As the festivals transport me…

Come August and September, there is a chain of festivals that get triggered and that sets off a series of memories that transport me to a different world and era indeed.

I really really miss the smell of new clothes on festivals, dabbing some turmeric to something new before wearing it while your parents check and double (and triple) check on whether you have done it or not, what a celebration new clothes were because they signified a special day or event. Oh that hustle in a market that smelt of fresh jasmine and marigolds and kanakambri, camphor, agarbattis and banana leaves that heralded a festival! Or when it inevitably rained on your day out but nothing mattered, not even the fact that you parked roads and roads away from the shopping street because you could look at all the new dresses on display, the happy smiles on people out for shopping, wondering what their shopping bags contained. And finally that moment when you found something you liked and your parents remarked it looks good on you, the pride with which you watch your parents pay for it and clutch it tight all the way home only to do a dress rehearsal again. 
I do feel happy when I buy something new, but these shopping trips that happened before festivals and birthdays, occasionally will always remind me of gentler lighter times, of unbearable happiness and rich pride. So when I do wear something ethnic especially on a festive day, it takes me to those times even if it is for a brief moment and I feel ridiculously happy to have those memories to relive until we recreate them again, someday soon. 

Zucchini phula bhaja / Zucchini flower fritters

Being exposed to Odia cuisine through K opened up a new world of ingredients and methods to me. There were vegetables I didn’t know of, spices and pastes I had never tried, methods especially the diaspora of steamed dishes I took to really happily. It was also the first time I tasted and slowly developed an appreciation for mustard oil in cooking. 

One ingredient that fascinated me most and still does is the use of pumpkin flowers/ blossoms. I now know that squash flowers are used in different cuisines but somehow the prospect of making a savoury snack with a flower and such a wonderful simple dish at that quite blew me away. I eat these fritters made with pumpkin blossoms called khakharu phula bhaja, every time I visit K’s place in Bhubaneswar.  But this time, looking at all the zucchini blossoms I wanted to have a go at making it. We have a lot of squash blossoms coming up too and I must tell you that the success and ease of making them will only see us trying more. 

On seeing the burgeoning blossoms on our row of zucchini plants, one of our friends who was visiting us commented how Italians make fritters from them. Off-late, I have also seen it being used in salads and pastas. It is amazing how flowers have found their way to our dining tables and feature in such an array of dishes and share similarities across continents.

One of my key hesitations with picking these flowers was if they would be interfering with the pollination and affect the plant’s productivity itself. After all, I was looking forward to pulling the zucchinis off with gay abandon. And then I did some reading and realised that the male flowers are produced in much higher numbers than needed so plucking a few should be okay. This was really all I needed and you know the rest of the story. I am so glad I made these because I love them – the batter coating that turns so crispy and the subtle flower encased in it as you blow your way through eating it hot off the pan. The joy of fried food is never lost on me, I really enjoy it – especially when I am frying them at home, when there is the goodness of all that fat without it being excessively drippy to the point of churning your stomach. I eat them to my heart’s and stomach’s content but I am quite particular that it is fried in good oil, and not re-fried if I can avoid it.

Here is how I made it (I have some videos of the process of this up on my Instagram):

You need:

Zucchini blossoms – say 6.
Rice flour – About 3 table spoons (depends if you want to have a thick batter coating, I like mine just coated and not too much. If you like a dense coating, increase the flour keeping a 3:1 ratio of rice to chickpea flour)
Chickpea flour – About 1 tablespoon
Red chilli powder – 1 tsp/ to preference
Cumin powder – 1 tsp
Turmeric – a pinch
Salt – to taste
Neutral oil like sunflower to shallow fry – I use a spoon of oil for each blossom.

Method:

1. Clean the blossoms in water. Gently pat them dry with a paper towel.
2. Make a slurry of rice flour, chickpea flour, chilli powder, cumin powder, turmeric and salt. This should not be too thick or too runny. You want a consistency that you can immerse the flower in and when you take it out to fry, it should hold the batter. If you want a thick batter coating, make the slurry thicker so it hangs on to the blossom.
3. Take a small pan, bring to heat and add a table spoon of oil and bring to heat
4. Dip the zucchini blossom in the slurry (from 2) and fry it in the pan, flipping it and making sure it is done all through. I added some slurry as mine was thin. The extra slurry I added took the shape of the pan and cooked to a nice golden crisp around the edges.
5. That’s it really.

