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Indian time out

“Where are you from?”

“I’m Indian.”

“Oh really? I was going to guess something like Indonesian.”

And so it goes.  I smile, one which is perhaps a little tired. It’s not the first time.

I think this is going to happen even in India, when Danko and I go tomorrow, for 3 months.

During these exchanges, I also probably shrug my shoulders, my body language projecting ‘Yeh I know. I find it hard to believe myself sometimes’.  Sure, my parents are both Indian, I lived there until I was six, and I absolutely adore Indian food.  That’s about it though.  I sound foreign when I try to speak Bengali, I turn into stiff robot whenever I wear a sari, I suddenly lose my sense of rhythm when the Bollywood music comes on, my understanding of Indian politics is shaky…the list of my ‘non-Indianness’ goes on.   3 months in India. This is going to be the longest period of time I will have spent there, since I left 30 years ago.  That pressure sits on my shoulders like a bad backpack, weighing heavier as the day approaches.  Will I start to feel a sense of belonging? Will my rhythm vibe with India? Or will I be out of step?

Ironically, I think Danko will move fluidly in the country. He has ‘aaram se’ naturally built into him whereas I stomp, grumble and huff when things don’t happen when and how they are supposed to.  He doesn’t have to prove anything in India.  He can just take the experience as it comes.

Maybe I don’t have anything to prove either.  To myself, to others, to India.  Sure, my Indian-ness is at times more Indian-less but that’s not the really the point, I’m coming to realise.    This trip is about pulling us out of the day to day, to be in another way, in another place for a moment.  It’s about having the time to start a relationship with India on my terms.  I want to be open, to observe myself from a distance, to understand what I enjoy, what irritates me.  Oh, and I want to eat all the food.  Obvs.

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2015 is going to be hard to beat.  In chronological order, I bought a flat, my boyfriend proposed at Easter, we got married three months later, I quit my job, during the summer, we spent seven weeks on the Croatian island of Brac (where Danko grew up), and a week after our return, I started my adventures in freelancing.  2016: you can put your feet up and drink a cup of cocoa.

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Our local beach in Bol, Brac where we spent the summer

I could have written about a lot of these milestones, especially the marriage bit.  I thought, pondered, and racked my brain to say something original about getting married.  Then I gave up.  I could have written about the joy and peace I felt about marrying Danko, my heart quadrupling in size because of it.  I could have written about the simple wedding we threw together at my parents’ home with our nearest and dearest there to celebrate with us.  I could have written about how i cherished being able to wear my mother’s wedding sari, forty-four years after she wore it to marry my father, a stranger to her then, unlike me, who married the person who probably knows me better than I know myself.  I could have written about all these things and more. While all these moments are extraordinary to me, they aren’t what continues to resonate with me six months later.  When someone asks me ‘how’s married life?’, I shrug and smile and reply ‘same same but different’.  The ‘different’ is that my world has become bigger and richer.

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The spread of Croatian/Bosnian and Indian food at our wedding lunch

Getting married to a man from another culture (Danko is half Bosnian, half Croatian), and gaining in-laws give me opportunities to see,  understand and participate in a whole new kaleidoscopic set of traditions and customs.  From different ways of communicating and learning a different history, to (and definately not least), new foods to eat and cook;  2015 has opened up another box of family charms to explore and capture.

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An ordinary lunch in Bol. Fresh sardines, getting ready to meet the grill

I want to start 2016 with a family charm from my Croatian family.  I haven’t heard of a traditional New Year’s Day food in the UK as in all likelihood it consists of bottomless Bloody Mary’s and a full English breakfast to absorb the excesses of new year’s eve festivities.  However, as with Bengalis where food is a constant, Croatians mark the first day of the new year with a feast featuring a whole roast piglet, Russian or beetroot salad, and sarma, stuffed cabbage rolls.

Sarma was one of things Danko was cooking up in the background when we first started skyping, he in Zagreb, me in London.  When I finally tasted the real thing last Easter, lets just say I had another good reason to marry him.  It’s highly unlikely that either he or I will be making this tomorrow, due to said festivities but at least I will know where to begin on the 2nd or maybe the 3rd.

HAPPY NEW YEAR folks!!

Recipe for Sarma

Sarme-Meat-rolls-with-sour-cabbage

 

You’ll find many country variations on how to make sarma, from Turkish, Bulgarian all the way to Central Europe.  This version of sarma blends Bosnian and Dalmatian influences reflecting Danko’s family background.  His family also usually make a big pot of this, and freeze a bunch of it so the following quantities can be reduced if you want to make fewer rolls.

