No Hard Goodbyes for Alcohol

Today is one of those days which give me hope that I might yet make something worthwhile out of myself. I have no clue why, but I’m hopelessly prone to chasing – dreams, goals, people, you name it, I’ve chased it. Not saying I always won, just chased. Anyhow, having been worried about my own somewhat excessive drinking for a while, I chased (and this time, won) the 100 Days of Club Soda Challenge, which is roughly what it sounds like – one hundred consecutive days where alcohol and I have had nothing to do with each other. And yes, Shameek, that includes beer.

Having been off the booze for a hundred days today, I’m wondering – why did I need to do this? What did I get out of it?  After all, for many years now, I’ve enjoyed a stiff drink (or seven) on a hard week’s Friday night just as much as the next person (see exhibit #1 below). Unusually for my otherwise meandering and slightly messed-up brain, it didn’t take too much thinking at all before I realized that a single word explained my sudden need to stop drinking – “boundaries”.

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As I cross my mid-thirties and head towards the big four-oh, I’m becoming acutely aware of the importance of setting clear boundaries, both with oneself and with others. As with all of the best lessons I’ve learnt, this has mostly been through making mistakes. I’ve failed to define and protect boundaries in too many of my own relationships, and watched them go into autodestruct mode more often than I care to acknowledge here. And it’s not even always about two people – I’m guilty of having let third parties infiltrate boundaries that I should have kept sacrosanct and paid a horrible price for it (and no, I’m not talking about extramarital affairs here). Damn, come to think of it, given my own personality, I’ve probably invaded far more than my fair share of others’ boundaries over the years too (never with malicious intent, though – just didn’t realize I was overstepping). I’ve watched with admiration as people confidently walked out of bad marriages with their small children and very little financial security because their boundaries were trampled upon once too often. Sadly, in extreme cases, I’ve watched people literally begging for their personal boundaries to be invaded, which always makes me almost as mad at that person as at the creeps that invariably end up taking over their lives and destroying them.

Within the walls of my own little kaleidoscopic world, at multiple points in my eventful thirty-seven years, I’ve failed to set boundaries with substances (and then had to say Hard Goodbyes that I could have done without). Cigarettes were a bitch, I should have had more sense. Sleep meds were the older sister that taught cigarettes all there was to learn about being a bitch. I say this because nothing, absolutely nothing, I’ve ever gone through is as bad as years of severe chronic insomnia. About the only thing I still miss sometimes is high-quality weed, and to be frank, if you’re sharing, I’ll still take a drag or two. But to me, alcohol was always a gentler, sweeter sin, a beautiful but slightly twisted woman with a heart of gold and fuzzy morals just like mine, if you will. And so, like the cherished ex-girlfriend who I never had the balls to completely banish from my life, it would break my fragile heart to say another Hard Goodbye to my weekly Friday night rendezvous with a crystal tumbler of golden, barrel-aged rum. And so, around 3am on a drunken Saturday morning, I had the following memorable conversation:

“Excuse me, my lovely Ron Zacapa Aniversario, and thank you, Mr. Baccarat Decanter but you don’t define me, see, it’s the other way around – I define you. Now, please get back to your places on my bar shelf, or else I’m going to have to pour you down the sink and break you into little pieces, respectively, and we wouldn’t like that, would we? There, such sweethearts the two of you are. Don’t worry, we’ll be seeing each other again in just a few days – but this time on my terms, dahlings.”

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And so, one little red check mark at a time (exhibit #2), I went about my little quest to redeem some measure of confidence in my own ability to set healthy boundaries. I won’t even dwell on the minor rewards I got out of doing the whole Club Soda challenge thing, such as the approximately $600 not spent at my friendly neighborhood liquor store (enough for sixty slices of richly marbled otoro sashimi at Tachibana, talk about serious addictions). Or the ten pounds I lost, which have me back at my college weight for the first time in fifteen years. At the end of the day, those are merely numbers. All things considered, my big winner’s prize is the kick I got out of firmly removing Alcohol from that precious little zone that no one gets to share except me, myself and a person masquerading as Shurjo. I’m sure I’ll pour myself another drink at some point, but as for today, I’m not even craving one. And that, my friend, is a sweet, sweet feeling.

