A whiff of nostalgia


My daughter and I are out shopping. The mall is crowded with shoppers, all of them on a mission.

My daughter’s list is both simple and complicated. Simple because her colour choices are limited to only black or blue. Complicated because we are scouring every shop looking for that particular top or dress that matches the image she has in her mind. Our time is limited, so we are walking down each aisle, our eyes piercingly intent on the task at hand.

After what seems like ages, my daughter pronounces herself satisfied; mainly because of the addition of a black hoodie to her collection.

On the way out of the mall, I quickly rush to pick up a lip liner and a compact from my favourite brand. And, as I wait in line to pay, my eyes are drawn to a red box that looks familiar. I go over to see it up close.

I was right! This was the first perfume that I had bought with my own money, nearly two decades ago. I had saved up to buy three things – this perfume, a camera and a hair dryer, all of which weresome of my treasured possessions then.

I pick up the tester bottle, and gently spray the perfume on my wrist. I inhale…just a whiff…and I am transported.

Courtesy – http://www.istockphotos.com

Transported to another time in my life, where there was no husband and kids, where life revolved around my career, parents and siblings.

A life that was filled with so many possibilities and fun. It was time spent with friends, and shopping. It was time spent wondering about the future. It was time spent on my red bike that took me everywhere. It was also a time of loss, when my grandmom died, and a time of joyous celebration when my niece was born the next year.

It was the threshold time before both marriage and motherhood; a time that was my own.

I smile and share some of these memories with my daughter. “When did I stop using this perfume”, I ask myself.

But that’s life for you – as it takes you on new journeys, other fragrances and experiences enrich you, making you forget the old and the sweet.

But, all it took was a whiff ….to bring it all back. My daughter sniffs appreciatively and asks if she can use it. I say yes.

And very soon, she will also embark on new journeys and create her own memories, which I hope are as fragrant as this perfume that’s wafting in the air.

The Cooking Cycle


We South Indians use a lot of curry leaves and coriander leaves in our cooking. Usually, when we run out of veggies, we describe the emptiness of the refrigerator thus, “There are no vegetables at home, not even a sprig of coriander!”

This happens once in about 10-12 days, when I have used up ‘all the veggies and all my creativity’ to make interesting dishes out of boring vegetables.

And this is the trough of the sinusoidal cooking wave in the cooking cycle.

When we hit a trough, it is reflected in the faces of my husband and kids; they realize that it’s the ‘boring cooking phase’, when mom is lackadaisical, and the food looks uninteresting.

And then, the cooking wave slowly moves upward. This happens when I go shopping for veggies and grocery.

I come back and stock my refrigerator to its brim. The fresh smell of mint, coriander and ginger is in the air! My fridge looks colourful with orange carrots and pink radishes, green chillies and yellow bell peppers vying for space in the cold confines of the fridge’s crisper.

Red apples, shining grapes, serious-looking papayas and cheerful oranges settle down on the fruit rack.

With my cupboards and fridge overflowing, my cooking cycle hits a peak. I am inspired! I am charged! I scour my recipe books, draw inspiration from recipes on social media and try out new dishes that I have tasted at friends’ homes.

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My family knows this phase, and they sniff in appreciation, as interesting aromas waft around the house. The dining table looks colourful and vibrant. We are spoilt for choice.

This cycle keeps repeating, like most other things in life…..!

Today is a Sunday, and I have hit a peak on the cooking wave.

We are going to tuck-in to a yummy meal. See you all soon!

What’s cooking?


I am heading home from my evening walk. The sky is turning a deep blue. I see the silhouettes of birds flying back to their nests. Many birds are already home. There is a lot of chirping; the birds are obviously catching up with each other, after a long, tiring day.

As I enter our condominium, the street lights switch on. The lights in many homes are coming on too!

My muscles are tired from all that walking, and there is no more ‘brisk’ in my walk.

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And as I cross from one building to another, the smells of dinner being cooked are everywhere! My stomach growls, my tongue waters.

Warm paranthas are being tossed on the tawa….yumm! Now, I smell cheese; now, mustard sputtering in oil. I can hear a pressure cooker letting off steam.

I make it home, both tired and famished. I only have one thought in my head – FOOD! I take a shower, and rush into the kitchen to warm my dinner.

The first mouthful is divine, and I savour it with eyes closed. I wolf down the rest. I am full. I stretch in contentment. Bliss!

