Enter at your own risk

When I asked her what cake she’d like for her 5th birthday party, her answer was quick, sure: ‘Dinosaur’. I admit I tried suggesting other options. I couldn’t begin to imagine baking a cake that resembled a Stegosaurus, or any Othersaurus for that matter. But what other options could stand a chance next to earth-stomping, tree-chomping, meat-chewing monsters?

Chotto-ma is a keen follower of all things prehistoric, and a dinosaur party for her fifth birthday was the appropriate rite of passage. So, here we are.

And here’s the day in pictures. It was a good, good day.

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(* The dino illustration on the favor bags is from a lovely blog called Sugar Beet Press. She also has a beautiful Etsy store.)

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You, at five

Five! My poised little, wise little Chotto-ma, you’re one two three four five. How did it happen? Weren’t you crawling and drooling and speaking La-La-Language just a minute ago?

Five sneaked up on us, and I have a sneaky feeling it sneaked up on you too. When you heard ‘five’ your eyebrows nearly ran into your hairline. And your eyes got bigger, if that’s possible.

Everyone says you have my eyes, but I wish I had yours. Yesterday, you looked up at the clouds and said, “The sky looks like a big bowl of porridge.”  I looked up, and wanted a spoon. And I don’t even like porridge.

That lopsided little triangle, from your eyes to your head to your heart, holds thoughts that stretch much farther than your five years. As far as India and Jupiter and Mars. Those thoughts make you call Calcutta to check if Mamma’s TV has been fixed (since she said it wasn’t working the day before). It makes you hold me and Ba tight, very tight, and ask us not to die for a very very very long time. That is what you worry about the most now; every day. You worked it all out in your little head: dogs die when they grow old, and people must grow old too.

Thankfully, the worry melts in the face of good gobbly kissing, or bouts of frenzied dancing. And suddenly there you are as you are, my happy chotku-potku girl; so lovely, my heart bursts. You tease us, you twirl round and round, and you tell us stories of creatures only you can see.

So this is you.
Just the tip of you,
just a whiff of you,
just a smidge of you.
At five, at five,
at fah-hive!

When we asked you what you wanted for your birthday, you said you’d like an Arctic fox. At the shop though, the fox didn’t match up to magic. Sometimes, life just needs an unicorn. An unicorn that gallops out of a porridge sky.

This is your absolute favourite book now. It’s your book with Ba. You plonk down on Ba’s lap, get comfely; Ba reads out one poem after another, and you giggle and guffaw and ask for one more.

You’re always leaving us little messages. Here’s one I found on my study table a few weeks ago. Translated from Bengali, it says Dear Ma, I love you very much (I love your spellings so much, I’m almost sad they’ve started to straighten out)

You clean; and it’s no pretend-play either. I can give you a rag, and mirrors will be shining and table-tops dusted. I can hand you the laundry basket, and clothes will be colour-sorted and loaded into the washing machine. I often walk into the bedroom in the morning to find you’ve made the beds – yours and ours. Pillows lined neatly, the heavy duvets heaved and dragged till they’re folded neatly at the foot. You give me these little surprises every day, and I can’t tell you what a lucky Ma I am.


Here’s what you’re drawing now:

Us, kissing.

Dinosaur, growling.

 

Wolf, howling.

Animals, circusing.

And, a happy monster called Pah dancing with a lovely little monster girl, next to a Stegosaurus, next to a winged man, next to a duck.

You’re the honestest little person I know. You don’t lie. Even when you’re scared of telling the truth, you say it. And your eyes stay as clear and steady as the day you were born.

You’re trying very hard to like wearing jeans (for my sake), but really, you’d rather wear dresses with flowers and butterflies. Every day.

You still hate water on your face during baths.

You love space. And the planets that float and the stars that wink and the moon that waits for nighttime and the rocks that go flying through time. These hang over your bed.

You make a shopping list every time we go to the grocery shop. You have a clear idea about essentials.


We also have purple shoes in common.
(Your shoe size is 9-and-a-half now. We might start swapping soon.)

A few days ago, you told me this in exactly this order of words:
“I love you and Ba so much, so much and it’s so big, so big that it’s heavier than a building. It’s so heavy that you can’t carry it, you can only feel it inside.”

If there was a giant workshop amidst the constellations where babies were made to order, and we’d put in an order on a list so long that the scroll hung down from the clouds and touched the grass, we still couldn’t have thought up a daughter as wonderful as you.

