, meat shops are a far cry from butchers of the British high street. In Britain, you enter a spotless shop through a door usually covered with a curtain of metal chains. Once inside, there’s a long, glass-covered cold-shelf on which sit different cuts of meat, all neatly labelled. The butchers, both men and women, are dressed in white, hair tucked inside white hats. There’s a mincing machine. A cutting board. And not a splatter of blood. There’s also a room at the back, but customers want to know nothing of what’s happening there; it’s far more ‘civilised’ this way. Don’t wash your bloody meat in public.

Now, turn to the Indian butcher. He sells meat, and don’t you forget it. There’s no hiding your conscience in cling-filmed packages. Large carcasses hang upside-down from iron hooks in front of the open shop. A row of sheep heads decorate the shop’s tiled platform, their eyes still surprised. The butcher sits behind this row. In front of him is a short tree stump – his chopping board. In his hands, a cleaver. You point to the portions you want – since every portion has a purpose – and with his cleaver, he cuts it up in a matter of minutes. When the cleaver hits a bone, he takes a heavy wooden rod and hits the top of the cleaver to cut through. He has no mincing machine. If you want your meat minced, his hand simply speeds up, bringing the cleaver up and down in rhythmic repeat, while his other hand dances in and out, sifting the meat between each chop, his fingers a nail-biting inch away from the blade. This continues till the meat is exactly the size you need them to be: coarse for a curry, medium-coarse for a pie, fine for a Shammi Kebab. And all this in the midst of loud conversation, and a faint sound of bleating from the back of the shop.

The British butcher, then, is a neat, less chaotic experience for me. The shopper in me much prefers this mild-smelling, white-aproned option, but the cook in me always leaves frustrated. Here, butchers are happy to sell you the few cuts they know well – a large shoulder or shank to be popped into an oven, small boneless dices to be put in a gravy, chops to be grilled. Mince comes in one variety – minced. A uniform, texture-less paste that is churned out of a machine. When I explain that I need pieces for a ‘curry’, but with the bone in, they’re at a loss. Sometimes they bring out a saw. Yes, a large carpenter’s saw. And they try to saw through the bone, slowly, painstakingly, as if they were building me a table. The saw cuts the bone in jagged edges, leaving sharp bits of bones in my curry. Yesterday, my conversation at the butchers went a step further. The young butcher asked me why I needed a mix of shank and shoulder, and then added, “I find that a bit weird to be honest”.

When Baba finished buying his meat on those Sundays in Calcutta, I would hold my breath and step into the shop with my jute bag open. Baba would put the newspaper-wrapped meat in, and we would walk back home past the queues and the market crowd. Inside the bag would be mutton in a mix of cuts, a balance of textures; not too lean nor too fatty. Perfect for Robibarer Kosha Mangsho, the dry-gravied Sunday Mutton which Calcutta cooks on its day off. Tender meat and potatoes in gravy served with steamed rice and salad.

Ma’s Sunday Mutton or Kosha Mangsho is a thing of beauty. And cooked in a way no other Kosha Mangsho is cooked I’m sure. Like all of Ma’s cooking, it is uniquely spare in its method, and in its ingredients. It also ingeniously uses the fat in the meat for the main cooking. It is sumptuous, quick and a famed dish throughout the large, extended Ghosh family. And it’s here on my blog today. 

Ma’s Sunday Lamb Curry

No, all Indian dishes are not spicy; this certainly isn’t. Ma’s cooking has always been simple and full of flavour, as truly good Indian food should be. Where spice is chosen with care and used with restraint. I need to dedicate a whole post on debunking myths about Indian food. But try this recipe, and I promise you’ll be off to a good start.