Wisdom from 150 Beans!


I am flipping the pages of one of my handwritten recipe books. The book is yellowed – with both age and stains from the kitchen; from having balanced the book near the cooking pot or from having turned the pages with hands coated with dough or turmeric powder or a hundred other ingredients.

Against each recipe is a small note in my handwriting, which rates how the recipe turned out.

This book has recipes from my grandma, my mom, my mother in law and my dad’s sister.

Today, I can stand in front of the stove, and estimate the quantities of ingredients mentally, I can gauge by the aroma, if all is well. Skills that have been acquired over many years.

But there was a time when I was a novice cook, navigating the world of recipes with precise measurements and quantities. Life in the kitchen revolved more around the science of cooking rather than its creative side. My tools were a set of measuring bowls and spoons.

I remember one evening, when we had a potluck dinner with our friends. I had to prepare a vegetable side dish for around 40 people.

I used this very same recipe book then. However, I had scrawled down the ingredients and quantities, but had not written down how many people the recipe could serve.

Then began the complicated math. The recipe said 2 carrots, 15 French Beans, 3 tomatoes, 1 onion and so on. To me this seemed like the quantity for around 4 to 5 people.

Being an expert at the math of cooking, I multiplied the quantities by 10 to serve 40 people. When I wrote my new quantities down, the 150 beans seemed out of place………..and thus it began – my journey towards learning that cooking is more about intuition, and less about precise quantities.

Courtesy – http://www.123rf.com

It has taken me many years and many errors to get here. There have been times that the dishes looked good but tasted anything but! Then again, there were dishes that crumbled, but tasted delicious.

It has been a long and enjoyable journey. Today, as I stand in front of the stove, I add salt and spice with practiced ease, I can see and tell, smell and diagnose what is right or wrong. I am a better judge of quantities.

After all, it is the wisdom acquired from 150 beans.

What time is coffee time?


My love affair with coffee did not start until my final year of high school. In our home, it was ok to drink coffee occasionally, but I remember smelling the coffee cup sometimes in my early teens, and grimacing in disgust.

I do not remember when or  how I came to love coffee. But I know that there was no looking back.  After that, any time was coffee time.  Strangely, coffee has also become an indicator of how healthy I am feeling on any particular day.  If I wake up in the morning and do not crave coffee, I know for a fact that I am coming down with something. 

Picture courtesy – Clipart Panda

I can wax eloquent about coffee,  but just thought I would jot down a few of my favourite coffee moments.

Coffee time is when I get back home after a long, tiring day of work.

Coffee time is ‘me-time’ in the quiet hours of the morning when I look within.

Coffee time is when it’s raining non stop and I sit on the couch and dream of everything and nothing.

Coffee time is also those hurried sips between chores on a chaotic morning.

Coffee time is catching up with friends on a lazy afternoon.

Coffee time is sharing some quality time with my spouse.

Coffee time is that ‘salivating time’ of anticipation when my filter starts percolating and the heady smell of coffee reaches my nostrils.

Coffee time is when my head is pounding and I know that only coffee will work that magic.

Coffee time is also trying to convince my son to smell coffee and become a member of the coffee club (right now he grimaces)….I am still working on him. 

Coffee time is family reunion time, after a wedding or engagement, when we gather for what we popularly call in the South – sweet, kaaram (spicy snack) and kaapi (coffee).

Coffee time is during picnics with friends, sipping from disposable glasses having lots of fun.

Coffee time is marathon catch-up sessions with my sisters..that stretch late into the night.

Coffee time is catching up with my mom, when I visit her.

Coffee time is …pure bliss.

Mom’s cooking


Indian cooking is elaborate. Every dish requires time to perfect. Most dishes involve multiple processes such as wet grinding, pounding, roasting, seasoning etc.

We Indians celebrate many, many festivals each year, and the high point of these celebrations is the food. Every festival has specific dishes to celebrate it.

Most Indian women, atleast the one’s from my mom’s generation, are walking recipe books.

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       Courtesy – http://www.wikihow.com

My cooking skills took shape only after marriage, and rather than consult any recipe book, I would just pick up the phone to call my mom.  Our conversations went something like this.

Me: Hi Amma

Mom: Hi…How are you?

Me: All good. Can you tell me the recipe for this sweet dish (some name)?

Mom: Sure…it’s very simple. It is 1:1:2.