 

 

 

Delhi belly (part I) and my quest for Daulat ki chaat

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Delhi or “Dilli” as we lovingly call it, is a melting pot of a city that never fails to amaze me, a place where cultures converge and contrast in a kaleidoscopic way. I’ve been to Delhi many times, from the age of five to thirty five. Every time I went there, I had a different agenda and a different experience.

This time I arrived in Delhi with a single overriding culinary objective: to explore Old Delhi’s street food. Of course, the other big reason was to meet my brother who helped me to stay motivated. With an upset stomach, I was a little hesitant to start right away. Instead, I kept one day to look around, scanning for things I should or should not eat. There is no better place to explore and gorge on street food than the Chandni Chowk area in Old Delhi. For foodies who also love history (like me), this unique collection of alleys is truly no less than paradise on earth.

The things that I decided to try next time.

The things that I decided to try next time.

The first day was spent with my friends and brother; the day next was for myself, well most of it. It was a Monday morning and the whole city was busy saying goodbye to Mr. Obama, my US neighbor who had followed me to India being a big fan of my cooking. But I was determined not to let him slow me down. Armed only with my camera and a hungry stomach, I started my culinary journey for the day. The moment I came out of the Chandni Chowk metro station, I was excited, puzzled and anxious at the same time. Anyone with half a brain would have understood that I was not from the city (or even a resident Indian anymore). But I pretended to be a Hindi-speaking local (which, given my Bengali accent  must have made me look like a fool) and started bargaining for the rickshaw fare. I was successful; at least I think I was. As soon as the rickshaw-wallah agreed to take me to the Jama Masjid area, I hopped on his rickshaw and my eyes started scanning all around me. It was crowded, well extremely crowded and with utter chaos reigning hand-in-hand with supreme organization as they can do only in India. I loved it. It was a chaos I had looked forward to for three long years. I had the luxury to enjoy it because I don’t have to deal with it every day. I don’t have to push through the carts, hawkers, rickshaws or being deafened by the noise, survive a stampede and then go to work.

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With a serpentine motion, the rickshaw-wallah was pedaling through tiny, congested lanes and bi-lanes. And then all of a sudden, I screamed…”roko,roko!” (stop, stop!) and before even he realized what had happened, I jumped off his rickshaw. I had spotted “daulat ki chaat” which I was frantically looking for, being sold by the roadside. I asked him to wait for me and rushed to the chaat-wallah. I was overjoyed and excited. I asked him for one serving, to which he replied “kam mitha ya zyada mitha?” (do I want it to be very sweet or less sweet?) Not being a very sweet toothed person, I said “kam” (less). The vendor very delicately scooped out a few spoons full of foamy cream into a paper bowl, lined with silvery foil, crumbled something (khoya/milk solid mixed with sugar I think) on top of it and stuck a spoon into it.Quickly, using my phone camera, I took a few pictures of him, his cart and the chaat. I was in a hurry as I had kept the rickshaw-wallah waiting on a very busy lane with people honking behind him. Before I ran away, I asked him his name which turned out to be Prabesh Kumar. That’s all I had time to ask. The moment I jumped back in the rickshaw, very apprehensively I took a spoon full of that foam with a little bit of the crumble and put it into my mouth. I was worried –would I be disappointed, let down after this quest which had brought me all the way from Calcutta to Delhi? Well, I should have spared myself the anxiety. It immediately melted in the warmth of my mouth. It was delicate. It was slightly cool, not refrigerated coldness but a naturally cool taste (I know I am not making much sense but you have to experience the chaat to know what I am talking about) and then the occasional bite of the crumble adding the perfect sweetness and crunch. It was literally heaven in my mouth.