Ingredients

1 kg lamb (mix of shank and shoulder, bone in)
3-4 potatoes, peeled and halved
2 onions – 1 large, peeled; 1 medium, peeled and sliced
Juice of half a lemon
5-6 large cloves of garlic
1 inch ginger, peeled and sliced in thickish round pieces
1 tomato, diced
2 bayleaves
2 small sticks cinnamon
2 cardamoms
2 cloves
1 tbs coriander powder
1 1/2 tsp paprika for colour
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
2-3 whole green chillies
1 tbs oil
Salt

Mix the meat with lemon juice and leave for an hour. Or even better, overnight in the fridge.
Put the meat in your cooking pot. Tuck in a large onion. Add 3 cloves of garlic and the bayleaves. Sprinkle liberally with salt. Add a small cup of water. Cover, and let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.
While the meat’s cooking, heat oil in a pan and lightly brown the potatoes on all sides and keep aside in a dish. They don’t need to be cooked through, only browned.
After about an hour, take the whole onion out of the meat. Keep aside.
Tip the meat and stock into a large bowl. The liquid fat in the stock will rise and sit on top. Tip the fat slowly into a bowl. That is your cooking ‘oil’. (If you have time, keep the bowl of meat and stock in the fridge for a couple of hours; the fat solidifies on top, and is very easy to skim out. Sometimes, when I’m having guests over, I boil the meat a day before, and refrigerate.)
Heat the fat in the same pot in which you’d simmered the meat. Lower the heat and add whole cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and fenugreek seeds. As soon as the fenugreek seeds start to brown, add the sliced onion. Stir till the onion is brown, then add the whole onion that had been fished out of the stock. This slow-simmered onion gives the gravy a beautiful, rounded flavour. With your spatula, mush up the onion. Add tomato, coriander powder, paprika and turmeric. (Add a couple of chillies, or a tsp of chilli powder at this point if you want to add some heat.) Mix it all up and stir for 5 minutes.
Now, add the meat with the stock, and the potatoes. Give it all a good stir.
Cover and cook till the potatoes are done and the meat is almost falling off the bone.
Remove from hob. Add the green chillies. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes before serving with steamed rice.


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 into ether or been eaten by the Blogger Monster. So please, email me your comments if you find them missing, at peppercornsinmypocket@gmail.com, and I promise to post them for you, and write back. 

Backwards and forwards

Can one walk backwards and forwards at the same time? Or do the two actions negate each other and make distance disappear, so that you stay in the same place like a tree: torso moving with the wind, toes digging into earth? I have a feeling, a good way of staying centred is to pretend you’re riding a unicycle. One-pedal-forward-one-pedal-backward; it’s what you need to do to achieve fine balance. To  find your centre-of-gravity. Your rootedness.

Rootedness so often has its root in movement.

My friend Sia, is moving from England, back to India, with her husband and little son. They’re going back the way they came; walking in reverse. But towards family and old friends. Towards familiar roads and a well-known rhythm. Towards home. Backwards and forwards.



When Sia asked me to write a guest post for her blog, I had to google ‘guest posts’. I’ve always avoided them; I balk at the responsibility of writing for someone else’s space, about someone else’s life. But I couldn’t say no to this. This is for a very special family; for three people who’re headed to a country I too call home. So here I am groping in the dark. Stay with me.

Some of you, many of you, might know Sia well. She’s the loving hand behind Monsoon Spice, a blog that is filled with everything its name suggests. A downpour of spices and smells. The clatter of an Indian kitchen. Wisps of nostalgia. And of curry leaves and rain-soaked courtyards. Sia had carried these with her from India when she came to England many years ago, and now, as she, her husband and her lovely boy prepare to pack life into boxes and move back, I wonder if it’s her box of red and yellow spices that give her the courage to make this move. If it’s the nostalgia which tugs her back; urges her to give her son the taste of a life she grew up with. As she said to me “Time will tell if we’ve made the right decision”.

Yes. All any of us can hope for is to do is what feels right for our lives, right now. 

