Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The sound of the dhak, again

As the sound of the conch shells fade away and dhakis stop beating the dhak, Bengalis all over the world heave a collective sigh as the Durga Puja festivities come to an end for another year.

I have to admit that all through my life, growing up in Kolkata, where Durga Puja pandals literally spring up in every para (neighbourhood) and preparations for the event start months in advance, I used to take Durga Puja, like so much other things, for granted.  I questioned the need to offer pushapanjali to the goddess, to do boron and sindoor khela, to touch the feet of elders for Bijoya Dashami and to compulsively check out each pandal across the city in a mad pandal-hopping race, meeting known faces and friends at every pandal and stopping for some food and adda on the way.
But now, as I sit, miles away from Kolkata, I wait eagerly for these 4 days as do millions of other Bengalis. And this year even as the Goddess is immersed and life comes back to normal, I ask myself, why does Durga Puja have such an irresistible lure for Bengalis across the world?

Why do we do it?

Is it nostalgia? Remembering our childhood days in Kolkata when we used to hop from one pandal to another to see the creativity on display in the lights and the pandal decorations that vied with each other to bring new heights of imagination and craftsmanship every year?

Is it tradition? A chance to hold on to the Bengaliness in us in lands far away from Kolkata where we try to create a shadow of the warmth and fever that Durga Puja used to mean for us as children?

Is it just enjoyment with friends? A chance to lose ourselves in adda even as gorge on oily, unhealthy street food that is so unbelievably tasty? The chicken, mutton rolls, biriyani, mughlai porota, luchi, jalebi and sweets?

Is it our way of holding on to a past that is disappearing so fast, the glory and beauty of which we want to show our children so that they too, when they grow up, can share the memories with their children in turn?

We may not be in Kolkata, but the 4 days of the Durga Puja can bring back a little bit of the magic back for us.

For some, it could the new dresses, resplendent new sarees with the sparkling jewels that make the Bengali women look much like goddesses themselves.
For a few, it could be the food, the bhog from the Puja and the array after array of junk food that takes over the kitchen during the period of the puja as cooks and mothers take a temporary hiatus from cooking.
For the culturally inclined, it could be the music and dance performances that enthrall them - ranging from the famous artists to the amateurs who entertain with all their heart and give us magical moments of joy.
And for a few, it could actually be the spiritual call of the god, the chants invoking the goddess and the power that she exudes even as destroys the evil and upholds all that is good and sacred.

But for the most part, for many of us, Durga Puja would just remain a chance to be, once a year at least, part of something that defines us, part of a past we can never forget, part of a warmth that engulfs us in a familiar glow and gives us the courage and hope that in the ever changing, uncertain world, there is at least something that will still not change.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Monsoon Haiku

The first monsoon rain,
Eyes closed, and arms stretched wide, I
touch childhood again

Image from Google

Sunday, 14 October 2012

A reluctant cook

“I’ll never enter the kitchen”, I remember myself declaring to my patient mother when I was in my rebellious teen phase.
No wonder then that my first experiment with cooking (after being tired of ordering takeout food everyday while working in Delhi) started off with a disaster.  I was trying to cook dal and rice for the first time in life.
A frantic phone call to my mother and 60 anxious minutes later, the results of my efforts were a dish of burnt dal, overcooked rice and a huge phone bill. And we had to order for dinner from a restaurant. I used to hate cooking so much that I even agreed to marry my husband only on condition that he would never expect me to cook! Thankfully things have changed since then.

Today, the kitchen scares me no more rather it invites me to try out new and creative experiments mixing ingredients, recipes and spices from across the world.
So if I fancy Spaghetti for dinner and cheese toast for breakfast, I can cook them up myself without resorting to frantic phone calls or restaurant orders.
How did this transformation happen? How did I get over my fear of cooking and start loving it?

Well apart from my mother’s tips, the other things that helped me were:
1. Exotic and colorful cookbooks that literally brought me the world on a plate with mouth-watering pictures and easy recipes from around the world. And of late the BBC Good Food Magazine that has just been launched in India has become a favorite read with its gourmet recipes and amazing food pictures. I guess I am addicted to it. 
2. A range of cookware – microwave, OTG, grill, food processor and the works that made cooking and chopping and mixing so easy.
3. Gourmet food stores like Nature’s Basket and Shorbet in Bangalore that stock everything from smoked cheese to salmon and an array of sauces, herbs and spices that lend flavor and aroma to the cooking.
4. which obligingly offered me new options of food blogs and recipes when I wanted to try out something new. Some of the food blogs like are simply awesome.
5. Cooking shows ranging from Masterchef Australia to Nigella Lawson and Donna Hay which showed creative cooking and plating at its best.
6. And last definitely not the least, an encouraging daughter who feels her mother is the best ‘cooker’ in the whole world and is ever willing to sample my new experiments in the kitchen and even join me in my experiments.

And today, when I call my mother, it is she who asks for recipes. And I teach her new recipes for grilled fish and noodle soup and healthy salads.

But this post is not about my cooking journey. My favorite dessert of all time is Caramel Custard. Just love the soft pudding and the caramelized sugar syrup. Of course, I initially thought that it is too difficult to create it and I am destined to only savor it in restaurants. Imagine my surprise then when I tried it and it turned out perfectly. I am sharing the recipe I used (of course courtesy the Internet)

2 and 1/2 cups of warm milk
3 eggs
1 spoon vanilla essence
1 pinch of nutmeg powder (if available)
1/3rd cup sugar for the custard
1/2 cup sugar for the caramelization

To caramelize the sugar

Put the 1/2 cup sugar on the gas in a pan with a sprinkle of water. In a few minutes, the sugar will start to turn brown and caramelize. Lift the pan and pour this in the container in which you will bake/steam your pudding. I generally use a cake container. This mixture should coat the bottom of the container. Keep it for 10 minutes for the mixture to harden and set.

