Category Archives: food

The plate of memories

I run into the house, hands over my head to protect myself from the rain. It rains furiously; hot, burning rain. I step into the house, obviously there is a power cut, the darkness within is punctuated by candles. Somewhere, deep inside, a kerosene lamp burns, casting its dull faint glow across the corridor. I take off my sodden shoes and wet socks sitting on the floor. Throw my bag and catch my breath. I am tired, and I am late, they have already cremated her, being unable to wait that long. Everyone else seems to have left. And then I see her shadowy form within. Once she sees me, she starts wailing, crying and talking really fast. Complaining, scolding, shouting, crying some more. Then fully out of steam she calls me to the kitchen.

My aunt’s kitchen is not the stuff of modern, white, gleaming surfaces and shiny appliances. It is an ancient kitchen, built long ago, satisfying the demands of another age and time. Everything is dark and dingy. There are huge cuddappah shelves holding hundreds of old complan tins, full of the weird and wondrous. The floor is old mosaic, pitted and cracked, uneven now, after years of alternating fiery heat and tropical rain. Lizards scurry across the shadows. Water drips constantly. The sink is a huge depression on the floor in one corner, the ‘counter’ is the floor on the other corner. In my house, we sit down and cook; all the tools of our trade lying around us at easy reach, in disarray.

In the dim light I see cooking underway. She must have known I was coming, she would have guessed my timing. She wouldn’t have eaten for all this time and still she kept up a constant stream of complaints and tears, old memories sustaining her thin frame.

In the old pot, there is rice bubbling away. One another stove she lays another pot. She throws in some oil and turns up the flame. In go curry leaves, they pop and splutter wildly. Then mustard and something, something and something else. Turmeric and her bright red dried chillies. She works fast, all her attention towards me, barely glancing at the pot. Another flame is lit in a huge whump, and over it goes the old wok, unsteady and wobbling. Minutes later, greens go in, rain and dirt, steaming away.

I’m sitting cross legged barely a few feet from her smelling of wet rain. I haven’t spoken a word to her. I know despite her wailing and scolding, that this is the only way she knows to say that she loves me. After all she has to, we are the only ones left now. The smells from the pots and pans cling to me. I am already beyond hungry, beyond grief.

Presently she sets two plates on the floor, and the hurricane lamp in front of us. By tradition my plate has been thrown away with the dead ones possessions, I now have ajji’s old plate. It is oblong and magical, it fills the eater up with memories and stories. First, curry on both our plates, and then something dark green. Then rice, hot and steaming, and a dollop of ghee for me, oil for herself. I wait for her to eat a bite, and begin. We eat in silence. Brinjals and pupmkins, greens and potatoes. Buttermilk at the end.

Then I begin to cry softly and she hugs me with her other hand, a wave of sadness enveloping us both.

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Filed under fiction, food, rains

Sixty days of summer

It was when the first lady of the market forgot her name that everyone knew that the mangoes had arrived. For weeks the market sweat, stank and perspired through the long days and slept deliriously through the night. As the days got warmer and the stench of jasmine stank unbearably, and banana blossoms wilted and fell off, the wait increased for the mangoes.  And finally one day, the mangoes came. But nobody forgot their name, or the smell of jasmine and therefore they were declared not real mangoes. Then the green ones came, plump and tight, raw and pert. They went ‘click’ against the tongue and made cheeks shudder and hence, they were pressed into service: shredded thin and floating in oil and chilly; sliced thick with lumps of jaggery, diced into geometrical cubes and served fresh with just so much salt. And they were pickled by the hundreds.  The rough knives of the butchers cut no meat that month; they only thwacked raw mangoes by the tens, by the hundreds. Every household brought them. Salted them, chillied them, oiled them and stored them in huge jars. The whole city urgently made pickles and the mangoes kept coming. One day they lost their tartness. One mango came, just a little sweeter, then a little more and then some more until they could no longer be pickled. But the city’s wives were smart; they curried them. Beat them into yogurt curries, disciplined them into mildly sweet sambars and enterprising rasams.

