Thursday, January 17, 2013
As I began growing up--specially with Sohan Singh's exit from our Kitchen Mummy began reigning supreme in the Kitchen.A new phase in our childhood began--I began to get interested in cooking--and my imagination would run wild--My experiments were comme ci comme ca--a few hits and quite a few misses--but Daddy was my staunch supporter--he'd say that no one can learn anything without making a few mistakes!!Mummy on the other hand began training me in the manual labour involved--using the heavy Grinding Stone to grind a huge number of Masalas--in different consistencies.She'd say if I liked to eat it then I too should make an effort to add my contribution to the Dish--and grinding Fresh shredded raw Coconut to the consistency of a fine Paste was no mean task--not to forget thankless!!No matter how finely ground it was Mummy wanted it finer still!!
All my childhood Memories centre around Food.The Kitchen in Aaji's huge flat in Bombay (Mumbai) was fuelled by Coals.My earliest Memories are of sitting in the cosy warmth of the Coal stoves early in the morning--dunking my soft,warm freshly baked Bread in my Milk--another great comfort Food.My Grandpa maintained a large household.Mummy's Aunts,Uncles and Cousins were forever coming and going and I don't remember a single day when there were less than 20 people present for a Meal at any Mealtime!!Aaji was a fabulous cook--like "Annapurna" or the Goddess of Plenty--- she could whip up a Meal in an hour on her relatively primitive resources--and what a Meal!!There would be a fresh ground Chutney,a Salad,a Raita,two Vegetable Curries--one with gravy and one without ,besides an Usal made from different Legumes daily in rotation.Then there would be a Fish Curry and "Kokum" curry--made with Sun dried Mangosteen Shells soaked in freshly extracted,spiced Coconut Milk.The staple of both Rice and Chapati as well as the regular sides of home made Pickles,Papads and Fried Fish completed the "Thali".We'd sit on low oblong shaped stools called "Paatas" with Silver Flowers tacked on in the corners.A slightly taller square stool called a "Chaurang" served as a table.Each person ate in a polished Silver Plate called a "Thali" and different Silver Bowls held the various Curries and the Kokum Curry and each Meal would begin after Grace had been said and the Food blessed.
Early in the morning I'd accompany my Grand Uncle Dada Kaka to the nearby Grant Road Market to buy the fresh raw Ingredients for the Meal.He carried a huge Bag made of woven Grass--I carried a much smaller version of the same material and shape.We'd stroll from stall to stall looking at,approving and finally haggling over the fresh catch to reach a price acceptable to both--the seller and the buyer!!The larger Fish went into his Basket the smaller into mine as did the Vegetables--he took the heavier stuff while i carried home the bunches of fresh Spinach and Cilantro along with Curry Leaves and tiny, spicy and very hot Green Chillies named "Lavangi Mirchi" or Clove Chillies!!Being Konkanis all the food cooked in Aaji's home was Coconut based--it was cooked in home extracted Coconut Oil--all sourced from Aazoba's ancestral Property in erstwhile princely state of Saawant Waadi in the Konkan.All the men would eat a full Meal by 9 a.m.--for being early risers their day began at Dawn--4 a.m. each morning.My taste buds can still recall the taste of the sweet,fresh steamed Rice--steaming hot with it's ladlefuls of hot plain "Varan' and oodles of ghee splashed over it.This is one of the easiest and most nutritious dishes to cook--pressure cook 1 cup of split Pigeon Peas (Tur/Toovar/Arhar Dal) with an equal amount of Water for 3-4 whistles.Allow pressure to subside and then mash the Dal till well blended.Add a Lime sized piece of Jaggery,0.25 tsp.Asafoetida and 1 tsp.turmeric Powders along with salt to taste.Stir in 1 tbsp. of Ghee and simmer over low flame till well blended and slightly thick.Ladle it over hot steaming plain Rice and pour spoonfuls of Ghee or Clarified Butter over it.Mix well and serve with a crisp Papad and home made Pickle--simply yummy!!
