Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Call of the Kulfi

I have been suffering from a perverse toothache for the past two days but strangely enough, I have kulfi - a wonderful Indian icecreamy dessert - on my mind. With an apology to Ray Charles, I mentally hum,

"Kulfi! Kulfi!
No peace I find
Just this old sweet thought
Keeps kulfi on my mind."

Though I don't feel a tremendous tug for ice creams, kulfi is a different matter altogether. Kulfi is a creamy, icy concoction of milk that is slowly thickened with kesar (saffron), pista (pistachio) and elaichi (cardamom), churned and then frozen. It is generally served with a bland noodly affair (falooda) and sweetened rose essence. The home made versions are simpler and, in my view, no one could make better kulfi than my grandmother. Childhood memories tend to be intense and poignant, but I am convinced that I would still like her kulfi as much if I could get it today. It did not have any saffron, nor the accompaniments - it was just thick, creamy and cardamom flavoured with a sprinkling of almonds. I would wait until it was half melted before slurping it up and letting the cool liquid drizzle down my throat. Of course, kulfi then was strictly a summer food. However indulgent my grandmother was, seasonal routines were adhered to and only the searing heat would bring bowls of this dessert to our table.

After this childhood experience, I always felt that kulfis served in restaurants were just not up to the mark. Eventually we located an unfailingly good source - a vendor who would cycle into town every evening, with a large pot of home made kulfi tied to the carrier behind. He would stand in the Defence Colony market every summer with his young son. Now his son has taken over and business is so brisk that he comes every afternoon and stays until late - every day unfailingly except for one month a year when he returns to his village. He knows my father (a loyal customer) and always has a smile and a "Namaste Babuji," a greeting one rarely hears in the city any more. Sometimes he slices the kulfi into thick rounds and we eat standing on the pavement, at other times he packs the kulfi for us, showering it liberally with his home made crushed ice and salt mixture to keep it from melting. The falooda (an overly generous scoop) is packed separately in a neat little package. We know we should only eat half, but greed intervenes.

Somehow, it's the memory of the sweet itself along with thoughts of the affectionate indulgence with which it has been served that make this a very special dessert for me. Perhaps this is why I have been humming the song ("Georgia on my mind"), as memories of kulfi are so linked to memories of summertime and the old days and my grandmother -

Other arms reach out to me
Other eyes smile tenderly
Still in peaceful dreams I see
The road leads back to you

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sufi Kathak

Delhi is always nice at this time of the year, every day there are cultural events that stretch to the festival season and beyond - right upto the end of the year. Many of these are open to a general audience and it was one of these that I attended a few days ago - a new dance form called sufi kathak, that combined the spirit of sufiism with the classical dance of North India, kathak.

Sufiism, a mystical form of Islam moved towards India in the 9th century. Northern India was introduced to this form of spiritual expression through Sufi saints who preached the importance of purifying one's heart and surrendering to God at an individual level. There was no focus on attaining heaven after death as is emphasized in mainstream Islam, instead one strived to experience God in this life, through one's thoughts and actions. Nizamuddin Auliya is one of the most revered Sufi saints of Delhi; he lived in Delhi in the 13th century and his teachings were mainly about the importance of love and compassion. One of his closest disciples, a scholar, musician and royal poet called Amir Khusro, composed a large number of verses in various languages, some of these were set to a distinctive kind of music that he developed (called qawwali) in praise of the teacher, Nizamuddin Auliya or Mehboob e Ilahi (Beloved of God), and his spiritual teachings.

The programme I attended was at the Bahai temple - a beautiful lotus bud structure in white marble with lush lawns and clumps of trees stretching all round. The dance was indoors, but walking past the temple and its picturesque surroundings towards evening, when all colours are altered by the setting sun, with a breeze in the background, was wonderful.

The dance, conceived and arranged by Manjari Chaturvedi (who has begun this new style), was very moving, partly because of her innate grace and partly due to the powerful qawwals from Lucknow, who, through their music, seemed to be beseeching God himself to come down upon the stage. Kathak lends itself well to this form of expression because it naturally has a lot of whirling, akin to that done by Sufi dervishes.

