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Friday, 27 December 2013

A Christmas Tradition



Of all Christmas traditions, my favourite one, unsurprisingly perhaps, revolves around baking. Every Christmas, we baked dozens of fruit cakes to give away. To family, to neighbours, to our household help, and to friends. If there was one tradition that my family stuck to every year, it was this one.

In the beginning, as the Bible might have said, there was fruit and rum. The fruit came from a little hole-in-the-wall in one of the bylanes of Gole Market. I remember the proprietors, two mustachioed pot-bellied brothers with gentle faces and greying heads. They smiled at us in recognition as my mother walked towards the store, shopping list in hand. She would recite from her long list, as a scrawny helper hurried around, prising things from the depths of the tiny shop to drop into our shopping bags. It never ceased to amaze me how such a little space could hold so much. 

My mother's shopping lists were usually dull - coconuts, a staple in our South Indian home, rice, Dove soap and other mundane things. My brother and I whiled away time lustily staring at biscuits and chips and other such things that childhood dreams are made of, sitting pretty on the shop shelves in shiny packaging.

But Christmas time was different. In addition to coconuts, rice and Dove soap, our shopping list included crystallised ginger, raisins and other such happy things. Shopping for fruit cake typically happened weeks before Christmas. Once we got home, we chopped the ginger into little bits, washed and dried the raisins, and left them all to stew in the company of liquor in a large jar in the dark world underneath our kitchen table. Over weeks in the company of each other, the fruits and the rum blended into each other. It was this cozy friendship that anchored our home baked fruit cakes.  

An evening or two before Christmas day, the jar full of drunk fruits would be retrieved, and we would get to work. As kids, we were assigned the most menial tasks in the cake baking assembly line including beating the egg whites with our electric mixer, greasing the cake tins, and sifting the flour and leavening agents. I despised them all in varying degrees, wanting to be the one in charge of executive decisions such as when to mix the dry ingredients and the wet, or deciding whether the eggs had had enough of a beating. Instead, my mother in charge of course, and she issued a series of "not yets" to our urgent enquiries.

"Can we stir in the fruits now?"
"Not yet".

"Can I stop beating the eggs now"
"Not yet"

"Can we add in the flour now"?
"Not yet"

And so on. 

But it was impossible to sulk in a corner with drunk fruit for company in the kitchen and the promise of fruit cake in the air. And so, with an odd mixture of sullenness and excitement, we set to work, sneaking in a bite or two of fruit whenever possible. 

As the moment of truth neared, the excitement in the kitchen was palpable as we crowded around the oven to catch a glimpse (and a large slice) of the finished product. Our oven was far too small for several cake tins to go in at once. So we baked the cakes in batches. As batch after batch emerged, we passed judgment. This batch is better than that one, this other one was nice and fruity, oh I can taste the rum, this one is slightly burnt around the edges. It was all an elaborate excuse to eat as much cake as possible in one evening. I remember vividly images of our messy Christmas kitchen, with bits of batter on the kitchen table, a stack of dirty dishes in the sink, and the intoxicating aroma of fruit cake in the air.           

Funnily, I have never been a big fan of fruit cake. Neither is my brother. But the pull of tradition, the warmth of a hot oven and the comfort of home-made cake was enough to draw us in, and to warrant our full, enthusiastic participation. It has been ten years since I last spent Christmas at home. The memories of our Christmas baking tradition though, are etched deeply in my memory, and I reckon they will easily stay alive for a few more decades to come. 


Although we have yet to establish Christmas traditions far from home, we did bake cake on Christmas eve. I chose to bake a throat warming ginger cake, a winning combination of sugar and spice. I hope you also have traditions, old or new, to celebrate during this festive time. Merry Christmas and a very happy new year to you!

Ginger Cake (reproduced from this link with minimal tweaks)

4 ounces fresh ginger
1 cup mild molasses ( note that mild molasses is different from other types of molasses) 
1 cup sugar (I used brown sugar for a richer flavour)
1 cup vegetable oil
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup water
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 eggs, at room temperature

Position the oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9 by 3-inch round cake pan or a 9 1/2 inch springform pan with a circle of parchment paper.
Grate the ginger finely. Mix together the molasses, sugar, and oil. In another bowl, sift together the flour, cinnamon, and black pepper.
Bring the water to the boil in a saucepan, stir in the baking soda, and then mix the hot water into the molasses mixture. Stir in the ginger.
Gradually whisk the dry ingredients into the batter. Add the eggs, and continue mixing until everything is thoroughly combined. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for about 1 hour, until the top of the cake springs back lightly when pressed or a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. If the top of the cake browns too quickly before the cake is done, drape a piece of foil over it and continue baking.
Cool the cake for at least 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Remove the cake from the pan and peel off the parchment paper.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Prawn Mappas in Kumarakom


I am gradually getting into final-paper-writing mode. This means that the general health and well-being of my room will be neglected for the next week or two, as papers fly everywhere in a last ditch attempt to push assignments past the finish line. My computer will have little rest as I type away feverishly, trying to complete papers of varying lengths - the longish 12 assignment, the brief 2 page reflection paper, the 5000 word essay, to name a few. It also means that I will likely pay little attention to appearance, with a hurried ponytail being the hairdo of choice for this depressing season. 


I will also end up spending much less time than I would like in the comfort and warmth of my kitchen, tending to the oven or stove, being forced instead in the direction of the library.  It helps that the sun now sets at the otherwise cheerful hour of 4 pm, effectively excluding a range of distractions that are ever present in the summer: a walk in the sunshine, chilled bubble tea from the tea shop across the street from school, and other such happy things.  

Before I descend fully into the kingdom of gloom, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I decided to dedicate this post to the few pleasant, sunshine filled days that we spent holidaying in Kerala earlier in the year. 

I have only superlatives (of the good variety) to use for our stay at the Kumarakom Lake Resort. Given my obsession with good food that you might now be well acquainted with, although Kumarakom was a true feast for the eyes, I was far more taken by the feast for the stomach that we were presented with throughout the day.

One of my favourite parts of the day was chaya and kadi, which loosely translates into "tea and little bites" from Malayalam, served by the waterfront in the shade of coconut trees. A highly sanitised version of a thattu kada (Malayalam for a roadside tea stall) had been set up by the water, with a pot-bellied man supervising a pan full of vadas bobbing up and down in hot oil, and a large pot of brewing tea. 

