Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pink or blue

I am not about to join the pink chaddi brigade, nor do I subscribe to colour clich├ęs, but I had to tell you this. For the last few months, my posterior has been the subject of much discussion amongst near and dear ones. Well, that should itself be strange, as my anterior is where all the action is—by now, I am so obviously pregnant—my belly makes an entry ten seconds before I do.

Fact is, they are all trying to predict if it’s going to be a boy and a girl. And the most ridiculous thing that I have heard—right from the mother-in-law to a radio-jockey friend is this—if your ass grows madly out of proportion, it’s a girl. If it stays as is, it’s a boy. And my pert ass shows no signs of being out of shape, so I am mortified that the illegal alien inside is a boy!

For all those who say, what difference? It’s god’s gift! (although I am still wondering at what point did god get involved?) Of course it would make a difference. Of course dealing with another man in the house (however little) is going to take a lot out of me. I am just tired of making the men in my life look good—either it’s the father or the brother or the husband or the son (if it turns out to be a boy). It seems like lifelong labour, with no perks, really!

A girl, on the other hand is a breeze to handle and pretty much grows up okay, whatever the circumstances. Okay, I am not being biased here, but how many women do you know who really really need a man to sort them out? I can’t think of anyone. How many men? Well, practically the entire population!

So, from an utterly selfish point of view, I would like a girl.

And I want her so bad that I am utterly at a loss for boy’s names. Even though my posterior says that it’s a boy. I am at a loss for imagining if he’ll have my unruly mop or the husband’s low-maintenance one. Whether he will have my bronze skin or the husband’s fair one. Whether he will inherit my dimples. Or the husband’s fetish for salami, hot dogs and gaming (shudder!).

It’s just that boys have too many issues. They have to be seen doing the right thing, playing with the right toys (usually guns or extra terrestrial objects or something equally violent), wearing the right colours, having the right friends (a smattering of alpha males that they can look up to and some that look up to them, just to keep their fragile egos under check), eating the right food (it’s not cool to eat healthy or organic—they might as well coat their intestines with garbage right from the start—an exercise the husband is eager to partner in), have the right vocation, even the right voice (imagine sounding like Sachin Tendulkar!), grow tall (even I have issues with short men, at five feet nothing), be a man… the list is endless!

Dear god! I hope you are listening….

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Plaintain paradise

Recently, on a trip to Goa on our anniversary, at a seaside hilly resort called Aldeia de Goa, nesting in my friend Vasu’s house, I was struck by a nostalgia wave when I spotted what was a plaintain sapling in her garden. It stood there in all its glory, battling the sea breeze, displaying its miniature fruit already. Hmmm, I thought, you can take a south Indian to Goa, but you can never take the plaintain (used interchangeably with banana) out of a south Indian, I figured. Trust the banana to give you your daily dose of calcium and potassium, provide instant energy, and always be accessible to your wallet, recession or no recession. You can add it to milk-shakes, porridge, muesli, and start off your day on a energy-high. You can rely on it any time of the day to abate the sugar low—its form lends to the most hygienic consumption—no washing or chopping required, hence it suffers minimum damage by human hands.

Like all self-respecting Dravidians, I have done my fair share of the plaintain cuisine, and continue to do so when I visit the mother or she visits me (it’s a bit high maintenance for my patience levels currently, when my pregnancy-laden hunger pangs override the desire to work too hard to make a meal happen). But one childhood favourite which she often makes for me even now is the dry plaintain and aubergine in tamarind gravy. Yum!

It is true. Every part of the plant is consumed—the leaves are exotic receptacles for food (even though they might now be used to line silver thalis and whatnot). The fruit is eaten ripe and raw, the flowers (vazhapu) made into cutlets, pitlai, poduthuval and sambar, and the pseudo stem made into pachadi or a poduthuval.

Dad was the resident expert at growing them in our backyard when we were kids (he claimed we had nine varieties, although I couldn’t really tell the difference or the finer points of each). All we knew that each weekend, he spent hours in the backyard, figuring out innovative home-grown fertilizers to make his plaintain paradise thrive.

While raw, skinning, chopping, cooking of the plaintain is a bit elaborate and requires a certain knack and finesse. There are also certain anti-staining precautions to be taken, especially as the juices that exude are not particularly discerning about leaving a mark on your clothes or body parts. And if you are amongst the microscopic populace that can skin, detangle and chop the plaintain pseudostem to tiny bits, each a perfect cube, you are king.

