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Posts Tagged ‘research’

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 wrote this article a few years ago, when I first embarked on my writing journey. When I re-read it a few days ago, having just resurfaced from a fabulous writers conference (another topic for another post!), I realized it applies perfectly even today. So, here goes….

Posted originally on March 28, 2011

The other day, I was watching “Chopped Champions” on Food Network. (“Chopped” is a show where four chefs compete against each other; one chef is let go–or chopped–per round of cooking, based on the criteria of judging they have.) In the episode I was watching, four winners from previous rounds came back to butt heads with each other for bigger stakes.

As the kitchen in the show grew hotter, I began to realize the uncanny similarities between cooking and writing. I took away some basic lessons from that one episode–lessons that are not new, but ones we tend to take for granted.

  • Take time to prep your ingredients: The judges tasted grit in the dish one of the contestants had prepared. The chef had neglected to clean the main ingredient–sea urchin–thoroughly. Instead of impressing the judges, her dish turned them off. She was “chopped” instantly.
    • Lesson: It is important to sweat the basic stuff. When writing a new novel/story, research the period and place as much as you can. This will add authenticity to your world-setting and your characters will feel real.
  • Depend on your dish: One contestant got promoted to the second round even though his dish did not meet the judges’ approval. This happened only because one of the other chefs had left dirt in her main ingredient. However, in the very next round, that guy got chopped because he didn’t season his dish very well.
    • Lesson: Do not depend upon others’ failure/success to give you a boost. It only goes so far. When it comes to writing, do not concentrate on the existing trends or non-trends in the industry. By the time you finish writing your book those same trends may be out of fashion or more likely would have jaded the readers. Write about a subject you are passionate about, that you believe would make a fascinating read.
  • Seasoning is important: The chef who got chopped in the second round had forgotten to season his chicken. From what I deduced by then, this chef was not bad to begin with (he had to be good to have been titled “champion” in a previous tussle), but then he had probably begun to coast along rather than letting his passion for cooking to come through in his dishes. This apathy had cost him his advancement to the next round.
    • Lesson: However good a writer you are, if your story is missing the seasoning–a heart–then it won’t go anywhere. You, the writer, has to believe in the story before the reader will.
  • Your previous dish won’t speak for you: The lady who was let go because she left dirt in her food entered this competition as a favorite. I could tell that the judges were almost reluctant to let her go, but the mistake she made was not a simple one to overlook. 
    • Lesson: You are only as good as your latest product. Even a successful writer can rest on his/her laurels for only so long.
  • Cook to the best of your ability and then stand back: The chef who won in that episode was the least experienced of the lot. However, he cooked passionately and to the best of his abilities. This finally proved to be the best strategy.
    • Lesson: It is better to be constantly improving and growing in your trade than to be a flash in the pan. Don’t aim to be a one-book wonder. It’s important to realize and accept the fact that not all writers are created equal. However, one doesn’t need to be über-talented to be a good writer. Keep up your passion for writing and your work will shine as a result.
  • Concentrate on showcasing your best dishes: Two of the contestants kept getting worked up by peeking at others’ prep work during the cooking rounds. The third one kept his nose to the grindstone, so to speak, and concentrated only on creating his best dish every single time with the given ingredients. He won.
    • Lesson: Don’t let others’ success or talent intimidate you. Everyone has their own slot in every field. Keep on the lookout and you’ll find your groove.
  • Use the ingredients you know to the best effect: In one round, as I already mentioned, the contestants were given sea urchins as the main ingredient. One of the chefs had never worked with it before, and he was nervous about it. In the end, though, he took the best route possible: among the rest of the ingredients he had, he chose the ones he knew best and paired them with the sea urchin and created a sauce. He was basically faking it. It worked. That sauce blew away the judges.
    • Lesson: If you have to fake it, then do it confidently. It is good, even paramount, to do a lot of research before you embark on a new novel or story. However, sometimes, no amount of research will seem to be enough. For example, if your story takes place in the next millennium, chances are high that your imagination goes the extra mile than real, hard research. In such a case, remember you are the one with the most expertise when it comes to the world you are building.

What lessons (about life, writing, painting, sewing or anything at all) would you like to share with the rest of us today?

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Has this ever happened to you? You have been thinking about a movie or just a concept for some time. And suddenly you keep seeing references to it everywhere you turn. It’s like déjà vu!   

Why does this happen? I can think of two reasons:   

a)      We tend to pay attention to the topic, which is at the top of our head currently, more than before. So, obviously, references to it that we would have missed or ignored before get highlighted for us now in neon.   

Additionally, humans are good at attribution and association. We attribute and associate even oblique hints to the topic at hand – even those clues that are not really related to it in the first place.   

b)      There definitely is a higher power at hand, watching our every move, sometimes rapping our knuckles for our misdemeanors, and  at other times lauding our efforts with big or small signs of encouragement.     

And there are still other times when the higher power is just itching for some fun and so teases us with hints and references – as a child would a favorite pet kitten with a sprig of catnip – and chuckles away in delight at our confusion.   

At least, that’s how I feel.   

Here’s where the speed-reading in today’s title comes in.   

I love history, and I am currently working on novel(s) for children set in history. Hence a lot of my time is spent not only in writing but also in research.   

Research is half the fun of writing for me. However, it loses some of its charm if you’re working against a deadline, self-imposed or otherwise.   