We enjoyed ours with some zucchini pasta 🙂

Some other ideas to try:
You can add garlic paste to the slurry. I don’t do it.
You can add finely chopped green chillies or make a paste of green chillies and garlic and add it to the slurry too. That would taste really nice and as I type this, I am tempted to try it myself.
You could make this with blossoms of pumpkins, zucchinis and quite a few squashes. I have only had pumpkin and zucchini ones.



Because a Bombay sandwich may be just what you need.

I did not eat a Bombay sandwich when I was in Bombay years ago. Is it just called a sandwich there? (laughs at own “joke”). I am not surprised though – I have not eaten a lot of *obviously-you-should-have-tried-that-when-you-were-at-X* dishes. I took my time appreciating regional cuisines and food in general. Now, it is the top web search I run when we travel. Travel? Okay, I hear you laugh – it has been a while since we travelled, but you know what I mean.

Having eaten this first time last year, I have often asked myself “How could I have not made a Bombay sandwich before?” I think it is my general disdain towards potatoes on most days (except in fries, of course). Now I have a deep love for bread in all its variety and it forms part of at least one meal almost everyday. Use white or brown, wholemeal or seeded, but do make this. Add beets if you fancy, or don’t, but make this. Make it yours.

This is K’s recipe and my execution and even though I assume you don’t need another recipe for a sandwich, I will go ahead and tell you anyway because I really liked it. 

A cheese version

All you need to do:

  1. Take a slice of bread with the crust/ borders removed (keep them aside to make crumbs or fry them and use in soups)
  2. Make a chutney of corriander- mint – green chillies- tamarind – black salt
  3. Slather a nice layer of that coriander mint chutney on one side of each bread slice.
  4. Delicately layer some boiled and sliced potatoes, slices of tomato, onion + sprinkle a bit of black salt + a slice of cheese if you like and cover with another slice of bread with chutney on the inside.
  5. Now slather (there is a lot of slathering, I know) the top of the bread slice with butter and heat some butter on a pan and toast this to a nice golden with butter on both sides.
A no cheese version I made a couple of days ago

I can understand if you feel an uncontrollable urge to eat this right off the pan, hot, gooey and fragrant. In fact, I would highly recommend you to. Unbeknownst to you, it may be just what you need.

Normalcy

Just a saturday out at Hengistbury Head on a cold, drizzly day.

Normalcy or normality is anything but that. It is truly something that I most strongly enjoy, crave for and pray for. Perfectly normal, routine days made of exceptionally special mundane acts. It is what I miss most when something abrupt strikes. It is what I am most nostalgic about. Sure, that thrilling day trip on that vacation 4 years ago is a grand memory to revisit and maybe even long for once in a while. But most often what my heart truly wants is all those everyday acts I do and did, that I no longer can. In these moments, I have found my way of making life feel grand. It is a tricky circle of realization – being or the fear of being deprived of something or someone tells you exactly what you love most. And a seemingly ordinary today is the grand memory trip of a further tomorrow.

Just need to remember to never forget that 🙂

Because I am missing all the dressing up action…

A couple more close ups from last week because I finally wore this Lakshmi Kemp set from @aarvee.chennai that I bought three years ago. 
I have missed so many weddings, family events and just being with loved ones and the bustle of dressing up for an event, helping my ma and chitthis and perimas with their saree pleats, changing the accessories half a dozen times, kindly rejecting a suggestion, carefully drinking a hot coffee, sitting down with care for breakfast so the sarees pleats don’t get creased even before the event and photos, opening up the bindi store, convincing someone they look really good in something new, getting heady amidst half a dozen perfumes that circulate in the room amidst the flowers, waiting for everyone to be done/others waiting for you to be done and the million dollar feeling of walking into the venue and endless chatter. I miss all these little moments so much. Somedays I cannot wait to reach a stage when I can take a flight and go do all this and come back.

Hope is the hat rack I hang my dreams upon, indeed.

My first saree

Somewhere this weekend, I spent some time in this saree that I want write about here (I have to give full credit to K’s endurance and creativity in capturing some really lovely moments).


You see, it was the first saree that ma and I purchased for me. Up until then, I was always whisking ma’s sarees for weddings, college events, everything. I used to stitch a blouse for myself because the kinds I would wear were never ma’s style but the sarees were all hers. 
When one of my favourite cousin’s wedding was fixed, I decided to buy a saree for the muhurtam and ma and I found this in the first shop we went to. I got an extremely elaborate blouse stictched for this with beads and ties and everything and I may have been as excited as the bride herself for this wedding day. I have a thing for white and cream sarees that have silver and gold in them. They are so regal and I love how they look on everyone I have seen them on.
I have such grand memories of the few of us singing “Sita kalyanam” and “Malai maathinal” and “Unjal aaDinaal” in all our jasmine, gold and saree clad glory amidst that sound that new sarees make if you listen. I remember so many moments from that wedding in such vividity and the saree is always such a big part of it. I even wore this as part of one of the smaller events in my wedding. 
I know not much about weaves and the saree continues to be a small part of my life even if it means just wearing it for myself on a random day for a few hours. It is perhaps the way it makes me feel, or takes me back or maybe just part of who I am. It is not one to dissect for today but I love this love and someday maybe I will have a slightly more academic interest in it or maybe not. But I know that when I drape a saree and sip a coffee, I will be comforted in a strange way that only makes sense to me.

