Wild jaguar, Mumbai’s crows, feeding strays, cats, and humans

These are some of the great stories in Mint Lounge this week.

Meanwhile, my piece on religion, food, negotiation and identity is up on Mint’s Sunday edition.  Next, I’d like to visit Ajmer or Amritsar for this series.  Read the story here, because it has videos I recorded and many photos.

Sacred Food

Some years ago, Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin approached me to write a book on “Sacred Food.”  At that time, I wasn’t ready to do it.

Some weeks ago, Sukumar, the editor of Mint, told me about this long-form platform they were launching and told me to write for it.  The multimedia digital platform is exciting.  I did my first voice over here.  They sent me a video and I memorized what I wanted to say.  Played the video on silent, recorded on Garageband, emailed the file over, and voila!!!

You can see Mint on Sunday here and my piece here

I Am

The email below led to this video of me here and pasted below.

She had me at Alarmel Valli!!

Dear Shoba

Hope all is well. Not sure you remember me but we met at the Festival of Sacred Music two/three years ago. I now have a performing arts’ company called Aalaap and under the banner of Aalaap, I edit and publish a performing arts magazine. Will send you a few copies if you give me your snail mail address.

I’m writing to you on behalf of Ahalya, an exclusive, high-end jewellery brand, whose creator is a very intelligent and insightful designer by the same name. Ahalya Bespoke is a sub-brand of Ahalya and to grow the bespoke brand and to create a community of sorts, who celebrate the idea of self and individuality, we have created and manage a social media platform called I Am that is a platform for conversations and thoughts, ideas and inspirations.

In it, we intend to – through stories and films – echo the philosophy of the brand – I Am – where the idea is to celebrate people the way they are; women and men who live life on their own terms and have a point of view that matters.

You can take a look at the page at Facebook.com/theiampage.

I’m writing to you to invite you to be a part of this page’s series of films wherein you share a particular idea/thought/expression/story, etc, that is integral to who you are. So far, we have had two films (Alarmel Valli, the dancer and Sharanya Manivannan poet)

Our camera team will be in Bangalore between October 24th and October 25th and if you are up for this, it’d be great if you could indicate the time and venue where we can shoot this film. The whole process including the shoot will not take more than 90 minutes.

I really look forward to your response…

Warm regards
Akhila

Bonda Soup

Still bummed that I didn’t go to Ayodhya in Mangalore for typical Mangalorean food.

