Monday, January 31, 2005

The Scourge

Last week's Outlook carried a cover story about Indians who are choosing to shun marriage and live life single. I've always maintained that marriage should be a choice. But for many Indian women, we do not have that choice. For us, marriage is never an 'if' only a 'when'. People featured in the Outlook article live in metros, have successful careers and are reasonably sure of what they want out of life. Good for them. Unfortunately, they represent a tiny, tiny miniscule of the population.

For a large percentage of everyday Indian women, we are told that we MUST get married. Some of us (self included), resist this notion and go on to pursue careers and live our dreams at least for a short period of time. But at every turn, the question looms -'when are you going to get married?'. So eventually, we succumb. Because often we are so tired from the questioning that we just want to put an end to it. If truth be told, we are not brave enough to remain unmarried all our lives and be called 'that' spinster aunty. We want to be accepted. Do the things that society/family/parents expect us to do. So we marry the guy they want us to marry, have children, set aside career, cook, clean, wash, iron and get sucked into a domestic vortex.

One day, many years later, we ask the daughter, 'So, do you want to get married?'. When she answers 'no', we shake our heads in dismay before coaxing, cajoling and ultimately threatening her into submission. After all, if she didn't marry, what would the society think? Besides, this is just a phase she will grow out of. Whoever heard of a girl who didn't want to marry? Can't she see her parents are getting old and they have a duty to do? Does she want to grow old alone? She won't find a man when she wants to. Look at so-&-so's daughter who's happily married and expecting a baby soon. Of course, she can study and pursue her career after marriage! But first, let her meet this lovely boy from...

Thus we tighten the noose. Repeat lines from our past. Clip wings in the name of culture. We get our daughters married against their choice. Because that is the done thing. And we don't dare otherwise. More's the pity.

p.s. This is just an anguished rant and does not reflect on my personal experience of marriage.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Salt, flour and something special*

In the movie 'Azhagan', the hero Mammooty desribes himself as 'being like upma'- quick, unfussy and comes to the aid in an emergency. No truer words have been said about the this classic dish. It's fast to cook and fantastic to eat. There's no planning needed and you can add just any veggie (save brinjal and ladies finger) in your fridge and you won't go wrong.

p.s. I've used vermicelli in this recipe. You can use rava instead.
*Upma in tamil literally means salt and flour
(About 10 minutes to cook)
You'll need
Vermicelli - 250 gms, broken into small pieces
Potato - 1 small, diced
Onion - 1 small, finely chopped
Carrot - 1 small - diced
Cauliflower- a handful of florets
Peas - 50 gms, shelled
Green chilli - 1 small chopped
Mustard seeds - 1 tsp
Urad dal - 1 tsp
Channa dal - 1 tsp
Cashew nuts - 5-6, halved
Cooking oil - 1.5 tbsp
Salt to taste
Here's how to
1. Heat a pan with 2 tsp oil and drop the vermicelli in it. Toss it around till all of it is coated in oil and is browned. Set aside
2. In another pan, heat the remaining oil. When hot, add mustard seeds and once they splutter, add the dals, cashew nuts, onion and green chilli
3. Saute over medium heat till the onions is transparent and then add the veggies
4. When they are half-cooked, about 6 minutes later, add 300 ml water, salt and bring to a boil
5. Lower the heat and add the oil-coated vermicelli and keep stirring till the water is absorbed and the vermicelli cooked. Serve hot

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Obsession

I recently read transcripts of an interview with Gwyneth Paltrow where she goes into detail about her eating habits. Specifically, about her macrobiotic diet. The diet, apparently, can be broken up like this -
50 % whole grains,
25 % seasonal vegetables
10 % protein foods
5 % sea vegetables
5 % soups and
5 % fruits, seeds, nuts and drinks

I've got two words for you, Gwyneth - Orthorexia Nervosa - Obsession with healthful eating.
Cake, anyone?

Monday, January 24, 2005

Coffee, tea or Horlicks?

'It is an acquired taste'. I know they say this of delicacies and exotic food. But I would say the same of Horlicks. Yes, good old, friend-of-the-feverish Horlicks. Appparently, it is one of the most popular drinks in the UK! It's hard to imagine big, boozing British blokes drinking a warm mug of malted drink before hitting the sack. It seems they do. I suspect that the renewed interest in the age-old drink has much to do with its latest advertising campaign. Here's how it goes.