“Give us this day our plaintain chips” was a regular childhood stunt when the stuff on offer at the dinner table didn’t have enough sex appeal, and had to be jazzed up with the regular, chilli or pepper laden variants. Nowadays I spot the ‘microwaved’ or ‘non-fried’ variants at super markets, and frankly, I think it’s a scam. What are plaintain chips if not fried in coconut oil? There’s a guy close to our office, next to the Sitladevi temple who used to make them every day for years, but on my last visit, I couldn’t spot him. Informants on his whereabouts will be suitably rewarded.




Banana pseudo stem (Vazhatandu) pachadi

Ingredients:

A foot-long banana pseudostem

One cup buttermilk, diluted

Juice of a small ball of tamarind (less than the size of a lemon)

Haldi, hing, jaggery, salt to taste



For the gravy:

Green chilli, rai, coconut, one teaspoonful of raw rice


Method:

Chop the pseudostem into fine bits. (This is the trickiest part, as it involves slicing into ½ inch thick rounds, detangling the threads that connect them to one another using a spiral action of your finger, and then piling up the sliced rounds and chopping them into tiny squares)

Soak the chopped pseudostem in a bowl of very dilute buttermilk to retain its whiteness (else it tends to darken)

Drain the pseudostem off the buttermilk and cook in small amount of water with haldi, salt and some tamarind juice.

Grind together one green chilli, one teaspoon mustard, one teaspoon washed rice and add the paste to the cooked mixture. Add a pinch of hing and a piece of jaggery. Bring to boil.

Temper with spluttered mustard seeds and a red chilli.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bol Bedi Bol

I am not a cricket fan. IPL or no IPL, my life goes on at pretty much the same pace as before. But once in a while, when I take a break to step into the recreation zone (where the husband, the cats, the airconditioner and all the entertainment gadgets are housed), I can’t help but sum up the goings-on and usually make a hasty retreat, sometimes in less than fifteen minutes.

I notice Mandira Bedi, sans noodle straps and sari, chic new haircut, trying to infuse as much bubbly quotient into the insipid proceedings of the IPL (well, I know enough to tell a good match from a bad one). I like what I see. I like her hair (I always like women who experiment with their hair), I love her clothes and accessories and I don’t really give a damn about her cricket quotient. Forget what everyone else has to say—I believe that any average person watching cricket, whether it is the building watchman or the people at work or the Ranji trophy player next door is always laden with statistics. She obviously cannot compete in that department, and why should she?

I am aware of all the criticism she has had to deal with. “What does she know about cricket?” Or “She’s just a trophy on the show..” and “How dumb can she get…?” blah, blah, blah… I wonder why she is at the receiving end of so much hate mail. It’s not that the men backstage are an effusive bunch, brimming with pizzaz and repartees that Bedi sticks out like a sore thumb. They are so not.

I grew up in the era of test cricket, when dad and his beer buddies usually congregated at one person’s house and got wasted for five days while the wives bickered in the background. I was the ten-year old that passed the nibbles and water around then. It was a time when there were real men at the box—even though I was too young to sift the men from the boys. ML Jaisimha, Venkatraghavan, Abbas Ali Baig, Tony Greig, Richie Benaud, Geoff Boycott, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, Asif Iqbal ((dishy Imi was very much on the field back then) had enough gravitas, humour or drool quotient to last the entire five days of the test matches and no one was complaining. You never needed a Mandira Bedi then (noodles or no noodles).

But what do we have now? Kris (yeah!) Srikanth with his tedious sense of humour, Ravi Shastri (who incidentally loves the sound of his voice so much that he actually repeats the same thing, twice), Mohinder Amarnath (deadpan uninterrupted), Sanjay Manjrekar (less deadpan), Sunny Gavaskar (who for some strange reason is never sunny side up), Sidhu (whose Sidhuisms are also getting tedious) or Ajay Jadeja (umm.. ohh..) .

Ahem! I now understand why Ms Bedi is important in the scheme of things. No wonder then, that despite all the flak, the channel always brings her back. In any case, I’d rather watch her than any of the men off the field.

Friday, April 17, 2009

In a nutshell

Forget what everyone else says. I think nuts are a girl’s best friend. They can be packed in tiny containers and sit pretty inside the tiniest handbags, but when you need your nutrition fix, they are totally dependable. High in fibre, low on glycemic index and conservative on calories, they can provide the goodies without the ill-effects or the agony. Ask me. I have gone through most of my pregnancy armed with these potent energy sources— almonds, walnuts, peanuts, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds— practically any nut or seed that can be eaten.