The bowl matters as much as the soup

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I grew up in a home where we ate on stainless-steel plates. My grandmother’s idea of a festive dinner was to lay banana leaves on the floor and have a small army of topless dhoti-clad men race down serving spoonfuls of various dishes in a prescribed order: first payasam (kheer), then paruppu (dal), then pappadam , then pachadi (raita). Then came an array of dishes that are pretty much untranslatable— kootu , avial , olan , kaalan , kosumalli —and pretty much inedible according to my husband. If you were lucky, the meal would include an “English vegetable” such as potato or plantain fry. By the time you opened your mouth to ask for a second helping of plantain fry or whatever it was that your heart longed for, the bare-torsoed men had scurried to the end of the banana-leaf line. The men had names, surely, but we didn’t know them.
 The “mama” or “maharaj” in charge had a bulbous stomach shaped like a ghatam. If we dared to ask for seconds, he would glare at us for a second before yelling, “avial vaa”, which was akin to saying “chorizo, vamos” in Spanish. I think this is the reason that restaurant menus got more and more complicated with the description of the dishes—because they don’t have a top-dog “maharaj”, referring to servers by the names of their dishes.
 Can you imagine the maître d’ at Noma or The Fat Duck calling a waiter by the dish he is serving? “Oy! Shaved cod with grilled steak tartare served with toasted areca nuts and passion-fruit purée. Come here and serve this chit of a girl who is eating as if she has escaped a famine.”
When we met as a family, food was served on the dining table with a hearty dose of “feed you till your stomach bursts” type of hospitality. This essentially meant that there was no conversation; only incessant questions: Do you want more potatoes? How do you find the dal? Is there too much salt in the biryani? So you ate like a duck, quacking “yes” or “no” to the questions that were thrown at you from grandmother, mother, and every sundry aunt that was hovering around the table, serving us all. Interspersed with the questions were constant accusations: “What do you mean, you don’t want more sambhar? Are you sick?” was the most frequent, accompanied by a frown and a glare.
My family viewed food in a complex way. Food was utilitarian—you ate for sustenance. Mealtimes had that hurried feeling of “eat quickly so we can get this meal over with and move on to the next”. It was an expression of aggressive love—you ate because the women in your life would be insulted if you didn’t. It was a competitive sport—you ate because there was a finite amount of your favourite dish and you had to eat as much as you could before your 20-odd cousins could.
It was a delicate balancing act that occurred in between the times the bai (maid) would show up to wash utensils. It was a connection—quite literally, since Indian women are prone to rolling rice-balls and sticking them into the mouths of the non-eaters. If you didn’t eat, it wasn’t because you were full. It was because you were sick. And then you were force-fed Horlicks with bread.
Food was a calling card; a brand identity. Savita maasi’s mango pickle versus Dimple aunty’s lemon relish; Kanti bua’s Goda masala mix versus Shetty aunty’s chicken ghee roast mix. Now we just go to Thom’s Bakery and Supermarket and buy Everest garam masala sans provenance or pride. Women identified themselves with certain dishes. They still do. Entire weddings were centred around the arrival of the Sridevi-like character in my family who made divine laddoos. Saralamami wasn’t as pretty as Sridevi but her laddoos looked better than the ones in English Vinglish and led her to deliver love masked as a threat: “What, you don’t like my laddoos? Why are you eating only four of them?” Accusations and badgering till you hung your head in defeat and masticated without a word.
When I lit a candle on the dining table after returning from the US, my entire family thought that I presaged a power cut. “How does she know when Amma (J. Jayalalithaa) will turn off the power?” they murmured and stared at me with wonderstruck eyes. When my extended family and I gathered for annual vacations in Coimbatore (my Mom’s side) or Kottayam (my Dad’s side), their idea of a fancy dinner was to go to Annapoorna or Aryaas, and have masala dosas with flies on the side. As for conversation, you stared dourly at the sour waiter and willed him to serve you more red chutney. I tell you this as background for what I am about to reveal. My aunts were wrong; my parents were wrong; and my grandmother, whom I adored as a child, was more wrong than them all. Accoutrements matter. Utensils matter.
What you eat with is as important as the dish you actually eat in—and I say this after eating food without caring about where it came from. You can eat a bonda-soup from Mangaluru but equally important is the dish from which you eat it. I have no connection to Arttd’inox or Magpie design, but if they priced their stainless-steel dishes more reasonably, I would eat my bonda-soup from their bowls.

Shoba Narayan enjoys the Shetty’s chicken ghee roast powder that she purchased in Mangaluru at Sri Sai Condiments. She coats her paneer with it. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Wine glasses

How to balance multiple readerships is my challenge.
Wine one week; heritage conservation, the next; and wildlife, the third. How to make wine glasses palatable for the activist so that they don’t dismiss it as frou-frou?
I often think of narrowing down my writing to one topic. Just can’t figure out which one will sustain my interest.

In search of the perfect wine glass

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A goblet being gilded at a unit of Baccarat in Nancy, France. Photo: Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP

Read more at: http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/xpF8gExiOeiHdCflMjKN8J/In-search-of-the-perfect-wine-glass.html?utm_source=copy

