Why I do the things I do

I had a moment of epiphany the other day. In the act of measuring out rice, I paused just as I was about to fling a few grains back into the container. It was a reflex action. I have seen my grandmother and my mom do it in our South Indian household and here I was, absent-mindedly doing the exact same thing. Why was I putting the grains back? I have a dim memory of my granny explaining that this ensures the rice container is never empty! A wish and metaphor for a plentiful larder, and life.

In today’s changed circumstances, when India is a ‘land of milk and honey’, maybe this ritual makes no sense. But I am loath to ‘unfollow’ these. Here are a few more:

  • To ward off the ‘evil eye’ while praising a loved one, look up at the blue sky! 
  • If you want something badly, deprive yourself of something you love (especially in the food category) for the necessary duration.
  • Don’t plant coriander in your home as it’s a bad portent and could force you to leave your place of residence.
  • Don’t make a firm decision about anything important just before you go to sleep. Sleep on the thought and decide the next morning.
  • Never say ‘I am leaving’ when you leave home. Instead, go with ‘I am leaving now and will be back’.
  • The rigorously-enforced childhood ritual of popping the Seven Seas fish oil capsules and Calcium Sandoz tablets every day!
  • Never shampoo without oiling your hair first or you will catch a cold.
  • East or West, Pears soap is the best!
  • Never, ever cut your nails after twilight.
  • You will never get exact cooking measurements from that generation. Everything is – ‘a pinch’ of masala or ‘a small fist’ of rice or ‘throw in’ some pepper.
  • Ward off the evil eye by circling a person’s aura clockwise and anti-clockwise with a fistful of salt and in utter silence.

This list can go on. To me, these are some quaint and harmless traditions, which I am happy to continue as a link to the past. 


A yo-yo-ing day during lockdown…

6.30 am: I wake up with a start. It’s Monday. I feel its blues. I really don’t want to walk today, not with a mask on. I so hate the mask. I want to curl back in bed. I hear the seniors chatting in the garden below and I haul myself out. I decide not to wear the blue surgical mask. I don a cotton, chequered one, instead. 

7 am: It’s been my ritual to listen to M.S. Subbalakshmi’s morning hymn – the Suprabhatham. It’s 20-minutes long and I manage to walk about 1.6 km in that time. Kind of slow. Today some fatigue has set in. I select the gayatri mantra and listen to its repetitive chants for 10 soothing minutes. I have met most of the regular walkers and exchanged greetings with them. I have ignored my undone shoe laces so far, but a feisty senior points to them. I sheepishly bend and tie them. 

9 am: I have breakfast fatigue. I haul myself from the dining chair and open my laptop. The yellow stickie note has a long list of to-dos. I stare at it for a while and wonder if changing the colour to lilac will help. I change it to lilac.

11 am: Upto my neck in work, I wonder if I will survive the day. In between work I have made a paytm payment for ‘exotic fruit’, a google pay for ‘exotic bakery’ and cash to an apothecary (ok, ok, chemist) for completely unexotic medicines, decided the lunch menu, checked with the aircon guy about servicing the aircons (will he wear a full PE suit? Will he wear gloves? Can he please not speak or breathe while he is at my house?), complained to the broad band provider for the slow wi-fi, and ticked off my son for excessive chatting on online school. 

2 pm: I feel sleepy (rice, that bane of my existence and balm for my soul), but there are calls galore. I think dreamily of grabbing a book, my phone and go sit in the garden. And the mask? That decides me. I stay put.

4 pm: The ache in my back is accentuated today. Sitting on chairs not meant for long hours of sitting. I finally cave in and order a study table and chair for myself. There seems to be nothing temporary about wfh, anymore. 

6 pm: A friend calls. I feel the acute need to socialize. But it’s an impossible dream. I haven’t stepped out of my apartment complex in months. 

7 pm: I am in a dejected mood as I go down to for my evening walk. It’s been a crappy day at work. I couldn’t do my intermittent fasting, which means I will go up and pig out. I don’t want to meet a single person today. I look at my playlist. I decide to go with U2 and blast it. For 30 blessed minutes there is only Bono in my ears. I go up in a happier frame of mind. 

9 pm: I am in a baking mood. I decide to bake a loaf of bread. I look up the ingredients, and start my prep. My house help shakes her head at me and I promise not to mess up the kitchen. An empty promise and she knows it. She leaves me alone and as the rest of the household settles down, I bake. 

Finally, I am at peace.

13 dishes from Kerala you must taste before you die!

I obsess about food and I dream about food. And what can be more fun than writing about food! So, here I am, starting with the South Indian Kerala cuisine, which I love to eat and dish up. Except the meat and fish dishes, none of the vegetable dishes I have mentioned below use onions or garlic, which is uniquely Palakkad, my hometown in Kerala. And yes, we use tons of curry leaves and coconut in our cooking!

