Summer Holiday!

This year during my daughter’s summer school break, we visited my parents in Kolkata, a city in the East of India. We were visiting the city after a gap of 4 years and were pleasantly surprised how much it has changed in the few years. For one, the city looks much cleaner and greener. The roads are wider and the parks near my parents home have been given a ‘facelift’ with fancy park benches, sculptors and lovely landscaping. The streets have decorative lamps and a lot is being done in terms of connecting the ends of the city through subways and roads. Kolkata reminds me of my own childhood, where my parents used to take me for every summer vacation. It reminds me of my grandmother’s home, where the kids used to have their fill of sweet juicy mangoes, tart tamarinds or homemade rice wafers during the lazy afternoons, while the adults religiously took their afternoon siestas. Kolkata is also the city where my father took me to see my first museums, planetarium and zoo.

This year, my dad took my daughter to visit some places in the city. I also realized (with a slight jealous pang) that my dad may well be my daughter’s favorite person on this planet. Unlike other cities of India where I grew up or worked, Kolkata is very unique in many ways. Everything can peacefully co exist in this city. Like the buildings from the 1800s and high rises, that may be neighbors and yet have managed to keep their places. From the first Chinese colonies in India to Armenian and Jewish heritage, people of every race, ethnicity, qualification, can find a place to co-exist here.

No wonder I liked New York City during the two years I spent there. It reminded me so much about India and particularly Kolkata. The sea of people of all races, the street carts selling gyros, dosas, biryani and the most wonderful Jackson Heights. With its rows of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian shops. In NYC, I also sampled international cuisines to my heart’s content. I think my heart is tied between a pho and a sushi, but still, I cannot turn down a warm toasty bagel with spinach cheese spread or a soft pretzel with apple almond dip!

The small street side independently owned shops in NYC are very similar to those in Kolkata. In Kolkata, people from different ethnicities have bonded well over food via their will to extend the boundaries of their cuisines, by way of flexibilities or through experimentation. I had my fill of traditional Bengali vegetables which I cannot cook or are unavailable in my city. One of my delectable is unripe green figs, which can be cooked with potatoes in tomato garlic gravy. I was fortunate enough that the lady who helps my mother at home brought us some young figs from her fig tree. Another dish that most Bengalis have tasted is a paste of Taro stems with fresh coconut. Traditional recipes that require more effort to cook are slowly being wiped out from our daily lives, but in Kolkata, many restaurants have begun to spring up which promise food from yesteryears which are now being replaced at home by quick fixes.

A book that I own named ‘The Calcutta Cookbook’ by Minakshi Dasgupta is quite a favorite and it covers recipes beyond all ethnicities that have now added to the Kolkata heritage. This year I had my fill of sweet mangoes and juicy litchis too. Of the 30 varieties of Mangoes available in India, Himsagar is my favourite. It is very sweet and has more flesh than other varieties. It is available only for 4 weeks in Kolkata, just like the litchis. The production of Himsagar is small, but to the Kolkata dweller, one Himsagar a day is a must while it is in season.

Below is a list of a few videos of Kolkata from the view point of a foodie-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLeEK2YjC4Y

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saIU-ahpsdE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHiLQYwZ0jo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJblfGmlsE4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KBXfV9NsGg

 

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Summer or Simmer!

It is hot in my city, absolutely scorching and I miss my walks through the office garden. I feel my skin burn everytime I have to be in the open and the tap waters are perpetually hot, be it early morning or late evening. This dry kind of heat penetrates my soul and dehydrates it to the core. I am snappy and irritating to be around and always dreaming of ice creams and popsicles, so yes, when I am in office meetings, I am really not listening, my notes are usually full of doodles of ice cream cones and faces transform to chocolaty glaciers. I am not used to extreme temperatures and every summer, I suffer a heat stroke. My family members have gently advised me that it’s only a state of mind; that I need to shut myself off to the surrounding heat. Is that really possible? Would imagining myself in an igloo solve the problem? I don’t think so. The constant ice cream images dont help either.

And I am humbled by everyone who has to work outdoors during this peak heat, especially those indulging in physical labor. Yesterday, my daughter’s homework (she is in grade III) was on interviewing the person who cooks at home and find out their struggles and how she could support them in their work.

I had tried pushing myself as the cook at home, as a potential interviewee, which she quickly ‘shooed’ away as ‘you are not the official cook, only the weekender experimenter’ and I clearly heard the Thank God! in her expressions that the household did not have to bear my recipes during most of the week. Instead she interviewed Manju who makes dinner for us at home every night. Manju is the representative of a quintessential Indian support system for working mothers like me. I am only blessed to give her full independence of my kitchen on weekdays, so that I don’t have another ‘to do’ item on my never ending list. And gratefully, my daughter likes Manju’s culinary skills, so I am fine with it too.

Manju was very amused with my daugther’s questions and it came as no surprise that her main struggle was to tolerate the kitchen heat, the hot stoves in the several households she sustains with the food she makes everyday. As to the support she requires from my daughter, it was a measly glass of cold drinking water after her chore at our home. Even though Manju and I share ups and downs in our otherwise healthy relationship, my appreciation and respect for her and for all those champion support system reps like her, did increase after yesterday. It also helped my daughter be more cognizant about everyone around. Though she is a better and far more empathetic person than I am and I hope this trait stays with her as she grows older.

