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.

Eating Kolkata

Here it is, you lovely bunch – the food, the food. Oh hell, the food.

It’s everywhere in Kolkata. On Ma’s table (she’s one of the finest, most casual cooks I know), on the streets, in conversations, on wooden carts, in smart restaurants and ramshackle ones. It’s a city where gluttony is a pastime. And while we were there, it didn’t feel like no sin.

So here are the spoils of the war we waged over three weeks. Most of the places where we ate were worth their weight in pure nostalgia. A few were uncharted territories. And some were just grabbed off the street, on the way, without a plan.

And thrown in there are the bazaars, the wicker baskets full of fresh produce, the fish market, the local butcher Baba swears by, the street food, the sweet shops. Sweet sin!

Tell me what you think, which ones you like – for this plate is as much mine as it is yours. The list here is by no means complete; just scratching the surface, my friends.

So. If you go to Kolkata for one reason, and no other, let it be fu-hood.

….

First the sweets. It had to be the sweets.
Here are some of my favourite picks.
From Balaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick: Baked rossogolla, baked mihidana, patishapta (as close as it gets to the homemade version)
From Banchharam: Kanchagolla, aabar khabo, notun-gurer shondesh, pantua (gulab jamun)
From Jadab Chandra Das: Mishti doi (sweet yogurt)

Something to try: A combination that D and I absolutely love, and which was passed down by my father-in-law, is ‘tok doi aar bondey’ (plain yogurt topped with sweet boondi).

S. Sharma & Sons, opposite Saturday Club – a friend took us to this hole-in-the-wall on Wood Street for the most amazing rabri. Rabri would be best described as sweet, thickened milk with a creamy-cheesy consistency. Wonderful.

And you know you’ve got to have jalebis, right? Just after they’ve been fried and dipped in that sweet sticky syrup. That’s right, you’ve got to.

Kulfi, or Indian ice-cream, from this man, here.
Where: Shakespeare Sarani-Wood Street crossing.
My top flavours: Nolen gur, chikoo, santra, sitaphal.

A few must-dos on Park Street, the street where Kolkata eats out:
1. Chelo Kebab in Peter Cat
2. Chinese food (I really should say Indo-Chinese) at Bar-B-Q
3. Breakfast or tea at Flury’s (overpriced though it is).

For Indo-Chinese, outside of Park Street, you can’t leave the city without:
The weekend buffet at Mainland China
And a meal in Tangra (Tangra is Kolkata’s Chinatown, and Kim Fa is the restaurant where People In The Know go now)

Now street food! What can I say. For me, Kolkata is the Street Food City of India. You could have something different every day, and still not run out of options. Start with puchkas, end with chicken rolls, squeeze in some momos in between. Have a chai. Run wild.

Years and years ago, Kookie Jar redefined baking. I’ve eaten cakes in many different cities in the world, but their Black Forest still can’t be beaten. It was D’s birthday cake this year.

The first time we ate in Benjarong was in Chennai. They now have a restaurant in Kolkata, and it’s as good. Go there for beautiful Thai food.

When dinner’s done, start all over with breakfast. Radhabollobi and Alu-r Dom (puris stuffed with lentils that come with a spicy potato curry) from Ganguram in Golpark, or Maharani-Maharaja in Lansdowne, or Tasty Corner in Mandeville Gardens.

Kolkata’s Chilli Sauce is unlike any chilli sauce you get in stores here; maybe the only sauce that can look Sriracha in the eye. Pick up a few bottles of it from this shop – Sing Cheung – in Tiriti Market. They accounted for much of our luggage weight. But so worth it.

For the thirsty: Daab-er Jol, or tender coconut water. And sugarcane juice. Sweet salvation.

Dacres Lane. Now this is a street in Kolkata that stands for decades of good food. They’ve been feeding office-goers for years, and are known for their Chicken Stew. And their Bengali-style Chilli Chicken and Chowmein. And their egg curry. Really, it’s all good.

These bottles of little black salty-tangy balls are a Kolkata thing. Thye’re called Jaina Shipa Mandir, and apparently, they help you digest all the food you shouldn’t have overeaten in the first place. But I eat them because they’re lovely.