Ingredients for the cabbage rolls:

  • 1 kg ground beef
  • 2.5kg whole head of sauerkraut (you’ll need to use about 15 for the rolls, shred some and keep 3-5 leaves for the broth)
  • 1.5 fistfuls of orzo that has been soaked in water for 2 hours
  • 1 big carrot, finely grated
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped or blitzed in food processor
  • Bunch of parsley, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper

For the broth

  • 300 g dried, smoked bacon
  • 500g pork ribs (smoked and dried) OR kielbasa sausage will do just fine too
  • Generous squeeze of tomato paste
  • A bit of paprika powder, to your taste
  • Boiling water
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1tbsp of sage

Method

  • Mix the beef, orzo, carrot, onion, parsley and seasoning together.  Leave for 30 mins
  • Take one leaf of the cabbage head.  Put a heaped table spoon of the meat mixture on the leaf and make a small package.  Tuck the ends in so the mixture is secure.  Repeat for 15-20 rolls.
  • Set aside 3-5 leaves for the broth
  • Shred any remaining leaves
  • In a large pot, put a layer of the shredded sauerkaut
  • Pack the cabbage rolls tightly around the edges of the pot, gradually moving into the centre until the pot is completely filled with the cabbage rolls
  • Place the bacon, ribs (or sausages) over the rolls
  • Squeeze over the tomato paste and sprinkle some paprika
  • Place final layer of sauerkraut leaves over the rolls
  • Pour enough boiling water to cover everything plus another 2 cm
  • Put an upside down plate inside the pot, over the rolls so everything stays in place. Place tight fitting lid over the pot and bring to boil.
  • Once boiling, lower the heat to simmer for about 1 hour

Serve with either mashed or boiled potatoes.

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It would make sense that for my mum’s birthday, especially as this one is her 70th (!!!), this entry would be about her and how awesome she is, what a great role model she is, and how much I love her etc. etc. etc.

IMG_2381But I want to talk about my dad instead and a very sweet tradition he has started for her birthday. He cooks. Ever since he spent a year and a half working in Abu Dhabi where he lived on his own, having had a crash course in cooking from my mother, he regards himself as quite adept in the kitchen. But he saves his culinary skills for this one day.

IMG_2377Before I elaborate on the menu, let me give you a little context on him. My dad is quite the oddball in that he blends a mixture of some old-skool (Indian) views and formality, with new age man stuff. Combine the question he asked me when I showed him my tattoo, ‘how many of your MBA friends have a tattoo?’, (to which I answered I don’t know because I haven’t seen them naked), with him being a pioneering male user of facial moisturiser (he’s been using Oil of Olay since the 90s) and enjoying vacuuming and dusting, hopefully you get the sense that he’s not just a regular Indian dad. So of course he doesn’t just make spag bol or lasagne. Or a chicken curry. He goes ALL OUT. Haute cuisine. But his traditional notions of what haute cuisine means that for the past few years he he makes a starter with lobster because lobster is chef-fy and posh, and a main course of lamb because lamb is Bengali posh. Last year he made lobster bisque and Indian lamb curry. This year he steps it up even further: homemade lobster ravioli and a Mediterranean roast lamb.  Go Baba.

IMG_2384It is a whole day endeavour with planning akin to a military operation. Maa is the sous-chef, gently helping out, sometimes taking over, and generally making sure her kitchen stays intact. Baba waxes lyrical about his ‘technique’ while we giggle and tease. In the end, all’s well that ends well and dinner turns out delicious.   My dad can chalk up another successful foray into gastronomy and proudly slink back into just eating dinner for 364 days.

A family charm for a very special woman. Happy birthday Maa.

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1st October, 1986. A family of four arrive at Stockholm Arlanda airport, at 10am, bleary-eyed, carrying all their important possessions in old hardcase Samsonsite suitcases, about to start their new lives very far away from everything they have known in Bombay, India. Luckily, this deer-in-headlights family was greeted warmly by Alfred, a soon-to-be colleague and dear friend. He drove them to a corporate apartment in Vaxjo, our first home in Stockholm for the next couple of weeks.

For this family, my family, everything about Stockholm was new, weird and intriguing. The air was cold and crisp. Dramatic white barren trees everywhere you turn. Cars bizarrely adhering to road rules. Landing up at the apartment, Alfred had to show my parents how to use the kitchen appliances which then naturally led us to ponder how to fill the empty cupboards and what to eat?? Once again, Alfred went above and beyond and took us to the nearest supermarket, Konsum. The food items were all in Swedish, and so many food items that were ready-prepared or frozen! At that time, this concept had not reached India. One of things that caught my mother’s eye were the frozen meatballs. Poor mans’ food in Sweden apparently but they looked sort of similar to kofte. So along with some other basic food stuffs, my mother bought the ingredients for our very first meal in Sweden – kofte curry using Swedish meatballs.

