Monthly Archives: March 2012

Decadent pleasures

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Last week was crazy – which is why this post is late…by my internal deadlines, that is. My inbox isn’t clogged up with irate mails from  my readers demanding to know why they could not have their weekly fix of C&K!

The week was full of medicines and medical visits – dentist, ophthalmologist, optician, and all the seasonal allergies to add to it. The long and short is, it was hyper. So I did something I have not done for a very very long time – I took a nap, an afternoon nap. Oh the luxury! Oh the comfort! Oh the sweet delight of knowing no one was going to disturb me for the next 2 hours at least! And oh the horror of having to remake the bed…and oh the misery of craving a nice cup of chai and having to make it on my own instead of having it brought up to me!

In the tropics, an afternoon nap is de rigeur IF your schedule affords it. The sapping heat, the enervating humidity and the early rising (5 am is pretty normal) all combine to make an afternoon nap one of the most amazing productivity tools there is. It breaks up a long hot day into the `before-and-after’ and ensures you can cope with the demands of your day. In Europe, I have not needed it ever. Unless it was a really really bad night with one of the kids or a jet lag thing. Weather is a major determinant of life patterns.

One of the really delicious memories of the high school/college routine is about getting home in the afternoon, taking a nap, and being woken up with a nice strong cup of chai brought to me by Ma or the cook. Fragrant, sweet, hot and refreshing, usually accompanied by a biscuit, this cup of tea was heaven itself, and revitalized the body and spirit for an evening outing with friends and the tons of homework that lay ahead. So Tarabai, Shashi, Anju, Sharda, Suong, Ha, Mary, Rukhsana and all the other cooks who have served me – my thanks and love go out to you all. And Ma – well what can I say? Where does one even start to thank a mother?

Tea is an inherent part of the Indian psyche and way of life. It’s considered a `basic’ of hospitality – not offering `even a cup of tea’ to every stripe of visitor to your home or office is a sign of extremely bad manners. So it was with this cultural background that I experienced some degree of horror when I got to know (a decade or so ago) that our tea drinking habit is just over a hundred years old. In an unbroken culture of 5,000 years, that does not even qualify as `yesterday’.

In many homes, tea is made in a saucepan that is reserved exclusively for that purpose. Over time it develops a dull brown patina and adds a mature flavor to the tea. I’m trying to start my own tradition here, with this special saucepan that has a nicely fitted lid and an inbuilt strainer – not a coincidence..I spent ages looking for it!

While indigenous varieties of tea bushes grew in North-East India and had been consumed by tribal people for centuries, it was the British that started the large scale cultivation of tea in Assam in the 1830s. The impetus was to cater to their domestic market that had developed an insatiable taste for the brew thanks to their trade with China. When tea was cultivated in Assam however, it was found to be bitter and more acidic than the Chinese tea. What to do? Different  variety, different geographical conditions. And so to make it palatable, they started drinking it with milk and sugar – a practice that spread to all of the Empire. Even today, it’s mostly people from the UK , Australia. Canada and of course the Indian Subcontinent that drink it that way.

As recently as 1910, the sales guys from Unilever used to set up tea stalls outside factories and in busy market places in India, introducing workers to the concept of drinking tea during their cigarette / beedi breaks from work. (Makes me wonder what they drank before – milk? juice? All expensive and hard-to-get-fresh options). My dad tells me that in rural and small-town India, even upto the 1940’s tea was considered a `not-so-respectable’ a drink, bordering tobacco and mild narcotics in its image as a beverage that is addictive and `does’ something to you.

What a distance tea has travelled! Thankfully.

While it almost wounds my Indian pride to know that it was the British who taught us to drink tea (it’s a drink we consider our very own!) I take heart in the fact that we have thoroughly `desified’ (Indianized) it – Masala chai is our contribution to the evolution of this wonderful beverage, something that is increasingly becoming fashionable as Chai tea or Chai tea Latte as Starbucks calls it.

