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The Pondicherry Fling Cocktail

2016 September 11

Make no mistake, this is a story of a most passionate love affair–but not the sort you’d expect. It’s a love story of a woman and a place and all the things in the place she finds, and of earthy enjoyments so sublime.

paticheri_pondicherryfling gin sling (5)

Now the woman lives in a place where things grow, almost against the odds. It is hot here and salty. It’s a fishing village and can be filthy. Visitors come in droves for cheap booze and the seaside, a little heritage by the wayside. They make this place in their own image, with shacks and bars and resorts aplenty, and all things the same but the air seasoned salty. Not so for those who stay. Those who stay simply know that this is a town where things can grow.

So they planted Auroville full of trees, reforested a world of scorching breeze. They cultured strange cheeses, they yeasted unusual breads, seeded cold kombuchas, found strange new sheens in the polished wood of fallen trees, and buried themselves in the red, hot soil. They sought no assurance that anything would ever taste the same, ever again. read more…

Gaund Ki Laddoo [Roasted Wheat, Almond, and Edible Gum Balls]

2016 September 5

There ought to be a book somewhere about the culinary uses of gums and resins–think xanthan gum or gum arabica, which you’ve likely seen on a food label here or there, for instance–but I confess I’ve not searched hard enough to find one. But where xanthan and gum arabica are hidden ingredients, for us Indians, gums are widely known and commonly used. Think “hing” or “asafoetida,” which is a daily-use seasoning ingredient, the somewhat stinky (but oh!-so-redolent when it’s fried) gum of the ferula communis, a carrot family plant. Tamilians will recognize the “badam pisini” as the gum of the almond tree, used to make a rather outrageous drink called the jil-jil-jigarthanda. But more on that later.


For now, I’m concerned with the gum of the axlewood tree, known particularly to Rajasthanis as gaund and used to make lots of sweets and snacks–of which my favorite, and the one I’m falling over myself to offer in honor of Vinayaka Chaturthi to the Lord who we’re told loves all things laddu, is gaund ki laddu or sweet balls made with crackly gaund as star ingredient. read more…

A Beginner’s Guide to Tamil Greens: Wild Amaranths [Arakeerai] in Pasta and Rice

2016 August 14

This post has two inspirations: my first and truer one is just to explore what amaranths can do when taken out of the ambit of Indian cookery, while the second snarkier one is to poke fun at the hyper-trendy naming conventions that glorify all these purported latest super-foods (that the rest of the world has been eating routinely for decades before they became superfoods–bit like Columbus “discovering” the Americas).

paticheri_pasta with mushrooms and wild amaranth

Take-home point: Just eat lots of greens, ok? They’re good for you. But if you’re using arakeerais, bear in mind they’re warming foods, so better consumed in cooler months than in hot summers. In the summer months, substitute mulaikeerai or sirukeerai, instead. They’re all wild enough, and can be micro-enough. So that way you can have your trending superfood and eat it, too. read more…

A Beginner’s Guide to Tamil Greens: Dal with Amaranth [Sirukeerai kootu]

2016 August 14

There is a road just past the toll booth that provides access to the Tindivanam highway and the turn-off to Auroville that all the people here would call the “Koot” road. So many non-Indians living around here, the road name always sounded a little oddly foreign–until I realized its Tamil origins: kuudu means to join or combine, so koottam [கூட்டம்] is a crowd or a joining together of people, and indeed the Koot road is one that joins the Tindivanam road. With the Auroville turning at the other end, the intersection feels like a spot where four roads come together. 

So now you’ll understand the use of kootu [கூட்டு] to describe a dal preparation in which lentils are combined with usually just one vegetable and some ground spices and coconut. Kootus are a bringing together of disparate elements, and a recombination of them all into something that makes beautiful sense–and yet retains a sense of the distinctness of each ingredient. 

paticheri_mulaikeerai dal (2)

read more…

A Beginner’s Guide to Tamil Greens: Stir-fried Amaranth [Mulaikeerai poriyal]

2016 August 14

Understanding greens, or keerais as they’re called in Tamil, means also understanding the poṟiyal [பொரியல்]–which is a category of Tamil cookery as much as it is a dish, usually dry, made of steamed-and-seasoned or gently stir-fried vegetables. Equivalents and variants of the poṟiyal exist in all regional Indian cuisines, but for us an essential ingredient is a handful of fresh coconut. And no turmeric!

paticheri_mulaikeerai (4)

Poriyals are fast to prepare, very lightly seasoned, and very gently cooked–in essence, antithesis to the idea of “curry,” as Westerners understand Indian cuisine, and answer to every common outside critique of Indian food: “It’s always so yellow!”–“They overcook their vegetables!”–“Everything has a sauce..”–“It’s too spicy!” read more…

Understanding Amaranth Greens: Arakeerai, Mulaikeerai, and Sirukeerai

2016 August 14

I know Noila’s voice long before I know her. I’ve heard her in the early mornings as she walks house-to-house in the fisher locality I call home, calling the names of the greens and garden vegetables she carries: arakeerai, sorakaya, vazhappuu, keeraaaaai! ‘mma, keeraaai! “Keerai” is the Tamil word for greens.

paticheri_greensvendor_noila (3)

I have to teach myself to listen for her, child of the modern grocery store that I am: well-schooled in thinking of agency and control in terms of choices I make, instead of parameters drawn circumstantially for me. Noila belongs to an era which feels more bygone than it really is, one in which so many people walk neighborhood streets and bring so many more daily needs and small services home. read more…

Jamun Jal Jeera [Sweet salt jamun cooler with roasted cumin]

2016 July 18

The jamuns are here, again.

paticheri_jamoonjaljeera (8)

The longish plump varieties we get in the markets here come to us from the jamun-growing regions of southern Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

paticheri_jamoonjaljeera (24)

read more…

Silver Leaf Laced Ricotta Carrot Halva [Gaajar ka Halva]

2016 May 27

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.

paticheri carrot beet halva with silverleaf (1)

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…

Fresh Hibiscus Margaritas

2016 May 14

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.

paticheri fresh hibiscus margaritas (5)

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…

Tomato and Hemp Seed Chutney [Tamatar aur bhang ki chutney]

2016 April 25
by Deepa

[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…

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