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Archive for June, 2011

As I mention in the previous entry, I have only seen a few pictures of Ma and Baba’s wedding, one of which is a photo of Baba wearing a topor, a conical hat made out of paper and shola (a sponge-wood plant). Apparently, the topor was created because Shiva wanted a crown for his wedding but it looks ridiculous and hardly very crown-like.  Indian Hindu weddings can be really sombre (and long!) so I love that the poor groom has to endure such a comedy hat.  I wonder how Baba felt about wearing the topor?

Traditionally, an Indian boy from a middle-class family would be expected to go through an unbroken period of  15-17 years of study; in school, college and a career-linked professional degree or a PhD. I chose to do a combination of both.  Then follows a period of consolidation for the future and moving up the career ladder.  In this period, familiarity and friendships with girls were considered fraught with danger signals and possible distractions from life-goals.

‘Love-match’ as V.S. Naipaul described it so succinctly in his masterpiece ‘A House for Mr Biswas‘ was a rarity. The expected turn of events would to be get married around the fifth year of working, arranged by the family.  I followed the course.  

My wedding preparations were a little more perfunctory than your Ma’s.   My friends and colleagues assumed the roles of advisers. I printed invitation letters for them in English, got myself a custom-made suit, suitable for a Suitable Boy. Working in Hyderabad at the time, I got myself a heavily embroidered silk kurta too. Loaded with these, I took the train home to Silchar.

During those last days of carefree bachelorhood, I witnessed modest preparations at home, streams of relations coming from distant places, canopies for the band-party being put up, guests coming for a little chat, some mishti (Bengali sweets) and tea with my parents while throwing encouraging words at me.  I preferred to spend most of the time with my friends, outside. But my freedom of movement was blocked one day before the date of the marriage. I was strictly home-bound. The hours were filled with a series of rituals of blessings, Sanskrit invocations and tastings of home-made sweets of coconut and milk forced on me by all and sundry, my elders, directly or remotely. Before, I used to look at these home-made delicacies with eager desire but now I really couldn’t look at them.  I was stuffed.  But, I couldn’t say ‘No’. That would be rude.
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Ma and Baba’s wedding.

An intimate retelling of my parents’ Indian wedding nearly 40 years ago in their own words.  The rituals, the food, the clothes and the thoughts running through their minds on the day.

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I went to my friend’s English countryside wedding last week.  It was beautiful, simple, romantic and fun.  But it made me think of how different Western and Indian weddings are.  One is like a roast chicken meal, minimal ingredients, not that many steps but oh so satisfying to eat.  The other is akin to a biryani, a sumptuous dish with an army of ingredients and spices, multiple steps in its cooking, waves and waves of exquisite taste but liable to leave you with indigestion.

It also made me think of my parent’s wedding.  I have some scant stories and seen a few pictures but it would be so wonderful to take the time to capture the event through the eyes of Ma and Baba.  What rituals did they have? What were they thinking? How did they feel?  In their own words.  So here’s Ma’s perspective on the occasion and then Baba’s thoughts will follow in the next entry.

Ours was a very traditional arranged marriage with each other’s consent.   Arranged marriages usually conjure a picture of a practical, well planned affair, devoid of any romanctic aspect.  In my experience, far from it.  One constantly think of the distant person.  The element of surprise and anticipation  of falling in love is incredibly romantic.

Before the actual wedding came the the aashisbaad (blessings) where the groom’s side comes to bless the bride usually with  jewellery, sari and gifts including sweets and a whole fish, usually a Rohu.  Bengal being a river-rich state with abundance of varieties of fish this item has become an auspicious symbol  for weddings.  Blessings are usually done with durba ( a variety of three blade fine grass) which symbolizes long life and unhusked rice which means wealth.  After that the usual feasting.  The ceremony really drove home the point that I was really getting married and would be leaving my home which was a part of me for an unknown place. The uppermost feeling was sadness but probably a little excitement as well.