So with a local spin on this universal beverage, infused and suffused with all the flavors of  my culture, I bring to you, (drum roll please…) Masala chai!

MASALA CHAI (prep time 2 mins, cooking time 10 mins, serves 1-2, depending on how large a serving you like)

* Water – 250 ml

* Fresh milk – 1 tbsp (or less or more depending on how milky you like your tea). But do remember – without milk, delicious though it may be, it is not masala chai.

* Sugar (brown or white) – at least double of what you normally would like in your tea. There’s something about the spices that necessitates the upping of the sugar content. Treat it as a dessert if you will! Or skip the sugar (like I do, alas) and compromise on some of the taste.

* Tea – 1 bag or 1 tsp of strong black tea

* Spices – this might seem like an intimidating list. Fear not. Use as many or as few of the spices as you have, without any great compromise on taste. Different combinations give different flavor variations, each one wonderful in it’s own way, each one therapeutic in it’s own way. Fennel chai always reminds me of childhood fevers and mom’s loving ministrations. A strong ginger chai is what I use when I have a headache or need a strong pick-me-up, and the total-mix is what I usually make when I have friends over. Over time, you will figure out just what you like. PS – please do use whole spices, not powders – powders are not aromatic enough, and will irritate the throat when you drink the tea.

# Green cardamom  – 1 (smashed open)

# Cinnamon – 1 cm stick

# Peppercorns – 2

# Clove – 1

# Fennel seeds – a pinch

# Fresh ginger – a 1-2 cm piece, unpeeled (there’s lot of flavour in the peel! But do remember to wash it please. Ginger is a root and can sometimes be a bit gritty). Prepare it as as convenient – grate, crush or slice thinly (I personally love the earthy `thump’ of crushing ginger)

– Put the water, the milk, the sugar and the spices in a saucepan – cover and bring to the boil.

– Uncover, add the tea and simmer for about 5 mins.

– At this point you can decide if you need more milk or need to let it simmer for longer because you like it stronger … maybe you’d like to add some more tea to it – let the color of the tea lead your judgment. I’m not a major milk fan, and prefer my tea more dark than light.

– Cover and let it steep for a minute or so.

– Strain, pour  out and enjoyyyy!!

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When the cat is away…

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Absence makes the heart grow fonder…or should it be `makes the hands get free-er’?  What is it about the spouse traveling that makes us women feel like there’s no work to do? I meet my friends at the school or the bus stop, and they often mention that their husbands are traveling, so they’ll just order in a pizza for dinner… or perhaps we could go for a daylong trip into town since she is pretty free today because…you guessed it, the husband is traveling!

Is is that all of us devoted wives put in more effort into meals and households when the men are around? Or are the men just hard to please?! Your votes please!

In my family also it feels like L&M (Lord and Master) is the one who eats all the food, generates all the laundry and is generally the reason for my feeling overworked and busy…when pretty much the opposite is the case! While he’s away, our meals are simpler (I think) and it generally feels like there is less to do. There is also a slight sense of lassitude, especially in the evening. Do you lovely women reading this blog feel the same way too?

His being absent is irritating – no one to talk to after 9 pm, no one to help with logistics when I need to take one child but not the other to the doctor, for example. And `burning’ issues that need decision making (like hotel bookings for holidays!) are postponed until the weekend.

Prolonged absences work on a different level altogether – acquaintances and experiences need explaining, moods are gone through and forgotten , movies and plays missed  because there is no one to go with, and all the little events that make up the glue of a shared life are overlooked, brushed away in the compulsion to be somewhere else. Hats off to those who work with long-distance marriages and make a success of them .

A few years ago, for 2 whole years, L&M was on an assignment where he needed to travel 3-6 weeks at a time – weekends included! Torture. And I went through all the  aforesaid annoyances of a long distance relationship. But haha …there were some perks of the situation – I could occupy every single shelf in the cupboard and shove his stuff in the corners! The shoe rack was all mine! No one to yank the duvet and leave me out in the cold ! I could be late for every outing with no one to harass me! Yeah!!

