Chai/Tea

For once, I am going to be first at something-first at issuing a trigger warning for a recipe for tea. No, no, don’t leave already. The recipe is pretty standard, and I’ll let you know where the triggering bits are, I promise. Trust me, I will. But, if you are busy and just need the recipe, just scroll until the very end. You are welcome.

Now for the part where I weave a story about the recipe from my experiences, threading it with observations about people, customs, and bits of embellishments. Just a tiny bit of the latter though, for gosh, I hate embellishment. But I love sparkly trainers. Not gilded heels. Not glittery flats. Trainers. No embellishment for this post though.

“Espresso is just like chai. When we say espresso in Italian, it just means coffee, like you call tea, chai in India”, F said while we manoeuvred cobbled lanes and an unexpected flurry of tourists in a quiet part of the busy tourist district. “Your Hindi diction is perfect”, I said approvingly. We settled for overpriced coffee-decaf for me, cappuccino for F.

“Do you always have decaf?”.

“Isn’t it too late for caffeine? Are you sure you’d be able to sleep tonight?”

“I drink a litre or two of coffee a day”

No, no chai in the story. Just yet. Lots of hot beverages, often decaf, conversations, and walks in this city each of us call home, however. Homes in leafy neighbourhoods with back gardens. In tiny rooms in flats shared with strangers whose lives we know nothing about, yet share the intimacy of smells and sounds of daily living. Homes on boats that grow cold in winter, that glide across canals, chosen because of need. Homes with partners. With parents. Sometimes homes that we fill with the the voices of people from gadgets, as proxy for people we wish were around. Homes with a solitary coffee mug, chipped at edges.

We share stories of how we ended up taking the walk we were taking, speaking what we were able to speak. Of broken homes, happy families, of aspirations, failures, of hurting and being hurt. Of food we grew up with, and some we have come to love. Sushi and Dhalpuri and Mole and Inky Arancini. Of huge fish carried on the shoulders of wiry men. Of choosing snakes in wet markets. Of big Sunday lunches. And of modest weddings. Of books read and unread. Of binge reading Death Note, and rereading Marquez. Of watching Studio Ghibli in very different parts of the world. Of the films of Almodovar. Of the number of times we could watch LOTR. Of Twitter feuds and TikTok clips. Welfare state. Korean skincare. Politics of marijuana. Pros and cons of ENM. Racisim. Of being outcasts in countries we grew up in. And of being the dark horses, and black sheep of families we were born into. Of growing up in tiny Scandinavian towns, and big South American cities. Of living on the margins of society and in the middle of cities. Of living for people we share bloodlines with. And of moments we decided we wouldn’t. Of the times we asserted the right to dream our own dreams, and the times we let people down. Of growing up alone, of growing up with step siblings, and half siblings, and siblings who are nothing like us, even while we grew up under the same roof. Of parents who worked three jobs to put food on the table, and parents who wore tailored suits to work everyday. Of dreams for this world, and lives we wish to create. Of people we want to meet. Of places we want to be. Of things we want to leave behind. Music. Art. Words. Ideas. Homes. Big things and little prayers. Embraces that we long for. Shared laughter that still reverberates. Of lovers who stopped being friends, and being friends with transient lovers.

For some London is a means of escape that sustains whilst they navigate unravelling of life in other locations. No, not escape, I stand corrected. Means of finding joy they don’t find elsewhere. An opportunity to experience, and capture, and feel things and people they wouldn’t in postcodes their bills and Christmas cards, and Amazon parcels arrive. All however, grateful in one way or another for what it bestows-freedom, opportunities, music, art, pleasure, love even. Ofcourse there are rough edges. Some call London home grudgingly, saying “it’s hyper sexed, overpriced, and cold”. Some with hope. Others because of circumstances.

And for me? Above all? London is where I have known the kindness of strangers. Over and over again. Tenderness. And felt understood. Multiple times. More than ever in my life. Of having received the warmest of hugs from people whose hands wash dishes all day long, and long conversations with people whose calloused fingers create luminous music. Of having received kindness from people who risked breaking boundaries to see if I was ok. Of knowing men who nurture and women who gave me strength. Ofcourse there are times I wish I didn’t have to read between the lines as often as one needs to do here. Or sometimes, just wish the British would let their guard down a tiny bit?

“You know, I have been sitting in meetings with this very visible bandage over my lips, looking ridiculous, and not one person has asked me about it? Probably because they don’t want to offend, I guess. It’s absurd, really”.

“Tell me about it”

At this point of writing this post, I would copy paste what I had written and send it across to Amit, only for him to send his feedback in two words-“it’s rubbish”. “I hate you. Did you even read it? I don’t want to talk to you”. Both of us knowing our exaggerated eye rolls at each other were only the many ways in which we showed our affection for each other. But it did lead to me reviewing my script, acknowledging the self-indulgent writing and making amendments. If we were reviewing each other’s academic work we’d be very harsh, with me saying “it’s awful-there is no structure Amit!”, and his text to mine would say “this argument has already been made two years ago-you’ve wasted your time. Read Dr Gobbleydook’s 2019 book” .

“But you knew I was working on this, and I have not been in academics for a couple of years. In any case this was just an idea. And why could you not tell me about it when you knew? I hate you.”

“You never asked me”.

“By the way, I hate his new pornstar moustache of yours. It looks disgusting”

“I like it and it’s here to stay”

“I hate you”

(Trigger Warning: I told you I’ll let you know)

Since Amit passed, people have told me to write about him so I have closure. But I don’t want closure. Are you angry with him?, asked one whilst I was sat, in a room I had visited for months, trying to convince myself of things that often shouldn’t need convincing. Sometimes I felt hope and the will to try and live another day, at others, hot, fat tears would replace what words were not able to articulate.

