Home food away from home

We travel often to out of the way forests, where we have a choice between staying an hour’s drive away in a hotel, or living close to the forest in a homestay. Often take the latter option often enough. But more frequently than not, we find that the homestay was rather less than something to write home about. By contrast, in Tal Chhapar we found a wonderful place: basic rooms, but very clean and with great thought put into the guests’ convenience. We later found that the lady of the house took care of the rooms and the kitchen. A starring role was played by the courtyard with its large dining table across from the kitchen. The first breakfast seemed good, but entirely as expected- a stack of delicious hot aloo parathas, pickles and yoghurt, fruits and poha: very traditional, but significantly more calorie dense than our typical breakfast. We loved it, and had to make a very determined effort not to overeat. But more interesting things were in store.

When we returned after a morning’s visit to the sanctuary, our host invited me into the kitchen to meet his mother. The lady had come to visit her son (she lives in a different house in the same village) and had insisted on cooking something for the guests. I got a full explanation of the subtleties of the methi she was busy making, how she adds gur to balance the bitterness of the methi, and how the acidity of tomatoes is her own addition to the traditional dish. It wasn’t something I’d tasted before, but I could recognize the tradition, the sweet and spicy curries that are typical of the kitchens of the western desert region: right from Saurashtra up to the Punjab. A nice family business, we thought, with the special touch that the family was clearly eating the same meals as the guests.

The mother was the first in the family to run a homestay. Her son had left for Delhi to study hotel management, and spent a few years working in regular hotels around the country before tiring of city life and coming back home. She’d then decided to retire (but not entirely, since she came to cook local specialties for guests every now and then), and the son had taken over the business. We’d already discovered the important role played by his wife. His job was the business management, and added services. He ran two jeeps for the safaris and had taught himself about the local wildlife. He spend time with us teaching and learning more. He was also hosting a lady who was spending a semester in Tal Chhapar doing research on the local ecology of raptors, He seemed to be picking up little tidbits of knowledge from her. In addition he was trying to monetize the pickles and bakes of the village, by selling them from his hotel. Since we ate them every day and liked them, we didn’t have to debate much about whether to pick up a couple of packets for home.

Salad with micro-greens

The Family has decided to use the fallow pots on our balcony for micro-greens. Being locked up at home with constant connectivity means that fads spread rapidly across the world. You can think of this as a new kind of globalization, on days when you feel happy, or mono-culture, on your bad days. The first harvest was four days after she sprinkled some methi (fenugreek, Trigonella foenum-graecum) seeds into a pot. The tiny herbs do add a nice flavour to the salad. I’m looking forward to more.

I loved the sight of these tiny shoots with their lobed moss-coloured leaves growing in the dark soil of the pot. That little pot is the result of pre-historic human technology that bred the edible herb out of its wild ancestors in the fertile crescent. Remains of the recognizably modern herb are found in 6000 year old tels. A genetic study found a wild back and forth mixture of varieties of methi over the past millennia. This is not in contradiction with the recorded history of the last two to three thousand years. Small herbs were probably transported back and forth across the silk route and the Arabian Sea-Mediterranean Sea trade routes from times before history, leading to the complete genetic homogenization of this herb. That was the first globalization!

After monsoon

After the monsoon ends the weather turns unbearably hot again; that’s what an Indian summer is. In the sweltering heat of October it is a minor disaster if you forget to water plants. The rose bush has been putting out flowers through the monsoon, because the rains keep it from drying up. Today I saw that two days of not watering it has begun to affect it.

Methi, fenugreek

Many plants are beginning to bud. I look at the methi (fenugreek) shrub. Every stalk is budding new leaves. The hairy surfaces of the leaves catch every piece of lint which floats by. You have to carefully wash the leaves before you use them in the kitchen.

Hibiscus bud

But really this is the time of the year for insects. The hibiscus bush is beginning to push out flower buds. As soon as one opens, ants swarm over it. Soon they will bring their aphid cows up the stalks. The vegetation below the spectacular flower will be thick with aphids, as ants run up and down their farm milking them.

Dotted moth

Moths have pupated too. I saw this lovely October visitor on the wall today, sitting out in full sight. The lore about bright and visible butterflies and moths is that they are poisonous. Many birds would see this yellow on the wings of the moth more brightly than we do, so it is definitely signaling that it is inedible.

Green lacewing

Well back on the wall I found a few green lacewings. They are nocturnal and have probably come here to eat the aphids from the ant farms. Lacewings are not poisonous: birds and bats will happily eat them. That’s the reason this one was sitting far back on the wall, under an overhang. In another month all these showy insects will be gone. That’s when migratory birds begin to arrive.