Tuesday, January 25, 2011

An AI in an EI Kitchen – Part IV

My introduction to fish was a happy one. I encountered it filleted, flaked, crumbed and fried as in Bird’s Eye Fish Fingers (are they still around?). Fish was delicious, Fish smelt good. Fish came in neat cardboard cartons out of a deep freeze. There was no connect between the aquarium and the meal on my plate.

Fast forward twenty years or so to when I stepped into the EI kitchen and discovered that fish was on the daily menu: every denizen of the deep was fair game. And so I was introduced, in quick succession, to Parkat (Sting ray), Mushi (Shark), Rawas (Salmon) Surmai (Mahaseer), Cupar (Eel or Tuna), Catfish, Ghol (Croaker), Bombil (Bombay Duck), Bhangda (Mackerel) and a whole lot more from the elite Pomfret to the guttersnipe Newtie. And how can one forget the shellfish? Prawns, shrimp, crabs, lobsters, oysters, clams were expensive in comparison but still added their presence to the meal. Each fish was allotted its own masala ranging from red, hot and sour to yellow, to green to reddish brown or brownish red – the ingredients were selected so as to enhance the particular flavour of the fish. Some fish were good for frying, others for stuffing, yet others for curry and some for baking and cutlets.

The fish was still delicious but there was one catch: it had to be fresh! Hello, Indian Fish Market.

My first visit was an education. There sat the women, buxom of build, laden with gold, hair slicked to a shine, baskets brimming with different kinds of piscatorial fare. A stone slab and a mean looking sickle completed the picture. There was a time honoured process involved in the purchase: examine the freshness of the fish by pressing the gills and checking the eyes, then haggle over the price, then sidestep the flying scales, fins and other incidental debris and avoid the ubiquitous cats. All this while being overpowered by the aroma of fresh, not so fresh and some quite stale fish and discarded entrails. It was also tough to avoid the puddles of ‘fish water’ and you undertook the homeward journey trying hard to avoid the accusatory glances of other commuters. Buying fish was not for the fainthearted. Neither was cleaning them – fish always seem to be caught while enjoying their own last meal!

I soon learned the useful trick of sending hubby to buy the fish. The fisher-women loved him and a few became his ‘fast friends’ hailing him as soon as he entered the market and producing for him the best of their stock. He would come home with a lot more than he bargained for, but since the fish was fresh and cleaned to perfection he was readily forgiven: we could look forward to a weekend table laden with the ocean’s bounty.

Those fisher-women with their lively banter and occasional invective are now long gone. The present generation is not so amiable in plying the trade and fish is sold at ‘fixed price only’, take it or leave it. The up-market housewife has also been responsible for the introduction of ready to cook ‘fresh’ fish delivered to the door. The trawler companies are finding it convenient to cut out the middle woman.

Fish is no longer on our daily menu, but when it does make its appearance, we remember the time when the trip from market to table could be quite an odyssey!

Friday, January 21, 2011

An AI in an EI Kitchen – Part III

Bottle Masala: I first met hat EI staple in all its pungent, fiery splendour when the annual quota was in production at Mum-in-law’s home.

As I ascended the stairs, my nostrils started tickling and the heady aroma grew stronger as I neared the kitchen. There, in the center of the large dining table, in an enormous steel thali (rimmed tray cum plate) sat this tall, sprawling heap of freshly roasted and ground masala. Hubby’s Mum and sister were busy filling the powder into narrow necked bottles using sawn off funnels and a wooden baton to tamp the masala down, packing it so tightly that subsequent removal would require a lot of friendly persuasion (I use a knitting needle or chopstick which is tucked away safely in my kitchen drawer)! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Hubby, following me, sniffed the air, did an about turn and trotted down the lane double quick. I thought he was chicken. But he returned in ten minutes flat, with a plastic bag of ‘hot, hot’ potato wafers, fresh out of the fat, from the neighbourhood ‘chip shop’. The wafers were emptied onto a plate, a generous pinch of fresh bottle masala sprinkled on top and, presto, he had the perfect accompaniment to his bada chhota peg (a large, small whisky!).