But there was still a void for that one life-giving energy snack when one felt a sugar low, and didn’t particularly want to work too hard to satiate it. Fruit did the job, but sometimes involved arduous processes like cleaning or slicing, unless you were eating a banana. Nariyalpaniwalas seem to have attained cult status and are not easy to come by. Junk is out, and so are processed juices or instant snacks. Granola bars are still contentious for their glycemic index. Enter the peanut butter.

I must admit, it was well into my adolescence that peanut butter came into my life, when dad would get prized, ‘imported’ bottles full of the stuff that seemed as precious as a rare whisky, as it was hard to come by, and had to be bought from bootleggers.

‘Have it with anything’ is an understatement…. I have spooned out and consumed straight from the jar, added it to porridge, used it as a bread spread, layered it on cake, added it to milkshakes, and of course made the most fulfilling sandwiches with it. A lot of my trekking memories are about how peanut butter saved my life.

Okay, it is rich in dietary fibres, and two teaspoons of peanut butter has as much protein as 225 ml of milk. Also research has also proven that peanuts and peanut butter eaters have leaner bodies. And, it has been prescribed to fight protein deficiency and malnutrition.

That’s enough trivia to convince me at least. But I think the best part is the ease of use. No thawing, no defrosting or any such complications. Just open the jar and scoop out a dollop without feeling sinful or any such thing.

Planter’s Creamy Peanut butter and American foods were once upon a time our only peanut butter sources. Till Funfoods came along and more recently, Sundrop launched its peanut butter. Finally, you can have your peanut butter and eat it too. Or drink, if that’s the way you prefer it.

The next time someone pities you for being a vegetarian and wonders aloud where your protein would come from, tell them in defiance, “Mere paas peanut butter hai!”



High energy milkshake

Muesli

One tablespoon peanut butter

Fruit of your choice (bananas and papayas work best)

Milk

Ice cubes



Method:

In a blender, add a tablespoon of muesli (even a granola bar would work), a dollop of peanut butter, chopped fruit, milk and ice cubes and give it a whisk.

Serve chilled.



Peanut Porridge

Oatmeal

Peanut butter

Milk



Method:

To three heaped teaspoons of oatmeal in a bowl, add enough water to cover the oats.

Microwave for 30 seconds. Mix a dollop of peanut butter into the oats, and add milk as required.

Your high energy, high calcium breakfast is ready

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Double decker woes

“No tight clothes, no high heels, no nail polish, no eating outside, no keeping relations with husband…” These were the doctor’s orders upon pronouncing me pregnant.

It took me 30 seconds to realise that ‘keeping relations’ meant having sex. It felt odd…why would an obstetrician need a euphemism for sex? Wasn’t that the core of his business (the fact that people had to have sex to get pregnant, so that he could deliver the babies and make money)? Why then, would he speak of it like it was a four-letter word?

Even after repeated visits, he flinched from the use of the word and I found it amusing.

Okay, I convinced myself. Clearly, he was old school and it would take a lot for him to say the word. I dare not ask him about alcohol, or late night partying or driving to work (which I still do, as the drivers I encountered nearly drove me to premature labour with their idiocies). He might just have turned blue and look aghast at my irreverent self.

I did muster the guts to ask him about yoga though. Thought he would approve. On second thoughts, he wouldn’t, if he just came to my Iyengar Yoga class and watched me hanging off ropes, balancing head-stands and hand-stands with panache. He declared without a twitch on his face, “Nothing for three months. Now just go home and rest!”

“Rest? But I feel good.. and I have a job!…” I manage to get the words out.

“Okay, take it easy then,” he said with a tone of resignation.

It’s been 29 weeks and I have done everything but take it easy.

The sonologist was another one who could come out tops in the I-will-not-smile contest. “First pregnancy?” he asked, with a raised eyebrow. What was unstated is, “Why have you taken so bloody long?”

I feel like telling him, “It took me so long to find a man worth making a baby with, I just couldn’t help it…” Or something like, “You know I have made so many, I have lost count…”

Instead I grin sheepishly and say a meek yes. I don’t think my humour would do down too well with his steely, clinical exterior.

He then divulges his goodies on a screen. “Okay here is the baby’s spine, this is the head.. blah blah…” It all looks like a blur to me, but I say, “O, how nice..!”

Think about it. Having a baby is closest to a fun time you can have with a doctor. You could laugh off cholesterol disorders, or piles or obesity or stuff like that, but seriously, being pregnant is the only time you need not ‘feel like a patient’. Rather like someone who has undertaken a mission and needs a facilitator.

Why then, do women in obstetrician waiting rooms look like they don’t have a bone of humour in their bodies? How then, are they thinking happy thoughts to make happy babies?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Tomatoed!

