Tag Archives: cooking

The Venus Flytrap: A Neem Tree For A Neighbour

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My closest neighbour is a neem tree, and she rests her lovely-leafed branches on the glass of the window by my reading nook. This is not a forever home, but for the little while that I’m here, it’s where I plan to spend many hours. Sun slanting on the greenery, on my skin, on the pages I’m holding. This, to me, is luxury. And have you noticed over the past year or so how kuyil songs are more frequently heard around the city centre? I hear them all day now. Something is shifting towards kindness and vitality, in a way that maybe will touch us too in our conurbations, our attempted civilisations, our many cages. I hope it touches me in mine, and I strive to reach for it every day – something resembling belonging. Here in this nook, I watch as squirrels run up the branches and along the windowsill. Ours is, I think, an undemanding co-existence.

Of course, I know they are rodents. And certainly, I know that prettiness alone shouldn’t be trusted. After all, one of the most famous squirrels ever (not counting the sabre-toothed Scrat in the Ice Age films) is the vicious Ratatosk, who scampers up and down the span of the great world tree of Norse mythology, Yggdrasil. He tells the dragon chewing at the roots what the eagle in the high branches allegedly said; and then passes another falsehood to the eagle.

But I am lucky: I speak to my neighbour the neem tree directly. And sometimes in the evenings I go downstairs and circle her, caressing low-hanging leaves with my fingertips. I have a feeling that she is a tree who is good at absorbing tears.

I don’t need a squirrel messenger. In fact, I don’t need anything from the squirrels, and so I prefer another tale about them: about how the Indian palm squirrel got its stripes after being gently stroked by Rama in a gesture of gratitude. It’s a small story about tenderness within a large story mostly about the ego, and more than the story itself, it’s the memory of my father’s narration of it in my childhood that I cherish.

I was intrigued to learn that North American cookbooks, including the iconic Joy of Cooking, featured squirrel meat even up to the cusp of the millennium, with dishes such as Brunswick stew and fricassee. As recently as a decade ago, the UK’s The Guardiancalled it the “ultimate ethical” meat, as a free-range, low-fat, locally-sourced and apparently quite tasty alternate to other kinds. Locavores in the West aside, species of squirrels both small (such as the orange-bellied Himalayan squirrel) and large (such as the Malayan giant squirrel) are traditionally eaten in different parts of India. Perhaps this mix of inspirations was what made London-based chef Rakesh Nair come up with a “Rajasthani spiced grey squirrel” for Jamie Oliver.

I’m never eating these squirrels at my window, of course. They give me so much more food for thought than they could give my stomach nourishment. “Hello Aniloo,” I coo (this is my name for all squirrels). “Are you visiting me – or am I visiting you?”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 27th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Packing A Pestle

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I was meant to travel so much this year. I was supposed to see many vistas, bring back myriad stories, and have at least a few experiences that would make me suddenly smile at their memory. Instead, I’ve been rendered out of commission with a string of demands, reversals and blockages on the personal front. So when something turned up in my inbox to which I didn’t have to say No, I think I’d gotten so used to hearing or saying the word that I reached for an excuse. And then, the deeper part of me – the one that is frustrated and yearns – told me not to be silly. I could just pack a mortar and pestle into my luggage, and go.

I’m on a course of traditional medicine that requires me to pulverize fresh herbs every day, hence this unusual travel need. The ferocious Baba Yaga of Eastern European folklore did the same: using the kitchen appliance as her flying vehicle, in fact. I could picture myself sitting in a mortar like it was a boat, rowing with the pestle and arriving very late to my appointments but pleasingly dramatically. It would give my broomstick a rest, too.

We take objects of the everyday for granted until we’re at a loss. The most obvious of these is the toilet, the #1 impediment for women travelers. Somewhat less indispensably: scissors, tampons, charger cords, a sharpener for your kohl – you’ve probably been in a situation in which you’re positively desperate for something you barely glance at in your cabinets at home. Why, even the lack of saline solution can prevent a short-sighted person from being spontaneous sometimes. On a long trip once, I had been so moody while packing that I hadn’t bother to bring shampoo; and found myself not only at hotels that mysteriously had no such mini-bottles, but also with an unexpectedly charming travel companion and profound regret that my hair smelled more like grease than like Sri Lankan ginger.

