Monday, December 13, 2010

Rants from the kitchen

With all the interesting food blogs doing the rounds, I find myself quite incompetent at the present time, lost in a sea of tempting recipes. I am marooned in a studio suite of Marriott which marks the fourth of such stays in this year. In conclusion, I am the quintessential nomad, one who not only lives in five different places in a year, but also has to manage to spread tolerable meals in five different kitchens, fumbling her way across cupboards and dishwashers. Such is the plight of being a trailing spouse!

Now, many on the other side of the grass (and mine is NOT green for the umpteenth time!!) believe this is a privilege - hotel life and hence the luxury of thriving on delivered food. But believe me, all that indulgence lasts well for a week at the most. Then begins the craving for simple home cooked meals. Even the most delectable chicken biryani from the local Indian restaurant becomes tiresome after four shameless visits in a row. And this time it is New Jersey - the Little India of Amrika. We have been on a gluttonous rampage with the Chandni Chowk styled parathas, the Chettinad curries, the chicken puffs and the vada pav. But after a fortnight of almost a crazy eating spree, even Sam, the foodie has begun whining for simpler fares, ones that are made with love and served with care.

My friend and fellow blogger, Somdatta, has recently written a beautiful post on comfort food, which for us eastern Indians is the ubiquitous rice-dal-mashed boiled potato with raw onion, green chilies and a swirl of mustard oil. It is the ultimate soul food and no amount of fish or chicken can supplant the emotion that this classic combo evokes. Thinking on the lines of comfort food, I wonder what happens to one who thrives for almost a month on this comfort food? Like we have been, for it is difficult to throw lavish spreads here, in this supposedly "fully equipped" kitchen which is a mere renovated hole with sleek gadgets. I miss my comfort zone, aka my compatible bamboo chopping board and santoku knife pair, the oh-so-convenient non-stick pots on which you can stir, saute, fry and frizzle the world. Mostly, it is the unique feeling of that space called 'my kitchen'. The maximum I can whip up here is a chicken or a prawn curry, because try anything less runny and it just sticks to the stainless steel surface of the pot. At times I manage a trick biryani, minus the layering and the classic Hyderabadi touch.

I miss the whole paraphernalia, the baking and experimenting, what Sam mockingly calls "lurking in the kitchen". Cooking is a major cathartic vent for me when my inner demons just melt away into the embalming aroma of spices. Isn't is pathetic when one misses one's own cooking? Even if it is the humble dalma (an Odiya delicacy made with dal and vegetables), for which a pressure cooker is a must.
So much for the fully equipped kitchens!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A tree story

I pout and preen in my blossomy sheen

I swing and dance in a greenish trance

I'm the perfect coy mistress in my golden autumn dress

I shiver and sigh when the winds are high

Cold and lonely I stand, dreaming of a happy summery land

Monday, December 6, 2010

In Ashima's shoes

"For being a foreigner Ashima is beginning to realise, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy - a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts."
~ Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

Seven winters back when I had first read The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri's heartrending tale, it had stirred and brewed a little storm inside me. Since then I have gone back to it, in chunks and bits, like a fate-worn lover who has to return to the memories, living and losing at the same time. The love affair continues, only this time I am one of them from the pages. Ashima - a demure Bengali woman born in Calcutta, brought up amidst a fierce sense of culture and draped in unpretentious tangail sarees. She marries Ashoke, an engineering student at MIT and accompanies him for a new life to America - "the land of opportunities".

Ashima's life in the States is shaped out of many realities - the regular calls to Fulton fish market in the hope of a lucky catch of rohu or ilish, the much dreaded driving lessons when she would cringe her face and push the accelerator uneasily which would result in a beeline of traffic honking impatiently behind her, the mounting vexation during the customer care calls when she has to spell every single alphabet of 'Ganguli' unfailingly and with examples. Prior to my life as a foreigner, this futile yet continuous search of one's identity and the reluctant unraveling of oneself to blend in, both physically and mentally, had not been this huge a part of me. Now I, too, am ashima - one who does not have boundaries - for one simply cannot afford any in the desperate confusion of the old and the new.

My solidarity with Ashima transgresses the boundaries of age and experience. A surge of tender pity grips me when anxious and alone in the final trimester of pregnancy she craves for jhaal muri (an East Indian snack of puffed rice and spices) and quite helplessly tosses chopped onions into a bowl of Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts. There was not much choice for an Indian's culinary comforts in the America of the 70s. Ashima's most intimidating task, more so because she wears her Indianness with aplomb, is to understand and accept the American ways of her children who are themselves trapped in a huge chasm of cultural mores. How much could one fight one's way out of the linguistic and cultural barriers back then?

Even after a good thirty years nothing much has changed. Foodwise, yes, a lot has. With the mushrooming of Indian grocery stores and restaurants in almost every corner of the States, pleasing one's taste buds isn't a questionable dream anymore. Also, what was once the struggle for existence has undergone a vast change over the last twenty years resulting in an unbecoming vanity fair. But the old haunting feeling of rootlessness sits still in the same dusty corner of the heart. Festivals come and go, seasons spring and fall, but the ache remains. I have been walking in Ashima's shoes for the past three years, across six states and on a multitude of roads. With each step the bite has become worse, fanning the sore of longing till the wound feels like a second skin. And thus another day breaks, impregnated with a perpetual unknown wait...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Aadatein bhi ajeeb hoti hein!

Saans lena bhi kaisi aadat hai
Jiye jaana bhi kya ravaayat hai
Koi aahat nahi badan mein kahin
Koi saya nahi hai aankhon mein
Paaon be-his hein, chalte jaate hein
Ek safar mein jo behta rehta hai
Kitne barson se kitne sadiyon se
Jiye jaate hein, jiye jaate hein...

Aadatein bhi ajeeb hoti hein!

~ Gulzar
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