Wednesday, December 14, 2016

These Books We Love

My son began pulling out books from the bookshelf just about when he started crawling, and there has been no looking back since.  The lowest two shelves of our bookshelf are filled with his books; he reads them as well as many of ours which fill the other shelves (now he can stand on his toes and pull them out!).

If you need to buy books for children between two and four years of age (though I think we started reading earlier), here are some of our favourites apart from the old classics (which I also mention below) -

Old favourites are- Michael Bond ('Paddington', stories about a bear from darkest Peru, who my son loves to emulate!), A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard (Winnie-the-Pooh) - we began with all of Pooh's songs (The more it snows/Tiddley Pom/ The more it goes/ Tiddley Pom/ The more it goes/ Tiddley Pom/ On snowing..).  Margaret Rey and H. A. Rey (Curious George ("This is Nayan.  He lived in Bangalore.  He was a good little monkey and always very curious...").  Dr. Seuss (The Cat In The Hat is truly a classic that no child or parent perhaps gets tired of.  For younger readers, I recommend Fox in Socks and for the in between ages, Green Eggs And Ham).  

My friend Nora introduced us to two authors that Nayan likes enormously- Richard Scarry (What Do People Do All Day) - "Hello tanker, are you lost?  No Nayan, I'm just filling some petrol in the underground tank of the petrol pump."  Lauren Child (the Charlie and Lola series)- "I completely love winter - can I go skiing, Mummy?" or "Can I have some orange twiglets from Jupiter (carrots)?"

If there is any one publisher I can mention (based on the number of books we buy from each publisher), it would be Walker Books, but of course, there are many, many others in the market.

Apart from this list, here are some less known books that you may like to explore; I am pasting two pictures from each book (the cover and one inside page).

1) The Tiger Skin Rug - one of our utmost favourites.  Written and illustrated by an award winning British author, it is reminiscent of old Indian folk tales that were written in the sixties and seventies, and has wonderful illustrations to match.






2) Cloud Tea Monkeys - written and published in England, set in the tea plantations of East India at a time when Queens and Royal Tea Tasters abounded.  Magically illustrated..





 3) Library Lion - Set in days when libraries were wondrous places (in India, most aren't any more), this is a lovely way to remind children that sometimes there is a good reason to break rules.




4) 10 Minutes till Bedtime - A book without words, from a fun author and illustrator about a subject all children (and parents) can relate to!  (Another of Peggy Rathmann's books, Goodnight Gorilla, again without words, is a terrific way to introduce babies to books).




5) The Rainbow Bear - A lyrical story about a bear who chases rainbows, with lots of Native American wisdom thrown in (beauty can sometimes be dangerous) and wondrous pictures.  I'm amazed my son likes it so much at this age, but he does.



6) Cheer Up Your Teddy Bear, EMILY BROWN!  Whacky and wonderfully flowing, my son loves to chant out aloud from this book - "Pooooor me, Poooor me, poor little sad little wet little me!  I'm a lonely only bear and I'm feeling very blue..."  After reading this, he also wants to visit the Outback in Australia...



 7) The Snowman - A timeless classic, but one that's oft forgotten.  Raymond Briggs apparently wanted to convey the essence of life and death through this picture-based story.  My son accepts death and the melting away of magical moments in a matter of fact way while reading this book and re-lives the excitement of flying with the snowman at night just before he drops off to sleep ("I can fly...?")


Tones of Autumn



Yesterday we went to see Carpet Stories, Danny Mehra's beautiful exhibition of rare tribal carpets (and ended up buying yet another of them!).  These carpets have a way of transporting one to faintly familiar yet unknown and unencountered worlds. A reminder of the vast sky above and the bountiful and sometimes harsh land around us. Of perhaps a simpler life, more rooted to the natural world.


We selected a carpet that had a beautiful combination of unusual, soft colours, that reminded me of autumn.  Blue skies, pink hued leaves, browns and mustardy yellows.  Not the freshness of spring, not the heat of summer and not the bareness of winter.  Just a soft, mellowing season of change.

After that we went across the road for dinner.  Ate slow cooked lamb with tiny carrots and baby potatoes and hand made ravioli with light creamy pesto.  The band next door was playing 'Autumn Leaves' and the gentle notes drifted in (fortunately it was instrumental; no one can sing it quite like Edith Piaf).  All in all, it was a very satisfying, very autumnal day, at the beginning of winter!

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=n2s2tPORlW4


Friday, December 2, 2016

"Hallo!" Said The Dandelion



The nursery (the plant kind) is one of our favourite haunts.  To me it seems the perfect playground and a splendid way to teach children about life around us.



Today, a cloudy kind of day, was perfect for walking around, talking to the plants and animals we happened to meet on the way.

"Hallo!" said the Dandelion, and "Hallo!" said Nayan, "Are you lost?"

"No, I'm just standing here, looking at the sky," said the Dandelion.  "Have you seen the sky, Nayan?"

"Yes, it's beautiful, full of big trees!"



"Look - there are the wheelbarrows," said Nayan, pointing excitedly.



"And there are the mountains of mud," said Mummy.  "Be careful, the gardeners have worked hard to make them."



"Let's go to the lily pond," said Nayan.

"We'll go through the poinsettias," said Mummy.  "I think they are growing them for Christmas."



"Look at the lily pond!" said Nayan.  "Those leaves are upside down."

"Yes, the leaves are upside down, " said Mummy.  "They need to look up at the sun so they can make their food."

"You can eat chlorophyll?" asked Nayan.

"Yes, in spinach and methi and lettuce," said Mummy.

"And grape leaves?"

"Yes."

"I want to eat grape leaves!" declared Nayan.

"Let's put the lily leaves right side up," said Mummy.  And so we did.



"I want to touch big water," said Nayan after this was done.

"Let's go to the fish pond," suggested Mummy.




"What should we do next?" wondered Mummy.

"Let's see the ferns!" said Nayan.

"And the orchids!  And the pink flowers!" said Mummy.



And so we walked along, sniffing and looking and carefully touching the plants along the way.

"Let's sit on the stony bench for two minutes," said Nayan.



And so we rested on a weathered plank of granite hidden away in a shaded nook.

"Hallo Crocodile," said Nayan.  "You can come up here but it's a bit prickly."

"And a bit thorny," agreed Mummy.

"No thank you, Nayan," said Crocodile.  "I think I'll rest in the musty, dusty, muddy, damp moss."

"I want to eat green drops but they are toxic!" said Nayan suddenly, looking at some berries.

"That's right!" exclaimed Mummy.  "How about some yellow pineapple when we get home?"

"How about some brown chiku when we get home?" asked Nayan.

And so, in pleasant anticipation, we sauntered back home.






Sunday, November 20, 2016

Small Poems

My son seems to spend his time whirling together all the words he has heard and stringing them into unlikely verses, which sound very poetic as he says them aloud.  His world revolves around machines and motion (and food!) so these figure most often in his conversation.  Here are a few examples of the little bits of poetry-

Oh, look, that silly excavator
Is going on the escalator..

Now, the tanker sings 
A penne song
And a benne song
And a fusilli song
And a spaghetti song
And songs of all
The food he is eating

That spaghetti 
Has electricity!

Now that earth is spinning
And gravity is spinning
Like a top.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Catching Sunny Spots

There is a widespread sense of bewilderment at unfolding political events around the world (including our very own country where the government declared overnight that Indian currency of high denominations will be invalid henceforth until new notes are issued).  People are scrambling to the banks and elsewhere, and no one at the receiving end is happy with this.