Waiters dressed in pristine white mundus and starched white shirts made their way to the tables, filling and refilling glasses with tea. In the picture, you can see vadas, freshly rescued from hot oil, pazham pori (batter fried bananas), and a version of kozhukkattai carrying a hint of cumin powder, which I am embarrassed to admit was alien to me (the cumin in the kozhukkattai that is, not the kozhukkattai themselves). 

Of the lot, vadas are my favourite snack. You can either be a vada lover or an idli lover. I fall squarely on the vada side of the fence and find it difficult to empathise with those who favour the bland, fermented, slightly sour taste of the spineless idli over the crunch of a good vada. I do believe that my newly acquired husband likes his idlis, but in a brilliant show of tact that I am sure bodes well for us, I have chosen to gloss over the matter, focussing instead on a shared love of seafood and masala chai.


The other memory that is still fresh in my mind is that of our pottery session (free for guests, in case you were wondering). The man in charge had a very pleasant way of deluding you into believing that you were crafting pots from mere clay all by yourself, although really, his expert hands were moving the wheel this way and that, moulding the clay into pots of varying shapes and sizes, which were then left to dry in the sun. On the right is a finished product that I was allowed to deceptively claim as my own creation. 



   

But the winner was the seafood restaurant that we visited as often as we could during our stay. The chef was obliging enough to allow us into his kitchen and share with us his surprisingly easy recipe for prawn mappas, a traditional Malayali seafood preparation. While I can vouch for the chef's version, which was delicious, I reproduce the recipe below with the caveat that I am yet to try it out in my own kitchen. Prawn mappas will have to wait. I am too busy fighting with paper in my room in the next week or two.

As an entire nation emerges from Thanksgiving induced food coma, let me end on a cheerful note. Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I hope you have much to be thankful for.





Prawn Mappas (serves 2-3)

roughly 200 gms prawn
a pinch of fenugreek seeds
1/2 tsp saunf
1 tsp garlic paste
5-6 juliennes of ginger
1 sliced onion
1-2 green chillies chopped
4-5 springs of curry leaves
1 small piece of kokum soaked in 200 ml of hot water
50 ml coconut milk

Powders
2 heaped tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp chilli powder

salt to taste
coconut oil

Heat coconut oil in a pan. Now add the fenugreek seeds, and saunf. Once the raw smell disappears, add the ginger, garlic, onion, curry leaves and green chillies. Saute till the onions turn golden brown. Now add the powders, mix well. Add the kokum and the water, followed by the prawns. Once the prawns are done (which shouldn't take long, the cardinal rule being that prawns should not be overcooked), add the coconut milk and salt to taste. Mix well. Do not boil. Drizzle a little coconut oil on top and garnish with curry leaves.



Saturday, 9 November 2013

Giving Soap A Chance

Guacamole
Do you like avocados? I first encountered them as a child during a brief stint in the UK several years ago. The buttery texture did not appeal to my childhood tastes. It reminded me of soap. More specifically, it reminded me of the squishy mess that soap becomes when left too long in water. If you have ever struggled with the seemingly easy task of peeling and slicing a ripe avocado, you might agree with me. 

My brother tells me that I have a worrying tendency to distort childhood memories. Apparently, he was not quite the wild, pesky younger sibling who appears frequently in my film reel of childhood memories. Maybe there is some truth to what he says, for I certainly did distort my memory of avocados. For many years, based on our brief interaction, I rather unfairly associated the fruit with soap not just in texture but also in taste. This is not to say that soap was ever a dietary staple in our household, but I did have a sense of what soap might taste like if I were ever to nibble on a bar of the stuff.  

Avocados being rare and exotic in India, I hardly ever bumped into them after we returned to India. I saw them every now and then, in their individually packed glory, peeking out of wooden boxes, as we walked past posh fruit stores in Delhi's expat friendly Khan Market. It was not until years later, when I moved abroad, that I started coming across them more frequently. By this time, I was willing to reconsider my childhood food hangups and was much more open to exploring unfamiliar tastes. Even if it meant giving soap a chance. 

In the years that have followed, I have never fully overcome my disdain for the fruit in its raw form. Mashed into a chunky guacamole though, it is one of my favourite things on a brunch menu. I forget the first time I made my acquaintance with guacamole, but I have been a woman in love since. I order it every time I am in a Mexican restaurant, and if I can help it, in every other type of restaurant too. Do you have strong feelings for guacamole too - good, bad or ugly? 

Although you can find prepackaged guacamole in every US supermarket, like all other types of prepackaged food, it comes nowhere close to the real stuff. The best things about a good guacamole - soft chunks of tomato, bits of pungent red onion, and an undertone of lime and garlic - are typically missing in the prepackaged versions. I had to come up with a homemade version of course. 
Photo credit: Uttara Gharpure

I am particularly happy this afternoon, having tucked into a hearty homemade brunch with guacamole starring in an "item number" (apologies, Bollywood illiterates). I followed Alton Brown's recipe for guacamole on Food Network, but only loosely. I had no jalapenos or cilantro, so I left them out, ruling out a trip to the grocery store on account of the nippy weather in Cambridge today. I would advise you to play with the measurements for salt, lemon juice, cumin and cayenne, depending on your tastes. I also added a pinch of sugar and a few drops of olive oil, but I am certain that you could leave them out with fairly happy results. 

Regardless of how you choose to adapt this recipe, I urge you to try it. If my long association with avocados has taught me anything, it is that everything (and of course, everyone) deserves a chance. Even soap.   

Sunday, 29 September 2013

A Wedding and Blueberry Muffins

One of my resolutions last year was to conjure up at least one post a month, no matter how pressing life's other demands might get. I was managing alright despite problem sets, exams and the occasional bout of writer's block until August came along.

In retrospect, arriving home with just two weeks to spare for one's wedding might have been too ambitious. We managed to pull it off though, but only because we had at hand the most spirited and committed wedding planners imaginable - the parents.

(c) Pooja Joseph 2013
Our wedding was in Changanacherry, a small town in beautiful Kerala. At least at my end, it was all planned remotely from Delhi, with my father on his trusty phone at all times of day and night, working out some little detail or the other. I think I am at my best when I have a project at hand, a task to accomplish, something to see through to the finish line. As the two weeks to wedding day flew by, I realise that of the many bits of me that come from my parents, that bit certainly comes from my father. He forgot all about his biggest complaints, including his chronic back pain and his bad neck, as he went about checking off one thing after another on his list. In the meantime, my mother was her usual worried self, hoping that everything would go to plan. After the wedding in church, and at the reception, a week later, her relief that everything had gone far better than we had hoped, was palpable. I now have even more evidence for the theory that my worry gene comes from her.

