“Sandhye Kanneerithenthe sandhye
Snehamayee kezhukayaano nee
Nin mukhom pol nomparam pol
Nilppoo rajanigandhi”

Radha woke up early in the morning and was scrolling her FB posts when she saw a video of a friend singing this . A bitter sweet song. A song from the Malayalam movie Madanolsavam which was a big hit in the late 70’s.
And all the memories came back. Another summer holiday in Kerala . They came each year by train- a 3 day journey which was an epic in itself with the packing of food for each meal, the fighting for window seats in the day and top berth are night , soaking in the changing landscape, changing vendors and changing languages as the train chugged through the 3000 odd kilometers to our destination. The excitement when the early morning hours on the final day brought in the dense green vegetation of Kerala, the swaying coconut and banana palms and the sloping tile roofs and how they would count the stations till Trichur came. Where they got down and 3 smelly ragamuffins they lumped into the taxi with their parents to their grandparents home in Ambaloor where they would spend 2 glorious months until schools reopened in Delhi again. And all the cousins came and it was basically non stop games paused by mealtimes until it was time to sleep.
Sandhya was their distant cousin who lived next door. Radha remembered that she had a younger sister called Mala. Sandhya was her age though and they spent a lot of time together. She remembered how she would take misshapen hangers from the cupboard and run around in a pretend sale mode – “ Hanger- angeray “ And how they used to be inseparable for 4-5 years of those summer holidays till life and routines changed . That was the year Madanolsavam released and they were 10 year olds. Sandhya had seen it 3 times and knew every single dialogue , could narrate it word & description perfect. Even if Radha had not seen it, she knew all about the movie, the dresses Zarina Wahab wore , Kamahassan’s expressions and she cried along with her at the end when she described the tear jerking final scene. The radio station frequently played the songs and “Sandhyae kaneerinthinte Sandhyae” was a favourite . They listened, they sang and cried in unison. That song, that was a special bond .
The years rolled by. Radha became a doctor, moved and lived abroad. Her grandparents were no more and their house was sold and all the multitudes of uncles and aunties and cousins who all seemed to fit in it in those days were spread around the globe. It was more than decades they had last met.
She had last heard about her 5 years ago. On a visit home , her mother had told her that Sandhya had become a nurse, was married and settled in the Gulf countries with her husband. She had 2 children- they must be the age of yours , she said. Her mother had heard that her husband hadn’t been very well, but had little other information. Mala had been a sickly child who passed away before she finished school. She looked her up on FB- she did have a page but seemed to be a very infrequent visitor, so infrequent that her friend request was left unacknowledged. The profile pic showed a middle aged lady , quite slim , a rather sober expression along with her husband and children . She looked quite different too.
The next trip home she decides that she must track her down. And after landing in Trivandrum where her parents had moved to from Delhi, she got in touch with an uncle and aunt who had remained in the native place.
“ So how is Sandhya? “ she asked . Her aunt went strangely silent. She probed once again” How is Sandhya”?
Her aunt said- “Her husband was unwell – he had some form of recurring cancer requiring a lot of treatment . He came back and was living in his parents’ home. She stayed in the Gulf working to support his treatment and the children’s education . Things were getting tougher and the bills were getting steeper. Then one day she came with the children- admitted them in local schools such that they could stay with her parents and go to school. Then she took them to her husband’s place and they all spent a week together. I had met her that time. She seemed happy and jovial amidst all her problems. She went back to her job. A week later, we got the news that she had jumped off the roof of her apartment . She left a letter to state that she was giving up”. Her aunt paused “ And her husband also passed away a few months later”.
Radha remembered a strong sense of remorse that day. The finiteness of a childhood friendship- despite the closeness when they were thrown together- they were still just ships who had passed together at night. United by one night sky and it’s stars . Did she ever think of her, Radha wondered- if she had been accessible would she have turned to her for help? Was it fair that life should be all oddballs for some?
Her friend on FB was still crooning “Sandhyae “ . Unbidden, the tears fell. A 10 year old girl’s recount of how hopeless and irreconcilable a terminal disease must seem.
“Nin mukham pol, nonparam pol, nilppu rajanigandhi”

Of sambar and more

Attending a CME in Perinthalmanna today, the glaring ratio of 2: everybody else in the vegetarian to non-vegetarian food halls got me chatting with 50% of the vegetarians!!

This young man has also passed through my favourite eschelons of JIPMER and he most interestingly had a lot of good things to say about the food in the canteen.

