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Archive for the ‘reflections’ Category

Each time I re-visit Philadelphia, I fall deeper in love with the city. It’s because the city does something very right, something I wish more cities in the US did: Philadelphia celebrates its past with an almost reverent abandon while it has its feet firmly planted in its present, all the while focusing a steady gaze at its future.

Here’s a brief chronicle of the impressions and memories I gathered the few times I’ve been in the city.

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If you want to explore the different facets and histories of a city, there’s no better way than to go directly to its honest (and unvarnished) roots. And how do you do that?

  • By seeking out the varied and mouth-watering local produce and homemade goodies in its farmers’ market(s)
  • Or walking through the hallways of its long-standing monuments or along the well-worn cobbled streets in its residents’ shoes (or in their ancestors’ attire, as the case may be 😊)
  • Or adding your own colors (not literally, of course) to the murals of its walls that bear a silent and detached testimony to the changing times and mores
  • Or delighting in the hidden gardens you happen upon, which you didn’t know existed
  • Or…the best avenue yet: losing yourself in its quaint independent bookstores bursting at their seams with treasured books. I’ve lost my heart to these rare gems of bookstores at first sight and will definitely re-visit them whenever I’m in their neighborhoods

I look forward to adding more pages to my continued discovery of this wonderful city.

How do you make friends with a new city? Please share!

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There’s no better place for quiet reflection and rumination than by the seaside.

Hope y’all are having a great summer, too!

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I’m currently on a culinary pilgrimage, and a darn fascinating one at that. Here’s Part 1 of my quest.

Without further ado, here’s the recipe to the world’s oldest curry. I extrapolated it from this video and adjusted it slightly to my own taste. That’s the best thing about Indian cuisine in all its regional variations: with a little imagination, it’s easy and fun to customize recipes to your liking.

Ingredients:Ingredients-1

  1. Small purple eggplants (the smaller the better for taste), slit: 7
  2. Unripe mango, peeled and flesh chopped into small pieces: 1
  3. Ginger: an inch-sized cube, peeled and grated
  4. Sesame oil: 2 tbsp
  5. Cumin: 1 tsp
  6. Turmeric: 1 tsp
  7. Sugar (used instead of sugarcane powder): 1 tbsp
  8. Salt: to taste

Process:

  1. Add oil to a heated pan, then add ginger, cumin and turmeric to it. Let simmer for a minute, or until the spices give out their aroma.Cooking-Curry
  2. Add the eggplants and turn them over every few minutes until they’re roasted on all sides.
  3. Add the chopped mango, sugar and salt. At this point, you might need to add about ¼ cup of water to help the eggplants cook. Cover the pan with a lid so the steam can do its magic.
  4. Within about 10 minutes or so, your curry is ready.

The recipe is rather simple, as prototypes tend to be, but it’s unbelievably delicious. No wonder it has sustained over the millennia without major upgrades or changes—it bears the hallmarks of a basic preparation from an average Indian home of today:

  • Locally grown/procured vegetables
  • Vegetables in season
  • Basic spices, each chosen with care for not only taste but their beneficial effects on health
  • Cooked with minimal fuss with the most scrumptious and healthy results

Anything else added to this recipe (like chillies, curry leaves, sliced onions etc., which are later discoveries or imports to India) is an embellishment to bring out an appealing variation. There’s no harm in this, because where’s progress without experimentation, right?

I would’ve loved to make the curry in a copper or earthenware pot for authenticity, but because I didn’t have either handy, I chose to go with a cast iron pan (although iron wasn’t available during the Indus period).

Depending on their socio-economic status, sections of the Harappan society would’ve probably used copper cooking utensils, while those who couldn’t afford copper would’ve gone with baked earthenware pots.Rice&Curry

I also cooked brown rice to be served with the curry as Harappans would’ve done. Okay, there are two schools of experts when it comes to domesticated rice and Indus Valley. One school believes that the people of the Indus Valley cultivated rice as a staple food grain and the other (the minority) doesn’t think so. Given this situation, I did what any self-respecting enthusiast does: aligned myself with the school that complies with my own beliefs. (I mean, how can I imagine an Indian subcontinent without rice as a staple?) The alternative carbs at a Harappan home would’ve been wheat/millet flatbread or barley porridge.

So, there you have it, my journey to the heart of an Indus home: its kitchen.

Wouldn’t you like to give this recipe a try? I’d love to hear about your experience, if you do.

For a different take on this curry and its history, read Ambika Sambasivan’s Cooking Up a 4,000-year-old Curry. While there, be sure to check out and support Yali Books’s commendable efforts at bringing to life books that highlight South Asian cultures.