On saying bye to our tomato plants …

When we started growing our own, we started with an expectation (and mostly hope) it would account for a small portion of weekly veg intake. We have been blown away by how misplaced we were. And that is saying something because home gardening is not so much about meeting your produce demands as much as as it is about nurturing and experiencing the joy of growing and eventually savouring. Ofcourse, the last step of the journey is important and especially more so when you are a beginner. We are. Because, if we ran too much before we could walk, it could in many ways influence how we saw this whole exercise. Trust me, I started with a fair few losses and this has been nothing but overwhelmingly encouraging. The key is to not let an attempt define your next. It is hard but it is true. 


Five days back we started seeing blight on some our tomato plants. Ofcourse I had not used any resistant variety (determined to not use anything that was modified or made of chemicals) and the only feed I used was compost and some manure. While I am not surprised about blight hitting my tomatoes, I am taken by how quickly they consumed my babies. The plants in modest pots and bags gave us a lot, a lot. But regardless of the yield, I had developed a strong love for them and to see them go I front of our eyes has been devastating. 4 empty pots stand bare on our portico. The place where I would start my mornings looking for new babies. I distinctly remember seeing the first babies form on the first of our tomato plants. I distinctly remember feeling impatient at how slow they were to grow, a vague fear engulf me as I wondered if they would fall off in the rains and strong winds we went through.

My fears, I can happily look back now, have been allayed over and over again. We have plucked a lot of tomatoes from the beautiful plants.

And a couple of days back, we plucked our last.

Time and again I realize how much I signed up for when I sowed the seeds. And it was never just about the tomatoes. But I will do it all over again. And take better care.

Of simple meals and a simple recipe

For a long time now, I have tried to grasp the meaning of simple food. You see this plate here ? Rice, tomato rasam, a roast pappad, some palya which by the way is what I made of some of those gorgeous runner beans that our neighbours gave us – this meal is my meal, it is the kind of meal I grew up eating and it was a full meal. I don’t ever remember thinking of this as a simple meal as much as I thought of it as a staple. On the other hand, simple has a sort of a happy connotation to it too bringing up associations with what we now deem to be simpler times. Is today a simpler time of tomorrow? Which kind of leaves me in a dilemna – all the subjectivity around simple apart, what is a simple meal to me, today? Is it my everyday meal? Or a meal that comes together simply? Perhaps a meal with few easily available ingredients? Or is it a meal one can make sustainably, consistently? 

But here is what I chose to do as this plate stared at me – dive into my rasam rice with gusto. It did not answer my question. But when the smell of the ghee tempering invades your kitchen, it is best to keep matters simple and enjoy the meal. Simply put, it is as simple as that.
But I’d love to know – what is a simple meal to you? Can you define it?

If you are curious, here is how I made this meal.

Runner beans Palya

Our lovely neighbours Da and Ce gave us some of the best runner beans we have had – tender, crisp and absolutely delicious with all the added happiness of having been grown with tonnes of love. Have you even seen the smile that lights up Da’s face as he talks about his love for runner beans?

You need:
Runner beans – about 300-400 gm
Fresh/ desiccate coconut (fresh is amazing, I used desiccate as that is what I had) – 2 table spoons (or to your liking)
Tempering ingredients: 1 tablespoon oil (sunflower or coconut), 1 teaspoon mustard, 1 tsp cumin, a pinch of asafoetida, a couple of dried red chillies torn into rough bits, half a tsp of methi/ fenugreek seeds, 1 tsp urad dal/ channa dal or a mix of both, curry leaves.
Turmeric – a pinch.
Salt to taste

Method:
1. Chop the runner beans small.
2. Take a wok/ kaDai and bring to heat. Meanwhile keep the tempering ingredients ready.
3. Once hot, add a tablespoon of oil (I used sunflower but coconut oil works great too!) add the mustard, cumin, fenugreek and let them splutter, add the chillies, asafoetida and the curry leaves and sauce for 5-10 seconds. You don’t want to burn them 🙂
4. Add the chopped runner beans, turmeric and give it a good toss, add a bit of salt (to hasten cooking and for the beans to get some of it in) and sprinkle some water, give it a mix and cook on medium heat. You can cook this covered too but just keep checking in between.
5. Once the beans has cooked to a bite (we definitely don’t need them to become mushy!), adjust salt to taste, add the coconut and mix well. Turn off the heat. Your palya is ready!


