It takes a village to assemble a hamburger

Friday mornings are hectic in lock down. The Family and I are in our separate meetings all morning. There is no time to plan and put together a wholesome meal. So we’ve decided to either order out for lunch, or do a quick lunch that only requires assembly. This Friday we had hamburgers and a salad. Later, when I thought about it, the “quick meal” was such a misnomer. There was such a long chain behind even such a simple thing.

The patties were made by a Bohra couple who’ve risen to new business opportunities out of home, and delivered to us by the husband. The bun was a multigrain bun which we ordered from a small Parsi bakery chain (how it has grown over a decade from a stand alone shop in Colaba!) which has been delivering through an internet startup. I’m sure that behind both these objects was a desperately cobbled-together chain of supplies.

The vegetables came from a farmer in Nashik, who, along with many others, have taken to direct marketing after the collapse of the vegetable exchange which powered Mumbai until March. The mustard (oh! the mustard!) was Bengali kasundi delivered by everyone’s least favourite internet behemoth, and probably has been stocked in one of their warehouses for ages. Fortunately, this has long shelf life. Good cheese has not been available in Mumbai for weeks now, so we had to do without it.

Normally we wouldn’t even notice the web of commerce which brings things across the world. But the Anthropause has disrupted so much of our daily lives, that we now think about every meal. One thing is certain, online marketing has bloomed in this new economic ecosystem, and it is no longer only the large aggregators who gain from it.

June showers

In June the monsoon was fickle. It started with two days of good rains but then petered out. The days were hot and muggy for a while, but the last few nights of June we had thunder and lightning, and finally, some rain. On the last day of June I went out to receive a delivery and was astounded by the clear skies left by the night’s shower. I don’t remember seeing a sky so blue in the heart of the city.

There was a cool breeze which made the humidity bearable. I walked towards a hedge full of flowers. At this time of the year these hedges are full of mosquitoes. I was trying to get a couple of quick photos, but I got bitten. Anyway, I was happy to get a shot of these flowers hanging over leaves cupping rainwater which reflected the sky.

Since I’d got bitten already, I pushed through the hedge to take a look at the small field beyond. Usually this serves as a practice field for the younger children learning to play football. It has been deserted for more than three months now. On some days I can see a family come down, and the parents let the children run around for a while. It was deserted now, and the low goal post was already rusted with rain. I wonder how many years it will take for the banyan tree to claim this whole field.

I pushed back out through a different gap in the hedge. A different place, and a different flower. This is a typical monsoon scene: flowers holding drops of rain from the last shower. I hope July rains are better.

One hundred days of parakeets

Between a post-travel quarantine and the lockdown, I’ve not left the gates of our housing complex for a hundred days today. Sitting at home, I think I’ve got more tuned to the natural world. I’ve noticed the seasons passing: vasant and grishma are over, and now we are in varsha (think of it as spring, hot season, and monsoon). On the 99th day I leaned out the window in the evening to catch the watery golden light of sunset filtering through monsoon clouds.

The air was full of the chattering and scolding of rose ringed parakeets. I looked at the canopy of trees just below me: such a variety of greens there. The parakeets seem to avoid the gul mohar tree for some reason. They would have been spectacular otherwise; imagine their green against the red of those flowers.

Why was this parakeet rubbing its beak along the bare branch it was sitting on? Was it cleaning its beak? I looked for other parakeets sitting down. There were many. Yes, and many of them seemed to be rubbing their beaks along bare branches, quite vigorously.

Could this be a search for food? Unlikely, I thought. There was enough other food available for them to be wasting the last minutes of daylight looking for insects under the bark of trees. It turns out that their beaks grow all through life, and have to be rubbed down constantly to prevent them from becoming too large. I hadn’t noticed this behaviour before,

I had to go and pare down my ever-growing stomach. But before that I tried to take a few photos of the birds launching off from their perches. It turned out not to be so easy. They seem to have planned out a route through branches and leaves before letting go of the perch: they twist and turn very fast, before coming to horizontal flight. The light was fading, and I’ll leave this exercise for the next hundred days.

Around the world in two hundred days

I woke up dreaming of a trip around the world in container ships. How long would it take? It seems that container ships prefer to travel at speeds of 6 to 8 knots. At this speed they’ll cover about 300 kilometers in a day. If you travel around the equator in such a ship it might take you 110 to 150 days. Add in port calls (the featured photo is of Hamburg port), it might take you about 200 days. I’ve spent half that time sitting at home already. To think that I could easily have gone halfway around the world in this time!

Fresh!

Normally we buy vegetables in small quantities, and use them up in a day or so. But now, in order to keep control over our exposure to large crowds, shopping is less frequent. Some time back we wanted to guard against COVID-19 by disinfecting all produce. Eating soap is not a great idea, so we were certainly not going to washing food in soap. The Family skimmed her expertise and recalled that bacteria and viruses are killed by a solution of salt in water. So now we dunk all produce for about fifteen minutes in salty water. The water can be reused, and salt does not need to be washed off, so this is also a water conserving way of cleaning produce.

On some days our house is full of vegetables being cleaned and dried, chopped and sorted. Since the salt water bath removes bacteria and viruses, we now find that the veggies stay fresh and usable much longer. Bananas and plantain, tindli and tomatoes, everything stays fresh and colourful for several days. Tindli? Does ivy gourd sound more familiar? I didn’t think so. It is after all a rather local vegetable (featured photo), so best to call it by its local name.

