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You can’t break an egg without making an omelette. This lesson learnt peeping over a table at an impressionable young age has stayed with me. So when I put the brown paper bag with half a dozen eggs down too hard on the kitchen counter, it was time to scoop out the cracked egg, chop the onions, tomatoes, chili, and coriander leaves, beat the egg to an absurd frothiness, fuss over whether to use butter or a vegetable oil in the pan, and then fry the omelette. I’ve lost the skill of flipping it neatly, which tells me that I need to break more eggs.
A good omelette takes panache
Harold McGee, “On Food and Cooking”
I’d jumped when I read about an omelette in Pantagruel. “That old, is it?” I thought, and then realized that it must be older. It has to have been discovered over and over again every time an egg fell into fat. Although the home-cooked Indian version is absolute comfort food for me, I also love the one egg version available across the country as street food, usually bundled between two slices of bread heated on the same pan. And, of course, it doesn’t stop me from liking the French version. Although French cookbooks make a great fuss about omelettes, these delights are not to be tamed. The version right next door, in Italy, is a little different, and when it travels across the Atlantic, it can mutate even more. But the ultimate in omelettes have to be the Japanese versions, layered and fluffy, little pieces of which I first found in sushi, and then at breakfast, and finally even as a full meal. “Are there new worlds to conquer?” I hear the sigh of eggs, words which surely must have inspired Alexander of Macedonia.
A couple of warmer days cleared the haze a little. I can now see a smudge above the trees which is the horizon. With the relatively mild amount of pollution the sunrises and sunsets are glorious. I sipped my second cup of tea and looked at the enchanting yellow morning light on the mango tree. The tree is still in bloom, but if you look at the inflorescence carefully, you can already see the green spheres which are the new fruit. A year has rolled around. Last year this time everyone was busy not paying attention to dark clouds. This year everyone is looking at that little bright patch in the clouds, the vaccine, and telling each other that the storm is over.
But one can still make the best of the day. The Family breezed in and announced excitedly “Grey hornbills.” As I searched for my spectacles, she impatiently handed me my camera, knowing that it would be the next thing I would look for. There they were, on a gulmohar tree far away. Indian grey hornbill (Ocycoros birostris). Two of them. Probably juveniles, judging by the orange coloured bare skin around the eyes, and the incompletely developed horn above the bill, the casque. So the nesting pair which had lost its usual nesting hole when last year’s storm blew down the tree did manage to find another tree in the garden.
This pair afforded us a good view of what hornbills do when they are not building nests or looking for food. One sat and preened its chest feathers, the other scratched behind its ears with one claw. They looked content. I watched for a while, clicked off a couple of dozen action photos of birds doing self-care, and wandered off. Half an hour later, when I came back, they had gone. I guess the young eventually leave the vicinity, find a mate and a nesting site, and settle down to produce brood year after year. Our garden has had a single breeding pair for year. The young do not seem to come back here to nest. Perhaps that is for the best. Since they can survive in trees that humans grow in gardens and cities, they will keep finding new nesting spots. At least one of this group of magnificent large birds has thrived in an urbanized world.
Before my day can start, I make myself a cup of tea, and look at photos from a ten years old trip. Sikkim is one of the places I would like to go back to as soon as I can. The Family and I have been trying to organize our work so that we can begin to travel again. International travel is a long way off, but India offers immense opportunities. There will probably be a window of opportunity in the next six months, when cases have declined, and the adventurous can start to travel again.
My trip through Lachung and Yumthang had been too short. An overnight stay in Lachung (elevation 2.9 Kms) was followed by a day trip up the Lachung river towards the Yumthang valley and its Rhododendron sanctuary. The weather is usually bad, but the sight of glaciers descending from the clouds can be a welcome change, even if you are cold and wet. On our trip the clouds were so dense that we could not even sight the fabulous Chombu peak. Well under 7 Kms high, the peak remains unclimbed even today.
But spending a day walking around the village of Lachung can be rewarding. The Lepcha who live here cheek by jowl with Tibetans are very pleasant people. Ten years ago the place was small, but years of tourism after that must have caused it to expand. This would have been interrupted by the immense earthquake which happened the year after our visit, but surely the village has been built back up by now. I have many photos of the wooden houses with their cheerfully coloured doors, and I would like to see them again.
One of the other nearby places I remember fondly is the Lachung monastery, a quiet 19th-century structure. It was deserted when we visited. We walked around it, admiring the solidity of the walls and the great upkeep. The Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have a colour scheme which is simultaneously extremely visible, because of the whitewashed walls, and immensely restful because of the small areas of earth colours, mainly black and ocher, with little touches of blue and green. I wonder how well it survived the earthquake.
