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September 20, 2008

More thought for food

The Hindustan Times, published September 18, 2008
More thought for food

If you don't have any
source of hand-me-down
recipes, don't fret. There
are plenty of food blogs
to guide you as you get
ready to wield the
spatula in the kitchen

Some say we eat to live. There are those who'd rather live to eat. Whatever be the case, food often inspires. For all the numerous 'lose-weight-now-ask-me-how' advertisements, reams of paper on maintaining a figure and talk shows on staying fit, there are equal (if not more) articles, ads and columns on cooking and eating. Long time there used to be 'Yan Can Cook' on the-then Star Plus. Today there are a number of options and shows. Whether it's No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain, Kylie Kwong's Cooking with Heart and Soul (just love her kitchen, envy her cutting board) or Nigella Lawson's juice-dripping, cream slathering, heart-attack inducing cook show (Nigella Express, anyone?) there's something to suit everyone's taste buds out there.

You could watch the tele and note down a recipe you like, or you can ask around. Most people who enjoy cooking will tell you that some of their best recipes have been those that have been passed on. That special chana-dal you picked up from your aunt, Ma's special aloo-mangsho trick, the payasam you learnt from the South Indian neighbour, the 30-second scrambled egg trick you got off a harried-mom-of-four. No matter how simple or complicated a dish, when people who have been doing it for ages (or considerable time!) tell you how its done, it usually turns out nicely.

Just in case you don't have anyone you can sponge recipes off, there are some great food blogs out there. Some share tried-and-tested traditional recipes, others try out recipes from cookbooks and share and still others give you a history of the dish you are preparing. A personal favourite has been Stephanie and Rick Jaworski's, Joy Of Baking. They don't just share recipes there, they tell stories.

First visited in 2004, the site has changed much since then. There are more advertisements, more readers and some recipes are different since last checked. However, even in the last four years, the site retains one of its best features: The stories and history behind the cakes, cookies and pastries.

With recommendations and recipes from various chefs and books and tips on how to avoid mistakes, the site is really good for seasoned bakers or those who are just starting out. One of the most common irritants when cooking from a site or a cook book is finding you might not have all the ingredients or that you don't have the 'exact match'. The 'substitutes' section on the site really makes it a delight to try out recipes. You know you don't have to buy that Kahlua to make a cheese cake, an instant coffee powder mix will do as well. That's where Joy of Baking, well, takes the cake.

September 19, 2008

Shut up and eat cake

I am small. Five feet no inches, 43 kgs. My hands are smaller still but I am good with them. I can type fast, I can give a (damn) good massage and I can use them in the kitchen. Strangely enough, whenever the going’s been tough, one or the other use of my hands has stood me good. In 2004, heartbroken and penniless and in 2008, finally loved and hopeful… Who’s scripting this?

To answer Maxine’s, “Where the hell have you been JB?” I’ve been completing university assignments, getting up at 4.40 in the morning, reporting for work at 7 am, then running for classes, coming back and cleaning at home, writing columns (yes plural, will introduce the other one once it’s published) AND cooking. I LOVE cooking and coming to Melbourne is doing good things to my culinary knowledge.

The little that I know, I’ve learnt in one of the three ways: Fiction books, instruction manuals or from people subconsciously. You observe, you learn. Like how I need to put one leg up with the mixing bowl on it when beating eggs for a cake. I picked that up from Kumud aunty. She used to be an army officer’s wife in our colony (1988) and could whip egg whites into stiff peaks (ensures the softest sponge cake) with a fork. Perhaps that also explains my antipathy towards using an electric beater. When it comes to cooking/baking, I am a do-it-manually snob. I will grate it with hand, beat it with fork and knead it with my knuckles than use a blender/mixer that would do the job in five minutes. But know what? I can do it, by hand, in seven minutes. Hrmph.

