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.
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.
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!
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.
There was a gobi stall right across my university campus that sold gobi with fried rice. I tasted it after 3 years at Uni and maybe once after that. That is how sad I was with street food. I had an incredibly poor immunity especially to unfiltered water matched by an equally poor zest for street food. I started enjoying street food with my cousins in Blore eventually and then the joy of international street food with K happened. Anyway back to this gobi stall across campus – it was so splendid and I sometimes think of it and wish I had access to something like that here in Surrey. A couple of days back, we decided to quit wishing and decided to act on it. K was my sous chef. We did a mish mash of recipes and followed our heart. It was incredible fun cooking and listening to endless Coke Studio as we excitedly churned up some gobi Manchurian for lunch as Mili wondered what possessed us. Some times, I remember how it felt making the dish more than how I felt eating it. One of the several joys of cooking, I suppose.
If you’d like to know, here is how we made it. 1. Make small cauliflower florets from 1 medium cauliflower. We want a size that allows for it to be coated well in all that saucey goodness and have a bit of crunch around without being raw inside, without using copious amounts of oil. 2. Create a thin batter of cornflour (2 tbsp), plain flour (1 heaped tbsp), chilli powder (1-2 tsp), turmeric (1 tsp), salt, ginger garlic paste (1 tsp) and vinegar (1 tsp). 3. Add the cauliflower florets to this and set aside for 30 mins. 4. Meanwhile, dice 1 onion and 1 bell pepper. Also, chop garlic (we did about 8 cloves) and ginger (1/2 inch) and green chillies and spring onions. 5. Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a wok, add some of chopped garlic and ginger from step 4 and saute for 30 seconds. Add the cauliflower to the wok, taking care they are spread out and not a heap. This ensures uniform cooking – if your wok is small, do it in 2 batches. The cauliflower will turn turn golden and crispy in some parts and the batter becomes crunchy like the outside of fritters. Set all this fried goodness aside. 6. Now heat a couple tbsp of oil in the same wok, add the remaining ginger garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Add bell pepper, onions, chillies and sauté for 2 mins so the veggies retain some crunch. 7. Add 2 tbsp sriracha sauce/chilli sauce, 3-4 tbsp soy sauce, a pinch of sugar and mix. Add 1 cup water and bring to boil. 8. Mix 2 tsp cornstarch and 2 tbsp water and make a thin paste. Add this to boiling sauce and let it thicken. Mix the cauli and garnish with spring onions.
That’s it really. The gobi had a slight crunch and the sauce was perfect. I loved that there were crispy bits to it and some chunks of cooked crispy cornflour with garlicky goodness. It feels like a lot of steps but I think when you make something for the first time, chances are it may feel that way. Also, this does have a few steps. But it is so worth it. I would still go back and eat gobi from that stall across campus anyway but I know that there is something that gives me as much joy, although a different kind, when I make it in my kitchen with my K as Mili hopefully waits for a piece to land in her bowl.
As we step out for our walk everyday, we look forward some of the heart-warming, nostalgia-inducing scenes along the pavements that greet us with child-like enthusiasm.
It reminds me of my own childhood as I drew endless pictures and puzzles and hopscotches in our compound. We have a lovely pavement leading to a big square block that leads to the gate, back in our Mysore home. I remember drawing along every inch available with colourful chalks, as ma sat with her magazine and coffee sometimes asking me how I’d play that game. As my brother joined in, we divided the area into two or sometimes even made our combined game. We sadly, like several others, outgrew them. Or so, I thought.
But as we see these along the pavements, years later, now, I am overcome by a strong temptation to skippety skip and hoppety hop, and follow all those rules and when I cannot make it, even cheat a bit and plod on until I reach the star.
Is it strange that children and the child in the adult are playing outside more at a time where we are under house arrest?
To be fair, some children do play and cycle along the streets. I just had not seen these before. And it makes me wonder.
But I decide to not over think this. It is reassuring we have these games around. It is reassuring that children are around. They always always seem to find a solution to tricky challenges. It is reassuring that I retain my love for hopscotch and that I never outgrew it.