Anyone who has stayed in a hostel has a resource-constrained mindset towards food. I don’t care which college you went to. Standing in line and waiting for a finite amount of food does something to your psyche. It makes you think of food, not as a pleasure to be had, but as a resource to be grabbed. It has taken me several decades to get out of this mindset.
I write this as I drink a 2011 Chateau de Fontenille from a wine goblet with a curvy bottom that is shaped like Jennifer Lopez’s—there is no other way to say this—flight path if she were sitting on a boomerang. The wine is golden in colour and goes straight down—like the Congress party. It is available in Bengaluru for about `2,000 and is a blend of sauvignon blanc, sauvignon gris, muscadelle and semillon.
The best part of this wine is that the grassy acidity of sauvignon blanc is hidden, or at least balanced, by the other grapes. I have not had a sauvignon blanc that I like in years. Friends have been raving about Charosa’s version but I haven’t tried enough of their wines to agree. I don’t like sauvignon blanc’s herbaceousness. If I want that taste, I’d rather eat ajwain (carom seeds).
The wine is from the lesser-known area of Entre-Deux-Mers, between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers in France. I have a case and enjoy it with the manchego cheese that my friend, Phyllis, brings for me from the Whole Foods Market in New York.
The main point of this passage is not the wine but the fact that I am drinking it from a glass that I love. As a college student, if you had told me that people would pay good money for dishes from Rosenthal, Noritake, Villeroy & Boch, and Versace, I would have sputtered out the hot hostel bondas that were served on greasy, grainy stainless steel plates with a side order of a scowl.
Behavioural economics has shown that the environment in which you eat matters just as much as what you eat. A study conducted by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab enlisted an actress who would wear a fat suit and dine with fellow students. The study discovered that people do eat more when they are with heavier people. Moral of the story: When you go out to eat, sit with a thin friend.
Does drinking wine from a pretty glass make the wine taste better? I was about to find out.
My wine glasses are in a state of flux. As newly-weds, we bought Baccarat crystal glasses, which got destroyed on one memorable evening when my husband and I threw them at the wall to… check if they would bounce. When the children were little, we bought pewter glasses from Royal Selangor in Malaysia. They look like Roman amphora now, after many washes in the dishwasher. This year I decided to get a whole new set that fulfilled a specific criteria: They had to look good and feel good; and not be so expensive that I would un-friend those friends who broke my wine glasses. That meant removing Bottega del Vino, Schott Zwiesel and Spiegelau from the list; not that they are easy to get in India.
The glasses I bought are by a Thai brand called Lucaris. I bought a set of six at HomeStop for under `4,000. The wine glasses from the “Tokyo Collection” are expansive—not expensive. They are better than Riedel which, in my view, has become an overexposed brand. When you can walk into a Macy’s at Tyson’s Corner Center mall in the Washington, DC area, or at 1MG Road in Bengaluru, and buy Riedel glasses for 50% off, then you know that the brand, which once marketed itself as exclusive, is actually not.
I know wine tumblers are all the rage, but I think they were designed with breakage in mind rather than the beauty of the glass itself. A tumbler doesn’t give me the feeling that I am drinking wine. It’s like drinking filter coffee in a cup. It may serve the purpose but it just ain’t right.
Being south Indian, I’m not as finicky about chai. I know that it perhaps tastes better in a kulhar, but I like drinking my green or masala tea in thin, clinking China cups, with a pretty glass teapot that has an infuser in the middle so that you can see the beautiful tea liquor turn golden. Pour the tea into a glass cup the way the plantation folk do it and you can enjoy your tea in a way that “Nair, single tea,” will never equal.
I have gone from being a utilitarian diner to a finicky one, especially as far as the serving ware is concerned. It had to happen of course. I grew up eating on banana leaves where you had to build dams out of white rice to protect the rasam from running over. There is a charm in that. But there is nothing wrong with the plates that Thomas Keller has designed (I think the Taj group has them in its New Delhi restaurant), pretty linen napkins, sleek cutlery or silverware as the Americans would have it; and wine goblets that curve like a certain part of the anatomy.

Shoba Narayan drinks Kusmi tea from a translucent teapot. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Diwali Food for BA

My editor from British Airways magazine emailed with this commission.

We’re after a piece on how different regions/cities in the country celebrate Diwali with food – this could be anything from street food in a big city like Delhi or Bombay to regions that might be influenced by other cultures (e.g French influence in Pondicherry).