The make the custard

Beat the 3 eggs together.
Add the 1/3 cup sugar. I generally use castor sugar. Since I prefer less sugar, this quantity might need to be adjusted depending on taste.
Pour in the warm milk.
Add the vanilla essence and nutmeg powder.

Pour the custard on top of the caramelized sugar in the container.

There are 2 ways to prepare the caramel custard.

Method 1: Steam in a pressure cooker

Cover the container top with a aluminium foil. Add water in a pressure cooker so that it reaches till about ½ of the container. Put the container and then steam it for 20 minutes. After the container is a little cooler, put it in the fridge. After 2-3 hours, take it out from the fridge, scrape the sides and then hold it on top of the serving plate. It should fall off in a smooth, jelly like mixture, holding its shape with the caramel sauce dripping down the sides. Keep it chilled till ready to serve.

Method 2: Bake in OTG

If you have an OTG, you can preheat it for 10 minutes. Place the container on a baking tray after filling the baking tray (till ½ of the container height) with boiling water.
Bake for 20-30 minutes till you see that the mixture holds its shape and does not look like a liquid mass.
Again put it in the fridge and later on hold it on top of the serving plate.

I have to add that my family is still quite unable to believe that I actually enjoy cooking and tease me no end for my past rebellions even as they try with brave hearts to sample my latest inventions in the kitchen:)

Friday, 5 October 2012

A new Masterchef Challenge

A grandmother and her granddaughter, a 6 year old
Were chatting on the phone, weekly ritual I am told,

Chocolate ganache, smoked salmon, were some words I heard,
Masterchef recipes were being carefully unfurled,

But guess who the teacher was, teaching these recipes new?
It was the 6 year old Masterchef fan armed with her world food view.

Why at her age I didn’t know what cooking meant!
But these Masterchef kids are already hell-bent,

On testing us poor moms with ‘Invention tests’ from hell,
And if we don’t live up to the challenge, well, well, well…

Try offering them cornflakes, there’ll be demand for pancake,
And forget plain old milk, better whip up a strawberry milkshake.

So dal chawal is boring now, they want Spaghetti Bolognese,
And for extra dressing, they might just ask for parmesan cheese

Of barramundi cutlets and grilled lamb chops, these lil’ masterchefs dream,
Or perhaps an apple strudel and pistachio crumble topped with cream.

Texture, flavor, acidity and balance, they want it all,
Their plating standards would drive Andy and Mindy up the wall.

Imagine Masterchef 2030, when these kids compete,
Why, just watching that would be some Master Feat.

George, Gary and Matt you’d better beware,
And get ready to lose not some but all your hair.

Parmesan risotto with poached egg

In case you are still wondering, this 6 year old is my daughter and the grandmother is my mother whose definition of gourmet cooking would be a plate of Bengali style 'kosha mangsho' and 'luchi' (mutton curry and puri), never mind what the occasion is or who the guests are or how many times they have eaten it before:)

Monday, 1 October 2012

Parenting Anonymous

All of us have bad parenting days. At least I hope so. Even the most patient and most loving of us would have at some point of time felt that they were battling an insurmountable battle where tears and angry words battle a fierce battle with loving smiles and tender patience.
The world of parenting is like a pendulum. There are days when the pendulum swings your way, your child is happy and smiling and you feel so happy and proud as a parent. And then there are days when the pendulum swings the other way, when nothing seems to go right, when tears and pouts greet you when you expect them the least, when you want to be patient and loving but at times end up being anything but that.
Consider this ‘situation’.
It is 10 p.m. in the night and you are trying to clear up the dinner plates and catch a few hours of sleep before an early day at office tomorrow.
Your 6 year old daughter is on the verge of some path breaking new innovation, so she says, of discovering a new television (made with pieces of cardboard and plastic) that would let her and her friends watch Chota Bheem all day. After all she has been told watching too much television all day and specially Chota Bheem is bad for her eyes and brain and is trying to find her own solution to the problem.
And of course, busy innovator that she is, she does not have time for such mundane things such as finishing her dinner.
So what do you do?
a)     Let her innovate, anyway India needs less people who copy and more who innovate, food can wait for another day. Maybe you have a scientist in the making?
b)     Run behind her with the food, she just can’t miss her dinner; you can feed her while she continues innovating?
c)     Scold, shout, cajole, threaten to beat, actually beat, and use all persuasion tactics at your disposal to make her first finish her dinner. She can’t miss her dinner.. innovation be damned
d)    What if you want to go with option (c) and your spouse with option (a). What do you do then, do you start another fight, this time with your spouse on the importance of discipline in the child’s life?
Whichever option you choose, you are bound to feel few moments of anxiety and doubt. Am I doing the right thing? Will this help my child? Am I a bad parent?

Enter Parenting Anonymous.

What if there was a club, you know something on the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, where you could discuss such scenarios with fellow parents who have gone through similar situations, who don’t judge you but just listen.
What if you could nurse a cup of tea, nothing alcoholic mind you, just a good old cup of tea and just talk about these  ‘situations’ that you have with your kid? And what if other parents share similar stories and you feel that you are not alone, you are not a bad parent, it’s a just bad day and you can learn something new about yourself and about parenting today.
Parenting, the toughest job in the world for which there is no school and no real training. Don’t we at least deserve our own club? We don’t need pity or advice or judgment or sneers or adulation, at times all we need is just to be heard and to hear.
So here’s to the idea of Parenting Anonymous. Till some wise soul starts it, maybe fellow bloggers can share their parenting nightmares and we can all sip an imaginary cup of tea and listen and learn!