So, to three very courageous people – for it takes courage to give up your job, sell off your home, say goodbyes and start from scratch – here’s to being brave enough to change your course. Of going backwards and forwards at the same time, till you find your balance. Of riding life like a unicycle. So that, no matter where you are, you are rooted to the life that matters to you the most.

Something from back home

As  Sia carefully packs up her kitchen, wraps her spice jars in bubble-wrap, I thought I’d cook her something that, to me, smells like home. This is a dish most Bengalis have grown up with – I certainly have. It’s called Panch Mishali-r Torkari: a mix of five (panch) vegetables cooked with a sprinkle of five whole spices (panch phoron). And like all things I cook, this is my version, so puritans, stay calm. It’s a very simple dish, usually cooked at the end of the week, when you need to use up the vegetable left in the kitchen. It also makes my home smell of Calcutta, and of my Ma.

Sia comes from the south of India, whereas I come from the East. Our spices are quite different, and so are the smells and taste. So, here’s a little piece of my home to take back to hers. Safe journey, Sia. A whole new, wonderful life awaits.

For the recipe, and photographs, of my Panch Mishali, hop on over to my Guest Post on Sia’s gorgeous blog. There’s no better place for vegetarian and vegan Indian food.

In step

Our heaters are on now. There’s one right below our living-room window, behind the brown buttoned sofa. As the heat rises up the radiator and against the glass, it makes the bare branches outside wobble like trees through tears. Hot air, cold glass: and the world dances. It always takes opposites to be in step.

D and I had our first mulled wine of the season yesterday; Chotto-ma had a hot chocolate topped with a mountain of cream and marshmallows. It was in the same old café, only it had twinkly lights hanging from its windows; it’s officially winter. I’m not opposed to the cold this year as I was the last. The grey light, cold wind and the shush somehow seems full of possibilities. In the way that silence has the possibility of song and conversation, or the ttup-ttup-ttup of a hammer. We had new windows fitted yesterday to keep the cold out, and now I can’t even hear the wind. The outside is playing out like a silent film, and inside, the three of us – she’s drawing a fish, D is playing his guitar, I’m writing to you.


We just finished lunch; on Sundays we always have a Bengali lunch. It’s my attempt at giving Chotto-ma a taste of our old Sunday afternoons in Calcutta. And we eat with our fingers, because there are some things that can be eaten no other way. You need to feel the texture, mix it with your fingers and bring it to your mouth like a prayer. Eating a Bengali meal with forks is like playing the piano in washing-up gloves. Chotto-ma now has The Art Of Eating By Hand down pat; she leaves her plate scraped spotless.

Today, we had a dal that Ma used to cook whenever she was in a hurry – a quick boil, a chop-chop, a sprinkle, and done. It’s perfect for the winter, and simple like most good things are. A combination of soft and crunchy, sharp and buttery, to bring out a flavour that dances just right.

Like I said, it takes opposites to be in step.

Ma’s Hurried Dal
A lemony, buttery lentil soup with raw red onions & tomato
 

Ingredients

1 cup red lentils
1 small red onion, chopped into little cubes
1 tomato, also chopped into little cubes
A generous dollop of butter
A generous squeeze of lemon
1 green chilli, chopped
Salt

Boil the lentils in one-and-a-half cups of water till cooked. Add a little more water if needed, but the consistency, when done, should not be too watery.
Take the boiled dal off the heat and throw in the rest of the ingredients.
Done.

Silence

It’s been very quiet here for a while. A comfortable quiet. Sitting between Ma and Baba, the blog blurred; I needed to sneak away from this space for a while. The house is still full, but Ma and Baba have gone upstairs to bed now, D is packing away the leftovers from dinner, coffee is brewing and a little girl is tip-toeing past her bedtime; she’s drawing. So I thought I’d sit and write in.

It’s late, but there’s still some light left outside. I love this time of night, I love the silence. But I also love the smokey sounds that blow in through the window. The wind, a kettle boiling, songs from the pub; I like that silence has its sounds. Our ears are insomniacs, they’re always awake. I can choose to close my eyes shut, black out the room, the trees outside my window, the peaches on the table. I can choose to shush my voice, say nothing, not a word. But I can’t close my ears shut. If I put my fingers in, sounds will still seep in.