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It’s now a little family charm that on the 1st October every year, whether together as a family, or in our individual lives, we recreate that evening, where four endearingly naive people huddle around a warming dish that is at once comfortably familiar and yet excitingly different. An ordinary day for many, but a quietly extraordinary day for my family.

Ingredients

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500g meatballs – love or hate Ikea (I’m definitely a lover), its meatballs in the food section are perfect for this dish.
250g small potatoes
500ml water
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 tbsp ginger powder
2 fat cloves of garlic
200g chopped tinned tomatoes
1tbsp cumin
1tsp chilli powder
1 inch of cinnamon
4 cardamom pieces
4 cloves

You can improvise and add some other vegetables such as frozen peas, carrots etc. to add more texture and colour.

Method
• Parboil the potatoes
• While that’s going on, heat oil in a pan. When hot, temper the cinnamon, cardamom and cloves until they start to splutter
• Saute the chopped onions and garlic with the tempered spices
• Add the ground spices (ginger powder, cumin, chilli powder)
• Pour in the chopped tomatoes and simmer until water evaporates a little
• Add the potatoes and meatballs. Mix it all up so everything is coated in the spices
• Add some water
• Season with salt to taste
• Simmer until you get a nice thick gravy

Serve with rice.

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Being a grown up has a lot perks but it can also be shitty, complicated and a bit of a nuisance. When I get into one of these moods where I wish I could stomp around in a tantrum, comfort food from my childhood can often intuitively turn me back into a reasonable adult-like person. The recipe below is for one of my favourites that my mum makes. Chapatis (unleavened Indian flat bread) dipped very generously into ‘gur’ – date palm jaggery which is basically Indian maple syrup. It also is made from sugar cane but date palm is MUCH better. My mum used to make it as a treat for my sister and I when we were little and even now, getting a text from my mum saying ‘I have gur’, makes me reconsider my weekend plans and head home instead. There is something incredibly luxurious and satisfying in dunking pieces of a chapati into a rich, dark, sweet gooiness and then licking my sticky fingers. Back to enjoying the perks of being a grown up.

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For the gur
250g block of date palm gur
3tbsp water
A saucepan for melting the gur

For the chapatis (makes about 8)
300g whole meal wheat flour
100g buckwheat flour
100g spelt flour
2tbsp white flour
2 tsp oil (sunflower, rapeseed etc )
A little cold water to make the dough

Take the block of gur and place in a heated (low heat) saucepan. Add the water and wait for the block to melt. Once it starts to bubble, take it off the heat and allow to cool. The syrup mixture will thicken into a gorgeous molasses-like consistency.

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For the chapatis, mix all the ingredients together until the dough mixture is a little firm, not too wet or dry. Should be easy to roll out. Think play dough. Divide up the dough into eight balls and make into patties. Spread a little flour on the kitchen top before rolling out. The chapatis should be round and about 0.5mm thick. Heat up a flat griddle pan and place a chapati on it. Should take about 3-4 minutes to be dine, flipping a couple of times. And when it starts to fluff up a bit, use a spatula to pay down the edges to more volume.

Serve warm with the gur. Dunk to your heart’s delight.

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Chicken soupIt’s a truth universally acknowledged and perhaps even scientifically proven, that chicken soup can help to heal a common cold.  However, instead of opening a sad can of store-bought soup or even making your own (in that case, are you even that sick?), the chicken soup that really feeds my soul is the one that is made by my mother.

I am lucky enough to live a short train ride away from my parents’ so instead of being home alone while my boyfriend is away, I decided to take myself, with my runny nose, teary eyes, non-stop sneezing, and tissues busting forth from my coat pockets, home for a bit of unadulterated tlc and my mum’s chicken soup.  Sure, I am 33 but as my wise 11-year old niece, Anoushka Aurora, very eloquently wrote, I also have all my other ages stuck inside me.  So this weekend, my 10-year old self was the dominant one.

Now this soup (recipe below) is not extraordinary and doesn’t have any secret ingredient.  It is incredibly simple but it does have two things that make it a magical elixir for me.  Firstly, it is not a watery broth but instead, it has golden baubles of butter bouncing on the surface and a small splash of indulgent single cream that makes the soup both healing and luxurious.  Secondly, my mum makes it.

Ingredients (for 2 servings)

  • 1 chicken breast or 4 mini fillets – dice small
  • 1 shallot – finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove – finely chopped
  • 2tsp butter
  • 1tsp plain flour
  • 4 mugs boiling water
  • 1 Knorr chicken stock pot
  • Half mug of milk or quarter mug of single cream

Method

  • In a thick bottomed saucepan, over a low heat, sauté the 1tsp of butter, the chopped shallots and garlic  until transparent
  • Add the diced chicken and stir a few times before adding the plain flour
  • Add the mugs of boiling water, stirring constantly so that the flour doesn’t go lumpy.  Then add the Knorr stock pot and simmer for 2-3 mins
  • Taste and if needed, add another half a stock pot
  • Bring to the boil and then simmer on low heat until the soup thickens slightly
  • Before taking off the stove, stir in the milk or single cream
  • Serve with black pepper

On this occasion, my taste buds could barely register much, so I couldn’t taste the flavour of the soup.   But from the combination being back home for 24 hours, eating multiple helpings of the chicken soup, and watching back-to-back episodes of House of Cards, season two, I emerged kleenex free.

