Sakura bloomed this year in Tokyo by the 15th of March, one of the earliest bloomings on record. Around that time Mumbai recorded a temperature of 39 Celsius, the highest ever temperature recorded for that date. The Atlantic had the largest Sargassum bloom recorded, almost 8000 kilometers across at some places. In the US, bird migrations are affected by the weather, with males beginning to move northwards earlier than the females. Here, where I’m spending some time away from home, the weather has been very unsettled. It was much warmer than I’d expected in the previous week, whereas this week has been full of rainstorms roiling the upper atmosphere and bringing that cold air down.
Holi is over, and in a couple of days we will hit the spring equinox. Instead of venturing out for photos celebrating that astronomical event, I thought it better to stay indoors and try my hand at photographing seasonal produce. Still life is not something I’ve seriously tried before.
So here it is, the pumpkins are the last of the season (we ate pumpkin flowers after a long time), and the potatoes have just been harvested. These small bananas, a wonderfully sweet and flavourful local variety called champa, will disappear as the heat builds up. Oranges are winter fruits, and we are clearly getting the last ones. They are still tangy and juicy, thankfully. I have no idea what the season for pomegranate is, but we seem to get them the year round. And the ber! I haven’t eaten such wonderful fruits from Ziziphus mauritiana trees in years. We’re lucky to be here in this season.
Farmlands may look tame to you, but seen in the small it is as wild as the jungles. The farmers around Chhoti Haldwani had planted pumpkin vines to grow over the Lantana that takes over berms. They were in flower. I love that bright yellow, a colour that remains even after you batterfry them. I haven’t eaten the flowers in years, because you don’t get them in markets in Mumbai. I remembered the taste as I took this photo of an ant crawling down in search of nectar. There were also a few tiny moths sitting on the flower. If I’d had the time to stand there, I could have got photos of a very large variety of insects as they came to it in search of food.
You can see more of these intersections of different kinds of life if you walk through the fields. Like this blade of grass, converted into a trap by one of the fiercest carnivores of this tiny world. Some spiders can eat around 10% of their body weight in a day. This web has a couple of spidery snack wrapped up for later. The trap is as indiscriminate as a fishing trawler’s net, and has snagged some dandelion seeds. I wonder whether the spider comes along later and cuts them loose.
“Feels like we are back in lockdown,” The Family said. Our cook tested positive for Covid a few days back. We are negative, but back to cooking for ourselves. I took a look at The Family’s morning’s prep. The leaves of Malabar spinach harvested from our balcony were cleaned and ready. They’ll go into a Bengali style mixed veggie with pumpkin, cauliflower, and a few other ingredients. Drumsticks and potato came to my mind, but The Family says we don’t have them right now, so she’ll just stick to two veggies. I knew what the tomato, garlic and curry leaves are for: she’s been planning to make ribs. Looks like a nice Sunday lunch is in store.
The Bohras are Gujarati Shia muslims, largely involved in business. My gateway to their food was the Bohra biryani and the many sweets, but then I discovered so much more. As the Bohra new year approached, the beginning of the month of Muharram, our thoughts turned to this cuisine. The Family dug into her contacts list and talked to a few Bohra caterers and decided to get the typical food with which you break the fast of Muharram; we broke tradition and had it for lunch. You see in the photo a box of khichda, a meal by itself, to be accompanied by a kadhi (in the bowl), kolu (pumpkin) and chauli (amaranth leaves). The meal ends with a halwa. I realized later that we got the food on the 10th of the month, the specially holy day of Ashura for Muslims.
The khichda is one of my favourite foods from the Bohra kitchen: a mixture of rice, broken wheat, four dals (chana, masoor, tuvar, and moong) soaked and pounded to a paste before cooking with mutton, served with a sprinkling of deep fried onion ribbons, ginger and garlic, and fresh mint leaves. The kadhi was mildly sour, the kolu was sweet and the garlicky chauli bitter. Its a great combination of tastes.
Intrigued my the insect I couldn’t identify in my photo yesterday, I looked at other photos I’d taken around that day, and found that the insect was indeed a moth. I saw it laying eggs quite indiscriminately on pumpkin leaves and sunflower petals. Why am I now sure that it wasn’t a beetle? Because the antennae were not segmented, like a beetle’s. Moth identification is hard, and I have no idea what kind of moth it is.
I remember that the tiny black eggs confused me for a while. Were they insects too small for my eyes or camera to properly resolve. I’d owned a low power microscope when I was a child, but it had long ago been given away to some one else. I have a memory of never resolving (!) this problem. But now, looking at the association between the moth and these shiny black ovoids in several photos, I think they are eggs.
