Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Of Apples, Cheese, Chalks & Chopsticks

They were meeting after twenty-five years. She looked the same, though he could detect a thread of silver here and there in her still luxurious hair. Surprise, not excitement, had been his first reaction when she mailed him out of the blue, saying she needed to meet him. He couldn't bring himself to ask her why. Slowly, though, curiosity and elation took over and he began to look forward to the visit.

The last time he saw her, they were around 20 years old. Her lip had curled in derision when she saw him playing kabaddi along with the other village boys on the beach. He should have known then, that he couldn't expect to be anything to her but a rustic.

"But I'm going to be an engineer," he had protested silently, and could hear her retort, loudly in his head: "So what, you don't have the style!"

He knew she would be married off in the next couple of years. This village visit, he was certain, was to indulge her passion for photography, he was sure it was nothing to do with getting in touch with her roots - she was never to be found without her camera. Every little thing found its way into it - the ixora bush in his house, the haystack, the paddy fields, even the vividly painted staircase.

Though he resisted it, his parents' secret hopes began to rub off on him - that she would become their daughter-in-law, bring home a fat dowry and he would never have to worry about working hard, making money and supporting a family. Her wealth would take care of all that.

Her parents remained mute to the suggestion. She had gone abroad to study and was now a celebrated photographer. Her subjects had changed to more serious ones - ethnic conflict, migration, famine, women's empowerment. He would never have guessed it was more than a passing fancy but who was he to say? Was she as surprised to know he was no longer a dusty, rural lad but a chef in a fancy restaurant in the country's Capital, much celebrated for his innovativeness? "Simplicity, improvisation, imagination," was his favourite, oft-quoted line. Oh yes, he had learnt the English alright, he'd show her!

Would she like to join him for dinner, he'd mailed back. She said yes. Had she turned vegetarian? No, but she liked inventive vegetarian and vegan food, could he come up with some? Had her tone turned teasing? Was she testing him? Flirting with him? Did he have a chance, after all? He'd heard she wasn't married either ... His parents' unrealistic expectations for him had ensured he hadn't gotten married, but of course, they, him included, went around telling people it wasn't easy to find a girl for the likes of someone as talented as him.

He planned the menu with great care. He remembered how she had come upon a pale, coral shell on the beach and said it resembled an ice-cream cone.

Should he serve her ice-cream in a cone-shaped shell? Would she remember those rare moments of pleasantness that had passed between them when she was not being her haughty, city-bred self? The only time she had exhibited any interest in him and his family was when they had their meals - she was full of questions as to how a certain curry was made, why their rice was brown, why their food tasted better than in the city.

He planned a feast. And he served up one that was much appreciated. She asked him about his choice of a career. He lied and said he'd chosen to go into catering because it was creative, and that engineering was run of the mill. (In truth, he gave up after the second year.)

"What about you? But it's not surprising, I suppose," he said.

"Yeah," she said with a laugh. "You know me, I was a shutterbug, but somewhere along the way, I decided to combine it with a greater purpose than pure pleasure, so I specialised in photojournalism," she said. Then both fell quiet. He wanted to ask her about herself, but the gauche village boy surfaced.

"So what brings you here? Work?" he asked.

"No. Life," she said.

His heart leapt in excitement. Would there be a romance ... and marriage, at last?

"Really? What do you mean?"

"Guess! I bet you can't," she said.

"Are you coming back to these parts, hanging up your boots?"

"Not really." (So there was still hope that she COULD be hanging up her boots, after all.)

"You came here to see someone? Someone special?"

"No, no one special. Just you."

Disappointment, nay, despair, filled his heart. Thank God he had bowed his head and she wouldn't be able to make out how hurt he was.

"What is it then?" he asked, with a smile he knew was too bright, tiring instantly of the guessing game.

"You know your signature apple and paneer stew? I want the recipe," she said.

"You came all the way to meet me for a recipe?" he asked incredulously.

"Well, yes. I'm taking a break from all the tragedy I cover. My partner and I are producing a coffee table book on traditional and innovative recipes - and when I came across a mention of you somewhere on the Internet, I knew I had to have it for the book. It's too zany to go without mention," she said.

