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Saturday, 18 October 2014

Popeye Chicken Curry



A couple of months ago, when I decided to move from Boston to Berkeley, I had to figure out what to do with my books. There was a Delia Smith book on baking, a copy of Jamie Oliver in America, Ken Hom's Chinese and then some. I also had a few dry economics and statistics textbooks with which I was not on terms as friendly.

I ended up packing the whole lot in an empty Amazon box and shipping it to Berkeley through USPS a couple of weeks before I flew out of Boston. Shipping with USPS turned out to be very cheap. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight, it was suspiciously cheap.

I arrived in Berkeley a few weeks later. The delivery date for my shipment, however, arrived and passed by with no sign of my package. To be honest, I expected some delay. I'd paid too little to expect more. So I waited patiently, tracking the package online, noticing that it seemed to have taken a fancy to the sorting facility in New Jersey, staying there well over a couple of weeks.

A month or so later, I realized that I was unlikely to ever be reunited with my books. When I registered my protest with USPS, Paula in Customer Service had me fill up an online form with details of my lost books. By this time, the textbooks had reduced to a hazy memory. Not so with my cook books. I remembered their glossy hardbound covers, the recipes - those that I had tried, and those that I hoped to - that graced their pages and the photographs that I had spent too many hours drooling over. I could have spent a few pages describing these intricacies, but I was constrained by the small white space on USPS' online form. I fitted in every last detail that I could, and reserved the brevity for my textbooks. I think I put down "economics and statistics textbooks" or something thereabouts. A little too generic perhaps, I now realize.

For a time, I continued to hold on to a slender sliver of hope. Every time I entered my apartment building, my eyes wandered to the space where brown cardboard boxes registering my neighbours' avid online consumerism are left behind for pick up, searching for signs of my missing package with its handwritten, homemade address label, and scratched out Amazon delivery sticker.

It has now been close to six months since I lugged my books to the USPS office to have them shipped. I had all but forgotten about my lost books when I received a package from USPS' Mail Recovery Service in Atlanta. Inside the brown envelope was a shiny new copy of "Introduction to Statistics and Econometrics" by Takeshi Amemiya.

It is a book I have never seen, and never owned.

It was heartening to know that someone in Atlanta was shuffling about in a giant room of lost things, trying to match object to owner, even if imperfectly. But I was also sorry that someone else, somewhere in the U.S., is waiting in vain for a lost book on econometrics.




Popeye Chicken Curry

Ingredients

To Grind

2 tomatoes

1 large bunch spinach

a fistful of coriander leaves

1/4-1/2 cup water

Marinade

1.5 pounds chicken

1/4 cup yoghurt

1/2 tsp cumin

1/2 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp chilli powder

2 tsp dijon mustard

salt to taste

Tempering

1 tsp fennel seeds/sauf

2 dried red chillies

5 cloves of garlic grated

1 inch piece ginger grated

1 tbsp garam masala

2 tsp tomato paste

oil

chopped coriander for garnish

Marinate the chicken for at least 30 minutes, preferably a few hours or overnight.

Grind spinach and tomato with all other ingredients to be ground. Set aside. (I microwaved the spinach for a minute or so just to get them to wilt before grinding - mainly so they'd fit into the food processor's work bowl).

Heat oil. Add fennel seeds, red chillies, and stir until fragrant, avoiding high heat so as not to burn them. Next add in the grated ginger and garlic and fry until the raw smell disappears. Finally add tomato paste and garam masala. Stir for 1-2 minutes on medium flame.

Now add the ground spinach and tomato mix and cook down on medium heat until the gravy thickens. This should take around 7-10 minutes. Now add the chicken. Cover and cook on medium heat until done. Check for seasoning, garnish with chopped coriander and serve.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Tarta de Santiago/Spanish Almond Cake


Growing up, I often came across the widely held Indian belief that a daily diet of a few raw almonds in the early hours of the day is good for the brain. Somehow, my parents never bought into that idea.

