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Posts Tagged ‘India’

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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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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Originally posted on January 10, 2011

To the untrained eye or the uninitiated, it looks like utter chaos and spells certain, imminent death: the road is choked with vehicles and bodies of every kind. Pedestrians (and more times than not, loitering animals enjoying the tumult they’re causing) and puny bikes weave across lanes of traffic with nonchalance, where buses and trucks are barreling down.

Photo Courtesy: dreamstime.com

This was the first scene that greeted me when we stepped out of the airport in India.

It’s not like I’m exactly new to this, though it’s also true that there has been an explosion of motorized vehicles on the roads in India — especially in Hyderabad, the capital city of the state I come from – in the last decade or so.

For the first two days, conditioned as I have been for the divided lanes and orderly passage of traffic in the U.S, I constantly said my prayers and kept preparing myself for a maimed body. At best. Morbid? Yes, but you had to be there to understand.

Picture this: you’re sitting in a city cab — about the size of a Honda civic — and a fully-loaded (as in people dribbling down to the first step) passenger bus comes and brakes right next to you. You look up and realize that there is just the glass window of your cab and three inches of air that separate you and the monstrous front bumper of the fifteen-ton hunk of metal. Gulp!

Ever so slowly, though, generations of survival instincts and the Eastern stoicism kicked back in, and I began to settle in. Every time I thought I was going to be roadkill, my mantra* became: Jo hona so hoga. Phikar karne se kyaa phaayda?**

Once I decided to sit back and relax, cocooned in the hope that my cab driver knew exactly what he was doing, my eyes began to see and my mind started to absorb. It was then that I had an epiphanic moment: There actually is an age-old order beneath the apparent madness of criss-crossing vehicles!

It was like an unacknowledged food chain, only this was a vehicle-chain. The man on foot knew where to look for guidance: at the vehicle just above him in the order, which is the bicycle. The girl on the bicycle paid heed only to the auto-rickshaws zooming past her. The auto-rickshaw driver had enough regard for the cars and taxis that ruled the road for him. And the taxiwallah*** had a grudging respect for buses and trucks that could crush his box of metal if they so wished.

No wonder in all my traveling on the road during the trip, I hadn’t come across a single traffic accident. Like my friend Jai Joshi said, when you’re on the road in India, your senses are honed to razor sharpness.

You hear a certain kind of horn behind you and deduce, without even looking, what kind of a vehicle it is that is pursuing you. Depending on who you are, a bicyclewallah*** or a bus driver, your brain does certain calculations and you either make way reluctantly or make a subtle adjustment to your speed and position so you effectively block the other vehicle’s exit.

The absolute truth dawned on me only a few days before I left for America: Indian traffic is an elite club to which not everyone is allowed access. You have to have a certain state of mind and stoutness of heart to even apply for membership. Once you’re in, though, it’s a lifetime’s citizenship; one that prepares you to face anything with élan.

–*–

* Mantra – A chant or a short prayer.

* * — One of the basic philosophies of life in India (and probably in most parts of the East). It roughly translates to: Whatever is meant to happen will happen. What’s the use of worrying?

*** Taxiwallah/Bicyclewallah: Two of the many Hinglish (Hindi + English) words in common, everyday use in India. Literally, they mean: ‘The guy with the taxi/bicycle’, but in this case it’s used to refer to ‘taxi driver or the one riding the bicycle’, whichever the case may be.

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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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Originally posted on January 24, 2011.

Hyderabad. Just the name sums up many visual and gastronomical treats for me.

Golconda Fort in Hyderabad, which was the seat of power of the Qutub Shahis. This is the view of a section of the fort as viewed from the main entrance

Golconda Fort in Hyderabad, which was the seat of power of the Qutub Shahis. This is the view of a section of the fort as viewed from the main entrance

This busy, historic, and throbbing-with-life city was the first stop during my recent trip to India. It is the capital city of Andhra Pradesh — one of the southeastern states of India — and is a thorough mix of old-with-new and traditional-with-modern.

The original city of Hyderabad, now known as the Old City, was founded 500 years ago on the banks of Musi river. The founding of this city, not to mention its name, is steeped in romance and religious tolerance.

Legend has it that crown prince Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah (of the Qutub Shahi dynasty that ruled the area at the time), who belonged to the faith of Islam, fell in love with a Hindu girl called Bhagmati. This girl lived in a village on the opposite bank of the river from the prince’s fort.