But I’ve never had to carry a mortar and pestle anywhere before, and my new need made me consider the familiar implement, and its relations, with a fresh regard. Culturally speaking, these appliances have always been known to be worth their (quite literal) weight. The Mesoamerican molcajete was a part of the burials of people of elite status. A related kitchen implement, the larger two-part stone grinder known in Tamil as the ammi kal and in Odia as the sila puua, is used in wedding and other festive ceremonies. It has such an intuitive design and function that people as far away as the Andes have also used it for centuries, where it is known as the batán and uña. Quern-stones have also been admired for their beauty, as in ceremonial metates of Costa Rica which had elegant bird and animal shapes, or were associated with legends, such as in the British isles, where mill-stones were repurposed as tombstones.

The sensible thing to do, though, is to just pack a plastic juicer instead. It would weigh so much less and make my medicine just fine. But it wouldn’t be quite so evocative, would it?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 20th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: An Honest And Heartfelt Feast

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If I’m going to give you a recipe that contains this much love, then I must also tell you the truth about why I learned it. On a rainy day in Colombo once, someone reached across a table and tore my heart up – with visible pleasure, and very little thought. Like a piece of tissue paper. I picked up the shreds and took them back home with me, or more accurately, to the flat in that city in which no one lives except a caretaker who is, in all senses but one, family. The caretaker, my Rasi Maama, had already made lunch.

It waited, simmering within clay pots on a stove that’s too low for him, but perfect for me. It had been my grandmother’s kitchen, made to her height, which is exactly how small I stand. I sat down to eat, but became overwhelmed by sobs because of the bruising that morning had contained. I couldn’t tell any of them why I was so uncontrollably crying, and so I settled for a loving lie: that Rasi Maama’s raal vullakari tasted exactly like Ammamma’s, and it had been so many years since I had eaten hers.

Say it with me, in my dialect: raal, not yeraal. Prawns. Vulla, not vela. White. Kari, you know. Prawns in a coconut milk curry, with eggplant cooked until softened to a tender green colour. There was nothing else to do that day, having wept and having eaten, than to learn how to cook it from him. My uncle-if-not-by-blood who had learned how to cook from my grandmother, beloved.

Dice two eggplants, and soak the slices in water with rock salt. Remember what is said about rock salt: that it contains the cure for everything from over-empathy to the evil eye. More importantly, in vegetables at least, it removes bitterness and germs. Rinse the slices and put them into the pot they will be cooked in. Clay pots make everything taste better, and remind you of the earth, of the grounding you need. Add to the pot: a sliced onion, four small green chillies, turmeric and salt. Keep the stove unlit.

Milk the flesh of one coconut. Keep the first, full milk aside (it will be added last), and milk it again once or twice. Add this milk to the pot. Clean and de-shell the prawns, and put them in too.

Cover the pot. Let it cook now for twenty minutes. Check the texture of the eggplant. It will have softened, and turned green. The prawns will have shrunk to half their size. When the liquid in the pot has reduced, add the coconut’s first milk, set aside earlier. Bring this to a boil too. Switch off the stove.

Cover the pot, and then wait for someone to come home with whom you can share it. Make rice as you wait. If there is no one to wait for – but you find yourself always waiting, somehow, don’t you? – then wait until the tears stop. Never cry as you eat, for you will choke. (Yes, that’s in the recipe). I give it to you, this inheritance, this honest and heartfelt feast.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 16th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Love, Loss, And What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi

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The muse writes back, and is far more generous about the marriage than the artist was. Maligned in ex-husband Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, model and culinary savant Padma Lakshmi tells her side of the story, along with a handful of comfort food recipes. Love, Loss, And What We Ate opens on a promising, often evocative, footing.

She’s gracious through the recounting of her high profile marriage and divorce, compelling when talking about her early childhood and fiercely independent mother, and canny in her self-deprecations (“silly little cookbook”). Her descriptions of life within her grandmother’s kitchen are charming and familiar. Even a chutney of discarded citric rinds as a metaphor for how her grandmother dealt with the bitterness of marriage doesn’t ring twee.

