Thursday 31 July 2014

Making sense with sunflowers

I turned a year older last week. But that is of little consequence. There are people who won't, there were people who didn't, turn a year older this year. There are lives, half-lives and still-breaths under skies riddled with missiles. The same blue skies from which planes fall and smash into bits of DNA. Snakes and ladders; that's all it seems to be sometimes. If you can dodge a bad dice, you might be lucky enough not to be at the wrong place at the wrong time - born on that cursed strip in Gaza, seated on that plane flying over Ukraine, or walking down an empty road filled with daily dangers. And then, and then - you get to have a birthday.

So I look at sunflowers. When things don't make much sense, when the news is a constant flow of abject misery, I look at sunflowers. Sunflowers make sense. Their orbs are filled with positive, yellow purpose; you can see why the world would need them. And you can see why a man who cut off his own ear, and later shot himself dead, needed to paint them. Sunflowers are made of hope.

As I look at them now, I can see three layers of petals around that dark brown centre. The petals are smooth and shiny like the insides of my wrist. They're artlessly innocent in their brightness. The dark brown centre, however, is not so innocent. The dark brown centre is spiky, more deliberate. Textured for attention, for touch. Together, they make magic.

Each yellow whorl of my sunflowers sits slightly skewed, like a pile of mismatched china plates, so the rim underneath can show through. An artsy disarray; just the right amount of messiness. I can imagine nature putting the first sunflower together like an installation art, working to a haphazard jazz riff, whilst blowing smoke circles into dusk light.

Sometimes, you need the uncomplicatedness of cliches. And you need evolution to create flowers that clone the sun. So that whenever there is an eclipse of human nature, you'd have sunflowers to look at. In a white vase, in a safe room, where most things make sense most of the time.

If you're lucky, you'd also have good food on the table, and family around it. Food that is familiar, comfortable, and as uncomplicated as strong stalks of sunflowers in clean water.

Today, everyday, I'm grateful for that.

Coconut & Garlic Chicken Broth

This is a simple recipe that I first cooked up many years ago in Calcutta; one of my kitchen experiments. It was an experiment that stuck. I have cooked it many times since, and it's always as good as it was all those years ago. If you love coconut and garlic, you will love this as much as I do. You can, of course, replace the chicken with fish or vegetables, as I often do.


1 kg chicken
1.5 cups of freshly grated or dessicated coconut
1 white onion, thickly sliced
1 tomato, chopped
7 cloves of garlic, minced
2 green or red chillies, chopped
A bunch of fresh coriander leaves, chopped
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 dry red chillies
2 tbs vegetable/sunflower oil

Boil the chicken in water with salt and 2 mashed cloves of garlic.
In a pan, heat 2 tbs of oil. Add the peppercorns and dry red chillies.
When the peppercorns start to sputter, add the onions. Stir for 2 minutes, then add the tomatoes. Give it one stir and take pan off the heat.
In a blender, whizz the coconut and remaining garlic into a paste with a sprinkle of water and 1 tsp salt.
Take the boiled chicken off the heat, and put it in a serving bowl.
Into the chicken broth, spoon in the coconut paste, the onion and tomato mix, coriander leaves, and chopped chillies as needed.
Stir it all in. Serve with steamed rice, or on its own.



Monday 14 July 2014

D and a Bullet

When we lived in Calcutta, D used to own a Royal Enfield Bullet. It was famously good-looking in a solid, black, unfussy kind of way; and as heavy as a house. But more than anything, it was a motorbike made of muscle and mind. A temperamental thing that could purr to a start on the first kick, or refuse to budge on the nineteenth. It suited us perfectly.

D had bought it a few months before we started dating, so his friends concluded that Bullets came with a steady girlfriend; a few boys in his neighbourhood offered to buy it from him. The Bullet also came with something else - a Voice. You could hear it long before it came into view. Dhhig-dhhig-dhhig. Slow, steady, loud. Like a good heart. For me, that sound came to mean many things, because it was the sound of D arriving, returning. The end of a small waiting.

One evening - a few months into our relationship, much before we were married - I was at home watching TV with Baba, when my ears picked up the sound of a Bullet entering our building complex; we lived on the fourth floor. The sound made me sit up straight, heartbeat up a notch. But then, remembering Baba next to me, I quickly feigned a relaxed posture. I stretched, and slowly got up, muttering something about fresh air. I made my way towards the balcony, adopting what I thought was a splendidly purposeless walk. I'd taken no more than five steps when--
"It's not him," Baba said, without taking his eyes off the telly.

My Baba - as sharp as the edge of a new page. There's not much you could ever sneak past him. Later that day, I learnt that someone else in the building had bought a Bullet. Damn, I thought, I didn't need the confusion. In a few days though, my ears had worked out the difference in sounds, and came to the unbiased conclusion that the sound of D's Bullet was far sweeter.