Our Chotto-ma.

[minute] Mouse On Plate

Chotto-ma has developed a crush on the camera; she now holds the Nikon, which is nearly as heavy as she is, in her little hands, and walks around from subject to subject. Her hands and eyes are surprising sure. (Or, I’m just being a real mother about it.)

Here’s Mousie wiping the plate clean. Styled and shot by Une Petite Photographe.

{Photograph courtesy: Chotto-ma, using the iPhone. Uploaded untweaked.}

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.

[minute] Coffee With D

Remember {Midweek Monochrome}, the black-and-white photographs I once made a habit of? I don’t like habits; I always cut them short. I stopped Midweek Monochrome when it felt like they were becoming routine. Why I boxed myself into black-and-whites, I don’t know. I don’t like being boxed in; in the same way I don’t like sleeping in the middle bunk of a sleeper train. Claustrophobic.

[minute]
(noun) a period of time equal to sixty seconds or a sixtieth of an hour.
(adjective) extremely small.

I want to do photo posts, but without a monochromatic cloud hanging over my head. Mostly, they’ll be photos off my iphone, and as they come. Photos of the little ordinaries that I want to freeze and keep.

So, here’s [minute]. Think of it as you will: a sliver of a few seconds; an extremely small fragment of my day.

I’ll start it off with good coffee. A rich Colombian blend, for those of you who like details. The red leaf is a gift from Chotto-ma. The madeleines are shop-bought. And for no reason at all, D and I are talking in whispers.

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

Silence

It’s been very quiet here for a while. A comfortable quiet. Sitting between Ma and Baba, the blog blurred; I needed to sneak away from this space for a while. The house is still full, but Ma and Baba have gone upstairs to bed now, D is packing away the leftovers from dinner, coffee is brewing and a little girl is tip-toeing past her bedtime; she’s drawing. So I thought I’d sit and write in.

It’s late, but there’s still some light left outside. I love this time of night, I love the silence. But I also love the smokey sounds that blow in through the window. The wind, a kettle boiling, songs from the pub; I like that silence has its sounds. Our ears are insomniacs, they’re always awake. I can choose to close my eyes shut, black out the room, the trees outside my window, the peaches on the table. I can choose to shush my voice, say nothing, not a word. But I can’t close my ears shut. If I put my fingers in, sounds will still seep in.

I wonder if sound, then, is what our senses need the most. Who knows? It’s not something I’d want to have to prioritise. I lost most of my hearing once; for a month. I was traveling on a flight from Delhi to Mumbai, with a cold and a blocked nose, when I felt a sudden, sharp pain in my ears. This was followed by what felt like a thousand red ants crawling and biting their way from one ear to another. It was almost the end of the flight, and the plane was descending. What I didn’t know at the time was that a blocked nose combined with a quick change in air pressure when a plane drops height can make your eardrums buckle and burst.

What followed was a month of sharp, piercing pain and bloody rivulets on my pillow, but what I remember more sharply is something else. I remember the muted-ness. Conversations looked like mime, very loud noises were hushed like secrets. In the midst of throbbing Mumbai traffic, I’d hear nothing. Just a pale whooshing; a wide sea of a few million people sounded like the inside of a shell from the shores of the Arabian Sea.

Along with sound, I lost something else. I lost my sense of straight. I’d want to walk to the window right opposite our bed, but would find my feet curving me away from the window and straight at the wall. My feet wouldn’t follow my mind. Like a drunk, only dead sober.

Actually, it’s a bit like this post. When I started with ‘It’s been quiet here for a while’, I wasn’t planning on going anywhere near my ear. It was supposed to be a spot of bright, summer writing. Look where I’ve gone.

But there’s food for your patience. This dish is a special one for two reasons: It has potol (parval), a vegetable that has traveled all the way from Kolkata in Ma’s luggage. And the recipe comes from Bubulma’s kitchen, so it has many memories for D.

Dudh Potol 
(potol cooked in milk)

8-10 potol, sliced lengthwise into two
1 litre full-fat or semi-skimmed milk
2 dry red chillies
1 tsp black mustard seeds
A pinch of turmeric
2 tbs oil
2 green chillies
Salt

Heat oil in a deep pan and add the mustard seeds and red chillies. As soon as the mustard starts sputtering, add the potol. Stir for 2 minutes and then add the milk, salt and a tiny pinch of turmeric. As the milk starts to heat and rise, lower the flame a little. Keep stirring the milk with a rounded wooden spatula, and in between, keep the spatula in the milk as it cooks. This (in my inexplicable opinion) stops the milk from curdling. The milk must finally reduce and condense to coat the soft potol in a thick, creamy, textured sauce. The photographs should give you a fair signal as to when you should be done.
Serve hot with steamed rice.