Despite this chaos, at the personal level, there have been many small sunny spots in my life.  I apologise for taking so long to write a blog, but I just had no time and energy!

We spent the days before Diwali with family in Delhi - doting grandparents, aunts, cooks and drivers from my little son's perspective more than made up for the hazy skies and heavy traffic.  It was nice to catch up on people's news but for me the biggest blessing came in the form of pain relieving pills, which my sister in law presented me (the best Diwali gift I ever received!).  Apparently she has been suffering from migraines (similarly triggered) for ages and this basic pill, a combination of caffeine and pain killers, is very effective.  In the medical reviews I read, several people said that it had changed their lives, and I agree.  I realize now how much of my physical energy (apart from a sense of worry and foreboding that would creep into my mind) was going into just dealing with the pain.  In my mind, my visualization has worked wonders!

Another high point for me was talking to our old cook again.  He is a master chef and was with us for many years, providing perfectly cooked (and served) meals and in particular, nourishing and tasty food for me during and after my pregnancy.  He was diagnosed with throat cancer over a year ago and we took him for radiation and chemotherapy, which he withstood courageously.  But the aftermath left him unable to eat any solids.  I have just introduced him to a reassuring and competent Ayurvedic doctor (not in a hurry and without any room full of intimidating equipment and spiel on how if it won't kill you it'll make you stronger) to help relieve the side effects of the allopathic treatment.  Our cook is mentally more positive and cheerful after many months and we are all hoping for the best.

Soon after we returned to Bangalore, I read about a story writing contest (for children's fiction).  For a couple of months now, I have been yearning to write (and my mind is full of stories that I haven't had a chance to put into words).  This seemed to be a good place to start.  As I was thinking about it, my son (who loves books) suddenly said, "Let's read 'Marco Polo Gets A Job!'"  There is no such book in our house, so I decided that I would write one.  Thus began my tryst with Marco Polo.

Then it was school admission time.  Ideally I wanted to keep my son home for another year but it seems hard to break into the system later on and school hours suddenly jump from one year to the next.  Not wanting too drastic a transition for my son, we decided to enrol him for the coming summer in a small, friendly school.  It took some time to find one, but we have found a warm welcoming place.  Of course we'll only know later on how it works out, but it's nice not to have to enrol in an large assembly line school.  A sunny spot on the side is that they are (at this stage) very easy about taking leave to travel.  We do tend to travel (for short periods) to different parts of India and the world, and it's nice not to have to jump through too many hoops to do this.

Next month onwards, there's more travel (my son appears to be a good traveller so we decided not to hold back any more) - Kanpur in the freezing winter, Delhi when it thaws, Kolkata in the late spring and perhaps London in the summer if we get a chance.  Let's catch the sunny spots as and when we find them.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Happiness At Times Of Migraines

Migraines have been troubling me for the last two decades, and I'm constantly looking out for solutions.  I'm writing this blog in case other people face similar trouble or other kinds of illness or discomfort that comes in waves periodically and has no easy solution.

When the body and mind don't respond too well, it's time to turn to the spirit.  This is why (I think) alternate methods like yoga and acupuncture, when followed according to their classical descriptions, work when other methods may not.  Sometimes it's hard to get to the root of the problem because we can't see it with any clarity ourselves and these methods point the way.

Of course, it's hard in the midst of pain and suffering, to be really happy about life.  But negativity seems to make everything more gloomy than it actually is and in fact, I can often sense a migraine coming much before it begins, by feeling a certain negative cloud drifting through me - mental negativity and pain which subsequently appears in a physical form.  By the time I sense this cloud, it's already too late - it has appeared and the ideal solution would be to stop it from emerging or moving into oneself.  What is this pain and how does it emerge?  I don't think we really have clear answers.  Spiritual texts do explain this phenomenon in different ways, as arising from mental tendencies that we have within us.  Some modern spiritual texts (The Power Of Now, by Eckhart Tolle, for example) explain this as a 'pain body', which is individual in nature but also gathers momentum when it resonates with similar bodies in other people.  The spiritual solution is to remain strictly in the present and observe the energies within, to realise that one is the observer and not the pain.  And gradually, a solution will emerge.

But we are generally not able to follow this recommendation (at least I have failed in the face of great pain); often the pain does not vanish even after much meditation and mental viewing.  As we live largely in a physical world, we need to perhaps accept this and find an in between path.

I have tried various things, and, when I can dredge up the energy, it is inevitably things that relate to my spirit that work best.  Writing is impossible, but cooking certainly works.  When I am cooking, I often am oblivious to the pain - it recedes and reappears once I have finished.  This is not surprising; musicians have reported not feeling their pain while immersed in playing.  I don't know about sportsmen, but I can imagine it working there as well.

At times when one can't actually do the things one wants to, it does help to imagine doing them and sometimes I long to do them so much that a certain positive reinforcement seems to be triggered from within.

The other tool that I recently restarted (somehow I had forgotten all about this, but it works for me - sometimes it takes weeks, months or decades, but it does work!) is affirmations.  To mentally affirm and visualise a desired scenario and to want to work towards achieving it.  Affirmations have to be very specific in content and wisely framed (and pithy to be repeated over again endlessly!).  For instance, in my case, I assume that there are blocks somewhere which are causing the headaches.  So I affirm that I am willing to release these blocks and, after some time, change the affirmation to "I am releasing these blocks now."  I don't know if it works immediately, but I often feel a dissipation of negative energy when I try this.  I also affirm that I am migraine free and happy now (and not in some distant future).  This stays with me and at times when I am heading towards a lifestyle-induced imbalance, the thought resurfaces and I find myself wanting to correct the imbalance instantly, in order to stay on my migraine free goal.

Is it working?  I'm not sure yet, but it's helping me deal with the pain much better than when I just lay down and did nothing and waited for the migraine to subside.  It somehow makes me feel in control of my life in a positive and creative way; to use the pain to reach a greater balance within and not to accept pain as a way of life.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Preschool Puzzle

I spent the last month visiting schools and preschools, and talking to assorted teachers, parents and school administrators, in order to decide when and where to enrol my little son.  My experience was a mixed bag, as experiences usually are, and very educating!  The result of all this is that I decided we could do away with much of preschool and jump in right at the end, which is where earlier it all used to begin...

Children were not formally taught until the age of about four (and in Norway and some other countries, about seven).  But times have changed; parents are working, families are nuclear and there seems to be tremendous social pressure to get children to learn more and more to ensure their admission to a regular school.  Regular schools meanwhile see tremendous advantage in admitting children at the preschool stage, partly as it makes good business sense and partly because all the children are 'trained' according to the school's requirements and they don't have to begin with an assorted class.

When I visited schools, I found the most harassed looking teachers were those in the beginning class - for each child was at a different level.  This difference I'm sure is retained over classes, but glossed over, as essential boxes are ticked by repeating certain basic course requirements over and over until everyone gets it.  The course requirements are non trivial, when seen from the perspective of a little child.  Reading, writing (painfully holding a pencil and writing between four lines in a cursive hand at the age of four), and to me, what seems even more painful is the fact that they are all confined to classrooms with intermittent periods of play allowed.