“No, I am not angry. I can never be angry with him. It was not his fault. Depression should not be irreversible, but it was in his case. What hurts me is not that he is dead, but the fact that he had to endure so much pain on his own. That his beautiful mind was so tortured in the end. He is the one person I have loved unconditionally, and who has loved me unconditionally. He was not my lover, or my brother, or “like family”. He didn’t give me gifts or wish me on my birthday. And I always did. He was not my strength or the wind beneath my wings. He didn’t send me words of affirmation. He just knew I was resilient and I would be fine. He was my friend. I don’t remember a single time when I met him in the 15 years we’ve known each other where we met each other and parted ways for any other reason other than that it was time to go home. I miss him because I can no longer walk all evening with him. Or reject his calls because I was busy. Or have him reject mine. I miss him because I can no longer share the pleasures of everyday life with him. I miss him because I would never feel as happy to applaud for anyone, and feel my heart fill with pride. Or have him applaud my small achievements. I don’t feel like living because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to love someone more. Or have someone accept me and love me like he did-irrespective of what dress size I was, what my academic or professional achievements were. It was a relationship that was not based on what we did for each other, but just based on the fact that we enjoyed every single minute we were in each other’s company-often there was mock anger but both of us knew it for what it was. I can no longer criticise every shirt he buys for himself. Or buy something that catches my eye because it would look good on him. I miss getting texts where he tells me he is under a tent on the banks of a rousing river. I miss getting a call telling me he is on an overnight bus to fringe town to talk to someone so he understands the the workings of a cult I have not heard about. I miss worrying if he’s managed to sleep, if he’s found a tea shop in the early hours he reached towns I never knew existed. I miss telling him I love him and knowing, for once I mean it. I miss him repeating that and knowing he means it too. I don’t know if it makes sense to you, but that is how I feel. I can’t put him into words. He was just the one person I loved and cared more than anyone else in the world. That is what people don’t understand-why should I be grieving the passing away of a friend for so long. He was not a friend. He was my only one. The only constant in my life. His room was the only place I have ever felt at home-safe and accepted. The only place I didn’t want to run away from. He was supposed to be my always and forever. He was the only person I trusted my life with-knowing he’d never abuse me, or pull me down, or hurt me. And that while he felt uncomfortable talking about things that entailed taking deep dives into the darkness of pasts we didn’t want to revisit, but ones we were sometimes confronted with, he always showed up. I never had to ask him. He just turned up. “Chal, Aja chai Pete hain” (Come, let’s have tea). That is what I have lost”

“I understand. But there are people who care about you still”

“Hmmm”

Our friendship was forged over cups of tea at university chai stalls in Delhi. Amit was friends with everyone and I was friends just with him. I met people through him. We took breaks from reading at the library by drinking tea under the shade of trees, sat on concrete slabs. He would come find me at my usual space in the library and pester me to come with him. I’d grumble but go willingly in the end, and a 15 minute break would become 30 minutes, sometimes an hour. When the library closed, we would walk back with others to his hostel, drink more tea, eat anda and alu paranthas, and again chat for hours again. When it came time to leave, he’d walk me home. But that always entailed more cups of tea outside the tea stall near my house, and more hours chatting about things I no longer remember. What I remember is just the laughter and the warm, sharp smell of ginger in the sweet, milky chai.

“Oh shut up, Amit!”

“Nahi, sun na” (“No, listen to me”)

Amit never made tea for me. And I have never made tea for him. We’ve always had tea from a thela (a cart on the roadside), sat on pavements outside theatres, whilst waiting for plays to start at Mandi House, from roadside dhabas, at subsidised cafes in cultural centres at the beginning of evening lectures or book readings. Or sometimes outside disreputable movie theatres. Chai that is milky, hot, sweet and is served in cheap glass tumblers. Would we have a friendship we did if we had met here in London? Who knows. I wonder what excuse he’d find to pester me to leave my books behind and tag along with him outside the library. How we’d forge a friendship without sharing conversation over multiple cups of tea a day. What reason we’d find to text each other to meet over tea because it was raining. And what he’d say about the English tea? I know what he’d say-“Ewww”. He’d be appalled if he learnt I have started liking English Breakfast tea. What would he say about all these conversations I have with people he doesn’t know? How he’d feel if he knew people repeated what he had always told me about myself-nice things, kind things, in accents I had not heard before. Would I have these conversations if he was still here, pestering me, if we were still laughing our silly laughs, being able to share things with each without filters, everyday, each day, until…until I left a country I never thought I’d leave, and he…found himself amongst strangers who never became his friends. But I know he’d be happy I was continuing to have conversations in a city we had promised we’d explore together, the walks we’d go on, the things we’d see, the libraries we’d visit. Things that I do and conversations I now have without him. And I know he’d never say it, but he would be proud of how far I had come. He would laugh if I told him I was taking classes to learn to breathe again-“Three breaths in, three breaths out-one and two and three, and one and two and three”. He’d grumble at some of my choices and still complain when I wore black, though.

“I hate it. Why can’t you stop wearing black? You look so lovely in colours”

“I don’t care. And black is a colour. And I hate you”

“You never listen to me. Goodbye”

“Goodbye”

I wish you were here, Amit. I miss you so much. Always and forever.

“Shut up”

“Hmmm”

“Ok, I miss you too”

“I know”

Recipe for chai

Makes two cups of chai

Note: Milk to water ratio in India is usually 1:1 for regular chai. If you want something that is more milky, first go with 2 parts milk to one part water. “Special chai” at chai stalls is made with just milk. People in India have tea multiple times a day, probably because of which our serving sizes are much smaller. One coffee mug of tea would be approximately two and a half servings of tea. Because of this, regular tea in India is strong, has a 1:1 ratio with water and is sweet. We consume it a fair number of times, but in small quantities. In India, people frequently order for “cutting chai”-a serving of chai that is “cut” into two servings-a few sips to share with a friend.

Ingredients:

Full fat milk-one cup

Sugar-to taste

Loose tea leaves-three teaspoons

Water-one cup

Ginger- a tiny knob (crushed) (optional)

Cardamom-one pod (crushed) (optional)

Cloves-two (whole) (optional)

Method:

  1. Add water and milk to a saucepan and heat it until it comes to a boil. Lower the heat and let it boil for 4-5 minutes
  2. Add spices, ginger and sugar, if using and boil for another minute or two. Keep stirring.
  3. Add tea leaves. If you have tea bags, tear it open, add the leaves to the saucepan and discard the bags.
  4. Raise the heat and let the tea boil once. Keep stirring. Immediately lower the temperature before it boils over and let it “cook” for another 4-5 minutes. Keep stirring.
  5. Remove from heat and use a tea strainer to strain the tea leaves and pour into cups.