Quick Tomato Rasam

This has to be one of the easiest ways to make a quick rasam. Ofcourse, this calls for having rasam powder or sambhar powder at hand but it comes together so quickly, so I highly urge you to have some in your pantry. I use the one that ma makes and gives me every time I visit her but you can always use good quality commercially available ones from MTR or GRB or a brand you like. Ofcourse one can go on about the joy of using a powder that is handmade but some of the commercial mixes are not that bad and while it may make a difference in the taste, I still believe that a rasam made with a good quality store-bought rasam mix can still be comforting 🙂 I will never forget the copious amounts of rasam we had during the brief but heavy snowfall that 2020 brought with it here in Surrey. See for yourself.

You need:
Tomatoes (preferably sour): 300-400 gms chopped into small chunks
Tamarind paste or tamarind water from pulp (skip if your tomatoes are super sour, mine were not so I used tamarind for tanginess): to your preference. I used 2-3 tsp of paste, we do like it quite tangy.
Tempering ingredients: 2 tablespoons ghee, 1 teaspoon mustard, 1 tsp cumin, a pinch of asafoetida, a couple of dried red chillies torn into rough bits, curry leaves torn.
Corriander leaves torn to small bits – to your preference but highly recommend keeping the stalks.
Rasam powder/ molaga poDi/ sambhar poDi – 2 tablespoons (this depends on how spicy you want it to be and the powder you are using ofcourse, use your discretion :))
Salt to taste
Water – 2 cups

Method:
1. Heat a deep bottomed vessel.
2. We start with the tempering so add ghee, let it melt and heat up. Then, add mustard, cumin and once they have spluttered, add the torn red chillies, asafoetida and curry leaves. Sauté for a few seconds.
3. Now add the tomatoes and sauce for 3-4 minutes. Let us become slightly soft but not too mushy.
4. Now, add water, tamarind paste and mix well. Bring this to a rolling boil. Once the tomatoes get cooked and the raw smell of the tamarind paste is no longer present, then add the rasam powder/ molaga poDi/ sambhar poDi and keep on boil for 3-4 minutes.
5. Now, add salt to taste and let it simmer for a couple of minutes.
6. Finally, add the torn coriander leaves and stalk, mix well and bring off heat. Your rasam is ready!

Dig in 🙂

Air-fried khichDi cutlets

I must start by saying this – we are khichDi lovers here. While I can do with an extremely simple moong dal khichDi sans any vegetables, K loves it when it has some potatoes, chole and garlic. But one thing we always agree on is hot, slightly soupy khichDi that we can devour by bowlfuls regardless of what meal it is.

But here is the thing – when you cook in a famished state, even your poor sense of proportion takes a further hitting which is how I ended up making an entire pot full of khichDi that lasted two servings each for dinner, a serving for breakfast and another generous bowl smirked at us as if daring us to finish it. Now, we are not ones to give up or throw away perfectly normal food (and definitely never khichDi), so this is something I am so proud to have made – a perfectly healthy air-fried khichDi cutlet if you can call it that! I cannot urge you more except to share how I made it and sincerely hope you make some extra khichDi or give this a go when you make something with the consistency of a khichDi like pongal and have leftovers. They sort of remind me of one of my favourite Italian snacks – arancini.
Please treat this more as a method/ idea than a recipe to follow to the T.

Here is what you need:

Leftover khichDi – I suggest you keep it in the fridge to let it thicken (if it was soupy to start with and you probably would if they are leftovers anyway)
Finely chopped onions (optional)
Finely chopped green chillies (optional and to taste)
Rice flour – About 1.5 tablespoon (just to make sure your khichDi can come together like a ball and also crisp nicely).
Panko bread crumbs – 1 spoon to mix in the khichDi (again for crispiness) and enough to coat the khichDi balls with it. You could perhaps replace with java/semolina/ suji but I have not tried this.
Cheese of choice, I used cheddar – cut into small thin strips to place in the centre of the khichDi ball

Method:

  1. Take the khichDi out from the fridge and ideally you want it to be slightly clumpy but if not, we can always add more rice flour in the next step.