Forget the whole debate about whether it is a fruit or a vegetable. Does it really matter? You like, you eat, that’s all that counts in the world of edibles. And so it goes with the cheery tomato.

Once upon a time, my mother, in her quest for making me a good south Indian girl, eligible for marriage to future Ramakrishnans or Balasubramaniams that came her way, engaged a Carnatic music teacher for me. She was good, the teacher, nothing wrong with her really, and we affectionately called her paatumami. Problem was, she always showed up just as I was back from school, ready to fling my satchel and run off to play. Instead, I had to dress demurely and exercise my vocal chords over a harmonium for an hour.

Now paatumami really knew her raagams and her taalams, and strictly went by the book. I enjoyed the whole process of finding my voice and my range.. till it began to get tedious, and distracting. I was more interested in ‘getting to the song’ while she felt I had to learn the discipline before I got on to ‘other things’. And therein lay the problem.

Anyway, my classical singer career was nipped in the bud, but paatumami left something behind that I cherish even today. A recipe for tomato chutney that I have named after her.

My mother was a great one for buying them by the tens of kilos and turning them into ketchup. “ Now mother, we don’t even have ketchup much. Why are you making so much of it?” I would ask, plaintively, knowing fully well that we would be assigned with filling bottles and bottles of the damn thing, holding a funnel at its mouth, taking care that nothing spills. And then, the various bottles would be dispatched to near and dear ones, making one feel even more annoyed. “Wait till the prices go up to Rs 60 a kilo, then you will know the value of this,” would be her retort.

She has finally stopped her ketchup jamboree, but has now graduated to tomato tokku (at least I am glad it is more versatile, unlike the blessed ketchup which required one to make grilled sandwiches or sabudana vadas just to mop up at least a tenth of a bottle). Each time she visits, she religiously brings over a bottle or two when they are in season, which I laboriously consume over the next few months. Don’t get me wrong, I like the stuff, just that I am not really into preserves–I just find them monotonous—which is why I like instant pickles instead of ones that are made for the year and stocked in bharnis.

I find a devious joy in roasting a whole tomato, peeling it and using it for whatever—pasta sauce, gravies, even soup or dal— the whole act of charring that precedes skinning lends it a taste and texture blanching will never manage. But, all things said and done, the tomato is one of those ‘always-the-bridesmaid-never-the bride’ kind of stories. Almost every thing you make can justify a tomato, but it can never star in a movie all by itself. Unless you count the tomato soup as a blockbuster, which I don’t, even if it’s made in Tuscany or wherever the best basil grows.




Pattumami chutney

Ingredients:

4-5 large tomatoes chopped

Rai, hing, haldi, jaggery

Oil for tempering (preferably sesame oil)

Salt to taste:



Method:

Heat the oil, add mustard seeds, and hing.

When they splutter, add the chopped tomatoes, haldi, red chilli powder, a piece of jaggery, and mix well.

Cook on a slow flame, till it becomes an even paste, adding salt to taste.

Serve with chapatis or rice, or even use as a bread spread.




Green tomato pachadi

Ingredients:

Green tomatoes (1/4 kg), cut into pieces

200 gm dahi

Grated coconut (one tablespoonful)

One green chilli

Oil, mustard for tempering



Method:

Heat oil in a pan, add rai, and allow to splutter.

Fry the chopped tomatoes lightly for just two minutes (they should still be crunchy)


For the masala: Grind the coconut, half teaspoon rai and one green chilli to a paste


When the tomatoes cool, add the above paste, dahi and salt to taste.

Garnish with curry leaves and serve chilled as an accompaniment

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Cat lessons

Contrary to how it worked out for Robert Fulghum, I didn’t learn all I wanted to know in kindergarten. In fact I don’t even know all I need to know much after that. But I have come to realise, in my ripe adulthood that the 13 commandments I ever needed, I learnt from cats.

1. People who love you the most are the ones that let you be.

2. There is such a thing as too much affection. It’s called claustrophobia.

3. The louder you are, and the more you wield power, the less you actually have it. People who are loud and aggressive are usually insecure, that is why they need to shout to be heard. Power is best when it is not used. Ever seen a cat get aggressive and make a fool of itself for no reason?

4. There is nothing more underrated than discretion. Notice how cats never get caught doing things they are not supposed to do?

5. Bigger is not necessarily better. There’s much more dignity in holding your head high and talking up to people than talking down to them.

6. When in doubt, sleep. The art of doing nothing is hugely underestimated, and if all of us just knew how to do nothing, and look good while doing so, we’ll be happier people.

