Monday, February 28, 2011


The last of the winter berries are here, some not quite good enough to eat.  I spent the day making jam, or rather, a kind of preserve. I don't like my jams too sweet or sticky and I detest having to weigh and measure, to add preservatives, flavourings and things to help them set.  I also find that the proportions of fruit and sugar in recipes don't necessarily work, it often depends on the kind of fruit, its sugar and water content and so on.  What I really want is something I can spread easily on my toast and, on occasion, on the tops of cakes or into tartlets.  Something that reflects the tangy flavour of the berries.

So I have devised my own simple way to make fruit preserves, by boiling the berries with a wee bit of water until the fruit reaches the right consistency.  Then I add sugar to taste and boil it down on low heat until it's a little viscous.  I've done away with testing for setting etc.  I just pour it into clean bottles and refrigerate it once it has cooled.  It lasts a month or two and if any yeast appears, I just spoon it off (without any ill effects!). So far, this works wonderfully for me - it's much tastier and lighter than most commercially available products.  It rarely lasts in my home for more than a couple of months - by when it's time for the next season's fruit- and a whole new range of sauces and spreads.

I've begun with gooseberries, a mix of orange and green, for a delectable sweet and tart flavour.  I'll move on to strawberries next, which are a little easier as they have more pectin.  The refrigerator does get a little full, but it's lovely to be able to see rows of beautifully coloured bottles and the best way to empty the shelves is to give some away as gifts!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Nirad's World

Last year, I had asked a very unusual family friend, Nirad and his wife, Deepa, if they could send me a few pictures for my blog.  Nirad and his entire family, steeped in Kodava tradition, seem to respond to the call of animals in the forest, the splash of mahaseer in the Cauvery river, the gentle coffee filled slopes of Coorg more easily and naturally than the 'page three' Bangalore wining and dining news, where they are often featured.

Nirad might pass you by without noticing you in Bangalore's urban landscape for he has tremendous trouble with his eyes.  I can't figure out how he steers his way in the water or in animal filled jungles.  But he always returns with breathtaking accounts and pictures of all he has experienced.  He says he is not tech savvy, so his wife has sent me the only only photograph that they have downloaded onto their computer, which speaks for itself.

He has also written a brief account of a mahaseer fishing adventure in his typical matter-of-fact manner.  
Mahaseer, the giant, wily Cauvery river fish, are fished for sport, not meat,and once trapped, are released again into the river. 

This is a small glimpse into Nirad's world:

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Spring Things

Despite the brief spell of snow in the hills (and rain in the plains), the cold is on its way out.  The air is cool, but has lost its bite and the sun feels warmer every day.  The birds seem to have appeared in a sudden burst, along with the early spring flowers - sweet peas and pansies and velvety roses.  The air is heady with fragrance and with the smell of grass. It's wonderful to be outdoors, and Delhi still has several nice parks to walk in.  We are also fortunate to have a small park that begins at our back door, used mostly by little children who play while their maids sun themselves and gossip in a large group.

It's the last of the carrots and radish, fortunately the tender greens and crisp salady things will still be around.  The days of red meat are definitely numbered, my thoughts turn now to seafood, which is plentiful in this season.  Sweet river fish for the lightest, most delicate of curries, seafish, finely sliced for a fry or cut into chunks for a more robust curry.  Prawns that are at their best when they are lightly marinated and stir fried.  Rice reappears on the menu, after weeks of wheat, corn and millets.  Of course, the change is gradual, but distinct.  And this fleeting period is the best of both worlds - the end of winter and the beginning of spring.  Hurray!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Two Films, A Hundred Years Apart

Television has the ability to take us from one end of the spectrum to the other rather abruptly, as I discovered yesterday.  I was treating myself to a leisurely Sunday afternoon's watching of 'Dr. Zhivago', naively presuming that as I had read the book and seen the film years ago, I would be prepared for some of the intensity of the movie.  That, of course, was not true and I felt the tremendous impact of the film as if it was the first time I was watching it - the Russian harshness and bleakness on one side, the overpowering strength of passion and idealism on the other, leading inevitably to loss and despair.

At night, the family wanted to watch 'The Social Network' (a Hollywood version of Mark Zuckerberg's rise to fame as the co-developer of Facebook).  It showed contemporary, smooth talking America in all its brittle glory - a world of amazing technological advances, sophisticated computer programming, privileged and ambitious undergraduates.  A world where money takes care of everything, where there are no restrictions, where social dysfunction is tolerated and aggression accepted as a matter of fact.  Not as heart rending as the Russian revolution and civil war, with its imposed tragedies, but very bleak in a different way, because it showed that despite all the freedom and facilities, people can hurt each other tremendously just because of thoughtlessness or because they choose to do so.