2. Now add finely chopped onions, green chillies, rice flour and panko bread crumbs.

3. Mix it all together and make a ball with it. Add more rice flour if needed so it comes together. It will be a bit sticky and that it totally fine.

4. Make a small dent in the ball and stuff it with a cheese bit and close it.

5. Roll this in some bread crumbs to coat it.

6. Roll them all into balls like above.

7. Now place them in the air fryer. Brush it with a little oil (but this is not necessary as the balls crisp regardless from how I have tested them). I used Ninja food that has an air crisp function. But any air fryer will do. Set the temperature to 200C and crisp it in 10 minute increments. Check every 10 mins, turning it over. Mine took 25 minutes. If you have made smaller balls they need lesser time, this is something you will know based on your air fryer.

8. That’s all! Serve these gooey centred khichDi cutlets with piping hot chai. We had ours with the absolutely delicious masala chai that K makes.

I have a little video on instagram walking you through the process with the reveal of the crunch and everything!

Other ideas/notes:
1. You can make this with pongal or similar pressure-cooked mixed rice recipes that hold together.
2. Add more veggies, nuts, shredded cheese or stuff with paneer – just anything you like!
3. Coat it with sesame seeds for that flavour or roll it with rava/semolina/ suji for that crispiness instead of bread crumbs.

On the journey to growing my own.

Yesterday we finally picked the first of our zucchini, cucumber, tomatoes and these finger chillies. We have been harvesting a variety of veggies and fruits for a while now but the excitement and tingling that I feel every time I pick something off a plant is very much the same : surreal.

There is such a thrill and joy to this whole process of plucking fresh produce off a plant in your garden. But there is so much more to this whole journey that often culminates in your kitchen, palate and ultimately tummy or your neighbours’!

Last year, I started noticing a lot of interest in gardening in general. People I randomly stumbled upon online and our own neighbours had something going for them in their backyards and in their frontage. It was also when I started watching Monty Don on BBC, the nation’s gardener as he is sometimes fondly called. Little did I know then that becoming engaged with gardening meant an unavoidable rendezvous with Monty. As he weeds and crafts and creates his magical garden in Herefordshire, that seems to stretch endlessly, I saw myself mindlessly scrolling for more and more of other people’s journeys in their gardens. We had started thinking of moving homes but every house we viewed was viewed with a renewed interest and vigour and the promise it held for having a little patch someday. I wanted that joyous ride. That moment when I would wake up to sun-kissed tomatoes. That high from keeping the bees busy. The desire was always simmering but it threatened to no longer wait. So, while we waited to find our home, I sowed some potatoes out of desperation in a pot in our little backyard. Instead of appeasing me, it only fuelled me to do more and left me feeling a longing more than ever. 

As if on cue, everything in the universe conspired to give us the energy and space to pursue this desire that now had assumed dangerous levels of fantasy. And trust me, it has been every bit the joy ride that I had conjured in my mind. While I admit, I was initially more into this “grow your own” having watched those tempting videos of people picking a bunch of zucchinis, a basket of tomatoes and making cucumber salad with cucumbers from their greenhouse, this whole journey has taught me more. Much more than I imagined.

For starters, it has made me physically, mentally and emotionally more agile. As I started sowing seeds, my days would start with me rushing to the storage shed, radiators and possible warm spots in the house to look for any signs of germination. I caught myself walking in and around the garden mentally calculating the space, number of containers I needed, possible beds to create/ clear, reading and researching catch-crops and about rotation and soil pH, ways to get the pollinators, what crops paired well and what I should avoid and the like. What started off as a very calculated, prepared, conscious series of steps from textbook and videos evolved into being more attuned to what the seedlings and plants were telling me. The nervousness and trepidation started getting replaced by a sense of faith in my own ability to listen to our plant babies and confidence to address whatever it was that ailed them and to do all with a sense of surety that I felt the plants would feel reassured by. They were in the safe hands of parents who loved and learnt more about them. Ofcourse, I have had heartaches and trust me I had them early and felt them so much more back then as I watched a series of seedlings rise up and give up on me just when I started to feel happy. It is such an obvious truth that you will lose some seedlings along the way and yet going through this has been such a fundamental lesson in learning to let go or learning from them and moving on.

At a time when a lot of the world was worried about being cooped up at home, gardening and growing their own has offered a lot of respite and excitement and it has been refreshing watching people become attuned to nature and life around. There is a lot to be said about the joy of creating, nurturing and being on that parenting journey and my moments and experiences with my plants have reinforced all of it and somehow managed to make me marvel at the obvious. It is a wonder I hope to forever cherish, many zucchinis, tomatoes and cucumbers later.