He realised he'd been nodding weakly. Partner? What sort of partner? Life partner? Business associate? Another journalist? And zany? His recipe was zany? But was any of this more cruel than her saying, "No, no one special. Just you."?

"One minute," he heard himself saying, and then he found himself printing out the recipe. He didn't hear her thank him, didn't hear her tell him how she didn't expect he would part with it so easily. All he could hear was a voice in his head saying, "This too will pass."

{Fiction ends.}

Disclaimer: The above piece, purely fiction, has nothing to do with the photos in this post, I just used the opportunity to show off my photographs - from my much-awaited, much-enjoyed recent vacation. It also does not have much to do with what I think of rural lads or kabaddi or the male of the species in general. I wish them the very best - but that doesn't include wives and easy money they don't deserve.

I came up with this wacky recipe this morning when I over-salted the paneer and the only thing that struck me as remedial measure, besides sugar and jaggery and amchur which I didn't want to use, was lime, and then when it didn't work, apple and some tamarind. It turned into a faintly tangy but mostly mellow dish.

Paneer, cubed: Two cups
Whole cashew nut: Four
Roasted sunflower seeds: A fistful
Onion: 1, sliced
Ginger-garlic paste: 2 tsp
Peas: 1/2-3/4 cup, boiled
Apple: 1/2-3/4 cup, diced
Watery, thin tamarind extract: 1/4 cup
Salt, turmeric and chilli powder

Soak the cashew nuts and sunflower seeds in a little water for about 20 minutes and grind to as smooth a paste as possible.

Saute the onion, then the ginger-garlic paste and then add the ground paste.

Let it cook for a while and then add the peas and paneer.

Mix well and then add the salt, turmeric and chilli powder. Add some water if it's too thick and let it boil well.

Add the apple and cook on low heat, just a tad above 'simmer'. Once you feel the apple softening, add the tamarind liquid, bring to a gentle boil and turn off the heat.

This is for Of Chalks and Chopsticks, the event created by Aqua, which I'm guest-hosting this month. Hurry up and send me your entries, the deadline has been extended to July 31.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Of Chalks And Chopsticks - Extending Deadline

If you've concocted a recipe but not a story yet (or vice versa) for the event, you're sailing in the same boat as me.

I'm extending the deadline till July 31 - hurry up and send me your entries.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Payasam For A Rising Star

I'm a 'rising star' - or so my gym would have me believe. Today, I found out that my name had been put up on a poster in a decorative script under that head and my weight loss of 1.5 kg had been marked against my name. (Later, at weigh-in, I found I had lost 500 grammes more, so the net loss is 2 kg).

So what do rising stars eat - especially when they are on a strict diet, monitored by two sincere, feeling dieticians who continue pouting even after you've told them you made up for the piece of chocolate cake at the office party by having only a guava three hours later and a whites-only-full-of-veggies omelette two hours after that?

I really won't take you through my diet sheet. Suffice it to say my meals nowadays are full of brown rice, oats, millets and broken wheat in various permutations and combinations - I don't remember if I've ever eaten most of this stuff! And what's a diet without a little temptation, which was raked up by this and egged on by this, after which I followed a trail of links, then lost patience - 'WTH! Boiled, parboiled or raw, I'm just going to make it and see how it turns out!'

So I took

1/4 cup of Kerala matta rice
1 pack (200 ml + a little more) of coconut milk
1 cup + An indeterminate amount of water (lots)
6 spoons (not tsp, not tbsp, just any spoon) of dark jaggery


A healthy dose of plump cashewnuts
A tsp of ghee/oil
Some powdered cardamom

I pressure-cooked the washed rice with a cup each of water and coconut milk. It didn't boil enough, so I put in the indeterminate amount of water (maybe even more than a litre) and pressure cooked away, for several whistles (maybe 8-10).

After the pressure fell, I opened the cooker, added the leftover coconut milk and stirred and stirred. I began with one spoon of jaggery, and finally stopped at six when it became clear no amount of jaggery would sweeten that mess.

I turned off the heat.

Then I fried the cashews in the ghee and added it to the mess along with powdered cardamom.