The tone should speak very much to a local audience as opposed to someone, say, living in the UK.”

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What shocked me was how little I knew about foods in other regions.  Not the broad “Bengalis love fish” type thing but details.  Phone calls to friends/chefs, etc.  The result is here.

Childhood food cravings

Wrote this piece on a transatlantic flight.  I guess having bad airline food helped kindle taste memories.

The best cuisines are those that have the flavours of home

Shoba Narayan

September 14, 2014 Updated: September 14, 2014 04:59 PM

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Read more: http://www.thenational.ae/opinion/the-best-cuisines-are-those-that-have-the-flavours-of-home#ixzz3DNG69THv
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How many days can you go before you crave the foods of your childhood? I can last a two weeks, tops, and only if I am stuck in the middle of the Australian outback without access to turmeric or some decent curry powder.   

When it comes down to it, most of us are fairly narrow in terms of our food preferences. 

We may have cultivated a taste for sushi and noodles, but scratch the surface and we each have our own versions of shepherd’s pie, cheeseburger and fries or, in my case, rasam and dosa. Some clever restaurateurs try to use this love of traditional foods in the marketing of their dishes.  

A restaurant in England, described hummus as “chickpea mash”. I love hummus, but I wouldn’t eat chickpea mash if you gave me a year’s supply of Crème de la Mer, which, as it happens, is a wrinkle cream and not something that is churned from the sea. The restaurateur, however, told me that it was his most popular dish because the English associated it with bangers and mash.

Food is intimately tied with identity, home, memory and well-being. We may each have acquired global preferences in other parts of our lives, but take food away and you have the skeletal remains of the global sophisticates that we’ve all become. 

There will be variations. Indians who live their entire lives in temperate countries cannot eat the same level of spiciness that their parents did. Indians who grew up in Africa

incorporate local spices into their spice mixes. Indians who spend a lifetime in Scandinavia get used to local dishes but add a dash of lemon pickle to perk things up. But in each case, the essential component

remains underneath the new culinary layers that they’ve added on. 

Some part of it is habit. A north Indian or a Pakistani will finish a meal with a flavourful and fragrant biriani, because he says that rice will rest his stomach after the parade of meats. For a south Indian, it will be curd rice – something to eat at the end of the evening just because it settles your stomach.  

A Japanese chef once told me that after an evening creating the most wonderful dishes for his patrons, he goes home and eats boiled rice. These are the things that we grew up with, the proverbial chicken soup that nourishes our soul, in this life.

When you become an expatriate, you reach back your old country for three culinary things: comfort, essence and personal preferences. Curd rice isn’t particularly flavourful if you eat it for the first time, but it is comfort food for a south Indian.  

Being south Indian myself, I can tell you that I didn’t reach back for all the dishes I grew up with when I lived abroad. I had personal preferences veering towards the north. I loved paneer dishes; I liked their buttery dals instead of our watery ones. I liked milk-based Bengali sweets instead of sugar-based south Indian ones. Beyond the comfort foods and the personal preferences, there is that elusive element of the essence of India, which in my view, are its spices. After a two weeks away from them, I need a spice mix for a fix. It all boils down to that. It is my version of a hot dog, chicken soup, kebab, satay, sushi, or whatever your comfort food might be. I don’t question it. I just need it.

Shoba Narayan is the author of -Return to India: a memoir

Airline food and descriptions

This was published in Mint using verb-consonant.  An attentive read, said “Surely you mean vowel, not verb.”  Indeed.

 

‘Mor kuzhambu’ or ‘kadhi’: the name game

Menu descriptions are an art, somewhat like matrimonial ad descriptions

Shoba Narayan Travelling without moving The name of the dish matters. Photo: Thinkstock 

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The unfairness of menu descriptions struck me on a recent flight. Here is the menu that was handed out to us on British Airways. “Seared fillet of British lamb with béarnaise sauce, roasted potatoes, runner beans and butternut squash.”

