Culinary, cuisines and me

Cooking had never been by forte, until the past few years. My only record of having ventured the kitchen was during my engineering days, at 2 am, when in the last minute preps for the semester exam, I would render a quick cheese sandwich (recipe courtesy Preethi). But for all those adventurous cook outs at divku’s and home alone parties, I was a mere connoisseur of food cooked around me!

Ousting this reflection of mine, I have indeed taken to cooking in the past two years of my life here; partially due to the lack of amma’s presence and partially due to my genuine likeness to eat sumptuously. It had begun with many unwarranted experiments during graduate years and accommodated to more intricate dishes as work life set in. And like an answer to the old me, last weekend I had, with N, prepared a challenging menu for eleven odd friends who had dined with us; I believe the food wasn’t half as bad.

With the proclivity to cook, comes a tendency to venture into many boundaries. And living in a city like Boston with variegated cuisines, there are many choices to make. On one such mission, we had dined at the Addis Red sea restaurant in south Boston on Sunday. The little diner in the basement on Tremont Street, speaks of the Ethiopian culture even in the cane made dining tables called moseb. We were in for a surprise, as our seats were nothing more than the uncomfortable ‘moda’ backless chairs centered on the circle topped ‘moseb’.

When our curiously named meals arrived, we were served a large plate to be shared among the four of us. Four ‘injera’s, the Ethiopian bread made of barley and wheat, which looked and felt like the ‘aapam’ from kerala, lined the plate, with the curries ordered dropped at its core. Unlike a western dinner, the food is a compulsory eat-with-hand, owing to the dosa like injera, which is too soft for a knife or fork. Yet, in all its novelty and traditional setup, the curry had not appealed to our well spruced spice loving Indian tongue. To me the food seemed healthy and bland, with a twist of creativity, adding up to a fat check. And if you are looking for an unconditional change of ambience and taste, this is definitely a place to try.

For the less ambitious, is another of my favorite restaurants ‘Helmand’ in Cambridge. And as the name suggests, it’s an afghan cuisine, with a friendlier menu. The very familiar spicy rice and jeera rice are intriguingly named pallow and challow. For the meat lovers, the place holds a wide range of ‘murgh’ and ‘ghosh’ dishes. But barring it all is the desserts of kheer, custards and icecream with a dash of awareness and attractive names. Nevertheless to say, we often haunt the place for birthday parties and order every dessert on the menu.

And as for the twist in taste to hold the Asian touch, is the ‘Brown Sugar’, a sundry street diner on Jersey Street near Fenway. Being a lover of egg and accustomed to a coconut flavor, the Thai omelet is definitely my favorite. But my luncheons there are never complete without the melting hot and cold fried icecream.

If I were to recommend a local gastronomy, it would be the veggie burgers and flat bread pizzas at Uno Chicago grill. The rustic American set up of the 70s and 80s combined with the sides of French fries and coleslaw, I have dined here one too many. But for that burning tongue feel, the jalapeños coasted food with the Mexican flavor, “on the border”’s ‘chimichanga is a must try!

It takes a food buff to make a good cook they say. I am not sure if that really holds, but I have definitely speculated and played with ingredients ever since I have learnt to understand their flavors. On one such undertaking, I ended up with an eggplant curry and recipe goes thus –

Ingredients –

  1. One or two large eggplants.
  2. cumin
  3. mustard
  4. curry leaves
  5. Ginger ( 2 cm cube )
  6. 2 small flakes of garlic
  7. green chilies ( 3 or 4 )
  8. 1 tblsp of coconut milk
  9. chilly powder according to taste
  10. Coriander powder, if available.
  11. Onion ( 2 )
  • Preheat the oven for 350 or more and bake the egg plants for half n hour, continuously pricking them with a knife.
  • Make a fresh coarse paste of ginger garlic and chilies.
  • Cut the onions long and fry them in olive oil, with popped cumin, mustard and curry leaves, until golden brown. Plop in the ginger garlic mix until the raw smell gives way to a smooth flavor.
  • Add chilly powder and fry until the dry pungency is lost.
  • To this brown mixture on fire, drop the coconut milk and let it simmer at a low flame, so that the unrefined coconut tang nullifies.
  • In the meanwhile, scoop the well baked egg plant, leaving the darkened violet skin. Cut it into smaller pieces if necessary.
  • To the well cooked, aroma emanating semi solid paste, add the eggplant pieces.
  • Now sprinkle coriander powder and salt as the eggplant cooks and blends with the gravy.
  • Let cook for 15 minutes. Serve hot with garnished coriander leaves. Very good for chapathis.

To each reading this, you are welcome to share your novel recipe. Till then happy cooking and happy eating!

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Knots tied

Knots tied

Whenever I think of a wedding and the little big intricacies that make it happen, I am reminded of the story “The missing mail” from Malgudi days. The story encompasses the pleasure and pain of bringing the observance together, surviving joy, hard work and crisis. And not so long ago, it was my turn to be in this rigmarole of a marriage, much unlike the era that Narayanan was describing and much like the beguiling ambience he had portrayed.

