Friday, August 31, 2012

Two Bengali Fish Curries

We rarely get good river fish in Bangalore; the little there is is cultured and I stay far away from it.  On weekends, we do get hauls from the eastern rivers, but I don't buy them in the monsoon season, which is the spawning time for many of the fish.  Thinking that the season might be over, I took a quick look in the market - and sure enough, there was a heap of tangra (small fish which are marinated in a green chutney and then fried in a besan (gram flour) batter), the usual rohu and katla (larger fish which are now cultivated - generally used for curries), small hilsa (a delicacy but one rarely finds the original, larger sized fish) and more.  I was drawn to the pile of pale pink, smooth skinned pabda - a fish with a delicate texture and flavour that my husband and I love to eat.

So pabda it was, and when I took it home I decided to divide it and make two curries - one with ginger and the other with mustard.  These curries are somewhat different from the usual onion - tomato kind - they have very little oil, almost no solid pastes and relatively large amounts of liquid.  Magically, the tiny bit of oil, the whole spices and the finely ground spice and liquid mixture comes together with the fish to form a delicious curry (which thickens on cooling due to the gelatin from the fish).  The spices are sharp but light enough not to mask the flavour of the fish.  This is the way I like it and the way I learnt it from Daya, our family cook in Kolkata.  In other homes or restaurants one might find heavier or oilier versions of these curries, which are also popular, but not to my taste.

The ingredients cannot be ground in blenders or electric grinders, so I pulled out my trusty grinding stone.  I did the ginger first and then the mustard (which is tricky as it often turns bitter- every cook has their own way and I grind it smooth with green chilly and salt).  The fish was coated in salt and turmeric (as is the Bengali way), then fried in very hot mustard oil.  Finally the curries were assembled - in mustard oil, with a sprinkling of onion seeds for the ginger and fenugreek seeds for the mustard curry.  I added a cup or two of water, a pinch of salt and finally the fish.  This was simmered slowly until the spices melded.  Interestingly, both curries look quite similar but the flavours, of course, are completely different.  The effects as well!  Ginger aids digestion and mustard is heavy on the stomach.

And now, I will have to select one of them for dinner tonight (it will be prudent to have the ginger)!  This will be served with steamed rice and fresh, garlicky spinach.

Fish with mustard

Fish with ginger

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Stray Garden Visitors

This has been a strange year for rains, half the country is flooded and the other half drought ridden.  In Bangalore we have had small showers periodically that have helped keep the heat away but there has been less rain than usual.  Now, towards the end of the season, the skies are suddenly filled with clouds and there are bursts and torrents of rain.  In between, the sun peeps out and there are moments of bright sunshine, leaving us all confused.  Do we keep the clothes out to dry or bring them in?  Do we need our sweaters or will it be too warm?  Can we step out without an umbrella or will we be caught in a passing shower?

The birds and insects seem all confused too.  Perhaps this is why they have been making short visits to our garden, to look around, forage or just to dry themselves and get their bearings.  Each time I step out I see something crawling or flying or sitting in the garden or on the trees around.  It is impossible to capture these moments in any way, especially as I end up startling the birds and causing the butterflies to gracefully drift away.  But I have captured perhaps a little of the mood of this season - the gentle millipede trundling around, the unusual insects - some that pay a solitary visit and some that come in swarms almost like flocks of birds.  The squirrels that are going crazy chasing each other up and down trees.

The orange aloe vera flowers that don't seem to mind the weather or swarms of insects.  The splash of white in the red ginger lily.  

I missed the koels, the parrots and the barbettes, which flew away as soon as I sighted them, but the bulbul was more placid and allowed me to take a picture as it sat looking around from its perch on the sandalwood tree.

Water droplets run off all the creepers and trees, some go down my neck as well, it's quite refreshing!  And then the sun comes out, suddenly all the colours change and it's a different world.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Life With Killer Wasps

We have a gigantic and continuously growing wasp nest outside our bedroom window.  While it provides an intriguing glimpse of the lives of these industrious insects, we are always aware that nothing but a plastic mesh separates them from us now.  For they have built all round the window frame, the iron grill and are busy trying to expand their home each day.  I think we are now left with no option but to remove the nest.  This is an unfortunate conflict of interest as they have no way of knowing where to stop and we have no method of communicating with them.

The reason it has come to this is as always, partly human.  We began our search for answers and options a month ago with our esteemed Ecological Sciences department.  It took some time to contact them for emails did not evoke a response.  We were not particularly concerned at this stage though I occasionally had to calm my maid (who would launch off into stories about how her kith and kin were painfully stung by bees and the enormous proportions their faces had acquired).  Most people we met advised us to 'knock it off' or 'spray it down'.  In the west, there are powerful sprays which shoot jets many feet high, dissolving entire structures.  Our friends promised to try and bring us some on their next trip.  But the next trip would probably be a year down the line.  The only person who nodded calmly was a fluffy looking elderly Parsi lady, our friend's mother, who lives on a large farm by herself.  "Yes, if you don't trouble them, they won't trouble you," she said and we left it at that.