The next part was getting ready for the wedding.   As soon as the word spread, the jewelers, the cooks, the sweets makers, decorators and others flocked to the house.  Jewellery design was chosen ordered, other necessary arrangements were made, e.g making the furniture etc. which was part of the trousseau.  Maa beautifully embroidered and crocheted the bed linens, cheval sets (for dressing table) runners for sideboards, tray-cloths and teacosy covers.  It was absolutely amazing how much she did in such a short time.  Invitation lists were made.  Mejomamu designed a very simple but elegant invitation letter.  After a week or so Badomamu with badimami and Chinoodidi and chhotomamu arrived.  My three brothers helped maa and baba organise everything.  I bought my wedding sari in Kolkata with Suman mami’s help.  It was an elaborate red Benarasi with intricate gold work.
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Perfumes may evoke and trigger over-romanticized and unreliable memories but for me, old television shows are much more effective.  At this point, you will be scratching your head, an eyebrow will arch but bear with me.  Didi (Bengali for older sister) and I were chilling this weekend (read: sitting in our parent’s conservatory mashing up our media or in more familiar words watching tv, Facebook stalking on our laptops, and texting on our mobile phones) when she came across a highly melodramatic, vaseline-tinted TV movie from the 80s on one of those cable channels that pats itself on the back when it gets 500 viewers.  I believe it was called “Romance on the Orient Express”.  Enough said.  But for us, this movie was hugely significant.  As my sister reliably recalls, this was one of things that had our rapt attention in our Sea Rock Hotel room in Bombay during our last few days in the city before we left for Sweden.  I was not in the least worrying about what Sweden would be like.  I was too busy thoroughly enjoying my plush surroundings.   The first time in a fancy hotel room, glossy TV shows which hinted at other worlds and the revolving restaurant at Sea Rock.  Seriously, tell me who would not marvel at eating in a revolving restaurant??

Bumping into this old movie made us think of all the stuff we used to watch when we were younger.  The usual obsessions definitely obviously featured like 21 Jump Street and Beverly Hills 90210 (fyi, definitely in the Dylan + Kelly camp).  However, there were four television shows which I will always identify with the early years in Sweden.

  1. Sinhá Moça (Young Lady) – a Brazilian telenovela about a slave-owner’s daughter set in Sao Paulo in the late 1800s.  Looking back on it now, I probably only understood 10% of what was happening in the soap.  It was obviously in Portugese and since my comprehension of Swedish was still at beginner level, the Swedish subtitles didn’t really help.  Why on earth did we watch it?  We were entranced by the high drama (would the Sinhá Moça ever get together with Rudolfo, the anti-slavery fighter?), the gorgeous dresses and a sensual language we had never heard.  The show was a gateway to a whole new world.
  2. Barnen i Bullerbyn (The Six Bullerby Children) – a Swedish miniseries based on the stories of Astrid Lindgren.  This was pure nostalgia as it tells the story of a little girl’s life and adventures in the small and neat Swedish village Bullerby.  It is the sweetest and most innocent story that is a throwback to a childhood which is more about good ol’ fashioned play, adventures and ‘scrapes’ instead of being on your nth diet by the age of 12.  Ok rant over but you get my point.  The show also reminds me of my childhood in Sweden.  I was outside a lot.  In the summer, it was about going on bike rides to the lake, grilling hot dogs, picking mushrooms and bluebells in the forest outside our house, swimming in Nalsta’s public pools and in the winter, sledding, making snowmen and climbing on top of the snow mountains stacked along the pavement.  Good times.
  3. If Tomorrow Comes – another American TV mini-series.  We recorded this on VHS tape so I watched it constantly.  I used to come home from school, drink my daily glass of O’boy chocolate milk, do my homework, and then watch part 2 (inexplicably this was the only part recorded so until very recently I never knew about the first part!) in a state of bliss.  Again, the glamour totally engulfed me.  The big hair, 80s shoulder-pads, and the exotic locations.  But the story was about a jewelry thief so Baba got a little concerned with my obsession and feared for my future.  He needn’t have worried.  My one attempt at stealing happened at our local supermarket was intercepted by the security guard and the humiliation henceforth made me never enter that shop and also crossed off larceny as a potential career.
  4. Eurovision Song Contest – Yeah yeah, I hear you snigger.  But I promise that this show was a big deal in Sweden.  It was one of the television moments of the year.  My family were really nerdy about it.  We used to all squeeze onto the sofa, tear out sheets of paper, armed with pencils and actually score each country’s song entry.  This was back when there were only 20 or so countries in the contest and the political voting was limited to France and UK awarding each other the dreaded ‘nul point’.