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Daulat’ which is literally translated to wealth and ‘chaat’ is a common word to describe a type of savory street food. So, if translated, it is a street food for the wealthy, but it’s not savory, rather delicately sweet. No one knows why is it called that way and where did it originate? I guess it’s called daulat ki chaat because it is made with an expensive ingredient, milk cream, and requires hours preparing it. So, only the wealthy could afford to make it or eat it. May be during the ancient times, the wealthy people had servants who painstakingly stirred the milk all evening to scoop out the cream and then hand churn it all night to make it frothy and airy? Who knows? But if you are in Delhi during winter, please hunt down a vendor and give it a try. My brother, who was on his own food quest a few lanes away from me, tried it and fell in love with it too. I spotted a few more vendors along my way to the Jama Masjid. So daulat ki chaat might not be as elusive as I thought it was.

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While savoring my chaat, I asked my rickshaw-wallah if he had ever tasted daulat ki chaat, but to my surprise, he said no. How can you be in the lanes and bi-lanes everyday pulling rickshaw and not taste the best thing Chandni Chowk can offer? Few months later, Dr. Sen thought about it and his take on it is that the twenty rupees it cost was not a trivial expense to him. But back then, I was on a high and had forgotten that my India and his are probably very different. Forging ahead on my quest food nirvana, I moved on to my next target, which was Ram ladoo (story to be continued in my blog post, so stay tuned).

To read more about Daulat ki Chaat, please read this beautiful article from Eat and Dust. It inspired me to go o that memorable rickshaw ride…..

Of delightful ruins and village temples

A guest post from my husband:

This is Calcutta, my home and yet not so much my home anymore. Everyone around me is genuinely happy to see me back after almost two years. At the same time, everyone has at least five agendas in which I play a role of some sort. One of these, they will share with me; two, they will share with others in my “network”; the final two are secrets that no one will know but them. My own agenda is even worse; it fills a whole clipboard and is full of morally ambiguous but tantalizing items, ranging from the completely harmless to the potentially devastating. Like most things Indian, none of these agendas, mine or of others, exist in isolation. Indeed, they are all not only connected but even intertwined. As you can imagine, the permutations and combinations are a mathematician’s or systems biologist’s paradise.

The thing is, I was always legendarily bad at math. So I have resorted to forcing my own, rather simplistic linear regression frameworks to model a system that even complex quadratic equations would be hard pressed to solve. Whether this will work, I have no clue. I don’t really think it will. But it is the only way I know to deal with things anymore, having been away for over a decade. If you ever had the mistaken impression that “lonely” is a negative word, let me correct you in no uncertain terms. The only way I survive (and indeed enjoy) my immediate surroundings on these kaleidoscopic trips home is by literally treating myself (as in an ice cream treat) to generous helpings of loneliness.

Quoting here a beautiful couplet by Ram Niwas Awasthi, one of the vanished poets of Hindi literature:

bheer mein rehta hoon main viraane ke sahare / jaise koi mandir ho kisi gaon ke kinare

(I can live in this crowd because I have my ruins / like the little temple just beyond the village) 

And so, wherever I go in this maddening crowd, I carry my little portable ruins with me, and like the little temple observing the villagers it knows and loves so well, but from just outside the village itself, I sit in the shade of my cherished ruins and watch the heartwarming charades around me. If this makes you jealous, I do not blame you.

And now, speaking of ruins, a lovely picture of an old house taken on a random road trip (or should I say boat trip) to the Sunderbans. Far past it’s prime, completely beyond repair but still beautiful. Just like my Calcutta.

