Monday 29 August 2011

I'm not done with you

I need to have a talk with the trees.

No, I’m not a tree hugger. Nor do I have conversations with my root vegetables to help them grow better. It’s just that the trees surprised me yesterday, in a sneaky kind of way. They changed on me.

Why start changing colour now? Is it reasonable to be orange so soon? It’s just August, for the sake of seasonal smoothies! I need to hang on to the last dregs of summer.

I need a few more days of cherries, and mango kulfi.

A few more picnics, with baguettes, cheeses and olives, and wine in cheap plastic glasses.

More trips to Holkham with buckets and spades and fishing nets.

More barefoot walks in the grass.

I’d like the long hours of light, just a little bit longer.

I’d like to unpack the woollens just a little bit later.

I want to leave the windows open a few more nights.

I’m not done with you summer!

I love autumn, with it’s warm rusty colours and cold whipping winds, but I’m not ready for it just yet. And until I am, I’ll ward off the odd cold, wet day with a steaming hot stew. Of lamb and coconut milk. Of kaffir lime leaves and coriander. Of spicy shrimp paste and tangy tamarind. Flavours from a warm place.

Lamb in Coconut Milk with Spicy Shrimp Paste

500 gms boneless lamb
1 onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic
1 1/2 inch ginger
1/2 cup chopped coriander
1 green chilli, more if you can take the heat
1 star anise
2 cups coconut milk
3-4 kaffir lime leaves
2 tsp shrimp paste
1 tsp black peppercorns

Put the onion, garlic, ginger, coriander and chilli in a mixer and blitz into a coarse paste.
In a cooking pan, mix the lamb, the paste, coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, star anise, peppercorns and salt. Bring to the boil, then immediately lower the heat, cover and simmer on medium till the meat is cooked.
Stir in the shrimp paste and tamarind paste, and simmer till meat is very tender. Add water, if needed, to adjust the thickness of the gravy.
Serve hot with steamed rice and slices of lemon.

Serves 3-4

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Dances and details

Of all the framed art on our walls, there's one that I love the most. It's a black and white photograph of a couple dancing on the streets of Paris, next to the Seine. Paul Almasy's Rock 'n Roll sur les Quais de Paris is a happy twirl, frozen in time. I never tire of looking at it.

It reminds me of my first dance with D, fifteen years ago. (Fifteen?!) Just as we gingerly, awkwardly stepped on to the dance floor, the song changed, and we were stuck with Elton John singing Sacrifice. Now we're stuck with it for posterity. Thankfully, the song faded quickly as other details became sharper. The checks on his shirt, the faint smell of aftershave, our hands unsure about where to rest, a sweet nervousness.

The photograph also reminds me of the time I was pregnant with Chotto-ma. Every afternoon, I would put on some music, and dance. I would hold my tummy tight, and sway, and feel her move and flip inside me. We would dance together for hours, just the two of us. It was a quiet, intense kind of happiness.

There are times when the rhythm of a moment is just right. It's details, irreplaceable.

Every time I look at the photograph, I notice something new. A detail I hadn't seen before. The first time our neighbour's little girl walked into the house, she looked at the print and said, I love the old bricks on that bridge. She didn't mention the dance, not even the flick of the pretty skirt. But the quiet bricks in the back.


To me, they make all the difference. In life. In art. In food. In a pot of rice, some adzuki beans can be that detail. In a tuna kebab, a handful of freshly chopped coriander can be that detail.

ean Rice with Tuna Kebabs

The Adzuki-Bean Rice


1 1/2 cup adzuki beans
4 cups cooked rice that have been in the fridge overnight
1 large tomato, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
A handful of chopped coriander leaves
1 tsp black peppercorns, crushed
1 tsp garam masala
1 bay leaf
1 tbs olive oil, or a blob of butter.

Soak the adzuki beans in water, overnight. Next morning, discard the water and wash the beans.
Boil 4 cups of water. To the water, add the beans and all other ingredients, except the rice.
Cook on medium heat till beans are done, adding more water if needed. Once the beans are cooked, dry up any remaining water by increasing the heat.
Now mix in the cold rice, with the olive oil or butter. Adjust seasoning.
Heat once before serving.

The Tuna Kebabs


2 cans tuna, drained dry
1 green chilli, chopped
2 tbs crushed roasted peanuts
1 cup chopped coriander
1 tbs grated lemon zest
1 egg
1 cup bread crumbs

Mix all the ingredients. Form flat, round dics. Pan fry till golden brown.
Serve immediately with the rice.

Tuesday 16 August 2011


Boxes are the darnest things. They trick you into feeling tidy, and then they suddenly fill up. So, what do you do? You get another box. That fills up too, so you get another. And another. Boxes multiply, brazenly. And then the big boxes and the baby boxes need to be sorted, tidied, labelled, piled or slid under beds.

But I'm still a fool for boxes. Between a pretty dress, and a pretty box, I'd choose the box every time. And I've been known to return from my travels with old wooden crates instead of the usual souvenirs. I might even have passed the fetish on to my daughter, because as a baby, a cardboard box could keep her far better entertained than a multicoloured toy that danced, sang and blew bubbles. For a special treat, an egg carton worked wonders.

I love my large, old wooden box filled with warm blankets. My battered tin box full of old, handwritten letters, cards, and another filled with photographs. The fabric-covered box filled with Chotto-ma's baby clothes. My box of pretty patterned paper. Of cupcakes, and crayons. Of wooden clothes-pegs, and kitchen herbs. I have a box full of scissors of different sizes. Of shells from beaches far away. Of embroidered, white linen, handed down generations, the cloths now a little yellow with age. And a box with a key, full of stray thoughts.

Do you have a well-loved box, filled with well-loved things?