Me: Wait..what’s 1:1:2

Mom: It’s the ratio of the ingredients.

Me: Mom, can we start with the ingredients?

Mom: Aha…of course…

And she gave me the recipe, baby step by baby step.

Over the years, I have become quite an accomplished cook, and know all my ratios.

But I am still trying to achieve that finesse in my dishes, which my mom seemed to achieve with ease; and that perfect aroma when all the ingredients have blended just right. 

Even yesterday, I called my mom to ask for her Vegetable Biriyani recipe. Just listening to the recipe brought back memories of cousins and happy Sundays, uncles and aunts and afternoons of play.

I could remember the smell of my mom’s Biriyani wafting through the house – chillies and ginger and mint and garlic and coriander and onions….and cloves and cinnamon and bay leaves…and many more lovely ingredients.

Mom’s cooking…always the best!

Lunch


Wherever I go, I love observing people – especially in airports, railway stations, hotel lobbies, and in-flight. Each of these places is a different ecosystem by itself, where people from different walks of life converge for a certain period of time.

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This afternoon, my husband and I went out for lunch. We went to a popular restaurant in the vicinity.

We placed our order, and waited. My husband was busy on his phone, and I observed the people in the restaurant.

There was this family of three – husband, wife and a one-year old baby. The mom was trying to feed spoonfuls of baby food from a box, while the dad kept the child engaged. The Dad became an elephant, with a trunk and tried to snatch the baby’s food away, then he transformed into a lion and a horse. The baby gurgled and giggled, and finished her food. Each parent took turns to eat, while the other entertained the child. Been there, done it.

There was a man, who reviewed the menu for a good twenty minutes before he placed his order. I was curious to know what he ordered.

Then again, there was this man with his headphones connected and feet tapping, as he relished his lunch.

There was a group of college students, loud and cheerful, enjoying their lunch and friends’ company. Many delicious platters went past us to their table – a few sizzlers and many aromatic ones!

My tongue watered in anticipation. Our order seemed to take forever.  A tray filled with huge glasses of bright green slush went past. I wanted one of those. I wanted one of the sizzling platters too…but we’d already ordered, so I waited patiently.

Finally, our food arrived, and then my stomach and mouth took over, enjoying every mouthful. Different flavours and spices played different notes on my tongue. The food was amazing.

The table with the college students broke out into a birthday song for one of their friends, as candles were lit and wishes exchanged.

Looking out the window, I realized that the skies had opened up. We finished our lunch and settled down for a nice, hot cup of coffee.

A few people left, many arrived. More food, yummy smells. Melodious instrumental music played in the background.

I smiled. Another world, another ecosystem.

Deepavali memories


I stand in my kitchen peering into the kadai, adding besan, spoonful by spoonful, into the bubbling sugar syrup that’s right now gurgling out golden ghee…..I leave the gas burner for a minute to get a drink of water & the delicious aroma of ghee, sugar & the first hints of Mysore Pak assault my senses.
My mind jumps back to another time …so long ago, in my hometown, where we would rush home after school to this wonderful smell of sweets being made. The air was festive – my granny would be on her sofa looking content with her family bustling around her. My mom would be filling-up box after box of sweets and savouries to distribute. At around 6 when darkness fell the first Lakshmi Vedi would go off with a loud crack…reverberating through the night. A frisson of excitement would run through the house…Oooooh “Deepavali is here”. We would await our Dad’s arrival from the cracker shop & inspect the goodies & share them.
One year, a coward, ready only to burst sparklers & flower pots, then a few years down, the brave one, setting off the dreaded ‘atom vedi‘, returning to base with a smirk that said it had been so easy. Then keeping our alarms for three thirty a.m. to be the first one in the block to set off the ‘100 wala & oosi pattasu’. Then the early years of college when it was not so cool to get up and be seen as doing all these with Featured imageenthusiasm. Then working life, marriage and kids.
Now, trying to re-create all that magic. Will my children remember the aroma of Mysore Pak wafting through the house? Do they look forward to the traditions we are trying to keep up every year? Yes, I am sure they will…maybe a different version of the same story..but the joy, the bonding & love will definitely continue.
Happy Deepavali to you all.

