On repeat

When I like something, I like it and like it and like it till I can’t bear to look at it. Or listen to it. Or eat it. My brother could tell you how many times I can listen to the same song. In a row, in constant repeat. We grew up sharing a bedroom and Simon and Garfunkel must haunt him still.

My taste in music changed. House changed, climate changed. But that old habit, I kept.

When D and I were dating, we used to go to a hole-in-the-wall Tibetan momo place in Calcutta. It had light bulbs so dim you could barely see the food, or indeed, each other. These dim bulbs were red, they bathed everything in an eerie red light. No matter what food you ordered, it came with a red glow. Red momos, red noodles, red faces, red teeth. The food was served on red plastic plates. (This wasn’t the light; the plates were really red). There was also a red chilli paste on the side, which you couldn’t tell since it was the same shade as the plate. This little momo joint was next to a government hospital in front of which metal stretchers clanged constantly, wheeling in a steady stream of ailing. The road was divided into two smells: momo and medicine.

We loved the momos. We ate it obsessively for months. Every other day. Sometimes, every day. Till the thought of momos started making me feel slightly nauseous. Then we stopped. A few years later, a friend dragged me there, and the sweet man who used to serve us enquired about D. ‘Dada? Bhalo?’ he asked gingerly. Is Dada well? He shuffled, unsure if our relationship had survived those torrid months of red-hued momo lunches. Steamed, deep-fried and pan-fried, with a side of clear soup. It had, I assured him.

You’re thinking I’m headed towards a momo recipe, aren’t you? She’s going to ask us to make a momo any minute now, you fear. But no. I’m headed nowhere near a momo. I’m going left. I’m going off the road, down the dirt-track. I’m going to Rhubarb.

Rhubarb is where it’s at right now. I’m repeating rhubarb like it’s going out of season. Oh, hang on – it is going out of season. But before it does, do me a favour, do you a favour, and get your hands on some rrrrhubarb. I sang that, yes. I’m writing to music. (I’ll tell you about that too in a minute)

So, get the rhubarb, the ru-ru-rhubarb, because I made the most sensational rhubarb pickle a few days ago that you cannot not make. It’s not pickled rhubarb, mind you. It’s an achaar, a very Indian pickle; tangy, garlicky, spiced with turmeric and mustard seeds, kicked by chillies, screaming good. It also has the most un-Indian ways: I’ve smeared it in a ciabatta stuffed with avocado and bacon, piled it on polenta, stirred it into mayonnaise for a magnificent dip. I can’t sell it any more – just go get some rhubarb!

And listen to some Mulatu Astatke while you’re at it; that’s the music I’m writing to. Ethiopian jazz, terribly good. Listen to this, and listen to this. Mulatu’s my man, and he’s on repeat like rhubarb. He goes well with this pickle too; neither pulls any punches.

Indian Rhubarb Pickle

This was Ma’s idea. We were talking about rhubarb, and my rhubarb soup, and it’s green-mango-like tanginess, when she said: Ah, achaar! And there you have it.

Ingredients

2 rhubarb stalks, trimmed of leaves, cut in small pieces
4 cloves of garlic, peeled, sliced thin
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 level tsp turmeric
1 level tsp paprika
1/2 tsp asafoedita (optional)
1-2 red chillies, sliced
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 quarter of a lemon
Salt
Sugar

Heat oil. Lower the heat and add the asafoedita (if using) and the mustard seeds. As soon as the mustard start spluttering, add the fenugreek seeds.
Add the rhubarb, then the garlic. Sprinkle in the turmeric, paprika and a very generous amount of salt. Add three tsp of sugar. Stir. Cover and cook for 2-3 minutes.


Open lid, it should be a nice saucy-mushy consistency now, with bits of rhubarb smothered in.
Add the chillies, squeeze in the lemon. Stir well. Taste; add more salt and sugar as required.
Cook for another minute to get the right pickle-consistency if needed.
Take it off the heat, and let it cool completely.
Transfer to a clean, dry jar. Store in the fridge.

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.

People who can’t be pickled

A few weeks ago, I bought a bag of redcurrants; so sour they make you wink. They looked pretty and well-behaved, sparkling quietly from their market stall. And then they kicked like a mule right at that soft spot where my jaw met my ears. I brought them home simply because they looked beautiful. And because sometimes, I buy things I don’t know what to do with.

On the walk back home, I thought up a use for them. A redcurrant achaar. A very Indian pickle, with a very un-Indian berry. Back home, I handed the brown paper bag to Ma. And together we set out to fill a jar with pickle-ish things.