The monastery has a wonderful garden and orchard. I spent a long time admiring the apple blossoms, and the moss growing on it. That was a time when I began to wonder whether an aesthetic I had considered Japanese could actually be widespread within world Buddhism. The delight in nature, the accidental and fleeting, which is captured in the Japanese phrase wabi sabi could perhaps be a Buddhist response to what the religion considers to be a fleeting and passing life. We flitted through this part of the Himalayas quickly. After the day trip up the Lachung river, we were back to the village at the confluence of the Lachung and Lachen rivers. The next three days were taken up by a trip up the Lachen to the high lake of Gurudongmar. Perhaps our next trip could be slow.
When a cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) flew up to sat on a tree at dawn, I had to take out my camera to take some photos. After having spent some time in my initial years of watching birds, I’ve given up looking at these white egrets. They are very common, and since the four species are not terribly easy to tell apart, I don’t usually bother to either record them or to look hard. Cattle egrets are the easiest to tell apart from the others; they always have some yellow on them. In the breeding season it covers their head, neck, and back. In winter, the yellow recedes to a small patch on its forehead, as you see in the photo above.
To identify the other white egrets you have to look at the feet and beaks. Since the birds are usually seen in extremely muddy places, this is not easy. The little egret (Egretta garzetta) has a dark beak, dark legs, and yellow feet. In breeding season it has two long plumes hanging behind its nape. The large egret (Casmerodius alba, formerly Ardea alba) has dark legs and feet. Its beak is dark in the breeding season, and yellow otherwise. In both seasons it has a dark line extending from the beak under its eyes and beyond. This is called the gape line. If you see it flex its somewhat longer neck, you might see a kink in the neck. In the photo above (taken last February near Jamnagar), the gape line clearly extends beyond the eye, and there is a definite S-shaped kink in the neck, both telling us that this is a large egret. The intermediate egret (Mesophoyx intermedia, formerly Ardea intermedia) is the most confusing. Its legs, feet, and beak are very similar to that of the large egret, but the gape line stops below the eye. Also, its neck is a little shorter, and does not kink into an S-shape. Distinguishing them is always a puzzle, and I’m never sure that it worth taking the time to solve.
To the right of the building that you see in the featured photo, above the trees, is my view of the sea. I can often see ships on the horizon, waiting to dock in the Mumbai harbour. Not now. For the last two weeks, I have not seen the horizon because of the pollution. It is specially galling, because we’ve had wonderfully clear air for almost a year, since late March 2020. I took winter pollution in my stride before, hiding behind masks and switching on air purifiers, but this year I reminded myself of the reasons behind this.
The reason for the annual winter pollution is the formation of an inversion layer in the atmosphere. When the sea is colder than the land, the hot air over the city rises, and cold air from the sea blows in. This happens daily, through the year. In winter, the sea air is colder, and the sun is not high enough in the sky to warm this layer fast enough that the breeze sustains itself through the day. As a result, a cold layer stays put over the city, as human activity pumps more pollutants into it. Since cold air is denser, the layering is stable, and the static dense layer just gets more and more dirty. On a relatively warmer day this layer can get heated enough to rise, and one can suddenly see the air clear up. But then as the air cools again, it gets murky as the temperature inversion sets in. By comparing the maximum and minimum sea water temperature with atmospheric temperature, it seems to me that, as usual, we are in for bouts of bad air right until March.
What bothers me is the source of the pollution. Since businesses are still running in shifts, and people are largely home, the traffic is not as bad as it used to be. Sure, the rush hour has its share of snarls, but travel times are still only half of what they were last January. On the other hand, all the construction and repairs that were postponed by nine or ten months has suddenly started again. I can see roads dug up everywhere, many earth movers at work, and concrete being poured. I guess dust from construction, rather than traffic and industry, is the main component of the bad air now. This is actually worse than normal, and very bad news for respiratory health.
In other years I find that visits to Delhi or Kolkata in this season are likely to give me a bad throat. The reason is that the air pollution in both these cities comes from burning organic matter, which may cause fungal spores and bacteria to become airborne. These are directly responsible for throat infections. Winter pollution in Mumbai usually causes respiratory problems in more indirect ways. However, if dust is now a major component of air pollution in Mumbai, then the bacteria carried in soil have just added to the list of throat infections we can now get. Add this to our worries about COVID-19 and the possible cross over of the bird flu now killing poultry and crows through the country. Consider also that an inversion layer prevents the rapid dilution of pathogens that infected people breathe into the atmosphere. All told, the next couple of months could be bad.