Dog day

Some fathers like dogs, some don’t. Chotto-Ma’s dad is a dog-person, mine isn’t. Chotto-Ma sits on D’s lap, and together, they pour over a Dog Encyclopedia for hours. I’m fairly uninvolved in the process, though merely by being in the same room, I seem to have collected a fair amount of information on breeds and barks. Growing up though, my conversations with my father had rarely concerned canines. Baba was not fond of dogs (or anything else on four legs for that matter), Ma was non-committal, and my brother and I thought nothing of it.

Dog-people or not, D and my father have one thing in common. They’re the best kind of dads, the solid kind. The kind with lots of love to give; along with a firm shoulder and tight hugs. Their fathering is completely different, but D is the kind of father that suits Chotto-Ma, and Baba is the kind of father that suits me. It’s all about the having a father who fits.

So, while D was woken up on Father’s Day with an odd assortment of dogs and pups (the ones below), I called Baba to give him kisses, and to hurry him on. He and Ma reach London today; their flight lands in a few hours. Of course, if any of these dogs had been real, he would’ve probably caught the next flight back.


Meet Spotty Dog and Shaggy Dog, hand-cut and drawn entirely by Chotto-Ma, for her Ba, in the secrecy of her room. Apparently, Shaggy Dog isn’t snarling at Spotty Dog as I’d initially imagined. He’s showing Spotty Dog how well he’s brushed his teeth (!)

And this is Bookish Dog, which I contributed, inspired by one of Chotto-Ma’s drawings.

She also made him a card with Hanuman, the powerful Monkey-God from the Ramayana. Hanuman is her fast friend, and one with whom she has long conversations.

So, even though summer shows no signs of throwing a party, we had a dog day afternoon. And, of course, we also fed the dad. Cuddles are all very well, but you do need a slow-cooked pork-belly  to keep you going. The (very) slow-cooked pork belly was on the hob for three hours, gently simmering in coconut milk, and when it was done, it broke off the bone, melted in the mouth, and was as good as a pork belly can get. There was a green mango salad too. I’ll tell you all about it.


Slow-cooked Pork Belly in Coconut Milk

3 long slabs of pork belly (we picked up 3 pieces for the 3 of us. You can easily add one more, keeping the rest of the recipe the same.)
2 cans unsweetened coconut milk
Generous splash of fish sauce
3 star anise
2 long stems of lemongrass, each cut diagonally into 3 pieces
1 tsp green peppercorns
2/3 long dried red chillies
1 large white onion, sliced
1 inch ginger, bashed with a pestle
3 large cloves garlic, grated/minced
Bunch of fresh coriander leaves, chopped
2 tsp tamarind paste
2 green chillies, chopped
1 cup water
1 tsp brown sugar 
Salt

This really is a one-step recipe: Put everything in a pan together, and simmer slowly, stirring (when you remember), for about 2-and-a-half to 3 hours. When it’s cooked to it’s softest, pick out the lemongrass and star anise and discard. That’s all. Nothing more.

Green Mango Salad

I knew I wanted a green mango salad, and one that I found on The Kitchn suited the pork to perfection. You can find the recipe here (the only tweak I made was adding thinly sliced fresh coconut), so I’ll just leave you with the pictures.

Walk along The Backs

When the sun comes out, we get greedy about the outside. We take long walks, drink beer amidst buttercups and cow dung, choose restaurants that have tables in the sun, watch Chotto-Ma scoot off to pet other people’s dogs, and comment obsessively on how spotlessly, madly blue the sky is.

We go overboard. We do all the things that people do in sun-starved countries; except take our clothes off to sunbathe in the park, because we’re Indians and born with all this lovely tanned, subcontinental skin. (I had this awful urge to write ‘tanned when canned’, but I didn’t. Except now I just did. The sun’s gone to my head, I rhyme.)

I thought I’d take you along the walk we walked recently; it’s been a while since I took you on a Cambridge walk, hasn’t it? The last time, it was a different season, a different light.

