Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Before we get to the sharbat part, the stories need to be told.I've always spoken fondly about our summer vacations in our grandparents' home in the village. The village is about a couple hours give or take from my home town, and used to be a quiet, sleepy place that only came alive during it's annual church festival. Every summer though, after the report cards were delivered to the house, and the usual congratulations/ recriminations were doled out, mother packed us up that weekend, and off we went to the crowded, dusty bust stand. Various drivers and conductors added to the cacophony of the stand, yelling out destinations and times, and fares, honking their horns to indicate a determination to depart, whether or not you got on board. There is no rhyme or reason to the bus stand. You just have to catch a bus, and hope it takes you to where you want to go. My mom, of course, being the expert, bundled us into the best (and fastest, shudder) bus, and off we went, my sister and I fighting over who would get the window seat. An hour and half later, the bus screeched to an almost halt, dumping us off on the side of a deserted village road, from where we we found our way to our grandparents' home.

It was about an hour's dusty, hot walk there, or joy of joys, we found an autorickshaw who would consent to taking us till the churchyard close to the house. On the non-rickshaw days, we trudged along the road, hot and annoyed and bugging my mom no end, covering ourselves in copious amounts of red dust along the way. If my mother was feeling generous, we cut our journey in half, as she led us through the cooler forest way, as opposed to the road.

The forest way was certainly an adventure. You had to know the right place to leave the road and climb the hills that blanketed the side of the road. Then follow a faint trail, that led to a larger trail. once we hit the larger trail, a few minutes later, we had to find the right place to turn into the forest again, and this was always my favourite part. The trees were scrubby, but dense, cashew trees, mango and eucalyptus, playing in the faint breeze, canopied and so much cooler. We knew our way through the trees, following the right shaped ones though the forest floor.

Every so often, if the time was right, there was a brilliant flowering tree, right at the edge of where we turned off to head into the path that would take us to the house. This tree, it had a veritable waterfall of bright yellow flowers. We gazed longingly at it, until my mom gave us permission to climb it, and gather handfuls of the flowers. I remember my mother one time, that cynically ruthless, practical woman, turning back to look wistfully at the tree. When I asked her why she looked back, her face softened, as she muttered, "it's such a beautiful tree"... this look of my mom's made her so much more human than the superhuman mother we were used to, that I still remember that moment, thirty odd years later.

When we finally made it to the house, all hot and sweaty and so thirsty, we plopped down on the cool stone verandah, fans blowing air all around us, and listened for my grandmother, whose voice told us to get into the kitchen and drink the sharbat waiting for us. Oh that cold, tangy, sweet drink that soothed our parched throats and gave us the energy to start exploring.

Now I am not going to handing out recipes for sharbat. Every Indian worth their garam masalas knows that sharbat is a form of long, cold, non-fizzy drink. Ideally, made with some sort of home made or shop bought concentrate, not fruit juice, mind - though, there have been mutterings about lime juice being a sharbat - but otherwise, anything goes. In our grandparents' house it was made with bindan concentrate. Bindan, a fruit similar to the rambutan, but without the spiky exterior, grew wild in the woods behind the house. Every so often, an enterprising cousin would knock down a load of fruit with a stick and a hook. We ate the creamy interior fruit, and kept the smooth, plum coloured shells. Grandmother would dry the shells with sugar, then boil them down to a thick, sweet/ tangy syrup, which then became bindan sharbat, when mixed with sugar and the cold spring water that fed the house. When the bindan syrup was not available, we had cold, sweet lime juice instead. Served in cold steel tumblers, every sharbat was a delight to all the senses, as we slowly got used to the cool, dark interior of the house we would spend summer in.

Roohafza, on the other hand, is the more well known shop bought version of a sharbat, though, families had their own recipes for this drink, debates to be had on whether or not you should add lemon to it. My mom never did, but I have, and I find that the citrus cuts through the almost overwhelming floral nature of this syrup.