Of course, the least we could do was to find out more about this specie.  And so, once more, it was to Ecological Sciences that we turned. Someone came to our house and told us that these were vespas, very aggressive wasps and bullies of the bee and wasp world.

We were now one step closer to Knowledge .  We now had a word to use in our internet searches and the inevitable question, "What do we do?"  We were told that someone called Ponnannaji dealt with these issues and we could try and contact him.

Vespa - the fierce yellow and black hornets that live from spring to late summer or fall, and do not occupy the same nest twice.  This is what the internet informed me.  It did not sound too bad and if we didn't trouble them, they wouldn't trouble us, I thought, reassured.  Meanwhile, relatives drifted in and out, muttering, "Oh how beautiful!" and "My parents had something like this for many years, they had no problems whatsoever!"  The internet however cautioned me that any smell (rotting wood, apples, pears..) could drive the vespas crazy.  Fortunately, these fruit are so expensive that until the season is well underway, we don't buy them.  And we would have to take our chances with rotting wood.

Time moved on and our search for Ponnannaji began.  This turned out to be difficult for the Ecological Sciences people didn't feel Ponnannaji was the right man for this task but couldn't think of anyone else other than the Security Officer.

Meanwhile, we had no problems with rotting wood (our window frames were falling off, but modern 'beading' does not rot in the same way as old huge Burma teak logs and the vespas didn't even know when we repaired our frames).  However, we were having a lot of trouble with light.  The wasps are very sensitive to artificial light.  So we could use the lights during the day but not at night or early morning otherwise they would begin buzzing and circling the plastic net, trying to enter the room.  This was not too much trouble for our hours are not very different from theirs, nonetheless, it was a constraint. And one day, we saw a huge number of wasps buzzing around, enlarging the various openings they had built.  We thought they might be leaving, but it was not to be.  The numbers grew and as they began building round all the obstacles, the buzzing and scraping sounds intensified and then we had to leave town for some work.

Now we are back and have just called the Security Officer, who started laughing on the telephone.  "The Ecological Sciences people are dealing with wasps everyday," he finally managed to say after his mirth had subsided.  "How can they not know what to do?"  Finally he informed us that this was not part of his job.  We had to contact the Estate Office, who would in turn call Pest Control.  Today is Friday and we are not quite sure when we will find a solution to our vespas.  I am a little sad but I will be relieved to have a clear window to the sky and a room devoid of buzzing sounds.

Note: As it turned out, Pest Control came immediately and sprayed something noxious on the hive, then broke it down.  Some wasps died and several flew away.  I also spent the day outdoors and it will take another couple of days before we can use the room.  A large and complex operation!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Indian Women Fight It Out At The Olympics

We have seen some truly uplifting performances at the Olypmics by a tiny number of Indian women!  It is hard for anyone to  excel in sports in India but often harder for women because of the age old questions, "Why bother?", "Who will marry you?" or "What difference will it make?"

It was wonderful to see Saina Nehwal bravely battling for the bronze medal (which she was awarded eventually as her opponent retired hurt).  Saina, the daughter of former badminton champions (in Haryana) has emerged as the foremost player in the country today.  She is the first Indian to win the World Junior Badminton Championships, a Super Series Tournament and is also the first Indian to win an Olympic medal in badminton.

Several years ago she had mentioned in a newspaper interview that her grandmother was very disappointed after she was born because she wanted a boy in the family.  (Haryana has a particularly strong patriarchal system and one of the highest rates of female infanticide in the country).  Saina mentioned this in a matter of fact way, with the aim (she said) of encouraging other girls who might have gone through similar moments in their lives.  She is currently in Hyderabad and has been training with the award winning coach (and former badminton player) Pullela Gopichand.

Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom, the diminutive boxer from Manipur, who was forced to fight above her weight category (which is 46-48 kg, but the lowest category in the Olympics was 51 kg) has also qualified for a bronze medal.  She comes from a remote village in Manipur (north eastern India), from a  family of labourers.  She left home thirteen years ago to train as a boxer.  Her parents have been supportive (her father selling a cow to fund her training and her mother providing emotional stability through the years).  Her father did ask, "Who will marry you when you ruin your face?" but relented and sure enough someone did marry her and has been helping her run a small boxing academy in Manipur!  She has two little boys and must be looking forward to getting back to them after all the fights.

Both Saina and Mary Kom have been very nice to watch in the Olympics - skillful, quick - and merciless when required!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

As I Watch The Olympics

These are just a few thoughts that come to my mind as I watch the ongoing Olympic games.

