Friday, 17 April 2015

On repeat

When I like something, I like it and like it and like it till I can't bear to look at it. Or listen to it. Or eat it. My brother could tell you how many times I can listen to the same song. In a row, in constant repeat. We grew up sharing a bedroom and Simon and Garfunkel must haunt him still.

My taste in music changed. House changed, climate changed. But that old habit, I kept.

When D and I were dating, we used to go to a hole-in-the-wall Tibetan momo place in Calcutta. It had light bulbs so dim you could barely see the food, or indeed, each other. These dim bulbs were red, they bathed everything in an eerie red light. No matter what food you ordered, it came with a red glow. Red momos, red noodles, red faces, red teeth. The food was served on red plastic plates. (This wasn't the light; the plates were really red). There was also a red chilli paste on the side, which you couldn't tell since it was the same shade as the plate. This little momo joint was next to a government hospital in front of which metal stretchers clanged constantly, wheeling in a steady stream of ailing. The road was divided into two smells: momo and medicine.

We loved the momos. We ate it obsessively for months. Every other day. Sometimes, every day. Till the thought of momos started making me feel slightly nauseous. Then we stopped. A few years later, a friend dragged me there, and the sweet man who used to serve us enquired about D. 'Dada? Bhalo?' he asked gingerly. Is Dada well? He shuffled, unsure if our relationship had survived those torrid months of red-hued momo lunches. Steamed, deep-fried and pan-fried, with a side of clear soup. It had, I assured him.

You're thinking I'm headed towards a momo recipe, aren't you? She's going to ask us to make a momo any minute now, you fear. But no. I'm headed nowhere near a momo. I'm going left. I'm going off the road, down the dirt-track. I'm going to Rhubarb.

Rhubarb is where it's at right now. I'm repeating rhubarb like it's going out of season. Oh, hang on - it is going out of season. But before it does, do me a favour, do you a favour, and get your hands on some rrrrhubarb. I sang that, yes. I'm writing to music. (I'll tell you about that too in a minute)

So, get the rhubarb, the ru-ru-rhubarb, because I made the most sensational rhubarb pickle a few days ago that you cannot not make. It's not pickled rhubarb, mind you. It's an achaar, a very Indian pickle; tangy, garlicky, spiced with turmeric and mustard seeds, kicked by chillies, screaming good. It also has the most un-Indian ways: I've smeared it in a ciabatta stuffed with avocado and bacon, piled it on polenta, stirred it into mayonnaise for a magnificent dip. I can't sell it any more - just go get some rhubarb!

And listen to some Mulatu Astatke while you're at it; that's the music I'm writing to. Ethiopian jazz, terribly good. Listen to this, and listen to this. Mulatu's my man, and he's on repeat like rhubarb. He goes well with this pickle too; neither pulls any punches.

Indian Rhubarb Pickle

This was Ma's idea. We were talking about rhubarb, and my rhubarb soup, and it's green-mango-like tanginess, when she said: Ah, achaar! And there you have it.


2 rhubarb stalks, trimmed of leaves, cut in small pieces
4 cloves of garlic, peeled, sliced thin
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 level tsp turmeric
1 level tsp paprika
1/2 tsp asafoedita (optional)
1-2 red chillies, sliced
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 quarter of a lemon

Heat oil. Lower the heat and add the asafoedita (if using) and the mustard seeds. As soon as the mustard start spluttering, add the fenugreek seeds.
Add the rhubarb, then the garlic. Sprinkle in the turmeric, paprika and a very generous amount of salt. Add three tsp of sugar. Stir. Cover and cook for 2-3 minutes.

Open lid, it should be a nice saucy-mushy consistency now, with bits of rhubarb smothered in.
Add the chillies, squeeze in the lemon. Stir well. Taste; add more salt and sugar as required.
Cook for another minute to get the right pickle-consistency if needed.
Take it off the heat, and let it cool completely.
Transfer to a clean, dry jar. Store in the fridge.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

A well-meaning soup

The minute I open the windows now: birdsong. They're in constant and urgent conversation, the birds, from dawn to dusk. Sometimes even after the sun has set. They're catching up, their chirps like phonecalls bouncing from one branch to another, hey Martin how was Africa, didja have a good flight?