One day the markets’ first lady forgot her name. She was there before anyone else sat down to sell; she was there before anyone was there to buy, first in the morning before the fishes came, before the flowers came. She sold ginger and coriander, curry leaves and mint and she knew everyone who went into the colossal building and everyone who came out. And at the end of the day she spoke to the mice and cats and dogs, the names of people who had remained in the market, rotting amidst leftover mogras and champas, aralis and mullais, roses and daisies.  She forgot her name because she came late that morning, after sunrise and the mangoes had preceded her. She, who came before everything and everyone, lost that day. In her place sat fat yellow mangoes oozing suppurating mango pus, soft and sweet. Other subtle mangoes, yielding neither in flesh nor in color but with madness in their taste. Others too, shamelessly yellow and curvy, delicately tipping towards a perfect finish.

The wives of the city hurried past her, trampling over her and stomping her ginger and sneezing her mint. They rushed to the mangoes, some wrapped in red gelatine paper, some in cardboard boxes with more hay than mangoes, some rolling on the floor in old cabbage peels. The mangoes were touched and prodded, pinched and pressed, smelt and sneezed upon, thrown, tossed and bruised, worried, fought and haggled over, purchased, brought, bought. Some stolen.

And in the homes of the city the mangoes finally died their deaths. In discarded peels and sucked out seeds. Blue mangoes and red ones, Alphonsoes and inferior Devgads, fat Banganapallis and nostalgic Benishas. Hindi Payris, Gujrati Kesars and Bihari Dussheris.

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Filed under food, weather, writing

Ambrosia

Circa 4.30 pm. A cold Mumbai day.

K: “Outside my office in an hour”

Me: “Roger”

I started the piece of junk my bike had become and parked outside the station. Had a nimbu-paani just before I got in. At Durga’s. Set up by an enterprising housewife outside the local train station, slaking the thirst of a million commuters since 1975. Tickets in place and the 4.31 CST fast. K’s office in 25 mins sharp.

Khau galli in Ghatkopar is a small lane. Full of stuff to eat, obviously. All illegal carts parked flush with great food. The Gujrati palate meets South Indian. Half a kilometer of pure hedonism.

“1 Jain spring dosa and we’ll leave ok man?”

“Sure”

And we take Best bus 385 in the aftermath of the Jain delicacy to Sion circle.

Sion Circle is a circle. Surrounded by decrepit businesses, 3 restaurants all of which are mysteriously called Peninsula and the Cinemax theatre. Printing presses and small businesses thrive. S joins us there in all her bohemian glory. Kurti. Purani jeans.Cigarette and a sheaf of papers. Always the girl carries those mysterious papers. I wonder.

L calls and says she will be 10 minutes late. We wisely take that to be an hour and proceed.

Cutting chai at the tapri. Awesome.

“Let’s take a taxi to Matunga circle I say in a moment of inspired lukkhagiri”. They acquiesce.

Lounging around Matunga circle is very pleasant. Matunga circle feels right, anytime of the year. Old buildings look disapprovingly at newer towers. Maamis mingle with Bawas and trees overshadow humans. All round great places of learning (VJTI, UDCT) and tons of other not do great places abound, with their inexorable campuses. Mumbai was a surprising 20˚C that day. Browsing second hand books under wide peepal trees, politely haggling to buy books and a relaxed filter kaapi at Madras café.

“Oooh…lets go to the temple” S says. “It’s been ages since I went to one”

The Asthika Samaj stands in Matunga, a former tam-brahm bastion perhaps as a testimony to more peaceful times in Mumbai. It’s very south Indian, from the gopuram to the flower vendors mouthing invectives in unchaste Tamil outside. Inside, S outdoes herself by correctly recognizing 3 Gods and we are rewarded for her religiousness by hot dollops of chakkara pongal by the priest. Lucky day!

