Autumn in Cambridge is like a Monet gone mad. Trees and earth and river move around you, and through you, in swirls. You walk into this breathing artwork every day. Nothing is static.
And there I was yesterday, thinking like the grown-ups I didn’t understand when I was six. I was thinking how fast this year has passed. And it made me think of how formless, how unquantifiable time is. How it shrinks with age, and stretches with youth. How the quantity of time depends on its quality – a good year rushes by, a difficult year drags without end.
It’s a wily thing, a personal thing – time. The length of your minute is different from mine. Your hour, your year is only as long as you perceive it to be, not me, nor the clock or the calender. Have I told you about the clock in our house that doesn’t tell time? It’s on the wall next to our dining table. It’s large, round. In fact, it’s the main clock in our living room. It’s always 11:26 on this clock; could be am or pm. I don’t remember when it stopped, it’s been a couple of years. It inadvertently tells the right time twice a day. I could pop a couple of batteries in, and the hands would tick to order. But I don’t. I like it this way. I like that in this little corner, time doesn’t exist.
Happy 2015, everyone. No matter what the length of our new year, I hope it has 525,600 good minutes. Minutes that live, breathe and count.
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
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)
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!
We woke up on Sunday and looked out of the windows to find all the houses and trees gone. The parked cars, the pavements, gone. The church across the street gone, its moorish spires stolen by diaphanous djinns. The sky no more, sucked up into itself.
Outside our windows, the world was whipped cream. Thick, white. You could dip a finger in. Or, if like us you were walkers of a less sane mind, you could put your shoes on. At 7.40 am on a winter morning, you could put your shoes on.
You could walk through familiar streets as if for the first time; fog makes a first time of everything. It makes everything seem as secretive as half-told stories. Houses whisper, people in them sleep and dream strange dreams. Nothing stirs expect the hours.
We walked for a long time; I don’t know how long. By the time we decided to head back home, the fog had begun to lift. Headlights passed. A tree appeared in autumn leaves like a girl in gold lamé returning home from her Saturday night. We could see the church now, its neon sign reminding people to be saved on Sundays. The djinns had returned its spires before the people at Sunday Mass noticed anything amiss. A man stood by the park in a clown costume drinking coffee.
When we climbed the stairs home, the world was returning, sharpening. There would be other fogs, other out-of-focus fairytales. For now, there was coffee as dark as the outside was white. And pear cake with cream. Thick, white.
Pear & Yoghurt Cake with Orange Sour Cream Icing
This is a throw-everything-in-a-bowl kind of cake, so the recipe that follows is unconventional. As in, it may seem suspiciously whimsical and simple for a cake, but hang in there. It will rise to the occasion. It’s the best cake I’ve baked in a while, and certainly my favourite icing by far.
For the cake:
2 pears, not too soft, nor at its firmest; peeled
2 cups of plain flour
2 tsps baking powder
1 1/2 cups plain set yogurt (not Greek)
3/4 cup coarse brown sugar
2 heaped tbsps butter at room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla essence
For the icing:
600 ml sour cream (that’s usually 2 small tubs)
1/2 – 3/4 cup white castor sugar (adjust to taste)
Grated zest of 1 small orange
First the icing:
Hang the sour cream in a clean cloth to strain the water out. This should take an hour.
In a bowl, add sour cream, sugar and half of your orange zest. Give it a good mix till smooth. Taste and add more sugar if needed. Keep aside.
Now the cake:
Pre-heat your oven to 170 degree C (350 degree F).
In a large, deep bowl sieve the flour and baking powder together. Throw in the sugar.
Crack two eggs in the middle. Add the butter. Pour in the oil and the vanilla essence.
Now, with your hands, or a wooden spoon, give it a mix in a nice clockwise motion.
Into this tight batter, add yogurt. Mix till it’s a lovely smooth consistency.
Hold the pears above the bowl and with a knife scoop slivers of it into the cake batter. Let the juices drizzle in. Gently fold the pear into the batter.
Grease a medium (9-inch) cake tin with butter, and pour the batter in. Bake for about 40-45 minutes.