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I have always loved making connections in my day-to-day life to traditions and routines I’d read about in a history book or heard as a child from my great-grandmother’s stories (as so much of history and tradition is still passed down from one generation to the next in India). I appreciate a deep sense of preservation and kinship in the knowledge that despite all the technological advances, we, as humans today, aren’t at our core that removed from our earliest ancestors. This is also why I explore predominantly historical themes in my writing.

So, when I received a link recently from Ambika Sambasivan, an advocate of South Asian cultures at Yali Books, inviting me to try out an experience, my curiosity was piqued. I clicked the BBC News link open: it was a video explaining how to cook a curry that was routinely made over 4,000 years ago in the kitchens of the Indus Valley homes. I almost swooned from excitement.

See, ever since I was a young child, the Indus Valley Civilization (or Harappan Culture as it’s also called) that flourished over 4,000 years ago in the Indian subcontinent fascinated me no end. Heck, I even wrote a full-length novel set in the Indus city of Mohenjo-Daro during the time period that the civilization was at its peak.

What is this Indus Valley Culture, you ask?

In simplified terms, the Indus Culture was a Bronze-age civilization (3300 – 1300 BCE) that spread over a vast area of what is today northeast Afghanistan to Pakistan and northwest India. The culture flourished in the fertile basin of the Sindhu River (whose name has morphed into Indus River in modern times) and other monsoon-fed rivers. The culture was highly evolved, and its people are noted for pioneering urban planning—cities that had elaborate drainage systems and one and two-story buildings made of baked-bricks!—and technology for metallurgy and sustained farming among other things.

Unfortunately, compared to how long the civilization thrived, and how successful it had been, we know very little about the culture, religion and day-to-day lives of the Indus people.

During my extensive research for the novel, I learned that the Harappans cultivated, and perhaps exported, grains such as wheat, barley and rice; fruits such as melons, dates and grapes; and produce like sesame, green peas, ginger, garlic and turmeric. However, I had no idea that they knew of aubergines (eggplants) until I watched this BBC video.

And, what’s more, the video gifts us with the recipe for the world’s oldest proto-curry (isn’t that a brilliant word?). Two scientists unearthed this recipe, by use of starch analysis, from the pot shards found at one of the Harappan excavations near the modern-day Delhi. Thank you, Science!

I can imagine a Harappan man or a woman hunched over a cooking fire, fanning the embers to adjust the heat-level, and roasting the eggplants in sesame oil to perfection. This recipe—because food transcends time and place, and nothing draws people together quite like food does—symbolizes the tenuous, yet in its own way tenacious, connection I have with my forebears from so long ago. Just the fact that I can follow the recipe to the last detail and attempt to experience even the tiniest bit of their daily routines fills me with awe and hope.

Because, to me, history and traditions are less about rigid customs and more about deepening ties and understanding.

I’m off, in search of ingredients for the world’s oldest-known curry. I’m going to post here my observations from this compelling exercise of recreating the proto-curry next week. Hope to see you all soon!

P.S: Did you know that “curry” might not even be an original Indian word, at least in the context it’s globally used? Indians don’t necessarily apply that word for their preparations unless they’re using it in a Western/larger-audience context. There are several theories as to what actually constitutes a curry and who originally coined that word. Another post for another day!

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Exotic is as exotic does.

I never really understood what that adage actually meant. Is it saying that people are labeled exotic because they have strange habits? Then how about those so-called exotic places? Which of their habits have led to them being tagged alluring?

How many of you, who have immigrated to America, have heard your accent or looks or even opinions called exotic at least once in your lifetime? Do I see heads nodding vigorously? And, if I’m not wrong, most of those times that comment has been meant kindly or even as a compliment.

Was it truly a compliment, though?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes Exotic as:

: very different, strange, or unusual

: of a plant or animal: not living or growing naturally in a particular area: from another part of the world

How does being born with almond-shaped eyes (one of the trite descriptions for Asian-looking eyes) automatically make you strange? Especially in those cases where generations of your family have lived in America, which makes you as native to this country as the next person?

How does that hint of an accent that remains in your speech, even after you have lived in the U.S. for 20+ years, because you speak more than one language make you very different?

Please let me make the distinction here that someone remarking on your accent or ethnicity is not in and of itself a bad thing—this is how we make connections, acknowledge that each of us is an individual and learn about each other. But commenting on the differences in a tone of condescension or with the intention of labeling as “other” is not recommended.

Most of the cultures that the West likes to call exotic have flourished in their parts of the world for thousands of years. They had to have lifestyles and routines that are somewhat more grounded, and in keeping with the times, than unusual to have been around for that long. (For instance, yes, it has been a decade or two since India has grudgingly given up elephants as a mode of transportation in favor of those smaller mechanical contraptions called cars. And, members of The Snake Charmers Association of India, after several rounds of negotiations, have finally agreed to openly charm their snakes only on national holidays. So, World, please feel free to move on to other clichés about India!)