Many administrators predict disaster if you don't enrol your child at the age of two in a school.  "Your child will have no social skills," a school psychologist snapped at me, ignoring completely the fact that for the last ten minutes, my son had been patiently offering her little paper cards, waiting silently for her to notice him.  "He will miss his sensitive periods and will not even be able to hold a pencil," a Montessori principal said.  "If he doesn't see other children learning, he will lack the momentum to learn," she added, explaining why we would not be encouraged to skip any day of school.  Little did she know that my son runs to his books as soon as he is done with breakfast, that he quarters and cleans mushrooms for hours with a little toothbrush and every night clambers onto my writing desk, holds a pen and stabs pieces of paper with it, excitedly saying, "I'm writing!  I'm writing!"

"We take into account all kinds of learning," another preschool said, but were amazed to hear him identify a crab, which is what children twice his age were supposed to be doing.  Little do they know that he composes poems ("The red truck, Is stuck."  "Would you like a banana, Vicuna Nayan?" etc.) and asks if he can sweep and mop gravity.

If this is surprising to you, it should not be.  There are many accounts of children learning wisely and well, on their own, in varied environments.  I am currently reading a book called "The Importance of Being Little, What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups", by Erika Christakis.  It is all about preschools in America and how the curriculum needs reforming.  It reads more like a thesis than a piece of literature but gives a very clear picture of preschools and the kinds of pressures that go into designing a curriculum for children.  In America, of course, public money is spent on a large number of schools, which makes the situation different from middle class schools in India.  Though the reasons for cramming little children into schools and compelling them to learn more and more may differ a little between the two countries and the kinds of stress the children go through is very different based on social and cultural expectations, there are nonetheless some similarities.  They occur largely because we try to ape the west, in ways that are not necessarily the most thoughtful or balanced.  Education is an industry and large chains of schools introduce and dictate terms to parents and children.  Within all this, it's good to remember (as Erika Christakis points out) that we have no clear memory of our own preschool experiences, thus cannot really say with any certainty what preschoolers might want.

Preschool requirements have become quite complex as in addition to keeping up with surrounding schools and norms, they also cater to parental expectations and anxieties.  Preschools have to prove that they are training the children in noticeable and measurable ways to keep the parents reassured.  That creativity and individuality get compromised in the process is not anyone's concern.  "Children adapt beautifully," a (very nice) principal told me.  "It's we who cannot adapt to this fact."  That may be, but why should they need to adapt (unless circumstances are compelling) at this stage?  Why not just let them be, and let them learn as they like?

"We work based on multiple intelligence," many teachers solemnly informed me.  "Each child needs to learn in a different way and so we teach the things in many different formats."  It's fine in theory, but all children may not want to learn the same thing over again just to suit their neighbour's needs.  Children are remarkably unsocial at this age, despite what grownups say (and want).  They are happy to see others around, but when it comes to learning, they would rather do it by themselves, at their own pace.  Montessori methods are better than conventional ones as they recognise this, but even the best child centric programmes often fail because it is not possible for a teacher to cater to the ever changing requirements of ten (at best) or thirty (at worst) children at the same time.  Despite this, they all discourage home learning, which is where a child feels most comfortable, with a parent who knows him better than teachers would (under normal and non-strained home conditions).

"You must break the mother-child bonding now," many educationists said to me.  Why??  I know that many children undergo severe trauma in early years of school due to this, and need counselling to help them.  Little issues like going to the toilet (often dirty!), asking for help to do something and dealing with what appear to be minor issues like hunger, thirst, fatigue and bullies become very big when little children have to face them on a daily basis.  Apart from this there are many other factors which go out of the window when one enters school.  Lately I have been keeping track of which children come out to play, when and for how long, just out of curiosity.  In most places, there is no longer place for children to play, but we have a large campus with a big ground and several sports facilities.  I see only two or three children using the sports facilities, just a handful of others who come out to play around sunset - a tiny game of cricket in the car park, and I don't see most of the other children out at all.  Presumably they have done all they needed to at school or are busy with homework, or are just exhausted.  It's all right but not the optimal approach to a balanced way of life.

The other great loss at this stage is the loss of spontaneity.  Many of my most treasured memories of life at home are those that revolve around spontaneous moments of joy and sharing.  It's raining, you wear a raincoat and splash in the puddles.  It's windy, you sit out and eat hot pakoras.  It's cold, you sit by a fire and look into the glowing coals.  You are tired, someone gives you hot soup and you read a book.  Routines and schedules rule most of our lives, but they don't have to dominate us when we are two and still growing!

These are the most compelling reasons for me to keep my son at home for a little longer - to see him nurtured and secure, learning as and when he wants (and he is an avid learner as most children are), to share a laugh and sigh over a fall.  To develop a routine that suits his needs, not one that is modulated to accommodate the needs of many other parents, children and educators around him.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Memories Of Science And More

I never find it easy to write about people I know well, so this is going to be a brief blog, with a link.

The Indian Academy of Sciences has begun an oral history archive, and as part of this, they have interviewed Dr. S. Varadarajan.  Dr. Varadarajan has been a part of Indian science from pre-Independence times, and still retains vivid and detailed memories of his experiences with industry, academia and administration in the area of science and technology.

The interview was conducted last year (when he was 87).  It was an 8 hour interview that has finally been spliced and presented as a 30 minute video.  It shows glimpses of a changing India and the challenges of building research and industry, post independence.

The editing may not be perfect (there are gaps and jumps) and Dr. Varadarajan is visibly tired by the end of the interview, but I still find myself being moved each time I watch it.  Many things perhaps are left out, due to various constraints and I can only add a few things which may not be evident to a viewer - his strong attachment to the country and its people, his tremendous urge to help when he sees people in need, his distress during national or industrial disasters.  (The Bhopal gas tragedy is one such example.  What he doesn't mention in this interview is that every evening he spent hours sitting by the lake, just to regain his equilibrium in the face of so much suffering).  I'm happy that a small part of his vast repertoire of memories has been recorded and that we can get a glimpse of a country and its changing scientific and industrial environment through this recording.

Here is the link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UsFhNQlQu0A

Friday, July 8, 2016

Three Favourite Party Recipes

A houseful of hungry students is a great way to test recipes.  After all the crumbs were cleared, I was asked how to make some of the dishes, so I am putting down three recipes which work well for large and small gatherings (they can be scaled up or down with ease).  They can be made in advance or partially made and assembled without too much trouble.  They are adapted from original recipes, which I mention along with each recipe.

Khaukswe (Burmese Noodles)

The original recipe, from 'Cook And Entertain The Burmese Way', by Mi Mi Khaing, has chicken in it.  I prefer this version of the broth, which is vegetarian and lighter.  Various cooked meats and vegetables can be used for the topping.  I also prefer this original Burmese recipe to the variants that are generally found in Indian cookbooks.

Ingredients (for 20 cups of soup):

2 coconuts, extract 3 cups coconut milk from each (to extract coconut milk, mix one and a half cups of warm water mixed with one shredded coconut, leave for a few minutes and strain the milk to get the first extract.  Repeat with another one and a half cups of warm water for the second extract.  Keep the first and second extracts separate) OR 6 cups canned unsweetened coconut milk

2/3 cup gram flour (besan) mixed into a smooth paste with 1 cup of water

13 to 14 cups water

1 cup ground or finely grated onion

1/4 cup finely chopped garlic

oil as required (1/4 - 1/3 cup)

1/2 teaspoon turmeric (haldi) powder

salt to taste

Method:

Heat the oil in a large pan (25 cup capacity).  When it is hot, add the onions and garlic.  Lightly fry them until the raw smell goes away, but do not let them brown.  Gradually, add the water, gram flour paste and turmeric.  Let it come to boil, stirring well periodically so it does not get lumpy.  Add the thin coconut milk (second extract) and simmer for a few minutes.  Add the thick coconut milk (first extract) and salt to taste.  Bring it to a boil, then remove from heat.