Ad 1- Woman comes running into a bus stop to catch a bus which is already waiting there. But just as she is about to board, the bus moves away leaving the woman stranded in the bus stop. Shot of the bus driver and a voice over that says 'How does he sleep at night?'. Bus driver is now in his pyjamas, ready for bed, blissfully downing a steaming mug of Horlicks. Voice over whispers 'Horlicks. For a good night's sleep'.

Ad 2 - Parking attendant checks watch, checks the parking slip displayed on a car window. Checks watch, checks time on parking slip. Does the same third time around and then, boom! slams the much-hated parking penalty ticket on the car window. Skips away merrily to a voice over that says 'How does she sleep at night?'. Parking attendant is at home, ready to go to sleep, sipping on a foaming mug of her favourite malt drink. Voice over, in a whisper, says 'Horlicks. For a good night's sleep'.

I'm going to get my Horlicks fix for the day. I won't drink it. Just gobble it straight off the spoon, like I always have.

The way we speak

Speak this line out as you read it. Now stop. Do you know why you were saying the words the way you did? Why you paused when you paused and stressed when you did? Accents are such big part of who we are and yet we rarely think about them. I saw an interview on TV this morning with an expert on accents. He is in the process of recording and documenting different accents heard across the UK. These documents will then help actors getting their speech right especially when playing a regional character. The expert mentioned that in his studies, he found that people in the UK trust the Edinburgh accent. Which is why we hear it more in advertisements selling mortgages. How interesting! Apparently, the 'Liverpudlian' and the 'Geordie' (sic) accents, the latter as spoken by Ant and Dec and as heard on Big Brother voice over, were much loved.

Wouldn't it be interesting to carry out such an exercise in India? In Tamilnadu alone we could get a bouquet of accents. Apart from the geographical classification, there might be accents classified along communal lines. Like say, Madras-Brahmin and then Tirunelveli- Brahmin. I wonder if someone has already done such an exercise. I know that in films like 'Virumaandi' and 'Dumm Dumm Dumm', the movie-makers have tried to introduce a way of speaking specific to the area where the story is set. But often the accent ends up a caricature and rarely does justice. It would be great to save the real accents for posterity. In an age when everything is increasingly homogenised, it is well worth preserving a small part of our lives - the way we speak.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Look, there goes a vegetarian!

I am a vegetarian. By birth. As opposed to someone who has chosen to become one for political or health reasons or simply because it is fashionable. Let me explain, I was born in a family that has always eaten vegetarian food and it was natural for me to follow suit. I have lived in places where vegetarian food is available a great deal and the choices are aplenty. I have been fortunate enough not to have gone to some places in Romania where, rumour has it that, the only food available during winter months is sausage.
Anyway, these days that fact that I've never (knowingly) tasted meat has become my USP. My party trick. My sex appeal. People always want to know what on earth I eat! So imagine my delight when I recently came across this poem by Benjamin Zephaniah - a rasta British poet who famously turned down an OBE, eats only organic vegan food and writes some deliciously wonderfully poems that are pleasure on the ear. Pass it on, if you please.

Vegan Delight
Ackees, chapatties
Dumplins an nan,
Channa an rotis
Onion uttapam,
Masala dosa
Green callaloo
Bhel an samosa
Corn an aloo.
Yam an cassava
Pepperpot stew,
Rotlo an guava
Rice an tofu,
Puri, paratha
Sesame casserole,
Brown eggless pasta
An brown bread rolls.
Soya milked muesli
Soya bean curd,
Soya sweet sweeties
Soya's de word,
Soya bean margarine
Soya bean sauce
What can mek medicine?
Soya of course.
Soya meks yoghurt
Soya ice-cream,
Or soya sorbet
Soya reigns supreme,
Soya sticks liquoriced
Soya salads
Try any soya dish
Soya is bad.
Plantain an tabouli
Cornmeal pudding
Onion bhajee
Wid plenty cumin,
Breadfruit an coconuts
Molasses tea
Dairy free omelettes
Very chilli.
Ginger bread, nut roast
Sorrell, paw paw,
Cocoa an rye toast
I tek dem on tour,
Drinking cool maubi
Meks me feel sweet,
What was dat question now?
What do we eat?

Friday, January 21, 2005

Milagu Kuzhambu

Describing this dish as 'pepper sauce' in English is such as travesty. For one, 'sauce' always conjures up an image of something bottled and ready-to-eat. Whereas milagu kuzhambu is fresh, tangy and fires up the insides like no readymade sauce can. Ever.
My grandmother used to make milagu kuzhambu in an 'uruli' (a traditional cooking pot) and let it soak in the flavours for hours before serving it. This is a calorie-rich and nutrionally-dubious recipe. So if you're cholestrol conscious, go away and nibble on some celery sticks. But for the intrepid, milagu kuzhambu can open up parts you never dreamt of.