So when a shockingly problematic streak shows up about a third of the way through the book, the reader who has rooted for her all along stumbles. The first trace of trouble is when Lakshmi extends her experience of racial discrimination as an immigrant schoolchild to her country of origin. For her to say that she is considered dark-skinned in Tamil society is disingenuous, to say the least. And she backs this with this bombshell: “my extended family urged me to avoid the sun… out of fear that my skin would darken to the shade of an Untouchable..”

While we’re still reeling at her word choice, we’re introduced to her second stepdad Peter, whom she hates. He is a “lower-caste” Fijian Indian, with a “crude, beast-like ignorance”. What follows includes references to his “stench”, his “ugly” Hindi accent, and “some inferior poni grain” he eats instead of basmati. She wants her mother to be with someone more “cultured”.

This vitriol is reserved for only for Peter, who is still her mother’s partner, as well as her own daughter Krishna’s favourite grandparent. By contrast, her mother’s second husband, whom she divorces when he doesn’t believe that a relative of his has molested the young Padma, is merely “pretty darn handsome”. The casteism, classism and colourism on display are guilelessly entitled, with neither self-reflectivity nor shame.

The author – well-travelled, well-heeled, well-connected, speaker of half a dozen languages and self-proclaimed bookworm – has no excuse for her lack of sociopolitical intelligence or conscience. At the very least, somewhere between her late partner Teddy Forstmann’s philanthropy and the Rousseau she thanks Rushdie for handing her in the acknowledgements, a little tact would have served her well.

Perhaps unable to recoup after this ethical failure, or perhaps because Lakshmi’s early style gradually gives way to a tabloid-friendly one, the narrative simply begins to bore.

And then she chucks another jawdropper. The first non-breast milk meal Lakshmi gives her daughter are a few sips beef broth at a hawker stall in Singapore. The result? Brahmin guilt. “I prided myself on how well one could eat following a Hindu Brahmin lacto-vegetarian diet. I had extolled its virtues on many occasions and truly believed in its merits. I know what had happened, while an accident, was also karmic retribution for all the bodies of animals I had consumed in my life and career in food”. Yes, really.

Who would have known that the saffron brigade had an ally in the glamourous Lakshmi, who without irony refers to her ex-husband as a “fundamentalist atheist” and to herself, repeatedly, as a “secular Hindu”? After watching the author eat everything from live snails to her own placenta, it’s the reader who’s left with a bad taste in the mouth.

Love, Loss, And What We Ate is really a book about men – a series of partners whose influence and guidance shaped Lakshmi’s life. She plays the ingénue often, and credits everything from her sartorial sense to her gastronomical savvy, and even this — her writing — to a lover. She does not memorably detail even a single non-related female friendship or mentorship. Most disappointingly of all, as co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America, Lakshmi speaks only about her experience of the disease, not the work of the foundation, or its impact. With the exception of her mother, she does not weave in other female narratives of struggle and success – be they on the catwalk, in the culinary world, or in any of the many spheres of her experience. Her feminism begins and ends with the desire to date more than one man at once – a desire she quickly regrets once she realises she doesn’t know who has fathered her child.

But there is a singular feminist saving grace in this memoir, and that is the other Ms. Lakshmi – her mother. Vijaya Lakshmi’s journey is a tale of its own, beginning with an arranged marriage in which the groom cheats on her on their wedding day, and a divorce after which she endures a two year separation from her child. Upon her arrival in the US, she takes her mother’s name as a surname, abandons her limited diet, dates and falls in love, has the courage to leave marriages, explores what the world has to offer, and even takes her daughter to a nudist beach. None of this is typical for her generation, and in the Chennai they still call home, it isn’t even typical for her daughter’s. It is the story of this dedicated nurse – who keeps fruits in the fridge for her terminal patients, and manages somehow to save enough money to give her daughter Indian vacations, skating rinks, and myriad pleasures – that is ultimately the maverick one.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line’s BLink.