Cool completely. Then slather the icing on top, and sprinkle with remaining zest.
Refrigerate for about an hour before serving. Enjoy!
Who’d want to read about Nothing? Who’d want to read about a nothing kind of week? With exactly seven days, each day with exactly the same name: Tuesday right after Monday. People un-upsidedown. Duvets in duvet-covers. My washed washing still in the washing-machine. Four cows in the Common chewing on their grumpiness and that fine grass. Pooing as they walk, pooing as they eat. Terrible table manners under absurdly good sunsets. River, rowers, ripples. Goddamn alliterations. And autumn.
Nothing that trumpets. Or tells a story. And that’s the thing about Nothing, see. It doesn’t care. It doesn’t want to be. Doesn’t want to make a point. I watch Chotto-ma blow at a dandelion, scattering seeds to wind, till there’s nothing left but a green stump. But in that Nothing is contained one deep breath. Held. Released. Sending scores of seeds parachuting to its soil, sprouting into a hundred beautiful weeds.
I like Nothing. I like stories that say nothing, and tell something. I like questions that ask nothing, and walks that go nowhere. I like cul-de-sacs. And pointless conversations. And silence. And empty hours. And blank paper. There’s nothing quite like Nothing.
I had nothing much in the kitchen on Friday. I came home to a few stalks of celery, four carrots, a bunch of forgotten spring onions, some dried chillies and a couple of potatoes. And wine, for there is always wine.
Something good came out of that. Something good always comes out of nothing much.
Carrot, Celery and Chipotle Soup
1 cup chopped celery
2 cups sliced carrots
1/2 cup chopped spring onion (white onion will also do)
3 potatoes, halved lengthwise, then sliced in thick-ish semi-circles
1 chipotle chilli (this is what gives the soup its lovely smoky flavour)
1/2 cup dry white wine
A knob of butter
Coarsely-ground black pepper
Heat butter in a deep pan. Add the celery, carrots, potato, onion and a pinch of pepper. Stir for a couple of minutes on low heat.
Add about 6 cups of water, salt and bayleaves. Cover with lid and simmer till the vegetables are halfway cooked.
Add the wine and chipotle chilli, then continue to boil with the lid off till the vegetables are cooked and tender.
PS: Don’t go by the soup’s plain appearance. Inside, it is a thing of great beauty.
PPS: We had the leftover soup the next day with a grilled sausage dunked in.
A few days ago, I found a ZZ Packer that I’d wanted to find for a while. It also had the right cover; for no matter what they say, covers matter. Every once in a while, when I’m reading a book, I crook a finger in from the top and close its pages. My finger curves like a comma, pausing the book as I mull over a sentence, a paragraph, a thought. At that time, I like to see a cover that doesn’t tell me much. A cover that doesn’t drag my thoughts to closure.
This cover didn’t try too hard. It just slanted it’s font in gentle enquiry, and left it at that. It didn’t try to show me a picture of Elsewhere. It left Elsewhere to me. I liked that. I also liked its blue; it looked like it didn’t fit in.
But I’ll tell you what I liked most of all. When I came back home and took the book out of my bag, something slipped out of its pages. It was a photograph of a little boy, with a date on the back. Just a date, and a summer month. No year. Not a hint of a year. As if the person who wrote the date liked to live in the present, in the now. The yearless date of a mind not weighed down by eventualities. Carefree. It’s summer after all, and the sand is warm and the sea blue.
My first reaction on seeing the photograph was one of sadness; someone had lost a precious photo of their boy. I not only had their book, but also a bit of their memory. But then, I thought of how things are meant to be. And the beauty of stories that travel; of a photo shared not on social media but passed down in a good book. I also thought of how strangers’ stories always find their way to my house, like our dining table – remember the initials on its underside? Only this time, the story had slipped out of a book of stories and landed softly on my carpet.
And so the sweet boy sits, in the August of an unknown year. And here we are, in the midst of another August. He could be five now, or he could be in University. He might live on the same street, or in a different hemisphere. Somewhere in my Elsewhere.
