Friday, September 18, 2020

Those Delicious Letters - A Review

Sandeepa of Bong Mom's Cookbook is a writer, of blog and books, after my own heart. Life's highs and lows, ironies, absurdities and anti-climaxes, all dealt with humour, and how they come to inhabit the food and recipes that she is writing about, are what made me a steadfast reader of her blog. A few years after we began blogging, I got to meet her too, and eat at the famed Bong Mom's Kitchen, specifying quite bluntly that I wanted Bengali food and nothing else. 

Those Delicious Letters is Sandeepa's second book. Unlike her first, which is a cookbook with sparkling anecdotes and commentary, this is fiction with suspense and a few recipes. Sandeepa carries the sparkle into this book too, never losing her funny bone. At the heart of the book is the protagonist Shubha, who has just turned 40, and is in the throes of a mid-life crisis. She is an architect by training but has given that up to take care of her children. When we meet her in the book, she is a partner at a small publishing firm. The days hold no mystery for her; her first reaction to a surprise birthday party is one of annoyance. She is realistic enough not to expect glamorous holidays because "we had responsibilities and mortgage and irritable bowel syndromes". To add to this, her husband has of late been preoccupied, distracted and even secretive. She can't quite believe that those are signs of an affair but has no other explanation for his behaviour and steels herself to deal with it. 

But that comes a little later. Shubha has been getting letters in aerogrammes - yes, snail mail from India - that thrill and mystify her. She has no clue who 'Didan', the grandmother writing those letters, is. After a few such missives which contain stories of Didan's life and end with a recipe, Shubha reluctantly returns them to the sender, knowing she will miss them, but they come right back, and continue coming, once a month. An erratic cook, these compelling letters turn Shubha into a willing experimenter and become the stepping stones for a turnaround in her life.

The book is an easy, breezy read that has you nodding your head in agreement at its statements and roaring with laughter. Equally, it makes you impatient to discover who is sending those letters and why.  I took a while getting to it after I received a copy from the publisher but could not put it down once I started. There are funny and endearing turns of phrase, characters and situations we can identify with and want to knock the teeth out of. I burst into great sobs reading the end of the last letter, a reaction I did not expect, having guffawed my way through most of it. I found little to complain about. 

What tickled me, among many other things, are Shubha's Facebook updates. For many years now, I've gritted my teeth and gotten through photos of food, flowers, waterfalls, sunsets, drawings, animals and what not captioned with profound thoughts. Shubha's statuses are somewhat similar - a photograph of Didan's potol'er dalma is the backdrop for 'Don't depend on others for your happiness. Find your own. (💓) (hashtags)'  Sandeepa has captured the zeitgeist alright! I don't know if she was having a joke but thinking of Shubha, I'll look on those photos more kindly from now on.

Those Delicious Letters
Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta
Harper Collins Publishers India
Rs 299

Monday, September 14, 2020

This Blog's Fourteenth Birthday - and Peanut Butter Biscuits with a Twist

I started this blog fourteen years ago, in 2006, on my father's birthday as it would make the date easy to remember. It had a good run for many years. Despite my declaring publicly and privately that I would 'rededicate' myself to this blog, it has only limped along at best, in the last four or five years. I don't eat as much or cook as much anymore and I don't know what to say. My father has moved on. The blog which shares his birthday has remained alive, primarily drawing breath from Search results, from a maze of complex technology and circuitry that keeps it on the Internet, maybe from the odd regular reader, and occasionally from an older, busier me who has found other hobbies and preoccupations. Yet, Me is unwilling to let go of it. 

I've always disliked blogging about the usual things (usual to me, anyway), and preferred to discuss new or experimental things. So when I hit upon the idea of using up some near-expiry-date peanut butter in biscuits, as my generation called them growing up, I wondered how I could make them my own. I had about a half cup of chukku coffee waiting to be used up so I added that in place of brown sugar. Chukku coffee is a mix of dried ginger (sonth in Hindi), palm jaggery and spices such as pepper, coriander and cardamom. I don't suppose there is any coffee powder added in the traditional recipe. At least, the few brands that I have tried from time to time do not list any coffee in the ingredients. But I see coffee listed in many blog recipes. I assume the original spice mix was meant to be used as a tisane.
I followed this recipe. The baking took much longer than the seven minutes mentioned there, double the time or even more. The only substitution I made was replacing the brown sugar with the chukku powder. Being only an occasional baker and this probably being just my second attempt at biscuits/cookies, I have to say this turned out really well. I patted myself on the back for being imaginative with the other ingredient, but of course, all it takes is a search to find several peanut butter ginger affairs all over the Internet. Oh well, mine's not plain PBG, it's chukku coffee!