Here comes the fish. Fresh from Gariahat Market. Hilsa, prawns, bhekti. Or pabda, tengra and chitol. Fishmongers with their day’s catch.

And then the alleys of vegetables, an absolute mayhem of colours.

I know. Some of you’re going: “Enough with the vegetable already. Where’s the bloody Biryani?”
So what is it about Kolkata’s biryani that makes everyone go a little bit mad? It’s the saffrony rice layered with the tenderest meat and the softest, seasoned potatoes. It’s the subtle smell of spices. It’s something that no one can quite put a finger on.
There are two contenders for the city’s biryani-throne: Arsalan and Shiraz. I’ve tried both, and for me, there really is no competition at all. Shiraz wins by a mile.
This is what I would have: chicken or mutton biryani, mutton chaap, mutton shammi tikka, firni.




























I love big vegetarian thalis, especially Rajasthani or Gujarati. We tried a new place this time called Khandani Rajdhani. They were very good.

And then there’s your pick of fresh fruit and street bazaars. They’re everywhere. In wicker baskets and roadside stalls. On your walk, in every colour.

This is the butcher my father swears by.

This is the best place for tea, in a city which knows it tea better than any other. Dolly’s Tea in Dakshinapan Market. I always have their Mint Julep, or the Darjeeling 2nd flush. Dolly’s used to be a regular haunt during my days in Jadavpur University.

There’s the puchka again. Really, it keeps creeping in. I’ve tried the one in front of Dakshinapan, the one in Vivekananda Park, but I’d still vouch for the puchka-wala opposite New Market, in the lane that heads to Treasure Island. 

These are fresh pumpkin flowers (kumro-phool). Just before they dunked themselves in batter and leapt into the frying pan.

And here endeth the food trail; with mishti doi (sweet curd) from a Kolkata institution – Mother Dairy.
Sweet mother!

Was it worth the wait?

A hollow stage

Autumn in England always reminds me of winters in Calcutta. And of Christmas holidays growing up; the few weeks away from school. School, for me, was a pink building next to a tramline, with a small tiled courtyard stuck in its middle like an excuse.

From the decade that I spent there, what stands out in my mind are stiffly ironed Keralan nuns, a strong smell of phenyl from the toilets that ran along the corridors, and a black piano next to a hollow wooden stage. The lessons were like lessons, the rules were like rules – neither of which I liked to follow. The one time a teacher inspired me to look up a dictionary was when she called me ‘incorrigible’. I might’ve been reading fiction during fill-in-the-blanks, I don’t know. For the most part, School and I did not make much sense together. It might even have been the most incoherent part of my growing-up. A bit like background noise.

What has kept it from fading completely, though, are the friends I made, and kept for good. And that hollow stage next to the piano. Where one day, they discovered that there was something I wasn’t difficult about. Hail Marythe girl sings. And so, I was excused from many a lesson to sing for every Fest and every competition the school signed up for. Singing solos even earned you a few extra hours off chemistry classes, and that’s all that really mattered.

The singing made everything look good – the studies, the classes.  Suddenly I didn’t mind doing any of it. The last few years of school seems like a different photograph in my head: Happy. I was still incorrigible, I’m sure, but they’d gotten used to me by then. And I’d gotten used to them being them. We’d decided to get along.

This time of year reminds me of that time. The black piano and that hollow stage and practising for those interschool festivals that ran through the winter. And it reminds me of the winter-holidays that followed, when there’d be nothing much to do other than read books and eat well and walk along Park Street on Christmas Day. The best kind of holiday, really.

Mulo diye dal, or red lentils cooked with white radish
A winter dal that my mother used to cook for us, and I now cook for D and Chotto-ma. It’s one of those simple recipes that are good enough to hand down generations.

(My friend Dalia asked me to blog it a few days ago. So, Dalia, here you go.)

A note: Inspite of all the menus you see in restaurants here, there is no such thing as Dhal. Only Dal. Please.

