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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

Change.

A hankering for change is what people claim got us into the situation in which we are today in the US. BUT that’s not what I’m going to discuss now, not in this post anyway.

Instead, I want to highlight a positive concept which is on the other end of the spectrum from change: Constancy. Steadfastness. Permanence.

This is the concept that comes to one’s mind when they mull over how India has dealt with foreign cultures that have found themselves on its shores through invasion or seeking refuge. India is known for its practice of the tenet “live, and let live.” So it has assimilated the non-native cultures into its own over the millennia, thereby resulting in its maddeningly and gorgeously diverse civilization.

This absorption and amalgamation can be evidenced not only in India’s long and varied history but also in its everyday food scene today. These are the aspects I explore often in my writing both here at the blog and in my novels. And I plan to dig deeper into these in my future posts.

Until then, I’ll leave you all with pictures of Indian food.

Why? Because pictures are fun, and pictures of food are even more fun. But mostly because the most accessible route to experiencing a culture is through its food.

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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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Hyderabad — née Bhagyanagaram, the City of Fortunes — has an eclectic personality you’d be hard put to find elsewhere.

Larger-than-life statues of Lord Shiva and his consort, Goddess Parvathi. The size of the people standing at the base of this sculpture should give you some idea of its magnitude

Architecture:

In this city, the ancient Hindu architecture and the architecture influenced by the Islamic culture have jostled each other over the centuries and ultimately settled down into their own grooves. 

Architecture influenced by the Hindu religion is known for its use of color and sculptures. It, in fact, revels in the portrayal of larger-than-life forms of Gods, Goddesses, humans, and animals and their role in the mythological stories. No Hindu temple is considered complete without its share of intricate carvings and murals all along its walls.

A mosque

Diametrically opposite to this, architecture influenced by the Islamic culture favors tall towers and huge domes. Engravings on the walls depict austere, yet beautiful, geometric and freehand patterns, since Islam forbids depiction of humans in any shape or form.

It is quite common in this city to come upon a temple with its intricately sculpted images painted in riotous colors just around the corner from a solemn mosque, with its towering turrets and domes.

Sculptures on the face of a Hindu temple

 

Carvings on the walls of a mosque

Clothes:

You can’t leave Hyderabad without losing yourself in some shopping, especially for women’s clothing. It is one of the centers in modern India for eye-catching designs, colors, and fashions in ethnic wear.

Women in Saris

A six-yard sari (pronounced phonetically as: saa-ree), a timeless example of “less is more” in terms of exposure of skin, used to be the original choice of apparel for the majority of women in India. Unfortunately, it is not the most convenient of fashions, owing to its several layers that hinder free movement and also the amount of time and skill required to drape it in the proper style. As a result, a sari is losing its popularity as an everyday wear among the modern and younger generations. It has become just one ethnic choice among many, depending on the occasion and time and place.

A chudidar or a Punjabi Suit (a style that is the descendant of the traditions and

Punjabi Suit

 trends from parts of northern India mixed with those of the Muslim culture) is the most usual style of choice among women in all of India now. It is easy to wear, cheaper than a sari (usually) and stands up to the busy and demanding life of today’s woman.

Hyderabad has brought the trends from North-and-South and Hindu-and-Muslim cultures together and come up with a chic — yet ethnic – and traditional — yet immensely convenient — wear for women.

I realized on this trip that, these days in shops, there are as many style choices in chudidars as there are stars in the sky. (Okay, may be an exaggeration, but only slightly so.) They come in several prices ranging anywhere from $10/- a set all the way up to hundreds of dollars. Depending on the time, money, and energy you are willing to spend, you will find a style to suit any occasion, however big or small.

Food:

Dosa with Chutney, Sambhar, and a cup of piping hot coffee

The food in Hyderabad reflects the marrying of not only the two major religions of the region, but also several cultures from around the country (and beyond).

From roadside food vendors’ carts on the streets to small cafés on the curbside (with names like Irani café or Punjabi Dhabha) to posh five-star hotels, each carries a menu that can only be described as a delightful medley of tastes and flavors.

On the same menu, you see items such as: Hyderabadi Biryani, Gosht ka Salan, and Khubani ka Mitha that are examples of the gastronomic gems that are born of the Hyderabadi Muslim culture, followed by true South Indian specialties such as: Dosa-Chutney-Sambhar, Chicken Korma, and Payasam, with Indian-Chinese items like: Chicken 65, Chilly Chicken, and Hakka Noodles nipping closely at their heels, and Aloo Parantha, Kheema Naan, and Ras Malai, mouth-watering delicacies from various regions of North India, not too far behind. (See below for translation/explanation of the names of each of the dishes mentioned here, if you’re interested :-).)

Gosht ka Salan

Language:

The same ease and acceptance exists in their general outlook on life among the city’s populace. Telugu, Hindi, English, and Urdu — all with an accent/dialect unique to the region – are only a few of the languages you hear exchanged on an average day in Hyderabad.

For all its journey full-speed ahead into the 21st century and its willing immersion into true globalization – which has brought materialism and dwindling ethics and values with it, unfortunately – Hyderabad (and all of India, for that matter) still retains a flavor, an other-worldliness if you will, on a day-today basis that dates back to centuries of tradition and culture.

— ** —

Glossary:

Hyderabadi Biryani: Fried rice/Pilaf using chicken or mutton cooked in a style unique to Hyderabad.