Also, has anyone who’s tagging another person exotic ever stopped to consider that he/she might be exactly as strange to the other person? Probably not.

To summarize, exotic, even if meant kindly, is a label. And as with any label, it’s limiting. It stops the labeled in their tracks because they have been boxed. Because it indicates that the labeler—for lack of a better word—is refusing to look beyond the other person’s clothes, habits or preferences that are dissimilar to the labeler’s own.

If you see someone who’s a bit different from you, why not frankly share an interesting tidbit about yourself first and then invite her to share something about her? Then stand back with an open mind and let the ensuing discussion lead you in the direction it wants to head.

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Ugadi, one of India’s New Year festivals, falls on Saturday, March 21st, this year.

Here’s to novel experiences, shared moments, countless possibilities!

Originally posted on March 22, 2012

“Aren’t all beginnings new?” asks one character of another in a book I read recently.

I guess they are and they aren’t, depending on how you look at it.

What better season than spring to contemplate beginnings, old and new? Tuesday the 20th of March marked the Spring or Vernal Equinox in the northern hemisphere of the Earth: essentially, the first day of spring season.

All around me I see signs of new life: pale green leaves unfurling, bulbs pushing shoots out of rain-soaked earth, birds shedding downy winter coats, the skies newly scrubbed and polished.

Most cultures around the world celebrate the arrival of spring in different ways. Where I come from—the southeastern part of India, where people follow a lunar calendar for observing religious days—spring means a fresh start. We usher in the season with a New Year’s festival called Ugadi (the word translates to “Beginning of a new age/era”).

Hinduism believes that a human life is full only if it experiences the gamut of emotions in the right proportions. On Ugadi, everyone—child and adult alike—begins his/her day by eating a mixture or chutney made of six ingredients:

  • Jaggery, (similar to brown sugar, made from sugar cane) which is sweet, signifies happiness
  • Bitter neem flower petals stand in for sorrow
  • Thinly sliced hot, green peppers remind us of anger
  • Savory salt takes the place of fear
  • Tamarind paste (which is sour) marks revulsion or hatred
  • Tangy pieces of unripe mango emphasize surprises

This chutney—a delicious explosion of bold flavors and textures—essentially is a reminder that life is a fusion of experiences. This tradition encourages everyone to accept what is doled out to him/her in life with equanimity.

Tomorrow, which is whenUgadi is celebrated this year, I intend to begin my day with a few spoonfuls of this chutney.

Do you celebrate the beginning of spring or the end of winter? If yes, please share the details with us!

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I grew up in India immersing myself in the English language almost as much as I did my mother tongue. Although English was termed my second language in school, and later when I came to the US I was told I was a non-native speaker of English, the language never felt secondary or alien to me.

I’ve been told several times in the past two decades here in the US that I have a lilting cadence to my English speech that makes it exotic. I never heard my accent nor noticed the variations in the way I modulated certain sounds and syllables. I was too busy learning the American idioms and adding new vocabulary to my repertoire.

Until recently, that is. A few months ago, I observed a certain shift to my listening. It suddenly dawned on me why I say some words differently than a native English speaker in the US. It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that I learned speaking English in India, which although retains few traces of the British English after all these years, still favors the British turn of phrase and pronunciation.

It has everything to do with the fact that my mother tongue, Telugu, is a non-phonetic language. That means, unlike in English, what you see written on the page is exactly how you pronounce the words. There are no two ways of saying the same word. Telugu has over 50+ letters in its alphabet, so there’s no chance for confusion. The same is true with most Indian languages.

In an Indian language, not all words have emphatic syllables in them. If you need a particular syllable in a word to be stressed harder, then you write it a certain way that leaves no doubt of the pronunciation. Not so in English.

Each and every word in English has at least one syllable that is emphasized in speech, even if it’s a one-syllable word like “a.” The syllable you choose to emphasize, the way you articulate it, the inflection you place on the sound… all these figure into your accent.

I realized that, as a native speaker of Indian languages, I sometimes neglect to enunciate a certain syllable in an English word because I don’t see the stress highlighted in the written word. For instance, take the word banana. The middle syllable na is stressed harder and stretched longer than the rest but it looks in writing as do the rest of the syllables. The word is not spelled bannaana to focus the stress. No book or teacher can teach this; it’s a matter of listening and emulating.

After this epiphany, I’m listening to spoken English with keener ears. Words and sounds that were mundane before reveal new personalities and interesting facets to me at every turn.  My ears perk up at once-familiar words that now tease me with a host of possibilities.

Does this mean I’m going to work at losing my “accent?” No, because that modulation is part of who I am. Will I stop confusing the heck out of my children by pronouncing “year” as “ear” because I forget to accentuate the beginning “ya” sound? Probably not.

I am, however, very much looking forward to this phase of my relationship with the English language. A phase where I get to acquaint myself with it all over again.

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