Kolkata style Hakka noodles

“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.

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A painting from Bengal

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.

Gratuitious photo

A walk in the garden on Perihelion Day was a bit of a disaster. In most years this is the best time in the garden in Mumbai. This year the pandemic meant delays in turnover and replanting. As a result, the garden was mostly freshly turned beds. Only one row of plants was flowering, the lilies that you see here. Backlit, I wonder which version looks better, the colour or the monochrome. What do you think?

The painted rickshaws outside Kolkata

Painted rickshaws are common in many parts of eastern India. On recent trips I’ve spent time photographing them in various places: first in Tripura, then in Assam, and most recently, last week, in the outskirts of Kolkata. A folk tradition of art is very alive in this part of the country, and artists make some money decorating things, the most visible of them being this common mode of transport. Interestingly, rickshaws in Kolkata are as bland as the taxis you see in Mumbai. You see these beautiful pieces of folk art as soon as you cross the boundary of the city. I wonder whether it is municipal rules which prevent this style from diffusing into the city. These paintings seem to be of two kinds. One is a panel which is painted and fixed on to the back of the rickshaw. The other is painted directly on to the side of the rickshaw.

The paintings are stylized. The sunsets, the covered boats, snow covered peaks, the calligraphic stylization of flying birds; these are motifs which appear again and again. Interestingly, I saw only one religious theme, and that was a picture of Kali. I hadn’t realized that parrots are a favourite of folk painters, perhaps that is a recent development. One may call the style a modern vernacular, so different from the Kalighat style of the 19th century, and the Shantiniketan modernists of the mid- and late-20th century. I suppose this vernacular must have developed in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, and was the background from which the Bengal school rose in the early 20th century. It is wonderful to see that this folk tradition remains alive even now. Perhaps it will throw up new formal movements in the future.

Flying in the pandemic

We heard a lot of different things about flying since May 25, when airports reopened across the country. The early flights were crowded and had unreliable schedules. It was not yet clear how safe airports and aircrafts would be. There was a lot of drama about cleaning surfaces, but not enough was being written about cleaning the air. By October the outlines of the problem and its solution were clear enough that there were media stories about it. The two points about safety I got were this. First, planes usually have very good airflow and filtration systems, and the air is scrubbed clean much faster than in the building where I work. As a result, the main risk is from people around you transmitting viruses in the usual way: breathing, talking, and coughing. The second point is that we already know how to deal with this: masks and shield, and distancing, when possible. I realized that I had lost my fear of flying in the time of the pandemic.

This tree near the check-in counters makes the empty airport look welcoming

We put this to practice a couple of weeks back, when I realized that The Family and I have never had a holiday in Kolkata. There would be no year better than 2020 to see Christmas lights in this city, since most people are still avoiding going out. We knew that we are taking risks, and it would be safer to stay home, as others are doing. But perhaps with good masks, worn as well and as safely as we know how to, and other safetly precautions, we can still travel now and then. As it turned out, Mumbai airport (photos here) was not crowded. It was possible to deposit baggage, check in, pass through security, and wait in the passenger areas while maintaining distance most of the time. The aircrafts we traveled by were far from full. The airlines are not taking care to maintain distance between occupied seats, but when the load is so little, it is possible to move to seats as far from others as you can. Airlines hand out mask, shield, and sanitizer when you board, and we used them all. Arrivals is a little more chaotic, with knots of people around baggage collection areas, and the exits. Nevertheless, we felt very safe because all the passengers behaved sensibly; the pandemic has encouraged civility. I am happy we tried this out, I think flying is a risk we may be able to take now and then as we wait for a vaccine.

Year 402, modern era

The eerily empty Park Street in Kolkata heralded the imminent end of the year 401 of the modern era. Usually this street is crowded with party goers in the evenings of the ten days between Newtonmas and Perihelion day. Not this year. We ducked into an old favourite of a coffee shop, nearly a hundred years old now, but still filled with young people. This year the wait for a table was only two minutes, not two hours. The Family’s face was glowing, she’d heard a lot about the street at this time of the year, and she was happy to be there.

The long nights of this season seem to be made for fairy lights, and in this pandemic year people have put a little extra into them. We decided to come home for the new year. The new year? There are so many different calendars in India, that the arbitrariness of choosing a date to begin a year is obvious. Is there really a special date to celebrate as we roll along around our star? It turns out that there are two such dates: one when we are closest to the sun (perihelion), and another when we are furthest (aphelion). If we want to choose something close to the new year in the common calendar, then Perihelion day, January 4, today, it must be. A different new year’s day deserves a different era to go with it. In the 16th century of the common era, Nicolaus Copernicus first realized that the earth goes around the sun. And then, in the early years of the next century, Johannes Kepler realized that the path of the earth was not a circle, but an ellipse. It is because of the ellipticity that there are special points in the orbit, a perihelion and an aphelion. So this discovery should mark the beginning of the modern era of a rational calendar.

