Friday, January 24, 2014

A Time For Eating

Delhi's grey damp days do not deter me from walking - the air is fresh and icy and the damp gets into every crevice it can find.  But at the end of long walks I come home and help myself to a little bit (or more!) of the wonderful food that winter brings.  Everything is so plentiful right now that I can't imagine that it will all be gone in just another month, when spring brings its own special things.

Right now we are eating carrots in all forms - deep red, sweet winter carrots in salads as we bask in the occasional sunshine (along with this we have white or red radishes, which are particularly mild at this time).  Carrots with peas, carrots with methi (fenugreek greens), carrot juice and delicious carrot halwa (which is never the same when made with regular orange carrots - in fact it is never really made at any other time of the year except in restaurants).  Black carrots, fermented to make a unique winter drink - kanji- which gets its zing from the fermentation and a heady flavour from the carrots to which rock salt and pounded mustard have been added.  It begins as a deep blue liquid and gradually turns deep pink as the acid builds up.  Beetroots, which are also plentiful now, are sometimes used when black carrots are not available.

Winter is always good for greens - an endless variety that can be stir fried (on their own or with potatoes or paneer), kneaded into a dough and used to make rotis.  They can also be made into pullaos with rice, added to lentils and more.  Spinach, fenugreek greens and others which have no English names that I know of.  The mustard greens are now losing their sweetness as they mature and flower; the seeds will later be crushed for oil.  We have the last of them this week, cooked thick and served with thin flat corn bread (makki ki roti), lots of chopped ginger and butter on the side.  A hearty meal.

Peas are especially sweet and tender and are thrown into almost any conceivable dish -  pullaos, curries, dry vegetables. stuffings for breads that are pan fried or deep fried.  My favourite is mattar paneer - peas and cubes of paneer (a kind of homemade lemony cheese) in a light curry.  They also go well with mushrooms, which are plentiful in the winter.

This is also the season for palm jaggery (an eastern Indian specialty) that is freshly tapped and concentrated by boiling the juices.  This imparts a distinct dark colour and delicious flavour to sweets.  I just like to scrape off a little bit and add it to homemade curd.  Apart from this, many other sweets are made, ostensibly to keep off the winter cold - piping hot halwas oozing with ghee (clarified butter) and nuts, thick milky concoctions with saffron, pista or almonds sprinkled in, sheets of peanuts or sesame seeds bound together with sugar or jaggery syrup - crisp and crackly or soft and flaky depending on the consistency.  And when one is tired of all the sweetness, there are always the savouries - roasted nuts, vegetables dipped in gram flour and fried, little salted and spiced snacks made with different kinds of flour and fried till they are crisp and samosas stuffed with potatoes and peas - to be consumed with hot milky tea and much gossip on the side!  Perfect for those dark winter evenings.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Year Of Change

I'd like to begin by wishing my readers and friends a wonderful new year.  Annus mirabilis, a year of wonders, miracles and more.  I'd like to thank you for continuing to read my blog, considerably infrequent though it has been these last few months.  I have been taken over by a flurry of events at home and hospitals and have been unable to do justice to my blogging.  This situation may continue for a few months but I hope the blog will eventually pick up again, at least I will try (one of this year's resolutions!).

One of the reasons the blog is going so slow, as I explained to a friend, is that my life is currently submerged in trivia.  Not that I mind but I wouldn't want to inflict it on my readers.  "Write about the pursuit of trivia then", he suggested.  I turned this over in my mind for several weeks but it did not seem satisfactory enough.  This week, however, I realized I had to make some kind of change in the contents because my activities are more restricted for the time being.  To keep the blog going, I realized, that I would have to shift from fact based blogs to thought based ones (or a mix of the two).  This may test my writing skills and your patience, but let's see how it goes!

I am in Delhi for a few months.  It is supposedly a cold winter, a few degrees lower than usual.  The smog descended, as it does, but only for a few days.  Now it is sunny; winter holidays are still on, and parks are full of families and the ubiquitous couples.

I am staying in our family house, a mix of old and new structures.  I am staying in the room that my grandmother used to occupy, the oldest part of the house.  It looks onto a large verandah in front and a sunny strip of balcony behind.  A charming room, but there has been much work to do to make it comfortable and practical for me.  Wires are always a problem; we have been fixing the old wires in the bathroom to get enough light, working out a way of fixing night lights, reading lights and more.  The telephones in the room screech and crackle - more wires to be taped and fixed!  The room is quite cold in the winter; fortunately we now have new heaters which are perfect for gently heating rooms without drying the air out.

The problem with too comfortable a room temperature is- mosquitoes!  Yes!  Those days of mosquito-free winters is long gone.  Once the digging for the commonwealth games began (a couple of years ago I think), mosquitoes have filled this city, never to leave.  Now they linger outside and rush in wherever they find a warm spot.  Fortunately there are no epidemics these days but I know it is just a matter of time especially as the weather warms up.  Normally we use chemical repellents but I am trying to find natural means of keeping them out.  I begin with the chemicals, then clear the room of the sprayed air.  End up by lighting large sticks of citronella incense.  This works, but only some of the time.  Often, one or two remain - and one is enough to cause havoc at night.  Next week I plan to buy a local mix of camphor and herbs - the Bengali dhuno (which is used to create a dramatic smoky effect in the pujas) - and smoke the rooms every evening, the way it was done in our grandparents' time.

I spend time opening out drawers filled with old memories - many papers and scribbled notes lying forgotten for decades, which are no longer required.  Make a separate space for photographs, which are fluttering everywhere and spilling out of envelopes.  Air out the cupboards, line them with fresh paper and begin to unpack and stop living out of suitcases.  Make some changes so I can easily take care of my food requirements - buy a small juicer and some microwavable crockery (in this process I end up buying a porcelain dinner set for six - utterly useless for now but I hope to use it sometime in the unpredictable future.  Ah! the perils of shopping!).

The house is filled with workers as well - we are installing some new soundproof windows.  Noise levels in Delhi have risen tremendously and one can no longer open any window that faces the main road.  Fortunately one side of our house faces a park, but this year planes seem to fly overhead periodically.  These are loud but not too frequent.  Certainly nothing compared to the explosions from trucks when their tyres burst in front of our house - like bombs!

Well, we have been working away, my father and I, and I think in a week's time everything should be dealt with.  It's a pleasant way to begin the year - by scrubbing clean unwanted remnants of the past, mending and buttressing existing structures - and waiting for the new to step in!
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