We weren't all that fond of raw almonds in any case. In the dry fruit trays that we received as Diwali gifts every year, almonds weren't the first to disappear. I chose the walnuts first, even though they were (literally) hard nuts to crack, followed by pistachios and cashew nuts. Almonds often survived till the very end, long after the sounds of Diwali firecrackers had receded into silence. Despite being deprived of the brain enhancing properties of almonds, I think I managed just fine. There remains, however, the question of how much better my grey cells might have turned out with the aid of a daily diet of almonds.


Mine is a cashew loving family. This may have something to do with the fact that my father's childhood home in Kerala was surrounded by cashew nut trees, so that roasting cashews over the raw flame of a homemade fire in the backyard for an occasional snack was no big deal. We could hardly carry on this adventurous family snacking tradition in the Delhi flat in which my brother and I grew up. Still, my father ensured that cashew nuts made regular appearances in our grocery bags. As for me, I grabbed every opportunity to get my hands on kaju burfi, which remains one of my favorite Indian sweets.


But there is one form in which I have always enjoyed almonds - marzipan. As a child, I was enchanted by the imitation fruits and vegetables that marzipan is often shaped into. Of the many edible things that make me go weak in the knees, marzipan continues to rank high. And so, the idea of making an almond based dessert has been floating around in my head for some time now.    

A happy confluence of events led me to this recipe for Tarta de Santiago, a rustic almond cake from Spain. Having recently acquired some fine baking equipment, I was itching to bake. Around the same time, a friend introduced me to her favourite fruit tart at a neighborhood cafe, the nicest bit of which was a delicately sweet ground almond filling. The moment I happened on an event worthy of celebration, I decided to scrounge around for a recipe for almond cake, which is what led me to Tarta de Santiago.


The list of ingredients is reassuringly short - ground almonds, sugar and eggs with a touch of orange and lemon zest and a tinge of almond extract. It sounded almost too simple. For a while, I fiddled with the idea of using a glaze or icing to make up for the simplicity of this cake. Eventually, I decided not to.

One of the things that I have learnt from my mother is that with make-up, as with most things, less is more. I ended up simply dusting the top of the cake with powdered sugar, as the original recipe suggested.

This is a an elegant cake with a gentle citrusy note from the orange and lemon zest combined with the nutty flavour of ground almonds - best to let those flavours speak for themselves, even if softly.
 
Tarta de Santiago (Spanish almond cake)
Recipe reproduced from this link

1/2 pound (1 3/4 cups) blanched whole almonds
6 large eggs, separated
1 1/4 cups superfine sugar
Grated zest of 1 orange
Grated zest of 1 lemon
4 drops almond extract
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Finely grind the almonds in a food processor.

With an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks with the sugar to a smooth pale cream. Beat in the zests and almond extract. Add the ground almonds and mix very well.

With clean beaters, beat the egg whites in a large bowl until stiff peaks form. Fold them into the egg and almond mixture (the mixture is thick, so that you will need to turn it over quite a bit into the egg whites).

Grease an 11-inch springform pan, preferably nonstick, with butter and dust it with flour. Pour in the cake batter, and bake into a preheated 350°F for 40 minutes, or until it feels firm to the touch. Let cool before turning out.


Just before serving, dust the top of the cake with confectioners' sugar. Or, if you like, cut a St. James cross out of paper. Place it in the middle of the cake, and dust the cake with confectioners' sugar, then remove the paper.

Notes: I used a 9-inch pan, and baking time was approximately 50 minutes. As you can see, I didn't bother with St. James' cross. Even without his overt blessings, this cake turned out to be divine.  

Sunday, 3 August 2014

A Strory About French Apple Cake





I have not been this excited about a cake in a long time.


Not that I have not been baking. There was the somewhat disappointing cinnamon cake I baked a few weeks ago. Even though everyone else around me swore that they couldn't taste the extra virgin olive oil that went into the cake, I most certainly could. There are dozens of cake recipes which rely on the fruity flavour of olive oil, as I discovered while trawling through recipe website Epicurious some weeks ago. But with my cinnamon cake escapade, I discovered that as far as I am concerned, olive oil, although delicious with crusty bread or drizzled over hummus, does not work that same magic inside a cake, especially when one is hoping for the perfume of cinnamon instead.