Apparently, this annual programme began last year and it attempts to continue for 22 years, to celebrate the 22 Sufi saints of Delhi. This year, they were focussing on Nizamuddin Aulia (through Amir Khusro's compositions), which was an added treat for me because I love the poetry of Khusro - it is simple and striking (often misleadingly simple) - accessible to all but containing deep spiritual reminders for those who choose to probe beneath the surface. One of my favourites is a two line composition -

Khusrau darya prem ka, ulti wa ki dhaar,
Jo utra so doob gaya, jo dooba so paar.

Oh Khusrau, the river of love
Runs in strange directions.
One who enters it drowns,
And one who drowns, gets across.

This was not sung, but many of his other well known verses were, and by the end of the evening we were all inundated with the music and dance, and walked out rather thoughtfully, past the temple which was now lit up against the dark sky.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Too Early for the Sky

There is so much poetry in songs; we sometimes forget because there is so much else in them too - the music, the voices. The moods they evoke are because of the words but often times it is the way the songs are sung. Happy songs can leave a trace of lingering wistfulness and sometimes, sad songs rekindle memories of hope while burying the past. This is strikingly evident in Johnny Clegg's South African songs - both with his original partner, Sipho Mchunu and their band, Juluka, and later, with his newer band, Savuka.

I had written a little earlier about the magical pairing of Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu ( Blog dated June 12, 2010),

As I sit and listen to their songs again, I am moved by the strength and positivity they emanate while singing about grave and heartbreaking descriptions of Africa - songs of sadness accepted in a matter of fact manner, but not with resignation. Songs of protest, of justice, of determination, songs of the spirit of men and things beyond. While hearing them, one realizes that these are songs that could only have been written by people of an African country and somehow it is difficult to compare them to the usual songs bemoaning or exulting in the state of the world or one's love life (which is what one often hears!)

I was drawn to the lyrics initially by a song titled 'Too Early for the Sky'. I just couldn't imagine how one could be too early for something that is always there, until I listened carefully-

"I nearly disappeared into the mouth of a crocodile
I nearly touched the rain deep in the heaven on high
I could have been a sad piece of news on the radio
But you remembered me 'cause I'm not ready to go
Oh Halala, I'm home, looks like I've made it, Oh Halalo
Oh Halala, Oh Halala Ngasinda, Oh Halalo

I'm too early for the sky
Wenkunku wami wangisindisa mina
(Oh my Lord, you spared me)

Somewhere some grey computer nearly closed my file
This could have been the last time I ever saw you smile
The darkest night nearly swallowed up my eyes
But you remembered me 'cause I'm not ready for the sky
Oh Halala, I'm home, looks like I've made it, Oh Halalo
Oh Halala, Oh Halala Ngasinda, Oh Halalo

I'm too early for the sky
Wenkunku wami wangisindisa mina
(Oh my Lord, you spared me)"

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Complex World of Prawn Cocktails

Crustaceans! Crustaceans! Or perhaps I should say "Humans! Humans!" in a bemused sort of way, wondering at how complicated it seemed to get a recipe for classic prawn cocktail. I realized, after a few aborted internet searches, that the word 'classic' should be deleted from this endeavour for it is meaningless without context. Classic, in India, could mean things dating back three thousand years but in America, things might be viewed in a different light.

So, back to the task in hand - a recipe for prawn cocktail. And back to the timeless question of semantics - Is it prawn or shrimp? The Oxford food dictionary kindly informed me that it was both.

And so, I began with shrimp and its world, which is one undoubtedly inhabited by my hero Perry Mason. Shrimp cocktail brought to mind a world of intimate dinners in the 'Golden Goose', where shrimp cocktail and martinis would inevitably be followed by a dance with Della while the steak and potatoes were being grilled to perfection. Or, on occasion, those lavish Texan dinners with discrete clinking of ice and not so discrete conversation.