I think that the true test of an EI is the ability to face the freshly prepared masala without having to emulate a masked highwayman. I needed to live down quite a few twitches in the olfactory canals before I got accustomed to the condiment. That first occasion certainly had a salutary effect on my sinuses – never before or after did I have such a clear nose!

Now, I can face the bottle with equanimity. I can even sniff and tell whether the content is good, bad or indifferent. And I use it generously in my own cooking. The proof as always is in the curry: if the colour and taste turn out right, you have the perfect product.

Mum-in-law’s generation always made their own quota from a carefully guarded family recipe. Thankfully, the quota included a daughter-in-law’s needs as well. Slowly but surely, the number of people making the authentic EI Bottle Masala is dwindling. Will the pizza popping generation, who prefer the instant meal, still need the magic ingredient? I cannot say. All I can do is cross my fingers and hope that it will be available to me till my time runs out.

It will be a sad day indeed when this very desirable flavour becomes just a memory.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Delicate Yellow

I scattered some mustard seed and look at what I’ve got!

Some of my plants had outgrown their homes and new pots were called for. I picked up three instead of the needed two. The spare pot took care of the leftover mud and manure and sat on the grille – a daily reminder that I needed to visit the local nursery.

Prompted by the many biblical references that kept cropping up, I thought, ‘Why not scatter some mustard seed and see what happens?’ Every Indian kitchen possesses mustard seeds which go into a number of dishes and so I fetched a handful and scattered it over the surface of the wet mud. Daily watering and much patience saw a few tentative shoots poking through. They looked so fragile that I did not expect them to survive. But they grew – delicately and long – sending out green leaves every now and then. And then, yesterday morning, I spotted the buds. Today, the tiny bright yellow blooms greeted the sun and me.

So delicate, so delightful, so rewarding!

Monday, January 17, 2011

An AI in an EI Kitchen - Part II

How do you cut up an onion? Let me count the ways!

Hubby’s Mum was making a curry. I offered to help. Asked to cut the onions, while an unexpected visitor occupied her time, I cleaned and chopped with a will. When Mum-in-law returned to her kitchen, she was presented with a neat bowl of onion chopped exceedingly fine. The exercise had been undertaken, slowly and precisely, using a very sharp knife (I was grateful that I could count ten fingers, all intact, after the achievement). She looked and said, “No, no! The onions had to be cut round.” Apparently, it was common knowledge that for that particular curry, onions had to be prepared that way. Unfortunately, I was not party to that 'common knowledge'. Fortunately, Mum-in-law was quick with the knife and we had onions cut in the round, in no time at all.

Onions are used at the beginning of most preparations. And, once fried, they disappear into the other ingredients which are added in their appointed order. Once ingested and digested, who would be able to tell which way the onions had been cut? But Mum-in-law insisted that it made a difference and, all her life, she would fulfill the demands of the dish by cutting up the onions exactly as required. So well did I learn the lesson, that even now when laziness tempts, conscience insists that I slice, dice, chop fine, cut round, half round or long as stipulated by the book.

Does it make a difference to the taste? I am not sure. I think the rule was created to instill discipline in the art, to keep attention focused on the job in hand and to add variety to what would otherwise be a run of the mill occupation.

What does make a difference to the taste is that ‘pinch of love’ that inspires perfection at every stage of preparation of a meal. An ingredient that you will find in every EI kitchen!

