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.

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.