Another thing that still lingers in my mouth is the remembered taste of Aaji's Coconut Kokum Kadhi.Those organically grown Coconuts had a very addictive taste--I could even at that young age drink down potfulls of the stuff!!The delicate blending of Black Pepper Corns,Garlic,a sprig or two of Fresh Cilantro along with a tiny Green Chilli for the bite mixed with freshly extracted raw Coconut Milk--all ground together and the extract mixed in with the Sun dried Kokum shells soaked in a little fresh Coconut Water,a pinch of Asafoetida Powder and Salt to taste.The huge Chappaties,the Crab,Clams and other Shell Fish as well as Sardines,Pomfret,Bombay Duck,Mackerel,King Fish and many other tasty varieties featured on my Grandma's Menus.There would be a balance of Pulses,Vegetables and Fish which were a regular part of our Diets--with Sundays reserved for Chicken and Kid.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
I knew only how to cook basic Food--like the traditional Marathi Dal and Rice combination called "Varan-Bhaath",3-4 types of Vegetable added Potato Curries when Sudhir and I got married.Since I grew up in the erstwhile Indian Punjab, my style of cooking was mainly based on the North Indian variety--learnt by observing the various Cooks my mother employed down the years. Narayan Das and Sohan Singh stayed with us for a long time--the former since my parents employed him after their marriage till I was 6 years old and the latter from my age of 6 years till I turned 13 years old.It was then that with 3 girls in the house and our Nanny--- Amma ---leaving to nurse her old father in their Village prompted Mummy to let Sohan Singh go after he left for a visit to his Village.These two taught me that no dish needs to be embellished to make it healthy and tasty--one only needs to pay attention while cooking it and even when simply cooked it can turn into a satisfying Dish--wholesome,nutritious and finger licking delicious!!
My mother's Kitchen was a huge airy Room--well lighted and spread out with Platforms on all four sides and a huge Ceramic Sink with a Wooden Draining Board in the corner next to the door leading to the Vegetable garden.We also had a spacious Room next to it which was the Pantry also with a huge Ceramic Sink with a draining Board--the built in Stone Shelves held various Items--Cutlery,Crockery,Glasses,Jam Jars,Squash Bottles etc. A square 8" by 8' Room we used as a Larder stood next to it fitted with Stone shelves to store huge Canisters of Dal,Rice,Wheat and other stuff like Pickles and Indian Sweet Fruit Preserves called "Murabbaas'.There was also a huge Black Stoneware Jar to keep the Dried Fish in--tiny shell on dried Shrimp called "Zavala", the slightly bigger shell on one called "Sukat".Then there would be peeled and dried medium sized Shrimp/Prawns called "Sodey" and the larger sized ones known as "Sungta".Along with this there would be dried Bombay Ducks,Mackerels,Kingfish and Sardines---all added to various Marathi style Vegetable Curries or cooked in Mummy's Konkani style Coconut Curries--something we used to salivate over since morning!!There also were two other huge Stoneware jars--one to store the Sea Salt and the other to hold Sun cured, cleaned and salted Tamarind Balls.These Condiments would be sent by my maternal Grandparents--Aaji and Aazoba-- in huge Parcels each year--one every two months.The Spring Parcel would contain Dried Fish,Dals,home made Papads,Turmeric and Red Chilli ,Garam Masala ,Konkani Red Masala Powders as well as a roasted,spiced fine Dal Powder called "Methkut"---to be eaten sprinkled over hot steamed Rice,with a pinch of Salt and oodles of Ghee poured over it---- perfect Comfort Food for the Soul in the Winters!!There would also be Jars of Sweet Indian Gooseberry and Bael Fruit Preserves--and all this was made by my Aaji at home.Everything would be carefully packed to avoid breakage--the Jars would be cushioned with old Newspapers and packed in her old Saris to prevent the Glass Jars used to hold the Masalas and the Preserves breaking--thereby ensuring that these reached us in perfect condition!!The excitement of unpacking those huge,cloth covered and Lac sealed Wooden Crates added to our day--and would be the topic of conversation in our home as well as with my friends in the neighbourhood.Since they all were North Indian they got all the stuff they needed locally--hence would be very curious about the contents of our Parcels!!There also were huge Ceramic urns to hold the Jaggery that Daddy would buy freshly made directly from the Sugar Cane farmers around Chandigarh each Winter.This Larder was a Magic place--for there were also old Brass Canisters overflowing with Kashmiri Dry Fruits----Almonds,Pistachioes,Walnuts,Pine Nuts and Dried Apricots.It also was the coolest place in the house---and a favourite refuge to visit whenever I was starving--which was every hourly!!
The Kitchen in our home was a Coal fired one--there were 4 Iron Stoves built into a Brick and Clay Platform against one wall with a huge cavernous Chimney over it.Each Stove had an Iron Box fitted under it--and these were the primitive Ovens that Mummy,Narayan Das and Sohan Singh used to magically produce melt in the mouth Teatime treats like various Cakes,Biscuits and Pies.Not just that ,these Ovens also roasted the entire "Raan" or Leg of Lamb in Indian or British fashion to succulent mouthwatering perfection--for me till today the smell of a Coal fire reminds me of the wonderful Food of my childhood!!I loved helping out with the Baking and Pie making though creaming the Butter and Sugar till light and fluffy by hand was extremely painful and exhausting--specially in the Winters!!By mid Sixties Modernisation hit our Kitchen--and this was in the form of shining Brass Stoves fuelled by Kerosene or "Mitti kaa Tel" as it was locally called in Punjab.From here on the Romance went out of Cooking--there were Pressure Cookers and Gas Stoves---the Coal Stoves called "Angeethis/Sigris" were retained in their single individual Avatars--but the Food somehow lost that beautiful Ingredient called "Mystique!!