I want to know. I love not knowing.
We took the bottle of wine, our glasses, the bowl of olives, put everything into a brown paper bag and went down to the river; Chotto-ma in her pyjamas. We cut across the Common, past the the cows, the tall grass licking our ankles, sticking to my jeans, and found a bench next to a boat called Susie Q. Everything was a pinkish-bronze: people on cycles, the Labrador chasing his ball, my toes, the tips of the grass. Dying embers of a day’s end. This hallowed light makes such innocents of us all.
Last week, I decided to step back from the virtual a little; I closed my Peppercorns’ Facebook page. It felt like the right time. I needed to disconnect. If you followed me on Facebook, and suddenly found me gone, I’m sorry. But if you read and know this blog, I feel you’ll understand the why. The whim.
Now, before you rush headlong into your week, I’ll leave you with a little more whimsy. With this music. Chet Baker, and cocktail clouds.
Have a wonderful week x
They seem to know better than us that all you get is one show. The first show, the last show. One life and all that. They lived like that – even when they bleached away from that heated pink to the paleness of good paper. Even when they sagged like skin, and frayed like an old silk saree. God, they went with such grace! You dared not feel sorry.
I’m glad we saw them off before we left. Our bags are packed – we leave for our holiday soon. We’re going to Sicily and a little cottage in the woods where all I want to do is Nothing. They tell me there’s nothing like Sicily in the springtime.
I’m carrying one of my favourite books. And a sense of a place where volcanoes smoke, the Mediterranean sucks up the sky, and the sun sets like a crazy peony.
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.
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
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.
I walked in to cook a mustardy-coconuty-chicken; I found the mustard oil, made a mustard paste, grated the coconut; I took the bird out of the fridge. Suddenly, there was a bottle of sriracha hollering from the corner, and suddenly the other cook was elbowing her way in. So, now instead of a mustardy-coconuty-chicken cooking on the fire, there’s a soy-shriracha chicken grilling in the oven.
Does that happen to you? Tell me I’m not the only one with Multiple Cook Personality Disorder.
I made a hummus yesterday, from scratch, and not with tinned chickpeas either. But was hummus in the plans? No. The chickpeas, soaked through the day, were supposed to become a Chana Masala. But they didn’t. One of the bossy cooks in my head took out the tahini.
The hummus was good. I used this recipe from the Guardian by Felicity Cloake. Her recipe comes with an interesting hummus-debate.
While the chickpeas were soaking, I also made this. Every piece that I make now seems to be soaked syrupy with springtime and posies and happy little birdies; I think the weather’s finally starting to take the hint. (You can find the art in my Etsy Shop)
After the hummus had happened, we ate it with hunks of crusty bread. But some of it also sneaked into something that it wasn’t supposed to sneak into. There was a stew cooking on the hob, and the bowl of hummus sitting on the kitchen counter. One thing led to another, and the stew turned a corner.
A hummus-y carrot & new potato stew
(You don’t need this recipe really. You can make any old stew, throwing in your choice of bits and bobs – vegetables, chicken and what-you-will – and just follow the last leg of the recipe where I stir in the hummus.)
4 carrots, diced thick
5-6 new potatoes, halved or quartered
1 small white onion, sliced
8-10 slices of chorizo (skip this if you want, the vegetarian version is great too)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups chicken stock (water or vegetable stock for the vegetarian version)
A few whole, black peppercorns
2 pinches of cumin powder
2 generous tbs hummus, freshly made or store-bought
One quarter of a lemon
A sprinkle of paprika
Into the heated olive goes the bayleaf and peppercorns, then the onion, potatoes, carrots and salt. Stir, lower the heat right down and cover. Cook till the carrots and potatoes are cooked halfway.
Pour in the chicken stock/water, add the chorizo and the cumin. Season if needed. Simmer till potatoes are cooked and carrots soft.
Take the pot off the heat. Now, stir in the hummus, the minced garlic and a squeeze of lemon.
Transfer to a serving dish and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with paprika. Serve with couscous or a rustic bread.