So, that's how it always was - D, me and the Bullet. It's the way our old friends remember us. Seated on it, D and I got to know each other better, we talked and laughed, argued and made up,  planned things, escaped for a few hours. D would pick me up from college after classes - that famed 'lobby' of Jadavpur University - and off we would go, without a plan. Years later, after we were married, he'd be there waiting with the Bullet next to my office to pick me up from work.

When we left Calcutta, we had to sell the Bullet. I don't have a single photograph of it - of us riding it, standing by it, near it. Not one. We didn't take many photographs in those days. I wish we had one though, just to show Chotto-ma.

Even though our Bullet found a new home, just like we did, there are a few things which haven't changed. The sound of D arriving, returning, still makes me sit up like it used to. Only now, it's not the dhhig-dhhig-dhhig of a bullet, but the slam of a car door, footsteps up the stairs. And we still find ways to escape for a few hours.

Every once in a while, we both take the day off work, drop Chotto-ma at school, and keep the day for ourselves. We did that last week. Took the day off, took a long walk, sat by the river, talked. Discovered a new street, narrow and crammed with gardens. Stopped at a pub for a drink. Ate a perfectly cooked Thai meal. We browsed our favourite bookshop. Picked a fern for Chotto-ma. Then, sat at a cafe, till it was time to pick her up from school. D read the newspaper. I wrote a little poem on a magnetic poetry board, which, having lost most of its words, stood by the cafe window gathering dust.


I also did something else last weekend. I came up with a sublime little dessert. 'Sublime', because there is no other word for it. We had friends over, and I wanted something quick, simple. I also wanted something seasonal and cold. But: nearly no work.

I had a few ingredients at home - a pot of mascarpone, coconut milk, one lone apple and a bowl of cherries. Together, they sang. It was the stuff of sonatas, I tell you.


Stewed Apples & Cherries in a Mascarpone-Coconut Cocktail


2 apples, cut into small cubes
10  large cherries, pit removed and quartered
3-4 tbs mascarpone
1 1/2 cup coconut milk
1 star anise
Castor sugar
Cashew or pecan nut to top (or a sprig of mint)

Add apples, cherries, coconut milk, star anise and 1 tbsp sugar in a pan and put to heat.
Simmer gently for a minute, and fish out the star anise.
Continue to simmer till the coconut milk is all gone and the fruit is tender. It'll all be a lovely cherry colour.
Take it off the heat. Add 3 to 4 tbs-dollops of mascarpone into the warm, stewed fruit.
Add sugar to taste. Stir it all in.
Spoon it into cocktail glasses, top with a nut or a sprig of mint and refrigerate for 40 minutes to set.
Take it out 10 minutes before serving.

Friday 4 July 2014

Edged in sideways - Sicily, Part II

Look how long this took.

A few weeks ago, on the Sicily post, I promised you Part Two. Between that promise and this post, life edged in sideways, the sneaky thing. But here it is. Part Two, slow-roasted like little Sicilian tomatoes. Tell me if you can taste it.


Sicily - a photo journal

I'll let the photographs do most of the talking this time, and I hope they'll tell you little secrets, show you little nooks, take you away for a while. Happy weekend, my friends!

The House

A cottage out of a fairytale, hidden in the wild Madonie mountains, in Northern Sicily. We spent weeks searching for the perfect place - away from everything, without a frill, rustic and simple. We wanted birdsong and walks in the woods, and not much else. That was what Casa Bianca was in a nutshell.

For more information on Casa Bianca, you can get in touch with the lovely Pamela here.


The Places

We loved the contrasts Northern Sicily threw up at every turn. I'm going to show you three places we loved. The old, cobbled alleys of Cefalu, a town tumbling into the Mediterranean. The fishing village of Scopello, with its glittering hamlet. Castelbuono, a beautiful commune hugging a medieval cathedral. And Palermo, a city I thought I wouldn't like, but which I loved. We went to Palermo on a Monday morning when many of its shops are shut; it gave us a chance to see a different side of the city. Unhurried; with daily lives being led, crumbling balconies holding the sun, couples sitting under giant banyan trees.






The Food

Nothing I say about Sicilian food can do it justice, but there are a few things that you can't leave the island without tasting.
Cannolo - a crisp tube of fried dough filled with sweet ricotta.
A no-fuss, grilled swordfish.
Spaghetti alle vongole - spaghetti with a simple tumble of clams.
Pasta alla norma - pasta with fried eggplant, ricotta salata, pine nuts, basil and garlic.
Pasta con le sarde - pasta with sardines, wild fennel, pine nuts, raisins and saffron.
Swordfish involtini.
The fish couscous, which made its way to Sicily from Northern Africa, and is a specialty in the Trapani area.
When in season, a pizza with artichokes, which I love.
And in between your meals: a cool, crunchy granita and glasses of fresh orange juice.


Cooking in Sicily

What can I say, I could go on with the food. So, before I go, I'll leave you with a meal we cooked at home, with fresh ingredients from the market, and ate sitting at the table outside our cottage, in the midst of magic Sicilian mountains.