Before that, in another bout of adventurism, I tried a relatively healthy chocolate avocado cupcake recipe, which substituted avocado for butter. The cupcakes were nice enough, but I could taste the faint yet unmistakable, indescribable flavor of avocado which I love, but not in my cake.

It was in this gloomy season  that I came across Dorie Greenspan's French Apple Cake recipe. The name made me sit up and take note. French Apple Cake has a very special place in my heart. Many years ago, when I was poorer, younger, and a few pounds lighter, I was in Bangalore attending college. For sustenance, I relied on a hostel mess that wasn't quite known for gourmet cuisine. With little to look forward to in my daily meals, there were some things that never failed to brighten my day.

Most of these things were, of course, edible. Somewhere on the top of that list sat smugly the French Apple Cake. I was introduced to this elegant piece of genius at Corner House Cafe. Corner House, as we called it, was one of our favorite haunts in the city. If it was something sweet we were after, we instinctively turned (or asked the auto-rickshaw driver to turn) in the direction of Corner House. No meal in the city was complete without a visit to this shrine of sweet things. There were times when a kind soul who had been to the city for a meal returned to the hostel with a Corner House treat for the unfortunate ones left behind, which would be devoured silently, and alarmingly quickly, in our hostel room.




Of the many delightful things that Corner House served, French Apple Cake was among my favourites. Corner House did two versions - French Apple Cake with Cream, which was deliciously rich, and French Apple Cake with Cream and Ice-Cream, which was criminally so.

Since I graduated in 2008, I have not had the chance to return to Bangalore. College was a magical time, not only because I made some of my closest friends there, but also because it was where so many of us came of age, far away from our families. Many apple based desserts have sat on my dessert plate in the years since, but I have not had the good fortune of an encounter with French Apple Cake in all these years.

And so, as Dorie Greenspan's recipe for French Apple Cake stared back at me from my computer screen, I knew that I had to give it a shot. Because it called for an alarming quantity of butter, I decided to reserve it for a worthy enough occasion. With a dear friend visiting tomorrow, I decided that the time was ripe for French Apple Cake.

8 tablespoons of butter have never made me happier. I have just dug into a somewhat large slice of French Apple Cake, and cannot urge you strongly enough to try the recipe out in your own kitchen. It is moist, flavorful and altogether delicious. Corner House Cafe and Dorie Greenspan must have been the warmest of friends at some point in their lives, for I have in my kitchen the very same cake of my long gone college days.
   
Dorie Greenspan's French Apple Cake (recipe adapted from this link)
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 large apples (ideally, choose 4 different kinds) (I used only three medium sized apples)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons dark rum (I substituted with 2 tbsp. vanilla extract and left out the 1/2 tsp below)
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled (I used unsalted butter)
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter an 8-inch springform pan and put it on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper and put the springform on it.            

Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in small bowl.

Peel the apples, cut them in half and remove the cores. Cut the apples into 1- to 2-inch chunks.
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk until they’re foamy. Pour in the sugar and whisk for a minute or so to blend. Whisk in the rum and vanilla. Whisk in half the flour and when it is incorporated, add half the melted butter, followed by the rest of the flour and the remaining butter, mixing gently after each addition so that you have a smooth, rather thick batter. Switch to a rubber spatula and fold in the apples, turning the fruit so that it's coated with batter. Scrape the mix into the pan and poke it around a little with the spatula so that it's evenish. At this point, your cake batter will look like apples coated with a little batter, but that's fine.
           
Slide the pan into the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top of the cake is golden brown and a knife inserted deep into the center comes out clean; the cake may pull away from the sides of the pan. For me, baking time was close to 70 minutes, but that may be because I used an 8 x 8 square tin. Transfer to a cooling rack and let rest for 5 minutes.

Carefully run a blunt knife around the edges of the cake and remove the sides of the springform pan. (Open the springform slowly, and before it’s fully opened, make sure there aren't any apples stuck to it.) Allow the cake to cool until it is just slightly warm or at room temperature. If you want to remove the cake from the bottom of the springform pan, wait until the cake is almost cooled, then run a long spatula between the cake and the pan, cover the top of the cake with a piece of parchment or wax paper, and invert it onto a rack. Carefully remove the bottom of the pan and turn the cake over onto a serving dish. Serve with barely sweetened whipped cream or ice cream.