We used to be in a desperate rush to use up mushrooms before they rot. Now mushrooms stay fresh longer too. Perhaps the salt water treatment also kills the fungi which sometimes grow on these mushrooms. I know that some people use baking soda and potassium parmanganate, but that would also require more water for post-treatment washing. We wanted the lowest water-use possible, and I think the salt solution works well for that. The Family consulted her old colleagues about this treatment, and found a good consensus of opinion for it.

There are no desperate attempts to refrigerate fresh produce to keep it from spoiling any longer. Everything can now be kept in trays and bowls in sun and air. Also, now that we can keep the veggies for longer, we can wait for good combinations to develop. For example, plantains are not very common at our neighbourhood vendor’s, but when we get it, we already have the other veggies that we know will go well with it. The result has been an explosion of new recipes at home. Lunch is quite a journey of discovery these days.

Totoro and neighbour

I seldom have long conversations with my oldest niece any more; she is too traumatized at the end of a long day counseling people traumatized by the long lockdown to talk much. So it was a pleasure to chat with her the other day about Studio Ghibli movies. I’d just finished seeing Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. She said her favourite was My Neighbour Totoro. It is a beautiful movie; two young girls getting to know the natural world around them, full of pauses and asides, nature spirits and fantasy.

The lockdown traumatizes me when I think of all that I could have done if I wasn’t locked up at home while the epidemic rages out of control in Mumbai. The thought of infected people being turned away from over-full hospitals, dying without care, is enough to give you sleepless nights if you think about it. When I think of how much of a privilege it is to be able to have a safe place to continue to live in, it can also induce trauma about the unknown social changes around us. I guess I deal with it by changing focus. I’m very happy that long and wasteful meetings are slowly phasing out in favour of the core work. The extra time goes into household chores and the little new skills and interests that I’m picking up. Studio Ghibli is one of them.

The elephant in the room

We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India

into a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic

and to secure to all its citizens

justice, social, economic, and political;

liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

equality of status and opportunity;

and to promote among them all fraternity

assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation

in our Constituent Assembly this 26th day of November 1949, do hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves this Constitution.

That is the preamble to our constitution. What else can I write about this 8 week long tragedy, in the middle of the lockdown, involving millions of starving fellow Indians who are walking a thousand kilometers across the country to their homes. We have seen this every day on TV. Click on the photos for news reports and analysis.

Quick and new

It is still early in the pandemic, with a continuous slow rise in the number of affected. The food supply is still holding up, but with some lack of predictability about what we can get. Freshness is a problem these days, not absence. So we are forced to work a lot on the days when we go out to buy food. That’s why a cabbage soup. The Family had never tried this before, but decided to go with a simple recipe: tez patta (bay leaves), saunf (fennel seeds), and onions sauteed, then half a cabbage and one potato, both chopped, thrown into the cooker, boiled and then pureed, served with chili flakes on top. That gave us time to chop and cut other veggies, and pre-cook some for longer preservation.

The soup was accompanied with a small salad (although the tomatoes and carrots we get now are not very flavourful), and some thawed seekh kabab. A quickly prepared meal, but high in fiber and protein, with just a touch of carbs. We’re still trying to lose weight whenever possible, preparing for the bad times of the second wave. Isn’t it strange that instead of getting in shape for walks in the Himalayas, we are doing it so that our health does not deteriorate when the lockdown is removed but the chaos of the second wave prevents us from going out? We’ll be happy if there is no chaos and we get to enjoy our new trim shape by being able to go for long walks instead.

Vegetable Rescue

We are now into the second half of the second month of the lock-down. Our group of buildings is an enclave of safety in the middle of a hot zone. The supply chain has truly broken down, so finding fresh vegetables is a bit chancy. The Family rescued some sun dried bhindi (okra, lady finger, or gumbo, another of the many pieces of technology we have inherited from prehistoric human) from a corner of the room we have turned into a pantry and larder. When I began to chop it I realized that the gummy resin had got stickier as it dried. It had to be cooked dry. I threw some powdered dhania and turmeric with entire cloves and black pepper into a pan, and fried the bhindi till the gum had dried up. Then I scooped a lot of yogurt into it, covered it, and let it simmer.

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Although the bhindi had released an aroma while it cooked, I realized that it wouldn’t have much of flavour when it finished cooking. So we decided to make an aromatic pulao to go with it. The basmati took four rinses to clear, and I soaked it and set it aside. I took a handful of raisins and peanuts and soaked them in water. It is easy to remove the skin off the peanuts when it is soaked. Next I scooped a little star aniseed, cinnamon, mace, and cloves into the mortar and ground it coarse. When I was ready, with the peanut skinned, the raisins soft, the rice drained, it was time to heat a little oil in the pan. The masala is fried until it begins to release an aroma, then a finely chopped onion is dropped into the oil with the raisins and peanuts and fried to a golden colour. I fried the rice for a short while to make sure that the grains would not stick together, and then added to water to let it cook.

The Family had a large pot of chana masala ready, and we had our little epidemic Saturday lunch. In the first six weeks of the lockdown we had prepared ourselves for such food with a fat, fiber, and protein rich diet. Now there will be weeks of carbohydrate-rich food to eat before we are allowed to move about more freely.