While we could


Nothing ever happens when it drizzles, have you noticed? The day drizzles too. Heavy rain could turn a road into a river, but a steady drizzle just turns your day into a soggy pulp of nothing. Not that I want the river; I had enough of those back in India.


After we got married, D and I rented an apartment in Cornfield Road in Calcutta. Though the road didn’t run along eponymous fields of corn, it did harvest something else. Rainwater. Legend had it that Cornfield Road could get flooded on a dog’s pee.


We started our life there with one such legendary flood.



It was the monsoon of 1999, and the skies were crying like a colicky baby. The skies cried, the waters rose, and I watched from our first floor balcony with mixed emotions: half anxious adult, half excited child. The excited, less-practical me wondered how high the waters would rise; if it would give us future anecdotes to roll our eyes by. (Maybe even something to write about in a blog fifteen years later.)

In the evening, after a few hours of copious rain, we got a call from our landlady who lived a floor above us. Over the years, she had developed a nose for floods; she suggested we stock up on essentials from the neighbourhood grocer, while we could. Suspecting greater wisdom, D and I waded out in calf-deep water with useless umbrellas.


Next morning, we woke up to a kitchen stocked like a bomb-shelter. And the lull of gentle waves. We could’ve been in the Maldives.


When we stumbled bleary-eyed onto the balcony, a makeshift raft was floating past. A car that had been parked in front of our house was almost under water, it’s roof shining like an island. On the raft, three men stood grinning at the bloody adventure of it all. Full of cheerful foreboding, they pointed at the main road, towards Ballygunge Station.
“It’s much worse there, didi. Enough water to drown a child,” they shouted.
The woman in the house opposite ours poked her head out of her ground-floor window to inform us that the water was up to their bed. There were whispers of water snakes.

The drains were saturated, everyone said. The water could stay for days, our landlady predicted. So, later that morning, D and I packed a small overnight bag and decided to go to Ma-and-Baba’s for a couple of days. The water was too high for me to walk through now. D carried me on his back till the end of Cornfield Road, where the water level started to drop; a rickshaw carried us the rest of the way.


When we reached Ballygunge Circular Road and got off the rickshaw, there was not a blip of a flood. Not even a darn puddle. This was higher ground, the roads had already dried, and we looked like a pair of comics in our wet, rolled-up jeans. Clutching onto our little overnight bag with the expressions of the newly-evacuated.

Still, there’s something to be said for roads that turn into rivers: On a drizzly day in a different country, fifteen years later, it gives you something to write about when you have nothing much to write about.

In the oven, on days that drizzle

When its grey outside, I say cook a squash that looks like the sun. Stuff it with prawns and coconut milk and lemongrass and fresh coriander. Use your squash like a bowl, fill it with things and sit and watch it cook itself. It’s the beach.


Ingredients


1 small squash per person

For each squash:
6 large, raw prawns, cleaned
A few slivers of ginger
1 green chilli
Fresh coriander leaves
2 one-inch pieces lemongrass
Coconut milk
Salt
1 tsp vegetable oil
A slice of lime


Pre-heat oven: 150 degrees C.
Cut a lid off the squash, empty the inside. Smear the hollow with a sprinkle of salt and oil.
Put the lid back on and slide it into the lower rack of the oven for 30 minutes.

Take out the squash and check if the inside is cooked. If it’s not, put it back in for another 10-15 minutes. Don’t worry if the skin is charred – it gives the whole thing a beautiful flavour.

Once the inside is tender, open lid and put in the prawns, chilli, ginger and lemongrass. Top up the squash-bowl with coconut milk, covering the prawns. Add the coriander. Put the lid back on.
Put the squash in for just 10 minutes more.

Take it out, open lid and add a squeeze of lime. Serve the squash whole, or scoop out the insides and serve it in a bowl. 




 



He chopping, me stirring

It gets dark by 4 o’clock in the evening, and Venus lights up before the lampposts; she’s Chotto-ma’s favourite planet. We’re hanging between autumn and winter now, like the last leaves. Today, I ran downstairs just before the light died, to take a couple of photographs for you. I owed you autumn.

8.35 pm. D and I are sitting here listening to Mississippi John Hurt’s charred voice wafting out of a grainy recording. It’s strange how his songs can make the sun beat down on your back even on a cold night like this. “The angels laid him away. They laid him six feet under the clay”.

Dinner’s done, but there’s still some wine left in our glasses. The floorboards above us are creaking; Chotto-ma is pottering about upstairs. (So what if D left her tucked in bed an hour ago?) Her bedtime ritual, like everything else in our home, is split between D and me: Around 7 o’clock, I read her a book and sing her a song. She then goes upstairs with D. He reads her two more books – one in English, another in Bengali – before tucking her in. He then says goodnight and comes downstairs. And she untucks herself and gets on with her evening.

Downstairs, D and I get on with ours. We pour ourselves a glass of wine, cook dinner together, talk. Sometimes, we watch a movie, or read. Chotto-ma knows it’s Ma-Ba time, she’s known it for as long as she’s known anything else.

We don’t know what she does with her time, but she loves it as much as we love ours. Sometimes we hear her singing, or reading books to her dinosaurs, or talking to the planets hanging over her bed (they have distinct personalities; they also meet in orbit, marry and have baby moons). By the time we call it a night and go upstairs several hours later, she’s fast asleep in her room. She, along with six books and nine stuffed animals, all in a neighbourly heap on her bed

Tonight, our dinner was a garlicky, coconuty broth that I made up many years ago in Calcutta, in the tiny kitchen of our first rented flat in Jodhpur Park; it’s a dish that has withstood time, geography and repetition. Even in that shoebox kitchen, D would squeeze in to help me peel, chop and grate. We’ve been cooking together for so many years that it’s one smooth soup of a song. He chopping, me stirring. Me making the marinade, he smudging it on the meat. In tandem, amidst conversation, without a thought; he’s my soul-sous-chef. And tonight, as the pot bubbled and we cooked and stirred, Hurt plucked his guitar in the background and poured his sweet country soul into the broth.

Coconut & Garlic Prawn Broth

The broth, like most things from my kitchen, is done in minutes. It has the strong, punchy flavour that comes from raw garlic, and the mellow roundedness of uncooked coconut. In India, I would use fresh coconut, but here, it’s the easier-to-get dessicated version. This is also a broth I’ve cooked with chicken and lamb, instead of prawns, so take your pick.



Ingredients

150 gms large prawns, cleaned and peeled
1 white onion, halved, then thickly sliced, horizontally not vertically (I’m fussy about chopping)
1 tomato, chopped
Handful of coriander leaves, chopped

Coconut – 1 cup freshly grated, or 1/2 cup dessicated (and yes, I keep mine in an old talc tin)
2 large cloves of garlic
1 green chilli
Oil
Salt


In a food processor, blitz the coconut, garlic and chilli – the magic paste that makes all the difference.
Heat oil in a pan, and throw in the onions. Saute till transparent, but not brown. Add the tomatoes and give it a stir. Add 2 cups of water. When it starts boiling, add salt, and the prawns. Let it bubble for a minute, then take it off the heat. The prawns should be cooked, but still tender.
Transfer to your serving dish, and stir in the coconut paste and coriander. The natural oil from the coconut should rise to the top. Serve hot with steamed rice.


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.