Once upon a time

A few weeks ago, I found Once Upon A Time.

It was in my secondhand bookshop locked in a glass cabinet unlike the other books, which stood on open shelves bare to a stranger’s browse. It seemed appropriate that something called Once Upon A Time should be locked up – by an evil queen no doubt – waiting to be rescued.

I rescued it with a few pounds that afternoon. Its pages felt like the loose skin on the underside of my grandmother’s arms – soft, thin, giving. It’s a magazine that was born in the late sixties; a weekly for children.

There is something more personal, more generous, about print productions from the pre-digital age. Like homemade cookies, they had a pureness of intent. You can imagine people stooped over, setting type by hand, the page layouts tweaked slowly, manually. The publication of Once Upon A Time ceased years ago, but its beauty still breathes. In its large pages, inked with abandon. Brimming with childhood.

It reminded me of the magazines Ma used to collect when I was young, and which I would spend hours leafing through in my teens. Old issues of LIFE, large in size and in content, and with the same wise smell to its yellow pages. I remember The Illustrated Weekly of India – the cartoons by RK Laxman and Mario Miranda. And the old Indian comic books, filled with stories of small-town India, and of kings and simpletons and wily pranksters.

Somehow, when I think of me pouring over those copies of LIFE, the memory is always set in winter. Sitting on the long, low settee in our living room where the sun fell after lunch. It would’ve been the Christmas holidays. I remember the nip.

December in Calcutta is a lovely time. The air is cool, people calm. They’ve passed the humid clamminess of summer and the torrents of the monsoons. During Christmas, we would always go out to see the lights on Park Street. Ma would have fresh flowers in every room. ‘Boro Deen’ – that is what Christmas is called in Bengali. ‘The big day’.

Between Christmas and New Year, our house would be filled with parties. Some with family. Some with Ma-Baba’s friends. The table heavy with food. The drinks flowing. Laughter, conversations, evenings that didn’t end. Baba would be at his best, armed with his anecdotes, humour and stories from history. Ma would cook up the most perfect dishes; creative; recipes no one had ever tried before (not even Ma) – baked, steamed, stirred. Mixes and mash and combinations that would work beautifully. My brother and I would wait for these evenings. For the excited throb that took over the house, but mainly for the food.

One of Ma’s appetizers – which became so popular that it was always on our party-table by popular demand – was a simple aubergine dish. A dish that I now make for my guests. It’s a thing to pass down. And like most of Ma’s recipes, and mine, it’s very quick and low-fuss. I’ve never made it without having to tell guests the recipe.

I’m going to share it with you today. And then, I’m going to find some pretty paper and wrap up Once Upon A Time and put it under the Christmas tree for Chotto-ma. She decorated the tree this week, and now it stands by the doorway dressed for Christmas Day. Different from my Boro Deen in Calcutta, but just as big. Years later, these Decembers are what will be Chotto-ma’s ‘once upon a time’.

Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Happy Whatever-lights-up-your-winter.
Happy holidays, everyone! xx

 ***

Ma’s Pan-fried Aubergine with Yogurt and Red Onion Topping

Ingredients

1 large aubergine, cut into inch-thick slices
1 cup strained yogurt (hang yogurt in cloth to strain it)
Half a red onion, finely chopped
Fresh coriander leaves, finely chopped
1 green chilli, de-seeded and chopped (optional)
Paprika powder
Salt
Sugar
Oil

For the topping: mix yogurt, onion, coriander leaves and green chilli. Add salt and sugar to taste (I like mine salted with a nice sweet edge). Beat till smooth and keep it in the fridge.

Brush the aubergine slices with oil on both sides.
Heat a flat pan with 1 tsp oil, and add the aubergine.
On medium heat, pan fry till cooked and both sides of the slices are nicely browned.

Place on serving dish and spoon on the topping. It should be a nice combination of hot and cold. (Though even all-cold tastes lovely).
Sprinkle with paprika for a slash of colour, and a tiny bit more onion if you like, and serve.