PS: I'm on Instagram as @sra.srav where I record more of my daily life, hobbies and preoccupations that I mentioned earlier on.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Things I've been Doing, Learning, Making from the Internet - 2

This fish fry picture is click bait, more on this below

I'm not an Internet video person. I still prefer text and pictures. However, all the experiments I'm recording here are taken from videos. They all had useful and clear instructions.

A couple of weeks ago, I ground a fresh batch of ginger-garlic paste. Our cook had told me there was nothing to it - and that a dash of turmeric and salt would act as preservative. Still, why have the Internet at your fingertips if not to browse it for no good reason? So I looked at recipes for ginger-garlic paste and came across several. I'm not a video person, but I was curious to see what the visual value of grinding ginger-garlic paste was - isn't it just a few whizzes in the mixie - so I clicked on them. There was little more than I imagined in those videos, but one of them had a helpful tip. The vlogger had advised roasting a bit of salt till it lost its ability to extract water from the ginger and garlic. (That's when it changes colour.) The objective: Not to dilute the paste with the water that will keep oozing because of the unroasted salt. This vlogger also recommended adding some heated and cooled oil. So I did that. 

Doesn't my ginger-garlic paste look good and undiluted? Let me know if you can see any motor lubricant in there. I seem to have ground it for too long or probably I overloaded the jar - there were streaks of greenish-black oil on the grinder which I only noticed a couple of hours later. I poked about carefully in the paste and didn't notice any contamination. I still feel a streak of concern whenever I use it, though.

I'm unable to locate the video now but will add the link when I find it.

Then, the lip-smacking korameenu fish fry that you see up there, that's from this video.

It uses just a little bit of oil relative to the amount of fish so I was very sceptical whether it would work. However, something in me pushed me to trust it and I was not disappointed. It worked like a charm. I forgot to add the sesame powder but to me, it was like the taste of home. I'm not sure, however, that the English name for this is red snapper. I think it's murrel, but I could be wrong. This is what is called 'viral' in Tamil.

This is garlic pickle, not halwa. Those are garlic cloves, not cashews. A couple of friends said it looked like that when I sent them pictures on the phone.

I needed only two cups of garlic cloves for the ginger-garlic paste. I'm finding ways to consume it before it goes all brown and black and shrivels up. I hit upon the idea of a garlic pickle the way mango is pickled in Andhra homes, tasting of chilli powder and mustard and gingelly oil, but none of the recipes I came across gave me the confidence it would turn out that way - and I know nothing of pickling to be instinctively experimental about it. So I looked for what felt like an interesting recipe and settled for this, which is a garlic pickle with cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and sesame, an unusual formula for pickle.

The narration is in Telugu and there are no sub-titles. Nevertheless, the visuals are good enough - you can identify the ingredients as well as the quantities. There is a tip about how long to fry the garlic - till a fold appears, he says, but I didn't notice any fold. I did think the texture changed. Something like tiny goosebumps or a certain roughness appeared on the surface (it should not brown), and then I switched it off and left it to cool. It tasted exactly like a prawn pickle an aunt of mine had made and given us. It's an interesting taste and I'm glad to have rediscovered it.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Repurposing a Mango Salad As Fried Rice

Recently, we got a bounty of five mangoes from the tree in our building. The tree has been bearing fruit for a few years now. It grazes my window, and I revel in the greenery amidst all the concrete. Now I had to find a way to use up the mangoes.

I came across a recipe for a Myanmarese mango salad for the first time. It struck me as very unusual, combining raw mango, cabbage, roasted gram flour, sesame seeds and a host of other things. It suited me well as I had most of them - and that included a shrivelling, shrinking cabbage. I did not have soy sauce but I decided to give it a try anyway, it was sufficiently new and exotic for me.