The trouble was that I hadn't realized that the American Shrimp Cocktail is intrinsically different from the British counterpart. My mind refused to accept a shrimp cocktail recipe that lacked the divine ingredient - mayonnaise. Shrimp and tomatoes and all kinds of flavourings - no thank you! The accent on tomato made me wonder - was this originally a Mexican recipe? Opening my large (and authentic though contemporary!) Mexican cookbook, I found there was a recipe for shrimp cocktail, but it lacked tomato, instead it had large doses of mayonnaise and avocado...

The internet (a refined search!) provided some recipes from Britan and a large number from elsewhere (including India). There were fancy twists and new seasonings (chilly powder for instance), so I rejected these.

Back to good old books - my last resort. A search of all the cookbooks I possessed revealed one that contained this recipe - The Cookery Year, an old, wonderful Reader's Digest publication. There it was - prawn cocktail - in all its uncomplex glory. A vision rose before my eyes, of the India International Centre in Delhi - its dining hall and familiar waiters (especially the one with the large moustaches). Silver bowls filled to the brim with prawns, lettuce, delicious cocktail sauce, boiled eggs and a slice of lemon. Kingfisher beer or vodka and tonic and much animated conversation while waiting for the next course - Chicken Kiev or Tandoori Pomfret.

Reassured that I could now recreate this cocktail world at home (at least the crustacean part of it), I sat down and wrote out my shopping list.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reading 'Letters to a Young Poet'

I am going through, very slowly, translations of Rainer Maria Rilke's letters to an aspiring poet, Franz Xaver Kappus, in the early twentieth century; these have been translated and bundled together in a book 'Letters to a Young Poet'. As the introduction aptly reminds us, they could as well be titled 'Letters from a Young Poet' for the poet Rilke had a tremendous impact on German poetry.

The letters, reflections of some of his poems, are at times dark and disturbing, at other moments, revealing and spiritually profound. He talks of writing, life, the essential creativity of the spirit, the inevitability of solitude and how to accept it, and more. The words seems to spring right from his heart and flow out in a compelling torrent - this is what makes the book haunting and thought provoking. He writes at the end of the first letter:

"What else should I say to you? I think everything has been emphasized as it should be; and all I wanted to do in the end was advise you to go through your development quietly and seriously; you cannot disrupt it more than by looking outwards and expecting answers from without to questions that only your innermost instinct in your quietest moments will perhaps be able to answer."

And, later-

"Make use of whatever you find about you to express yourself, the images from your dreams and the things in your memory. If your everyday life seems to lack material, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to summon up its riches; for there is no lack for him who creates and no poor, trivial place."

We have only to read some of Rilke's poems to see this (though something is probably lost in translation)-

A Walk

My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave...
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.

(Translated by Robert Bly)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Yogasanas : An Inward Transition

Moving inwards is the ultimate aim of a yoga student and, initially, many decide they are not quite ready for this : they need to wait until they are more qualified or more relaxed or ready to begin the pranayama (breathing techniques) or meditation before they move inwards. The beginning stages of the practice, especially the asanas (postures), seem so outwardly oriented, apparently focussing on the body, that many people dismiss them or overdo them for this reason.

There is an essential need to strengthen and tone the body even for those interested only in the mind. Meditation requires a stillness that cannot be achieved until the body can be quietened - those muscular spasms, nervous jerks and the drooping of the spine will hinder a long, uninterrupted session of meditation. On the other hand, those interested in relaxing the body first may spend long hours lying down in a particular position, trying to accomplish this, while their minds are churning away, wasting large amounts of energy. Asanas are an unusual technique, dynamic by nature, but providing tremendous opportunity to work internally at subtle levels.