Nothing really to conclude at the end of this film watching episode, apart from the reminder that each person has the power to add to remove something from another's world, if he wishes to exercise this.  It depicted, rather forcefully, how our inner world can destroy us even if we have everything at our fingertips and how love can sustain us when everything around us seems to fall apart.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Mystery Within

We all need reminders.  This time, mine came through my friend Nora, who has helped many people with her wisdom and her acupuncture.  She wrote describing how she believes that what goes on inside each of us is a mystery and cannot be read in entirety through graphs and chemical tests. 

It's something we forget, more so after visiting conventional doctors or hospitals.  Modern medicine, in its desire for objectivity and rationality, has lost sight of that which brings about healing and balance - the inner spark of which we know little.  There are some exceptions, a handful of doctors, some books (my favourites being 'Love, Medicine and Miracles' by Dr. Bernie Siegel, a surgeon at Yale and the 'All Creatures Great and Small' series by James Herriot, a vet. who worked in Yorkshire) and a few films (eg. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, Munnabhai MBBS) to remind us that medicine is not about statistics, it is about individuals.  Illness and health work in ways that are not as well understood as doctors would like us to believe.

As I visit hospitals, I see many kinds of illnesses on the rise, notably those to do with endocrine and reproductive health and lifestyle related problems.  And I see the patients - people of all ages waiting patiently ('patient' is apt here!), many showing signs of stress, frustration or despair.  And I think once more of what I would do if I were running a centre to tackle these kinds of problems.

I would definitely rope in an acupuncturist, a masseuse and a yoga teacher to help release some of the physical and mental stress.  I would create a separate room for discussions for patients- with each other or in a group, as they please (have you noticed how isolated or pressurized some of these people look?  And how their faces light up at the sight of a smile, even though it comes from a stranger?).  A library with books and music to help them while they wait.  And last but not least - lots of clean bathrooms and plenty of drinking water.  And sit back, wait and watch those 'healing statistics' soar as each person feels better in his own way.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Troubled Times For Temples

Temples are built for many reasons; ideally they symbolize an external means to express an inner dream of peace and love.  With the passing of years, many of them get enmeshed in power play and several become financially lucrative for the people running them.  Once a temple is acknowledged as being holy or having the power to bestow things on people, its ruin has almost certainly begun.  For peace, though it abides everywhere, cannot easily withstand the assault of hopeful or desperate masses, and it often slips into the background and is shadowed by more visible or audible rituals.  (It is for this reason that I prefer visiting ancient, unused temples to the more frequented ones.)

It is no surprise then that recent clashes on the Thai-Cambodian border over Preah Vihear, the beautiful Khmer temple, have restarted, with terrible consequences.

This part of Cambodia has periodically been under attack from Thailand, more so once Preah Vihear became a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Thailand has claimed much of the surrounding area, making access to the temple extremely difficult from the Cambodian side.  Indeed, this temple was on our list when we planned our recent visit, but we eventually could not visit it.  Initially, our hotel informed us that the roads were not motorable at this time.  On reaching the adjacent area of Koh Ker, we discovered that people were able to reach the temple, but it was a long and arduous path.  We finally decided against it when two of our group of three came down with minor problems of head and stomach.

Now, people are unable to visit once more due to the the current fighting.  This time, it has also resulted in physical damage of a part of the temple.  Who knows how much more destruction will occur before people realize the irony of fighting over temples?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Winter Fare

Being in Delhi towards the end of winter is a rare treat for me.  The worst of the weather is over and one still has a few weeks of the wonderful winter vegetables that this season brings.  Though these begin by the end of November, they grow in flavour as the cold proceeds and are their tenderest and most flavourful by the middle of December.

Many can be eaten raw without any dressing or flavouring - the deep red, sweet carrots, the mild white radishes and their more fiery red counterparts, the tender, tiny green peas, baby spinach, spring onions...  Being winter, they're also welcome in soups - light broth flavoured by a handful of this and a sprinkling of that and hearty stews - different from the western ones due to the addition of the ubiquitous ginger-garlic and the warming spices - cloves, black cardamom, cinnamon and peppercorns.

Then there is the gamut of cooked vegetables and beans- dry, semi-dry or swimming in curry, we have the sweet carrots and peas, the delicate turnips, the pungent mustard and radish greens, the faintly bitter fenugreek, the fresh, green chickpeas (that we never find at any other time), the wholesome cauliflower and potato, the plump sweet potato and more, all eaten with hot phulkas or buttery rotis and dal.

And other little ways of using up every bit of the winter flavour - the pickles with their traditional combinations- lemon and jaggery, lemon and ginger, cauliflower, carrot and turnip in pungent mustard oil, the drinks - kanji - a delicious sour drink (perhaps the taste for this is acquired as most people unfamiliar with it can't understand why north Indians are so fond of it!) made of fermented black carrots.

And winter, of course, is incomplete without the sweets - with ghee and dried fruit added to taste, the halwas that melt in the mouth made of ground dal or semolina or the tastiest in my opinion - the sweet, red carrots grated to just the right size and slowly cooked in creamy, sweetened milk on low heat for hours.  I feel blissful just thinking about it.

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