(c) Pooja Joseph 2013
Having been away from India when many of my closest friends - confidantes, co-conspirators and Agony Aunts - were getting hitched, I never had a ringside view of an Indian wedding. And so, even though Syrian Christian weddings are relatively simple by Indian standards, my own wedding was an education in the inevitable madness that accompanies an Indian wedding. In two weeks, we covered the length and breadth of Changanacherry and neighbouring Kottayam, shopping frantically, attending marathon trial runs at the beauty parlour, and rushing to tie up loose ends that we had left to the last minute.

Worry knows no distance. In the months before the wedding, even though I was too far away from India and too immersed in other pursuits to be involved in wedding planning, worry I did. About the make-up artist in Changanacherry and whether I would look like a Christmas tree on wedding day, about how long it would take me to pick my wedding saree, how silly I'd look wearing a tiara with a saree, following an old Syrian Catholic tradition like generations of brides before me, and so many other little things that now seem spectacularly insignificant.  

(c) Pooja Joseph 2013
In the lead up to the wedding, my non-Indian friends who planned to attend eagerly enquired about "Indian bridal tattoos", singing and dancing and my red wedding dress. Much as I love Bollywood, I cursed it, not for the first time, for its uni-dimensional portrayal of India. I explained that our weddings are relatively staid, that the bride traditionally wears a white or ivory saree tinged with gold, and that but for alcohol, Malayalis are not pre-disposed to merrymaking through song and dance. In the end, there was no Indian tattooing, but we did have singing and dancing with even the unlikeliest dancers in the family joining in, I had a pretty bouquet of white rosebuds, and in the wedding photos, everyone looks beautiful. I only wish I had let go a little more, worried a little less, and held on to every moment more than I did - a lesson that I realise, applies not just to weddings, but more broadly to navigating the hurdle race that is life.

My to-do list for the weekend is, as usual, longer than I would like, with assignments, readings and chores vying for top spot. I decided to ignore them all for a few hours, enjoy a cup of steaming tea and bake a batch of blueberry muffins. On Allrecipes.com, this recipe is titled "To die for blueberry muffins". Although I do not always take kindly to hyperbole, on this occasion, I have to confess that I could not have come up with a better name for these delicious muffins. I have reproduced the recipe below with a couple of minor tweaks. As you enjoy your weekend, take a few moments to forget about the hurdles in your race, and to celebrate your greatest blessings.

To die for Blueberry Muffins
(adapted from http://allrecipes.com/recipe/to-die-for-blueberry-muffins/)



Ingredients

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1.5 tsp vanilla extract
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup milk
1 egg
1 pack of fresh blueberries (6 oz/171 gms)



Method
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Grease muffin cups or line with muffin liners.
Combine flour, sugar, salt and baking powder. The easiest way to do this, I have discovered, is to combine them all in a plastic container with a lid, close the lid tightly, and shake.

Next, place the vegetable oil into a 1 cup measuring cup; add the egg and enough milk to fill the cup. Mix this up carefully with a spoon and then mix this with the flour mixture. Fold in blueberries. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes in the preheated oven, or until done.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Memories of an Indian Childhood

Throughout my career as a schoolgirl, I struggled with an unjust school schedule that unapologetically favours the morning person, who is shiny faced, crackling with energy and at her very best in the morning, at the expense of the rest - the shameful residual category in which I fell. School started at 7:45 am. Even though the bus ride from home to school was embarrassingly short, this early start meant that I was required to wake up well before 7 am in order to comfortably catch the school bus and make it to school in time. As it happens, this was not always the eventual outcome of our morning struggles. Between my brother and I, I believe I was significantly worse when it came to waking up in time to make it to school, but my memory cannot be relied on in this matter, given how sleepy I remained as I emerged from under the covers, and continued to be for much of the morning. By the time we graduated from high school, however, my mother had practised to a fine art, a disturbingly shrill voice that she reserved for our morning wake up calls. It worked better than any man made alarm, shattering even the deepest slumber.

There were varying degrees of mayhem at home on most school mornings in the crucial minutes between waking up well past 7 am and rushing out at 7:40 am. It was in those intervening minutes that some otherwise improbable event would occur. A pencil box would mysteriously vanish or a pair of socks would disappear into thin air, prompting a search in which the entire family participated with gusto, searching the unlikeliest of corners, including the hidden worlds under the bed and the dining table. On good days, someone – most often, one of the parents – would emerge disheveled from a forgotten corner, victoriously clutching the object of the search, and we would be dragged out of the front door to the bus stop. On bad days, the search would be abandoned after prolonged efforts proved unsuccessful. We still made it to the bus stop minus the missing object if it was thought to be dispensable. The more critical an item to the arsenal of a school child, the more likely we were to miss the school bus, and be bundled into our car, to be driven swiftly to school.

On some unfortunate mornings, the school bus kept us waiting endlessly, even as parents dropping off their children at the bus stop looked up impatiently from their newspapers to glance at their watches or to squint into the distance, searching for some sign of our familiar green and yellow school bus. Eventually, one of the parents would defeatedly but decisively fold up their newspaper, and decide to drop the little army of schoolchildren to school. We would all rush into the waiting car eagerly, delighted to have escaped a tedious and seemingly endless wait for a bus running behind schedule. As we sped away, our rear view mirror showed relieved parents cross the road and make their way home, thankful for having triumphed over yet another morning struggle.

In contrast, Sunday mornings were luxuriously slow. No early starts, no shrill alarm clocks, whether man made or of the human variety. Typically, Sunday breakfasts were an elaborate affair at home. I looked forward to puris and potato curry, an unlikely combination of South Indian and North Indian flavours. Whereas the puri is North Indian, the potato curry that my mother (and much of South India) serves with it, is unmistakably South Indian, fragrant with the aroma of curry leaves and mustard seeds, a classic South Indian tempering. If my mother happened to be in a particularly indulgent mood, we were treated to appam and stew, one of my all time favourite breakfasts, which I have referred to in an earlier blog post. On other days, breakfast was the traditional Malayali puttu and pazham, a messy affair that I never quite warmed up to, despite my love of Malayali cuisine. On bad days, breakfast was simply toast and omelette, and would be followed by barely audible mutterings from my father about "proper food".