Odiya Dalma

People who have watched me, bent over books and bent over, slicing, chopping, dicing a mound of vegetables tell me they can’t tell what I love more. Cooking as well as serious academic research is about the practice of knowing, of understanding elements deeply, of evaluating and the studied appreciation of the syntax of things. Both are also deeply personal. Both involve the act of putting together, of assembling things in a manner that “makes sense”. Bricolage, as Levi Strauss would say. In both instances there are elements that I know more intimately than I do others. Like people perhaps. Some you know like you know yourself, some that are eternally a “work in progress”, and some you just cannot seem decipher. Somewhat like artichoke -too foreign still but intriguing enough for you to persist in knowing. Some that you fall in love with almost instantly, and the fact of never having known anything like them stops to matter. There is just delight that reminds you of your first taste of oysters, its briny water and unknown textures bringing joy and pleasure in equal parts.

When one lives in an uncertain time like the current moment, in a country one didn’t want to be in the first place, amongst people whose “you are so lovely” doesn’t make sense to you, even though they speak the language you speak, remembrance sometimes becomes an act of homage. In the act of remembering and longing for places and people one tends to erase things that were less than. The inherent violence of everyday life, for instance. Or even the cuts to the hand as one wielded the spiked metal scraper-more miniature weapon than a kitchen gadget-as white, soft coconut shavings rained on the newspaper, collecting it in small white mounds.

But there are differences too, and analogies therefore can be tricky intellectual tools. You don’t judge a bitter melon for being bitter-you try to understand its essence and try to work with it, cooking it with things stronger than itself or letting it shine alone, serve it steamed with a dash of lime, a splash of mustard oil- a union that perhaps shouldn’t work, but does. But with people, even as you understand the nature of their very individual suffering, excavating their pain in layers, you sometimes have to remind them of things they don’t want to acknowledge, the privilege they don’t see-privilege of being born the way they were, where they were, privilege they take for granted as they destroy things and people around them. Things that should have been sacred.

Sometimes what was once an act of everyday becomes foreign. You get used to new routines, new ways of life. You realise you have become the shortened name people now call you by. You just don’t respond to it, you identify with it, without realising how this came to be-this transformation you don’t quite remember choosing for yourself. Remembrance then becomes less of an homage but more an act of renewed knowing of the self. Of making sense. You revisit to know. Old books. Old friends. Old loves. Food that was part of your everyday. Not special, not spectacular. Food you ate with your fingers like people you shared a history, a language, a way of living did. You remember the times you scooped a mish mash of rice, vegetables and fish into your mouth after a long day at school, without knowing that one day it would stop being part of your everyday life, that one day you will stop speaking the language you spoke as a child.

I doubt anyone who grew up in Odisha like I did would remember their first taste of dalma. It is not an event like the act of feeding the first morsel of rice is-a celebration of new beginnings. But it is ubiquitous enough to be called khanti Odiya-fully, “100%” Odiya. Some would say that for the more modest pakhala, rice steeped overnight in water, mildly sour because of the fermentation, served in middle class homes like mine with its own unique assortments, or in more humbler settings with just salt and slices of onion-more a food of survival on meagre means-one I have never known or experienced.

There are different versions of the dalma. The abhada, or temple dalma, shorn of onions, garlic and potatoes-the former because they supposedly instigate tamasic urges, urges that need to be contained, domesticated or entirely annihilated based on locations, peoples, or contexts, and the latter because it is bidesi, foreign. The everyday, basic dalma made with potatoes and aubergine, sprinkled with a coarse powder of roasted cumin and red chillies. The Habisa dalma, made every Monday in the month Kartika with roasted yellow lentils, starchy vegetables and crushed ginger, announcing the beginning of winter, austere like the widows clad in white who adhere to punishing rituals throughout the month, rituals you don’t understand.

The first day of Kartika saw many steel containers of dalma from neighbours and extended family spread out on our dining table, waiting to be sampled. My sister however stuck loyally to the one made by my mother. Ama ghara badhiya-our house’s is the best, her retort for any situation that involved having to make a choice of any kind. Why seek out what is unknown when you have the assured comfort of the known, her little self perhaps thought. The first day of Kartika however was also celebration of the exploration of distant lands-lands that were once unknown. One got up early in the morning to float small, colourful paper boats, and boats fashioned out of banana trunks, their skins pierced with thin, glowing sticks of incense, holding tiny earthen lamps floating through the mists in rivers, lakes or temple ponds to mark trade and sea links with Indonesia, a ritual in remembrance one has known only through the telling of stories of a past that has ceased to exist.

Then there is the dalma that sustains through the ten days of mourning when one eats only one meal in a day at dusk, the dalma bereft of the tempering of ghee, cumin and dried red chillies to imply the cessation of everything that is indulgent perhaps. True, dalma is a “medley of lentils and vegetables”, but only certain lentils and certain vegetables. Yellow lentils and essentially starchy vegetables, squash, green plantains, and drumstick. Sometimes all of them together, but mostly two or three. Salt, turmeric, and that very Odiya spice mix of roasted cumin and red chillies. A simple or complex tempering according to one’s taste and a sprinkling of freshly grated coconut. One wouldn’t include broccoli in a dalma for instance, like one wouldn’t add drumstick to a bowl of Bolognese- it disrupts the internal coherence of the dish-like people who don’t belong together or ideas that clash, but would make sense and sparkle in other locations, different settings.