Toppings:

Any of the following (one or more can be kept in little bowls)

a) Finely chopped boiled eggs, prawns, boiled chicken, lightly fried mushrooms.

Finely chopped spring onions, coriander (dhania) leaves, basil leaves, thinly sliced and fried onions, fried chopped garlic, fried and pounded red chillies.

b) Boiled rice noodles or wheat noodles

c) Slivers of lime

To assemble:

Place a helping of noodles in a bowl, ladle the hot soup over them.  Let people choose their toppings.

Note: For the chicken version, use a rich chicken stock instead of water and add 2 tablespoons fish sauce along with the thick coconut milk at the end.




Yakhni (A Kashmiri recipe - mutton cooked in milk)

This is adapted from the book Zaika, by Sonya Atal Sapru

Ingredients:

1 kg. mutton (cut in small pieces, I usually use a shoulder along with a part of the back or along with some boneless meat)

Oil as required (I used about 2 tablespoons in a crock pot or slow cooker, but in a regular pan or pressure cooker, you may need more, the original recipes calls for 6 tablespoons)

1 litre of milk

1 and 1/2 teaspoons dry ginger powder

8-10 small green cardamoms

3 teaspoons fennel seeds, powdered

4 bay leaves

8 dry red chillies (I omitted these)

a pinch of saffron

salt to taste

Method:

Heat the oil in a large pan.  When it begins to smoke, add the meat and all ingredients except the last three (do not add the chillies, saffron and salt at this stage).  Cook slowly on low heat, stirring periodically, until the meat is tender and there is a thin milk gravy.  (If using a pressure cooker, I would add half the milk, cook until the meat is tender, then add the remaining half of the milk and slowly let it reduce in a regular pan).  The crock pot is ideal for this recipe and I just let the ingredients simmer overnight.  Once the meat is done, add the chillies, saffron and salt.  Cook for another ten minutes.  Serve hot with rice.

Note: I think the quality of milk makes a difference, use whole (preferably full cream) milk in this recipe.



Mango Tart:

An adaptation from 'The Art Of Viennese Pastry', by Marcia Colman Morton

To make the short pastry dough (murbteig), this makes enough for 2 large (9-10 inch) tart shells-

Ingredients:

100 grams powdered sugar (I use icing sugar)

200 grams cold butter (traditionally unsalted is used, but we don't get good unsalted butter in India for baking, I just use the regular salted butter)

300 grams flour (maida)

1 egg yolk

grated rind of half a lemon (I never bother with this but it does add a nice flavour!)

3-4 tablespoons ice cold water

(I make this in a food processor as it stays colder but one can do it by hand, as was traditionally done.  Keep your hands and all working equipment as cool as possible).

Method:

Combine the flour and sugar in a bowl.  Cut the butter into small pieces and drop them into the bowl along with the egg yolk, lemon rind.  Pulse in a food processor or mix quickly and lightly with cool fingertips until a dough is formed.  I generally have to add water to get a firm smooth dough - add water 1 tablespoon at a time, and when the dough comes together, half a tablespoon at a time.  When you have a smooth ball, flatten it with the heel of your hand to make a thick pancake (I find it better to divide it into two balls and flatten each.  This makes it easier to roll each pastry shell out rather than cutting them later).  Wrap them in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour (overnight is better).  The dough can be frozen for weeks, to re-use, thaw in a refrigerator and then use.

To bake:

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F (about 230 degrees C).  Remove the dough from the refrigerator and as soon as it is a little pliable, roll it out, about 1/4 inch thick (I make it just a little thinner).  You will need to sprinkle a little flour on the top and bottom of the dough to prevent it from sticking.  Gently transfer it to the tart pan (you can also make multiple small tartlets).  Press down lightly and prick the bottom and sides gently with a fork.  Place in the hot oven for about 15 minutes or until lightly golden.  (The recipe original states that one should keep the oven door open very slightly during this process but I find it very hard to do, so I just keep it closed).  Remove the tart and cool.

Note: If the weather is cool and dry, the pastry can be stored at room temperature for a few days but not when it is hot or rainy.  This pastry can also be used to make a variety of biscuits, the cooking time is less for those.

To assemble the mango tarts, for two tarts:

About 10 (2 kg.) ripe mangoes, peeled and diced

Spoon the mango filling into the tarts just before serving.  Serve with fresh cream and/or ice cream.

Note: Stewed fruit can be substituted for the mangoes.  I like this version because there is no pastry cream or any other ingredients to detract from the taste of good pastry and good fruit!

(The pictures shown have been taken by Ujjwal Rathore.)

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Another Tiny Tool For World Peace??

As my heart goes out to Istanbul (an incredibly open and friendly city, my most favourite international city) and the airport attack, I sit here reading a novel by Dick Francis.  A crime thriller, intended to entertain every inch of the way.  No highbrow philosophy.  I always read Dick Francis when thinking of difficult moments.  Why??? I am not sure.  Partly because it is British writing (without too much angst or excessive sex angles as some modern writing has become) at its best - describing the outdoors, the magnificent world of horses and the British sporting spirit, combined with amateur (and occasionally professional) sleuthing.  The books are intelligently plotted and well written, but what makes them stand out for me are the very perceptive descriptions of people and what drives them, and in particular, reminders about the danger of rage and the futility of hate.

A good place to begin perhaps is his 'Kit Fielding' series - two books (Break In and Bolt, starring the champion jockey Kit Fielding, who rides for amongst others, a princess, who is always referred to as "The Princess").  I quote from "Break In" (a book based on family feuds) -

"...We finished the elementary alarm system and went yawning indoors to sleep for another couple of hours, and I reflected, as I lay down, about the way a feud could start, as with Graves, and continue through centuries, as with Allardecks and Fieldings, and could expand into politics and religious persecutions on a national scale, permanently persisting as a habit of mind, a destructive hatred stuck in one groove.  I would make a start in my own small corner, I thought sardonically, drifting off, and force my subconscious to love the Allardecks, of which my own sister, God help her, was one..."

Perhaps a bit perplexing if suddenly thrust into a blog, but this passage showed me how easy it was to begin a quarrel and then to continue it endlessly; how much easier than changing one's mind or forgiving or at least forgetting.  So I have decided to begin in my own small corner, to try and forget petty irritations that once arose and that keep niggling me the moment I choose to reopen those memories.  To relinquish (or, let's be realistic - restrain!!) my judgement on things I don't know enough about (like world peace??!).

Sunday, June 26, 2016

A Tiny Tool For World Peace?


As I watch, with dismay, the growing intolerance that surrounds us and manifests itself in varying ways through the world right now, I can't help but wonder if and how things could be changed for the better.  Yesterday my two year old son pointed to a picture of a gun and kept asking me what it was; I found it difficult to explain because so many words that I had to use were not a part of his vocabulary or understanding!