After breakfast, my brother and I would religiously plonk ourselves in front of the television for our Sunday special dose of DD, short for Doordarshan, the national television channel. In the pre-liberalisation era, long before we had access to noisy CNN-IBN or stiff upper lipped BBC, Doordarshan (which literally translates to "watching from afar", an interesting interpretation of what television viewing really is) was our only source of entertainment. Our parents employed a light touch approach when it came to regulating our television viewing, at least in the early years before the threat of the all important public exams began to loom large over our young lives. Certainly, there was no quota system in place that restricted television viewing to daily, pre-determined doses. This was the tragic reality for some of my less fortunate friends, an outcome that followed protracted negotiations with unsympathetic parents. When I came across DD's signature tune on YouTube recently, it triggered memories of my childhood, and of an India that we have lost to the ravages of time.

This post comes a couple of weeks shy of India's 66th Independence Day. Of the many things that trouble me about India today, the cynicism of my generation ranks fairly high. For those of you who grew up in India, and are lucky enough to be in the country to enjoy the public holiday, I hope you are able to use it as an opportunity to look back at your own Indian childhood. I find that childhood memories can melt even the stoniest cynic. 

Sunday, 30 June 2013

A Weekend in Chiang Mai

At a temple in Chiang Mai
A few weekends ago, some of my friends and I decided to take a break from the routine that we have so easily slipped into in Bangkok to travel to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is one of Thailand's largest cities, second only to Bangkok, and came highly recommended by those who had been there before. We wrapped up work on a Friday evening, and headed over to Hua Lamphong station to board our overnight train to Chiang Mai. 
 
At least a couple of members of our motley crew were somewhat wary of the train journey, not knowing what to expect. Fortunately for us, the journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai ended up being a memorable one. Not long after we boarded the train, we discovered a carriage twinkling with fairy lights, reverberating with dance beats, with a bar and tables and chairs arranged restaurant style. Unsurprisingly, the seats were all occupied, so we watched a day in Bangok's life go by through the windows, shouting at each other to be heard over the din of the train wheels. As other trains - far more crowded and far less inviting than ours - passed by, it became evident that ours was a special train catering to tourists who wouldn't mind paying a little extra for little comforts.
 
When we returned to our carriage, a member of the staff made our beds for us, which we gratefully climbed into. Every berth came with curtains that could be drawn all the way, so that each of us had a little private enclave to ourselves for the night. Rocked to sleep with the rhythm of the train, I slept even better than I usually do. In the morning, we woke up to see green fields and coconut trees, thatched huts and banana palms pass us by. As we had been warned, our train arrived in Chiang Mai a couple of hours behind schedule. Still, we had had a very comfortable and pleasant journey into Chiang Mai and that was enough. The journey, as they say, is the reward.     
 
Figurines of monks
 Although we had been told that Chiang Mai tends to be cooler than Bangkok, we were greeted by scorching heat as we left the train station. We spent the afternoon temple hopping. If their temples are anything to go by, the Thai people have a fondness for gold. The temples we visited were exquisitely ornate and golden on the outside, which struck me as ironic given the austerity preached by Buddhism and exemplified by the lives of Buddhist monks. Despite the buzz of tourists outside, the temples each exuded a sense of calm as we walked in. At one, a friend and I received blessings from a Buddhist monk. He chanted softly as he tied a piece of white thread around our wrists. If I had to point to a single instance when the elementary Sanskrit that I struggled with in middle school came in handy, it would be those few moments inside a temple in Chiang Mai. As we walked away, I was happy that I was able to decipher some bits and pieces of the Buddhist chants that we had just heard.
 
Chiang Mai's food scene is every bit as exciting as Bangkok's. During our time there, we had some delicious (if spicy) Thai food both at sit down restaurants and at the city's night market. Like night markets in Bangkok, Chiang Mai's night market offers a dazzling array of food and shopping. Restrained by the size of my travel case, I chose not to indulge the hidden shopper inside me, and took in the sights and sounds around me instead. Chiang Mai has a much more relaxed and laidback vibe to it than Bangkok does. Despite the heat, we enjoyed walking through its streets, undisturbed by persistent and noisy traffic.    
 
On our second day in Chiang Mai, some of us decided to try out a half day Thai cooking class. We spent some time in the local market, wandering around wide-eyed, as our guide introduced us to key ingredients in Thai cooking. We also took a brief tour of a little garden behind the cooking school, listening to introductions about the herbs, vegetables and the dreaded chillies that are central to Thai cuisine.
 
An exciting start to the cooking class
 
Lime

 
Basil
 
 
At the local market
 
 
Ingredients for a Thai red curry
Finally, we spent a few fruitful hours chopping, grinding, frying and stirring, in the process of putting together an enviable collection of Thai dishes including pad thai, som tum (papaya salad) and Thai red curry. We ate what we cooked, and left just after lunch with lessons in Thai cooking and full stomachs.
 
We spent our last evening in Chiang Mai at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep ("wat" is Thai for temple), a temple just outside the city. We climbed the hundreds of steps to the temple, arriving in time to watch the monks chant as the sun descended on Chiang Mai. A memorable end to a memorable trip.    
 
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Chatuchak and other things


Chatuchak market

In my last couple of weeks in Bangkok, I have a learnt a thing or two about Thai food. For one, the food is significantly spicier than I expected it to be, and certainly spicier than the food that I have eaten at Thai restaurants outside Thailand.

When I think about Thai food, the images that come to mind are those of gentle red and green curries, sweet from the flavour of coconut milk, and of the many servings of pad thai - salty, sweet and sour all at the same time- that I ate at a popular lunchtime stall in London's Whitecross Street on much deserved breaks from drafting legal documents.

My time in Bangkok has been a rude eye-opener in that sense. On at least a few occasions, I enthusiastically dived into my food only to discover that the spice level was too much for me, yes, even for me, with my spice-friendly South Indian genes. Once I had cooled myself down with a few glasses of water, and the smoke had stopped billowing from my ears, I would poke around in my food to investigate the source of the heat. Invariably, I would find flecks of the deadly bird's eye chilli floating around in my plate. They are ubiquitous in Kerala, and on my last visit, I spotted several little plants sprouting bright red chillies in my aunt's garden. In my family, we treat them with the respect that they deserve, and use them cautiously in our food. The Thai people on the other hand, seem to thumb their noses at the species, throwing them liberally into anything they cook.

Dried fish at Chatuchak
On a more pleasant note, exotic and delicious fruits are everywhere in Bangkok. There are little carts dotted across the city selling everything from juicy mangosteen to hairy rambutan and crunchy rose apple. There is also an impressive selection of drinks on offer that I hadn't come across before I arrived here. I have had a long standing weakness for sweet Thai iced tea, which I guiltily order at Thai restaurants, fully aware of the alarming quantities of rich, sweet condensed milk that are used in making my drink. Although I have yet to overcome my weakness for Thai iced tea, I have been introduced to a much wider variety of drinks here that I promise to cover in another post.  