Tomorrow, Ma and Baba fly back to India. This time will be especially hard for Chotto-ma. For three months, she has been stuck to her Mamma like the flap of a well-licked envelope. She and Mamma have their own little world, their own secrets,  furtive giggles, games only they understand and the most long-winded conversations you can imagine.

Chotto-ma: Mamma, are you going to cry when you’re back in India because I’m not there?
Ma: Yes, shona.
Chotto-ma: Will you cry a lot, a lot?
Ma: Yes, shona.
Chotto-ma: Ok then, could you cry enough to make a puddle? I’ll go and splash in it.

Her relationship with her Dada is different – she’s my father’s little helper; bringing him his shoes, taking off his knee-cap after his morning-walk, giving him his medicine after breakfast and sitting next to him on the bed telling him one of her long-winded stories. Of Good People and Not Good People and volcanoes and fantastic creatures. 

What will she do without their ready ears? And ready arms. What will she do without the people who can’t be pickled?

Redcurrant Achaar (redcurrants pickled in Indian spices)

This is one of the best things I’ve bottled in a while. The pickle can be dolloped on anything – a lentil soup, a yogurt dip, or flatbreads. I’ve even used the pickled oil as a salad dressing. So good.

Ingredients

300 gm redcurrants
100 gm green chillies, cut in 1/2 inch pieces
10 large cloves of garlic, sliced thin
1/2 tsp turmeric
Sunflower oil
Mustard oil
Sea salt

A mix of whole spices (also called Panch Phoran, available ready-made in any Indian or Middle-Eastern store)
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp aniseed
1 tsp black cumin (black jeera)

Roast the whole spices on a dry pan, stirring constantly, till they give off a lovely, roasty smell.
Pound them coarsely using a mortar and pestle.
Put the redcurrants, green chillies, garlic, turmeric, salt and roasted spice mix in a jar. Cover half with sunflower oil, and the rest in mustard oil. The oil should cover all the ingredients.
Seal the jar, and let it sun itself on the window sill for 3 or 4 days.

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.

Another cook, another time

Food can bring back the dead. I’ve been debating using that word. Dead.

Is ‘passed away’ better? Whenever I want to tell my daughter stories about people who are ‘no longer with us’, I’m always stuck at the point where she asks me, so where are they now, Ma? A ‘star in the sky’ is not really an option, is it? I did use that once, I must admit. But neither us were really convinced. So now, it’s ‘dead’. To her it just means people that we can talk about, think about, but can’t see, nor have chocolate cake with. Now, the conversation goes like this:

Where is she, Ma?
She’s…dead.
Oh ok.

We’re good with that. For now.

She also knows that Bubulma is one of those people that we can only talk about. Bubulma is what she calls D’s mother. Someone she will never know, but whom she could have a sense of knowing, through the stories we tell her. Through the photographs we show her. And through food.

When I said ‘food can bring back the dead’, I wasn’t referring to lunch with Psychic Sally. I was talking about food that brings back memories of people you loved and miss. When I cook something that my grandmother used to cook when I was little, or use a recipe that my mother-in-law had perfected, I bring them back a little. I get a sense of the flavours they loved, the spices they had in their kitchen, and the crops that grew around them. And so I carry them forward, and pass them on. And my daughter gets a sense of someone long gone. The stirring of an old spoon.

Bubulma’s Pea Tikki

This was one of our favourites from Bubulma’s kitchen repertoire. She would make it every winter with freshly shelled peas. I made it recently for Chotto-ma’s birthday party, and it was one of the most popular things on the table.

Ingredients
6/7 potatoes, boiled and peeled
5 cups peas
2-inch ginger, sliced
1 green chilli
1 tsp aniseed
1 tsp cumin seed, roasted
A small bunch of coriander leaves, chopped 
4 tbs oil
Flour for dusting
Salt

Mash the boiled potatoes with salt and chopped coriander, and keep aside.
In a blender or mixer, put the peas, ginger, green chilli, aniseed and cumin seeds, and blitz till smooth.
In a flat pan, heat 1 tbs of oil, and add the pea paste. On fairly high heat, stir constantly till it becomes drier and tighter, almost like soft dough. Let it cool.
Once cooled, roll the paste between your palms to form several small, round green balls.
Cover each green ball with mashed potato, and flatten them into round discs or tikkis.
Dust the discs with a bit of plain flour, pat and keep aside.
Heat the rest of the oil in a flat, non-stick pan, and pan-fry the tikkis till they are golden brown on both sides.
Serve hot.

Serves 4/5