Welcome to the year 402 of the modern era. The last of Kepler’s laws was published that many years ago. The start of the fifth century was traumatic for many, filled with losses. I seem to have spent mine in the safety of my kitchen, judging from my favourite photos of the year. But this is a new year, with new hopes of accommodating this virus without harm to ourselves through a vaccine. This is a year to celebrate careful study of the world around us, and to act on this understanding for the preservation of our place in the world around us. So a happy new year, 402 ME. ☀

Strawberry fields

Large mugs of strawberries with cream were a la mode in Mahabaleshwar this season. I managed not to exceed two a day, but sometimes one of these mugs could be a little larger than your garden variety. I wasn’t really looking for the strawberry fields. But when The Family and Leafless decided to set off for one, I could not leave them to it. That is how we chanced on a high density farm: the farm of our future. It was set in the inner courtyard of a typical semi-urban two storey family house, the front given over to a little restaurant and shop. When The Family asked for boxes of strawberries, the woman in charge asked, “Anything else?” A look of indecision on our faces opened the door to a little wonderland.

She led us to the courtyard and its dense farms: drip irrigation, natural light, organic manure, hand control of pests. She offered a herbal smoothie. We tried one. Then we tried another. Wonderful combination of sweet and peppery herbs, with bits of leaves we could identify, others that seemed familiar but elusive. We took a guided walk between the rows, looking at the wide variety of things that were growing there.

Strawberries were in flower and fruit, pak choi and Swiss chard were looking great. I saw the leaves and plant of wasabi for the first time (we later found that the leaves make a great addition to our daily salad). Iceberg lettuce. Chinese cabbage. Kale. A whole corner full of microgreens. The ladies said they regularly fulfill orders from Mumbai. The two women were really chuffed to have The Family and Leafless ask how to make this or that, and we were given samples of cooked exotic greens, Indian style, from their kitchen. They also had jars of jams: strawberry and blackberry. We left with several kilos of leaves, with their assurances that they will stay fresh for a week. They did.

A silver-lining in a man-made ecology?

I wanted to demonstrate to The Family that my vision had not improved after my surgery. I nodded at the trees on the ridge half a kilometer above us. “I was able to see those white flowers more clearly before,” I said. She was surprised. “I hand’t seen them.” She raised her binoculars to her eyes as I took a photo. My eyes were truly bad. Those weren’t flowers, just the white underside of the silver oak (Grevillea robusta) leaves, as the wind ruffled its canopy. We laughed at that, my point made. Thank you, unknown colonisers who disrupted the ecology of this ridge in the mid-19th century CE, barely a decade after the discovery of these pseudo-oaks in eastern Australia, by planting them across the Deccan plateau.

Invaders are usually bad, but the silver oak, planted right across India and Kenya, have been generally regarded as benign. They do not immediately have an advantage in competition with local plants. They provide shade and support for multi-culture of pepper in coffee plantations (these British colonial-era plantations devastated the ecology of the Nilgiris). In Kenya they are used very similarly, and also provide useful hard wood in regions that lack them. Newspapers carry happy reports of their integration into the local ecology. Through Africa there are studies of increased productivity in agro-forestry when silver oak is used to provide a high canopy. However, new elements are always disruptive. It is a second host for the mealy bugs which infest mango trees, and can act as reservoirs for the pest. What seems to be a good neighbour one century can turn out different in another. The story of silver oaks in Asia and Africa is still beginning.

Harrison’s folly

A little finger of a ridge juts out of the side of the road from Wai to Panchgani. A dusty flat top of a table land, surprising you with the fact that it has been left open. This is Harrison’s Folly; don’t ask who or why, there’s no answer. We saw cars pulling in, and drove in through the ramshackle gate that you see in the featured photo. We paid a small price for the entrance, it wasn’t clear whether it was municipal land or private. The light was good and it seemed like it would have a view of Dhom lake.

We walked to the north-eastern edge of the plateau. The road had curved around a hill, hiding Panchgani. The valley had a haze, probably a mist. Much of the valley would be protected from direct sunlight by the plateaus. But beyond a parallel ridge, I could see Dhom lake through the haze. This is the due to the second dam across the Krishna river. The source of the river is just beyond the ridge, and there is a first dam there. A trickle is let out, which flows into this lake, and beyond. I can never have enough of the horizontal bands of successive lava flows which erosion reveals as the building material for the Deccan shield.

We walked to the northern tip of the finger, down a tiny slope which would be the take-off point for the para-gliding enthusiasts who used to flock here once. The little town in the middle distance was Wai. The haze was light, but it blocked the view eventually. On a clear day, when the horizon is visible it would be nice to stand here and identify all the distant villages and towns that one can see.

So what if I can’t do para-gliding, I can still take ambush photos. A couple was having their photo taken while leaping. I missed the moment of the leap, but they were quite the cynosure of all eyes in the neighbourhood. As we left I saw my cousin drive in. Apparently a swarm of bees appeared on this tableland while they were there, causing everyone to dive to the ground. This, he was told, was a daily affair, and crouching low for a couple of minutes prevents accidents. I’ve never heard of such a phenomenon, and I’m sad to have missed it. The Family and I agreed to disagree on this point.