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)


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.