To make dalma you will need

Toor dal-1 cup, rinsed and soaked in water for 2-3 hours

Cubed pumpkin, green plantain, aubergine, drumstick-2-3 cups

Fresh ginger root-1 inch, crushed (not chopped, not paste and certainly not powdered)

Green chilli-1, crushed (just give it a nice little bash with the back of the knife or pestle)

Turmeric-1 teaspoon

Salt-according to taste

Asofetida-one pinch

Panch phoron (mix of cumin, nigella, fenugreek, mustard and fennel seeds)-1 teaspoon (optional)

Dried red chilli-3

Cumin seeds-1 teaspoon + 1 for tempering

Freshly grated coconut-a small handful

Ghee-1 tablespoon (don’t substitute it with oil)

First cook the dal with salt, turmeric, ginger, green chilli, asafoetida and panch phoron. Do not add too much water. Just enough to cook the dal. Then add the vegetables, cover and cook till soft. Meanwhile roast the cumin with two dried chillies until fragrant. The cumin should have puffed up and become dark brown by this time. Remove the mix onto a plate, let it cool and then make a coarse powder in a mortar and pestle. Next, heat the ghee in a pan, add the cumin, break the red chilli into two and drop it into the pan. Once the spices splutter and change colour, add to the pan with cooked lentils, cover and let it sit for a few minutes. Sprinkle half a teaspoon of the red chilli-cumin mixture and adjust according to your taste. Add the grated coconut and serve hot with rice, with a side of lime, green chillies and a bit of coarse salt. You can spoon a bit of ghee on top as well.

Chicken Steamed Momo : Steamed Dumplings with Chilli-Garlic Chutney from Nepal

Image Today we get frisky, you and I. We role play. Ok? Me plays iconoclast, my cleaver held firmly in my hand. You be Watson. You watch. You record. Yeah, you can go ahead and choose the music too. They are going to call it the “Jalebi Massacre”. I hope they do.  For I am about to destroy a few images. Sounds rad, does it not?

(Strike one. Yipee!). This post should have been titled “Chicken Steamed Momo: Steamed Dumplings with Chilli-Garlic Chutney from Nepal/Tibet/and the many street corners, cafes, community markets of Delhi NCR” Why haven’t I done that, you ask? Because I have APA style sheet drilled into my brain (“title should be concise”). I was showing off with that APA reference, I concede. Its my way of reminding people (not you, beautiful stranger in pyjamas, its for the people who call me by my name, know my name) that a food blog does not a housewife make.  Especially, when no one has “put a ring on it“. So, love, if you want me to offer something other than sparkling tap water when you come visiting, you can stop the housewife reference right about now. Thank you.  WHossh! ChopChopChop! MinceMinceMince! 

Done. And Dusted.

I have lived in this city more than I have in any other, I have lived in all sorts of neighborhoods too. And I  think its time to do the little favour to Delhi’s street food that Dibakar Banerjee’s film did for the cityscape of Delhi in Bollywood films.  By moving the lens beyond the Red Fort, DB had us watching us. We, our middle-class neighborhoods , the ones further away from Delhi-6, the ones you and me live in. The ones we sometimes wish to run away from.While Street food in Delhi has extensively been written, talked about, filmed, researched, “but, Dude”,  the accounts of Paranthe Wali Gali, of the Chaats of Chandni Chowk, the Samosas and Jalebis  of of settlement colonies, the Cholle Bhature dukans of Rajouri and Karol Bagh are not “the be all and end all of dilli ka khana. What is infact dilli ka khana? Yaar, hum thodi na pura pura time samosa, chaat aur kabab khatte hain?

So then. Now lets have some fun. Give in to our innate, darkest desires of destruction and break assembly-line Bollywood symbols. Heck, crush those too orange jalebi pictures that Hollywood peddles to you and me in the name of our culture. Lets break a few pictures while we are at it. And a few plates too. Gosh! That feels good, does it not? Now for the truth telling.

Momo is as popular (and as common)as the samosa in the streets of Delhi. Momo is a legitimate saddi dilli street food. Nukkad Nukkad main mille hai momo. Galli galli main mille momo. Aao khao, aur khilao! Momo!

(Yes! Open your eyes and see. And report what you see. Make some new symbols.Give us some new images. And in the next film make Ranbir Kapoor eat paneer momo from the neighbourhood thela.)

But unlike the samosa its not just  a street food. True, the stalls with tall aluminium steaming racks that take over street corners are the most common.But they started trickling in, being part of Delhi’s urban geography only about half a decade ago. Momo is also a popular appetizer in the rather dodgy we-serve-everything “multicuisine”  restaurants, and finds it way to respectable neighborhood Chinese establishments as well many odd cafes frequented by the hip and happenin’. The latter ones over-charge you, of course, of course. So yes, the “mango people in the banana republic” know about the Momo as much as the person who prefers her Momos with a glass of White (true story!)

This recipe makes for translucent, melt in the mouth momos. The chikcen stock as the steam liquid does wonderful things to it, flavoring the soft, paper thin covering just so. You can add other aromatics too. I had some coriander stems lying around, so I dropped it into the steaming liquid. After the momos are cooked the possibilities are limitless, actually. Convert them into kothey, drop them in soup, its an open field.

 Ingredients 

White flour-1 cup

Hot water- as necessary

Minced chicken-150 gms

Ginger-1 inch

Garlic-1

whole Coriander leaves-1 bunch

Onion-1

Dry Red Chillies- one handful

Vinegar-1 tablespoon

Oil-2 tablespoons

Salt

Water or Chicken stock to steam

Masala Pohola Maccha Bhaja: Pepper Fish Fry

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Fish cravings V 1.0

Deep fried. Shallow fried. Steamed. Mashed. Minced. Filleted. Whole. Fish heads. And roe.Floating in mustard sauce. In yogurt sauce. In thin gravies. In thick ones. Batter-fried. Rava encrusted. Chutney wrapped. With winter vegetables. And dried mangoes.