Friday, January 11, 2013
The fact that Sudhir is no longer with me is a Fact---one I'd reverse in the blink of an Eye if I could but it is times when some random incident takes place that brings one back to square one--that's when I question the Maxim "Time is the best Healer!!"The loss of a loved one results in deeply rooted Pain and while we try to push it into the Sub Concious Mind it still hurts as it throbs inside.Only one who has suffered such a loss can imagine and understand what I'm talking about---the Pain is terrible and gut wrenching.
Yesterday I was surprised to open the door in the morning to see an old Client of Sudhir's standing at the door.He had some urgent work and wanted to consult Sudhir about it.The completely shocked and stupefied look on his face told me that he was completely unaware of Sudhir's death---and I had to offer him a drink of Water as he stood there and gazed at me uncomprehendingly--totally dazed!!The first sentence he uttered after he collected his wits brought home to me how much I've changed since then---he said that he felt something was wrong when he saw me--and only later realised that my biggest Trademark--my Huge Red Bindi/Dot in the centre of my forehead was missing!!As he walked away wiping his eyes, I stood still in the open door--swamped in a tide of extreme Pain---a testimony of my loss.
My Red Dot was always a bone of contention between us.I'm not a superstitious person--but in following all the Rituals that foretold the bestowing of a long life to my husband---I was at the head of the line!!In fact i was so worried about waking up without the red dot anchored firmly to my forehead that I'd apply one in a dark Crimson shade of Nail Paint under the "Kum Kum" one--so that even while I bathed,washed my face or my hair I retained the symbol of my Good Fortune or "Soubhaagyaa".I have always loved the huge circular size--Sudhir liked it smaller.The size of my Bindi was the topic of many a quarrel--for it varied everyday.It actually depended on how large a circle my finger drew on my forehead with the Vermilion called "Kum Kum".Sometimes it would be as large as an old Silver Rupee--two sizes bigger than an American quarter!!It was around this time that the stick on Bindis entered the market--with a gummy back for convenience and these were available in all sizes.Sudhir and I experimented with the sizes and finally settled on a size--about as large as a quarter!!Of course I cheated--if I found a size a bit larger I'd buy it--in a dozen or more packets containing them in numbers of 5 or 6 each. I still have a lot of them lying around---a painful reminder that I don't really need--but can't bring myself to throw these away!!
Not just this I was also particular about wearing my Mangal Sutra round my neck--I'd wear the other one first before removing the earlier one--insuring that my neck was encircled by a Gold chain with small Black Onyx Beads threaded through it always.I have always loved these Gold chains--and own a collection of these--ranging from a large Gold Pendant woven in Black Beads and Silk thread to elaborately designed Necklet styles--these rarely needed any other embellishment if I had to attend any casual events--of course Weddings and such needed more decoration!!Not being very fond of Jewellery this mangal sutra became my Trademark--and as the new order evolved wearing just this gave me the touch of Dignity and Poise i looked for.
The other thing that I wore was my heavy Silver Toe rings.I loved these and when I married Sudhir---- Aaji my maternal Grandma--told me the specific reason for wearing special Symbols in each little Toe--ranging from the big toe to the smallest.In 1970 Silver was very cheap and so I went out and got the heaviest of each Symbol--the thick circle of Silver wire for the big Toe,the spiral circlet for the second one,the flat chips attached to a Silver circle for the third one,the huge Fish shaped one for the fourth and a tiny filigreed Flower for the smallest and last one!!It was my stubborn refusal to remove these for at least about 5-6 years after our marriage--despite these causing painful swelling thanks to the tightness with which these fitted around my toes.The various shapes too had sharp edges--and poor Sudhir had quite a few scratches on his shins whenever these scratched him during the night!!Finally I retained just the two--the second toe and the fourth one as these were the most important of all.By now I got these made to order---two pairs of thick ,heavy Silver Rings for the second toe and well smoothened large Fish shapes for the fourth toe.Sayali was insistent that I remove these after I came to know that I had Diabetes--but I wouldn't agree.After that each time we visited her in Rochester,NY, she'd tell me how the mother of one of her friends had to have her toes removed due to Gangrene---because she was a heavy Diabetic just like me--and wore similar Toe rings!!Sudhir insisted I remove these in February 2009 after my Heart Attack and Angioplasty---on advice from my Cardiologist.This time he was implacable and firm--and no matter how nicely and sweetly I wheedled--it just didn't work even an iota!!
