Millimeters high jungles sprout in a tub where The Family had scattered a pinch of methi seeds. The monsoon is good for microgreens. These methi leaves (Trigonella foenum-graecum, fenugreek) will add flavour to our salad. And I can see evidence of animals in this jungle. We’ll have to harvest the leaves before these tiny herbivores eat up our salad.
Some days are set aside for inspection and invention. First the fruits on the table. They had all shriveled up. What a waste of plums and jamun. If I had some liver or bheja I would have added these nearly dry fruits to them. But all I had was big steaks of rawas. We’d harvested some intensely flavourful ajwain leaves a few days ago. We have the Plectranthus amboinicus plant in the balcony. It grows very fast, and every now and then has to be pruned back. I’d put some of the leaves in a salad, converted a large part into an ajwain-and-olive chutney/tapenade, and left the remainder for flavouring other food with.
Coat the rawas steaks with a garlic and ginger paste. Let it stand for a while. Then sprinkle it with Himalayan salt and crushed pepper. Slather the steaming trays with sesame oil. Lay out the steaks on the trays. I wanted only one layer of fish on each tray, so I had to use two of the stackable trays. On a last minute whim I crushed some walnuts over them to give a crunchy added texture. Finally I covered them with ajwain leaves, closed the steamer, and steamed them for seven minutes. It turned out that we ate the fish a day later. The day in the fridge had intensified the flavour. The Family decided to warm it on a tawa. The slight roast gave the surface a crisper texture, and made an interesting contrast between the crisp surface layer and the juicy inner flesh.
Right now, as summer turns into monsoon, grishma to varsha, our table is full of red fruits: from the red-orange of ripe apricots to the darker reds of ripe plums. Just to be contrary, I put a couple of left over jamun (Syzygium cumini) in the bowl. Not only does the deep purple of its skin present a counterpoint, so does its taste. The sweetness of the apricots and plums seem bland compared to the tart turning to sweet of jamun. I think this photo could be this year’s goodbye to these fruits, now that three showers a day has announced that the monsoon winds are close to us. The weather is better, but it is the season of grey for the next four months.
Have you ever forgotten about the existence of a memory but acted on it? I think that’s what I did on Friday evening when I broke three eggs together into a bowl, dropped a few cleaned prawns into it, shook a few balls of pepper and a spoonful of mixed dried herbs over it, and then beat it together. I took out my trusty steamer and put the bowl into it. A little thought, then I realized that I’ve used this bowl in an oven at 200 C, so it should be okay with steam. Another pause, and I decided to cover the bowl with a plate to prevent steam from dripping into it. Then a seven minute steam bath, and my accompaniment to beer was ready. The Family tasted it and asked “How did you think this up?”
I had to think in order to answer. And I realized that this dish had stuck in my memory ever since I had dinner with two younger Indian colleagues in 2019 in Wuhan. I’d even written about it, and then completely (or not quite completely) forgotten about it. Among the several things we’d asked for, this “stew” had completely surprised me with its lovely custardly consistency and its fishy taste. Later I dug up this photo and realized that it must have been flavoured with fish sauce and some broth. I had lost the memory of the memory, but not the memory of the taste, and it had haunted me until I re-created it unknowingly. Now I recall the name (蒸蛋羹, zhēng dàngēng, ie, steamed egg tart, or 蒸水蛋, zhēng shuǐ dàn, ie, steamed water egg) have to look for recipes and try again.
Strictly speaking, this is not a post about food. Its a post about the stuff about food: the drink at the beginning and the dessert at the end. The drink was perfect for a hot summer day: loads of ice, cucumber for flavour. What was the hot orange marigold doing in there? Its become quite a fashion to serve drinks with inedible flowers. I just hope they have no traces of insecticide left on them.
The dessert was my favourite at this place: a perfect tiramisu. You can tell how much I like it. I remembered to take a photo only after finishing more than half of it. It does miss the ladyfingers soaked in coffee, but the mascarpone cream and cocoa are spot on. It is such an easy recipe that I wonder why so many places mess it up completely. Lightness is the essence.
Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.
Our train deposited us at Ramnagar railway station an hour before its scheduled arrival time. Not only was this unprecedented, it was also unwelcome. I certainly hadn’t had enough sleep to be able to spend the day watching tigers. We staggered out of the station with our baggage and into a taxi. I needed a chai, but wasn’t sure that I could get one at this time. I was surprised.
A night market seemed to be in progress right outside, on the sides of the highway that led to Corbett, Ranikhet and further north. One food cart was ready with the usual trimmings: chai boiling in a pan, ready to be poured into the usual thick-walled glass, eggs and bread for a quick omelette, or the packet of instant noodles. The man looked sleepy as he looked up at my phone, and I felt quite as tired as him.
Fruits, a quick meal, and packaged food seemed to be the big thing here. I was slow in interpreting what I saw. I looked for bananas and oranges, a few apples. Food in these jungle lodges can be very good, but usually lack a bit in fruits. I found several carts and distributed my custom between them.
