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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.