Partner and I and have constant kitchen conflicts due to our respective cooking styles. I will make the ‘gravy’ by mincing onions, pureeing tomatoes and simmering-while-stirring; he will use two teaspoons of Gravox (powdered gravy in a box). He will use dried mixed herbs from a packet, I will choose the leaves from my grown-in-a-pot-from-seed fresh herbs. I will beat the eggs, add the milk and whip it in the wok to make scrambled eggs; while he will pull his hair out because he would have done it in the microwave. “It tastes the same and I am faster,” is what Partner says. He is a I-can-cook-quick snob; I am an I-do-it-the-real-way snob. Both our snobberies, like all other snobbery, are acquired.

Another area where Partner and I butt heads (both of us are May-born bulls and it comes easily) is when it comes to using recipe books. Noticed how each time you want to try a dish, you will always have that one ingredient missing from your kitchen? Partner will not cook till he has every little item for a recipe -- even if it won’t be used again in the next 10 years for another dish -- while I am practical. I enjoy experimenting and finding substitutes. Of course there are things you just cannot do without. Like you cannot have tiramisu without mascarpone, but you can have a carrot cake without marzipan carrots and full-cream milk in blueberry muffins works just as well as buttermilk.

One of the primary influences in my experimental cooking have been Ma and a website. I chanced upon the website in 2004 and quite by accident. It was a time when my self-esteem was at the lowest. I HATED my body, hated being a woman, hated my heart, my naïveté and everything was going horribly, horribly wrong. Little I knew then that the turbulence would continue till early 2007... I was far removed from cakes and hated cooking. In fact I hated the kitchen. It symbolised my weakness, of my servility for a bit of love and approval.

For personal reasons, I had quit my job and decided to freelance from home. Coincidentally (since I’m freelancing now as well), back then too it was The Hindustan Times that had given me a break. They had a Saturday page called ‘Gen Now’ and I wrote 700-words feature stories for it. Hmm. Other than HT back then, the freelance plan backfired and I found myself without any job, money or sustenance. That’s also when I was reading one of the abridged four-books-in-one compilations by Reader’s Digest.

I’ve always enjoyed fiction more than non-fiction and if it were ever a choice between a simple, good story and the Award Winning Book On Earth, I’d pick the simple story one. So in that compilation, there was the abridged version of a book. It was the story of Ruth and how she loved baking cakes. How people loved eating the cakes she baked and how her baking was an outward manifestation of her need to look after her family. Her husband had been fired, her parents were living with her and they were in financial trouble. In the book, Ruth’s 16-year-old daughter encourages her to sell the cakes. Ruth’s ageing mother makes hand-made boxes, the daughter becomes her driver and marketing agent and they start a business. Throughout the novel, Ruth speaks of tangy lemon cakes, melt-in-your-mouth sponge cakes and comforting bundt cakes.

The novel made me miss my Ma and how she made her special Black Forest when we had important guests for dinner. Or the moist, soft Pineapple pastry for the ladies’ meetings. Or the Tutti-Frutti special for our tiffins lunch box. In all those cakes, I was her ‘beater’, the one who copied Kumud aunty and whipped the eggs into silken peaks with a fork. The novel made me miss Ma. Made me realise more how I had made a MESS of my life with one stupid mistake. So I cried and as I cried and reached the end of the novel, there was a recipe for a bundt cake. I didn’t know what a ‘bundt cake’ was and as I Googled, I reached a website. A happy website with delicious cake recipes, substitutes if you didn’t have the exact ingredients and more than anything else, stories about why a cake was baked in a certain way. It made me happy, it gave me something to do and it let me reconnect with memories I had forgotten. It also made baking sound easier.

So I started baking, the first time without my Ma. Those who came home liked the cakes. Someone asked if I could bake for their kid’s birthday party, they said they would pay me for it… I did. The birthday party cake was a hit. I had made a carrot-apple cake with walnuts and covered it with light chocolate icing. Two other mothers took my number and ordered two cakes. I was stunned. It was like the book! When they had called, they had asked for a rate card and a menu, I didn’t have either. But the idea stuck and just like the book, I made a menu and began packing my cakes in hand-made boxes (also learnt from the Internet).