Ultimately, not bad at all! I actually enjoyed the tablespoon of payasam I had as a post-lunch treat - maybe I was content with it because I'd skimmed off many cashewnuts before that.

In a typical case of dieter's dishonesty (hey, did I just coin a term?), this didn't make it to my food diary. It would save the dieticians some angst, and it was only a tablespoon, after all.

And still I was to become a rising star!

  • It's been three days, and the payasam, despite being in the fridge, is still moist.
  • Just 1/4 cup of rice turned into the amount you see in the picture, so be prepared! I don't know how I'll ever finish mine, considering that I'm going away and The Spouse won't even look at it.
  • To veganise this, just use oil instead of ghee to fry the cashews. Coconut oil will probably make it more coconutty.

Remember, I'm hosting Of Chalks and Chopsticks, so please send me your entries - there's just two weeks left.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Of Parties & Peanuts

As inadequate as pop quizzes are, they are fun to do. Often, there are questions where none of the choice of answers apply; heck, even the question doesn't apply.

Like this question, for instance:

What's your usual pick-up strategy?
  • Dress in something revealing, then go to a bar or dance club and mope at the counter with a martini until someone notices me.
  • All I have to do is walk out my front door, it seems. I get a lot of people - both guys and girls (regardless of which i am) hitt (sic)
  • People notice me I make sure of that. If I can beat 'em at arm wrestling, or show off my hot dance moves, I pretty much have 'em
  • Just be there for them, get to know them. People trust me and are attracted to me because they know I don't play head games
  • Uh ... tell them I like them?
  • I 'get' whoever I damn well want however I damn well want. Nobody says no to me.
  • Impress them with my intellect. Poetry doesn't hurt, either.
(Taken from the Internet)
This time, though, I think I do know what my party personality is. It’s ‘wallflower’ or ‘group wallflower’. Let me tell you why.

Last year, I attended something called an ‘offsite’ as part of work, the evenings of which included much entertainment, food, drink and dancing. Many polite hands were proffered, and all declined - I can’t and don’t dance. At the end of the day, the hosts said they wouldn’t let me escape the next day. Indeed, someone dragged me on to the dance floor but I clapped rhythmically and as long as some part of me was moving, I figured, there would be no pressure. Then the dancing picked up pace, everyone forgot about me, and I began taking a step back, and then one, and then one more, till I was back on terra firma.


Last week, I attended a party thrown in honour of some folks visiting here from abroad. They were from The Spouse’s side and I had never met them before.

I didn’t meet them at the party either.

(Well, technically, I met one of them, the wife, who smiled and nodded as part of a perfunctory, fleeting wordless introduction that was all nods and waves with heads, hands and teeth. )

I spent the next few minutes clinging to a few aunts, then chatting with someone who looked equally lost and then being introduced formally to another. (I had seen her quite a few times earlier but we had had to ignore each other as we hadn‘t been introduced.) Another lost soul disengaged herself from a chair, hovered around us tentatively, and was immediately included into our little group.

“Relative or friend?” we asked each other, and identity being established, settled into our chairs and looked out on to the lawn where a huge screen was showing Brazil going going gone Dutch. And thus we remained, snacking on short eats that are typically served in clubs, till one of us received a text message from Mom somewhere in that long, narrow hall that dinner was, finally, being served upstairs. (Oh, in between, I ran into someone I actually knew a bit and amused myself teasing her that I would put the picture of her in her very fashion-forward, very plunging blouse on my photo blog. She threatened to slap me, of course, but when I told her I would morph it and jazz it up even more, she relented and asked me to send her too a copy.)

But back to the party - here’s one snack that’s super easy to make. It’s relatively quick too, though I’d call it super-quick only if it materialized out of thin air and presented itself all ready on my table.

What you need to do is mix

A big handful of dry-roasted peanuts/groundnuts, skinned
Half an onion - chopped
Half a green chilli - minced
Lime - one, juiced
Salt, to taste
Oil - a few drops

And you can have a party all your own!

This goes to My Legume Love Affair, brainchild of Susan and hosted this month by Siri.

I’m hosting Of Chalks and Chopsticks this month, so please put on your thinking caps, write those stories and send them to me. You have until the 28th of this month to do so!