Gosht ka Salan: A spicy curry of goat or lamb.

Khubani ka Mitha: Khubani is Urdu for apricots. This is a dessert consisting of dried apricots in a thick syrup, served over a thick cream or custard. 

Dosa: Crepes made out of lentils and rice. One of the most common breakfast items in southern India.

Chutney: A spicy ground mixture made of peanuts or some kind of lentils to go with crepes.

Sambhar: Yellow lentil soup.

Chicken Korma: Chicken curry made using yoghurt and several spices.

Payasam: Traditional rice pudding.

Chilly Chicken: Chicken cooked in Chinese style (steeped in Indian spices) and garnished with lots of green chillies to make your eyes water along with your mouth.

Hakka Noodles: Also an Indo-Chinese specialty, crispy noddles that taste sweet and savory/hot at the same time.

Aloo Parantha: Unleavened bread stuffed with spiced potatoes.

Kheema Naan: Flat bread with several light layers, stuffed with spiced ground goat meat.

Ras Malai: A dessert made of paneer (somewhat similar to cottage cheese) and thick cream.

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In keeping with the topic for this week, here are excerpts from a few children’s classics from my bookshelf. Again, they are presented in no particular order, and these form but a mere fraction of all the incredible works available to us.

 All the books I have selected have the following things in common:

  • They are all written beautifully, almost in a lyrical fashion.
  • Each of them takes place in a different country (or countries) or has a diverse setting.
  • Every one of them provides us with glimpses of lifestyle from various time periods in the past.
  • Each of the authors was possibly influenced, in their writing (both in style and content), by the cultures and belief systems they grew up imbibing.

(And, oh, be sure to stroll by Books-For-Young-At-Heart and Books-For-Young at your leisure – I have populated the latter only recently.)

 

*****

“Anna Maria,” said the old man rat (whose name was Samuel Whiskers), – “Anna Maria, make me a kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding for my dinner.”

“It requires dough and a pat of butter, and a rolling-pin,” said Anna Maria, considering Tom Kitten with her head on one side.

“No,” said Samuel Whiskers, “make it properly, Anna Maria, with bread-crumbs.”

“Nonsense! Butter and dough,” replied Anna Maria.

                    – The Roly-Poly Pudding by Beatrix Potter

As the children walked in, they saw that most of the walls had crumbled down. There were rubble heaps everywhere. In some places, parts of the walls were intact and they could see the niches in them, which must have been used for storage all those many years ago. Once or twice they came across wooden pillars rotting away. On one of them they saw something that looked as if someone had tried to carve a name on it.

The children stared in silence. It was so quiet, it was impossible to believe it was the middle of the day. There were no bird sounds, not even an insect. Two large crows, perched on one of the walls, flew away noiselessly as the children approached.

“It’s … it’s … eerie,” Dinu said, using a word he had just learnt. Polly was too subdued to ask ‘What’s that?’. It was Ravi who asked instead.

“It means, funny and frightening – like this is.”

“Frightening? Don’t tell me you’re frightened, Dinu?” Minu’s face was grave but her eyes held a mischievous twinkle.

                    – The Hidden Treasure by Shashi Deshpande

October was a beautiful month at Green Gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry-trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in the aftermaths.

Anne revelled in the world of color about her.

“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs. “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill – several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”

                    – Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

“Can’t I go out and play, Ma?” Laura asked, and Ma said:

“’May,’ Laura.”

“May I go out to play?” she asked.

“You may tomorrow,” Ma promised.

That night Laura woke up, shivering. The bed-covers felt thin, and her nose was icy cold. Ma was tucking another quilt over her.

“Snuggle close to Mary,” Ma said, “and you’ll get warm.”

In the morning the house was warm from the stove, but when Laura looked out of the window she saw that the ground was covered with soft, thick snow. All along the branches of the trees the snow was piled like feathers, and it lay in mounds along the top of the rail fence, and stood up in great, white balls on top of the gate-posts.

                    – Little House In The Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Might I,” quavered Mary, “might I have a bit of earth?”

In her eagerness she did not realize how queer the words would sound and that they were not the ones she had meant to say. Mr. Craven looked quite startled.

“Earth!” he repeated, “What do you mean?”

“To plant seeds in – to make things grow – to see them come alive,” Mary faltered.

He gazed at her a moment and then passed his hand quickly over his eyes.

“Do you — care about gardens so much?” he said slowly.

“I didn’t know about them in India,” said Mary. “I was always ill and tired and it was too hot. I sometimes made little beds in the sand and stuck flowers in them. But here it is different.”

                    – The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

 “You’ll not say anything about it at home, will you?”

“Not a word.”

“And you won’t tease me in private?”

“I never tease.”

“Yes, you do; you get everything you want out of people. I don’t know how you do it, but you are a born wheedler.”

“Thank you; fire away.”

“Well, I’ve left two stories with a newspaperman, and he’s to give his answer next week,” whispered Jo, in her confidant’s ear.

“Hurrah for Miss March, the celebrated American authoress!” cried Laurie, throwing up his hat and catching it again, to the great delight of two ducks, four cats, five hens, and half a dozen Irish children; for they were out of the city now.

“Hush! It won’t come to anything, I dare say; but I couldn’t rest till I had tried, and I said nothing about it, because I didn’t want anyone else to be disappointed.”

                    – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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