Note: I did feel that the cake was a little too rich. Next time, I will try cutting back on the butter slightly.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Mango Lassi and Summertime in Delhi

They say you talk about the weather when you have nothing else to talk about. That's certainly not true of my phone conversations with my parents. Hot or cold, Delhi's extreme weather has so profound an impact on daily lives, that it never fails to find a mention on our phone conversations. Just a few months ago, they cheered as a freezing winter that had forced them into layers of bulky winter wear for too long, came to a close. Now, they are suffering through an especially brutal, seemingly endless summer.

When we were little, we often escaped Delhi's brutal summers by seeking refuge in Kerala, where most of our extended family still lives. My childhood summers in Kerala deserve nothing less than an entire post on the subject. But there were some summers that - surely in a moment of heat induced madness - my parents decided to spend in Delhi.


My recollection of these summers is, at best, hazy. Most of our energies, after all, were focused on protecting ourselves from heat strokes or from transmuting into sweaty puddles. In those days, when we had no air-conditioning at home, our savior and messiah was our air cooler. You threw buckets of water in, and in return, the cooler threw cool, moistened air into your face.

My brother, in particular, relied heavily on it to preserve his sanity in the hot months. Throwing buckets of water into the cooler is not a pleasant task, however. You first had to wait in the bathroom (no cooler there, mind you) while the bucket filled up, then carry the wretched thing through our bedroom into the sweltering heat of the balcony, where the cooler was housed, and then, with all the strength you could muster, pull the bucket all the way up to the cooler's height to empty its contents. Marx wouldn't have approved, but when it came to cooler refilling, the unwritten principle we followed was "from each according to his need." I could survive just a few minutes longer without the cooler's aid than my brother could. And that was enough. I would hold on to the edges of my sanity, bearing the heat. Finally, he would succumb and trudge into the bathroom with an empty bucket, and I would know that relief was near.

There was, however, one silver lining to it all. Mangoes. In the Delhi summer, you will find them everywhere. You'll find them on the streets being sold in cane baskets, and peeking out of giant cases in the neighborhood grocery store. Heck, Delhi even has an international festival - all for mangoes - every year. It is called (surprise, surprise), the International Mango Festival. I remember going to the festival as a child, seeing more mangoes than I ever had, and returning home with crates of golden yellow mangoes.

Mostly, we ate the fruit as is. A good mango needs no embellishment. But because I am especially fond of mango shake, my mother always reserved some to blend with milk and turn into a delicious summertime drink for me. Recently, we picked up a tin of mango pulp at the local Indian store. Not quite the real deal of course, but the mango lassi it went into was good enough to bring on the nostalgia and remember the best and the worst bits of summertime in Delhi.

Mango Lassi (serves 3)

This isn't much of a recipe because you just throw in the ingredients into the blender and blend away. You can play with the proportions below, which will give you a mildly sweet, mildly sour lassi.

3/4 cups thick fresh yoghurt (make sure it is not too sour)
3/4 cup sweetened, tinned mango pulp or puree (you can substitute with home made mango pulp with sugar/honey to taste)
1.5 cups milk (I used soy milk)
1/2 tsp ground cardamom

Blend all ingredients together and serve.    

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Banana Muffins

Displaying photo.JPG
California produce
There are many things I love about Berkeley, where I have just moved. The weekly farmer’s market, college kids who are at the heart of this university town, and whose endless chatter I cannot help but overhear as I walk by, and an impressive array of restaurants. And then there’s the public library, only a few steps away from where we live. As far as public libraries go, this one is enormous. It is five stories high, with more bookshelves than I can count. I discovered that it has a vast food section, and that it costs nothing to sign up. When the librarian told me I could borrow up to 50 books at a time (yes, 50!), I fell in love with Berkeley all over again.

The earliest library I remember visiting is one that my mother often took us to in Delhi. Although the ostensible reason for our frequent visits was to let us borrow books as often as possible, with hindsight, I now believe it was also because the library’s “keep silence” sign offered her precious refuge from our never ending childish quarrels.