However, things started going awry towards the end as the method mentioned one ingredient not previously mentioned and left out details about where to add some others. I added what I could and mixed it all up and dropped the dressing totally. It tasted like the masala mixture you get on the streets in South India, especially Andhra Pradesh.

It was tasty, but super sour. (I had decided to drop the sugar.) Neither The Spouse nor I felt we would enjoy a second overpowering dose so I decided to turn it into a pulihora, some versions of which share many ingredients with the salad. For the Telugu New Year day, we sometimes make a mango pulihora with shredded sour mangoes. Amidst the hurry over the sudden lockdown announcement, I had forgotten that Ugadi was the next day so could not celebrate with food. We got the mangoes well after Ugadi had gone by.


Green mangoes - 1/2 a kilo, peeled and shredded
Cabbage - 1.5 cups
Onion - 1, big, finely sliced
Tomato - 1, medium, sliced
Dry red chilli - 3, broken
Garlic - 4 cloves, minced
Shallots/sambar onions - 8, minced
White sesame seed - 2 tbsp, toasted and ground
Peanuts - 2-3 tbsp, roasted and crushed
Gram flour/besan - 3-4 tbsp, roasted
Salt  - start with 1 tsp of table salt
Pepper - freshly ground
Lime - 1
Chopped coriander - 3 tbsp
Cooked rice - start with 2 cups
Gingelly/sesame Oil - 1 tbsp


The shallots and garlic were fried for the salad and added to it somewhere along the way as the original recipe was not clear to me. Everything got mixed up and rather soggy ultimately. The taste was good, if somewhat overwhelming.

The next day, I heated the sesame oil and added the salad to it. Saute the salad for a couple of minutes and add the rice to it. Add more rice if it's too sour for your taste. Check seasoning, adjust according to taste and consume.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Surplus Management Lesson - Mango Curry

Last month, I went to Bangalore and chanced upon an exhibition of mangoes from Karnataka in Lalbagh. Past lamentations and scruples about glut and leftovers, modest eating, etc, became things of the past. My resolve dissolved and I turned into a greedy pig and a hapless hoarder. (If you were to say greedy and hapless don't go together, your objection might be valid, but really, greed is a weakness, isn't it, so the adjective hapless suits it quite well.)

I ended up with several specimens of this new discovery of mine called Sakkaregutti (Sugar Baby in English). Tiny mangoes that are just about fist-sized or smaller. Juicy little things that you can be done with in one or two mouthfuls. I knew I would not be able to eat so many steadily and needed to find a way to use at least some of them up. One of our friends in Bangalore had served us a curry made of similar mangoes. She said it was based on a Mangalorean dish.

I wanted to try something different so I made this, a sweet and sour curry applying a recipe often used with less exotic protagonists. This is broadly based on the ‘pulusus’ (light tamarind-based gravies) made in Telugu cuisine. The next time I am stuck with more mango, any variety, than I can eat as fruit, this will be one way to dispose of them.

(Serves 4)


Sakkaregutti (or other small fist-sized mangoes), peeled, whole – 10
Tamarind juice – extracted from 3-4 pieces soaked in 2.5 cups of water
Jaggery – ½ tbsp
Turmeric – ½ tsp
Mustard seed – ¾ tsp
Cumin seed – ½ tsp
Dry red chilli – 2, broken
Split, hulled black gram/urad dal – 1 tsp
Crystal asafoetida – ¼ tsp
Curry leaves – 3-4
Salt – ¾ tsp, to begin with
Red chilli powder – ¾ tsp, or to taste
Oil – ½ tbsp
Coriander leaves, to garnish
Heat the oil, temper with the mustard, cumin, red chilli, black gram, asafoetida and curry leaf, in that order as they splutter/turn colour.
Add the peeled, whole mangoes and sauté for a couple of minutes.
Add the tamarind water, salt, chilli powder and cook on medium flame for about eight minutes. Add more water if you think it’s necessary. 
Taste, adjust seasoning if necessary and add the jaggery. Simmer for a few minutes and then turn off the flame. Garnish with chopped coriander.