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Beguner jhal posto/Eggplants in poppy seed paste

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If you know the Bengalis enough, you will know that we have a clear idea about our recent ancestry. Within the British province of Bengal, we very clearly know if our ancestors were native to what now is Bangladesh or native to what is now West Bengal. In Bengali the two terms “Bangal” and “Ghoti” defines who we are in terms of food and culture. The fight is never-ending, although pretty harmless for the most part. The general theme of arguments is, the Bangals being fortunate in terms of access to abundant vegetables and fresh water as well as sea fish, developed a very well developed cuisine, whereas the Ghotis who were native to West Bengal did not have a vibrant cuisine as the Bangals. The most common statement a Bangal will make is that Ghotis can cook nothing other than daal and posto (lentil soup and poppy seeds). The Bangals in turn are looked down upon for eating things which according to Ghotis, even cows would turn down.

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I always wondered why among many other things, did the Ghotis grow a fondness for poppy seeds? Why didn’t the Bangals incorporate it into their cuisine? Looks like, eating poppy seeds as a common spice is not very ancient in India or in West Bengal. The Greeks knew and used poppy/opium from a very ancient time, followed by the Egyptians. The Arabs got introduced to opium by the Greeks during trading on the Silk Road, and they in turn introduced it to South Asia during the 12th century. As opium was not prohibited in Islam, it soon became very popular during the Mughal Empire and cultivation of opium was very common in the Northern and Western India during the 15th century.

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The situation took a different turn when the British defeated the last Nawab of Bengal and took over the undivided Bengal Province (which is now Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal) in 1757. The British soon after realized that opium could generate huge currency inflows as it was very popular not only in India, but also in China. As compared to other areas, Bengal opium was of a very high quality and it lured the British to set up illegal trading with the Chinese. They also forced farmers to convert all their farmlands to cultivate poppy/opium, in the process contributing to the Bengal Famine of 1770 (Chhiattōrer monnōntór) that killed more people than Hitler and Pol Pot combined. Paradoxically, somewhere along the process Bengalis developed a taste for the tiny white seeds of the flower decimating their land, and started incorporating it into their cuisine. Although poppy seed has been used as a culinary item since antiquity by the Arabs, it was mostly used as a thickening agent (much like flour or cornstarch nowadays). Bengalis were among the first to cook with it, and make it a bona fide mainstream spice. Poppies were mainly grown in the Patna region of Bihar and in the Western part of now West Bengal which is close to the Bihar border. If we look at the use of poppy seed in the cuisine of modern West Bengal more closely, it is still most popular among the Bengalis from that particular region (comprising the districts of Birbhum, Bankura and Purulia). Gradually it spread among other West Bengalis too.

 

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Poppy seeds were always an expensive item and still are. But, it did not prohibit the Ghotis from incorporating it into their cuisine in many different forms. They eat it in pretty much every fashion, raw, cooked, whole, ground, in curries, in fries, in meat and the list goes on. Being a Bangal by origin, it was never a big thing in my Maa’s kitchen. But I am gradually acquiring a taste for it and incorporating it in my kitchen. Beguner jhal posto is very simple to make and yet delicious. It requires very few ingredients but is a winner even to diehard Bangal, Dr. Sen.
Recipe:

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Ingredients:
White poppy seeds: around 2 tbsp.
Whole dry red chilies: 2-3 nos.
Small eggplants: 8-12 (depending on how small or big they are) You can also use regular eggplants and cut it into smaller chunks.
Turmeric: ½ tsp.
Mustard oil: 1 tbsp. or a tad bit more
Salt to taste

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• Soak the poppy seeds and the red chilies together for at least half an hour (soaking will make the grinding easy)
• Grind the poppy seeds along with the red chilies to a fine paste after they are soaked.
• Slice the eggplants either in half or in quarters if they are big.
• Heat up the oil and add the sliced eggplants to the oil. Stir fry them a little bit to coat them nicely in the oil.
• Add the turmeric and the poppy seed paste. Coat the eggplants well with the paste and continue cooking for few more minutes.
• Add salt and a few sprinkling of water, mix everything lightly and then cover the pot with a lid.
• Let the eggplants cook completely. Uncover, check seasoning and also check if the eggplants are done.
• I like the poppy paste to be clinging to the eggplants but if you want, you can add a little bit of water to make a thick gravy. It should not be watery.
• Serve hot with plain white rice.

