She lives in an Altoids box

Did you all have lots of toys when you were little? I didn’t. It was a different time, wasn’t it? At least where I was standing. Parents didn’t just go out and buy a talking doll along with their weekend grocery, nor a hopping bunny when a child did all her chores. Money was far more thoughtfully spent, and children far less, well, indulged.

I have to admit, I liked that time. I liked it even when I was in it. When you don’t have a lot of toys, you become a little more ingenious with your time. Which reminds me of a line I saw on this poster recently – Creativity is subtraction. It really is.

Till I was about nine years old, we lived in a joint family, in a large old house in Central Calcutta. I remember sitting on the terrace with my friends and making clay utensils, and dolls from scraps of cloth. We would bake the little clay dishes in the sun, and have lavish weddings for the dolls. With real food. The food was always real. And usually stolen from our respective kitchens.

D and I try to give Chotto-Ma a sense of that…lessness. She still has more than we did, but less than most. And one of her favourite toys is a little cloth girl that I made for her some time ago. Like the little cloth girls I used to make in the old terrace in the old days.

This is Zaza. She lives in an Altoids box.

To me Zaza, and her curiously strong bed, stands for the sparseness of another time. A time when I made do with what I had. And made memories that stuck in my head like multicoloured Post-its.

It’s also the way I cook best: making do with what I have. Foraging through my cupboards without a plan. Throwing things together as I jigsaw tastes in my head. Do you do that?

Butter beans & pistachio tikki

You can soak the butter beans overnight and boil them, but I had canned butter beans sitting in my cupboard. (Because sometimes you just need cans.) And then my eyes landed on a jar of pistachios.
Tikkis came about, and they were very good, so I had to share them with you.

Ingredients

These tikkis have a very interesting combination of spices, but don’t hold yourself to them. Make do with what you have. Swap butter beans with black-eyed beans, pistachios with cashew, basil with parsley. Let your cupboards take the call.

3 cups boiled/canned butter beans
1/2 cup pistachios
A handful of basil
1 green chilli
1/2 tsp sumac (if you don’t have this, add a squeeze of lemon juice for a slight tartness)
1/2 tsp coriander seeds (dry roasted in a pan)
A sprinkle of coarse black pepper
1 tbs flour (if needed)
Salt
Olive oil

In a blender, or with a mortar and pestle, coarsely ground together the pistachios, basil, roasted coriander seeds and chilli along with 2 tbs of olive oil
In a bowl, add the soft butter beans, the oil-herb-spice mix, sprinkle in the sumac/lemon juice, pepper and salt. Mix well with your hands, coarsely mashing the butter beans. Sprinkle in a tbs of flour if you need to tighten the mix a little. With your hands, form flat, round tikkis.
Heat a flat pan, and drizzle in some olive oil. Pan fry the tikkis till they’re nicely browned on both sides. Enjoy!

Corners

I wanna hang a map of the world in my house. Then I’m gonna put pins into all the locations that I’ve traveled to. But first, I’m gonna have to travel to the top two corners of the map so it won’t fall down.
I wish I’d said that, but Mitch Hedberg did.
I like corners. Corners are comfortable. They hug you in.
In our house, we each have a corner. We marked our territories early, when we first moved it. And once we’d found our corners, the new house didn’t feel so new anymore. We sat down in our corners, put our feet up, and settled in.

I don’t quite know if we chose the corners, or they chose us. It might have been the latter.
D’s corner is by the corner bookshelf. My corner is diagonally opposite, on one end of the big brown sofa. And chotto-ma’s ‘corner’ is right in the middle of the room. Ever since she could crawl, her corner has always been the centre. When there’s a singing-circle at her playgroup, she’s the only one standing in the middle of the ring. She made me realise that one’s corner of comfort need not be a corner at all.

When we were growing up in Kolkata, my brother and I had a deep alcove in our bedroom. It had a wooden seat built into it, piled high with colourful cushions. We called it the Cosy Corner. It was a large room with pale mint walls and many windows. The bed was on one end of the room, and the Cosy Corner on the opposite wall. When we first moved into the house, my brother and I would sneak out of our big, comfortable bed at night and curl up in the cramped little alcove like two little mice. The bed was too big, and too new. But the Cosy Corner was just right. It eased us into our new house.
Our old bedroom is still the same, just like it was all those years go. But the Cosy Corner isn’t there anymore. The alcove has a built-in wardrobe now, to store all the things that the house has collected over the years. I miss our Cosy Corner. It’ll always be my favourite corner; and one of my favourite memories of me and my brother when we were little.
Do you have a special corner? A corner of your house? Your local cafe? The corner of another country?

Now, the last one can sometimes be cooked up. Just a herb, a spice, an aroma, and suddenly you’re in a different corner of the world. This summer, we have no far-flung travel plans, so I’ve been cooking up a lot of these corners lately. Tunisia is on the menu today.

Pan-fried fish with chermoula, spiced butter beans & grilled courgettes

Chermoula is a rich, spicy North African sauce. There are many variations of it – with onions and without, with harissa and without. Each kitchen’s chermoula is different from the next.  Here’s the one I made.
For the chermoula fish

Ingredients

1 cup chopped coriander

1 cup chopped parsley
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp black pepper
2 tsp paprika
A pinch of chilli flakes
1 tsp cumin
A few threads of saffron
2 – 3 tbs olive oil
1 tbs lemon juice
Salt 
2 fillets of sea bass (I had haddock at home, so that’s what I used)
Put all the ingredients, except the oil and the lemon juice, in a blender, and blend. Once it’s done, mix in the olive oil and lemon juice. Your chermoula is ready.
Heat some olive oil in a pan, and slip in the fish fillets, skin side down. Pan fry on high for 5-6 minutes without disturbing the fish. Then turn over and fry the other side for 3-4 minutes. Put aside on a plate.

For the butter beans
Ingredients
100 gms canned butter beans, drained and rinsed
1 large tomato, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 small onion chopped
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp black pepper, coarsely crushed
Salt
Heat the olive oil in a pan, and saute all the ingredients together for 7-8 minutes on medium heat.
For the courgettes
Ingredients
1 courgette, cut into long slices
1 tbs olive oil
A sprinkle of black pepper
Salt
Pre-heat grill. Brush the courgette slices with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and grill for 3-4 minutes on each side.
Serves 2.