I also thought I’d cook you something weekendy: I made cheese fritters with a simple mix of ingredients I had at home, but had no plans of blogging about (so, iPhone photos again). But it was really good, so even though the photos are less-than-good, they had to be shared with you. The fritters have a ripe, peppery flavour – Camembert, rocket, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. It’s wonderfully melty in the middle, crisp on the outside and a few minutes in the making.

And so that was what it was. A long walk through the morning, and the rest of the day on the sofa, the sun slanting in. An old movie, a cup of tea, a plate of fritters and a floor strewn with Lego.

First, the walk:

It’s a series of iPhone photographs, just as they were shot; in bright sunlight. They’re too obvious, too unsubtle for my liking, but I’m hoping you won’t mind.

We live in one of the prettiest cities in England, and Cambridge, in summer, is something special. This walk goes past the River Cam, around The Backs, skimming the colleges, through old alleyways and out into the marketplace which sits at the centre. The Backs – here you can see the backs of all the colleges in one grand row, sloping off into the river – is my favourite strip of the city.

And this is where our walk ended: in front of King’s College where cycles leant in patient queue; next to cafes where coffee and croissant beckoned.

You must be hungry.

So now, the fritter: 

Camembert & Rocket Fritters

Ingredients:

125 gm Camembert or Brie, roughly cut into pieces
2 cups rocket, roughly chopped
3 pieces of sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
A generous sprinkle of coarsely ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced or grated
2 tbs of flour
1 tsp fine semolina
1/2 cup milk
Salt

Mix in all the ingredients except the milk. Then pour the milk in, a bit at a time to make a thick batter.
Heat oil in a deep pan. Lower heat and drop in blobs of the batter. Fry till brown.
Transfer on to a a sheet of kitchen paper, and then onto your serving dish. Drizzle with a squeeze of lemon. Bite in.

You shouted back

This little space was born on this day, two years ago; I wrote the first post, and floated it out to sea. It really did feel like that; like a note in a bottle, bobbing off into unknown waves. It might have reached someone, or no one at all. It might have floated with the fish and fronds forever. I didn’t know.

But the note did find you, and you read it, and you shouted back across the seas, and you’re here now, reading this. So, thank you.

When the blog turned one, last year, I didn’t notice. ‘May 26’ didn’t ring any bells, and the date came and passed; no blips on my radar: that’s how good it’s been. You know, how you don’t remember to say you’re having a good time when you’re having a good time? It’s always in the past tense – “I had a good time that day. Or last week. Or last year.” And you don’t notice you’re happy when you’re happy. You only notice Happy isn’t there when you’re sad.

I didn’t notice I was blogging.

And then a sweet person wrote me a sweet note about the blog. She said it “felt like a book, an old, forgotten, battered, comforting book discovered in clutters.” I’ll remember that for a long time. It made me think about this space, and about connections made in the ether. And it made me realise that it’s been two years.

So, thank you for fishing that bottle out of the sea when I threw it in. And thank you for reading the note inside. And for hollering back.

I hope you’ll stay. I’ll plump up the cushions, and cook you something nice.

Blueberry Payesh

‘Payesh’ is a rice pudding, but quite different from its cousins in the West. It’s fragrant with crushed cardamom and bay-leaves, rich with chopped cashew nuts. And it’s often cooked in Bengali homes to celebrate a birthday.
Well, here’s a birthday, I thought. So I made payesh. It’s far removed from the traditional version, and nowhere near its usual colour. But I’ve found that blueberries get along famously with green cardamom and bay-leaves, when stirred slowly into thick, sweetened milk. And D and Chotto-Ma scraped their bowls very clean and asked for seconds. So there you go.

Ingredients

1 cup rice, washed (I found this beautiful, flaked rice at the local store, but use Basmati or Gobindobhog if that’s what you have)
2 litres milk (full-fat will give you a creamier texture, but for a skinnier version, go with semi-skimmed)
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups blueberries
2 green cardamom, pounded well with mortar and pestle
1 inch cinnamon stick
1 bay-leaf
1/2 cup cashew nuts, lightly roasted

Boil the milk, and then leave to simmer till it condenses to half its volumn.
Add the rice, cardamom, cinnamon and bay-leaf.
When the rice if cooked, but still holds its shape, add the sugar and the blueberries.
Stir slowly till the rice takes on a creamy texture and the blueberries melt in.
While stirring, add a little milk if you feel it’s getting too tight. Adjust sugar to taste.
When it takes on a creamy, thick consistency, add half the cashew nuts.
Ladle into a serving dish and sprinkle rest of the cashew on top.