Tag Archives: cuisine

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: Idli And A Screaming Orgasm (or, Spicing Up The Menu)

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In preparation for the Olympics this year, the government of China has released a tourist-friendly 170-page book recommending new English names for some 2,000 delicacies – all of which till now go by some baffling monikers. What a pity this menu makeover is – it would be such fun to hang out in China and order, among other things, “chicken with no sexual life”, “husband and wife’s lung slice” and “fat man with straw up nose”.

Food and cheap thrills – what a deadly combo. The only reason I’ve ever asked for a Screaming Orgasm (that’s a drink, by the way) at snooty restaurants is because I love the expression on most waiters’ faces when I tell them what I want to have.

So now that the chicken who can’t score becomes the much less colourful “steamed pullet”, and “Chinese buttermilk” is all that’s left of the chubster snorting his drink, I think it’s time to come up with a few good replacements. What’s world cuisine without tact, political correctness, prudery and the taste-buds of the tame getting lost in translation?

First, let’s take the idli. Ah, the idli! Plump, perfect, pillowy and so very native – no? According to the 7th century writings of Xuang Zang, vessels for steaming came to India via the cooks who accompanied the Hindu kings of Indonesia back here. The idli, therefore, was born of the marriage between Java and the South. Ergo, we have the Chubby Marriage Pillow.

Chubby Marriage Pillows go best with sambar, which is made from toovar dal, also known as pigeon pea. I say we rechristen it Pigeon Pea Broth. As a committed carnivore who rolls many an eye at the prissiness of too many vegetarians I come across, I think the confusion can only mean more for me. Great! Pile on the ghee while you’re at it (also known as Distilled Cow Blood – don’t you good veggos know where dairy products come from?).

Before we move on the meaty stuff, let’s linger a moment on one more chaste item: the ubiquitous khichdi. There’s a story about the king Shivaji, who wandered lost and hungry in the forest one day. Coming upon the hut of an old woman, he asks to be fed, and she gives him some khichdi fresh off the fire. When he burns his fingers attacking the hot, hot dish, the old woman chides him for being like “that impatient king Shivaji”. Not recognizing him, she instructs him to approach the thin outer layers of the khichdi first, which are easier to handle. In learning how to eat this simple meal was how Shivaji was supposed to have learnt a valuable military strategy.

In the centuries since, the good king’s name has been taken in vain, in gain, and in disdain many times over. I don’t have to tell you where it most recently appeared. All I’m saying is, it’s not for nothing that khichdi will henceforth be called “Hot Hot Rajnikanth”.

All this food smut has made me really hungry, so before I absolutely have to go devour something, I’ll make one final recommendation. Like any funky Indian goddess, I’m usually very well-satiated by a good goat sacrifice. And to keep this new menu locally loyal, one of my favourite desi dishes is mutton rogan josh. Let’s be literal, for a change. Mutton is mutton, rogan also means mutton, and josh means mojo. The sum total of which we can take to mean Twin Mutton Mojo. Ooh. Two sets of horny things are always better than one. Bon appetit!

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.