I wonder if sound, then, is what our senses need the most. Who knows? It’s not something I’d want to have to prioritise. I lost most of my hearing once; for a month. I was traveling on a flight from Delhi to Mumbai, with a cold and a blocked nose, when I felt a sudden, sharp pain in my ears. This was followed by what felt like a thousand red ants crawling and biting their way from one ear to another. It was almost the end of the flight, and the plane was descending. What I didn’t know at the time was that a blocked nose combined with a quick change in air pressure when a plane drops height can make your eardrums buckle and burst.

What followed was a month of sharp, piercing pain and bloody rivulets on my pillow, but what I remember more sharply is something else. I remember the muted-ness. Conversations looked like mime, very loud noises were hushed like secrets. In the midst of throbbing Mumbai traffic, I’d hear nothing. Just a pale whooshing; a wide sea of a few million people sounded like the inside of a shell from the shores of the Arabian Sea.

Along with sound, I lost something else. I lost my sense of straight. I’d want to walk to the window right opposite our bed, but would find my feet curving me away from the window and straight at the wall. My feet wouldn’t follow my mind. Like a drunk, only dead sober.

Actually, it’s a bit like this post. When I started with ‘It’s been quiet here for a while’, I wasn’t planning on going anywhere near my ear. It was supposed to be a spot of bright, summer writing. Look where I’ve gone.

But there’s food for your patience. This dish is a special one for two reasons: It has potol (parval), a vegetable that has traveled all the way from Kolkata in Ma’s luggage. And the recipe comes from Bubulma’s kitchen, so it has many memories for D.

Dudh Potol 
(potol cooked in milk)

8-10 potol, sliced lengthwise into two
1 litre full-fat or semi-skimmed milk
2 dry red chillies
1 tsp black mustard seeds
A pinch of turmeric
2 tbs oil
2 green chillies
Salt

Heat oil in a deep pan and add the mustard seeds and red chillies. As soon as the mustard starts sputtering, add the potol. Stir for 2 minutes and then add the milk, salt and a tiny pinch of turmeric. As the milk starts to heat and rise, lower the flame a little. Keep stirring the milk with a rounded wooden spatula, and in between, keep the spatula in the milk as it cooks. This (in my inexplicable opinion) stops the milk from curdling. The milk must finally reduce and condense to coat the soft potol in a thick, creamy, textured sauce. The photographs should give you a fair signal as to when you should be done.
Serve hot with steamed rice.

Crisp

Things have a way of working out. When I was about seven, the ‘thing’ that needed working out was a way to scavenge together five rupees, for that was the price of the fat, square little books at the jack-of-all shop behind my school. These were abridged versions of English classics – The Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations – and they were usually the most pressing thing on my mind. This was before the Days of Pocket Money, and times were hard for seven-year-olds. Every time I finished reading one of these books, it would feel like my last. There was not a five-rupee in sight, and no possibility of a windfall. I would give up all hope, and wait for my little classics collection to asphyxiate and die. But, just as the last book prepared to take its last breath, something unexpected would happen. Either one of my Pishis (aunts) would come by for a visit, and before leaving in the evening, would tuck a five-rupee note into the palm of my hand. Or the raddiwala would come knocking, and ask to buy my old school books; for a fiver no less. And Ting! just like that, I’d have enough for the Edgar Allan Poe I’d wanted.

After my last post, after all your lovely, thoughtful messages, and after Chotto-Ma had resigned herself to nannies and childminders, something unexpected happened. Ma and Baba decided to travel to us; they arrive next month, and are going to spend the summer here till Chotto-Ma starts full-time school. Which means I now have a very happy little girl who gets to have a summer squished between grandparents, instead of at a childminder’s.