Out again and this time R and C join us. R is very very hep and frowns upon us for having eaten at all the aforementioned “sad” places. C is meeting a friend at garnish for notes. We all giggle. C admonishes us, chastises us and proceeds to blush when a hunk of a man hand her ‘notes’ to her. Meanwhile K and S are gobbling dabelis outside at a cart as I pounce to bite my rightful share.

“Philistines” R announces.

L calls “Yaar yahaan koi nahin hai! Kahaan ho tum log?”

Oops. L is politely asked to come to Matunga. She politely replies (as polite as a string of four letter words across three languages can sound), and finally agrees.

7.00 pm and all of us finally outside New Yorkers. Facing bad bosses, personal prejudices, exams, placements, errant moms, global warming and other such vagaries finally we managed to meet at the same time. In we go and do what we do best. Eat.

“I’m not having this Jain pasta. What Rubbish ya”

“Oooh look look chocolate fondue!”

“Thu parakkadhe…saniyane!”

Hour and a half later, with bursting bellies we tumble out, laughing raucously.

“Desserts?”

7/11 near Matunga station. Ice Cream.Bliss.

And like most meetings conversation had almost staled. We needed alcohol and since Murphy was our patron God, we couldn’t find any. So the awesome day ended with a pursuit of cheap alcohol. Ashish beer bar, Roshni deshi Daru and Laxmi wines later all we had managed was a little beer. Split among five (C lectured again). Time to say goodbye. S took a western line fast train. R borrowed fistfuls of notes form all of us and took a cab. C whistled for her chauffeur and magnanimously decided to drop L. K dropped me at Ghatkopar station and I hesitated a little before I plunged into a crowded fast train, heading homewards.

In the train I thought a lot. Of the awesome food I had had. More about the people I had them with who had changed through the years, yet stayed same in essence. More importantly I thought about the city that had fed us. The city that has seen us grow, fall, stumble. Love, burp, eat, puke and sweat. The city that in all its doom could not stop its benevolence. The city of tired nights, weary days and crowded noons. Of spicy chaats, dirty iced golas, filling vada-paos nurturing the immigrant. Seaside cotton candy, corn in the rains and pizza by the bay, with jazz. Wine soirees and beer drinking binges. Pav bhaji with chikoo milkshake in the rains. Mumbai in all its infinite gastronomic glory.

11pm.

Thoughts flew as I was pushed onto my destination by harried people and the station was awash with vegetable vendors selling wares at half price. Getting rid of stuff before they too caught the last local home. I got a bunch of badishop in a Rupee. I delicately plucked them enjoying the taste as I burped and kicked my bike to life.

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Filed under culture, family, food, girl, mumbai, nostalgia, train

Faith

The kebabs we had for lunch were awesome. Tender, crispy, just perfect. Finished off with Cabernet Sauvignon and another perfect meal was thus ended. Later braving the irregular Boston streets and making use of the great American feature that is the expressway, we were out in the suburbs heading home, when I suddenly decided to take a detour. Just on a whim, I took the exit onto temple street and proceeded to the Ashland Laxmi temple. None of my companions said anything, but the question hung there, like juicy kebabs just about to drop from the skewer. I had just slaughtered a few innocent animals, washed them off with alcohol, and I hadn’t even showered. And here I was, at the temple, in all my non-vegetarian, unwashed glory. As I parked, one of the company announced his intentions to stay outside owing to his having consumed a goat. As I removed my shoes, I felt guilt finally stab. ”You uncouth creature…at least you could have bathed”.

Was I wrong? I personally felt that I failed, not because of my perceived sins, but because I felt guilty. I did not have any reason to, I hadn’t done anything wrong. Or had I? Was non-vegetarian consumption a sin? Surely then scores of people on the world couldn’t worship, even most Hindus. Didn’t Shiva himself live in a cemetery? Did not the ancients sacrifice goats and loll about in jars of soma? And then I thought of my people, all pious, washed, sinless and vegetatively fed. I went to the temple because I felt like it. That’s all. No moon positions influenced me. Nor did any sins ask for absolution, and for once I had no favours to ask. The temple itself is in an exceedingly beautiful area, with several small streams and woods and that drive alone is divinity. At least it is to me.