People were ordering at least nine cakes a week and as my confidence grew, I ended up getting a media job as well. All in five months to the day I first read the book in June 2004. As ‘tribute’ to the book that inspired me -- though it would be called ‘trashy reading’ by voracious, knowledgeable readers -- I called my home ‘bakery’, Eat Cake. After author Jeanne Ray’s book, ‘Eat Cake: A Novel’. The website that helped me survive with recipes was Joy Of Baking. People in different parts of the globe, who don’t even know me, helped me… I hope to thank them someday.

And then they say that fiction is trash and bloggers/blogging are nonsense. What do they know?

PS: WHAT is it about Andrea Bocelli’s voice? I don’t understand a word of what he is singing, but he DOES something to my insides. His voice makes me want to run without touching the ground, it wants me to feel the wind go through each pore in my body, wants me to cry out loud but not make a sound, it makes me want to pray but not to any god, it wants me to get drenched in the rain and mix in with the mud, it wants me to… Oh. The song just ended. It’s strangely disappointing when he stops singing. I wish I understood. It’s not even PMS.

September 17, 2008


What would we/you do if we wake up to our neighbourhood being bombed and tanks patrolling our streets? Will we stock up on food or will we take backups of our hard drives?

That was written a month back (make love, not war), on the eve of the Indian independence. A month later, the city that was my home for the last 10 years has had serial blasts. (Pic: GK1 market)

Prince Pan Corner at the Greater Kailash (Part 1) market in New Delhi, is stuff made of legends. Apparently the owner (is he called Prince?) is a real-life rags-to-riches story. Or in this case, a betel leaves to Mercedes Benz story. I had first heard about PPC in 1998, the same time ‘GK 1’ market became synonymous with ‘posh’ in my understanding. That was my first year in Delhi, the PVR Anupam multiplex complex was just about coming up and the shopping mall invasion and hoardings of Parsavnath Developers and co. were still a distant dream (nightmare?).

So much changed in the 10 years I lived in that city.

(Pic: flower market, Lado Sarai, Saket)
From being the centre of public transport chaos -- used to board the 727 Palam airport bus -- the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) centre crossing changed forever with the new clover-leaf flyover. Dhaula Kuan turned into a maze though the Naraina road junction is still a traffic bottleneck. Celebrated as Delhi’s first multiplex, the PVR group changed the face and the cinema history of the city. As the multiplexes and malls that housed the many screens mushroomed, the single-screen movie halls died out. From being the hub for catching the latest ‘English’ movie, Chanakya cinema (Yashwant Place) became a poor cousin to PVR. Once upon a time as a first year college student, we lined up outside Priya cinema for a Rs 10 ticket. Now the cheapest ticket is Rs 100 and you can watch the same movie lying down with a blanket and snacks served to you for Rs 700.

(Pic: Delhi Haat)
There was a time when you would never go hungry in Delhi. There were colony-corner, boiled-egg hawkers at dawn and aloo-parantha masters at the wee hours of the night. With those you got sweetened, ginger tea. Outside AIIMS, under the Moolchand flyover, opposite IIT Delhi, egg, paneer, onion and aloo paranthas with pickle were devoured by those on bikes and in BMWs alike. Not anymore. The city municipal council wants to regularise street hawkers. Gol gappas are served with gloves on, bhelpuri that cost Rs 7 is now Rs 20, samosas have to be eaten with knives and forks and the roadside tea stalls are being replaced by swanky Baristas and other coffee chains. Chai too now comes in jasmine, ginseng and other flavours and has become so alien, it’s called a health drink.

(Pic: Sundar Nursery, Nizamuddin)
The commercial hub of Connaught Place (CP) in central Delhi was a frequent haunt for coffee indulgence. There was an interesting piece in the now-defunct afternoon paper, Today, where they had photoshopped the pan-stained, dirty pillars in CP, cleaned the garbage, set up umbrellas and imagined what a clean, shopper-friendly CP would look like. Even though imaginary, it looked beautiful. Now you see roads dug up everywhere, somewhere for the Metro, at others for the high capacity bus corridors. Early this year, the Delhi Municipal Corporation chopped up healthy trees on Panchsheel road to make way for buses and cars even as Tata Motors introduced the Nano so that every Indian can have a car. Shudder.