This was all I could think of as I packed my bags for my bi-annual trips home. Every single time. And the first meal I had after Rajdhani deposited me, faithfully on time at Bhubaneswar station, had to be fishy. It was the same with Tina, my sister. Even though she made a trip every three months, good daughter that she is. We even counted the number of meat eating days we were lucky to have during our stay (see this to know more), since that translated into the number of times fish would make it to the dinning table, and the possible number of combinations in which it would arrive. Tina had (and she tells me still does) a list of things she just-had-to-eat on every single trip. A sort of bucket list. And that very often included fish for breakfast. Yes, you heard that right. Heart shaped fillets of Rohu marinated in a simple mixture of salt, turmeric and chilli powders, and shallow fried in golden mustard oil. This was the first step to making a fish curry that would form a part of my father’s lunch box that he carried with him to his office. My mother reserved some for the curry, some for a simple stir fry with green chillies and lots of onions, and the few that were left we happily had for breakfast. Just one per person, in case this whole story is forcing you to come up with rather dodgy names to refer to us-the Oriya Fish-ters or such like.

Fish Cravings V.2.0

By now you have probably worked it out that our family is very partial to a particular category of vertebrates. If you haven’t, let me say it loud (in my best Gollum voice) “WE NEEDS IT. WE WANTS IT. ITS OUR PRECIOUS“. Even when we traveled outside Orissa a good fish dish really made our trip. We were always open to trying local food, and more than happy if our beloved fish was a part of the local cuisine. One of my family’s favourite trip had been to Kerala. I opted out of it since a summer internship by some strange logic made more sense to me than vacationing in “God’s own country”. My parents and sister would call me and fill me in with the details of the day, the places the went to, the sights the saw, the food they ate. My father just could not stop praising the KarimeenCan you make it? It was excellent. It was wrapped in banana leaves. And coated with spices. Can you make it? It was very good. It had black pepper. Can you make it?”   

I have imagined standing behind Chinese fishing nets, a packet of banana chips in hand, taking in coral sunsets. I have bit into macaroons in delicate boutiques in Paris. Tasted rhubarb pies in farmers markets in England. Torn tiny pieces of Prata and dunked it into fragrant curries in Singapore. All without traveling. Most through my sister. Some through my parents. And a few via the accounts of my friends. Food enthralls me. It makes me want to travel. Since my family’s trip to Kerala, I was intrigued by the Karimeen. And by my sisters accounts of the spices found there. “You have to see the spices hanging off the creepers. The nutmeg? It looks so healthy! So glossy!” . So what if I couldn’t travel? I had my time-machine-my kitchen. I could cook. Experience what my father had experienced when he had his first bite of Karimeen pollichathu. That counts for something, doesn’t it?

I have made Karimeen pollichathu quite a few times. And I have loved it every single time. I love the pollichathu mix. I love the fact that it uses pepper in three ways-red chilli powder, black pepper powder, and freshly crushed black pepper. All the three add different layers of spice, hit different spots. If you are going to make this dish, I’d suggest add all the three or don’t make the dish. After making this dish a few times I wondered how would the pollichathu mix take to local Oriya fishes. I tried it with one of my father’s favourite fishes-pohala/pohada. Its a small river fish, a little larger than an adult palm in size, and looks very similar to herring. It was excellent.

I have tweaked this specific rceipe by removing a few things from what would otherwise be used in making Karimeen polichathu, like, coconut and curry leaves. This is NOT a recipe for Karimeen polichathu. Its my way of travelling. From my kitchen. I would not want you to call it “fusion” cooking since that term conjures really bad images in my mind. Like overcooked pasta in tomato ketchup. No, forget pasta in tomato ketchup. Its not fusion cooking. Its just bad cooking.

You can serve it as a side with the usual rice-dal-sabzi lunch or serve it as an appetizer.

Ingredients

Pohola or any small fish-4

Turmeric-1 teaspoon

Red chilli powder-1 teaspoon

Pepper powder-1 teaspoon

Pepper, crushed-1 tablespoon

Ginger, minced-1 tablespoon

Garlic, minced-1 tablespoon

Lime- one half, plus more to drizzle, if required.

Salt-to taste.

Mustard oil-half cup

 

Poda Pitha : Spiced Rice and Coconut Cake from Orissa

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 According to a lot of women in my mother’s generation, most of whom did not own an electric oven, the poda pitha was the “risky-est of them all” . Yes, the haladi patra pitha (steamed rice cakes in turmeric leaves) is aromatic, owing to the fact that it is steamed in fresh turmeric leaves, but the poda pitha has more layers. The arisa pitha (fried rice cakes) needs skill, but this one needs skills, patience and prayers. (I actually remember my mother praying that there would be no power cut so that the pitha could bake peacefully in the oven). It needs prepping the night before. Has a long ingredient list.  Takes forever to cook. And, had you been a house wife half a century ago in a traditional house in Orissa, you would perhaps have spent the whole first half of a rainy day alternating between raising prayers to Lord Jaganath, muttering incantations, and looking anxiously over the burning coals in the clay oven, within which lay the talking point of the next 3 days–the poda pitha. Yes. It is the Godfather of pithas in Orissa.  You ruin this, and for the next one year everyone who has had a bite of this –your maid, your great-grandfather, your long removed second cousin, everyone who knows you is going to report you to everyone they know, and so everyone is going to keep reminding you how you failed on that one day when it mattered. How badly you failed. In one word-completelossofface. In two words-public humiliation.You will get a chance to redeem yourself. After one full year. But if you are successful, and the pitha turns out as it is supposed to be-a sexy burnt sienna top, with notes of spice mingled with caramelized jaggery and coconut, and studded with cashewnut and raisins, you will make a lot of women jealous.  That’s good enough of a reason to take this risk, if you ask me. Plus, it tastes good. Very good. The slightly burnt bits of raisins? The accidentally charred edges of coconut? Yes, them too.