Milagu Kuzhambu
(About 30 minutes to cook)
You'll need
Tamarind - the size of a small lemon
Urad dal - 1 tbsp
Toor dal - 1 tbsp
Dried red chillies - 3
Pepper corns - 1.5 tsp
Shallot onions - 2
Jaggery - 1 tsp (optional)
Turmeric - 1 tsp
Oil - 2 tbsp
Mustard seeds - 1 tsp
Asafoetida - 1 tsp
Curry leaves - 2 tsp
Salt to taste

Here's how to -
1. Soak tamarind in warm water for about 15 minutes
2. Meanwhile, heat a pan, add the oil and when it's hot, add the onions, urad and toor dals, red chillies and the pepper corns. Saute till onions are transparent (for about 5 minutes)
3. When cool enough to handle, drain the above masala and grind to a paste. Save the oil for later
4. In a pan heat the same oil and when hot, add mustard seeds. When they finish popping, add curry leaves and asafoetida
5. To this, add extracted tamarind juice, turmeric, jaggery and bring it to a boil
6. Now add the ground paste, mix well, add salt and bring to a boil. Turn off heat
7. Serve hot with rice and papad

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Wizards of the wardrobe

I have never been a keen follower of fashion, preferring to stick to bland, familiar, tired but safe choices. Which is why you’ll never find high heels or leather pants or halter necks in my wardrobe. You’ll find me in salwar kameezes that would look good on a pillow, jeans two sizes too big, baggy tee shirts and basically anything that would make me blend with the background. In what I call, ‘wall paper clothes’. In fact, I even have a couple of shirts that match what’s on the wall. Anyway, one day my cosy world of sartorial dysfunction was rudely shaken awake by two women. Two straight-talking, no-nonsense and downright rude women.

Trinny and Susannah (of ’no last name’ fame), stars of the show ‘What Not To Wear’ on BBC1, pull any poor old, haggard lady off the street and give her a makeover that would put most plastic surgeons out of work. And this they would go about doing in the most outrageous manner. The twosome would strip their hapless victim to her underpants, shove inside a trial room fitted with mirrors on all sides and then go about systematically dissecting her. Then they’d make her wear a number of new outfits (some frankly, ridiculous) before deciding on a final look. While I do not agree with their modus operandi, the results that these women wrought were fantastic. Honestly, there was a world of difference in the ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots with the participants walking away with a spring in their stilettoed step and a swing in their newly-coloured hair.

So when I had an important meeting coming up, I cast my beige coat aside and decided to put Susannah to the test. I bought their books, tried on clothes that I’d never dared to before and finally bought something that would have been as natural a choice for me as say, speaking Finnish.

The morning of my meeting was one of the coldest days this winter and my long cardigan was hopelessly inadequate. Still, I braved on. I hoped that no one would comment on how great my trousers were or ask where I bought my shoes or say anything that would make me confess to my sins. My fears were unfounded and the meeting went quite well. So well that they offered me the job. There’s just one small hitch, what do I do with my mountain of frumpy clothes?

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Don't call me THAT!

There's a new show on Channel 4 called 'Desperate Housewives'. It's an American show (what else could it be?) about saucy, glamourous housewives with a sex-life that would be the envy of a rockstar.

Now, as anyone who has ever been a housewife (btw, whatever happened to stay-at-home mother and all that politically correct jazz?), there's barely enough time in the day to cook, clean, wash, iron, feed, mop, vaccuum, dust and dry. Let alone, have steamy sex with plumbers! The women on the show are pure American fantasy. They all have fantastic figures, gorgeous wardrobes, fabulous husbands who pay for their indulgences and children who conveneiently disappear when their moms want to have a fling with the postman.

You know how I feel about being called a housewife. So I wince each time I watch a promo for this show with its ghastly title which sounds like the subject of something I'd get in my junkmail. Still, I'm going to try again to sit through a whole show to see what the hype is all about. Watch this space for reactions.

Pita Pizza

This is a great afternoon snack and it's so easy to cook. I personally prefer soft cheese (like Philadelphia) for this recipe but you could substitute it with any cheese, really. Enjoy!