Bangkok has an equally impressive variety of desserts to offer. So far, of the many options at hand, I have tried coconut milk ice-cream and mangoes with sticky rice, both of which made me go weak in the knees. I can already see war with the weighing scales on the horizon.
Over the weekend, I was at Chatuchak market, which is supposedly the world's largest outdoor weekend market. There, I spotted stalls selling packets of sliced mango with sticky rice. In few other cities have I seen such delicious dessert being sold on the streets. As part of their marketing efforts, the vendors each had a large mango strapped to their foreheads with string. Sadly, our taxi was weaving in and out of traffic too quickly for me to capture their innovative marketing in action.

Pineapple rice buried insde...
Although the street food was all very tempting, it was far too hot for us to eat outside. We sought refuge in an air conditioned restaurant in one of Chatuchak's many alleyways. I was feeling unusually adventurous and decided to give myself a break from the usual, opting for the exotic sounding nam phrik with ground pork. When our food arrived, my friend dived in with gusto into her pineapple rice that came served in a large scooped out pineapple, whereas I discovered that nam phrik is simply a sour and spicy dip that comes served with sliced vegetables. If you have read at least a couple of posts on this blog, you may recollect that vegetables and I are not the best of friends. Besides, I am too accustomed to Indian food to consider any sort of salad to be a complete meal. My nam phrik platter did come with a piece of fried fish, but it was too oily and tasteless to compensate for the dish's fatal flaws. Needless to say, I was more than a little disappointed with my choice, and have resolved to maintain a safe distance from nam phrik for the remainder of my time in Bangkok.
 
Nam Phrik
We spent a few hours basking in the delights of Chatuchak market. Still, we barely scratched its surface. I have promised myself at least one more visit to Chatuchak before it is time to bid Bangkok goodbye.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Sawadee Kha

Noodle soup: my first meal in Bangkok
Sawadee kha! Hello from Bangkok. I am in Thailand this summer on a welcome break from classes, problem sets and exams, interning with the UN. I arrived at Suwannabhumi airport on a Sunday morning, tired and jet lagged, cringing at the thought of having to report to work the next day. I have now survived my first week, having overcome a particularly severe case of jet lag and succeeded at the seemingly impossible task of finding accommodation for my ten week stay during high season.

My biggest hurdle so far has been language. India’s British colonial history is an important reason why English is so widely spoken in the country today. Unlike India, Thailand was never subject to European colonial rule, let alone British rule, with the result that few people seem to understand or speak English. I have been struggling to communicate with the Thai people. On many days, I find myself gesturing wildly at some unsuspecting, perplexed Thai victim, using my face and hands to make my point heard. Their patience, smiles and willingness to help makes things better.


Attack on Sushi
The other day, I missed my shuttle bus to the UN, which is located right opposite a prominent boxing stadium. A little frazzled, I rushed downstairs from my room to catch a taxi. I tried everything.  “UN”, “United Nations”, “Boxing Stadium”, and “Rajadamnern Avenue” which is where the UN is located, all in my newly acquired Thai accent. Nothing worked. As a last resort, I mimed my best boxing mime for the driver’s benefit, hoping that it would culminate in a pleasant drive to the Boxing Stadium. Both drivers who were subject to this, unsurprisingly perhaps, shook their heads and sped off hastily, clearly wanting to avoid what must have seemed like a potentially violent Indian passenger. I asked front desk at my apartment building to intervene in my linguistic battles with the next driver, and of course, that worked like a charm.

I had equal difficulty buying toilet paper. None of my eloquent descriptions worked on the shop assistant. Finally, as a last resort, I drew a western closet with a toilet paper holder next to it on a little scrap of paper. That worked, and I was soon the happy owner of a new roll of the important stuff. I am not sure if I will be any more proficient in the Thai language than I was when I first arrived in Thailand. What I do know is that I will likely transform into a champion of both dumb charades and Pictionary.


KFC: Korean Fried Chicken
It is hotter at this time of year than I had expected, and certainly hotter than I would like. I find myself wilting on the street within minutes as I wait for a taxi, even at early hours of the morning. We have had slightly uncomfortable highs of around 35 degrees Celsius, prompting me to stay indoors until the weather is cool enough to explore the sights and sounds of the city.


The silver lining in all of this has undoubtedly been the food and the prices. Bangkok is the cheapest city I have ever been in. In many ways, it is significantly cheaper than many Indian cities. All of the food that I have tried in Bangkok so far has been of consistently high quality, all far more affordable than it would have been in cities that I have visited elsewhere. An all you can eat sushi buffet costs in one of Bangkok’s more upmarket districts costs around $10. Street vendors sell generous slices of the freshest watermelons, papayas and other favourite fruits of mine at under a dollar. You can quite easily buy a delicious meal from one of Bangkok’s many street vendors for the price of one dollar. 

The all you can eat sushi buffet, with drinks and dessert thrown in, was a particularly interesting experience. I was somewhat incredulous when I saw the price of the meal, even asking our waitress in disbelief, “How do you guys make money?”. Of course, this was Greek to her, and she just smiled politely. We were exactly an hour into our attack on sushi, leisurely dipping vegetables and meat into our sukiyaki pot, when we were interrupted mid-bite and politely informed that our hour long slot was up. And so our onward march was abruptly halted, their ingenious business model was revealed, and my incredulity was destroyed.

My room in Bangkok does not have a kitchen. Although I am delighted to rely on Bangkok’s delicious offerings for the next couple of months, this will mean that there will no recipe posts from me for a while. However, I fully intend to keep up a steady stream of chatter about Bangkok’s food scene. Stay tuned. :) 

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting


In a brief interval between a harsh winter and an unpleasant summer, Delhi enjoys its own short-lived version of spring. At the first sign of better weather, our prickly sweaters would be packed away in the company of naphthalene balls in a large and inelegant steel trunk, and left to hibernate until the following winter. The nip in the air would gradually fade away, eventually giving way to warm sunshine.

My oldest (not necessarily my happiest) memories of spring are of Holi, an Indian festival that marks the arrival of spring. Holi is traditionally celebrated with colours and water, meant to be thrown at unsuspecting victims. For obvious reasons, Holi was a favourite among children of my age, often beating its closest competitor, Diwali, by a large margin. Holi, after all, is licence to make mischief.