Eventually it struck me that there were too many people on the road. Could they all be going to the jungle? I didn’t think eco-tourism had caught on so widely. I eventually realized that this was a day for a pilgrimage, and people from several districts around here had arrived to visit a temple which stood in the middle of one of the rivers which thread the western Terai before they merge into the Ganga. The number of eco-tourists was miniscule.
After two years in repeated lock downs and extensive work from home, the crowds are back near the stock market. The traffic is back to being as chaotic as it was in the beginning of 2020. The street food vendors are not yet doing as well as they used to, but people are back. The vendor in the featured photo has been known for the freshness of his chana-sheng (roasted chickpeas and peanuts). He continued to sit here through most of the last two years, and is still at it with a smile.
Although it is burning hot, no one is going home any longer. Colourful umbrellas protect most vendors as they serve out food. The man on the left serves idli and vada. I stopped to take a photo and was tempted to try it out; the sambar smelt good. I tore myself away and looked at the next guy. He had a large pot of buttermilk, chhaas. Salt and chili flakes can be added to taste. The neighbourhood was conscious of my phone camera by now. People smiled at me and advised me on what was good. I wouldn’t get any other candid street scenes. But I’ve kept track of the recommendations. When it comes to street food, it pays to listen to locals.
Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.
Saturday’s dinner was elaborate and there was not enough bandwidth in the kitchen to push through our usual lunch. Our lunch always includes a salad. For the rest we had to scrape the fridge for leftovers or semi-ready ingredients. The Family had the remains of a couple of leftover veggies, a bangra (mackerel) that she’d stashed in anticipation of the Saturday rush, millet rotis and dal. I had sandwiches on my mind. Old white bread and the last slices of a smoked ham were the base. Some scrounging gave me wasabi and mustard. Each of them would flavour one of the sandwiches. Over the layer of flavouring I crumbled the last of a goat cheese which was fresh when I bought it. The only edible leaves in the fridge were kale (I always forget the delicious ajwain leaves growing on our balcony at times like this). We’d picked up some wonderful pickled vegetables on our trip to Amritsar. Carrots and cauliflowers, winter veggies, sweet and spicy, pickled for just such a summer day. Some of it went over the kale. Then the slices of ham. My lunch was ready. The Family looked it over. “You’ve been very adventurous ever since you passed your cardiac check up,” she remarked acidly.
On international labour day why not use a photo of a farmer with sugarcane on a back road of Baramati district? After all, sugar is the second most valuable crop in the world, following rice. The history of sugarcane cultivation is tied to the most horrendous history of modern times: the genocide that goes by the name of slavery. When this was outlawed, there followed the mass “transportation” of agricultural labour from India to the same sugar-producing British colonies.
But this blot is recent, and the history of sugar is long. Chemically refined sugar was first made in India about the time of the Buddha. The world’s oldest sweet was probably the kheer (a sweet made by boiling rice, milk, and sugar together) that Sujata famously fed to the ascetic Siddhartha, enabling him to enter the meditative state which led to him becoming the Buddha. No story that old is without variants, and you could equally believe that Sujata’s kheer was the first meal that the newly enlightened Buddha ate. In either case, the rough coincidence of two seemingly unrelated dates makes me believe that the story actually refers to kheer sweetened with the new sweetener, sugar, rather than the older molasses. Achayya, in his magisterial survey of Indian food, says that the oldest archaeological evidence for tooth decay comes from India around this time. So, along with sugar, India perhaps gave bad teeth to the rest of the world.
And the latest turn? Sugarcane cultivation requires enormous amounts of water. Baramati district is full of dams, large and small, which converted this once-barren place into an agricultural power house, and one of the large destinations for the seasonal internal migration of labour. The wealth in this region comes from sugarcane, but the fields do not lie fallow in the hot season. On the day that I took this photo, I’d spotted many fields newly planted with millets or corn. I wonder how long it will be before a change in climate forces another change in agricultural practice.
Pandemic-honed expertise is awash through the world. The Leafless is not fond of sweets and desserts, but she spent the lockdown perfecting her baking skills. She turns out legendary biscotti by the kilos now. She’s stopped baking a daily cake since she realized that the reason her husband, Mau Mau, had put on weight was because he was trying very hard to empty a place on the table for the next day’s cake by finishing the previous one.
So, when we had lunch at their place last weekend The Family was very surprised to find that there was no dessert. The Leafless sighed and told us that she’d tried making a Bengali dessert called bhapa doi, made by steaming a sweetened yogurt, and it had not come out well. I couldn’t imagine how those ingredients could turn into a disaster, so we insisted on a taste. Bhapa doi should have the consistency of a custard. The Leafless had steamed it a little too long, and her experiment had settled into firmness.
As we spooned it up The Family said “It tastes very good. It’s almost like a cheesecake.” Mau Mau agreed, but The Leafless demurred. “A bit grainier than a cheesecake.” True. But this was a consistency I’d tasted. I searched through alternatives. “Like a chhana poda,” I finally realized. The consistency of that Odiya sweet was quite close to what we were eating. There was general agreement. Satisfied, we went on to finish the chhana poda-bhapa doi.