PS: When I have guests, I keep the topping ready in the fridge. I pan-fry the aubergine early on, and line them up on a baking tray. When guests arrive, I just heat it in the oven on high for a few minutes, spoon the topping and serve.

Have the most wonderfully festive holiday!

A hugger, a kisser, a storybook reader


When we were little, Ma gave me and my brother something of great value, and of little cost. A love of books. She didn’t buy us piles of them. She just sat there and read her own. So we got bored and did the same, and then we were never bored again.

My earliest memories of Ma involve half of her face poking out from behind a book. Quiet breathing, page turning, a scowl of concentration sitting above her nose. If she wasn’t cooking, or letting me know what she thought of my messy room, she was reading her Hemingways and Durrells, her le Carrés. Or handing me her battered copy of The Old Man and the Sea – probably to stop me reading another Barbara Cartland; I was sixteen. 

I grew up thinking this is what mothers do: they read.



And they did, too. D’s mother was no different. After I got married, I was suddenly surrounded by Bengali literature – of which she read everything from the modern to the classics. D remembers her always worrying when she approached the last pages of a book if she didn’t have another at hand to start on. Even in the years before her death, when she had trouble walking, she would stubbornly trudge to the local library at least once every week.

Books were how people passed an afternoon, an evening, a lifetime. There were fewer distractions, fewer people flicking their touchscreens.

I started reading to Chotto-ma before she was born. I read The Tale of Peter Rabbit loudly to my tummy every night through my pregnancy. It seemed perfectly logical at the time. Thankfully, D didn’t blink an eye, and by the time Chotto-ma was born, we both knew the story by heart. I read her poetry, I read her fiction – loud enough for her to kick inside me in response. A few days before Chotto-ma was born, I remember D walking in on me reading aloud Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, shaking his head at my choice of book. Wasn’t it a tad early for her, the ravages of a bloody civil-war?

She’s five now, and she loves books as much as she loves pancakes. D and I had made a few decisions early on – that we wouldn’t give her screens to play with. No iPads (we don’t own one), no iPhones, no laptops and certainly no video games. Yes, they’re tempting babysitters, especially when you’re bringing up a child without any family to give you a break, without a nanny to give you a breather. I’m sure we were sorely tempted, but I’m glad we held out. We now have a girl who’s utterly technologically challenged, but she has plenty of time to catch up with that. For now, she has a world inside her head bursting with stories, books to burrow into and leaves and twigs to bring home. That will do.


So, here’s a note to my mother: Apart from being a hugger and a kisser, thank god you were a reader, Ma. Amongst a hundred other reasons, I love you for that. For having me grow up with the smell of your old yellow books. You couldn’t have passed on a better gift.


Ma reading to Chotto-ma, summer of 2013.



The art of an omelette

A couple of weeks ago, we drove to the mountains. Remember our winding drive through Wales last year? We went back there with Ma and Baba. This time, Chotto-ma was their glib little tour-guide, having sucked up Snowdonia through a straw on her last visit.

The mountains had been a brownish-grey in September; they’d stood like whittled warhorses against masculine skies. This time, everything was different; the same road now winds through mellow mountains; it’s summertime. Green has grown over slatey grey ridges and covered them in coyness. Their jagged edges gentled, the mountains hugged our car like lush, matronly ladies.

We went back to the lovely whitewashed B&B we had stayed in the last time. Surrounded by conifers, Glenwood House, sits opposite a rocky stream which hums past in steady song. The B&B is run by Marie and Said, a charming couple, with a little boy, warm smiles and seven chickens. They’re easy to return to.

Chotto-ma helped Said collect just-laid eggs in the morning, still warm to the touch. The chickens pecked at our shoes, ate some toast and cleared their throats. They had a lovely home at the edge of the garden next to a busy little brook. Before we left, Said packed up the eggs Chotto-ma had collected and gave them to us to carry back home. Fresh eggs from happy chickens who live by a mountain stream.

They were meant to be omelettes.

