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.