From Mashobra With Love

On our final full day here, yesterday, rains came fast in the late morning and continued until late afternoon: Clouds rolled in, clouds rolled out.  The gardens turned white, became green again.  Thunder, lightning, sheets of water!  It was magnificent.

The region has a magical appeal with the Himalayan peaks visible, the forests, the hills, the apple orchards, and of course the monkeys.  The old cottages, some decaying, suggest other lives and stories.

We managed a 45 minute walk nearing six P.M. and saw dozens of monkeys in tall pine trees.  They stared, we stared back.  They hooted, we did not hoot back.

Today it’s a long drive down to Chandigarh with grilled cheese sandwiches and cold beer to be followed by a one hour flight to Delhi.

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Cooking Lessons

Yesterday it was dal, cauliflower-potatoes, and lamb.  It’s amazing how fast Ramesh cooks, self-taught, and each dish took no more than 7-8 minutes, exclusive of boiling times.  Speaking of boiling, he boils the protein–lamb–and sets it aside.  Then he makes a sauce and cooks the lamb in the sauce.  So the US/UK methods of restaurant cooking in which protein is boiled and then dunked in a sauce have roots in, as any chef would say, “Doing it the right way.”

The differences are: Sauces here, in restaurants and homes, are made fresh.  And: Spices are used in sequence, not added all at once.  And: The amount of spice used is small–teaspoons or half-teaspoons, no more.

Regrettably, we leave tomorrow, early, for Chandigarh and then a flight to Delhi where we will spend the night.

The good news: Two more meals here.  grilled cheese sandwiches on the ride.  Bukhara tomorrow night.  And: I return with 10 recipes.

The Monkey’s Bride

Yesterday morning, walking past the three dhaba near the entrance of Wildflower Hall, then around the bend of an international high school, we saw Shimla just over the bend.  The hospital was visible.  A huge pine forest on the next hill seemed to undulate like a scene from Twin Peaks.

Soon we passed by a few old colonial era cottages and apple orchards and then a big school for deaf children and adolescents many of whom were having an outdoor lesson.

Then, up ahead, on a tree by the path, I saw a large macaque Himalayan monkey perched on a branch.  I wondered if it was wise to keep walking.  I did.  The three others with me (wife, progeny) followed.  The monkey leaped to a tree further away.  We got closer.  Two other monkeys then leaped away from the path.   I thought to look and run.  I looked and ran.

An aspiring photographer among us thought to stand and snap.  She stood and snapped.  Suddenly, the first monkey, an imposing presence, handsome and white cowled with a black face and long arms, leaped from his branch and came closer, making an aggressive pose.

The monkey’s bride was encouraged to run.  She ran.  The monkey took chase.  The pursuit ended soon.  No harm done.

This morning, on the roof of the house, monkeys, smaller ones, ran and hooted.  Two appeared in one of the gardens.

We are surrounded.  If this is my last missive, let the world know: For God and Country!

If it is not the last posting, Ramesh will teach me how to make dal today.

Kashmir: Kitchen Crisis Averted

Ever since Zep sang about the region, I’ve wanted to visit, “The Perfect Valley,” a.k.a. Kashmir with its lakes, peaks, and pastures.  No go: Sectarian violence, centuries old feuds over land, etc.  I think that everything might be soluble but for the etc.  As is the case with so much in life, it’s the etc. that stands in the way.

I’d looked into going this summer, being so close, but the Himalayas got in the way of that.  No etc. those peaks.  Turns out you must drive to Chandigarth (south) and then fly north.

Fortunately, I’ve gone to Kashmir, in a culinary way, the last couple of days.  First, it was the famous veg aloo (potato) dish.  Then yesterday the cook, on request, made a killer lamb korma, which is a classic Kashmiri dish frequently bastardized in restaurants due to the time, delicacy, and relative cost involved.

He showed me how to make the dish.  I took notes.

Boil lamb chunks, bone in, about a pound, for 15-20 minutes in salted water.  Drain.  set aside.

Heat mustard oil.  Add a teaspoon each of small cardamon, large cardamon, (2-6), a teaspoon of ginger, cinnamon bark, dried red peppers.  Lower heat.  Stir.

Blend 12 blanched and peeled almonds, 1/4 cup of raw cashews, add water to thicken.  Add this paste to the frying spices.  Add salt to taste.  Add a teaspoon of  mild red pepper (for color).  Stir.  Add 4 crushed garlic cloves.  Stir for about 10 minutes.

Add the lamb and two teaspoons of sugar.  Stir for 5 minutes.

The result is extraordinary.

The Indian Kitchen

I’m nearing the end of, “The Argumentative Indian,” by Amartya Sen.  It’s a wonderful book full of humor, knowledge, love, generosity, and pleasure.  His son, Kabir, who lives down the street in Cambridge has many of what appear to be his father’s qualities.  In sum, work is about public discourse.

Even more pertinent here is a paragraph on page 132 in which Dr. Sen describes the journey taken by chili from “the new world” to India.  He writes, “Chili has become an Indian spice.”  In the same passage, he notes that tandoori cooking came from “the Middle East,” but has now become a prime facet of many Indian preparations.

A tandoor oven, by the way, is a long, clay or ceramic or metal cylinder heated from below.  You slap bread on its inner sides or roast lamb or chicken on long metal spikes in its hollow.  The fire is below.  The result is evenly cooked, smoky tasting food.  Restaurants that say on their menus that the food is tandoor and don’t have a tandoor oven are shaping tastes to conform to a method that has nothing to do with Indian cooking.  A tandoor oven, in India, costs about $50.  In the US, you can get one for about $200.