There's one in my kitchen too. A box that is filled with many small boxes, and the small boxes filled with the most beautiful, aromatic spices, from which I take pinches of flavour, and colour. They are the spices that flavoured this fragrant soup of lentils and green mango. It's a tangy soup that smells and tastes of Southern India. Of coconuts and curry leaves. It's summer in a bowl.

Lentil & Green Mango Soup

2 cups red lentils, washed
1 small green mango, peeled and diced
1 cup coconut milk
A handful of curry leaves
1 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tbs oil
5 cups water

Boil the water, and when it starts bubbling, add the lentils, mango, turmeric, cayenne pepper and salt. Lower the heat to medium and cook the lentils till done. Remove from heat.
Heat oil in a pan, and add the mustard seeds and peppercorns. When the seeds start sputtering, add the curry leaves. Sit for a couple of minutes then add this to the lentils.
Put the lentils in a blender and blitz till smooth. Transfer it back to the pan and add the coconut milk. Add more water to adjust thickness if needed.
Heat the soup, without bringing it to the boil. Serve with a sprinkle of black mustard seeds.

Serves 6, maybe more.

Sunday 7 August 2011

A countdown

Numbers, standing in their natural order, are so ordinary. Look at them.

1,     2,     3,     4,     5

They could be anything. The number of toes inside your left shoe. The number of times you've pretended to have read A Brief History of Time. The number of cats in the house next door. The number of times you can sneeze in a row. The number of times you came that close to winning the lottery. It could be anything. Or nothing much.


Now, reverse the order of the same little numbers, and as if by magic, they become less ordinary. They become a countdown.

5,     4,     3,     2,     1

A countdown has a sense of drama, of anticipation. They tease you closer to something exciting. No one ever counts down to a non-event. Well, I certainly don't remember counting down days to my dentist's appointment.

But I do remember counting down to my wedding day. To the 20th-week scan when I was pregnant. To the minutes before our flight takes off to an unexplored city. To Durga Pujo, when we were growing up in Kolkata. I remember my 12-year old self, counting down to the birthday when she would wake up a teenager, and suddenly be taken seriously. (Yeah, right). And now, I see my daughter counting down before her spaceship blasts off into outer space.

Do you remember the last time you counted down the days? Or a momentous countdown from a different time, a different year?

I like my numbers backwards even more so this week. In another three days, Ma, Baba and my brother are going to be here. My house is going to fill up with family, and with warm, familiar banter. With bear hugs and arguments.

There really can be nothing better to count down to.

While I wait for the last few days to trickle down, here’s something adapted from Ma’s kitchen. It’s butternut squash, but with a personality. In Kolkata, we would use kumro (pumpkin) to make this. But here, butternut squash makes a great alternative.

Spicy Butternut Squash with Garlic & Cumin


1 medium butternut squash, cut into equal-sized pieces
1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp paprika
A bunch of fresh coriander leaves, chopped
1-2 green chillies
3-4 tbs oil

Heat oil in a deep pan. Once hot, turn heat down to medium. Add the cumin seeds.
As soon as the seeds turn a light brown (3-4 seconds), add the chopped garlic.
When the garlic turns a light brown, and lets off a nice 'roasted' smell, add the butternut squash.
Add the green chilli. Split it down the middle if you want it hot, or keep it whole with the stalk intact, if you want just the flavour of the chilli, without the heat.
Sprinkle the whole thing with salt and paprika, give it all a good stir, and cover. Cook for 15-20 minutes.
Then take the lid off, add half of the chopped coriander. Stir and taste for seasoning.
Cover and cook for a few more minutes if needed. The butternut squash should look a little bit mushy, with the pieces sticking together.
Transfer to a serving dish, and sprinkle with the remaining chopped coriander.

Serves 4-5

Monday 1 August 2011

Perfect Shmerfect

“I’m a perfectionist”. 

That should be your opening line if you want me to run a mile. And then, you’ll never have to see me again.

To be perfectly honest, perfection makes me yawn. I try to do it as surreptitiously as possible, so as not to appear too common. But between you and me, perfect is tedious. Even the word seems stuck-up, wearing a stiff suit and black tie. I like my adjectives a little more loose-limbed.

Maybe it’s because I’ve never done anything that comes close to being perfect. Never could, never tried. My shoes never matched my bags. My cakes are often born with bad posture. And my table manners need tweaking. (An elbow on the table is so convenient!)

I love cities that are a little rough around the edges. And faces that don’t follow symmetry. I like my daughter in socks that don’t match. I hate books arranged by height. And I won’t have identical lamps on either side of the bed.

Things are beautiful when they’re just a little bit out of place. When they’re not quite right. Without that, Pisa would be just another little city.

Now, for broad beans.

Broad beans?

Yes, it was all boiling down to broad beans. Sorry.

As its season progresses, broad beans become a little too big, and a little bit bitter. So, the ones I bought from the farm shop this week were not as tender as they could have been. Not quite perfect.  

But again, they were. Perfect for my Broad Bean & Pistachio Hummus. The slight bitterness of the beans gave the hummus a little sharpness, and the pistachios balanced it with its blunt, sweet hint.

It was my kind of perfect.

Broad Bean & Pistachio Hummus, with roasted coriander seeds


2 cups shelled broad beans
1/2 cup pistachios
1/2 tsp coriander seeds, roasted and crushed
2 cloves garlic
2 tbs olive oil
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp black peppercorns, coarsely crushed
Sea salt

Boil the broad beans in water for 4-5 minutes till tender. Let it cool, then slip the beans out of the skins.
Mix the beans with the rest of the ingredients, and put in in a blender. Blitz to a coarse puree.
Add a little more olive oil if it seems too dry.
Taste, then tweak seasoning, ading more salt, pepper and lemon juice if needed.

Serve 3-4