It’s funny to think of how these old TV shows have triggered family stories and memories.  I really don’t think sniffing Revlon’s Charlie would deliver the same results.

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Lamb curry

You know the question about ‘what would be your last supper?’.  I don’t like this question.  I find it impossible to answer as I love all kinds of food.  How can I limit it to one type of dish?  However, if I could have a Top 5, then Ma’s lamb curry would definitely make the cut.  I love the taste of the soft, succulent lamb with the rich, smooth and aromatic gravy.  Oh and the potatoes.  They are a must.  They have to be soft and completely soaked in the gravy.  Mmm.  The recipe below has a Bengali/Kashmiri slant.  Ingredients such as the cashew paste, fennel, and the garam masala composition give the curry a more delicate, aromatic flavour versus the spicy lamb curries more commonly eaten.  Check out a great book which beautifully describes the history and differences of Indian regional cooking called ‘Eating India’ by Chitrita Banerji.  Ok back to the lamb curry.

Ingredients (for 4 people):

  • 1 kg lamb (shoulder or lamb) chunks
  • Potatoes (waxy), peeled and cut to similar size of the lamb pieces. Dima used to make small cuts in the potatoes for maximum gravy + flavour absorption!

Marinade:

  • 150g plain yoghurt
  • 1.5 inch ginger, grated
  • 1.5 onions, grated
  • 4 garlic cloves, grated
  • 2 tbsp cashew paste

Other

  • 1/2 onion, finely sliced
  • 3 tsp ground coriander
  • 2 tsp ground cumin (less than the coriander because it has a much stronger flavour)
  • 1.5 tsp ground fennel (this is a very Kashmiri touch)
  • Chilli powder
  • Kashmiri/Bengali garam masala (2 inch cinnamon, 4 green cardamom, 5 cloves, 0.5 tsp nutmeg – all powdered and mixed together)
  • 1/5 tsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp oil

Pre-prep

– Soak about 15 cashew nuts in milk for approximately 2 hours.  When soft, grind them up in a grinder to make a smooth paste

Method

  1. Marinade the lamb in the yoghurt and the juices of the ginger and onions.  Ma only uses the juice so the gravy doesn’t become too chunky and overpowering.  Then add the cashew paste.  Let the marinade sit for at least 30 minutes.  Obviously longer the better and the marinade can be left overnight for more special occasions
  2. After the lamb has been marinated, add the coriander, cumin, fennel and chilli powder to the mixture
  3. Heat the oil in a pot
  4. Add sugar to lightly caramelise for colour and flavour
  5. Put in the chopped onion.  Saute until soft and lightly browned
  6. Put in the meat.  Toss around a couple of times so all the pieces get coated with the oil, onion and sugar
  7. After, 5-10 minutes, reduce heat and cover with lid.
  8. Keep checking the softness of the lamb but this should take approximately 1 hour
  9. Half-way through cooking, put in the potatoes and give it a good stir
  10. When the lamb is nearly cooked, add a little boiling water if the mixture needs more gravy
  11. Season and cook for another 15-20 minutes
  12. Add 2tsp of the gravy and ghee to the garam masala.  Mix together and pour over the curry.  Stir
  13. Serve with rice and sprinkle over some chopped coriander and flaked almonds for an added flourish

Bon apetit!

NB: For a low-fat version, make the curry the day before.  Leave to cool in the fridge.  The next day, the fat will have solidified on the top.  Just scoop out the layer of fat with a spoon and there you have it: a lower(ish) fat version of the curry to enjoy.

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