Therefore, today I choose to focus on little minds - on their latent desire for peace and joy and what we can learn from them.  Perhaps we can attempt to remember happy and uncritical thoughts and feelings that are buried deep within us, a sense of awe for nature and wonder for the gifts of the world, and see where it takes us.  I quote below from a Montessori book (Basic Montessori, Learning Activities for Under-Fives, by David Gettman, one of the best books on this subject that I have read so far) -

"Peace Through Self Fulfilment

Maria Montessori lived through the two most terrible wars in the history of mankind, and the causes of war were very much on her mind, especially in the years after the Second World War.  She came to believe that the widespread application of her method for education could help lead the world towards peace.
  Montessori believed that her method enables children to satisfy fully their instinctual and personal developmental needs, and so helps to create fulfilled and well balanced adults, whose innate goodness can shine forth unimpeded by neurotic ambitions and desires.  If her method would spread sufficiently throughout the world, she hoped, millions of adults raised by it would be free from such tendencies as  greed and aggression.  Then, with the passing of the old generations, threats to world peace would gradually subside and disappear.
  The Montessori methods may also help promote peace by its study and support of the absorbent mind.  If we consider the action of the absorbent mind - that children fully accept, without critique or prejudice, the behaviour and traits of those around them, that children transform themselves by incarnating these ways, and that children place complete faith in the goodness and benevolence of others - we see more than a mechanism for learning, but also children's saint-like charity or spiritual love for people..."

The Montessori system is quite 'spirit driven' (not in the religious sense) which makes it difficult to explain or advise an adult (teacher or guardian) on the exact approach to take for each child.  The child drives the process and the hope is that the adult is sufficiently perceptive to support and facilitate this process of discovery and to respect the child's reactions and opinions.  The techniques themselves are unusual - they have been developed by the children themselves (and refined as Maria Montessori watched the children choose and show her the way they wanted to learn).  To illustrate this system further and describe how its fundamental principles can help children and adults view life in a different way, I quote from another section of the same book.  This deals with Sensorial Activities (those that develop our sensing skills)-

"Finally, the Sensorial Activities can have a moral and spiritual importance for the child.  A very young child, like the baby discussed earlier, who has not yet organised sense experience, sees the world as consisting of lively, responsive 'things', which behave like fountains of impressions, spouting changing sensorial stimuli in response to playful proddings.  There is a moral danger at the point in the child's early psychic development when structure is first being applied to sense perceptions, that these thriving companions will  be turned into lifeless repositories of dull existence, attended by a determinate set of functions or characteristics, which can be negated and replaced at whim by the indifferent observer.  This 'objectification' of things, both living and inanimate, can result when they are identified and classed only in terms of their service to people (e.g. we grow plants for eating, keeping warm, and building homes) or are described as isolated pockets of existence with alterable attributes (e.g. 'this is a rock; it is rough, heavy, grey and hard to break').  The child learns from such lessons that the unsympathetic manipulation of things (as well as living creatures) is not only possible but expected, and the child is hardened to the wonderment of endless exploration which guides a baby's interactions with things.  As a result, the world is narrowed to a place full of 'objects' to be possessed for our vanity, altered for our pleasure, or destroyed for our convenience.
   Montessori's Sensorial Activities introduce the child to a structured comprehension of the world in a different way.  The child is not led by activities away from the baby's world of lively thing-friends, but is only given the skills to clarify and order the sensorial gifts that may be received form them.  The activities' enlargement of sensorial sensitivity increases the child's respect and awe for the things which are the source of those sense impressions.  Rather than leave a child feeling that a thing is easily defined and manipulated, the sensorial Activities make the child aware of the endless depth available for exploring the thing in its infinite depth and fullness.
  In this spiritual aspect of the Sensorial Activities, we can see one of the far-reaching differences between the Montessori approach and the conventional teaching methods.  Note that the Sensorial Activities isolate a single perceptual quality by making each object in a set identical in all respects except one.  Conventional teaching methods commonly introduce a quality in the opposite way; that is, the quality of interest is usually identified as the one most obvious quality which a group of otherwise unrelated objects have in common.  For instance, to introduce the colour 'blue', a conventional teacher will gather together a blue flower, a blue toy truck, a blue cloth, and a blue pencil, all of which vary in shape, material, size, texture and weight, but have nearly the same colour. Though it might seem that Montessori's approach is nothing more than a pedagogical mirror-image of the conventional method, it is actually conveying an entirely different message to the child.  The focus in the Sensorial Activities is not on objects, but on the phenomenon of colour as an experience. In Montessori's materials, the things themselves have no uses or functions outside the exercise; the quality is simply presented, explored and related to the child's actual experience of the environment.  In the conventional teaching method, the focus is instead on the objects, which do have uses or functions outside the exercise, and which are shown to 'possess' various qualities, including the one under study.  The point made by the conventional teaching is not that you can experience colour, but that a number of objects may all possess the same quality.  In brief, the conventional teaching method perpetuates the 'objectification' of the child's world by subordinating experience to objects, while Montessori's approach introduces the quality as a facet of the child's experience, leaving 'things' free of the limitations and manipulations of human definition, preserving for the child a sense of their mystical depth and liveliness..."

I think the Montessori system (or other similar methods that involve the body, mind and spirit of a child rather than an adult's perception of a child) enables the child not to be afraid of differences (in others as well as in himself or herself) and to accept these differences non-judgementally at an early age.  Judgement always creeps in as we grow older, but early lessons of respect of others' differences and of understanding one's own strengths and potential still remain and can be put to fear-free, peaceful and creative use in the years that follow.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Of Tribes And Tribal Carpets

I recently read a very well written article in the New York Times (sent by a friend, Danny, who wanders about, collecting tribal carpets that are woven in central Asia and neighbouring regions).  It was about how the original art of making Persian rugs may not survive much longer.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/27/world/middleeast/end-of-an-art-form-the-persian-rug-may-not-be-long-for-this-world.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share&_r=0

This is unfortunately true of many tribal products and, in fact, their very way of life.  While some tribes manage to adapt to a changing world successfully, many end up being exploited and some slowly die out for lack of options.

When we were in Delhi last winter, we visited Dilli Haat, a large area set up by the government to promote the sale of crafts directly by craftsmen.  Over the years, we have been seeing more and more stalls which obviously have no craftsmen, just middle men, and this year we saw a large outlet selling cheap carpets.  The carpets looked quite attractive (not masterpieces of any kind but very nice and good value for money) - they were so incredibly cheap that we wondered how they were made.  They were obviously not handmade, the salesperson said they came from a kind of factory.  He was very keen to sell us some and even said we could take them home, roll them out and return them if we did not like them.  He made it so simple and accessible for customers that I knew that tribal (or any handwoven) carpets wouldn't stand a chance against these.

Here is what Danny said, when I mentioned this to him:

"The fact of the matter is that there are really no mysterious bargains to be found...as you rightly pointed out, the carpets you saw in Delhi were modern reproductions of old material....they do not "knot" them, they "tuft" them and back them up with glue...a process that takes a tiny fraction of time and very little manual effort (and no creativity).  


What is funny is that many of these modern things are actually being made in China...the bazaars in Turkey and Morocco are full of Chinese production of imitations made to copy Central Asian products.  They jokingly refer to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul as the Chinese Bazaar.  We are truly becoming a global culture!

But in a way one cannot blame the old artisans to look for more efficient means of livelihood and creature comforts that a nomadic life does not easily provide for. "

We have been witnessing the erosion of tribal lifestyles in many places during our travel, within India (Kutch, Nagaland, the Andamans) and outside the country as well (Burma, Borneo, America and many other countries) - the tales are too numerous to narrate.  What can we do about it?  Sadly, not much.  Tribal lives are governed by modern politics, economics and the exploitation of natural resources by urban dwellers.  I think all we can do is to be sensitive to the needs of tribals and respect their ways of living (Just to illustrate - I have seen people talk about and treat some tribals in the Andamans as if they were an inferior kind of animal.  Many years ago, the government decided to 'uplift' their living conditions by building concrete toilets in the thick of these beautiful islands, which the tribals had no idea what to do with).  To step gently into their areas, if at all.  And not to endorse products which involve exploitation of the tribals or their natural resources.  Specifically, in the case of carpets - if one has the resources, it would be good to buy one original handwoven carpet rather than lots of cheap ones.