That got me thinking- down the memory lane. No, am not talking about the mess food- the diarrhoeal dal or the WMD’s* aka idlis etc etc.

The JIPMER canteen which used to be this pleasant hall en route from hostels to the hospital. Where one paid for tokens in the booth outside and then went in to sit at those long tables after collecting one’s choice.

They had some very unusual and popular combinations.

Puri and sambar- crisp small pooris, the size of small applams, drowned in the same sambar ( thick homogeneous sambar of mostly small onions and tomatoes) that was served with idlis. 7 on a plate, every scrumptious mouthful was worth the caloric load in joy.

Idlis, upma dosa etc were also available, but the poori was king

Except on Saturday- when Pongal took over. Even today, if I a awake in the middle of the night and I want to think happy thoughts, I remember that Pongal. Served in lump, the lingering flavour of ghee along with a thick coconut chutney and the same sambar and for a little extra, a vada . Pongal finished fast- sometimes by 7.55 am( that was when we came to the canteen for breakfast before 8 am class) and it left you feeling that your day has started well.

Mid-morning, most snacks were available, but the cabbage vada- a humongous specimen literally pipped the locally made palgova or milk cake. They gave you accompaniments, but it was best by itself.

The standard lunch meal was just that- a standard lunch meal, but the lemon rice, tamarind rice, tomato rice and curd rice- they were the real attractions. Again, on Saturdays- the lunch line started even before 12, because of the special- the vegetable biriyani. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the fragrance, see the golden brown colour and the undeniable flavour. The fried onions garnished on top. The line was long and silent, people intent  only for their solitary goal- to get that biriyani. And the steady burps that drew jealous looks when the triumphant emerged out.

And when you came for ice-cream, the guy at the counter rattled of the options- Venilla, pista, sacklate,buttercrotch

Yes, we did have good canteen food. Is it still the same?

*Weapons of mass destruction

The Curry Leaf Chronicles

It must have been close to lunchtime on a Sunday in the UK winter. The phone rang and I picked it up- it was a time when the cordless handset of the landline gave one the much needed portability amidst daily chores.

“Suma” came her distressed voice “ my fish curry is ruined”. It was a close friend P and true to her native origins ,rice with an angrily spicy red fish curry was her comfort food. On the weekdays she made do with the cardboard sandwiches in their triangular plastic cartons , but the weekend was for satisfying the cravings of the soul. I made the right pacifying noises “ Why, what happened?”. It was mystifying to me because she was simply so good at that curry even if she didn’t have the authentic clay pot to make it in .

“Oh, I got cheated at the Indian store . He sold me fake curry leaves. There’s simply no aroma whatsoever . Is there anything else you can add for that flavour “?

I thought hard- nothing came to my mind. No tricks, no tips , nothing.

“ Sorry” I said- “ Nothing comes to my mind. They are truly irreplaceable . Never mind, your curry will still be good”. The phone call ended there but left me pondering.

Green gold was what we called it those days. In a cold country far away from one’s tropical home, the South Indian palate depended on a few things for authenticity. Chillies , yes. Tamarind, in Kerala we had a different souring agent too . But if there was that single item, which gave aroma & flavour , this was it. It floated in our gravy, it stood apart in a crisp tadka , it added that flavourful crunch to fried dishes , it powdered into chutneys. It is that unique yet ubiquitous culinary signature of South Indian cuisine.One took it for granted, tossed it away , uneaten but if it was missing – one knew. It just wasn’t the same. And nothing else could do its job.

Circa 1996. The first home in UK. Learning to cook and naturally veering towards the familiar cuisine of the homeland. In the city of Norwich, supplies were scarce. A lone Indian shop that mostly had faded okra, mottling dals and occasionally- packets of dry curry leaves. Dry curry leaves. My heart plunged into despair when I realised it was that or Nothing! And they were pricey too( ok I was at that point when one converted everything into Rs) . So I went home and added them into my sambar and my curries and we pretended they were great. Till we made the first outing to Leicester where fresh ones were available. At a price, of course. That’s when I started calling them as green gold. I bought a few packets and froze them. I zealously used them frugally since I didn’t know when the next trip to Leicester would be. Down to the last leaf!

One definitely remembered how little they were valued back home. Little children would scamper to my in-laws home in Vizag to ask for curry leaves and my MIL would give them a generous bough from one of her many thriving trees. If your vegetable vendor was short of change he just pressed a big bunch of curry leaves in the bag in lieu.