Nevertheless onward I pushed. It is not in me to reach a destination and deny myself entry to it. So I went and did whatever I do usually. I prayed, I sat quietly, I asked for stuff, I watched people affirm their faiths. And all the while I was thinking. Furiously. And I was frustrated that I was unable to reach an answer. Essentially whether I was wrong would depend on whom I asked. Like India itself there were several variations, but everyone absolutely seemed to agree on the depravity of my unwashedness. And I realize that this is a conundrum that I myself have to solve. Does a bath wash the turkey off me, like the Ganges? Does alcohol dissolve into righteousness under the cover of night, to be replaced with piousness when the sun rises? Can I eat and drink after I visit the temple?

There are no rules. There are actually, but they too are shifting, allaying themselves to the times, to popular opinion. Its’ my life, my Gods, my sins, my blessings, my dharma, my karma. Or is it? Isn’t my family linked to my karma? Why is it so complicated? Wouldn’t it be just easier to confirm, not just to appease the ubiquitous others, but to also silence the beast within? And from clarity emerges chaos again and I am drawn into a whirlpool of questions. I see all my friends clearly, meat eaters and unalike, all clear in where they stand religiously. Firm and faithful or equally firm in their faithlessness.

My road it is to drive, and I have a lifetime to explore it. Laying the Questions aside, I accept the Prasad noting that the priest has a leather jacket on to protect him from the biting cold.

I smile.

PS: idlichutney celebrates it’s 50th post. Thanks to all you readers. We love you for reading us. 🙂 And the writings shall continue.

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Filed under culture, food, god, me, religion

Tangy tribulations

She came on her Honda, vrooming neatly into the parking lot. Hair check. Makeup check. Dress check. Confidently she strode into the hotel.

He arrived moments later in his car. Parked and wondered which kind of idiot parked bikes in a lot clearly meant for cars. He disheveled his hair, smacked his lips and walked into the hotel.

“What would you like to drink?”

“I’ll have a panagam, please”

“One neer mor for me”

The ass is starting with mor? Sigh…So this was it Pushpavalli thought. Her parents had set her up with this random guy. Hell it was exactly a setup, but they preferred to call it a meeting. Whatever. She couldn’t refuse, might as well see what happens.

“So what do you do?”

“I’m an actuary” …Or at least that’s what I’m supposed to tell outsiders.

“I’m…err…a banker” Like I’m telling you what I really do.

“Appetizers?” The waiter, a really good impression of SPB appeared as if from nowhere.

“Fried lentil puffs with the green coconut sauce please”

“I’ll just have some thattai with ricotta cheese and north Indian date sauce”

The waiter quietly disappeared.

Such was their conversation. Trivial things and the weather. Time, as it does, passed.

“Can I take your order?”

“Err Ill have the Shallots in tamarind sauce, over a bed of fragrant thanjavur rice”

“I err wanna have the eleven vegetables in coconut sauce over raw red rice”

-eh? Foreign cuisine aa? Hmph!

May I tempt you Sir? And Madam? We have a fine cellar. A Yercaud 1927 for the shallots? Vintage year it was. The Nellai ’51 is good too, but it goes better with drumsticks, would to care to sample it?

“Yercaud ’27 it is”

“And for you?”

“Just a toddy”

-what a Philistine!

And the meal continued amidst lies and half-truths.

“And we come to dessert the waiter smiled as he cleared the plates.”

“Roasted vermicelli in milk for me”

“I’m good”

“I insist you end with a sweet” she smiled and said.

“Ok then the rice marinade in jaggery, please”

Gastronomic successes often translate into other spheres. Later that night she shyed and smiled as they ate peanuts on the beach, holding hands. He let her drive the bike, enjoying the humid sea breeze as they sped past Samudra Avenue. 3796 rupees well spent.