Poda pitha is almost exclusive to the the Raja festival, which marks the onset of the rainy season, and is celebrated over three days in Orissa. And, since this festival is symbolic of a menstruating earth, the food that is prepared is not offered to the Gods, like it is in all the other festivals. (Correct me if I am wrong). The first day, called the “paheli rajo” ( pa-hey-lee rah-jaw),  is when girls scrub themselves with turmeric paste before taking a bath, change into a new set of clothes to mark the beginning of the festival, apply alata (red dye) to their feet, and spend the day taking turns at the swing made out of thick long ropes on the grandest tree around. Or in urban homes like mine, made out of nylon ropes and a wooden slab, hung somewhere in the courtyard or in the balcony.Not that it took away anything from the festival for us kids. The preparation for the festival in coastal Orissa starts almost a week before the actual festival, with all the shopping for new clothes, shoes, nail varnishes, bangles, anklets, hair bands with bunnies, and everything else that parents of little (and big) girls give their nod to. Some lucky ones get three sets of new clothes for the three-day festival. And some annoyingly stubborn ones, like yours truly who make their parents go from shop to shop in search of that perfect skirt that hits the knee get threatened with puffy dresses in garish blue.

The poda pitha recipe that I have used is from my father’s family. There are other versions which use pumpkin puree (Kakharu Poda Pitha) , or cook the batter before baking it (Janta Poda Pitha).  The simplest recipe would probably consist of the rice batter, jaggery, grated coconut, and maybe be a hint of cardamom. But who does plain Jane on a festival? I don’t. And I am assuming, you wouldn’t want to too.

Ingredients:

 Rice-1.5 parts

Black lentil (dehusked)- 1 part

Coconut

Jaggery

Sugar

Raisins-a handful

Cashewnuts-a handful

Green cardamom-3-4

Black cardamon-1-2

Peppercorns-3-4

Bay leaf-1-2

Ginger (grated)-1 1/2 tablespoon

Ghee-5-6 tablespoons

Salt

Baking powder

Notes:

I have kept the quantities unspecified since it would depend on the amount of batter that you have. Two important things to note, however.

1) The proportion of rice:lentil is 1.5 : 1

2) You can use only jaggery instead of a combination of sugar and jaggery to sweeten the mixture. But jaggery tends to stick to the bottom and sides and burn easily, so I have used a mixture of jaggery and sugar in the ratio 2 : 1.

Aushak : Afghan leek dumplings with yogurt sauce.

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Three tall, heavy set men sitting around a table. A rather large plate of dumplings covered in some sort of sauce and topped with yogurt lies in front of each of them. Every table has it. Mine does not. The menu just said “Afghan dumplings” under mantu. No mention of sauce. No mention of yogurt. I feel cheated. I want dumplings. But I have a plate of rice peppered with thin slivers of carrot and raisins, and meat that falls off the bone. Qabuli Pulao. Served with thick Afghani nan, and a side of borani banjan. I pull a long face and tear off a piece of nan and pick up a piece of egg plant from the banjan. This stuff is good. The mantu can wait.

Food from Afghanistan is something that I had never encountered until I came to Delhi. My first encounters with bidesi khana (foreign food) was through the written word. As a child growing up in what could be called the “interiors”,   most of my encounters with literature and gastronomy were mediated by the newspaper. The book reviews were the ones that I looked forward to, but the restaurant review was the one that intrigued me the most. (Even MacDonald’s burger, something I absolutely hate, seemed alluring. Advertising, thou playest cruel games with my taste-buds.) But even in those sorts of mediated encounters with food, food from Afghanistan was absent. Perhaps it was not “foreign enough”, perhaps these places came into being much later. I don’t really know.

The aushak is a vegetarian version of the  mantu , where the dumpling is stuffed with leeks instead of meat and is topped with a sauce made from channa dal  (in place of a meat based one) and a slightly garlicky yogurt sauce. It is a meal in itself, and like most Afghan dishes, is served at room temperature. I have used leeks, but I think you could substitute it with green onions, if you can’t find them. The dumpling wrappers that are used for this are very thin. I had ready made dumpling sheets with me, but you could roll your own out with a dough made from flour and water. The dumplings are shaped differently from how I have made them. I went with easy. But you can, if you like shape it the traditional way. Also, the photos might suggest that the layer of sauce and yogurt completely blankets the dumplings below. It is not so.

Ingredients:

Dumpling wrappers : 6-8

Leeks : 2-3 sticks

Ginger : half inch

Garlic : 3-4 pods

Onion : one, large

Chana Dal : I cup (soaked in water for 2-3 hours)

Tomatoes : 2-3

Bay leaf : one, small

Yogurt : One cup

Dried mint leaves : to garnish

Extra Virgin Olive oil : 2 tablespoons

Sea salt : to taste

Pepper: to taste

Chuda Ghassa : Flattened Rice Crumble from Orissa

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Ok. I need to let it all out.

Adaptation is not one of the qualities I would list out in my CV. Adapting to the ways of fellow Homo sapiens less so. And in the last few months that I was away from this space I had a hell lot of adapting to do. Bad food. Bad academic life. Bad weight management. The three things that matter most to me. I have had to endure dull plate after dull plate of burnt rotis and goo looking dal. The worst was perhaps the sambhar with potatoes. Oh wait, what about kaddu three days a week, and dry, stringy chicken. So, yes I am royally pissed. It would have been endurable if the academics here didn’t suck as badly as it does. Damn. I need a bar of chocolate. And food. And I need to run.

 (RC, take me back please! I promise I’ll study for 18 hours a day. Adichie write me a book please! An eye candy would help too, methinks. Put that on your list, Santa! )

I need a sweet fix. And steamed muffins just won’t do today. I want something from the “good ol” days. I need a happy memory. I need to “engage”. And I need to stop chasing pirates.

The “ghassa” in Chuda Ghassa refers to the act of vigorous rubbing that is integral to this dish. Chuda is flattened rice. I am probably not going to say this again in this blog, but “mommy makes it the best!” (There you go Tina). My younger-older sister, Tina loves it. She loves every thing my mother makes. I was of course the quintessential hard-to-please nitpicking Virgo child. The vegetables were too mushy. The custard was too thin. And the biryani needed another 7 mins on the stove.

I am sorry Momma.