The other popular addition to sharbat, was basil seeds. We had basil seeds growing wild on the roadsides, and every so often, we would go and shake out a bunch of dried seeds that we could plop into the sharbats, watchins, as they grew fat and fuzzy, similar to chia seeds. They were considered fairly cooling and healthy, so a handful was almost always kept on hand to add to cold drinks.

I debated whether to add a recipe to this post, honestly, I did. I mean, how hard is it to add concentrate to water and make a sharbat? Not hard, right? So, sorry, no recipe, but more of instructions.


Add lime juice to water. Sweeten with sugar and drink cold.
If you can find it, add bindan syrup and sugar to water, to taste. Stir and drink cold.
Add a teaspoon of Roohafza to cold water. Stir in a teaspoon of lime juice and drink chilled.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

One of the few regrets in my life is that I never had the opportunity to cook with my grandparents. My paternal grandfather passed away before I was born. My paternal grandmother was in the USA for a lot of my life, and though she is still alive today, she is not good shape right now, being all of a 105 years. Both my maternal grandparents were alive for a long time, but it was mostly in my teens and early twenties, when I was naive enough to believe that they would live forever. Or at least I would get to see them often enough, that I could get recipes and instructions from them, and cook with them. But this was the arrogance of youth, to think that they would wait forever for me. 

My grandfather died when I was in the UK, in the first three months. My grandmother survived a lot longer, and I was lucky enough to talk to her and get some of her recipes over the phone and through my mother and aunts. She got too old and too sick very soon after though, and I never really got to cook with her. When I went searching for her 'samadde', her hand carved wooden spice box, it had already been given away. I was still lucky enough to have a little of her jewellery, but let's face it, no one really wears that much jewellery here in Canada. They're still my heirlooms though, so I keep them, in the hope of passing them on my daughter sometime. 

I am luckier than most though, because after all said and done, I do have some recipes and a lot of memories of my folks' cooking, and those are memories I treasure. Whether it is making boti, or climbing mango trees, or spending summers at my grandparents' house, they are there, and they will be there with me.

The reason I went down memory lane with my grandparents though, is that my recipe today is inspired by another grandmother, my friend Rohan's Nana Betty. This is her, in the below photograph.

Nana Betty, photo courtesy Rohan Gonsalves

Rohan, an old school and college friend of mine, is a lucky man. He has been quarantining with his grandmother in Mangalore, and one of the things he started doing was posting photo recipes of his grandmother cooking. You can imagine that went down rather well with the grandparent-parched generation all over the world. Not just mine, but strangely, also the generation before and after mine. The request for recipes became so numerous, that Rohan had to actually create a Facebook page for Nana's Recipes (you have to be a Facebook member to access, sorry), where he posts picture journeys of the recipe with his grandmother, and collection of aunts and uncles. 

I call Rohan a lucky man, because, had I had the opportunity, this is exactly what I should have done with my own grandparents. Granted, recording recipes is very different today, with our camera phones, and social media, as opposed to frantically writing everything down as fast as the spices would go in. But even then, what he has with his nana, is a dream a lot of us have had, I would imagine. To cook with our parents, or aunties, and relatives, it is a dream that is not always possible in today's world where a lot of us are away from our families and building our own families. It is a familiar pain, but then Nana Betty (or rather, Rohan) would post a new recipe, and for a while Nana Betty stands in for our own grandparents and everything is okay for a while. And in today's world, we need it.

This recipe is a result of inspiration from Nana's Clam Sukka, or spicy clams with coconut. I wasn't able to go out for clams, but I did have a bag of raw prawns that were perfect for this version of prawn sukka. These prawns can be served as a side dish with rice and vegetables, or as a finger food with toothpicks stuck in them. Either way, they are delicious, just as I imagine Nana's clams were.


250g shelled prawns
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon neutral oil (I use grapeseed) 
1 small onion, finely diced
1 inch piece of ginger, grated
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tomato, diced
1 teaspoon (or to taste) bafat spice mix
Salt to taste
1/4 cup unsweetened dessicated coconut

For the seasoning: 

1 tablespoon neutral oil
1 sprig (5 - 6) curry leaves
1 clove of garlic, bruised, but left whole


Place the shelled prawns in a bowl, and sprinkle over the turmeric. Keep aside.

