Earlier this year, I decided to attend The Big Traveling Potluck in southern California. I knew absolutely no one else who was attending. It took place in way more sunshine than my foggy San Francisco existence can now handle. I prefer solitude in my personal life. When it comes to interacting with people I would rather have one-to-one interactions or small groups of friends. Given that even at events where I know people, I’m likely to hang out at the periphery, this endeavor did not have the makings of a good idea. It was altogether so far out of my comfort zone, I would need a map to navigate my way back. But the event itself promised to be a good one to, focused on community, learning things others have to teach and I have to learn, and sharing a few meals in the process. I thought I might try it.
Our opportunities for self-assessment go down as we get older and are often tied to our jobs or our families, with little reflection on ourselves. This, for me, was a step in a series of attempts to do something that I didn’t have to do or wasn’t pushed along to try because of the time I am at in my life. To shake things up. There was no deliberation on what I hoped to achieve from it, except that I would be committing to doing something that I would normally shy away from.
It puzzled me to no end.
My best friend was a good student, good athlete, loved the arts, and was crazy about Neil Patrick Harris in Doogie Howser M.D. In short, she was a completely normal young teenage girl. But the way she ate her lunch was far from ordinary.
My sister and I lived close enough to school to go home at lunch-time. Most days mom would have a hot meal ready for us. There were some days though, when she was going to be out, she would let us take a packed lunch to school. I looked forward to those rare days because it meant I could spend more time with my friends. It also meant we could share lunches if we wanted to.
Some days I’d sit with a friend whose grandma brought her lunch to school for her everyday. I marvelled at the energy of that wonderful lady who was one of the spriest grannies I knew. (God bless her soul) She brought a hot lunch for both her grand-daughters and made me adore her even more when she let me share their little fried papads.
The day I first had dhansak is vividly clear in my mind. I was over at my best friend’s house to work on a project and her mother invited me to stay for lunch. I remember sitting down at the table with her mom deftly filling two plates and putting them in front of us. It looked like rice and dal which made me happy. Varan bhat is pretty much a perennial favourite of mine. But the dal was more the colour of sambar and the rice seemed to be brown rice. I took a bite. I remember my taste buds being going into overload with all sorts of flavour.
I took another bite and just couldn’t stop smiling. My friend’s mom asked me if anything was wrong and I told her this was one of the most wonderful things I had eaten. I remember this thoroughly amused her because dhansak is also considered funeral food. I asked my friend in a low voice that if this was Parsi funeral food, was their celebration food so good that people died in ecstasy eating it. My poor friend laughed so hard she almost choked.
I’ve eaten dhansak many times since then, each time with just as much enthusiasm. I knew the dish well-enough that I was quite surprised when Amey told me he was sure he had eaten it but had no memory of it. It’s one of the big reasons I bought My Bombay Kitchen. I felt as a lover of all things dal, it was essential that Amey taste this gem of its kind.
The holiday season is approaching fast. Diwali, my favourite festival is fast approaching. In India, this means the thorough cleaning of houses and frantic preparation of sweets in time for the first day of the festival of lights. In households everywhere, there are sweets being readied for the annual Diwali exchange, when neighbours send each other the best of the season along with plates full of good things. These freshly home-made sweets and snacks are also the traditional way to greet friends and family that drop in to wish you.
Every year while my mom prepared the sweet stuff, she also made traditional Maharashtrian poha chivda. If I was to try to define chivda, I’d call it a savoury rice based trail mix-type snack. Its main component is poha or flattened rice. You can find thick and thin varieties of poha. What you are looking for here is the thin variety. You can find this easily at your friendly neighbourhood Indian store. You will also find copra or dried coconut slices there. This is responsible for the characteristic flavour of chivda. I start with raw peanuts because they get imbued with the flavour of the garlic, coconut and spice better through the cooking process. Daliya or roasted chana dal brings its own unique nuttiness to the mixture.
Combine a hectic work schedule with an insane social life and you find yourself staring wide-eyed at the calendar wondering where April and most of May have gone. I’m thankful for both, but various things seem to have gathered momentum at the same time and it has taken considerable effort to stay ahead of it all rather than simply hang on desperately in fear of falling off. The time I’ve gotten to spend in my kitchen has been minimal which is such a shame, considering that this is the most enthusiastic time of year, produce-wise.
For us, there has been a lot of quick food or take-out on those few days we’ve been able to sink into the pleasures of staying in (very under-rated in my opinion). There have been a few quick tomato and cheese or peanut butter sandwiches while the bread lasted, or boiled eggs and toast (easily my favourite meal-in-a-hurry) while the eggs lasted. This one heavenly indulgent night was when I didn’t have anywhere to be and could make this potato vegetable which we ate with some rotis. That is the sad state of affairs these past weeks. Amey and I haven’t been getting in early enough to spend decent quality time at the markets. It is times like this when an intelligently stocked pantry can save your life.
Living in a small apartment means that you catch on pretty quick to what is cake and what is icing, metaphorically speaking. You learn very quickly that a hoarding complex or an over-sentimental attachment to stuff is a one-way ticket to madness. Everything at our place is based on turnover. So to have something new, you have to get rid of something old. We have achieved phenomenal success in applying this rule to practically everything except books and food ingredients. I’m having a harder time with the pantry then the library really, because in a broad sense, the entire apartment is a library. Thankfully, the same cannot be said of the pantry.