Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Memory


 
I spent the past week in Coimbatore making memories. A cuddling with Panda. Amma singing in the kitchen. Appa sipping coffee and talking. Panda playing hide-and-seek. They were all red-letter days. Mark-in-your-diary-with-gold-stars days.So I tried my best to remember them, down to the littlest details. What the air smelled like. The patterns on the bedsheets. The sound of Panda sighing as he slept. 

That is one piece of advice I'm writing down for myself: on days when you're so happy you think your heart might burst, remember. Do whatever it takes to cling to that memory. write it down, take a photograph, turn it into a story that you tell yourself and others, over and over. Each time you tell the story it will change a little, but its essence will always be true, and you hold on to that. There will be days when joy will be hard to come by, when you wonder if you will ever smile again. On those days you need stories to cling to. Joy would not drive us delirious if we were not always aware of sorrow lurking in the shadows.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018


As I grow older, I think the fat descends from my face and shoulders and puddles around my hips. The good part of this, besides the welcome extra padding, is that I finally have cheekbones! And collarbones! Naturally, I had both those as well as all manner of other bones before this as well, but now I can see them. Now I don't need to learn contouring.
I also generally succumb to gravity more easily, I find. If I don't catch myself, I hunch. A nap sounds like a good idea some afternoons. I have begun feeling occasional twinges in my back and A helpfully offers me a back brace when I complain.
I'm also more mellow, I find, and more inclined to please myself. I've started enjoying cooking for just myself. It is fun coming up with food that pleases my palate and needn't please anyone else's. It's enjoyable, shopping for vegetables and making plans for them. I don't even mind doing the dishes, since there are so few of them. And best of all, I have figured out how to make myself cake, in under a minute. I swear, I've timed it.
What you need is a tablespoon and a half of Pillsbury cake mix, a tiny pinch of salt and two (not one, not three) chopped blocks of dark chocolate. You add to this half a tablespoon of oil (I do not measure anything precisely. I've made this often enough to know when it looks right) and a tablespoonful of water. Stir together and microwave on high. My highly scientific method for knowing when it is done is to stand in front of the microwave and sniff, until I can smell the cake.What emerges is better than most bakery-bought cakes I've eaten. It's warm and crusty; the chocolate has melted into delightful little pools and there's just enough of it to keep you interested but not so much that it gets sickly. I do recommend letting it rest for a minute or so before you dig in. Everything seems to settle and crust over in that brief wait. If you want it more brownie-like, add more oil and less water. If you want virtuous cake (why would you?), add less oil and more water, but I warn you, you'll regret it.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Superwoman

I wake up some mornings feeling fragile. I have emails I don't want to open, thoughts I don't want to think, news I don't want to confront. Nothing is particularly dramatic, these are all the humdrum happenings of modern life, but I don't want to go there, because if I do, it feels like something inside me will shatter. I feel like such a coward. People out there are climbing mountains (okay, that's always seemed a slightly pointless task in my opinion and sometimes I feel like I'd rather climb a mountain than open an email, but it's still brave) and saving orphans, while I sit here, feeling like I will shatter if I confront my responsibilities.

On days like this, tough love doesn't help. If I give myself a stern talking to, I find I turn evasive, shifting here and there, trying to avoid my gaze, which is a hard thing to do when the person whose gaze you're avoiding is yourself. I drink lots of coffee and make lists. I like making lists; it makes you feel like you're doing something productive. I have lots of lists on my phone, computer and in my head running all the time. I avoid reading them for as long as possible. Finally, I open one email, read it and reply. Then I take the rest of the day off in celebration.

To celebrate, I cook. I like cooking because, and I think I've said this before, it is the whole process of striving for something, accomplishing it and basking in your success, condensed into, oh, half an hour, somedays. Of course that only happens when you're good at cooking, but the kitchen is one place where I don't doubt my skills. It's the one place where I revel in my competence and gloss over my inadequacies. Maybe because it's the one place that I've always been told is my domain, where I am unchallenged. In other spaces I am often made to feel like I don't have a right to dominate, but the kitchen I could have. Men rarely enter it. I know every inch of my kitchen and I decide what goes where, no one else. What if I treated all the world like it was my kitchen? Oh, what magic I could make.