Initially, of course, one struggles just to attain a particular posture and be comfortable in it. One should keep in mind that one is only attempting the asana at this stage (footnote 1). Mastering an asana takes time and works at different levels - the joints, nerves and muscles (which make themselves painfully felt!), the breathing, the mind, the energy flow and eventually the spirit (these also make themselves felt but in a different way) (footnote 2). The transition from an outer movement to an inner one comes when one begins to focus on inner aspects - initially the bandhas (internal muscular locks), the breath which changes as different parts are extended or squeezed and finally the mind, which must be completely free of thoughts. This is attempted by closing the eyes after attaining stability in each pose and looking not on the specific point that each pose demands, but within, to the heart instead. There is an immediate withdrawal of energy from the mind and external senses and an inward channelizing which brings a deeper level of relaxation than the physical movements themselves. You feel a sense of calm and well-being and begin to focus on messages from the heart and the breath; stray and unwanted thoughts are easily dispelled, rigid mental patterns broken (footnote 3).

This paves the way for breathing and meditation techniques which require one to focus on internal aspects while the body is kept still. Each method brings its own satisfaction but the exhilaration of gradually allowing the body to realize its potential, while remaining oblivious to the outer world (as much as possible!) is unique.

Footnotes from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:
1) "Sthirasukhamasanam" (Yoga sutra 2.46) - Asana is stability of the body, steadiness of the mind and a state of ease of the spirit.

2) "Prayatna saithilya ananta samapattibhyam" (Yoga sutra 2.47) - Perfection in an asana is attained when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached.

3) "Tatah dvandvah anabhighatah" (Yoga sutra 2.48) - From then on, the practitioner is untroubled by dualities (external influences).

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Baking Rugelach And More

When I opened my baking book and selected some recipes for a baking session at home yesterday, I had no idea what I had let myself in for! My large oven refused to cooperate, so a one-day baking indulgence got stretched to a two-day concentrated affair, as my trusty toaster oven stepped in to substitute. Working in Indian conditions also added some unexpected excitement to the process.

Interestingly, without my knowing it at the time, both recipes were Ashkenazic Jewish in origin. I began by making challah, a wonderful soft, braided loaf that tastes heavenly even if the braids don't quite come out in the right shape after rising. I had a lot of problems with getting the perfect shape and finally realized that there are subtleties to the braiding - the number of strands one can use and also the shape of the individual strands. I realized that the strand must not be uniform in thickness but considerably thicker in the middle, a bit like a crocodile! And while braiding, the dough looked to me just like three crocs piled one on top of the other, like we see them sometimes, when they are sunning themselves. After the first loaf went in, I remembered I had forgotten to add salt, but all was not lost! Indian butter is fairly salty and for good measure I sprinkled a bit of salt over the surface of the second loaf, which made it look arty! This arty look, alas, was lost by the morning, as the salt had absorbed some moisture and dissolved in tiny patches...

The next recipe was a little more ambitious, attempted because of the sudden appearance of cream cheese in the market. Local cream cheese (though very good) is almost never seen, perhaps there are not enough consumers here. It appears one every decade or so and then I buy a few packets and try some different recipes with them. Rugelach was on the top of my list - it is a tender pastry filled with dried fruit and nuts, rolled up and baked. It began smoothly - making the dough was quite simple. But when I had to deal with the filling, things got a bit sticky. For one thing, I was using an American cookbook (Baking with Julia) and American dried fruit are quite different from the Indian ones! The introduction to the recipe was tempting - "...And the filling - layer after layer of wonderful dried fruits and fruit butter. Don't skimp on the quality of the filling, nor on the variety, for this is what makes the cookies so remarkable. The dough is spread with very thick prune or apricot butter (known as levkar), either homemade or store-bought, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, studded with nuts, and strewn with plump, moist pieces of dried fruit. Absolutely excessive, but exceedingly good."

Well, there was no question of buying levkar here, so I got down to making it with tiny Himalayan apricots. I forgot to look closely at the key word ("thick"), so the paste just dribbled all over the dough. We also don't find many of the nuts used in American cooking (especially hazelnuts) so I added some cashews. I also found the flavours of all the dry fruit when mixed together overwhelming, so midway I threw out all the dates! Rolling the pastry lengthwise was impossible but I managed breadthwise and somehow transferred it to a baking sheet- it was a very gluey gloop! I didn't care too much, knowing that food chemistry would come to my rescue; I generally believe that if the ingredients are good, things will taste fine even if they don't look appealing!