For many years, the bathroom in our flat served as Holi headquarters for my brother and his friends as they frantically rushed in and out to arm themselves with water balloons and refill their water guns. I remember their excited squeals as they ran down the stairs to our home with their weaponry. At one lucky stage in his childhood, my brother had a particularly attractive water gun. It was expensive, as market leaders often tend to be. It was a giant plastic thing, yellow and green if I recollect correctly, bigger than average water guns of its time. Eventually though, as with all toys of our childhood, my brother managed to defeat it, breaking it into a couple of sorry pieces. It spent the rest of its disabled life on a ledge in the kitchen, packed away in sheets of newspaper with other broken fragments from our childhood including a Barbie that I had maimed, and immobile cars that had lost their wheels.

When we returned to school after our Holi break, the signs of revelry were everywhere to see. There would be faint splashes of colour on the floors of our apartment building and on the streets. At school, faces were tinged with blue, green, red, yellow and in some especially unfortunate cases, a mixture of all of these. The most daring Holi revellers played with metallic colours that stuck on stubbornly to scalps and faces even after multiple rounds of scrubbing. Despite my age, some deep human instinct told me to stay as far as I possibly could from the metallic stuff.
 
I have to confess that I have never been much of a Holi fan. I would spend the day in the balcony, hiding from my more boisterous friends, watching the revelry downstairs as adults and children doused each other in colour and water. My greatest complaint is that Holi comes too early in the year to warrant celebration with cold water. I have no doubt that I would be the first to celebrate if Holi were celebrated in the heat of May, when a surprise shower in the middle of the street would be quite welcome. But to have a bucket of cold water thrown on one's person in March, when there is still a perceptible nip in the Delhi air, is hardly fun.

I cannot recollect the last time I have had to confront water and colour. In a strange way, I miss it. This spring, Holi came and went without my noticing it. It was only when some of my friends posted their unrecognisable multicoloured Holi faces on Facebook, that I realised that in India, many excited children were making full use of their licence to make mischief as I worried about the pointless things that adults tend to worry about. A happy thought indeed.


Carrot Cake (adapted with modifications from this recipe accessed via this post)

1.4 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

3/4 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup olive oil
3 large eggs, well beaten
3 medium carrots, finely grated
100g raisins (I omitted the raisins as I had run out of them, and substituted with sliced almonds instead)
3 tsp ground cinnamon
a pinch of garam masala
1/2 tsp grated ginger
1 tsp vanilla extract


Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease the base and sides of a square cake tin with oil and dust with flour.
Tip the sugar into a large mixing bowl, pour in the oil and add the eggs. Lightly mix with a wooden spoon. Stir in the grated carrots, raisins/almonds and vanilla extract.
Mix the flour, bicarbonate of soda and spices, then sift into the bowl. Lightly mix all the ingredients - when everything is evenly amalgamated stop mixing.
Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 40- 45 minutes, until it feels firm and springy when you press it in the centre. Cool in the tin for 10-15 minutes, then turn it out, and cool on a wire rack. (You can freeze the cake at this point.)

Cream Cheese frosting
4 oz cream cheese
4 oz unsalted butter
5-6 tbsp honey
rind of one large lemon/orange

Bring the ingredients to room temperature. Beat together in a small bowl until smooth and spreadable. Layer on top of the cake.


Sunday, 24 March 2013

In Memoriam



When I decided to quit my corporate job to return to student life, one of the promises I made to myself was to impose austerity measures on my lifestyle. This I decided, would not only be in keeping with the times, it would also reflect the (temporary, I hope) end of a steady stream of pounds sterling that was making its way into my bank account every month. In line with this resolution, I surrendered my work blackberry and adopted a dinosaur of a phone for my communication needs. 

My phone cost me embarrassingly little. Because it was so cheap, I could leave it lying around in public places without a care in the world, and always return to find it in exactly the spot that I left it. Thieves these days happen to be rather picky. Within my circle of friends, my phone stood out  in an elite gathering of iPhones and Samsung Galaxies, for its bulkiness and utter lack of style and elegance. On at least a couple of occasions, it was spotted on a chair or desk where I had absentmindedly abandoned it, immediately recognized as unmistakably mine, and duly returned to me.

What it lacked in beauty, it made up in utility. It gave me access to unlimited texts and calls to all US numbers, and I could even access Gmail on it. There was no data plan to worry about, no apps to fret over. Life was simple. This is not to say that I was fully content. I have a remarkably poor sense of direction, which revealed itself to me far too often as I went about making Cambridge my home. My phone was simply not smart enough to guide me as I wandered through the streets of Cambridge trying to make my way to some lost destination or other in vain. Often, I would stop passers by to seek directions, mostly without success. We are so reliant on our smartphones these days that few of us feel the need to commit directions to memory anymore. Ironically, all too often, we enslave ourselves to technology even though the relationship is meant to work the other way round.

Last week marked the passing of an era. My phone died. More accurately, it drowned. The murderer was a bottle of water which silently leaked into my bag as I ambled along to the T station with a friend. By the time realisation hit, a small river had formed in my bag, submerging my phone and other contents. The phone was the last thing on my mind, as I frantically tried to rescue my wallet and other, more precious belongings from this little flood. I had managed to dunk my phone into water a few times in the past. Each time, it survived with no complaints. I had no reason to believe that things would be different this time. Finally, as an afterthought, when I picked up my phone, I discovered that it was well and truly dead. I made a few valiant final attempts to bring it back from the land of the dead, even drying it with my hairdryer as a last resort. Nothing worked.

In the end, I made peace with the passing of my phone and replaced it with an iphone, which has so far silently ignored my attempts at friendship. I am still figuring out the mysteries of the App Store and the touchscreen keypad. It feels like I have abandoned a loyal and devoted (if somewhat bulky) spouse for a sultry mistress. 

RIP, my dinosaur.

Oven Roasted Chicken, Indian Style (serves 2 people or 1 very hungry and greedy person)   

5 chicken thighs, skinned
oil for greasing and to brush the chicken with (no more than 1 tbsp)

Marinade ingredients

1.5 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp cumin powder
2 tsp garlic paste
1 tsp ginger paste
1/2 tsp black pepper powder
1/3 cup yoghurt
2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp Kashmiri red chilli powder
juice of half a lemon (optional)
1 tsp salt 


Make slashes in the chicken thighs. Combine all the ingredients for the marinade in a medium sized bowl with enough space to contain all the chicken pieces. Mix well. Add the chicken pieces and mix so that each of the pieces is well coated with the marinade. Leave to marinate for at least an hour, preferably longer (overnight is best!) in a covered bowl in the fridge. 