The prince used to continually brave even the flooding waters of the river to go meet with his flame. His father Ibrahim Qutub Shah, the then ruling king, who heard of his son’s infatuation decided to lend his support to the courtship. He soon had a bridge built over the river so his son could cross the river safely in any season and woo his girl.

Now, if that is not the height of tolerance and understanding, then I don’t know what is.

Eventually, Mohammed Quli married Bhagmati, and then ascended the throne at the death of his father. He went on to found a city, which he named Bhagyanagaram after his wife. (Bhagya means “fortune” and nagaram translates to “city” in Telugu, which is the language spoken by the majority of the people in my state. The name in its entirety can be seen as “The Fortunate City” or “The City of Bhagya” as in Bhagmati’s city – pretty clever pun on words, if you ask me!) Later when Bhagmati was awarded the title of Hyder Mahal by her husbandthe name of the city was changed to Hyderabad to reflect her new moniker.

A view of Charminar – the historical monument that is the face of the city — from the street

The bridge, called Purana Pul (The Old Bridge), that Ibrahim Qutub Shah had commissioned over 500 years ago stands sturdy to this day. The arched bulwarks underneath the bridge, made of heavy stones, exhibit not only the fine craftsmanship of those times but also a keen eye for beauty.

Since the bridge is narrow and would not serve the present-day traffic needs, a broader bridge has been built parallel to it for everyday use. The day I visited this bridge happened to be the eve of Bakrid, one of the holy days for Muslims. The whole area was teeming with people, so unfortunately, I couldn’t get close enough to take good pictures of this beautiful, yet practical, monument for love.

On the old bridge, there now flourishes a walk-through bazaar where shopkeepers squatting under small awnings do brisk business in a variety of stuff  beginning with chappals (shoes) to fruits to pearls to clothing.

I was thoroughly heartened by this fitting use — rather than naming it a heritage monument and cordoning it off from public — for the vision of a father who had this bridge built to serve a practical purpose.

An aerial view of the monolithic statue of Lord Buddha in the middle of Lake Hussain Sagar in Hyderabad. Photo courtesy: Post card printed by the Department of Archaeology and Museums of Andhra Pradesh

Of course, as with most other legends in history that lack a recorded version, there are other theories to dispute this one about the origins of the name of the city of Hyderabad. However, I have always been fascinated by this story of love, romance, and understanding and have whole heartedly subscribed to this version of it. And I still do.

The current-day Hyderabad has outgrown the original city and has expanded northwards. As I mentioned earlier, this metropolis is a true amalgamation of new and old, modern and antique, and ethnic and technological (Hyderabad is one of the strongest hubs of the IT industry in India) now. There exists such harmony between one facet and the other that I cannot imagine Hyderabad without either.

The city is also a living and breathing monument to the coming together of two major religions in India: Hinduism and Islam (over 80% of Indians practice Hinduism, while Islam and Christianity are the next two major religions practiced in India). The two religions are so intertwined in this city that you would find it hard sometimes to tell where one begins and the other ends. The architecture of the several monuments in the city, along with local food and clothing (more details coming up in the next post :)), bear testimony to this very basic fact of this city.

Mecca Masjid, an example of history walking hand in hand with current life: People go about their everyday lives around the centuries-old mosque, which lies at the heart of the Old City

All one has to do is take a page from the history of the city — of the enormous leap of faith Ibrahim Qutub Shah took for his son, the religious tolerance he had adopted in the matter, and the empathy he had shown for the emotions of his son — to get some perspective. But, in today’s world, that looks like a really tall order.

When I mentioned the same to some of my friends – who were born and bred in the heart of Hyderabad, unlike me – they said I had too simplistic a view of the complicated matters that dictate the pulse of the city.

Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t. As with so many things in adult life, it depends on who’s asking and who’s  answering….

Night-time view of Birla Mandir, a temple for Lord Venkateswara, one of the deities of the Hindu pantheon, in Hyderabad. It’s made entirely of white marble and is famous for its serene beauty and architectural details. Photo courtesy: Post card printed by the Department of Archaeology and Museums of Andhra Pradesh

Night-time view of Birla Mandir, a temple for Lord Venkateswara, one of the deities of the Hindu pantheon, in Hyderabad. It’s made entirely of white marble and is famous for its serene beauty and architectural details. Photo courtesy: Post card printed by the Department of Archaeology and Museums of Andhra Pradesh

 

The majestic tomb of Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah, the founder of Hyderabad

The majestic tomb of Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah, the founder of Hyderabad

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