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!

Unlearning & Relearning

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Alvin Toffler

Learning is a complex process. I wish it were as simple as picking up a book reading it up, committing it to memory and regurgitating the stuff as and when needed. I mean, that’s what most of us were taught to do in school, isn’t it? And I must have done that well, going by my school grades.

It’s when one needs to use the knowledge that one realises that merely regurgitating the stuff doesn’t help. At some level that knowledge has to enable decision and action. And hopefully evaluation and reflection.

5 years ago when it was time for my daughter to leave for university, we decided to do a campus trip to survey three institutions she had to choose between. The first stop was the Hyderabad campus of BITS Pilani. A wonderful Biology Professor took us around the 240 acre campus ensuring that we saw everything. And she was game to take any questions. In the course of our conversation, we discussed the no attendance requirement that was special of BITS. She smiles and said that this was something that caused a great deal of difficulty to the first years. “ you know, the majority come here from having spent their class XI& XII cooped up for 12 hrs a day in residential coaching institutions. The combination of a free campus, no minimum attendance requirement and a good internet connection across the campus and the students , especially the boys spend their nights competing in computer games across the inter hostel LAN network. Then they wake up late, miss classes and there’s tragedy at the end of the year!” She then said” These coaching classes only teach them tricks to solve entrance exam problems rather than actual concept, so we are faced with needing to coax them to come to class plus unlearn their previous methods and start developing active learning skills”.

Unlearn- yes, I liked that word. In fact I remembered using it a decade prior when I was writing my reflective diary as part of my Specialist Registrar Training program.

In late 1996, appearing for my first interview for the post of an SHO in Paediatrics ( equivalent to first year MD Postgraduate in India) , I wrote my first CV. I saw the headings my hubby had used to draft his ( and he got the job, so it must be ok!) and used the same template. One of the headings was Procedures that I had performed. Since I had already completed Paediatric Postgraduate training in India , I compiled a LONG list of procedures I had doubtless performed . Apart from venous access, both peripheral and umbilical ( newborn) , venous cut- down, there were a good number of biopsies- lung , liver, bone marrow, kidney, then pericardial aspiration, Intercostal tube insertion, and more. While I could intubate a newborn on the resuscitaire, my knowledge of elective planned intubation was scant, ventilation was nil and central venous access nonexistent. The two very English consultants who were interviewing literally had their eyes popping out of their heads when they read of my prowess! I did get the job. It was a District General Hospital with an almost tertiary level neonatal unit and General Paediatrics sans many paediatric specialties. And from my first day onwards, I started developing significant insight into what I knew , what my limitations were etc. Over the many years and the very many experiences, I realised the importance of stratifying care to primary, secondary and tertiary and training to appropriate levels. Therefore, a General Paediatrician really didn’t need to develop procedural skills beyond venous access, excellent resuscitation skills and neonatal ventilation skills . The numerous biopsies I had learnt to do need not be learnt at that level, but at the tertiary level. I realised that there was much more to know than just doing a bone marrow or liver biopsy or renal biospy- knowing when they were required , and referring them to experts for doing them made more sense because they could understand the report and how to act on it the best. But every Paediatric trainee needs to be able to interpret a clinical scenario enough to keep the patient safe and whether they can continue to manage them or they would benefit from being referred on. The onus was first of all to be a Safe Doctor , rather than a multitasker.

There was a lot I had to unlearn to be able to learn and progress. And modifying that CV especially that Procedure list was one of the first things I did!

I had to pick up so many new concepts- of audit cycles, recording followup , watch and learn patient counseling , how to put across a clinical case scenario in a meaningful referral and hold a dialogue with tertiary centres and from tertiary centres too. The importance of planned professional critical care retrieval and transport can make to survival outcomes in critically ill children. Like most Paediatricians I too romanticised over becoming a Neonatologist / Paediatric Intensivist. One experience with a 14 hour stabilisation of a neonate with brittle oxygenation due to Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension( a favourite terminal diagnosis in Tamil movies often made by looking at a CXR or feeling the pulse) , and a few more very skittish situations told me that I did not fancy sacrificing sleepless nights into my 50’s and 60’s, so I sought other specialties.

The other major insight was how much one could learn on the job. My mentor in Paediatric Rheumatology told me on my very first day that there was plenty of opportunity to learn in the department but my learning would be proportionate to how much effort I put into it. And that was so true. Infact , I could have learned much much more than I did! We often had seated ward rounds in a closed room with coffee where patients were discussed at length – possibilities and plans threshed threadbare, so that the actual physical round was literally for bedside decisions and communicating to the families. These meetings were steep learning curves for me as well as the multidisciplinary meetings in every tertiary specialty I worked in. There was one patient with Systemic Onset JIA who was so difficult to treat we considered referring her for a bone marrow transplant. The referral itself had a set structure and finally came up to a 45 page document and at the end of preparing it, the amount I had learnt was phenomenal.

There was no theory assessment, no viva but the annual SpR assessment from the deanery looking at our own account of our progress made and our educational supervisor’s assessment was quite a gruelling experience!

It showed me truly how designing training needs to fit the future professional role is really important. If such planning had existed in India much earlier, tertiary Paediatric specialties would have come into existence much earlier too. For this however , previous set concepts about the robustness and greatness of our training do need to be unlearned first. Awareness of the importance of recognising ones own limitations and seeking help and cross consults with appropriate specialists is truly important to the end user – the patient! And finally , to realise that the end of training only signifies the beginning of experiential learning – another steep learning curve. My husband recounts how the day he passed his MS Orthopedics exam, the examiner shook his hand and said – “Congratulations, your real learning starts now! “

As I write this, it’s now the time for my son to move on to college and we hope he gets into a program that will build and enrich his critical thinking skills . He will of course have to go through considerable unlearning in the process!

The mind is slow to unlearn what it learnt early.

Seneca the Elder