Anyway, let’s add tomatoes and potatoes to the list of items not originally from India that have become a big part of Indian cooking.

India is a resilient collection of cultures, rich with heterodoxy (as Sen would say), far from static and with no arbiter in charge of identity.

Diversity in Dining

While the Hindutva and Islamic extremists, described brilliantly in Amartya Sen’s book, “The Argumentative Indian,” which I am reading now, think of India as having one form and one history, the huge subcontinent actually has always contained and embraced numerous, diverse cultures.

Whew.

That fact is reflected in its cuisines.  Persian, Portuguese, Buddhist, Arabic, Hindu, and English dishes, to name a few, are found in kitchen preparations and on the plate.

Which is why it’s so disappointing to eat glop and fried protein, salty and sugary snacks posing as appetizers, etc.

I can remember the first time I ate Italian food in Italy, thinking it wasn’t Italian food at all having grown up on what was said to be Italian food, but was actually high protein versions of foods from Gaeta, Naples, the region of Catania, and Sicily.

Same with Indian food: It’s subtle.  It’s regional.  It’s history consumed.

These things matter since food is one of the best ways to express culture; preserve knowledge; evoke and create memory.  No terroir means no sense of place.

You say Pakora, I say Tempura: Fusion

Last night I’d asked for Pakora and the ones cooked were clearly the best I’d ever had even raising the question: What was that I’d eaten before?

Pakoras in India are served at “tea time” or as fast roadside bites and never as appetizers for one thing.

In terms of taste: These were crispier and saltier than others I’d eaten.  Further, they were made up of a variety of vegetables: Cauliflower, eggplant, okra, etc.  More like tempura than pakora I’d known.

Then it hit me: Just as the Portuguese had introduced tempura to Japan, had they introduced pakora to India?

Fusion cuisine in the 15th century!

Learning to Cook

Each day or so, Ramesh is teaching me how to cook a few Indian dishes.  These dishes appear to be rooted in western Punjabi, homestyle cooking.  (The dishes evoke Islamic-Arabian traditions and are hearty.)  As is usual in most cooking, the preparation and cooking times are expedient.  The trick is timing: When to add what.

Yesterday Ramesh taught me his version of Jeera Aloo.  The nice thing about this dish is how it seems as if one could substitute other things for the aloo (potato) such as: Chicken, firm tofu, eggplant, etc.

First you boil little potatoes, say a pound, for 10-15 minutes.  Let them cool.  Peel the skins off.  Cut into cubes.

Coat the potatoes with half-teaspoon of tumeric, salt to taste (he added too much–1/2 teaspoon), and 1/4 teaspoon of red pepper.

Coat pot with mustard oil and set heat on high.

Add 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds (jeera) and 1 tablespoon of sesame seeds to oil.  Add 1 teaspoon of mashed garlic.  Lower heat.  Stir.

Add potatoes.  Stir and coat with spices.  Cook 2-3 minutes.

Total cooking time exclusive of boiling potatoes?  4-6 minutes.

Fortunately, we had gone on a long walk for three hours prior so had an appetite.

Apple Season

Yesterday, to celebrate my daughter Madeline’s 23rd birthday (!), we decided to hire a driver at a cost of $18 to take us round-trip to Shimla, which is 12 km away.  But first it was the clearest skies since we arrived and in the near distance we saw, just north, a snow-capped mountain in Kashmir and then northeast, a small range of Himalayan peaks, very jagged, in what must have been India and then Tibet.

The drive in took an hour and change rather than the usual 25 minutes as it is apple season and in Himmachal Pradesh the fruit is regarded as the nation’s best, meaning lots of buyers.  That, plus two overturned trucks, a two lane road washed out in parts from monsoon, and three traffic cops, meant long delays.

The apples, for the record, are delicious and taste like Cortland’s.

In Shimla, which is noted in several books I’m reading this summer, including, “A Passage to India,” we strolled The Mall: Anglican churches, large stones for pavement, many doctors, students, nurses, and staff from the Indira Gandhi Hospital & Medical College.

Just below is the Lower Bazaar with a fine mosque, many vendors of clothing, fruits, vegetables, nuts, shoes, and books.  We bought raw cashews and a plastic, orange monkey god.

In town there’s a branch of a first-rate southern Indian veg restaurant; I’d been to the Mother Ship in Defence Colony, Delhi, and this was just as good.  Dosas, aloo dumplings, uttapam, etc.  Lunch for four?  $11.  Can’t beat it.

Later, at home, the afternoon rains came and some dozed while others read.

Waking up it was gin and pan seared cashews followed by lamb biryani and a wonderful chocolate cake tasting like PB&J.

Kids in Tow

The sun is rising over northern hills which border Kashmir.  The monkey man has made his first shouts of the day.  A bird whistles unfamilarly.

Yesterday, we took a two hour walk on a ridge near three dhaba, Tibetan women selling warm clothing, and two schools.  We had walked the walk before, but this time it was with the kids.  They had arrived the day before.

Unfortunately, no monkeys.

But as clouds rolled in and out, Shimla and valleys came into view, disappeared, returned.  Light rain, no rain.  Lots of slugs.  It was all very mystical.  Except for the slugs who can’t help being sluggish.  It’s their nature, immutably.

Lunch, as usual, was robust veg: Jazzed up with a red bean dal.

Dinner was a curried chicken (‘natch) and “ladyfingers” or fried okra strips along with other veg items.

Tomorrow the cook will teach me how to make a curried potato dish.

As today is Madeline’s birthday–23–and we are going to Shimla, the most famous of hill stations, for a southern veg lunch.

Monkeys on the Mall, little doubt of that.