Today the only Jewellery that I wear are my Earrings and a Jade Bangle.I also wear the ring Sudhir wore for 42 years after we got engaged--he never removed it even once for the entire period!!My forehead and my neck are bare---and as far as possible I keep it that way---a symbol of my Life today!!
Sudhir and Me ,2009,Manhattan,New York
Me in Scotland,March 2012
Tuesday, January 08, 2013
As a child I was a late riser---specially during the Vacations!!However since nights were often spent reading Library Books in Torchlight--I'd watch the Dawn break on the Horizon often before I slept!!Books were--and still are a Passion--and my entire being used to itch to finish my Library Book the moment I got it--and then I'd be miserable for a Week--The Nuns refused to let me borrow more than one each Week!!Only those who love this daily Phenomenon will relate to what I'm talking about---and the Summer and Winter Panorama differs completely.
Living in a little more than a Village--'coz it was still being built those days---Chandigarh was Paradise.The rich,fertile Soil meant an abundance of Fruit and Flower Shrubs as well as Trees in the Garden.In the Summer we'd sleep out on the Terrace--the temperature inside our homes would resemble a Furnace in the Hot Weather and we'd lie under the Stars each Night---tucked securely into our Mosquito Nets, gazing up at the Night Sky through the fine Cotton Mesh.I used to dream that the Mesh was a fine Mist and I lay on lush Grass in a Meadow on one of my beloved Mountain slopes.I loved the way the Day would break---very early in the Summer.The Dew wet Grass would be clothed in tiny Diamonds as the deep Midnight Blue Sky would begin gathering streaks of a lighter hue--a deep Violet Blue--which in turn would gradually turn lighter into soft Violet shades.These Streaks would then start turning into a soft Rose Pink and the composition of these streaks overhead was simply awesome!!The Sky turned into a Canvas of a Master Painter as He drew Pennants of a deep Violet fading into a softer Hue and finally changing to a different Colour completely----all reflected overhead at the same time!!As Dawn finally broke,tendrils of a very soft new Gold would sneak across to touch these other Colours and gild them with an iridiscence and transform these into a Riot of Colours--fast turning bolder as the Sun rose!!The Day would begin in a Blaze of Glory--and by 7 a.m. the Temperatures would begin to soar too with the Sun!!
As the Days grew shorter the Dawn came by much later in the Winters.Most of the time it would be a stark,Grey Dawn--for it would be raining in the Plains if it was snowing in the Mountains.Winter Dawns usually meant a lightening of the Indigo of the Night into a soft pearly Grey on the rainy Days--but on the days the Sun shone--it was a sight to warm the cockles of my heart!!My Bedroom faced my beloved mountains--and I have spent hours at my windowsill--just gazing out and savouring the experience!!As the Dawn approached,beautiful vari coloured Ribbons would streak across the Sky---Violet,Blue,Rose and Gold as the Horizon gradually lightened behind the Mountains.The Indigo Sky gradually softened to a deep sparkling Cobalt Blue--and the tiny puffs of pristine White Clouds caught and reflected the half light of Dawn.Just picture in your mind these Clouds suffused with a variety of Shades all mixed together in Ribbons---the Violet and Blue providing a perfect foil to the Rose and Gold!!It was this interplay of Colours that fascinated me--for the Sun rose much later but the Dawn lasted for a little over an hour in the Winter.I still carry a picture in my mind of the deep Russet Brown Brushes of the Silver Oak outside my window thrusting into the deep Cobalt Blue of the Sky---and remember painting a Watercolour of it--which my father promptly purloined for his Office!!
Rising early became a habit thanks to the Milkman who delivered his Goods at the crack of Dawn to our home in Bombay (Mumbai).Often while Sudhir and Girls slept I'd curl up on a Sofa by the Window and gaze out at the Vegetable patch next door.It was fascinating to pick out the finer nuances of the Plants and Trees as they grew sharper and came into focus as the Light grew stronger--in Summer the Day rose in a blaze of Glory--the Sun rising swiftly over the Coconut trees--bathing their Fronds in a Golden haze.In Winter it rose lazily--and once more the prolonged interplay of Colours,the melding of varoius shades of Green---the soft shade of the Green Leafy Vegetables interspersed with the darker Green of the various Shrubs growing there and the even darker Green of the Coconut Fronds gilded with the delicate Gold of early morning half light.The cacophony of the Birdsong and the Dew sprinkled Grass with strips of Gold lying across it always make me catch my breath at the sheer Beauty of it--truly God is a Master Artist!!!
Today I still watch the Dawn come up--everything that is positive in me gets recharged by this daily Phenomenon--despite being alone and feeling the loss of Sudhir next to me acutely--it is the Dawn that still gives me the strength to face each new Day with a Prayer in my heart and a positivity of purpose in my mind!!
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