N and I come from backgrounds that are thankfully one-third alike; ‘thankfully’ since it makes the ritual a lot less complicated. But sometimes it is the other two-thirds bit that can make your wedding a little special and strenuous at the same time. May be that explains how we had squeezed time for me to adorn a madisar but carry a ceremony, as per N’s family tradition, that sans fire.

It had begun on a Saturday with a subtle pooja to the elephant god before dawn. As I prayed and chanted, it was appa’s sleepless night, playing host to the myriad of guests and finding them the respectable hotel accommodation all night long, which gnawed me. And somehow I had not understood until then that there is no such thing as a well planned wedding and if it were without consternations, it wouldn’t be a wedding at all.

The day had broken and spent with the many friends and cousins, welcoming and talking, all blending into that gregarious atmosphere, which was to linger for the next two days. The fulsome feasts had begun and the pedestals were laid for believing that something bigger was in the making. Before I knew, it was time for engagement ceremony in the evening and I was ushered to the bridal room for that first perfect look.

Our engagement was completed by the maternal mamas, who had thoroughly enjoyed the turban tying, garland exchanging and some pot belly hitting hugs that ensued. And with every little function, somehow the families, who had begun the journey with the two-thirds uncommon, were closing in on them. As for N and me, the blinding video lights and the gamut of pictures with constantly plastered smiles were only a warning of what we might be facing hence.

The wedding Sunday was deemed immensely auspicious and it seemed to me the entire town of Madurai was geared to wed. I was circumscribed to a saree only dress code from dawn to dusk, not that I minded, for that bridal touch. As my disoriented step cut hair was deftly braided into a knee touching length, I had mastered the skill to hold a heavy extension to my head. By the time I was worn the muhoortha pattu and jewelry I had spent hours and days designing and selecting, I was running a high temperature and the heavy drumming and gaggle of well wishers outside didn’t help my nervousness.

As I entered the decked pedestal, assuming an unbending namaskaram, the wafting redolence of my huge rose garlands, the olfactory of agarbathi, sandalwood and ornate jasmines gripped me. I was carefully whispered to walk like a bride and I had smiled inertly to my incorrigible clumsiness even in this heavy attire. If not for appa’s reassuring smile and N’s uneasy grin, I am sure I would have effectuated a ‘runaway bride’ scene. But I, in all my panicked calm, espoused the seat next to the pattu veshti festooned groom without further ado.

The ceremony was my first, of course for partaking, but attending as well. As a few words were being spoken by elders, I was but scanning the packed hall, for smiling at familiar faces much unlike a shy bride. Thanks to my humongous garlands and complementing hairdo, I couldn’t turn my neck to peek a word with N or appa. Soon, the gattimelam was sounded and I watched our fathers exchange garlands, followed by our mothers. And with that we had transcended into an ironic arranged marriage mode.

As if rising from my reprieve, we rose to a ritual, I never knew existed in Hindu marriages. With my hand in his, we repeated prose in wholesome Tamil, of words that sounded beautiful, but meaning unknown. Yet, we had in all proclivities agreed to marry the other through that lexis with a thousand odd people watching us.

The next few moments were lifetimes apart and if I were to recall, the only thing that stopped me from sobbing was N’s characteristic “it’s ok” nod, holding the wieldy chain of gold in his hands. No sooner had he given the nod; in the deafening noise and showers of well wishes, the taali had entwined my already crammed neck. And thus in the blink of the eye, we had accomplished the most defining moment of the entire wedding and managed to keep my eye liner intact!

With all anxiety weaned off, little did I know that, the groom and bride were to take a joy ride on the legendary kudirai vandi of Madurai? And to have a cousin hold an umbrella over you, as the horse made its way on the sunbathed streets, was indeed an unusual treat. What followed were a zillion wishes, a million photographs and the aftermath of many a magical moments. And somehow, everything post the crux is never as stirring, but the rituals never cease to end.

For many, it seemed like the new chapter to our lives had begun that day; but for me, it was one of the rarest days of my life when my whole family was together after many many years. Periappa, periamma, mama, mami, athai, athan, cousins and everyone bubbling away and am I glad that they could make it to this little town which they have never visited before.

That wedding night, as I prepared to leave my family to enter a new home, I had done something, I would have found cheesy as a third person. Having spent two days lolling with my entire family, all I wanted to do was stay back. And like a little child, draining my heavy makeup of the evening, I had cried my gut out hugging and refusing to let go of appa and in the bargain making everyone around me teary-eyed.

As I drove away, I was glad for I was married; not because I love N any better now, but for the blissful once in a lifetime episode, which had taught me the love for family again. For – if marriage is sheer optimism; it doesn’t get better than being given away into one.