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.

Stalk

I did not grow up where rhubarbs grow. I hadn’t seen a single stalk of it till we lugged our life and luggage to England. Then, suddenly there they were, lying in their market stall. These lounging, stretching, graceful stalks. Pink and slender and as foreign as flamingoes. So, I admired their beauty, and skirted around them the way one skirts around beautiful, foreign things.

But when you live in this country, rhubarb will find its way to you. Rhubarb in ice-creams, rhubarb in pies, rhubarb with its feisty kick aimed at the corners of your jaw. Who’d have guessed? That this slender thing in its pink cocktail gown could kick like a ninja.

I loved it. I loved the coy exterior and the tart within. Rhubarb has personality. It is what it is; you either like it, or you don’t. It’s Marmite vegetable.

And to me, it’s as English as Marmite too. In my technicolour rhubarb-imagination, I can see it’s delicate stalks stewing on an AGA in an English country kitchen, then put in a pie and served to a lady, who, as the camera zooms in, I see is Beatrix Potter putting the finishing touches to Tabitha Twitchit’s prickles.

But what if you invited this English Rhubarb into a different kitchen, into my kitchen? I bought six pink and well-mannered rhubarb stalks last week. D and Chotto-ma used half of the stalks to bake me a lovely cake on Mother’s Day.

And I had my way with the other half.

Rhubarb & Red Lentil Soup with Ras-el-hanout

This soup! It’s a very, very, very fine soup. We’ve had it on a loop for a week. It’s a great example of why rhubarb needs to be thrown into savoury recipes more often. The recipe was inspired by a tangy dal we had growing up – a simmered mix of red lentils and raw mango. This soup has the same tart edge, balanced by the natural sweetness of carrots. The ras-el-hanout, which we carried back freshly ground from Morocco adds a beautiful North African moorishness. (You can, of course, buy ras-el-hanout, as well as the turmeric in the recipe, in almost all supermarkets and Middle-Eastern grocers.)

Ingredients

250 gms red lentil, washed
2 stalks of rhubarb
2 carrots, chopped into small cubes
1 medium onion, also chopped small
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tsp coarse black pepper (crushing a few with a pestle is even better)
Bunch of parsley, chopped (or coriander – both work well)
1 1/2 tsp ras-el-hanout
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tbs olive oil
Salt

Cut off the head and tail of your rhubarb stalk; the leaves are toxic, so must always be trimmed off. Not cut your stalks in 1-inch pieces. (Usually, I leave my rhubarb unpeeled and pink, but for the soup, white looked better than the final watered-down pink, so I peeled the stalks. Feel free to leave the pink on with rhubarb that is very fresh and firm.)
Heat the olive oil in a deep pot. Throw the onions, garlic, carrots in together. Stir for two minutes, then add 4 cups of water.
Add the lentils, rhubarb, half of the parsley (or coriander), ras-el-hanout, bayleaf, pepper and salt.
Cover and simmer till the lentils have split evenly. Add more water if needed.

Taste for salt, simmer for a minute more giving it a good stir.
Serve hot garnished with the rest of the chopped parsley (or coriander).

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