 

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Alternatively, as I have done here, mix everything together and cook covered until the eggplants are cooked and then cook uncovered until it reaches desired consistency. This is the original recipe but I like the method I described first. Shallow frying the eggplants brings out the flavor really well. The last method is a healthier option, it requires less oil.

Happy Halloween everybody

“Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition. It is thought to have originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints and martyrs; the holiday, All Saints’ Day, incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows’ Eve and later Halloween. Over time, Halloween evolved into a secular, community-based event characterized by child-friendly activities such as trick-or-treating. In a number of countries around the world, as the days grow shorter and the nights get colder, people continue to usher in the winter season with gatherings, costumes and sweet treats.

Today’s Halloween Traditions:

The American Halloween tradition of “trick-or-treating” probably dates back to the early All Souls’ Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling” was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money. 

 

The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. Hundreds of years ago, winter was an uncertain and frightening time. Food supplies often ran low and, for the many people afraid of the dark, the short days of winter were full of constant worry. On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter” (Source http://www.history.com).

Did You Know?

One quarter of all the candy sold annually in the U.S. is purchased for Halloween?

Shubho bijoyar shubhechcha/wishsing you a happy bijoya dashami

A glimpse of the Durga puja celebration in a foreighn land:

Devi Durga/Goddess Durga

The Bengali community in Kolkata has celebrated its grandest festival, called Durga Puja, with its signature joie de vivre for the last four-five days. Maa Durga (mother Durga) came from Kailash (a sacred mountain, her husband’s abode) to visit her parents with her kids. Now the time has come and she needs to return to her home in the Himalayas. People back home were spending sleepless nights to do pandal-hopping (pandal – a sort of temporary marquee made from bamboo to house the idol for four days during Durga puja), pushing thousands of people to get a glimpse of the magnificent pandals made of either ice cream sticks, earthen pots, grass or anything that comes to the artist’s mind. After these four days of madness, the idol is usually immersed in the nearby river Ganges or sometimes in the local ponds or lakes. The last day of the festival and the Devi Durga’s (goddess Durga) return is called Bijoya Dashami (departure on the tenth day). Bengalis celebrate this day by visiting friends and family and exchanging sweets. Some people drink a glass of sidhdhi/bhang (dried leaves of Cannabis sativa in thickened milk, mixed with dried nuts, sugar and few other things….yes, it’s legal in Bengal to consume cannabis. In the name of the God, people can do anything I guess on bijoya.)

 

During my stay in India, we visited our neighbors with the sweet and savory things my Maa made. The ritual was to touch the feet of the elderly and get their blessings. People make all kinds of sweets. My Maa used to make nimki (fried diamond shaped savory fried dough), and some kind of sandesh/dessert. I think the ritual might have came from the fact that, when Maa Durga was going back home after visiting her parents, she got the blessing from her parents or elderly and it got passed along the people and we still do it. I can be completely wrong though. Once I read more, I’ll update this information. 

Here in the US, we often forget the niceties of connecting with the  elderly, uncle, aunt or the respect we offer to people elder than us back in India. We call everybody by their first names and that kind of takes away the basic thought. So, on this very special day, when I am thousands of miles away form my parents, I’ll get their blessing on phone and say “tomra amar bijoyar pronaam niyo”. This single phone call means a lot to me and my parents. I’ll call my friends, in-laws and wish all of them Subho Bijoya as well. It’s a ritual I don’t want to forget…it reminds me about so many things and values I grew up with.

Holding the “sree”

Preparing the offering tray before she says goodbye to the goddess

Memories captured

Bengali women in their traditional attire after the sindur khela (smearing vermilion on each other’s face)

Celebration

The goddess is preparing for her return

Handle with care.