Chuda Ghassa is an integral part of the offering that is made on Saraswati Puja and Ganesh Puja in Orissa. While growing up in the little hill town that my father was posted, these were the only days that we went out to watch movies. So we if we didn’t make a trip to the shehr (city) 500 kilometers away we probably ended up watching two films that year. Not that the town didn’t have a theater or anything, but it wasn’t something our parents thought was necessary. Sports, yes. Musical instruments, yes. Movies, no. And since Saraswati and Ganesh are worshiped as goddess/god of learning, we were given a day off from books, fed a huge lunch, handed down a hundred rupee note each, and sent off to the cinema. It was fun.

The reason I like my mother’s Chuda Ghassa is that it is not sickly sweet. It is sweet, but it has notes of spice and that really takes it to the next level. And yes, the shudh ghee. Now, you can’t have festival without ghee, can you? But don’t go overboard with it. Moderation is good. (PMS doesn’t count. Nope.)

This goes well with dalma as well as with mutton curry. You can serve it with a side of fresh fruits too.

Ingredients : 

Flattened Rice : 1 1/2 cups

Sugar : 2-3 tablespoons

Coconut : 1/2 (freshly grated)

Green cardamom :3-4

Black cardamom : 1

Peppercorns :4-5

Ghee : 2 tablespoons

Coconut water : 2 tablespoons

Notes:

1.The quantity of ghee in the pic might seem quite overwhelming. I didn’t use the whole of it for this particular recipe. You shouldn’t too.

2. Please don’t substitute butter/oil in place of ghee for this one. Please. Please. Please.

3. You can make laddos out of this mixture. Shape small amounts of the mixture into rounds balls and roll it in some sesame and/or coconut flakes.

Tingmo : Tibetan Steamed Bread

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“They are so cute!”

“I want to adopt one when I grow up! “

This was my first encounter with Tibet.  My sister and me were watching  young Tibetan monks on TV. There they were, hardly four or five years old, sitting in neat lines, their shaved heads moving back and forth over prayer books.  It really was an endearing sight. The show was perhaps filmed in a monastery in Dharmashala, the seat of  the His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  For a very long time this was the only image of Tibet in my mind. Of young monks, wrapped in maroon robes, running around in a monastery,of them praying before serene statues of Buddha . My idea of Tibet was therefore condensed into this image of the monastery. It was an image without any voice, so to speak. The only voice was that of a faceless narrator providing a voice-over. It was almost like listening to Nik Gowing on BBC World.

Since then my idea of this nation in exile has diversified into a few more images. Of those “TIBET IS NOT A PART OF CHINA” written on rocks near the riverbeds in Manali, of women in chuba  selling woolen clothes on makeshift stalls in some obscure town in Orissa, of colourful prayer flags tied like totem across bridges, of Siddharth Kak drinking salty Tibetan tea on Surabhi , of the Dalai Lama, of Ladakh, of  Nawang Khechog creating hauntingly beautiful music on a spring night in Delhi. And of agitations.  Of refugee settlements. And yes,  of Richard Gere.  

My first “taste” of Tibet came in the form of a plate of chicken momos. This was perhaps my first meal in a restaurant in Delhi. This is perhaps the first, and perhaps the only encounter with the food of Tibet for a majority of students who study in the universities of Delhi. My next encounter was in Majnu Ka Tila, a refugee colony popularly called MKT on the fringes of Delhi University.  Its narrow lanes are dotted with shops selling Tibetan groceries, of karigars  crafting elaborate jewellery, of quaint shops selling books and tshirts, their racks lined with CDs of Tibetan music and prayer flags.  And then there are hair dressers and tailors.  And shops filled with rolls of rich brocade. And cafes and restaurants filled with people . Enough maybe to make a displaced nation feel at home.

Tee Dee is perhaps the most popular restaurant at MKT.   It is perched (atleast it seems so once you enter) on the first floor of a building towards one end of the colony. The whole arrangement at Tee Dee makes you feel like you are in some hilly town, and not in Delhi.  Maybe its the demographic, of students and Tibetans, that fill its tables at all hours of the day. Maybe its those red curtains. My first meal there was a bowl of Thenthuk  (a noodle soup with vegetables and meat/chicken) more commonly known as Thukpa. At 40 rupees it was one of the cheapest dinners one could have while eating out.  The other popular dish (and probably the most ordered by students) is Buff Chilli. This is had with Tingmo, a yeasty steamed bread. The slight sweetness of Tingmo perfectly complements the heat of the Buff Chilli and is great accessory to pick of pieces of the meat. I don’t really eat red meat, so I generally order their style of Chilli Chicken to go with it. Yeti, at Hauz Khas Village does a great Nepali style Chilli Chicken that really goes well with Tingmo (recipe for this in the next post).

I have used the list of ingredients mentioned here for making Tingmo, since these are essentially steamed buns.

Ingredients

Active dry yeast : 1 tablespoon

Sugar : 2 spoons

Warm water : 1/4 + 1/2 cups

All-purpose flour : 1 1/2 cups

 Salt : 2-3 pinches

 Sugar: 2 tablespoon

 Oil  : 1 tablespoon

 Baking powder : 1/2 tablespoon

Guguni : Yellow Peas

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Train journeys were an integral part of my growing up years.  Since my father was transferred to a new place every couple of years on account of his job, and both his and my mother’s parents lived in Cuttack, we traveled very frequently to meet them.  One such place was Balasore, situated in the northern part of the state, sharing its borders with West Bengal. We lived there for around three years and both me and my sister started our school there. Balasore was connected to Cuttack by the East Coast Railways and it took approximately three hours to reach Cuttack from there. We usually took a train around noon (I think), and were at Cuttack by late afternoon. Now, if you have traveled around India courtesy the Indian Railways as much as I have, you would definitely have a culinary map of all the routes you have traveled on. My four year old sister already knew the various stations and the food one could expect to find there. If you are travelling  around coastal Orissa, one quick snack that you will definitely encounter on the train is masala mudhi (a spicy puffed rice mixture). This was the first thing our parents bought for us, thanks to my sister. The next thing on her list used to be guguni (mushy yellow peas). These were available only at Bhadrak, where the train halted for no more than five minutes. My father would get down quickly and be back with two servings of guguni. These came in bowls made of dried leaves, stiched together, and were called daana. Each bowl was topped with a thin slice of fresh coconut, and came with a disposable wooden spoon. We even knew the guy who sold the best guguni by name and didn’t buy it from anyone other than him! So on days when we didn’t find him, or when his wares were sold out, my parents promised my crestfallen sister a treat on our way back.

