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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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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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Have you had memories that you wanted to hold onto longer, close to your heart, before you gave them wings and sent them out into the world?

I traveled to Uganda, Africa, a couple of years ago to visit family and gathered for myself some of the most valued memories. Here, I share some of them with you.

Wildlife is such an intrinsic and organic part of the (green, luscious) landscape in Uganda that it gladdens your heart to be immersed in it. You drive around a curved road in some of the more remote parts of the country and there you are, sharing the terrain with giraffes, baboons and buffaloes going about their business.

Giraffes-1

 

 

buffaloes

cows

cactus

 

 

baboons

deer

 

 

 

 

 

 

An open-air market in Jinja Town

market

 

 

 

 

pineapples

legumes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

River Nile

Did you know that the White Nile (one of the two major tributaries of River Nile—the other being the Blue Nile—that flows through North-Eastern Africa) originated in Uganda? Yes, the Nile leaves Lake Nyanza (Victoria) at Rippon Falls near Jinja town and becomes the Victoria Nile.

resort-1

 

resort-2

Nile

 

 

 

fields-Ugandalake-side

 

Any memories you’d like to share with us today?

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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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The southern tip of India is a peninsula, and the whole east side of Andhra Pradesh (which is on the south-east slice of India) is a coast, overlooking the Bay of Bengal. I’d left Hyderabad — a completely landlocked city — and clicketty-clacked over in a train to my grandparents’ town, which is a little over 10 miles from the bay.

This town is famous, among other things, for a centuries-old temple that sits smack dab in the middle of town. Its 125 ft gopuram (the tall

This picture honestly does injustice to the temple and its grandeur. It was a festival day when I took this picture and I couldn't get any closer to it because of the mad rush of devotees visiting the temple. Also, the crisscrossing electric wires make a nasty backdrop, unfortunately

cone-shaped tower made of stone) looms over everything else in sight.

The temple was built by Chalukyas in the 1400s. (Chalukyas were one of the most powerful and enduring dynasties to rule over parts of southern and central India.)

Every inch of the tower’s surface is sculpted with gorgeous figures depicting stories from the Hindu mythology.

Growing up, when we went about our daily lives, spending time with cousins or visiting friends, we always passed by the gopuram. It was like the moon: it followed us like a shadow everywhere we went, watching over us.

Picture taken from: manasasancharare.wordpress.com

When I think about it now, never once did I stop then and reflect upon its past and history. I was definitely not apathetic to it: I always wondered at its height (craning my neck to catch the glimpse of the very tip of it) and the beauty of the engravings; it’s just that I took it for granted that it has always been a part of the town and always will be.

Simply put, in India, history is a way of life. That also explains why even ancient structures are not cordoned off from the public and protected.

They have existed, as part of people’s lives, bearing silent testimony to the passage of time for centuries and will continue to do so in the future.

— ** —

I had a grand time sharing memories of my vacation with you all in bits and pieces for the past few months in this blog . Thank you for taking this trip with me!

I’ll leave you all with pictures I took as I went about different towns and cities trying to gather together memories of my childhood…

If you look closely, you can see a few monkeys on a couple of the rooftops. It is common for troops of monkeys to descend upon the town suddenly during the day. They sit on top of the roofs or trees with stoic expressions on their faces, observing the activities of their cousins the humans, before moving on as silently as they had appeared

 

Notice the little huts in the back? Isn't that a lovely way to live, so close to nature? Thoreau would probably have loved the seclusion of this spot

 

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An underground tunnel leads from inside the ramparts of the Golconda Fort to the walled compound (at a distance of about 3 kilometers from the fort), where all the seven kings of the Qutub Shahi dynasty (and other important family members) are interred. The tombs within this complex have been built in the time period of mid 1500s to late 1600s.

The structures stand today, weathered, but tall and sturdy. They bear testimony to the lives of the men or women who have lived within the walls of the Golconda Fort and have left a lasting legacy in some form or the other in the area where the current Hyderabad city in India flourishes.

At first glance, each tomb looks similar in shape to the one next to it. However, when you pay closer attention to the details, you see the big and small differences that point to the fact that the architect of each edifice was an individual with distinct visions, beliefs, and interests.

This collection of majestic structures is somber, yet ethereally beautiful.

When I stood in the middle of the circle of tombs, I felt oddly connected with all those people who had stood some hundreds of years ago in exactly the same spot, breathing the air that I did — maybe even aspiring for some of the same things that I do today – and possibly looking about them and willing themselves to remember the moment in time when they came face to face with the fragility of human life.

A map of the complex of tombs outside its entrance

 

This is a fake grave for the visitors. The actual body is, I was told, buried underground in an actual grave

 
 

 

The Assembly Hall at Golconda as seen from the top of one of the tombs

 

The unfinished tomb of Abul Hassan Tani Shah, the last Qutub Shahi ruler of Hyderabad. He died in captivity elsewhere, and hence his body is not interred inside this structure. I learned that the dome on top of the tomb is built only after the interment of the body. Also, interestingly, this edifice stands alone outside the compound wall that protects the rest of the tombs.

 

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During my trip to India, I took a delightful detour to a medium-sized bookstore in one of the cities I visited.

Owing to its unassuming name — Jyoti Book Depot — I entered the store willing myself not to get my hopes up too much. (I know, shame on me for judging a bookstore by its name!)

The store had probably just received a considerably large shipment; the entire space was in delightful disarray, adding to the store’s charm and quaintness.

The shop assistants were busy tearing open crates and boxes of books, layering the air with the delicious scent of ink and new paper. It heightened my sense of adventure to be navigating through and carefully stepping over the teetering mini-towers of tomes both in English and Telugu. (Telugu is one among the 17 official languages of India.)

Since the shop was not too intuitively organized, I had to butter up a harried assistant or two to look up the books I had in mind, but then the results more than made up for it: I had to try really hard not to hyperventilate when they conjured up some of the more unusual/elusive titles that I hardly hoped to find in that store.

I have finished reading some of them; the others, I admit, I have been hoarding as a child would a stash of precious toffee for a rainy day.

Here are some of the English titles I bought:

  • Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh.
  •  Bookless in Baghdad by Shashi Tharoor.
  • Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru.
  • Collection of Short Stories by Shashi Deshpande.
  • The Binding Vine also by Shashi Deshpande.
  • Comics: Series of Panchatantra and Jataka Tales, Stories about Tenali Raman, Birbal Tales and a few others.

I also bought a few novels for children, including some by Enid Blyton :-).

Can you guess how much I paid for all these beauties together? A little over Rs. 3,000/- (Rupee is the Indian currency), which amounts to less than $70/-!!

Recently, here in the U.S, I went to one of the larger bookstore chains looking for a style guide that promised to improve my grammar and whip up my writing into better shape. Just one book. It was priced at a whopping sixty-five dollars.

Why, oh why, are books so expensive in America?

Do you make it a point to stop by bookstores while traveling abroad?

Like me, do you come back home mildly depressed about the cost of books in the U.S (if that is where you make your home)?

Note: This post is not meant as a rant for/against the publishing industry in the U.S. (Nothing wrong with such a discussion, it’s just that I’m not in the mood for an involved debate just now.) Rather, it is an honest lament from a self-confessed bookworm :-).

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