In a shallow pan, over a medium heat, heat the oil and add the onions. When the onions are golden around the edges, about 5 minutes, add the ginger and garlic. Saute for a minute, then add the tomatoes and the bafat spice mix.

Cook this mixture for about 5 - 7 minutes, until the raw smell of spices disappears. Add the prawns to the pan, and cook together for about 5 minutes, until the prawns have cooked through.

Season with salt to taste, then stir in the dessicated coconut. Taste and adjust seasoning.

In a small pan, heat the tablespoon of oil, then add the curry leaves and garlic. Sizzle everything together for a minute, then pour the fragrant oil and seasonings into the cooked prawns, and stir in.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

baingan dal
I will not talk about isolation. I will not talk about isolation. I will not talk about isolation. I will not talk about isolation. I will not talk about isolation.

Dang it, I did. 

And it's all because of them lentils. Other people hoard toilet paper. Apparently, I hoard lentils. It's the Indian in me. If everything else fails, there is always rice and dal. So it is a good thing that the family likes dal, because lately it's been dal with everything. 

I never really had dal when I was growing up, per se. We tended to have the much lighter version of lentils, a soupy concoction called 'saar', which was a much tangier, watery version of the thick lentil dal that was usual in the North of India. It was either saar or rasam, which was a much spicier and brothier version that was traditional to Tamil Nadu and the South Eastern coast of India. 

My taste for thick, creamy masala dal developed from my university days in Delhi, where a version was served with every meal in the hostel mess, as well as from my dad, who preferred this version from his army days. He described those days with a hint of nostalgia - the terribly cold nights when they staggered into camps at the very end (dad was an electrician in the army), carrying their heavy packs, huddled under thin blankets that barely kept out the biting mountain cold, the hard, snowy ground  under which they made camp, the tents that did nothing to shield them from the cutting wind, the army days were not a good memory for my father - but he did describe the dal, straight from steaming cauldrons, eaten with rotis, a taste my dad has kept to this day.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

I just realised that after almost twelve years, this blog took a mighty long break for a while. It has been the best of years, and the worst of years, but we have survived them, reasonably healthy, reasonably happy, and reasonably whole. I've been busy, raising a really active and full on three year old, and an absolutely wonderful tween. In the middle of these years, I've been rediscovering the joy of cooking again, cooking for my family, my friends, teaching people the intricacies of Indian and Thai cuisine, and reading and cooking from my massive cookbook collection. I've been baking, volunteering, cheering for my soccer team and trying this thing called living offline. This doesn't mean I've been completely abandoning my online life, as I have been an activist on Twitter, an artist on Instagram, a friend on Facebook, and a worker bee on LinkedIn.

I played soccer with the metal band Iron Maiden, and turned forty. I went to Montreal on a whim to watch my all time favourite band Dream Theater. I watched Slayer and Disturbed wedging myself into the front row at a metal concert. I don't do these things, normally, but I lived.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Who would you consider your food hero? This is a question I've been asked many times, particularly when it comes to the food world. Who do you admire? Who do you want to be like? Who is your inspiration?

Most of the time, I never really have an answer to this question, because, simply put, I like to follow my own path. But if I had to pick a food hero? My usual answer would be, I don't know – because I like different people at different points in my life. My grandfather, the wedding chef, for example, is one of my enduring food heroes. My mom... well, sometimes, when she's not wildly experimenting, as is her new hobby, with recipes off the internet! Yotam Ottolenghi, and Richard Bertinet, at other times.

But for the past few years, if anyone has asked me who my food heroes (and inspirations for life, in general) are, I would, without hesitation, say Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman. Several of you have probably heard of them. Robyn writes the popular blog, Eating Asia and has featured publications in some of the best newspapers and magazines in the world, as has her photographer husband, David Hagerman. David's photos of India were the inspiration behind my own pictures when I went home. I look forward to Robyn's articles and pieces, and devour them when they are published.

If you ask me to put my feelings towards these two remarkable people in a sentence, I'd say that Robyn and Dave are who I want to be when I grow up.