Recipe
 I was reading about Italian rag├╣ and wondered if I could make it vegetarian. Fortuitously, I had frozen jackfruit on hand and it did the trick. It looks vaguely like tripe, but I don't let that deter me. I microwave the jackfruit (300 g) with a little salt and water until I can prod it with a fork and it falls apart unresistingly. In the meanwhile, I sweat two finely chopped onions down in a modicum of oil, then add finely chopped garlic (as many pods as I can bother to peel) to them. I pause to sniff at the heating garlic; it's one of my favourite kitchen smells. I either finely chop or blitz (depending upon my mood and whether or not I remember that the tomatoes are meant to be a stand-in for the patriarchy) three or four ripe tomatoes and then add them to my sauce, along with some salt. After this, it's a waiting game. The sauce needs a long time to thicken and get richer. As the tomato cooks, it gets deeper and deeper in colour and flavour. If I'm feeling fancy, I add tabasco, chilli powder and rosemary. If I'm feeling tacky, I add in packet upon packet of Dominos pizza seasoning and chilli flakes and those do the trick very nicely too. I also -and this is my secret ingredient- add in a tablespoon of tomato ketchup at this stage. It adds sweetness and umami. Then I add in the jackfruit and cook everything down some more. In the now free microwave, I boil a generous handful of pasta in salty water (don't @ me. It works, and I'm no Nancy Silverton) and then add it to my mix. I try to keep the pasta slightly undercooked, because of what's coming next. I scrape the whole mixture into an oven-safe bowl, top with grated cheese (my preference is for cheddar cheese that comes out of a tin, but others may be more fancy) and pine nuts (any nuts or no nuts will do. I happened to have these on hand and am trying to use them up because they go rancid faster than you can blink) and then pop it into the oven for the cheese to melt and the nuts to brown. At this stage, I invariably forget about the dish because I'm feeling emboldened enough to go answer another email. So, when I smell the nuts burning, I run back and curse, long and inventively. Then I top it off with freshly chopped basil and call it dinner.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

On routine



I like routines. I keep trying to set them up. I divide my day up into thirty minute pieces, and dedicate each piece to an activity. I make to-do lists, and now, because I'm a designer, I add little checkboxes next to each activity that I can place a tiny black tick mark in once it is accomplished. No unsightly crossing-outs for me. I try to live a regimented life and find that over time it gets easier. The tasks become automatic and nearly mindless. Exercise is something like that now. I jump up and down and contort my body in alarming ways, while huffing violently as my face turns tomato red. To distract myself from my discomfort, I watch food shows (lately, Masterchef Australia, but also Nigella, Food Safari, Eat Street, YouTube cooking channels...) and it's nice to have a direct reminder of what I'm torturing myself for.
I enjoy cooking, but I don't care as much for the attendant activities: catering to appetites and palates different to my own, shopping for vegetables, the perennial struggle of keeping a shared kitchen clean... Besides, cooking requires thought, far more than exercise. Steps need to be planned in advance and performed in a certain way. Onions cannot be left to burn while I go apeshit over and over.
Then there are the sub-routines I keep trying unsuccessfully to set up for myself. Practicing the guitar for half an hour a day. Trying and failing to floss every night. Calling relatives and friends more frequently. Volunteering. Spending more time reading. It's easy to say that I don't have time for these things, but that is untrue. I don't make time for these things yet, because it is far easier to spend half an hour scrolling down Instagram (it's endless! that's freaky!) looking at tastefully arranged food photos and then, suddenly, it's dinnertime.
We don't usually plate food in little mounds surrounded by pools of gravy, but everyone on Instagram does. I tend to pile on my carbs higgledy piggledy and drown them in gravy, but that looks unappetising in a photo. This was an oat and green moong pongal, with a vendakkai puli kuzhambu (okra in a tamarind gravy) and velarikkai pachchadi (cucumber raita, south Indian style). The pongal was an attempt to make the usual rice-and-lentils even healthier while also using up a bag of steel cut oats that I bought on a whim and have since been studiously avoiding, because if we're being perfectly honest, no matter how much you rave about it on Instagram or how beautifully you plate it, does anyone really like oatmeal porridge?