I made a dash with hesitation (do you know what am referring to? Like, when you run but also your legs give way and your heart wants you to try a bit more?). As I hurriedly bought my ticket, I saw the train doors closing along the platform that was about 20 steps of a run, maybe less. The guard at the barricade told me I can probably make it to the train and as I punched out, I saw the train guard standing out, keeping a door open and urging me to hop into that cabin. I foolishly tried getting into another wondering why the door did not budge open. He patiently called out, “Madam, this one! This one, I have it open.” That’s when I realised I had to get into that compartment and I gave him the most grateful sheepish look I could. The next train was a longer route and 20 minutes away and meant missing my first meeting with a senior at work (who probably would have kindly understood my predicament but that would have made me really guilty throughout our meeting). Anyway, I hopped in, he gave me a small smile as if this was nothing.
As I got off at Waterloo, I walked up to him. He probably thought I was lost and meant to ask for directions. And when I told him, it was beautiful what he did and am so thankful, he gave me the most beautiful smile and shrugged with a, “Ah no problem. Don’t worry about it.”
Almost always when I walk away from such people, the world around me stops. I have tears from God-knows-where spring into my eyes. I tell myself repeatedly, how beautiful people are. It makes me so emotional that I spend the next hour or two smiling at everyone and creeping them out. K has seen me do this multiple times. But really, it made my morning. I have lost count of how many times I have said this, but the people in train stations and the staff who work for the London Underground and South Western Railways are absolutely fabulous and everyday heroes. I mean every one of them. They have let me in when my app conked off, sometimes walked me to the correct exit, drawn a virtual route on their palm to show me the way, redirected me to better and shorter routes and just been absolutely wonderful with other fellow travellers every time I have passed by.
I thought long and hard about how I must title this happy event of mine that happened this morning. I quite honestly could not think of any way to do it. It really is as simple as that and yet so profound.
What excited me us most about moving to UK was winter. We love Europe and had always read and heard of the gorgeous English countryside but our hearts screamed for winter and just the thought of experiencing seasons. Singapore’s tropical weather and rainy-humid climate all through the year meant that we escaped to cold climates during winters. Such was our need for the cold. Naturally, we felt ecstatic. Also, while I love myself flowers and fall (oh, I love fall!), winter really is my aesthetic. I cannot get enough of feeling cold, being wrapped up in layers that leave me feeling perpetually in a state of “hug”, spending a good portion of the day brewing coffee and tea, forever having my kaDai out for that last minute bhajji/bajia, huddling in the warmest corner with a book, stepping out only to be met with a fiercely cold wind hitting and numbing the face leaving you feeling noseless.. I could go on.
So when people told us very politely about how we will now be facing “London weather”, we did not flinch a bit. We are somewhere amidst the last traces of winter now and I already miss it. None of the weather was remotely as “dreadful” as people made it out to be. On the contrary, the winter has been soothing and except for the short daylight, we loved every bit of it. I missed a good chunk of it as I was away in New Zealand for a good time enjoying spring and its blossoms but I was back for Christmas to hop on the winter bandwagon.
As I write this, it is getting to spring now. The super markets are full of petunias, tulips and a diaspora of blooms. The wild flowers in our yard have started to bloom from nowhere! I was not even aware that there were plants with such gorgeous flowers and to watch them appear miraculously on one fine morning, out of nowhere obvious, has been beautifully surprising. The root vegetables are replaced by berries and lots of fresh greens. Those big boots and huge cloaks are replaced by thin cardigans and denims and sandals. The entrances to the super markets are lined with the essentials for barbecue.
And all this has been utterly beautiful to witness. I really miss the winter but I love myself a spring and the joy it brings to so many people. There is nothing quite like watching people being happy for the weather. I cannot believe I am saying this, because a year ago, I used to wonder what it is that makes people talk of weather all the time. But I know and appreciate it better now. To be observant and perceptive of the changes around you is indeed appreciable. And in a way, that has made me very thankful for the weather and for all the privilege I have to experience the seasons comfortably.
A few days ago, we walked along the Ockham and Wisley Commons with gay abandon. After more than a week of warm sun, that day was quite chilly. We being us, headed out to enjoy that chill. We got our large coffees from the local bakery at the entrance and walked endlessly. Some days make you happy for no reason at all and this is definitely one of them.