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Filed under food, love

Autumnal aberrations

He sighed… And waited for the mustard seed to pop. Cumin lent more flavor, but mustard was traditional. The gas went tic-tic-tic and after what seemed like eternity; the seed sprang to life, zig-zagged a little, moved like a wayward diwali cracker and finally exploded.

“Ouch! that must hurt..how did your face get this way?” she demanded next morning.

-α-

Savitri pondered. This was the third time this month water had appeared from nowhere. Must surely be a good omen. She rushed and bottled the holy water seeping out of the ground.

Murugavel hammered with all his strength. There the water rushed out. “Your septic tank is ok Selviamma”. Who had time to repair the choked tank? That too thrice this month? Diwali was coming. He quietly pocketed the money and left.

-α-

She pauses to breathe

her burden she lays aside

a fly buzzed, wildly she swerves

spilling milk on the roadside ganesha.

Disappears under her piteous gaze

shock, amazement then wonder

as a nation stood bleeding cows dry.

-α-

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We are like this only



“You are going na?”

“He drinks cigarettes”

“I am working at Tata Motors”

“I was just telling only ki…”

“Righta leftaa?”

One aspect of modern India sorely lacking serious study is one of its most prolific languages, English. It is everywhere; blending with local languages sometimes, at others being elitist. With English literature having a decent repertoire of Indian author’s works and with English newspapers and television channels reaching the masses, it has come of age in India.

We often speak of good English and yet our brand of the Queens tongue rings of certain peculiar oddities. These not only stem from our mother tongues, but also from the delightful hot-pot that is Indian culture. Our inability to distinguish sometimes between simple and continuous present tenses, of making strange nouns even stranger verbs lend to Inglish a quaint air. The accent stresses more and bends around anglo-saxon oddities, the language however claims absolute loyalty to British English. Quick to throw some of English archaisms, quicker to add new ones, it evolves, grows and is the gateway to a better life for many in the sub continent.

A brief look at Inglish then, with words, their origins (where possible) and context, along with general bits of information that add to ones sense of knowledge, make one smile, but are essentially useless. Inglish Trivia if you will.

Among general words that English absorbed include catamaran, pundit, jute, jungle, juggernaut (from jagannath, Puri; referring to the rath yatra), bangle (bangdi), gym (gymkhana), shampoo and cheetah (sources are in conflict, but their Indic parentage seems doubtless). Also bungalow (hindi bangla), coir and teak both of Dravidian origin; kayir(rope) and tek (teak).

Our obsessive mentality to neatly slot people into classes has burdened English with aryan and pariah. The former from Sanskrit arya meaning noble and the latter from Tamil parayan (outcaste) (also something my grandmother used to refer to me first thing in the mornings it has definite racist connotations). Aryan and the Swastika have negative connotations, thanks to you know who and pariah isn’t a whole lot nicer either.

Enriching the Anglic palate are curry and ginger from Tamil kari and inji Mulligatawny is a bad corruption of milagu tanni (pepper water). Americans, true to their bland tongues shun all spice from it and actually put boiling rice in chicken stock, elsewhere it is just badly made rasam. It doesn’t take large amounts of intellect to connect mango with tamil manga. What is interesting is that the Portuguese also call it manga, and the Alphonso got its name from the Portuguese king, who was served it for dessert by a resourceful chef, as legend has it. The raj hangover left not only a legacy back in India, it also took with it loot and thug (Gabbar Singh immediately springs to mind) and the palanquin (palki).

Much more can be studied, greater minds will deduce more. Inglish is more than a variant of English languishing in the sub-continent, remnant of past greatnesses and follies, to many of us it is lingua franca, lingua prima and most of all the mother tongue.

Update:

Historiophile reminds me that one of the most important foods gets its name from the tamil arisi (rice). The Latin orizia, Italian riso and the French riz also owe their existance to arisi. Thank you.

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Filed under food, india, language, matter