We did buy a rug from Dilli Haat, as a mat for my little son to play on (as this can be easily washed and dried).  It's a very cheerful one - pale yellow with big flowers that are attractive in a nursery setting (and there were several identical ones, in different colours so we knew we were not buying anything unique!).  In the same room, beside this rug, I have kept a tribal rug, for my son to lie upon when he's sleepy.  The contrast between the two is enormous, when seen side by side.  The machine made rug is pleasant, extremely cheerful and functional.  It looks very much in place in an urban setting.  The tribal rug is wonderfully soft and comfortable.  Its colours reflect in some way the beauty of the natural world.  It is clearly an individual's creation - varying shades are used in an asymmetric manner that results in a rugged and timeless beauty.  My son looks at the colours, patterns and shapes of both rugs.  But when it comes to nose rubbing (a high accolade), it's the tribal one that he always chooses.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Innovations In The Indian Context

Last week, my husband related a conversation he had over dinner with some colleagues about why India does not contribute to important or life changing innovations.  This is an oft discussed subject, in the country (with people shaking their heads sadly) and outside the country (largely by non resident Indians shaking their heads vehemently and giving armchair advice).  As it's always hard to get a word in edgeways, I provide below my own armchair views!

It's a well known fact that the Indian system does not engender or promote innovation.  Indians (I think) always function with one eye on the clock.  Not in terms of punctuality (the lack of which they are infamous for) but the clock begins ticking the moment one is born.  Everyone is in a rush to achieve everything as fast as possible.  My son is just two now and almost everyone I meet asks when I will admit him to school.  My views are, "Not until he benefits in some fashion from going there and not until he is comfortable on his own," but I just say, "There's no hurry.  He's learning many things at home."  When I look up details of the nursery schools, I often find a mish-mash of information.  "Montessori methods" are mixed with "Latest computer aids", "Strong group interaction" and "Contemporary teaching methods".  A child of the age 2-3 needs just to be left to discover and indulge his curiosity on his own.  Slightly older children might do this in groups or in led classes but core learning is always self driven.  The emphasis should be to enable the child's inner need to discover, understand and learn rather than to impose a large number of adult-created systems and flood him/her with information.  I think this is where the problem begins and it snowballs as children grow into adults.

From primary school onwards, syllabi are set often by political bodies rather than educationists or experts in a particular subject.  Schools seem anxious to produce results rather than help children grow and deal with their changing intellectual and physical needs.  College is often unfortunately the time when it all becomes too much and children lose interest in their work (I have seen a lot of student burn-outs at this stage.  They are still very successful but that inner spark that drives them towards something that they particularly enjoy doing seems absent).  Many work on, ticking off all the boxes for their CVs, and the moment one box is ticked, they are done with it forever.

After college, what?  The price of failure in India is very high.  There are no back up systems in place, no multiple options.  The industry hirings are competitive and everyone seems to be looking for very similar skill sets.  If one were to start a company or do something new on one's own and fail, it would be very hard to find anything else to do or to earn a living.  Not exactly a situation that encourages innovation.

At a more abstract level (but equally important), there are urgent demands made on one's time right from the time the day begins.  "Will the milk come?  Will the newspaper arrive on time?  Will the maids show up (punctually or at all)?  Will there be uninterrupted power and water?  How bad will the commute be today?"  By the time one has dealt with all this, a certain amount of energy is depleted and one's mind does not immediately turn to thoughts of innovation.

Having said this, I don't think there is a dearth of innovation in the country.  My experience with recording oral history in the the areas of science and engineering brought me in touch with highly creative, successful people, and I know of many more personally and through the media.  It's just that much of the innovation has been in response to needs of the Indian society and though it has touched many people here, it has not made a global impact.  This is especially evident in the period immediately following Independence.  Several people had to learn new things - often go abroad for training, return, adapt those to the Indian setup, innovate to grow and develop further.  Many of the people worked in a spirit of nationalism, without fuss, noise or publicity.  Most of these stories go untold for good news is no news and we are not overly interested in archiving and documenting.

There are often no fairy tale endings.  Indian entrepreneurs face tremendous struggles, the emergence of venture capitalists has helped but not as much as one would have hoped.  It is difficult to sort out the transparent from the opaque in India, this makes it hard for people to decide which start ups to fund.  On the other hand, I know of several good ideas which have gone unfunded because the venture capitalists declare that they are all too risky and too much time will be spent in trying to overcome the challenges along the way.

Research goes on in academia, however, it is not very closely linked to industry (except in some very limited areas).  It is considerably harder to publish in good journals from India than if the same work were done in the U.S.  If one has a breakthrough or one disproves an existing theory, there are often cliques which actively suppress the information.  Often editors of journals reply saying the work is not relevant to their journal or that they just don't believe the work.  "Please repeat it all and do some more," they say, knowing that the process will take a year or more.  So, the dice is loaded to begin with.

But when we entered the game, we knew perhaps not all, but many of the rules.  I think we need to accept that there are reasons why it is not easy to make as many bold, exciting and world changing innovations as in the west (particularly in the U.S. which remains a leader in innovation), but that is not reason enough not to try.  Smoothly functioning systems (and mentors) help but they are not a requirement.  Innovation cannot come about unless certain fundamental values are respected, unless creativity and independent thought are encouraged and unless people stop trying to take the easy or familiar way out.

Just as an illustration (not a point of comparison), I mention here Stanford University.  The website states that they are celebrating 125 years of impact in people's lives and around the world.  That they are dedicated to finding solutions to big challenges.  Here, we see old universities languish and new ones set up based on political whims.  New undergraduate programmes are started under tremendous pressure to perform without infrastructure or faculty.  Established universities begin new programmes sometimes for not very good reasons.  A premier graduate school began an undergraduate programme to improve their ranking and gleefully reported after some years that the mission was accomplished.  I don't know how motivating all this can be to a student.

Good leadership is often not evident in Indian graduate schools.  I think things would be greatly improved if councils and directors were elected rather than chosen by a select few.  Again, just as an illustration, John Hennessey, who is now stepping down as the president of Stanford, has long been acknowledged as one of the most dynamic presidents of the university, and a very successful fund raiser.  Apparently, the budget more than doubled since he stepped in and he raised $13 billion (from 2000 to date) despite the financial downturn.  Cutting edge and interdisciplinary research was encouraged (and the necessary infrastructure provided).  The arts were nurtured and generously and thoughtfully funded.  Hennessey had active dialogues and a strong interaction with the government.  Apart from all this, what warmed me the most was reading an article in Stanford (the University newsletter) where he was quoted as follows -

"I love going to the freshman dorms," he says.  "I love seeing the students in all kinds of different settings.  And the same with the alumni....  One of the biggest surprises for me (after becoming president) was how much alumni love this place and are loyal to it."

It would be heartening to see someone attempting these things in Indian universities in present times, even if they didn't succeed.  I don't know any such person (that is not say that they don't exist!).  If we want something more from our young, working population, we need to give them something more when they are in the process of growing and finding themselves.