Things have a way of working out; as proved to me, years ago, by the curious ways of crispy five-rupee notes.

A few other crispy things also work out just right:

Crisp white wine under springtime sunshine.

Crisp new linen on the bed. Ma gave me these lovely bedcovers and cushions when we went to Kolkata this year. I’m loving the Indian prints; feels like home.

Crisp white paper for Chotto-ma’s drawings. Here’s a slice of Ramayan – Sita picking flowers, Ram hunting, peacock pecking, sun shining.

Crisp May mornings.

And crisp, fried okra from Bulbulma’s kitchen. Okra is one of D’s favourite vegetables, and he’s grown up with this version. I had it for the first time in his house after we started dating, and now he cooks it for me whenever we get fresh okra at the market.

D’s Crispy Okra

Ingredients

500g okra
4 tbs wholewheat brown flour (atta)
Sunflower oil
Salt
1/2 tsp red chilli powder

Cut the okra into small circular pieces.
In a bowl, mix the flour with 1 tbs of oil, salt and chilli powder. Mix in with your fingers.
Add the chopped okra and mix well.
Then add a little water at a time till is forms a sticky mix. It should be quite tight and stick to your fingers.
Heat oil in a pan for deep frying. Drop in globs of the mixture, bit at a time, into the hot oil and fry till crispy. It should only take a few minutes.
Drain on kitchen paper, and serve.

Suspended in air

Living abroad is a bit like being suspended in air. Between latitudes and longitudes; time-zoning in and out. There are more than one place you call home, and you float somewhere in between. And most days, it’s not a bad place to be in: afloat above. It gives you a bird’s-eye view of things. Clears a few things up. Gives you a little big thing called perspective.

The birds left England a while back. Most of them, anyway. I wonder about the ones twittering outside my window now. Their nests look a little sad against the grey winter sky, stuck in the forks of bare branches. Black twiggy blobs, like upside-down porcupines. Maybe, they haven’t left because this is all they know. Or maybe, they’ve flown in from Russia, and England’s winter feels like summer. It’s always about perspective. Everything constantly changes definition; what’s foreign to one is home to another.

We’re flying next week. We’re flying to 20°C, and to trees with leaves, and to bare-brown arms and hatless heads. It’s all good; we’re flying home.

I promise to bring back pictures, so meet me here in three weeks. It’ll feel strange, though, taking photographs of Calcutta – I’ve never seen it through a lens. Never thought of it as something to be photographed. And if I didn’t have this space, and all of you, I wouldn’t have taken the camera out. I wouldn’t have gotten a different perspective.

Nor would I have thought of sharing the recipe I’ve shared today. Dal-er bora is food from back home; so familiar that photography doesn’t come to mind. They’re fried lentil balls, which are eaten on their own, or soaked in a light, spiced gravy (jhol). It tastes like home to me, but it might be wonderfully exotic and new to you.

Perspective, then. A beautiful thing.

Dal-er Bora, or fried balls of lentils


For the Dal-er Bora:

2 cups yellow lentils, or red (moong dal or masoor dal)
1 inch ginger, roughly sliced
2 green chillies
A bunch of coriander leaves, chopped
Salt
Oil for frying

Soak the lentils overnight in cold water. Discard the water, and put lentils into a mixer/blender along with the ginger and green chillies. Blitz.
Add salt to the mix, and half of the chopped coriander.
Heat oil in a deep pan. Lower the heat to medium when it’s hot.
Make little,  balls between your fingers, and drop them into the hot oil. Fry till golden brown, and transfer onto a sheet of kitchen paper.
Enjoy half of the Dal-er Bora, or fried lentil balls, on its own. And keep half of them aside for the gravy, which only takes a few minutes to make.