As a public health research enthusiast, I am glad that several cities have a ‘heat action plan’ this year and are attempting to generate awareness amongst community on ways to beat the heat, in addition to capacity build care givers on responding to heat related illness.

Temperature tolerating clothing based on chemical and electrical principals is also in the market. These can bear extreme temperature shifts and are suitable both for cold and hot weather. Some of these are being tested in soldiers who are posted at extreme weather conditions. I look forward to a day when cheaper versions can be worn by construction workers, road repair men, community care givers and the Manjus at every home. Here’s to innovations for community health and to a safe summer everyone!

Eyes to mouth existence

It has been raining almost every evening past couple of weeks and one such evening, while exploring my options for dinner, I was attracted to the idea of assembling a hot bowl of Pho with veggies of my choice (which most often translates to whatever bits of green is remaining in the fridge to be cleared away!). Something about a steaming delicious broth on a rainy day is very appealing, especially if it can be paired with munchies of your choice, like mushrooms, bean sprouts, a few chopped chilies,  an aromatic herb like cilantro and of course, the wonderfully filling, piping hot rice noodles, soaked up in delectable flavors.

As I began my research for broth recipes on my favorite recipe hunting sites, I could not steer my brain away from viewing videos of sushi instead. This is the regular story of my life; I start searching for something and always end up being glued to something else, which in case of food, is anything sushi. Something about the chef’s fingers and palm, weaving magic around the white of the rice, the pink of the fish, the exact dot of wasabi here, the thin sheet of ginger there, is so similar to a ballet dancer floating around the podium or Pavarotti rendering the Nessun Dorma; you don’t have to be an expert in the form, just relish the experience with your senses (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZZZ5wxUf3U). We ‘taste’ art through our eyes, ears and ultimately, mouth in the case of sushi.

There’s a lot of research done on neurons, brain, gut, psychology, pathology, physiology, genetics etc that does point out that food is first devoured by eyes and then nose and then the signaling cascades from the gut to regions in the brain that also control hunger, sense energy equilibrium and last but not the least are centers of our memory (please see references at the end). But what if one can’t ‘see’ their food? Would it heighten other senses like the taste buds, touch, smell? I did experience this once at the Dialogue in the Dark outlet (http://www.dialogueinthedarkindia.com/ ); however unlike others who raved about the experience of eating in pitch dark, I came out disappointed, mostly, with myself. I kind of like appreciating my food with eyes first and call me insecure and mistrusting, have to be sure its hygienic with no foreign particles hanging around.

Although the same me, will not really think twice before devouring 20 roadside phuchkas in 5 minutes or relishing a kala khatta chuski with gay abandonment, completely knowing that the guy fixing the chuski has to do ten things before he puts his hands on the ice (the ice is another story….a friend who was wary with my addiction to chuski once told me that the ice they use is available cheap at medical colleges preserving cadavers….yuk! I know!…but it’s 0 degrees, and mostly nothing can survive 0 degrees, I think my brain understands that and also, my friend is really weird!).

So I think quality of care/service matters and hence when I walk into a good restaurant, I hope to be treated better with adequate attention to quality and taste and presentation; and on the other hand, am just experiencing the food item for what it is, during my roadside escapades. Interesting experiments with food presentation, does indicate that visual effects rate higher in taste even though two plates may contain the exact same ingredients.  In this particular experiment, the same salad with the exact same ingredients was plated in three different ways, one usual, second neat (where all components were segregated and neatly spaced out) and the last one in the form of an art inspired abstract painting. Sixty participants were asked to answer a series of questions about visual appeal to taste and even though the ingredients were the same, found the artsy plate not only most appealing, but thought to have the highest tastiness quotient as well.

Have there been instances where I have been wowed enough to be apprehensive about dismantling and eat a dish that looked quite magnificent? Twice I think, many many years ago, was amazed with the layered ice cream treat aptly named ‘gadbad’ (trouble) at a newly opened Manglorean eatery near college (ahh! those were the days!) and then many years ago in some Southern Californian beach place, in one of those alfresco restaurants, was completely flummoxed when served an exquisite plate of torched figs over baked brie encased in puff pastry with a lovely flourish of walnut honey sauce (ahh! again).

However, there’s nothing like a simple, warm, fragrant bowl of Pho when you are hungry and rain drops are painting your window panes…..which brings me back to broths, oh well! that is a subject for another post isn’t it? And in case you are wondering what I ended up eating that night, well….I was lucky, there behind all the boxes and bits of refusals, the naysayers, the pick me laters and procrastinators in my refrigerator, was a small stash of spicy peanut sauce that was just waiting to be picked up and tossed in with some warm noodles…..Pho would have to wait for the next monsoons I guess!

Reads:

  1. https://flavourjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/2044-7248-3-7
  2. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278262615300178
  3. http://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(15)00261-5
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4373539/