By no means exhaustive, here are the 13 dishes from Kerala, I believe you have to try!

Mutton stew with aapam: This soupy, white, coconut-based mutton stew is just what the doctor ordered – on any day. It’s small chunks of mutton cooked with onions and potatoes, ginger and green chillies, with coconut milk being added to it later, along with curry leaves and some pepper powder. A dot of ghee (clarified butter) takes it to another level. Teamed with lacy aapam (made out of a fermented batter of rice, coconut and a few other ingredients), or even our local pav bread, it is simply delicious. Many like to eat it like a soup, even. And one can make it as delicious with just potatoes and onions!

Here, the lacy aapam is teamed with egg curry and vegetable stew

Avial: This is literally a hotchpotch, rather bland dish of vegetables, which somehow scores high with everyone. A medley of vegetables – carrots, beans, drumsticks, red and white pumpkin, ivy gourd (tendril), elephant yam – are cooked with salt and turmeric powder. Later, beaten curd, curry leaves and ground coconut-green chillies mixture are added, along with a dash of coconut oil. Easy peasy!

Chicken fry: This has many variations, of course. The one I make has tons of onions, garlic, ginger, curry leaves, fried, into which I add the marinated and cooked chicken. And then fry it on slow fire, till the rooster crows. Ok, am kidding. Just an hour of slow frying will do. And what a lovely dish this is, with a slightly crispy texture.

Avial-Chicken fry
Rice, avial and chicken fry

Sambhar: I am from Palakkad which borders Tamil Nadu and sambhar is as much my dish too as any Tamilian! This is the ultimate in terms of balancing pulses or dal (toovar dal), vegetables (bhindi to radish to brinjals), tamarind and spices. I like my sambhar a bit crowded and tend to add many vegetables. Have it with rice, the beans or cabbage podthul (featured below) and some papadam, perhaps? Truly sublime!

Beans/cabbage podthul: Minutely cut up the beans or cabbage, season with rai or mustard seeds, slit green chilli, and urad dal, cook with a dash of turmeric powder, red chilli powder and salt, add some grated coconut once it’s cooked. Though it sounds bland, it’s a must-have at any Kerala sadya or festive meal.

Mango Curry: This is the dish to make in the summer season, when mangoes are aplenty across India. It has chunks of mangoes ground with coconut, red chillies and curd, which is then cooked with cucumber in turmeric, salt and curry leaves. Yum!

Sambhar and mango curry

Pineapple pachhadi: You cook pineapple with turmeric and salt, add ground coconut and green chillies and beaten curd, and voila! You have a lovely, soothing, sweetish dish, which goes well with rice and rotis!

Puttu and kadala curry: This is Kerala’s favourite breakfast. It’s rice flour and scraped coconut steamed in a special apparatus called ‘puttu kutti’ (which has by the way featured in Ellen Degeneres’s show!) It’s eaten with black chana curry or vegetable stew.

Puttu with kadla curry and bananas

Fish curry: One can make this with different kinds of fish. I love to make this with black pomfret or halwa as it is called locally. The fish is cooked in tamarind water with onions, ginger and green chillies. Ground coconut-red chilli mixture is added to the fish, along with plenty curry leaves. Serve this hot with rice, what a combo!

Fish fry: My mom has this long and winding road to a fish marinade, which I am only now beginning to really appreciate. Marinate the fish with turmeric powder, red chilli powder, ginger-garlic-onion paste, and salt, and refrigerate for a few hours. Then fry it in the tava or pan.

Sardine or mathi fry: Most people I know are wary of sardines, and with reason. It’s full of small bones, and difficult to eat. Till someone teaches you to chew through most of the bones, except the central one. In my case, my dad did. I marinate it as any other fish for frying, and then on a tava do a vagaar of rai (sesame seeds), curry leaves, green chillies and grated coconut, and fry the fish in it. Oh it’s so tasty, and this fish is a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids.

Ney choru or ghee rice: This dish I learnt very recently. Yes, as the name suggests, it does need dollops of clarified butter or ghee, in which the basmati rice is fried, before it’s cooked in water. Garnishing it with fried onions and fried cashew nuts is a must. This rice goes with absolutely any of the dishes mentioned above. The aroma will get you first, before the taste slays you!

Chicken or mutton biriyani: The Kerala biriyani I haven’t yet mastered. But I hope to, soon. This is one of my favourites, especially the one you get at Fountain Plaza restaurant in Fort, Mumbai. The succulent meat, surrounded by its spice mix in the bed of rice, with fried onions on top, has to figure on the list of top dishes to be tasted.