It was in my mother’s garden that I first started to try and identify butterflies. This is so much easier! The featured photo shows a common butterfly with a memorable name: the Forget-me-not (Catochrysops strabo).
Flicking through photos of this week in past years, my eyes stopped at the photos I took in my mother’s garden thirteen years ago. She had devoted a considerable amount of her energy during her last active years in cultivating a small flower garden in front of the house, and an unkempt vegetable patch at the back. The Family and I would spend hours with her at the dining table next to the kitchen which was the real living room, and look out at her patch of vegetables. That June the pumpkins were in flower (featured photo).
At intervals I would wander out into the garden to take photos of a bird or insect which caught my eyes. On this one sortie, I caught a moth (or is it a beetle?) sitting on the flower and an unfurling tip of the pumpkin vine. These are prodigious climbers, and by the next year the pumpkin vine had climbed into a terrace on the upper floor, and had to be cut back again.
Another day in lockdown, another simple lunch. The Family says she’s surprised herself. She’s developed into a very enthusiastic cook. The pumpkin that you see on the plate is a completely new recipe, and came out very good. The cauliflower with peas and the dal are simple quick things that we’ve been trying out for long. A plate like this is a regular lunch opener for us. For the last two months some kind of a chicken follows. During the lock down we’ve not been able to get any other meat or fish. And now we find that the epidemic will take at least a year to play out. But its already getting ugly in Mumbai. Critical care facilities are swamped, although more quarantine beds are being created. There is a lot of confusion about testing and hospitalization. Best to stay at home and continue trying out new recipes.
A wonderful thing about eating in Kenya was the freshness of the ingredients. Two decades ago a person I used to meet often on wildlife trips in India was involved in setting up cold chains across the country. He was starry-eyed about the potential to bring fresh fruits and vegetables into the city. Now, when I see tasteless one-year-old tomatoes on sale in a supermarket in Mumbai, his words sound to me like the shattered dreams of internet pioneers. Kenya is not linked together by cold chains. The food is brought into markets as quickly as possible by those who grow them. The outcome is fresh and flavourful.
Neighbourhoods vendors in Nairobi have fresh produce, and even out on highways you pass long lines of green grocers. The one you see in the photo above is a typical shop. We bought a bag of oranges, like those you see hanging from the roof, and they turned out to be immensely juicy, sweet, but with the tartness of a citrus. We were looking for something to eat on the move, so we weren’t interested in the potatoes and onions , although they looked pretty good. I eyed the tomatoes longingly, I knew how good they were here, but the rest of the party was not interested.
The watermelon is great is Kenya, and it is possible to buy just a slice. Anthony had one while we dithered. The pumpkin caught my eye. I hadn’t tasted the pumpkin in Kenya yet. MONT made some at home later, and they were as nice as I could imagine they would be. I didn’t see pumpkin flowers on sale; that’s a great delicacy, but one that seems to be unknown here.
It was curious that there were no interesting new things to discover. Potatoes, onions, and tomatoes exhausted the list of vegetables on display. I’d expected to find lots of leafy vegetables: amaranth (lidodo in Swahili), cow pea (likhubi), even jute and pumpkin leaves, but they weren’t visible. Maybe there is some degree of specialization, and we needed to look for a different shop for those. But that was for another time. Now we’d found enough fruits for the journey.
I’d thought that our trip to Germany would be a quiet one, where we would largely stay at home, read, go for long walks in forests turning to gold. We did this for about a week before we began to travel extensively. My plans of cooking with seasonal produce came to nothing. I passed a farmer’s markets once, and looked longingly at the pumpkins, mushrooms and ginger. A mushroom stock is a nice thing to use with a pumpkin, tomato and ginger soup. I had it planned out in my mind. But because I was going to travel for the next four days, I just took the featured photo instead of buying the produce.
Eventually my closest brushes with seasonal food came in some restaurants. I searched for a place which would serve goose, though the beginning of November was too early for it. The first two courses gave us goose, quail and duck. Game is also seasonal food. The main course of roast duck with potato dumplings, baked apple, and red cabbage with pears was a typical Westphalian dish, with a balance of sweet and salt. That night the temperature had dropped to about two degrees, so this hearty food was delightful.
The dessert was another very local and seasonal creation: gingerbread creme brulee with a pumpkin seed parfait. The nutty parfait was wonderful with the candied orange peels that you can see in the photo above. I’d never had a gingerbread creme brulee before. It was quite a surprise. It was a big meal, but one I was happy to have tasted.