Nitash Balsara (whom I happen to know), a professor at Berkeley, visited here in 2014, as a Platinum Jubilee fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences.  This fellowship requires the person to visit a range of teaching and research institutes in the country, to lecture and interact with the students.  He divided the institutes into two groups - A (slightly less known centres with less research ) and B (larger, more research oriented centres).  After his lectures, when I met him, he said that the most interesting questions invariably came from the group A colleges.  His report was thought provoking and I include some excerpts of it (the complete report is available on the website of the Indian Academy of Sciences, http://www.ias.ac.in/About_IASc/Jubilee_Chair/#occupants ).

"I begin with students as they are, without doubt, the most important part of any university. On average, the students at Group A institutions were much more engaged with the lecture than that those at Group B institutions. They appeared more interested in the topic, more interested in talking to me after the lecture, and they asked more questions. Some of the most thoughtful questions came from students at Group A institutions...

...When I asked the professors about undergraduate students I detected a uniform difference in their response. Professors at Group A institutions were upbeat. NIT Calicut was delighted to have students from all across India, selected through the nationally held JEE. Kunal, the student who spent a few hours with me (he took me for a visit to a temple near Surathkal but what I appreciated most were discussions concerning his work on enzymatic reactions) came from Jamshedpur. I think that diversity of backgrounds of both students and faculty is important for all educational institutions. While many state colleges in the US like the University of California, Berkeley, where I work, have a local flavour, the diversity is what defines them. This increase in diversity in what were previously regional colleges is a new trend that must have been extremely difficult to nucleate. All of the professors I talked to at the IITs were less than upbeat about undergraduate students. They told me that a large fraction of the students were only interested in the degree. High CPIs were desirable but only because they led to high-paying jobs in the banking industry or entry into IIMs. The reported fraction of uninterested students ranged from 80 to 95%! Professor Kunzru of IIT K, my undergraduate teacher who I respect deeply, told me that he just finished teaching his class and that not a single student asked a single question all semester long. While the Group B institutions were generally healthy, this might be something worth focusing on for improving their health. I suspect that in the long run, this will negatively impact the quality of education. To add fuel to the fire, Professors at Group B institutions also indicated that students are glued to their cell phones. Professor Rajiv Shekhar of IIT K told me of inviting two students from his class of 30 for a meeting in his office. The two students did not even know that they were in the same class!

...Most of the research-active professors in the Group B institutions were truly stellar. They are working incredibly hard to set-up amazing facilities...
I marvelled at the drive of the research-active professors in Group A institutions...

The lack of involvement of the Indian industry in academics was a concern. While the research activity in these institutes may be far removed from the immediate needs of this cost conscious industry, captains of Indian industry, many of whom were educated at the institutions listed above, might consider investing in the future of their alma mater. Surely there is some cost associated with ensuring that their employees are being trained by faculty aware of developments that are of current global interest (e.g. my project on biofuels which funds two post-docs, three PhD students, and 1 undergraduate is funded by the petrochemical giant, BP)...

India is clearly on the move. Optimism is in the air. There is something astir in all of the institutions I visited. Like all systems, they are not perfect and challenges remain.  Overall, it was an amazing to witness the new horizons emerging in all of the institutions."






Saturday, May 7, 2016

Not Receiving My Blogs?

A note for regular readers - if you are not seeing my blogs in your emails, please check the Promotions or Spam or other sections of your mailbox.  Gmail in particular is redirecting these blogs to other sections (especially if they contain pictures) and there is nothing I can do about it.  You may have to change the settings at your end.  Sorry for the trouble, and many thanks for reading this (very irregular) blog!

Friday, May 6, 2016

Mangoes!



One of the few bonuses of unremitting summers, like this one.  Mangoes - tiny green windfall ones, almost ripe, sweet and sour ones and the perfectly ripe, incredibly flavourful ones.  We savour them all.

We have had just a couple of showers this summer, hence have picked only a couple of handfuls of freshly fallen green mangoes.  Just enough for several rounds of salad - the other ingredients do not really matter - it's the mango, sugar and salt which does the trick.  One can add lettuce, mint, cilantro (fresh coriander) leaves, spring onion, chillies, pounded mustard seeds and more - and eat it with rice or even with pasta.  We usually soak the ripe ones in a tub of cool water in the early morning and slice them for breakfast.  In previous years we would eat mangoes through the day, but now a couple of perfect mangoes once a day are quite enough for us!





My son likes to play mango games - we pick up a mango that has fallen on the ground and then take turns to throw it along a path, following and retrieving it each time it falls.  Naturally, my throws land on perfectly smooth roads while his seem to go into ditches, piles of leaves and stretches of mud...

Today I have made a mango dessert for a large party.  A Viennese-Indian dessert.  Huge amounts of murbteig (a short pastry) have been made, despite the soaring temperatures.  Never mind the butter visibly softening in minutes, never mind the hot kitchen surface and the laboured cooling of the refrigerator.  Three large tart shells have been rolled out and quickly shoved into the little oven, one after the other, fingers crossed in the hope that there will be no power cuts.  Over a dozen Alphonso mangoes have been peeled and cut - they stand out against the pastry, vividly orange and deliciously sweet.

Everything has been stored in my crockery cupboard (there's no place anywhere else) for this evening, and I am hoping that my little son does not play any cupboard games for the next few hours!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Turkish Treats

Turkey is one of my favourite countries to visit.  Fortunately its easy to do from India; it's just a six hour flight from Delhi to Istanbul.  Apart from all else, I really enjoy tasting Turkish food - it is fresh, wholesome, strewn with nuts, fresh fruit, herbs, honey in combinations one doesn't find elsewhere.

I haven't visited Turkey in a while but recently my husband had an eight hour stopover in Istanbul.  Fortunately he braved the long exit queues and went into the city.  He took a tram, crossed the Golden Horn via the Galata bridge, got off at the Karaköy tram station (about a 45-50 minute journey, with the metro service available about every 5 minutes) and went in search of - some food!

He brought back with him assorted boxes of delicacies - black olives, peynir (delicious, stringy Turkish cheese typically eaten with freshly made bread), from a gourmet store called Namli Gurme.  From an adjacent store,  Köşkeroğlu, he bought baklava stuffed to the brim with nuts and lokum (Turkish delight).

We are eating all of this (in small rationed doses) for breakfast each morning.  And we feel we are truly basking in Turkish delight!

Just for information, here are some pictures.  Everything that was bought came perfectly packed in his hand baggage, and kept very well (for a week or ten days, as its being so rapidly consumed!) in the refrigerator.  We have actually kept Turkish olives refrigerated for years and they still taste very good.  And the baklava, with all its thin layers of pastry and very thick layers of pistachio or walnut still remains crisp despite the generous drizzles of honey (the power of filo pastry)!

Assorted Baklava and Turkish Delight (lokum)

A good shop for baklava and lokum

Baklava and lokum, overflowing with nuts

A good source for peynir, olives and more

A packet of peynir



Monday, March 14, 2016

Thinking of Tamarind

As always, Bangalore has bypassed spring and stepped straight into summer.  There is nothing more reminiscent of summer than ripe tamarind, hanging temptingly from tall trees, just out of reach.  Of course, if the monkeys (and passers by) don't pick them, the pods fall with little thuds onto the carpet of yellowing tamarind leaves laid out below, and one can race with the squirrels to get to them.

It's hard nowadays to see tamarind trees in public areas; earlier they would abound because they are hardy and well suited to this region.  Providing shade, shelter to birds and animals and deliciously sour fruit, one would think people would like more of them around.  Instead we now have exotic foreign varieties of trees and shrubs which have no place for a bird to sit upon and no shade for a person to rest under.