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Crisp leaves, barely holding


The weather can't seem to make up its mind. It's cold one day and broiling the next. Today, for a bit of variety, it's cloudy, and I miss the sun. I don't think I could live in one of those countries where the sun disappears for months on end. I need the sun in order to feel alive and to want to do things. It isn't surprising at all that ancient cultures worshipped the sun, it's only surprising that we stopped.
There was a super blue blood moon a few days ago. I remembered to look up at it at 9 pm, while I was trudging home after a very long, tiring day. I looked up while waiting to cross a busy street. Other people saw me looking up and looked up too. We all stood there for a few minutes, strangers, staring up at a red moon.
I have two dogs I feed every morning. They were starving and sickly when I started, but they're doing much better now. It's the best part of my day, when I get down from the bus and they dance up to me, wagging their tails. I love watching them eat; it makes me realise how much I enjoy feeding other people.
I haven't cooked much of note, lately. I haven't had the will. I try to feed myself nourishing food. I shop for fresh winter produce: thick red carrots, crunchy spinach, downy cauliflowers, but they are still wilting in my produce drawer as I drink cup after cup of coffee and eat a grape. I'll do better.
Over the weekend, I made these chillas that even picky A raved about. To make them, I chop up equal amounts of spinach and fenugreek leaves, as much as my largest bowl will hold. I add a finely chopped onion, some garam masala, toasted sunflower seeds, a teaspoonful of oil and a pinch of salt. I then dust this with a miserly amount of besan, and allow the leaves to leach their liquid into the besan, dampening the whole affair. I then slow-fry them on my cast iron pan, which is currently the only kitchen pan I need or want, until the leaves turn crisp. A and I ate these all weekend, hot from the pan, breaking off pieces in silence. Then he left and I went back to drinking coffee and eating grapes.

Note: For the chillas above, I did add some leftover grated carrot, but I don't recommend it. They seemed too aggressively sweet. We're going for subtle and leafy. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Someday I'll wish upon a star...

Today, I'm thinking of the kurma avatara myth in the Dasavataras, in which the devas and the asuras churned an ocean of milk to raise the nectar of life from its depths. I imagine it was glistening and viscous. When it caught the light just so, it would shimmer. When you dipped a spoon in it, it would ripple, then settle in its pristine goldenness. When you drizzled it on ice cream... but it seems sacrilegious to think of drizzling the nectar of immortality on ice cream.

As you grow older, you learn things about yourself. I now know that I will never be tall and thin and that dressing like I am will only make me look ridiculous. I know that no matter how reluctant I am to start exercising, I will get into it after the first ten shitty minutes. I know that I cannot walk too long in high heels without wanting to cut off my toes. And I know that when I start browsing Foodgawker, it's not because I want to find something to cook, it's because I'm hungry and had better fix myself a snack before I get hangry. None of this self-knowledge is of much use: I still buy skirts for amazons, put off working out, wear high heels and limp and am too lazy to leave my desk to get a snack. So I browse through Foodgawker for page after page, looking at gorgeously lit photos of beautiful food. Incidentally, I am so over the word beautiful to describe food and produce. I think chefs on TV shows have used it to death. The word has ceased to have meaning. Octopus tentacles might be delicious, I don't know, but they are not and never will be beautiful. So I'm going to cast about for other adjectives to describe food, as I tell you about all the things I've been snacking on of late.

A took me to a fancypants Italian restaurant, the sort that sold tomato and red pepper broth for 300 rupees and convinced us at the time that 400 was a reasonable price to pay for bits of toast with mayo on them. Still, the one dish we really went for was also the simplest, a bruschetta with finely diced tomatoes and a few slivers of basil. The basil plants at home are getting out of hand and badly need pruning. I did my bit by pinching at them here and there till I had a tidy pile of leaves. I've made bruschetta before, but I think the thing that made this place's the best I'd ever tasted, besides the fact that it compared favourably with toast smeared with mayo, was that the tomato was very finely diced. The toast was dry and rubbed with garlic. Then the tomato was piled on and its juices allowed to seep down. The whole thing was topped with only chiffonaded basil and a glug of olive oil. It was pulchritudinous. My toasts were thinner and lacked structural integrity. I rubbed them too energetically with garlic wearing out holes in their middles. Luckily, my tomatoes were too roughly chopped to fall through the holes, because my knives aren't sharp. The basil tasted nice. I ate three, then went back to Foodgawker, only breaking to snack some more on chocolate.

On the rare days that I do plan ahead, I've been making a salad. Amma's big on saving on food waste, so she collects the rinds of the limes I squeeze and pickles them in salt. I dig these preserved rinds out of their jar and whir them in the blender with mustard, green chillies, fresh basil, olive oil, salt and sugar. The resultant sauce is acid green and tart tasting. It dresses a salad of poorly chopped tomatoes, onions and cucumbers very well. I keep the salad in the fridge and pick at it all day long. It's foxy.