Guguni is used in a number of ways in Orissa. It is used as an accompaniment to most tea time snacks, like Piaji, Bara, and Alu Chop. It is also an integral part of the quintessential Cuttacki snack called Dahi-Bara-Alu-Dam-Guguni (DBADG).  A whole maidan in front of Barbati stadium is filled with carts selling just this! But this is not the best place to go searching for a fill of this massively popular street food, if you ask me. The really good ones have their carts in specific sahis and are known only to locals. DBADG is assembled on the spot for customers. First the dahi baras (urad dal dumplings soaked in buttermilk) are placed at the bottom of the leaf bowl. This is followed by a helping of alu-dam (spicy potatoes in a gravy) and guguni (yellow peas). The vendor then drizzles some yogurt, adds some chopped onions, and finally sprinkles some very fine sev on top before handing you a (by now)  very heavy bowl of DBADG. The dahi baras, that are used for these are unlike the dahi vada that you find else where. They are really small, usually the size of a Piaji (that I had made before). They are first soaked in water and then soaked in a very thin yogurt mixture. Most vendors selling DBADG also add a mitha dahi bara to every bowl.

In Bhubaneswar there aren’t many places that sell DBADG. But what you find is Guguni being sold as a snack in itself. So around 4 pm you’ll find men setting up temporary stalls selling this. The stalls really comprise of two stools, the smaller one balancing a huge vat of Guguni, and the other used by the vendor to sit.  These are sold very cheap, around two rupees a bowl. The vendor spoons some of the mixture in a leaf bowl, sprinkles some black salt, and then drizzles some tamarind water (out of an old bottle of coconut hair oil) on top.

The Guguni that is sold on the street is different from the one that is made at home (which is usually served for breakfast with puris). For one, it tends to be more spicy. Also, it is kept really simple, because it is used more like an accompaniment. The one that is made at home is more of a curry, cooked with tomatoes and onions (and a host of other things). I prefer the street version. Even though the recipe that I have used below is based entirely on what my taste buds thought they could detect, these do taste like the real thing!

Ingredients:

Dried yellow peas

Ginger

Turmeric

Cinnamon 

Dried Red Chilli

Cumin seeds

Black peppercorns 

Salt

Black Salt

Piaji : Dal fritters from Orissa

My sister’s eyes used to light up when my father proposed something takaliya .  She would beam at my father, put on her shoes, and shout back to my mother “Bhai sangere jauchi. Khaiki asibi” (I am going out with bhai. Will eat out). She called my father bhai (big brother) instead of the baapa (oriya for father) like yours truly did. She always had a mind of her own. That kid surely did.  I always pictured them as a part of some secret fraternity, a brotherhood, hanging out together, doing cool things, two buddies walking into the sunset together. I don’t remember what I did while they were away busting gangs, but what I remember is them coming back, my sister more chirpy than she had left, usually with the spoils of the war-a newspaper packet. A hot newspaper packet, speckled with oil.  “Jaldi kholo! Ebe baharila kareiru! Jaldi kholo thanda heijiba” (Quick! Open this! These just came out of the frying pan. Open the packet quickly or these will get cold).  Inside would be all sorts of fried goodness (everything tastes good when fried, remember?), dusted with black salt. I would pick  one up, take a bite, take two bites and reach for more, all the while making stories about two great buddies, one considerably shorter than the other with her hair bunched up in the front, almost resembling a whale spout.

I don’t know how to translate takaliya into English.  I don’t even know if its an Oriya word, even though it was used often in our household (parents are constantly making up things, so one never knows). Savoury is too overarching a category, and sounds particularly insipid when it is used to describe food that is supposed to make your mouth water.

Piaji, Pakudi, Bara, Alu chop are some the favourite tea time snacks in Cuttack, where my father was born and brought up, and where both me and my sister were born. It is known for its street food (or so my father claims. He claims quite a lot of things for this beloved city of his, by the way). Being an old town, unlike Bhubaneswar, it has a rather amorphous urban topography. The city is made of sahis (plural) that are usually made up of a single street with houses on either side.  Sahis are mini localities in themselves and people have very strong social (and emotional) attachments with their own sahis.  Every sahi (neighbourhood) has a shop that specializes in these and you will find a horde of people outside these shops since the moment it opens, usually just in time for tea.  Most of them have walls made of wooden planks and a tin roof, and are very small square structures.  These shops are usually manned by two men, the older one doing the frying and the younger one packing  things for the waiting masses. The frying goes on till the supplies last, which is generally till dinner time. By 8 pm most of these shops close and the men manning them start for their long walk home.

Piaji is a onion and dal fritter. Even though it is usually served as a snack at tea time, it is sometimes served as a part of the lunch as well. A typical Oriya lunch has at least five accompaniments-dal, a side of vegetables, bhaja, bharta, and khata. Bhaja is a vegetable stir fry, seasoned with salt and turmeric, and some cumin at times. These fritters are sometimes served in the place of bhaja or even in addition to it. When guests arrived unannounced at our home during lunch, my mother’s way of “jazzing” up the lunch plate was to quickly slice some brinjals or potola (parwal or pointed gourd, dip them in a mixture of besan (chickpea batter) and deep fry them.  These fritters are also crumbled into a favourite Oriya snack-masala mudhi (a spicy mix of puffed rice, onions, chillies, and a host of other things, brought together by a drizzle of raw mustard oil and a dash of lemon juice).

Ingredients

Channa Dal- 1 cup

Onion (finely chopped)-2, medium

Dry Red Chillies-3

Green Chillies-4-5

Ginger-1 inch piece

Garlic- 1 large clove

Salt- to taste

Oil- for frying

Black salt

Tap on the first picture for a step by step demonstration.