I also love tamarind trees because they are so incredibly beautiful - large but dainty in detail.  The leaves are made of tiny leaflets, dark green initially, which turn lighter over time.  The flowers are also tiny, almost inconspicuous - yellow and red.  From these emerge long dark pods with tender fruit and the most wonderful looking seeds within - a very dark and shiny brown.

Tamarind is used for cooking and in traditional medicine.  (It is also used in parts of Asia to polish brass!)  My favourite way of eating it is just by itself, fresh off the tree, but one can't eat too much of it like that.  I like to make a chutney by boiling and straining it and adding jaggery and salt, to taste.  Much of the time in our house, the chutney is used to make chaat - the wonderful north Indian savoury concoction, made originally when the weather was very hot and the palate was jaded and the stomach needed something cool and refreshing.  Nowadays, it is found everywhere, but with so much fried stuff and chilly powder thrown in that it does my stomach no good.

No, my homemade chaat is made to my specifications - with freshly boiled and diced potato, tiny boiled chickpeas, tamarind chutney, fresh coriander (cilantro) and mint chutney, pomegranate seeds, whipped curd and a hint of fresh ginger and powdered roasted cumin.  In this I add a few crushed papries (small fried savouries) which give it a nice crunch.

Now that summer has begun, although I no longer can pick and use tamarind off the trees, I have made some bottles of chutney and kept them in the refrigerator (where they stay for months).  Bowls of chaat are being served at home in the afternoons, and they are very welcome!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Wisdom Of Traditional Eating

While everything traditional is not really the best option for a changing world, there is much wisdom stored in old ways, that we disregard or choose to forget.

Japanese scientists recently performed a very interesting experiment (that could have been done anywhere in the world, and probably should) - they took several groups of mice and fed each group with dishes recreated from menus of typical Japanese households in 1960, 1975, 1990 and 2005.  This comprised, for example, of mixed rice with dried whitebait and green seaweed flakes, bean and miso soup with taro and mustard spinach for breakfast as opposed to bacon and eggs, toast and fluffy boiled potatoes.

Not surprisingly, the animals that were fed with traditional diets lived longer and better than the ones fed on modern diets.  (K. Yamamoto et al. Nutrition 32, 122-128; 2016).

Diet induced diseases are on the rise everywhere but India with its large population and changing rural and urban dynamics, sees a huge amount of ill health in a relatively young population.  White rice, sugar, processed foods are common culprits (when consumed on a regular basis in large quantities).  The Harvard School of Public Health recently published a paper showing that people who eat one cup of white rice a day have a high risk of developing type 2 diabetes.  White rice consumption is possibly the single largest factor driving this kind of diabetes in India today.

Recently we got a medical check up done for our driver, who is in his early fifties.  His blood sugar levels were surprisingly high, and, to our consternation, the doctor did not even ask him about his diet!  He just prescribed a standard drug to control the sugar levels.  This is just one illustration of the thoughtlessness that goes behind treating diet and lifestyle induced illnesses and the importance of awareness in preventing and controlling such situations.

Should rice eaters switch to brown rice?  Brown rice does not necessarily have a lower glycemic index (i.e. the amount it increases the blood sugar level by); the glycemic index of rice is species-dependent.  But brown rice is heavier to eat (thus one eats less); it also contains vitamins, minerals, oil and fibre which are nourishing and are absent in white rice.  Indian scientists have now developed a new variety of rice that looks white but is unpolished and are trying to introduce this into people's diets (the rationale being that many people don't like the look of unpolished rice).

Appearances do rule the world!  There is a story about a Thai princess who once saw some workers eating unpolished rice that was coarse and ugly looking.  Out of kindness, she declared that these workers must be given white rice to eat, and thereby began their health problems!

India is blessed with a huge variety of traditional foods - many kinds of rice, lentils, millets, wheat, corn and vegetables.  A little thought in choosing what one eats would go a long way.  Of course, what we eat is very important, but almost as important, I think, is how and when we eat.  Eating with awareness (and, if possible, appreciation) of one's food, and at regular and proper times, helps tremendously.

I quote below from two very different books about some traditional forms of food and eating, that charmingly remind us of things forgotten-

"Viennese children were brought up to a rumbling accompaniment of admonitions... But the hardest to understand and to obey, "Don't spoil your appetite - Du sollst deinen Appetit nicht verderben!" was thundered so often and so sternly that it sounded like a latter-day commandment.
   It was doubly difficult for children to learn not to spoil their appetites, because their parents condemned as extremely harmful all the sweets which they really wanted to eat, while all the things they didn't want to eat anyway, such as Spinat (an even less popular word than spinach) and farina pudding, were the rewards for which their parents expected them to keep their appetites intact.  But when they had grown up and had made the happy discovery that they were keeping their appetites unspoiled for better things than farina and spinach, they appreciated the wisdom of the admonition; and they, in turn, drummed the same old lesson into their own children.  as  a result, all Viennese sat up straight at the table and kept unspoilt that most precious possession- their guten Appetit.
   The fine point at which the Viennese were no longer spoiling their appetites and were, in fact, correctly gratifying them was established geographically and horologically.  Anything eaten anywhere except in the dining room, no matter how tempting or nourishing, was frowned upon.  Anything eaten before the appointed dinner hour was considered a definite spoiling of the appetite.  Everything that was eaten in the dining room, after one sat down at the table- with clocklike punctuality and very straight, of course, was smiled upon as legitimate and proper dining, the very thing for which the appetite had been so carefully protected and preserved.  Under these circumstances, the announcement of dinner was always greeted with the greatest pleasure, unless for some unthinkable reason it was late, in which case their were frowns and an audible "Endlich- at last!" when the dining room doors were opened.  No one lingered; they leapt to their feet and began a light and elegant stampede to the dining room and to the long awaited Vorspeise...

 ...What's more the guests no longer sit quite so straight at table, and, to the horror of the cook, they are not nearly so punctual in reaching the dining room as once was the reliable custom when dinner was announced with the striking of the clock."
 (Gourmet's Old Vienna Cookbook, A Viennese Memoir, by Lillian Langseth-Christensen and Leo R. Summers)

"Burmese food is for eating mainly just before morning's pleasantness is lost to the heat of the noon, and again as the cool of evening falls, and eating together is a buttress against dusk's approach.
   Ideally, you should have, minutes before eating, a quick-pouring bath, put on clean loose clothes, and go straight to table.
   Traditionally no wines or spirits, and certainly no tidbits of food, should come between your palate and that table, simultaneously laid with the full meal.  However, present eating shows that foreign wines or Mandalay beer accompanies Burmese food agreeably.
   No flowers or other inedible decoration should be on the table, least of all for guests to whom most hospitality is due.  Eating is the pleasure, and when you in turn are a guest, do not discount the food by an undue amount of conversation.
   A meal's importance is such that, as no one should interrupt yours, so no one who walks in to find you at one should pass by without an invitation to eat.  The carpenter, masseur, bill collector, or postman will recognize the form of your invitation and reply, "I've eaten, please carry on."  A friendly  acquaintance, whom you must press till he sits at the table with a filled plate may sit long and leave the food untouched.  Your close friends who say, "All right then, just a bit of that one," will go on eating till they've shown your family how good your cooking is.
   Burmese food, therefore, must be cooked in quantity and be stretchable by nature.  Today's priorities in your budget might make this difficult.  However customs still enable you to enjoy this traditional gregarious eating.  Tell a sister or friend that tonight your family will bring its dinner over..."
  (Cook And Entertain the Burmese Way, by Mi Mi Khaing)
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