So I carried on, slicing, glazing, sprinkling that home-made cinnamon sugar on them and baking. As I had only a small oven, I couldn't space them out, but they looked fine eventually and I decided that at worst I would just have to re-baked them (like biscotti).


They smelt yummy while baking - the monkeys thought so as well (they came in a large group and some of them began pounding at the windows making small growly sounds)! An additional instruction to add to Indian cookbooks -"Keep the windows and doors closed while baking"!

Am weary and worn! But we now have this wonderful bread and rugelach (yes! they do taste good - once they have cooled)!

(While reading about rugelach, I learned that the pastry was traditionally leavened with yeast or sour cream and cream cheese doughs are an American innovation. This makes more sense to me, flavour wise and also because I feel the cream cheese dough is too rich for something like this. I'm quite determined to make more batches in the future with more traditional recipes and also to simplify the combinations of dried fruit and nuts. It seems like this would be a delicious after-yoga breakfast, with a cup of steaming tea!)

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Great Sadness Among the Trees of Bangalore

"...'Diesel fuel in an ordinary engine,' he said, as he entered her office, wiping his hands on a large piece of lint. 'Would you believe it, Mma Ramotswe? That... that silly boy, the younger one, put diesel fuel into the tank of a non-diesel vehicle. Now we have to drain everything out and try to clean the whole thing up.'
'I'm sorry,' said Mma Ramotswe. 'But I am not surprised.' She paused for a moment. 'What will happen to them? What will happen when they are working somewhere else - somewhere where there is no longer a kind person like you to watch over them?'
Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni shrugged. 'They will ruin cars left, right and centre,' he said. 'That is what will happen to them. There will be great sadness among the cars of Botswana.'
Mma Ramotswe shook her head. Then, on a sudden impulse, and without thinking at all why she should say this, she asked, 'And what will happen to us, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni?'"
(A Great Sadness among the Cars of Botswana, from The Full Cupboard of Life, by Alexander McCall Smith)

What happens to trees in growing cities when there are no longer kind people watching over them? Or kind Gods? Or benevolent officials? A great sadness has filled the trees of Bangalore and, closer to home, the trees of the campus where I live.

Just outside our campus, a whole row of trees were cut down illegally for 'road widening'. Perhaps they had to go, in the interests of the city planners, but they were perched on the slopes of a road abutting a tank and it is hard to see how this road can be easily widened. The entire neighbourhood protested and several people were hauled to the police station. A few tree lovers actually camped on the high branches of the trees for some days. Before the matter could be legally resolved, the municipal corporation began an auction and ultimately hacked off the trees in the dead of the night on a weekend. Why the haste?

The city looks bare and dusty and I have been witnessing scenes of the trees' despair. Just behind my house lived a jackfruit tree. A large, magnificent creature that provided a temporary resting place for clouds of tiny birds, squirrels, monkeys and bats. Armies of red ants sewed its leaves together to make nests and spiders scurried along its bark. It also provided at least a dozen gigantic jackfruit that would feed the entire neighbourhood. One Sunday evening I even saw some jackfruit thieves, bringing down the large fruit and running off with them. (Despite this) everyone seemed happy.

Suddenly last week, someone called the campus maintenance and the usual band of axe wielding goons (somewhat like Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni's apprentices) appeared to 'prune' the tree, which implied that they would hack every branch within reach and then take the rest of the day off. The tree now stands, branchless with protruding stumps. Barely a leaf is left on it and the hacked off branches are carelessly strewn all round the base. Red ants have swarmed into our house and a deadly silence fills the area behind. But everyone seems oblivious. The neighbours walk past, and around, without a glance or word. It's just a tree and perhaps they were not fond of jackfruit anyway.