Displaying photo.JPGI remember the musty smell that this library carried, the dusty ceiling fans that whirred noisily over our heads, the winding staircase that led us to its doors, and the frayed red cloth with which every book inside was bound. I remember the old librarian in charge of the whole enterprise, and the pink library cards on which he wrote our names down in Hindi in blue ballpoint ink.

He was puzzled by our last name “George” which appeared on the bank statements we offered as proof of address. His furrowed brow told us that he’d probably never come across it before. Entirely understandable – George isn’t a common name in India, especially in the northern parts. Before we could offer the pronunciation and the spelling in Hindi, he had gotten the job done. When we received our library cards, we saw that he had decided to rechristen us “Garg” (pronounced almost like you would the first four letters in “gargle”, except that the "a" sound is a little less stretched out), arguably the closest North Indian approximation for “George”. We didn’t bother correcting him. What’s in a name, after all. We went about borrowing books from the library, masquerading as the “Garg” family with no fuss whatsoever.  


The librarian at the Berkeley library had no trouble with my surname. I ended up borrowing Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life. I am delighted to say that it was un-put-down-able. I took it everywhere I went until there was nothing left to devour of Molly’s homemade life. The book is a collection of essays centred around food with a recipe at the end of each one. It carries much promise in the form of pistachio cake with honeyed apricot, vanilla-black pepper ice-cream and French style yoghurt cake with lemon. I am yet to try out Molly’s recipes, but I did end up trying out one of Nigella Lawson’s recipes. It is a recipe for chocolate banana muffins. The texture was great, but the chocolate flavour just wasn’t as strong as I would have liked. Next time, I will swap some of the flour with more cocoa powder. Chocolaty or not, here’s the recipe in celebration of The Homemade Life, the Berkeley public library, and old memories.

Here's the recipe:

Displaying image.jpegChocolate Banana Muffins (original recipe at this link)
(Makes 12)

3 very ripe or overripe bananas
½ cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
½ cup soft light brown sugar
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons best-quality unsweetened cocoa (sifted)
1 teaspoon baking soda

(I added 1/4 tsp salt and a few chopped walnuts)

Method

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6 and line a 12-bun muffin tin with papers. Don’t worry about getting special papers: regular muffin cases will do the job.

Mash the bananas by hand or with a freestanding mixer. Still beating and mashing, add the oil followed by the eggs and sugar.
Mix the flour, unsweetened cocoa and bicarb together and add this mixture, beating gently, to the banana mixture, then spoon it into the prepared papers.

Bake in the preheated oven for 15–20 minutes, by which time the muffins should be dark, rounded and peeking proudly out of their cases. Allow to cool slightly in their tin before removing to a wire rack.



Sunday, 22 June 2014

Painful Wisdom and Baked Sweet Potato Fries

Step 1: Cut sweet potato into even sticks, Step 2: Add seasoning
A few days ago, on a bus ride back from New York City, a dull ache in my upper jaw turned into blinding agony. As our bus crawled through the Friday afternoon traffic leading out of the city, things only got worse. Left without painkillers, I suffered all through the journey, managing somehow to make it back home to Boston without letting out the primal screams gnawing at my insides.

This morning, after a long weekend, I finally made my way to the dentist who took a quick look at an X-ray of my jaw and lost no time in referring me to an oral surgeon. A little late in the day, my wisdom teeth have finally decided to erupt, and are aggressively pushing their way out through my gums. Only my mouth is too small for these unwelcome guests, and like passengers in a crowded subway train, my older teeth are protesting as these newcomers try to jostle their way in. 

When I got home with the X-ray, my family pounced on it. Their interpretations of the black and white image varied, as if were a piece of modern art. My husband, staying true to his mathematical training, assessed the impossible angles at which my four errant teeth were launching themselves. My father remembered the foresight of my childhood dentist who had, years ago, Nostradamus like, foreseen this war of wisdom teeth. My mother as always said, "I told you so" - she had Googled my symptoms and decided that my suffering stemmed from "impacted" wisdom teeth long before my dentist said so.