The gymnastics is just over and I have not found a replay of the finals on youtube, I suppose these videos will put be up later.  Though I have never been able to tumble and toss myself in the air, I like to watch this event to see how the gymnasts deal with making swift, drastic movements.  I couldn't help comparing this to yoga, though, of course, there are fundamental differences.  All movements in yoga are slow and steady and the final positions are held for some time; a perfect posture is defined as one of comfort and stability.  However, there are other principles which would be of use to gymnasts ( and which are probably taught to them).

One important aspect is the emphasis on relaxing the body completely and leaving the mind empty.  This is hard enough to practice in a quiet room and would be almost impossible to achieve in a competitive arena.  ( In the case of yoga, however, the emphasis is never on achieving a particular goal but on continuously striving towards it and finding one's one equilibrium).

While watching the women's artistic gymnastic qualifiers, I couldn't help noticing the body language of the participants and the coaches, which varied noticeably between countries (and continents).  This being the Olympics, it was natural for the gymnasts to constantly check their individual scores in each event, but I think that this might be something best left to the coaches to keep track of and worry about.  There was quite some tension involved during these breaks, the physical part evident in the form of the clenching of fists, tightening of muscles (especially the facial muscles) etc.  These games are as much a contest of the mind as of the body, and I think it would help to try and keep one's natural rhythm going as much as possible instead of having it broken up by a lot of extraneous interruptions.  Of course, this is easier said than done and I'm sure the gymnasts know (better than me) what they are doing!  But sometimes, political and social pressures tend to dominate.

This is an aspect that perhaps every yoga student eventually comes to confront as well and one of the solutions offered is to remember that you are the ultimate witness.  Eventually (or at some level) there is no one who knows better than you your internal state and the direction you need to take.  In physical terms this means being transparent to or just "blanking out" external (and sometimes, internal) noises and letting your body move without preconceived notions.  After watching all the recent qualifiers, I went back to see Nadia Comaneci's 1976 performance, when the Romanian took Russia by surprise.  Nadia's performance is full of poise and she seems to move effortlessly, in tune to an inner natural rhythm that is rarely seen (of course, perhaps times are more competitive and technical these days).  I am attaching a small recording of hers that appears to be part of a featured video for the London games.

Moving on, the track and field events have begun and it's always amazing how the long distance running and steeplechase events are dominated by east Africa.  We saw some of the champion marathon runners in Bangalore a couple of years ago.  They had flown in for the Bangalore marathon and we happened to be dining in the restaurant that they were at, the night before the race.  They all looked so skinny and were tucking into large amounts of noodles, white bread and chicken.  A ghastly dinner but one that worked well, for they breezed through the run the following day!  It's always nice to watch them and their exciting finishes as they seem to fly over the track at the end.

The main difference between these athletes and their competitors is that some of the top runners comfortably start out towards the end of the line, where it is uncrowded.  They slowly work their way to the beginning, putting in a burst of sustainable speed just at the last round.  They seem to have the confidence that comes of knowing their ability and speed, of being sure they will be able to cover any gap that arises.  This was never more evident than in the first round of the men's 3000 m steeplechase held yesterday.  Ezekiel Kemboi (of Kenya) worked his way up from the very end to come second, almost relaxing and allowing (it seemed) Roba Gari (of Ethiopia) to finish first.  They will meet again in the finals!  The Kenyans have dominated this event for the past seven Olympic games.  Yesterday, Tirunesh Dibaba (of Ethiopia) won the women's 10,000 m final, by a long margin.  She is the first woman to win two consecutive golds in this event.  She has not been competitively running for the whole of last year and is not at her best currently.

On the home front, India is doing all right I think (though coming in for a lot of criticism, as always).  To win a large number of medals, one needs a critical mass of talent -something India has not been able to gather so far.  Though we are a country of many millions, a very tiny number have access to good sports training.  We are also not a sports oriented nation; cricket seems to be the game of choice, where most of the team members stand around for long periods not doing much (perhaps I am a trifle harsh here)!

Archery (and to an extent) shooting are tricky events, driven by local conditions and experience and though we have lost in archery, we have done well in shooting.

Saina Nehwal, the badminton champion has lost to the first seed, Chinese Wang Yihan, in the semi-finals.  Saina is a strong and consistent player and perhaps the biggest compliment to her is the fact that the Chinese team was apparently selected primarily based on their ranking against her as she was their main rival in the sport.

The Indian boxers are falling out one by one, but Vijender Singh, competing in his third Olympic games, has managed to enter the quarter finals after a close match against American Terrell Gausha.

As for hockey - the team has lived up to its unpredictability.  Both the coach and the spectators watch in amazement (and dismay) - what is the men's team doing on the field - and why???  Yoga has no easy answers to this!

As the games roll on, I don't dwell too much on the winners and losers, often (but not always!) there is very little to choose from among the top two or three.  It's nice just to be able to watch the result of so much talent and training coming together during these few days.
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