I am vegetarian but the sound of this got my saliva tingling. I could imagine a proud British lamb giving itself up for the sake of airline pride and the warm enveloping company of béarnaise sauce. As for the sides, the roasted potatoes alone would had gotten me to raise my hands and say, “Yes, please. Me first.”

Here is what is on offer on the other side of the food-preference aisle: “Cabbage and pea curry with coconut rice and tamarind okra.” Not bad, you may think. A little insipid but then again, what can you expect with vegetarian food? Here is where the unfairness kicks in. Consider the same description in its native language, Tamil, helpfully transcribed on the menu as well: “Kosu-pattani poricha kootu; thengai sadam; and vendakkai puli kuzhambu.”

You may pity my culinary choice, but I’ll tell you this: the Tamil version of the menu is a lot more apt and exciting. Curry is not the same thing as ‘poricha kootu,’ a glorious concoction of slow-roasted and ground dals with a sprig of Bydegi red chili, a handful of cumin seeds, and grated coconut, all tempered with fragrant curry leaves and dancing black mustard seeds. Does that make your mouth water? As for the “tamarind okra,” on the menu, the Tamil “puli kuzhambu” is a robust, tart dish with soft mushy okra in a sauce that could give a béarnaise a run for its franc.

Menu descriptions are an art, somewhat like matrimonial ad descriptions. You have to make the candidate enticing enough to be chosen and yet realistic enough so that the person who chose will not get pissed off at the disparity between what they thought they’d end up with and what they actually ended up with. You have to capture the essence of the person or dish without giving away too many secrets or revealing essential flaws. But where menu and matrimony part ways in the description arena is the musicality of the words. “Wheatish complexion” sounds horrible but has been used for decades to describe a shade between brown and black. Words for dishes however have to sound musical. There is a reason why “paneer butter masala” is England’s most popular dish. Even if you didn’t know what paneer was, the fact that it has butter helps it along. Somewhat like saying “seven-figure salary” in a matrimonial ad. No matter what follows after, the candidate is a winner. Masala just sounds musical. It all boils down to the number of vowels per consonant. Here is the formula. “A” is the best letter to have in a dish followed by “I” because these two letters open up the mouth and mind: masala has an equal number of vowels and consonants. So does “chimichanga,” which follows the same formula: consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel. So does “yakitori,” which uses different vowel-consonant combinations but the same rhythm. As do sushi, dosa, taco, hara bara kebab, biriyani: vowel-consonant alternates all.

Some dishes live and die by the associations they create in the mind. Take tom yum soup. What does the word “yum” bring to mind? Good stuff, right. If you were confronted with ‘tom yum’ and “som kruap,” you are likely to pick something that sounds yum instead of sounding like, well, crap. Even the poricha kootu that I waxed eloquent about doesn’t sound good, which, in my view, is why some regional cuisines haven’t taken off as much as they should. They are just so hard to pronounce. Take “morkuzhambu,” which is a sublime and better version of the North Indian “kadhi.” Delhi folks have trouble with any Tamil word that has the letter “z” in it. Their tongues just roll up and lie down like a drunk dog. Naming someone “Azhagiri,” and sending him off to the central government was a bad idea and one that was bound to fail. Similarly, “morkuzhambu,” requires surgical modification before it can become acceptable. One way would be to take out the problematic letters: r and z, and replace them with letters than are easier on the tongue. “More Kulambu,” reads and sounds easier.

Some languages sound unfortunate and this impacts their dishes. Take bratwurst, for instance. I have never tasted it. I wouldn’t want to taste something called ‘brat’ and worst. Kung pao chicken sounds like a cat’s meow and I don’t mean that as a compliment. When I do search out foods in a foreign land, I almost always turn to the nice sounding ones; which is perhaps why I don’t drink borscht nearly as much as I could and why it hasn’t taken off globally. When it comes right down to it; the name of the dish matters nearly as much as the taste.

 Shoba Narayan loves mor kuzhambu. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com. 

Read more at: http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/97lv1DUNRLUciKBbZoyM9N/Mor-kuzhambu-or-kadhi-the-name-game.html?utm_source=copy