She also said that dental pain is the worst sort of body pain one can suffer. Hot compresses and massages can relieve other aches, she reasons, but they can hardly help if your teeth choose to revolt. With the exception of heart ache, she is probably correct. But dental pain is especially painful to me for another reason. With my achy jaw and a diet of painkillers, it is impossible to indulge my taste buds as I otherwise would.

They say that only those who have endured great pain can become great artists and great poets. Probably true, from my experience. With most other pursuits having been made impossible by my painful wisdom teeth, it was in the direction of this blog that I turned. I may not have a masterpiece of a painting or poem on my hands, but I do have a great recipe to share.

Here's a recipe that is easy enough to whip up in the worst of times and tasty enough to enjoy in the best of times. I've served these baked sweet potato fries quite a few times and have had an excellent response every time. I have to say that the fries aren't crispy like deep fried French fries, but the ends do tend to crispen up, and the combination of sweet, savoury and spicy in a single appetizer works very well.


Baked Sweet Potato Fries (adapted from this recipe)

1 large sweet potato  
1 tbsp olive oil (or more, enough to evenly coat the fries)
a generous sprinkling of salt, preferably kosher salt
1/2 tsp black pepper powder (or red chili flakes)
other seasonings such as mixed herbs (optional)
a generous sprinkling of corn starch (optional)

Preheat oven to 425 deg F. Scrub potato (because I leave it unpeeled), and cut into long, even sticks. Do not cut them too thin, because they taste better with some bite to them. In a mixing bowl, toss the sweet potato pieces with olive oil, salt and pepper, any seasonings and corn starch. Better to go easy on both at this stage - more can be added after the fries are out of the oven if necessary.  

Place them on a non stick baking sheet (for best results) or on a lightly oiled sheet of aluminum foil, which is what I used. Be careful not to crowd the fries and to make sure that there is space between them.

Bake for around 15 minutes on one side, then turn the fries and bake on the other side for another 10-15 minutes, checking in between to ensure that they do not burn. As per some reviews, leaving the fries in the oven for some time after it has been switched off makes for crispier fries. I am yet to try this, and will post an update to this recipe if I do.

Serve hot!

Monday, 5 May 2014

Not Quite Kung Pao



Most of the blogs that I follow are alive and kicking, full with recently posted recipes and photographs. Sometimes, I stumble across the odd abandoned blog, sticking out like a sore thumb. Once upon a time, I think to myself, there was a blogger behind that blog, feverishly churning out posts. And then something happened that made him or her stop, or put more optimistically, pause. I wonder what might have been the cause of the pause (doesn't that have a nice ring to it?). Was it personal tragedy that stopped them in their tracks? Was it happier news, like the arrival of a baby, that sucked all their energy, leaving them with an overflowing cup and no time to spare for cherished pursuits? Or maybe there is a simpler explanation. Maybe they just got bored with spewing verbage into the black hole that is the internet.



It has been months since I typed up a post. I do not have especially dramatic reasons for having abandoned my online corner for offline pursuits. There have been a few developments. In the last few months, I suspect that my edges have gotten a little rounder because I stayed far not only from the blog, but also the gym, succumbing to the long winter that is only just taking its leave. I chopped a few inches of my hair on a whim, only to repent at leisure. Most importantly, I know that my days on the East Coast are numbered, and that I will be moving to milder weather not long from now. Those few things aside, I have largely been myself, complaining about Boston's painfully long winter, shuttling between classes and home,  figuring out post-graduation plans, and cooking and baking when I have the chance.

Things have been more or less the same, but with one small difference. I took a writing class this semester with 17 other writers and one delightful professor. Over three months, we each wrote five columns, marked up each other's writing furiously, but always gently, and critiqued better known columnists out there in the real world. With all that space to write, maybe it is not surprising that I abandoned this one.


With my last class having passed me by last week, I am opportunistically returning to my old online corner, where I hope to stay until interrupted by unforeseen forces.

Here's a recipe that I tried recently. The original recipe is for Kung Pao chicken, but I changed the recipe in so many ways that I had Not Quite Kung Pao on my hands. Based on reviews, I made twice as much marinade and sauce as the recipe suggested, left out the water chestnuts (because I didn't have any), and added mushrooms and green peppers, and sesame seeds for garnish. Most crucially, I didn't use peanuts because my flatmate has a peanut allergy. Kung Pao chicken without the defining peanuts is not quite Kung Pao, but it still made for a tasty lunch. My only recommendation would be that instead of chicken breast, which toughens up when cooked, you consider using chicken thighs.   