The same scene greeted me this morning at my yoga class. The class was full after a long time and I slipped into a corner and drew back the curtain. Instead of the leafy jackfruit and mango trees, I saw a wall of concrete, grey and smooth and characterless. Instead of the breeze, there was a smell of dust. I drew back in shock, glanced at the yoga teacher and he nodded to confirm my suspicion. The window could no more be opened during the yoga practice.

What happens to cities growing at this pace? A tremendous happiness fills the hearts of the city 'planners' and builders, employers and do-ers and a great sadness fills the small green spots and the laid back little watering holes of local inhabitants. The soul is going out of Bangalore's trees. The animal are scurrying away. And then, I wonder, what happens to us? Will we find other sources of gentleness and respite and beauty? I hope so but I have some doubts.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Thoughts of Tea

I'm unpacking an old tea set (or what remains of it), salvaged and brought back from my family home, and my thoughts turn simply and naturally to tea. Surprisingly I have been discussing tea for some days now with my family, in different contexts.

With my husband, because our supply of Darjeeling tea (which is the Indian tea that we like best) is running low and we need to replenish our supply. With my mother in law, because she has been looking in vain for a brown English tea pot (or for that matter any well made teapot) and can only find strange designerware in shops. I tell her that these days most people don't have time for teapots and that in recent years we have only had 'mixed tea' in people's houses (the traditional Indian style where tea, milk and sugar are boiled together and served directly in cups) and she feels that it is the end of the 'plantation generation' of tea drinkers.

My family, living far from plantations, greatly enjoyed their cuppas and had all sizes of teapots. I can still remember my relatives instructing the servants as to whether to use the 'chhoti ketli' (small kettle) or 'badi ketli' (big kettle) depending on the number of tea drinkers present. Just yesterday, my father was wondering what to take as a housewarming gift for a friend and I automatically suggested an embroidered tea cosy and tray cloth set. Having thought a little more though, I felt that people no longer use these things and it might be a waste. My father sighed and said that he would rather keep whatever sets he had for his own use. (There is a little history behind this. My maternal grandmother, post-partition, had set up a small enterprise for the wives of factory employees, where she taught them embroidery. Thus our houses have always been filled with embroidered stuff, tea cosy sets being high on the list and always being handed out to friends and relatives). So... things are changing, I reluctantly admit to myself. We are all now going through tea thing troubles.

I am not a compulsive tea drinker but I welcome a cup of light tea in the mornings (and on cold, rainy days, in the evenings as well). However, more than that, I enjoy the ritual of tea - sitting together, pouring it out and watching it steam over delicate china cups, sniffing the aroma and sipping it gradually. I also await the delightful teatime snacks (served when we have company). If we are in the mood for something substantial, it is crusty samosas filled with mashed potatoes and peas (and the occasional raisin) and crisp, slender and sweet jalebis bought from our neighbourhood sweetshop. For a somewhat more elegant tea, it would be delicate sandwiches, perhaps cucumber or chutney (in India, chutney generally implies a delicious, green concoction - a combination of mint and coriander leaves ground together with a hint of green chilly or lemon and salt) and pakoras (sliced vegetables dipped in gram flour and fried) or fish fingers - we need something hot to munch on otherwise we are really not quite content. In Kolkata, we might be offered prawn cutlets (gigantic prawns that are flattened, marinated, crumbed and fried) or luchis and alur dom (poories and tiny potatoes cooked in a mild, thickish sauce) (and on occasion, even both!) along with the mishti (sweet stuff) that Bengali meals are incomplete without.

It's not just the eating and drinking (though that's great fun) but the other aspects too - changing into clean, crisp clothes and visiting people in the evenings, sitting down together and chatting about nothing very essential- taking a few hours off from one's 'prime time schedule' to unwind and spend time with people whose company we enjoy.

Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but I would like to organize some tea parties in the days to come. I gently wash the tea set and it lies in the kitchen, slowly drying, nodding its approval and encouragement.
#Header1_headerimg { margin: 0px auto }