An AI in an EI Kitchen – Part I

Far back in time, when I was still a klutz in the kitchen, a brother in law was sternly admonished by his doctor and advised to stick to a rigid diet of plain boiled vegetables. That’s something you can’t go too far wrong with and I happily volunteered. I chopped up the vegetables and popped them in the cooker, but before I topped it with the lid, a visiting sister-in-law sauntered in (my sisters-in-law numbered seven at the time), took one look and asked me what I was making. When I explained, she told me that bro-in-law would as it is be upset with the diet, the least we could do was make it attractive, ‘Food should not just taste good, it should look good!”. We took out a fresh lot of vegetables (the already chopped up ones were consigned to the soup pot) and set to: the bottle gourd was cut into semi circles, the carrots julienned, the potatoes wedged and the peas, thank goodness, were their own petit selves. Steamed to perfection, with just the right amount of salt and then arranged on the plate, those veggies looked as good as any gourmet meal and the delighted smile on bro-in-law’s face said it all. He really appreciated the effort to make a humdrum meal look special.

EI food has always had that extra-special touch. Be it a birthday, an anniversary or a family get-together for any reason, the table is a delight to the eye; while the aroma urged you to tuck in forthwith, the view made you pause and applaud. The meatloaf usually took pride of place with a covering of sculpted mashed potato, the shape being the product of the imagination and nimble fingers of the hostess. The sausages usually ended up as the ‘hairdo’ on a grapefruit face, the salad was presented as a horn of plenty, and sometimes even the rice would be coloured and moulded. The sweet dish was the piece de resistance – once again a sight to behold. This is just a sampling. Different hostesses had different ways of laying the table, each one a masterpiece in its own right. It is hard to believe that all of this was done by women who had learnt the craft from mother in the family kitchen.

Today, food styling is big business and big bucks. Those in the know will tell you that aesthetics is everything and a meal should engage sight, scent, taste and texture. In short, a work of art in every sense.

Suddenly, I am taken back to mealtime in the nursery. A formidably fussy eater, my meals were always presented as ‘pictures’ on the plate so that I could be coaxed into eating the ‘old man’s nose’ or the ‘little dog’s tail’ without realizing that it was actually the food that was going down. The ‘art’ may have been a little rough, but it certainly pleasured the mind of a child.

Somewhere in my AI childhood I felt the EI touch!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Off the chest

Doesn’t it make you mad when…

  • You buy yourself a really nice outfit and your very rich neighbour picks up one that is exactly the same, wears it just once and then passes it on to her maid who then wears it to market!
  • You call up a service centre because you urgently need your fridge serviced and you are kept on hold with the recording, ‘All our operators are busy. Please stay on line, your call is important to us.’ And this goes on for the best part of an hour, till you hang up in frustration.
  • You polish your stove top to a blinding shine and then the milk boils over.
  • You find the exact pair of shoes that you have been searching for, enough money in your purse to buy them and they don’t have your size.
  • The dog chews up the new book that the library has sent across which, incidentally, costs a fortune and will probably cost you your membership. (Note: Do not eat ham sandwiches while reading).
  • You have an early morning appointment and the person you are to meet turns up an hour late with the excuse, ‘Sorry, I overslept’. (The steam is still coming out of my ears from that one!)
  • The cosmetics company discontinues your favourite shade of lipstick because it’s no longer in fashion.
  • You are interrupted the same number of times as the numerous stitches you are casting on and you discover that you have seriously miscounted just when the pattern gets complicated.

But then, doesn’t it make you happy when you find something in common on someone else’s grouse list and you can agonise together?!

Well, that’s off my chest. The smile is back on my face. And the day is still young enough to get things done, including re-shining the stove (a great way to work off temper), ripping up the knitting (I was getting too ambitious anyway), and I have the glimmerings of an idea for my next blog (a good excuse to daydream!)

P.S. And here's one more grouse: Blogger does not offer optional bullets - I wanted the grumpy faces that Word so generously provides.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Lost in Translation

Well, not exactly. It’s just that western names do not trip lightly off the Indian tongue, especially if that tongue is more used to communicating in the vernacular. This makes me ‘Windy’ to some, ‘Bhindi’ (the local name for Okra) to others and ‘Vedi’ (mad) to quite a few.