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The End of an Era

In a few months, my father will retire from a 36 year long career as a bureaucrat in the Indian government. Like others before him, he will have a short ceremony to mark the occassion, full with praise for his years of service, a cheque or two typed up with amounts owed to him and some goodbyes. In a single day, a routine that he has grown into over a lifetime will swiftly and surely be sliced away. 

Had it been my mother in question, I would have worried. The hustle and bustle of her life as a teacher, complete with exams and invigilation, meetings with parents, and the challenge of dealing with errant students in her care, are the very centre of her life. It is in her daily ritual of rushing from home to school and back in which she seems to find meaning and comfort. 

My father is different. The best parts of his day, I think, are his morning walk in nearby Nehru Park in the company of birds and dewy grass, a morning dose of hot tea and The Hindu that no earthly force can compel him to rush through, lectures on the state of the Indian economy addressed to anyone he can claim as a captive audience, and phone calls with his brothers in Kerala, on which he displays an interest in distant family several branches away from him on his family tree. Retired life will hopefully be an opportunity for him to better connect with these, and other finer things in life. 

Still, I cannot help but feel a pang because this will be the end of an era, as it were. My brother and I felt much more a part of my father's workplace than my mother's. On the rare unanticipated day off from primary school, it was my father's office that we tagged along to, given the absence of a formal childcare system. Leaving us at home by ourselves would not have been a sensible option. We were, after all, at an age at which we were truly greater than the sum of our parts.    

My memories of his office in those early years are dry, to say the least. "Red tape" acquired a distinctly literal meaning, as I fingered the red string that bound together his office files. I was enamoured by his pale green official note paper, with its trademark blue line marking a generous margin, that I was never allowed to claim. 

One of his offices stands out in my memory. For reasons that I have yet to fathom, one of the decorative items that inhabited his room was a vintage doll encased in glass. Of course, for the men and women who worked in Jaisalmer House, the doll held little charm. Things were different for me. To me, she was the bureaucratic Barbie that Mattel failed to manufacture. I used every opportunity to study her hair and clothes as closely as I could from my distant vantage point outside the glass barrier that separated us. 

She was an anomaly. With very little to entertain us in the office, my brother and I were each left with pencils and (regular) paper to amuse ourselves with drawing graphite trees, mountains and birds, while my father busied himself with files in the box marked "urgent" on his desk. There are only so many trees and mountains that you can draw in a day before settling into a state of hopelessness. It was always with tremendous relief that we welcomed the end of one of these rare "office days" to return home to bask in the comforts of Cartoon Network and Star Plus.    

As always, the food was the highlight. One of my father's office canteens served delicious, melt in the mouth, milk burfis that we looked forward to eagerly. They were bigger and better than any commercial burfi that has ever come my way. I was sold despite my affinity to syrupy rasgullas and crunchy jalebis. Had they been more widely accessible to the public, I have no doubt that Nathu's burfi department would have had tough competition to contend with. Outside another of his office buildings were sold sweet, juicy oranges by a man on the street. When we returned home from our "office days", it was usually with a few of these in hand.  

As we grew older, the need to tag along to my father's workplace was lost. Although my brother and I continued our long tradition of bickering well into our teenage years, we were deemed old enough to manage at home by ourselves. Unsurprisingly, our connection to my father's office loosened as time wore on.  

Like my father, some of my friends' parents are also retiring from what have been active, successful careers. With years of work behind them, all are respected for the wisdom of their years. Some are lucky to have chosen careers in academics and law, which allow for an indefinite innings at the crease, subject to good health and spirits. Happily, many invested love, time and energy in pursuits outside of work, be it family, a trusted circle of friends, or a treasured pastime. And so, even though this may be the end of an era for them all, it is equally the beginning of another one, opening up the possibility to indulge in their loves outside of work. For my peers and I, who are in an age in which the promise of a successful career tends to obscure all else, there cannot be a better reminder to spare time for pursuits beyond the office.