When you are ready to cook the chicken, preheat the oven to 450 degree F. Once hot, change the oven setting to "broil". Carefully place the chicken pieces on a greased oven rack in the second rack of the oven (avoid the middle rack and the topmost rack), brushing each piece with a few drops of oil.

Cook in the oven for roughly 10-15 minutes, checking often to prevent the chicken from burning. Once the chicken is crispy brown on one side, remove the rack from the oven, and turn the chicken pieces, once again brushing each piece with a few drops of oil. Cook for roughly another 10 minutes. The chicken pieces should now be brown and crispy on both sides. Serve with green salad or with slices of red onion and a generous wedge of lemon. 




Thursday, 21 February 2013

Let it Snow

* Title based on this song sung by Frank Sinatra. 

Photo credit: Alexis Eggermont
I have never been fond of cold weather. In Delhi, where I grew up, the temperature often dipped to a few centigrade over zero. As a schoolgirl, I fought a daily tug of war with my parents, ignoring their wake up calls  and digging myself deeper under the covers as long as I could. Finally, I would climb defeatedly out of bed, brush my teeth and then rush out of our freezing bathroom, not quite having dried my mouth, to plonk myself next to the heater in the living room to warm my hands and feet. I could have stayed there all morning, toasting my skin to a crisp had it not been for a parent, half-crazed with the impossible task of getting two pre-teens ready for school, barging into the room with some threat to induce me away from the heater and into my school uniform. Mostly it worked. On other days, I would end up missing my school bus and my father would have no choice but to abandon his morning ritual of scanning the newspaper to drop me to school.

Although it can get quite cold in Delhi, our homes aren't built in readiness for winter. Our current home in Delhi, for instance, has a medium-sized window in either bathroom, strategically positioned by a doubtlessly evil architect so as to let the weakest winter winds pass through its cracks.

But there are quirks of Delhi winters that I now find amusing. When we were little, the most popular way to cover little heads and ears from the cold was to use "monkey caps", known more respectably as balaclavas in the rest of the world. One cannot fault the name 'monkey cap" though, for we did look like monkeys in them. For some unfathomable reason, they came in the ugliest colours imaginable. I have yet to set my eyes on a pretty pink monkey cap or a bright blue one. If it is a monkey cap, it has to be ugly. I believe that outside of India, the primary consumers of balaclavas are soldiers and bank robbers. Exactly why headgear this unattractive and with such lethal connotations was unleashed by Delhi parents on their wards remains unclear to me. Although young, my brother and I had a half formed sense of aesthetics, and we resisted the monkey cap as valiantly as we possibly could. I have no doubt that our efforts would have made any style diva proud. But mostly we failed, as young children typically do in crusades against unrelenting parents.

My school uniform did not help matters. We had "physical training" (sports class, abbreviated to "PT") a couple of times a week. Our PT uniform was a cotton shirt and a skirt, yes a skirt, that we were constrained to wear even in the harshest winters. We did have a blazer and sweaters for protection though. And so, it was my legs that bore the brunt of the winter. My thin stockings did little good in rescuing me from the cold. I remember shaking from the cold on many winter mornings as I waited for the school bus with my father, water bottle in hand, and a satchel on my back. On those mornings, it was with a tremendous sense of relief that I welcomed the school bus as it sleepily made its way to my bus stop.

Like children (and some adults) in cold climes elsewhere, I never missed an opportunity in the winter to draw temporary graffiti with my fingers on glass. In our car, my brother and I would scrunch ourselves into awkward positions to draw squiggly figures in the foggy glass windows. As soon we got out of the house, we'd exhale deeply through our mouths and marvel at the "smoke" that we had just generated.

These small benefits aside, the point remains that I never particularly enjoyed the cold. But as they say, fate is cruel, and perhaps with full knowledge of my dislike for the cold, it brought me first to London where I spent the last four years, and in a classic case of moving from the frying pan into the fire, to wintry Boston.

We had a snowstorm here in Boston a few weeks ago. They called it Nemo. Why name a frightening snowstorm after a cute fish from Hollywood, I wondered. Luckily for us, Nemo was relatively kind to us and did no harm other than making scary noises outside as we stayed warm indoors. Many of my classmates, especially those accustomed to tropical weather, lost no time in rushing out into the snow to make snowmen, build mini igloos and throw snowballs at each other. I was less than enthusiastic for reasons that must be largely clear if you have followed the post this far. 

Not long after though, I was caught in a flurry of snow. Although I have seen snowfall before, I never did pay very much attention to it. My observation skills, I have to confess, are not the best. Besides, I was too distracted worrying about how the snow would turn to messy slush before we knew it, to pause and watch it fall. But this time, I noticed the tiny snowflakes as they fell gently on my jacket. They were perfectly formed, symmetrical and utterly beautiful. I spent a few minutes staring at my arm, as the snowflakes deposited themselves steadily on my jacket. A reminder from nature that if you look hard enough, you can find beauty in unexpected places.

At the end of this long and rambling post, I must get to the point - food - and tell you about some of the nicer restaurants and cafes that I have sampled so far on my student budget in Cambridge, offering good food and refuge from the cold. The list is embarrassingly short, but I promise to keep it updated over the next three semesters that I will spend in Cambridge as a student before I return to the big, bad world. 

Here are my recommendations:

Cafes
The Friendly Toast
True to its name, this is a friendly cafe close to Kendal/MIT (around a ten minute walk). They have the most extensive brunch menu I have come across in recent times, delicious caramel hot chocolate, relatively good service and a happy vibe. Be prepared for a long wait though. This place is popular. We waited fifty minutes for our table for three.

Cafe Crema
A nice alternative to Starbucks. I tried their Felipe's Hot Chocolate, which is flavoured with cinnamon and chilli. I loved it.

Sugarcane and lemon juice at Orinoco.
Chinese
A friend brought me here to celebrate Chinese New Year. She overestimated our appetite somewhat and before we knew it, there was no space on our table with all the food piled high on it. Everything was delicious, and I am assured by reliable sources that it is all authentic. Even the frog's legs that we had as one of the mains... 

Tibetan
I loved the calm vibe that this restaurant exudes. The flavours reminded me of Indian food, but our meal was much lighter and milder than an Indian meal would have been. Highly recommend. 

Venezuelan
This Venezuelan restaurant dishes out delicious empanadas. My only gripe concerns the empanada: salad ratio on my plate. My meal came with too few empanadas and quite a lot of salad. We also tried their sugarcane and lemon juice. Unfortunately, it was too lemony for my liking.                 