(About 20 minutes to cook)
You'll need -
Pita bread or dry chappati - 1
Tomatoes - 1 large, chopped fine
Oil - 2 tbsp
Onion - 1 medium, chopped fine
Bell pepper (capsicum) - 1 small, diced
Corn kernels - 50 gms
Paprika or chilli powder - 1.5 tsp
Cumin powder - 1 tsp
Any soft cheese - 100 gms
Salt to taste

Here's how to -
1. Heat the oil in a pan and add the diced onions. Saute for a couple of minutes and then add finely chopped tomatoes
2. Keep stirring on low heat for about 3 minutes or till the tomatoes turn pulpy
3. Throw in the paprika, cumin powder and salt, give it a stir and then add the capsicum pieces
4. Cover and simmer for another 2 minutes before adding the corn kernels
5. Cover and simmer for a good 7-8 minutes or till the capsicum is cooked
6. Heat another pan and roll out the pita bread (or chapati)
7. Turn it over and make sure both sides are browned before taking it off heat
8. When cool enough to handle, spread the tomato mixture and then spread (or sprinkle) the cheese on top
9. Return pita bread to pan and let cook for a couple of minutes till the cheese starts to melt.
Serve hot

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Rasam to die for

Now, this one is a crowd-favourite. Never fails to impress the guests whenever I serve it. There is a bit of frying, pureeing and grinding to be done. But don't let that put you off. The rasam can be served as a soup or as an accompaniment to rice. Do try it and let me know how it went.

Tomato Rasam a la ammani
(About 20 minutes to cook)
You'll need -
Tomatoes - 3 large
Ghee or butter - 3 tsp
Green chillies - 3 small
Shallot onions - 2
Garlic - 2 cloves (optional)
Coriander seeds - 2 tsp
Cumin seeds - 1 tsp
Cinnamon bark - half an inch
Curry & coriander leaves - to garnish
Salt to taste
Here's how to -
1. Drop the tomatoes in boiling water and let them stay for a couple of minutes
2. When cool enough to handle, slide off the skin and puree the tomato in a blender
3. In a separate pan, heat the ghee (or butter) and add the green chillies, shallots, garlic (if using), coriander seeds, cumin seeds and cinnamon bark. Saute till the onions become translucent (I'd say 3 minutes)
4. When cooled, grind the sauteed 'masala' in a blender or using a mortar
5. Add the ground 'masala' to the tomato puree and bring to a boil
6. Turn off the heat, season with salt and garnish with curry & coriander leaves
7. Serve piping hot and take a bow

Monday, January 17, 2005

Recipe time!

There are plenty of blogs out there dishing out serious stuff (who reads them, btw?). My head is whirring with so much cerebral activity that I've decided to take it easy. The next few blogs will be recipes. Simple, home-made and absolutely lip-smackingly gorgeous food made easy. I'm kicking off with one of my favourites.

Straw potato cake
(About 25 minutes to cook)
You'll need -
Potato - 2 large
Oil - 2 tbsp
Salt & pepper - to season
Here's how to-
1. Grate the potatoes (yes, grate them) with the skin
2. Quickly season it with salt and pepper before it turns brown
3. Heat the oil in a saucepan and wait till it's quite hot
4. Add the grated potatoes and pack them in quite tight with a spoon.
Make sure the potatoes aren't loosely packed as the cake will fall apart when you flip it
5. Cover and let it simmer for a good 15 minutes
6. When the bottom side is nice and browned, gently loosen it from the saucepan by using a flat wooden ladle.
Now slide it onto a plate and then tip the plate upside down into the pan so that the other side cooks.
7. When both sides are deliciously golden, turn off the heat
8. Slice and serve hot

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Thursday, January 06, 2005

God? What God?

I am not terribly religious. But I do turn to God in times of crisis. Such as the one we are confronted with right now. Hundreds and thousands of innocents dead in the flash of an eye. While I've been praying for the wounds to heal and the grief to wash over, I'm left with one daunting question. One that keeps coming back and forth much like the killer waves themselves. 'Where is God in all this?'
Not for me the abstract theological explanations. Nor can I reconcile myself to fate, like many Hindus would. And so each time I saw the body count rise, my mind kept asking 'Why God? Why?'.
While I haven't found a satisfactory answer, there is something I read in the papers a couple of days ago which offers some solace. The Archbishop of Canterbury says,

'God is to be found in the hands of those helping to bury the dead, to
bring clean water to the living, to administer medicine to the ill and counsel
to those in darkness.'

Om to that.

From ground zero

Amit Varma is an old colleague of mine. He is visiting the tsunami-ravaged coastline of Tamilnadu and has been blogging from there. His reports make compelling reading.

India Uncut