Courgette & Gruyere Omelette

Now, there’s an art to an omelette. It’s one of the easiest foods to rustle up, but very few make it well. A good omelette is soft, but not soggy. It’s golden-brown on the outside, pale on the inside. It’s fluffy, but full. It’s seasoned, it’s seasoned, it’s seasoned. I belabour the point for a good cause.

Thanks to Ma, I grew up on artful omelettes, folded off the heat at the right sliver of a second. Her omelettes had a secret. Not a secret ingredient, no. But a secret sleight of hand. A secret rule: Don’t let the egg rest. As you pour the egg into a hot pan, with whatever you’ve whisked into it, take a fork and give the middle a stir. It should scramble up, and parts of the pan should show through. Pat the top of the omelette to fill up those bits. Then, scramble it up again. And pat it again to patch up the top. Let is rest now for a few seconds. Move off the heat, and fold.

For this omelette, here’s what I whisked in:
Courgette, grated.
Gruyere, grated (use any cheese you like)
Coarsely ground pepper
Salt
Oil

I could pun, but that’s sew done

OK, that was completely unnecessary. And yes, I now own a sewing machine. I’ve owned it for two weeks now, but it’s all very hush-hush. I mean, it’s nice. It’s white. It has S-I-N-G-E-R written on it, in red. A few frightful knobs, an unfriendly needle. An intimidating stance. Actually, I think it’s a bit of a snob.

I stare at it. It stares back. And that’s pretty much all we’ve done since it got here. 

I have designs whirring around my head. Scraps of fabric. A table that is just the right height. Tapes, threads, buttons, scissors. Three books on sewing, each heavier than the sewing machine. It’s all there. But still, we sit and stare.

I really wasn’t expecting myself to be such a wimp about this. In my head, I was fearless. I saw myself churning out covers for my cushions, and dresses for my daughter. I thought sewing would be genetic.

Ma is a bit of an elf with a sewing machine. I grew up wearing the prettiest, most fashionable clothes in the neighbourhood. Clothes that she would toss up, casually, without a pattern in sight. I would wear dresses with details that made other mothers weak in the knees.

But, Ma wouldn’t let me anywhere near her beloved old machine. Or her little haberdashery cupboard. So now, I know nothing. (Ma, it’s all your fault. ) For three years, I’ve been standing in toddler playgroups, singing ‘wind the bobbin up’,  thinking it was some old Victorian toy. Nah, says Singer Manual.

Anyway, after weeks of sub-zero silence, Singer and I managed to break the ice today. We wound the bobbin, threaded the needle and shook hands. I’ll let you know how we get on. I just need to dig in. Get my hands dirty.

But between all the hemming and hawing, I did dig into something else. A pumpkin. Plump, and round, and orange. Like a warm, portly aunt. No knobs, no needles. So, I cut it open, dug out its the seeds, and got my hands dirty making dukkah.



Pumpkin Seed & Pistachio Dukkah

Dukkah is an Egyptian eat – a blend of seeds, nuts and spices which are coarsely ground to release a heady flavour. Served with bread and olive oil. As for the ingredients, I used  things that I had at home. Feel free to use other seeds, or nuts, and tweak the spices. Dukkah is highly adaptable.

Ingredients

1  cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup pistachios (you can use any nut you have at home)
1/3 cup sesame seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 teaspoon sea salt

If you’re using fresh pumpkin seeds, like I did, you need to boil the seeds in water, with a bit of salt, for 10 minutes. Or you could use pumpkin seeds off a shelf.
Put a flat pan on medium heat and dry-roast all the ingredients, except the sea salt. Stir constantly till the seeds, nut and spices give off a lovely roasted smell, and are lightly browned. Remove from heat and add salt.

Now, using a mortar and pestle, or a food processor, grind everything. Dukkah is best ground coarse, but feel free to choose the texture you prefer. I did it in two batches – one very coarse, and one quite fine.
Serve with bread and extra virgin olive oil. Dip the bread into the oil and then into the dukkah. Enjoy.
You can store the dukkah in an airtight container.