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Remembering Appappan



I happened to mention my maternal grandfather in my last post. Oddly enough, he came up in conversation and in my head a couple more times that week, which is unusual for a man who has now been gone quite a long time. A family friend I spoke to recently told me about having bumped into him with her father several times as a child, and still remembering him for his smiling face. As I was thinking about the year ahead, I  remembered that this August, it will have been twenty years since he passed away.

My grandfather didn't make it to college. But he managed to teach himself how to read, write and speak English. Even through the haze of my childhood mind, it did not take me long to register that he had a love for the language. He subscribed to Reader's Digest, a popular English magazine in India back in the 80s and 90s and would read out short pieces from it to his grandchildren as we hovered around him before his afternoon nap.

A picture of a picture of my maternal grandparents.
My grandfather and I had a special relationship. We wrote to each other by snail mail. I was the oldest of his grandchildren. The others were too young to bother themselves with paper and pencil, let alone letters. I remember the blue inland letter cards that arrived in the post for me with snippets about how the family was doing back home in Trivandrum. They were special, these letters, because they came addressed only to me. After my grandfather passed away, my grandmother wrote to us from time to time, and I wrote back as well. 


But these letters were addressed to my mother, with a little section devoted to the children. We responded similarly. My mother wrote back with details of life in Delhi, perceived through her adult eyes and I contributed a couple of lines at the end of each letter in my uncertain Malayalam, adding a child's, decidedly ancillary, perspective. The letters between my grandfather and I were different. No adult intervened in our conversations on paper. I waited eagerly for the postman to arrive with his letters, and something tells me so did he.

Typically, he was prompt in writing back. I remember a long lull in the conversation sometime in the summer of 1993. I wondered what might explain this delay in getting a response from Trivandrum. I waited patiently. One day, in late August, I remember coming home from school. I believe our father came to collect us from school, and my brother and I sensed that something was amiss. My uncle was at home visiting, which he never did at lunchtime on a working day, and my mother was in tears. I don't quite remember when we were told that Appappan had passed away, but before we knew it, we were on a flight from Delhi to Kerala, and soon after, at home in Trivandrum, where an eerie silence announced his passing. It didn't take me long to discover that last letter I had written to him on his desk, still waiting for his reply.    

Monday, 4 February 2013

Holidaying in Chotty



Photo credit: My brother!

When my brother and I were little, we spent every other summer holiday visiting our relatives in Kerala. My mother is city-bred. Holidays with her family meant access to television, movies and neighbourhood bakeries. Every evening, my grandfather would return home from work with a packet of goodies, having stopped at his favourite bakery on his way home. Some days, we were treated to spicy meat puffs. On other days, it was sweet, plump jilebis, the Malayali version of the crisp North Indian jalebi. When it was time for us to pack up and leave, we were as miserable as our grandparents were. They would be out in the verandah waving us goodbye as we left with suitcases heavy with treats to carry back with us to Delhi where humdrum routine awaited us.

















My father grew up in a small, little known part of Kanjirapalli in Kottayam. Even those who have spent their
entire lives in Kottayam profess ignorance when we mention Chotty. In the early years, our ancestral home had no access to electricity. Evenings were spent in the company of oil lamps. Chotty is full of rubber plantations, which attract hordes of a certain type of insect, a distant relative of the mosquito. These mosquito lookalikes took an immediate, inexplicable liking for my blood. I’d return from each holiday in Chotty with little red bites all over my arms and legs. Luckily for my brother, the insects did not take to him. This puzzled me. I was a skinny kid, he was the chubby one. Surely it would be more fun to chew on his baby fat than to attack my bony frame, I wondered.  Coupled with the lack of access to television and bakery treats, these pesky insects that were besotted with me ensured that I did not look forward to holidaying in Chotty. I craved the comforts of city life as soon as we arrived there.  

But there were many benefits of holidaying in Chotty that now seem magical to me, which I disregarded as a child. From time to time, one of my uncles reared honeybees in a little rectangular wooden box perched on a stand in the garden. I have a vivid memory of sitting on the steps to our home, aged around seven or eight, munching on a generous piece of honeycomb oozing honey, watching the rains lash across Chotty. 

There were cashewnut trees close to where we lived. Once, my father lit an impromptu fire in our backyard and we roasted cashewnuts. I remember cracking open the kernels and munching on the crunchy nuts inside.
There was a ready supply of fleshy jackfruit. As soon as one ripened, some able bodied person in the family would swing it over their shoulder and carry it into the kitchen. There, the women of the family would quarter the fruit. We cousins used our nimble fingers to coax the flesh out of the sticky insides of the jackfruit. Only a fraction of the fruit actually made its way to the vessel that we were meant to drop it into. Most of it made its way into our bellies before then.

I was in Chotty for a couple of weeks last month, the first such long holiday that I have had there in many years. Usually, I end up spending much of my holiday with my parents in Delhi. This time round, they decided to flee Delhi’s cold wave and spend their annual break with family in Kerala. With the luxury of leisure, through my adult eyes, Chotty’s beauty finally became evident to me.

I recently watched The Life of Pi on the big screen. The themes of religion and faith that the movie is based on appealed to me, but what captivated me most about the movie was its magical imagery which I carried in my head days after I watched it. I wondered if there is a place that comes close. When I arrived in Chotty and took in its sights, I realised that the magic was right there under my nose. I returned to Boston from Kerala recently, and have only just had the chance to type up this post and look through the many pictures taken on holiday. I had promised a recipe in my last post and here it is. French Yoghurt Cake. This is an easy, butter-less recipe from www.epicurious.com that I have now tried several times with great results. Other than a few tweaks, which made the cake extra moist, I have stuck to the original recipe for the most part.

Happy baking, and belated wishes for the year ahead. 

French Yoghurt Cake (adapted from this recipe)


Ingredients
nonstick vegetable oil spray
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup yoghurt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs beaten well (preferably using a blender) unti foamy
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
sliced almonds to garnish (optional)



Method
Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat a standard loaf pan with nonstick vegetable oil spray. Dust with flour; tap out excess. Whisk 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, baking soda and 3/4 teaspoon  salt in a medium bowl. Add yoghurt, 1/2 cup vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla extract; whisk to blend. Fold in dry ingredients just to blend. Do not overmix. A few lumps are fine. Pour batter into prepared pan; smooth top.  Top with sliced almonds. Bake until top of cake is golden brown and a tester inserted into centre comes out clean, 50-55 minutes. Let cake cool in pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Invert onto rack; let cool completely.