Trips to India or visitors from India knew to bring fresh curry leaves that one can freeze. It was absolutely the last item to be packed and had to be packed carefully so that ones clothes didn’t absorb the aroma🤭.

Several of my friends did try to grow Murraya koenegi in the UK. But this tropical lady is mighty capricious. She thrives in the summer but there was no one in my social circle who could persuade her to brave the winter even cosseting her in their beautiful sun kissed conservatories , near the gas heater etc. She demanded the hot sultry tropical sun, no less.

Coming back to India, settling down in a new house one of the first to be planted in my backyard was a curry leaf plant! Superstition goes that one mustn’t deliberately plant one , it brings bad luck apparently. Well, mine was deliberate and though it’s a straggly fellow , there’s another right across the fence in my unoccupied neighbour’s house and mine has now had a thriving baby as well…….,

As I carelessly throw handfuls of curry leaves into my cooking , I sometimes recall the days of hoarding , careful handling and rationing of the green gold in my kitchen. Today, Iam preening amongst plenty

Siblings across the seas- The Sourdough Sistahs

Sometimes, beautiful beginnings start on Facebook. A post on some tasty soup soon triggered a discussion on bread, home baking and the limitations of elevating atta to a soft and spongy wholemeal loaf.

It was an animated discussion with many joining in , but that sent my good friend Shyamu aka Shyam Kishan from Dallas into investigative mode and before you know it- He got bitten by the sourdough bug.

Sourdough, if you must know was the earliest form of leavening bread. In days before baking powder or yeast, when man learnt to mill grain into flour, it looks like woman created a live culture with flour and water ( and a lot of patience) and got the bread to rise. Infact the origin is supposed to be a serendipitous discovery of a time when bread dough got accidentally left out and started fermenting by itself with better tasting bread!

The early Californian miners were called sourdoughs because they carried their starters in jars with them to bake their breads as they travelled. It’s even reputed that Alaskan miners hugged their sourdough starter jars when they slept for the warmth !

Shyam was sold and he literally- Got Started! A tall jar identified , flour and water in equal proportions whisked into the jar and the wait began – for bubbles ! She bubbled and thus Esmeralda was born( every self respecting sourdough has a name). So , as Esme became 2 days old with a hope of making it , he sent me this exciting post about her and that got me thinking about company for Esme!

Iam inherently a shortcut person- if something can be done with the same result but easier , I don’t mind trying it. Unlike many of the sourdough fanatics, am not an anti- yeaster- I just wanted to see if sourdough could be the ingredient that could work our Indian atta into a nice crusty yet spongy loaf. And there’s always the lure of creating this life that could ensure a whole spectrum of wholesome breads! And that’s how I decided to create Candida!

Candida was born at 10 pm on 21/5/2020 and she showed signs of life by the morning. She lived in a jar with a seal that had a past life as a miller jar of a mixie and she bubbles better if a shopping bag covered her up completely. She starting rising slowly on Day 3/4 and volumising by Day 5. On Day 3 , I used her discard to make wholemeal naans , which hopefully will be better leavened the next time. Every morning I look at her admiring her bubbly frothy fermented stink with fond affection of a mother who smiles proudly when her newborn passes wind! Ah – is that skin on top? Is that the beginning of hooch that I see- dear me , she needs feeding pronto! Today on Day 5 I used her discard to make dinner rolls for soup . She failed the starter test of floating in water plus I wanted it to be done in hours, so I decided to add a little bit of yeast too . The dough was a messy affair , but in the end 12 proud crusty spongy rolls graced the dinner table. Another milestone of note in that she’s risen in volume – to nearly double . That’s a very good prognostic sign for a starter. Esme I note is doubling too and will be subjected to her first challenge of leavening her first loaf today .

Shyam – with surgical precision has been weighing and replacing discard with measured volumes of flour and water , whereas I’ve been my usual approximate self – using wheat ground to flour in my mixie, maida and atta according to fancy and discards and feeds measured in volume than weight ( none of my kitchen scales are working) . And Esmeralda has come up with a fab loaf with her discard!

The world of sourdough- appears limitless and infinite. There’s so much to learn , so much to experience. When will I bake my first completely yeast less loaf? Will I ever buy bread again? Is this the answer to bake wholemeal bread from Indian atta?

As I watch this new baby grow, there are so many questions- How will they pan out in the long term- these siblings from across the seas – the two sour pusses – Esmeralda & Candida – how many breads and baps and other baked treasures will they raise?

Will I too join the sourdough club?

West or East

Sourdough beats Yeast!