Then, in my absence, the ward boy takes the calls and tries to relay the message; it causes me quite a bit of head-scratching before I can unravel the conundrum: who was it who called?

Sometimes the hilarity is tinged with embarrassment. We had adopted a street-dog and christened him Buster after the four-legged member of Enid Blyton’s famous Five Find-outers and Dog. Buster was very popular with the local boys who chatted him up fondly whenever hubby took him out for a walk. Now, hubby is slightly deaf (a great advantage when I go on a spending spree) and he did not really pay attention to the exchanges with our four-legged house guest. The discovery was left to me, on the one occasion when I took Buster for his constitutional. As any dog-walker knows, every canine has his route and, as we stopped at Buster’s usual haunts, we were hailed with a loud and unmistakable, “Hi bastard, how are you? Come here!”

By the time I returned home, I was quite red in the face and it wasn’t from the exertion. Buster was promptly re-christened ‘Brownie’. His antecedents may not have been pedigreed, but he definitely had a mother and a father who were legal by canine standards and the earlier sobriquet certainly did not apply!

We do come across some unusual names from time to time – people striving for uniqueness for their offspring. According to a recent news item, the Hakki-Pikki people intentionally name their offspring after places and things: Gramophone, Train and Japan are not unusual. So, Paris (Hilton) and Chelsea (nee Clinton), though seemingly far removed, have something in common with a tribe from India!

Then there is the very tongue-in-cheek joke circling the Internet: asked to write his name in English, Sunder Lal Chhadda happily entered Lovely Red Knickers!

It is common for surnames to follow a profession or place and they have been handed down from generation to generation. But given names are chosen according to trends and tastes. Some, unfortunately, end up being an unintended encumbrance for the owner.

My mother chose my name for the Darling girl in Peter Pan. Little did she realise that others would rechristen me to connote a crazy, blustery lady’s finger!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Soundest Financial Advice

Every day, the news screams out one word, ‘SCAM’. And the list keeps growing. Some scams prompt a cynical lift of the eyebrows (so what’s new?) while others provoke a gasp of incredulity (could anyone be so gullible?). One such is the so-called ‘Citibank scam’. One man was able to get the very wealthy (make that ‘extremely wealthy’) to part with sums running into crores of Rupees in order to fill up his personal kitty. The honey trap? Get richer, even quicker. Greed, one of the deadly sins, was hard at work!

Here is a true personal account that I read some years ago, one which caught my imagination and changed my outlook: A young wife and mother of three was finding it hard going to make ends meet, when her husband lost his job. With one chronically ill child and five mouths to feed, a mortgage to pay off and school fees to be met, her single income was insufficient to cover the costs. The family was in imminent danger of losing their home and the children their education. She prayed desperately for a miracle but none seemed forthcoming. Her parish priest, concerned at her very obvious misery, enquired into her circumstances. He offered her what seemed like a ludicrous piece of advice: give one tenth of what you receive to God. Here was someone who could not make ends meet. Where would she find one-tenth to spare? But the priest was persistent. Even a dollar or just a few cents, but do it. In the meantime, he arranged for school fees to be deferred and used his parish contacts to re-engineer the mortgage so that the installments were made lower and the term longer – a breathing space.

Soon, the husband found a job. It didn’t pay much but they were able to catch up with the bills. The family income grew incrementally. Things were looking up. But the point which carried a punch is best expressed in her own words, “We never became rich in the material sense of the word, but we always had enough. Even more important, we were happily aware that we had enough. We were blessed.”

And she kept her word to give one tenth to God, no matter what.

The custom of tithing is not new but seems to have fallen into disuse – one hates to part with money that can be spent on oneself. On the other hand, like all good habits, once started it gathers in momentum and the results are amazing. God does not renege on the deal, does not divert the dividend or abscond from contact. Here is foolproof ‘investment’ advice, one that no bank relationship managers will ever give. And that is why their clients end up losers.

Try it. It works. I know.

And may you always enjoy enough!