Years and years ago when I was a graduate student doing fieldwork in Hyderabad, I would find myself in the galis (small side roads) around Charminar listening to the dull metallic rhythms of the vark workers–thap-thap-thap, tha-thip-ip-tha-thip-ip-tha-thip-ip–hitting bits of silver into wafer-thinness in unplanned harmony. I hear that people living near such areas complain of the incessant repetitive sound, but for me it always had a strangely hypnotic, telling musicality. It’s a work sound: a day-long repetitive, monotonous rhythm that adds sparkle and delight to food. Somebody’s costly livelihood, someone else’s costly pleasure.
I stopped once–my entry pausing the thap-thap-thap of the shop briefly–and bought myself a stack of vark foil, each paper-thin leaf sandwiched between two uniformly cut pieces of newspaper. Being not much of a cook at the time, I had no particular plans for the vark, except maybe New Year cards or a little painting. So it was that the stack traveled with me to Houston, and then back to Pondicherry a decade later, safely stored with fieldnotes and old address cards, forgotten–and then rediscovered just the other day in a mad spate of cupboard cleaning. It had been with me, like all the little-little ideas and stories that never made it into my dissertation or my book, for nearly 20 years. read more…
Doesn’t the title just say it all? It’s not store-bought, it’s not pre-mixed, it’s not made from powdery packaged hibiscus teas of uncertain provenance. This is a margarita made of lime, love, and hibiscus flowers blooming in the garden.
After the immense success of her Lavender Blues series of drinks and deserts, the mother’s younger son set her her second primary color challenge. “You’ve done blue,” he said, ever the tinkerer and experimenter, “Now do red.”
“Oh but that’s easy,” said the mother.
“Show me,” said the boy.
So they wandered out into the hot summer garden to pick hibiscus flowers, thanking each bush in turn for the flowers which seemed not to care whether there was water or cool breeze to keep coming, and coming, and coming. read more…
[This post is for Mandakini, through whom I finally discovered what I’d had at home all along–and for Kavita, who shares my interest in new ingredients and brought this to me much too long ago. With love and grateful thanks.]
I promised myself once that when I traveled, whether for work or for fun, I’d come home with at least one of two things: a song, or an ingredient–which of course implies a recipe.
Ingredients are generally easier than songs, but I’ve had my share of challenges and successes with both. I learned a Shona lullaby from a loud story-telling Nigerian-mimicking cabbie who drove us from Nelspruit to Ermelo in South Africa one early fall night. Up in the Himalayan foothills enroute to Sandakphu, a catchy Nepali song we all loved turned out to be about a love of alcohol–there was both song and ingredient. Pandan came home with me from Bali (more on that growing experiment later). read more…
[Updated with tomato and hemp seed variation, April 25]
Fact was, there were too many tomatoes, and bushels more coming in daily from the overgrown, exuberant, heedlessly growing garden. There were only two choices, if we couldn’t eat them fast enough: give them away (some were), or chutney.
The second part was a no-brainer, and if you want to follow along, here’s the path. Only one warning: chutneys are, by definition, mash-ups, made up anew each time. The only formula for making them is a rough guide, and your best sense of taste. Got that? Still with me? Ok then.
[Update on May 2, 2016: if you don’t want puddings, mould these and make little cakes of ’em! Scroll down-down to see how.]
This was a serendipitous case of working with only what ingredients were on hand, to create a dessert that pleased everyone.
There were people coming to dinner. A meal had to be made; dessert had to be vegan. It was pouring, so there wasn’t a chance of running to any store–who knew what would be open? This was no MasterChef Pondicherry set-up, but the pressure was on, time was tight, and the possibility of public shaming not precisely absent. read more…
The story of this recipe begins somewhere out in the Andaman sea, where daytimes were made of glassy turquoise-green water and night skies were dusted with powdered sugar.
Many tried misguidedly to harness the magic of this place, crowding its waters and its forests with noisy jetskis and concept restaurants, but only the Full Moon Cafe would capture wonderment in its food. Here, amongst so many delicate offerings, was a drink called the lavender cardamom fizzy, and it begged to return home with us.
Malar-akka is my neighbor.
She moves in across the street from us two years ago, with her grown daughters Indu and Subbu, after the government allocates a home for her in the newly constructed “tsunami” housing built for fishermen communities whose ramshackle homes line this end of the beach road. We don’t speak much at first, but the girls take to greeting and saluting me daily, complimenting me when I wear saris and being generally very neighborly. And one fine festival evening, they came over with a small stainless steel box with four piping hot javvarisi urundais [sweet coconut filled sago balls], one for each of the four of us. We eat them all at once, skipping our suppers, they are so filling, and hatching at once a plan to sit one afternoon and learn to make them from Malarakka. It takes months to finally get around to it, but we did, one Saturday afternoon. Malarakka, her friend Usha (who helps us with our meals at home), and the two girls. read more…
[First installment in a series on local greens, the women who sell them, and ways to cook them.]
This is Dhanalakshmi.
She’s no stranger to most of us in Pondicherry who search for daily vegetables in the “small market” at one end of the canal roads. I’ve been buying greens from her for a long time now, but we don’t really converse except in signs and gestures as Dhanalakshmi cannot speak. When I ask her name, she clears a patch of earth so she can write it out: Ga-na-la–clears it off as she has made a mistake, resumes: Tha-na-la-chu-mi. Goddess of wealth. read more…
She is 75 years old, has no children of her own, and has outlived her husband and all her siblings. She lives in a village near Auroville, and spends many days in the houses of people who have cashew trees—and nuts to be shelled. She arrives one morning with a maid from Edayanchavadi to help us with the single 10 kilo bag of apparently sub-grade kernels. “Too small,” she says, “Next year, trade these in and get bigger cashews. Those I can come and help you to shell with much less effort.”
The fact that I’m an irretrievably delinquent blogger has to be confirmed by the fact that I’m getting this post up a month and a week after it appeared in the New Indian Express‘ “Indulge Magazine.” Some lovely folks there found my rushed post on Cashew Apple juice and picked it up for a Friday feature. I’m re-posting it here with grateful thanks to Rosella Stephen and Niranjana Hariharanandan for seeking me out via stories about cashews, for our delightful conversations, for the validation of what I do and what I’m passionate about — and above all else, for turning me miraculously into a “30-something” again.
Cashew apple juice is a youth elixir, y’all. Come share a glass sometime.