Life lessons from Indian Pickle


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A road-side vendor selling an array of mouth-wateringly delicious pickles, taken in front of Tipu’s Fort, Palakkad, Kerala, India, Picture Credits – Sastha Prakash, http://www.sasthaprakash.wordpress.com

We Indians can pickle most vegetable & fruit,  with our own unique blend of spices, depending on which part of the country one hails from.  In most Indian homes, you can find pickles made from mangoes, raw mangoes, gooseberries, lime, citron, citron leaves, curry leaves, coriander leaves, bitter gourd, green chillies, red chillies, tomatoes, egg plant, garlic, gongura…the list goes on and on.

Like a million other people, I need pickle with my lunch and dinner. Steaming hot rice mixed with pickle and a dash of ghee (clarified butter), a lovely way to start lunch. The wonderful thing about these pickles is that they pack so many tastes in one single spoon – sour, sweet, salted, mind-numbingly spicy (this is my favourite), bitter, or a mixture of all these.

Be warned, Indian pickles can cause sensory overload!

I recently read a recipe to pickle orange peel.  The Chinese New Year is being celebrated all around me, and during this season, Mandarin Oranges are available aplenty.  So, I gave it a shot this morning.

After sputtering mustard in oil and adding a pinch of asafoetida, I added finely diced orange peel to the oil. Once the pieces of peel were well fried, I added tamarind pulp, chilly powder and salt, allowing this whole mixture to simmer for a while.  Once the peel was properly cooked and mashed, I finished by adding jaggery (a coarse sugar made by drying the sap of the palm tree).  The finished product was yummy and looks like it can be eaten with most anything – rice, dosas, paranthas or as a sandwich spread. (Recipe Credit – Ms.Bhama Narayanan)

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Orange peel pickle – hints of sour, bitter, sweet, salt and spicy

As I tucked into my meal with my freshly pickled orange peel, I started thinking  about how our lives can be likened to an everyday meal, & pickles.

Most days, we are comfortable with the way our lives cruise along; the same routine, the same newspapers, the same people at the tube station whom we nod at, the mechanical chores that are unavoidable; this is our comfort zone and we are mostly happy to be where we are, very much like our everyday meals. We are creatures of habit and do not get too adventurous with food, or experimenting with food on a normal day.

However, just like the dollop of pickle, which enhances the quality of what we eat, and makes us experience stronger flavors, our lives are spiced up now and then, when we meet interesting people, experience something different or have unexpected surprises.

These are truly life’s pickles – when we feel more intensely.

However, one cannot eat too much pickle everyday, just like how ‘everyday’ cannot be exciting and wonderful.

Most days are vanilla days…but pickle days, now & then are most welcome.

Hot Bajjis & Filter Coffee on A Rainy Day


It has been a hot, humid day thus far.  Finally, in the afternoon, the glare of the Sun is hidden by clouds, grey, dark grey and now black.  The clouds hang low in the sky, waiting for a signal to let go of the heavy water drops they are patiently bearing.  I stand on my balcony, watching.  The birds are waiting, the green leaves are parched, and waiting.  The humidity is killing.

In a few minutes, plop, plop, the rain drops fall down..huge heavy drops, reveling in their free fall from the heavens.  Big drops, falling faster now, sheets of silver gray, as they beat against the windows and fall on my potted plants.  The trees enjoy this fresh wash as they sway in the gentle wind that blows with the rain, now this side, now that side.

I allow the rain drops to fall on my face, the small needles of water rejuvenate me. Little silver threads moving in a cascade with the wind, the soothing sounds, the gentle flow of water as it touches the earth.

The children are expected from school any moment now.  What’s a rainy day, if one is not tucking into something yummy to eat!

 I decide to make ‘bajjis’ – potato slices dipped in gram flour batter to which salt, chilly powder and a pinch of asafoetida are added.  I pour oil in the wok and switch on the hob.  When the oil is heated just enough, I fry the ‘bajjis‘.

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As they gurgle and fry in the oil, I make a cup of filter coffee for myself.

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South India Filter Coffee in its traditional steel tumbler and cup (davara)

The first batch of bajjis is ready, a dollop of tomato ketchup and we’re good to go.Featured imageI watch the rain from my kitchen; the aroma that’s unique to frying, travels in the air. Tiny wisps of these may have escaped through the bottom of the main door.  In a few minutes, the children come trooping in, hair wet, clothes plastered and sniffing the air appreciatively, “Mom, what’s cooking?”

Bajjis“, I reply.

“Yummy”, they chorus.  Golden bajjis with ketchup, washed down with rain!