If you’d like some of them to be soaking in light gravy, or jhol, here’s how:

1 largish tomato, cubed
Whole garam masala (a stick of cinnamon, 2 cloves, 2 cardamoms)
2 bayleaves
1 tsp whole cumin (jeera)
1/2 tsp asafoetida (hing)
1/2 cup green peas (I used frozen)
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp red chilli powder or paprika
2 1/2 cups water
1 tbs oil
A couple of green chillies, slightly slit

Heat oil in a pan. When it’s hot, but not too hot, add the garam masala and bayleaves. Then sprinkle in the whole cumin, and asafoetida.
When a lovely smell lifts off the pan, add tomatoes, turmeric and chilli powder/paprika. Stir on medium heat for a few minutes. When the tomatoes are a little mushy, add frozen peas and salt. Stir for a few minutes.
In two-and-a-half cups of water, mix cumin and coriander powder. Add the spiced water to the tomatoes and peas, add more salt to taste, and bring it all to a boil.
Then lower the heat, and drop in the fried lentil balls and the green chillies. Lift it off the heat and sprinkle the remaining coriander.
Let it stand for 5-10 minutes; the lentil balls will soak up some of the gravy. Serve with steamed rice.

 

Tiddely-om-pom-pom!

Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside

I do like to be beside the sea!

I do like to stroll upon the Prom, Prom, Prom!

Where the brass bands play
Tiddely-om-pom-pom!

While you’re singing that, go grab a bucket and spade. We’re going to the beach. You really have no choice. The sun’s out, so beach you must. (I know, I completely verbed my noun there. And some day, I’ll tell you why that doesn’t bother me.)
So here’s Chotto-ma at the railway station, with some goslings who we assumed were waiting for the fast train to visit cousins up north.

And here we are, an hour-and-a-bit later, at the beach. And that’s all I’m going to say about it, really. I’ll leave you to feel the sand between your toes, and hear the seagulls squawk, and smell the fish and chips.

And while we sat with our fish-and-chips, we talked about what we usually talk about. Other food. We do that a lot, D and I. We talk about what we’re not eating, when we’re eating something which isn’t as good as it could be. We talk about the could-haves. We also talk about food while walking hand-in-hand under the stars – but that just makes us gluttons, so we won’t go there.

Anyway, so there we were, eating fried fish and fried potato, and imagining the very British beach filled with Indian street stalls selling fried Indian food. Alu-r Chop (fried potato cakes), Beguni (batter-dipped fried aubergine), Shingara (samosas, but not the flat trianlgles you find here; these are triangles that have fat bottoms to sit on). And Nimki (the gorgeous things you will see below)

I made Nimki today. Suddenly, and on a whim. Just before tea-time. That’s how it is with Nimki – fried without a plan. And served with a cup of tea, in Kolkata. Very far from the prom-prom-prom were Dickens strolled.

Nimki – or, fried little diamonds of dough

(there’s not a single thing wrong with them, nor a single thing healthy)
Ingredients
1 1/2 cup plain white flour (for the dough)
1/2 tsp kalo jeere/kalonji (known as nigella seeds)
5 tbs oil (for kneading the dough)
Water (about 1/2 cup for kneading the dough)
1 tsp sugar (flattened, not heaped)
Salt
Oil (for deep frying)

Take the flour in a large, round bowl. Sprinkle in the kalo jeere, sugar, salt and oil. Get your hands in, and mix well till the flour starts looking like crumbs. Add water, a little at a time, and knead it into a tight dough. Knead for another 2-3 minutes (It’s good for the dough, and relaxing too.)
Divide the dough into 4 balls. Using a rolling pin, roll out the balls to circles. Now, the circles should not be too thin, nor too thick. About the thickness of the average dinner plate, if that helps.
Now, take a sharp knife and do what you see me do in the photographs – cut criss-cross lines to make doughy diamonds.
Heat oil in wok/pan.
Add the Nimki to the oil and fry them on low heat.
Your Nimki is done when they’re golden brown in colour. Fish them out of the oil, and drain on a paper towel.
Make yourself a cup of tea.