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Last week (14/15th April) was Bengali new year (Pohela Boishakh – meaning first month of the Bengali calendar) and it is one of those Bengali events and traditions which I routinely forget about.  It doesn’t help that unlike Chinese New Year in London which regardless of whether you are Chinese or not, is seen everywhere, Bengali New Year is the shy wallflower skulking in the corner at the high school dance.   Apparently the main reason the Bengali calendar (loosely tied to the vedic solar calendar) was created by Mughal Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar was because the original lunar calendar conflicted with the harvest seasons, therefore making it difficult for the farmers to pay taxes out of season.   Traditionally it is the time when businesses start new ledgers, new shops open, business relationships are renewed.  So basically, the Bengali new year is really about the start of a new tax year (!) and since it closely follows the UK tax year, I will now have something to remind me that it is coming up.  Hardly an exciting way to remember it but as taxes are unavoidable for most of us, it is a reassuringly predictable reminder.

As I mention in an earlier post here that Bengal is very left-leaning politically and Bengali people haven’t really blazed an entrepreneurial trail.  So the fact that Bengali New Year is connected to business and money strikes me as very funny and ironic.

The new year starts with Sankranti (new year’s eve) which involves a complete spring clean of the house.  I quite like idea of literally starting the new year with a fresh and clean outlook.   Baths are usually taken and then children swallow bitter neem leaves, turmeric and a piece of jaggery.  As neem and turmeric are anti-bacterial, the body also goes through a bit of spring clean.  And new year itself starts at dawn, not midnight.  And yes, included in the festivities and fun, is a liberal scattering of Tagore songs.  For anyone who has read my entry about Tagore, you’ll know what my opinion is on this. Spoiler alert: lets just say when the ladies of the Bengali community (my mum and sis included) have performed at various functions, I have been kindly told to move from the front row to go sit at the back of the audience because my bored facial expression is distracting.

I digress.  We don’t go through all of the above anymore but as with any event like this, food plays a central role. And my family does food really well.   However, since the new year fell on a Monday, we didn’t feast.  Indigestion is a nuisance – more so when you don’t have the weekend to suffer lazily.  But the menu was still a treat: Shorshe Maach (fish marinated in mustard), Shukto (a Bengali preparation of vegetables), both of which I blogged about here and here.  The third dish we had is also a favourite of mine – Shaak – of which the main ingredient is any green leafy vegetable.  Sounds quite dull but not the way my mum cooks it!  It is common to use spinach for this dish but my mum doesn’t like to use spinach as it reminds her too much of the soggy mess dumped on plates in her college hostel!  So one of the ‘charms’ of my family is that my mum cooks it with Swiss chard, having tasted it for the first time when we lived in Sweden.  Less soggy mess, more texture and taste.

IMG_20130421_1Here’s the recipe:

  • 2 bunches of white/ red Swiss Chard or a combination of both
  • 1/2 of a smallish cauliflower, broken into small florets
  • 1 small khol rabi (instead of potato), it is sweet and crunchy), diced into small pieces
  • 1 small aubergine. diced into small pieces
  • A handful of frozen soybean (for higher protein content than green peas)
  • 2 green chillies,
  • 1 tsp of panch phoron (Bengali five spice)

Method

  1. Wash the green leaves thoroughly and drain well.  Chop into approximately 1″ wide pieces.  Do not discard the stems. Cut them finer.   These are crunchy and add texture and taste.
  2. Pre-boil the khol rabi until tender but it should still hold some bite. Drain and keep aside.
  3. Heat 2 tbs oil in a pan.  Brown the diced aubergine but make sure it is still firm.  Keep aside.
  4. Add another tbs oil to the pan.  Add the panch phoron to the pan.  As soon as it starts spluttering add the green chillies and the cauliflower florets.  Stir fry for a couple of minutes.  Add the greens.  Cover it briefly and cook on a high heat to allow the leaves to wilt, probably not more than a couple of minutes.  Remove the lid. Add the remaining vegetables and salt to taste.  Stir to mix.  Cook over high heat until all the water from the leaves has evaporated.  Stir for few more minutes more.  Remove and serve hot with either rice or chapati.

Note:  It is important to cook over high heat and mostly uncovered to avoid an overcooked, soggy mess!!!

Happy new year everyone.   Sort out your taxes!

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