And there are tons of data readily available for any and every subject under the sun, what with internet and everything. However much you research a subject there is still more to do. And at most times, usually at the last moment, you end up learning that there’s a whole new angle you have managed to overlook. Not a good feeling!   

 Hence, I have been thinking on and off about speed-reading lessons for the past two months: Does it really work? Will it help me in my current situation? Or would I be just wasting time and money?     

Then … suddenly, last Thursday, sitting in my mailbox I find a brochure from a local university. I open it and what do I see? A list of summer classes for speed-reading. Yes.   

It had the following information, among other things:   

Speed-Reading helps you with:   

a)      Quadrupling your reading speed and comprehension   

b)      Finishing your homework at a greater speed and accuracy   

c)       Researching topics much faster and with a higher efficiency   

I almost fell over backwards when I saw the last point. A mere coincidence?   

And get this: I had never taken any classes from that particular university. I hadn’t even driven by its campus before – I don’t know where exactly it is located. Heck, I hadn’t even ventured through their portals on the net!   

How did they get my address? They didn’t even address the pamphlet to “The Resident at so-and-so number”. They addressed it sure as anything to “Mrs. Hema P.” – I’m not making this up!   

Meet ‘Blue Billi’, an amateur detective. Does she remind you of another feline in bubblegum pink? She should! They’re cousins, you see, and sleuthing runs in the family.

 

I immediately looked around me, a la Blue Billi, and then quickly darted to the nearest window. I was hoping to catch whoever was spying on me in the act.   

Obviously, no such luck — I didn’t espy any glimpses of a trench coat being hastily pulled behind the tree in my backyard. Neither did I catch the sharp glint of a binoculars suddenly muted.   

Unless the snoop was blissfully dozing away somewhere because of the immense boredom induced by the subject under surveillance, there was no one really checking me out.   

Are you thinking that I had looked closely at the pamphlet, instead of chucking it right away, only because the topic had caught my attention?   

Well, it’s a possibility… but I’m a firm believer of ‘Opportunity knocks but once’. So, I’m in the habit of perusing any piece of paper – brochures or advertisements or coupons – closely, before I put them in the trash.   

Now, don’t you agree that it is someone up there playing a trick on me and watching to see how I get all rattled up and begin to run around in circles?   

P.S: Does speed-reading really work? Anyone willing to shed some light on how useful you find/have found it?

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I present to you the different (very much simplified) perspectives a book engenders, right from the time of its conception up to the time it makes it to the bookstalls … and beyond.

Author: Writes the book based on her: research, past history and experiences, sensibilities, inspiration and motivation.

Publisher: Acquires a manuscript, which gets eventually published, based on: concept’s salability, market direction, industry’s current trends, economy, marketability of the author’s name.

Bookseller: Displays a book on the shelf based on: salability, cover art, name of the author, reviews, hype produced by the book in the market, bestseller list.

Librarian: Orders a book for the library’s shelf based on: genre, reviews, awards won by the book, concept of the book, author’s name.

Reader: Picks a book to read attracted by: the genre, the cover art, the flap copy, the name of the author/series, excerpts, assignments, current fads, his taste and sensibilities.

Parent: Chooses a book for his child based on: genre, child’s taste, his own taste, concept, price of the book, awards won by the book.

The perspective changes even for the same set of people, given a slight change in the circumstances. For instance, the same parent might not choose the same book for another of his children.

And these are only a few of the points of view that a children’s book produces. If it were a book in adult category, that too, one with political or religious context to it, then the whole ballgame changes and the perspectives multiply.

The adage Don’t judge a book by its cover isn’t really such a cliché, is it?

Hope you can find a book this weekend in which you can lose yourself willingly!

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What a coincidence! Right after I published today’s post, I went to Mark McVeigh’s new blog, as is a habit of mine everyday. Yes, you guessed it right — he is a literary agent.

And what do I see? He’s asking his followers to get ten other people to follow his blog, and then he’ll give them (the original follower) a free phone chat! Mark has a great track record as an editor at several big publishing houses and has opened his own agency last year.

As my friends, could you please go to: Mark McVeigh’s blog, become a follower and leave a comment, referring to my blog by name? If you are a writer yourself, you should check him out as a prospective agent for your manuscript! Go on now, why are you still loitering here?

Okay, now that you’re back after leaving a comment (thank you!) on McVeigh’s blog, do read on…  (You can tell that I’m very good at leaving subtle hints, can’t you?) :)

The words ‘literary agent’ can cause heart-racing excitement and at the same time induce a paralyzing dread in a writer’s heart. If you’d like to know more about the role a literary agent plays in a book’s (and hence, a writer’s) life, please visit: AgentQuery.

This is, obviously, a humorous take on the lengths to which writers go in order to thoroughly research the agents that they want to pursue, when their manuscript is ready for representation.

You are stalking a literary agent, if:

10.  You have learnt by heart the whole anthology of poems that she likes.

9.   You know her childhood nickname.

8.   You know her college GPA.

7.   You keep intercepting the pizza delivery guy, so you could deliver the pizza to her office.

6.   You have, at the tip of your tongue, a roster of all the conferences the agent is going to attend in the next few months, and the topics she’s going to be speaking at each of those.

5.   You know what her middle initial stands for, when the only place it has ever been written out is the agent’s birth certificate.

4.   You exactly know which pair of shoes she prefers to match to which of her outfits.

3.   You name your newborn baby-boy after her.

2.    You have an altar for her in your house.

1.    You can write a factual biography of the agent without having to use her as a resource.

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