7. Conversation is largely a waste of time. Most people talk because they are uncomfortable with silences, not because they have something useful to say. Have you noticed how the most obnoxious person at work is always talking?

8. Ignorance is bliss. What doesn’t happen to you doesn’t concern you, and is definitely not worth poking your nose into. The world is better off without you getting involved sorting their problems.

9. Good looks, humour, intelligence and charm are always intimidating to most people, because it’s what they lack the most. If they have one, they don’t have the other, so they are constantly works-in-progress. A languid manner, an easy body language is what the whole world wants it, but doesn’t know how to get. If you have it, flaunt it.

10. If you want a good body, work for it. You can’t just eat right or not eat and get there. Have you notice how many stretches a cat does on an average day?

11. There are two kinds of people in this world—those who work bloody hard and never get noticed, and those who get the work done and always earn brownie points. Still figuring out what you want to be?

12. Ass-licking, networking, schmoozing is a waste of time. When you are good, people usually know it. At least the people who matter do. The rest can take a walk. The best company you will ever have is yourself. Nothing else can match up to that.

13. Always stay groomed. You never know who you will run into and when. That doorbell ringing could be a hottie. And then you can’t say, “Let me put my face on and come back”

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Orange county

All the Halloween hoopla in the city, thanks to an alarming population of expats has suddenly made the pumpkin look cool, unlike earlier when it was relegated to the status of an adulterant in tomato ketchup (remember those ads on telly that screamed that your ketchup is not real unless it has tomatoes in it, and for all you know, you might be getting pumpkin?)

I really felt sorry for the yellow pumpkin (kaddu) when they did that, even though I didn’t even like it much back then. Who would, when it was served up as a messy accompaniment with sambar, sweetened and garnished beyond your palate and generally didn’t appeal to the aesthete in you? Those were the days when you boycotted your vegetables and asked for chips. And your mother yielded, because she knew nothing else would work really.

Some days, it also made an appearance in your sambar, chatting up the lady fingers and the drumsticks, but that was largely okay. But on days that my father made a matthan pachadi, I would declare it my favourite vegetable in the whole world. I didn’t quite imagine its gargantuan proportions till one day, when I saw dad cutting a yellow pumpkin and realised it was actually such a monster, and took so much work cleaning. I still remember, he would carefully collect the slimy seeds from the surface, wash them clean, dry them, so we could skin the seeds and eat them later. But invariably, they would be poached by crows or other such species, and we never got our pumpkin seeds. But recently, I saw them packaged and sold at Foodland under the Conscious Foods label by Kavita Mukhi, and it made me happy.

He did relent into giving me the recipe for the pachadi, years later, but I am sure he is holding something back, because try as I might, it never tastes the same when I make it. But then dad’s like that.

The mother of course is the other extreme. Trust her to turn anything into a halwa or even a barfi and then play this ‘guess what vegetable it is?’ game with us. She did the same with pumpkin (it was something she didn’t even have to artificially colour) and many a pumpkin barfi or halwa has been consumed by us innocently while we were going through our phase of ‘I hate pumpkin’

I of course, made my peace with it years later, firstly when I discovered the joys of pumpkin soup and how versatile it was and how it could blend with almost any other vegetable that could be souped. Second, when I revisited olan, something that was a total comfort food in my adolescence, and made it for myself.





Pumpkin soup

Half kilo of yellow pumpkin, skinned, and cut into pieces

Two cloves garlic

Butter

Crushed black pepper

Chopped walnuts

Basil or celery for the garnish

(Tip: you can also add boiled and blended carrots, beetroot, tomato, potato or peas to make the broth more flavorful, but I prefer the minimal approach)



Method:

Clean and skin the pumpkin, cut into large pieces. Pressure cook for two whistles along with two cloves of garlic.

Cool, puree, add salt, pepper and bring to a boil.

Add a dollop of butter or cream, chopped walnuts and garnish with a stalk of celery or basil and serve with garlic bread or baguettes.




Olan

¼ kilo yellow pumpkin

A small bunch of green chowli beans, cut into two inch pieces

Two green chillies

Coconut milk (half a tetrapack)

Salt to taste



Method:

Skin the yellow pumpkin, taking care to remove all the green parts, and then slice thinly into 2”X2” pieces.

In a vessel, transfer the pumpkin, add salt, a cup of water, one or two slit and mashed green chillies, the chowli and bring to boil on a slow flame, after mixing well.

When the pumpkin and the chowli are nearly done add a tablespoon of coconut milk, mixing gently.

When it comes to a boil, switch off the gas.

Serve hot with chapatis or sambar rice