Myanmar’s Inle lake is a place which fascinated me because of the life lived on water. Houses float on water, you need to take a boat to get to a neighbour’s place, children seem to take boats to school, there are floating farms, and the staple food is a lot of fish and rice. A odd thing is that traditional handicrafts include silverwork; the silver was brought from nearby mines. The silversmiths have now expanded into other kinds of jewellery.
Unfortunately we were there in an extremely rainy week. As a result, I spent a lot of time indoors, and part of it was in a jeweller’s workshop. My eyes snagged on the pearls. I’d never paid attention to pearls before, but in this watery light I could understand why painters had spent effort on getting the light on pearls. It was truly fascinating to watch how they react to changes of light: glowing yellow in filtered sunlight, changing to blue in shadow.
I had no idea that the pearls had to be separated from the mother with a tiny knife: a caesarean section! I learnt that pearls are cysts formed in the inner surface of an oyster or mussel shell, formed in response to irritants. The material of the pearl and the inner surface of the shell, the mother of pearl, are very similar. They are layers of a mineral (largely calcite and aragonite) alternating with very thin organic layers, containing the cells and genes required to secrete the next layer outwards. The concentric shells of mineral, each between half and a third of a micrometer thick, refract and diffuse incident light to give that characteristic sheen that people love. Pearls and the mother of pearl are great reasons to shoot close ups.
“Didn’t you want to take a photo?” The Family asked after we’d nearly finished eating our plates of the Kolkata style Hakka noodles which I’d whipped together. Indeed I did. So I dug up the smallest plate I could find, and scraped the last remaining bits off the dish into it for the featured photo. After all, a blog about food is no good without a photo of the food. But then, does a photo with three strands of broken noodles make a good introduction to a blog about noodles? Or is it a little like introducing Hakka people and their culture with a dish that many Indians now associate with Kolkata?
The recipe is simple and quick, as any street food should be. Boil and cool the egg noodles. In a kadhai fry some onions and garlic, and drop the prawns into it. When the prawns are nearly done, add the finely chopped green and red capsicum into it, tomatoes if you like, green beans if you are fond of them, and, finally, a green chili slit lengthwise. All this is done quickly and at high heat, as a stir fry. Now, into the sizzling hot kadhai drop a generous splash of dark soya sauce and, immediately, the noodles. Toss them around, making sure that they smoke and burn just that little bit to add the authentic taste of Kolkata’s eclectic street food tradition. Top it off with a garnish of chopped spring onion. Street food is best if it is served immediately.
The addition of green chili, generous amounts of fried onions and garlic, are Indianization of the cuisine. The Hakka settlers, possibly from the Fujian and Guangdong provinces of China, arrived in the late 18th century CE as traders and labourers to the then-thriving entrepot of Kolkata. They were followed by waves of other Chinese immigrants, whose traces you can find in the Cantonese and Szechuan additions to Indian-Chinese food. I haven’t had Hakka food in China, so I have no idea how closely the Indian Hakka noodles hew to the original. In my student days, weekend trips to Kolkata wouldn’t be complete without visits to the Chinatown in Tangra. Those gave me the impression that the food could be reasonably authentic. I did not realize then that the bustling Chinatown was already a shadow of what it was in the days before the Indo-China war of 1962, and would be largely a memory by the 21st century.
I see the last of the Kolkata and Mumbai Chinese when I visit my favourite Chinese restaurants. Young members of the family have no connection with China; they speak English and Bengali. Now and then you see a visiting Chinese businessman or tourist who would like authentic home style food. An old matriarch will then appear and try to communicate with the customer in her broken Hakka or Cantonese. If you continue to pay attention to such a table, you will notice the eventual appearance of whole steamed fish, stir fried greens, and bowls of rice, not at all what we Indians love to eat in a Chinese restaurant.
When I saw this framed print in Kolkata my first thought was that it must be a copy of a Kalighat style painting. My second guess was that it was a copy of a Jamini Roy. It is neither, but it follows a tradition that both used: Durga (in the aspect of Parvati) cradles her eldest son, Ganesha, in her lap. The tradition of Ganesha as the son of Parvati is at least two millennia old, so there must have been other traditions of painting the two in a similar style. It should be interesting to dig into whatever is left of these paintings.