Development on one side, demise of a city’s ethos on another.

Saturday (September 13, 2008), a series of bombs went off in Delhi, killing 30 people. Both CP and GK1 were bombed (along with Ghaffar Market). In the latter, it was near Prince Pan Corner. In CP, it was on Barakhamba (12 pillars literally) road. I commuted on that road frequently. Though in recent times unrecognisable - thanks to Delhi Metro rail project and other ‘development‘ work -- than what it looked like first when I arrived in Delhi.

Yesterday (Tuesday), when I asked friends back in Delhi if things were all right with them, the response was more or less the same from everyone. Bordering from lacklustre, to ludicrous and downright lackadaisical. Serial blasts and 30 dead as invites for weekend DJ gigs were being sent out on Facebook. Is it just Delhi? Or is it India? Or the fact that we are a billion plus and have many to kill?

Daily after the primetime news, one American TV network (forgetting the name, will find out) flashes faces of American soldiers who are being killed daily in Iraq. No music, no sound effects, just pictures and names. Do we remember a single name -- without being related to him/them -- of the soldiers who died in the Kargil war? One boy went missing in Melbourne -- Indian child, adopted from Mumbai -- and it made headlines here. I am not too sure if we even have a complete database of missing people in India.

As I logged on to various websites to get more details on the bomb blasts, I came upon a slideshow on IBNLive.com. Just pictures of dead and injured with haphazard captions. Another game of hit counts without any thought or feeling. Not one site bothered with interviews or insight or even a post/piece that spoke about how or what people felt. No one seems to care and life goes on. But why don’t we care?

And what would we/you do if we wake up to our neighbourhood being bombed and tanks patrolling our streets? Will we stock up on food or will we take backups of our hard drives?

PS: Thanks Silvara! Guys n girls, read this and this as well.

September 4, 2008

So your boss is a bastard?

The Hindustan Times, published 4 September, 2008
Dislike, that six-lettered word

There are things we all
get peeved about, like
the bad boss and those
'unromantic men'. No
wonder there are
more blogs about them
than on things we like

There are some things in life that cause instant strife between people. Mention god, pornography or George Bush's IQ level at a party and you are guaranteed hours of entertainment. Thankfully though, there also some things that unite human beings.
No matter where you go, some things are common to all people. Like everyone remembers money that is owed to them. Or how anyone, before petting a dog they don't know will ask, "Does it bite?" Or how most people want to stay fit (or lose weight) without exercising. And no matter what the language, there are more blogs on broken relationships than happy ones.
As Paisana writes on Burlap Condoms, "If nothing else, a bad date always equals a great blog post." Paisana is one of the many female bloggers caught in the twilight zone of personal blogging: When singledom made interesting posts and a happy relationship doesn't leave much to blog (or bitch) about. However, she comes up with some gems (and truths) from her former single life. Like her don't-be-too-choosy advice for single women, "the guy you're looking for doesn't read romantic poetry and want to talk about your feelings all the time. I dated that guy. He was gay." Ouch.
After broken relationships, office gossip comes a close second as a common-unifying factor in the blogosphere. Everyone has hated their boss at some in their life and everyone has a funny office story to narrate. If you feel you're the only one working with mad people or not getting paid on time, Overheard in the Office is a good site to check out and feel better.
Some things are the same in offices the world over. Like having trained bullshit artistes for top management. Like this reader contribution about a meeting presided by the company owner trying to allay fears, "We are not a sinking ship! This company is worth $700,000. It's hard to sink a $700,000 ship!" That was before laying off half the company perhaps. Or for that matter the fact that personal assistants are globally stereotyped. If she's old, she has a grumpy husband (or none) and if she's pretty, she's sleeping with the boss.
Then there's Tits (yes, Tits) McGee who publishes Tits List and says she writes lists, cooks and "used to be a slut". She also proves that using 'tits', putting up a picture of breasts and writing f**k in the headline has the same reaction in most people: Curiosity. Amongst other things (read husband and inlaws), Tits gives her take on political news of the day. Oh to have a pair of breasts talking politics.