In his current assignment, he does not need to travel too much – just 1-2 nights every few weeks. But I get my perks still – eating eggplant! Eating Italian Chinese! All the foods he detests and the kids and I love. Yup – I said eggplant.

Tomorrow we go out for Italian Chinese. Utterly insipid if you’ve ever eaten Indian Chinese. Which is itself a scandalous version of Chinese Chinese. But tonight’s menu is eggplant/aubergine/baingan (in Hindi), something L&M is allergic to. Likes it, but the allergy comes and goes, so it’s better avoided. My kids love what I created a few years ago, my very own spicy-sour concoction – Baingan Blast. So here it is, to share with you all.

BAINGAN BLAST (Prep time 10 mins+30 mins, cooking time 15 mins)

* Eggplants, medium sized – 2 (I use round purple eggplants, simply because they are the only ones available here. No reason  to not use other colors and shapes if you’ve got them. In fact, let me know how they turn out)

* Cooking oil – 1.5 tbsps + 2 tsps Eggplants GUZZLE oil! But this is a lot less than what it would have been if I did not use my little trick…for that, you’ll have to read the recipe carefully  ; )

* Fresh ginger – 1 inch piece, finely chopped (optional)

* Concentrated tamarind paste – approx 2 tsps, diluted in 1 tbsp of water.  Substitute with 3 tsps of tomato paste if tamarind is unavailable – it tastes different from my original recipe, but it’s still good!

* Sugar – 1 tsp

* Sesame seeds – 1 tsp

* Red chili powder/peperoncino/cayenne pepper – a pinch (as large or small as you can handle! Entirely optional)

* Spice mix – panch phoran – 2 tsps. This is a spice mix very typical of Eastern India, and consists of 5 aromatic whole seeds mixed together. But if you do not have it, never fear. Use a mix of spices, a big pinch of as many as you have from  this list…coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds (methi dana), aniseed (saunf), cumin seeds, nigella (kalonji), mustard seeds

* Salt – a generous sprinkling

– Wash and cut up the eggplants into medium sized cubes (about 1 inch pieces). Observe the texure – it’s like a sponge! That’s why it drinks oil while it cooks.

– Put into a large colander, sprinkle with a generous amount of salt (about 2 tsps I would think) and leave to drain for at least 30 mins. Traditionally, this was done to remove any bitterness in eggplant. In the old days, before modern agriculture, some vegetables like eggplants, zucchinis and cucumbers used to pretty often turn out to be bitter, so salting was the antidote to that. I do it `just to be safe’, and also because salting removes some of the moisture, which will be an essential step in reducing the amount of oil that we used to cook the eggplant in.

– Rinse the eggplant and cover and microwave for about 4 mins, until slightly cooked. Microwaving ensures that it is already partly cooked before it goes into the pan, and therefore drinks less oil while it is in there.

– Pat dry and set aside.

– In a non-stick or iron pan (I would use one that is wide and flat) add 1 tbsp of oil. When hot, add the eggplant and cook on medium heat, turning frequently until it is nicely browned on all sides. Use the 1/2 tbsp of oil to drizzle on the eggplants as you cook them. This takes about 10-12 mins.

– Remove from the pan and set aside.

– In the same pan, add 2 tsps of oil. When hot, add the spices (except for the sesame seeds). When they pop, add the eggplant, chili powder, ginger, sugar and tamarind /tomato paste. I would not add salt at this point because we have already salted the eggplant – remember? Better less than more.

– Mix well, turn off the heat, cover, and leave it for about 10 mins or so to soak in the flavors. Then taste, adjust the flavoring, sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve lukewarm/hot with rice, or bread. It also makes for an interesting starter with crisp breads.

Enjoy the blast of flavor, and don’t forget to keep some leftovers in the fridge for a traveling spouse…trust me, (s)he’ll appreciate it.