Ingredients

1 cup red lentils (Masoor Dal)
1 long white radish (Mulo/Daikon)
1/2 tsp kalonji (black jeera, which you get in all asian shops)
1 large red tomato, cut into 8 big pieces
1-2 dried red chillies
A bunch of coriander, chopped

 

Trim leaves off the radish, peel it and cut it into big cubes.
Wash the lentils till the water runs clear.
In a large pan, add lentils and radish. Cover it with 2 cups of water. Add salt. And bring to a boil.
Once boiling, lower the heat and simmer till the radish is cooked. The radish should still have a bite, and not have turned too soft. Spoon the radish out of the lentils, and let the lentils cook till they’ve split properly.
In a separate pan, heat oil, add the kalonji and red chillies. When the chillies turn dark, add the tomatoes and stir till the tomatoes soften.
Add the boiled dal and the radishes, more water and salt if needed, and a couple of green chilles. Bring to the boil once, and take it off the heat immediately. Add the chopped coriander.
Serve hot, with or without steamed rice.

Keeping quiet

When we were young, and seated around the dining table, there were a few rules that my brother and I had to follow.

Waste not. Finish what you take.
Try everything. Fuss is not an option.
‘Gaal-e haath diye bosho na’ – Don’t sit with your cheek in your palm
Never eat in a hurry, nor standing up.
‘Khete khete jol kheyo na’ – don’t break your meal with sips of water.
No, don’t make balls of your rice to practice tossing into your mouth.
Say ‘uthhi’ before leaving the table.
Don’t talk while you eat.

Now, the last rule goes against the very purpose of family meals in the West. Where conversations are things that all dining tables must be sturdy enough to withstand. That’s where you agree, and disagree. That’s where you tell your parents about your report card. Or a new boyfriend. That’s where your parents tell you that a great-aunt has died leaving them enough money for a house in Lanzarote. Silence is swallowed up quickly. Because a family sitting in silence during mealtimes must surely be on the verge of falling apart. Divorce. Disease. Debt. Delinquency.

But in India, people like my dad grew up on ‘Silence is golden’. More so during mealtimes. You can either talk, or you can taste. You use silence to decide if the fish is fresh enough, the mutton soft enough. You use silence to smell the spices. You use silence to feel the rice stick to your fingers. You make murmurs of appreciation, the occasional ‘bah!’, to praise the cook. But all other matters must wait. Only when the plates are clean, and hands washed, do you sit and talk late into the afternoon. And only then do you tell your parents about your report card. When there’s no food for them to choke on.

Dhonepata-kancha-lonka diye mangshor jhol
Or, lamb stewed with coriander leaves and green chillies

Or, the lamb that you eat in silence. In fact, lamb so good, that I’ve never talked about it. It’s all very hush-hush. I’ve cooked it for many years, though. And my closest friends know it well.

It’s the simplest dish you’ll ever cook. And one that ignores all the basic rules of cooking an Indian meat dish. It has no onions, no garlic, no ginger. And no cooking oil – it cooks in the meat’s natural fat. Wide-eyed, already? Wait till you eat it.

The list of ingredients is very sparse, but very powerful:

500 gms boneless lamb (on-the-bone is even better, but boneless is what I had at home)
A very, very big bunch of coriander, chopped very coarsely
1 lime
A bowl of green chillies, stalk on.
Salt
Butter

Cut the lime in 4 pieces. Squeeze one of the pieces into the meat.
In a deep pan with a heavy lid, spread out the meat and sprinkle generously with salt.
Cover the meat with a thick layer of coriander.
Sprinkle the meat with a layer of green chillies. I used about 16, but make it 8 if you’re quaking in your shoes, and 20 if you’re smirking. Keep the stalks on to prevent the chillies from breaking. That keeps the heat in control, but infuses the gravy with the smell of green chillies.
Put the lid on the pan, and put it on the hob on high heat for a few minutes. Lower the heat as soon as the pan is hot. Leave the meat to cook in it own juices, on very low heat, for 45 minutes.
Open lid, pour in a cup of water, don’t stir.
Cover again, and let it cook till the meat is very soft. Add some more water if you need – the gravy should be runny. Add more salt if you need.
Then, pick out most of the chillies and stalks, and just let a few chillies stay in.
Add a blob of butter.
You should now have a gorgeous, green runny gravy, that’s very potent and smells like heaven.
Serve with ‘norom bhaath‘ – soft, overcooked rice. Overcooked rice helps to keep the gravy in, and balances the heat. Add a squeeze of lime if you like.