It's been a long winter of quiet; it's good to have them back.

We read a springtime book without meaning to. We started reading it to Chotto-ma at the end of winter, and as the pages turned, the season did too. It was timed like a perfectly improvised tune. Season and literature jammed, and we read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, ate chicken noodle soup, and willed the weather to get warmer - Chotto-ma's introduction to unabridged English classics.

Getting a six-year old interested in a book written more than a hundred years ago requires stealthy planning - the language is heavier, the vocabulary unfamiliar, the pace slower, the pleasures quieter. Inspite of that, I wanted Chotto-ma to start with the unabridged version of a great book. Because if you read the abridged first, you often don't get around to the original. But, I was also sure that I wanted her to enjoy it.

We had almost stopped reading aloud to Chotto-ma, because she was doing so much reading by herself. (The first novel she read on her own this year was 'The Story of the Blue Planet' by Icelandic writer Andri Snaer Magnason, about two children who live on a planet with no adults.) Studies show, quite logically, that even when children become completely independent in their reading, a book read aloud to them by a parent continues to have a special place - there's a sense of comfort and connection in shared stories - and that need not end when a child becomes a fluent reader; it's a bond worth keeping as long as you can. We decided to split her books into two categories: she'd read the ones she picked out - like the Roald Dahl she's reading now - and D and I would read to her the classics, and some poetry.

We chose The Secret Garden to start with. The language is not too challenging, and it's a book filled with the beauty of nature, a couple of loud, ill-mannered children, and a happy ending. It also has plenty of overt racism, and that's not a bad thing either - it gave us a chance to talk to Chotto-ma about prejudices and wrongs and rights. She loved the story, looked forward to it every evening, and enjoyed the drama as it unfolded. We also discussed the racist elements of the writing, of how India is portrayed and Indians described as inferior (Mary Lennox, the protagonist, is a little British girl who was born and raised in India till she moved to England to live with her uncle.) It opened up conversations about India's history, the British Raj.

Our next read-out might be E. Nesbit's The Railway Children. But no matter which classic you choose, I'd highly recommend reading it to your child to begin with instead of handing them a beautiful hardbound copy. Guide them into an older time and an older language, till they find their feet and are comfortable enough to read one by themselves. 

Goodness, I'll stop right there. I sound far wiser than I am. Ignore this unwanted advice by all means, but I beg you, DO NOT ignore the noodle soup that comes with it. It's our any-weather soup. It's a soup to read with, to listen to the birds with. It's a well-meaning soup, much like this post.

Chicken Noodle Soup

Ma would often make this soup when we were young. She'd throw in scraps of chicken and bits of vegetables left over from the week, and suddenly we'd have the most wonderful smell wafting out of the kitchen. Our Spring is cold and windy still, and I needed this. Like birdsong, it makes everything better.


The vegetables really depend on what you have at home, but these are what works really well. You also won't find quantities for the vegetables in this recipe - since it's meant to be made with whatever you have left over, feel free to put more of one, less of another.

4 chicken thighs, skin on
Cabbage, cut in big cubes
Mushrooms, cut in half if small, or quartered
Courgette, diced in thick circles, then halved so you have semi-circles
Carrots, diced diagonally
Cauliflower, cut in small florets
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
A few whole black peppercorns, crushed coarsely (the ready-powered version really doesn't do it!) 
Spring onion, chopped fine, white part and green part separate
A bayleaf

In a deep pot, heat 8 cups of water. Add chicken, garlic, white part of spring onion, bayleaf, salt. Simmer on medium heat.
After about 15-18 minutes, start adding the vegetable in order of cooking time. In this case - cabbage, cauliflower and carrots together in first, and after about 6 minutes, mushrooms and courgette.
Add more water if needed, check salt. You want a nice, thin broth, full of flavour.
Once the mushrooms and courgette are in, don't simmer for more than 1 minute, and take off the heat.
Take the chicken out. Get rid of the skin. Shred the meat in pieces and put it back in the soup.
Serve with pepper and the chopped green part of the spring onion.

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