A blueberry mood

It is my first bake in the UK. Ever since I moved to Leicester which was in July this year. And it is a blueberry tart that smells luscious even in the preparatory stage. So while I type away here, the crust is chilling in the refrigerator and the filling of blueberries, orange zest, nutmeg and maple syrup is sitting for the flavours to blend well together. The bluish-grey filling speckled with bits of orange smells very Christmassy, I think, because of the pinch of nutmeg that went into it. But what joy it brings.

My love affair with baking started in Delhi when I played around with recipes of cupcakes, savoury cupcakes, cheesecakes, pies and cakes. But my favourite discovery has been this that salty icing tastes much better when swirled on cupcakes, than a horribly sugary concoction that promises to numb my senses (don't know about you!) with a saccharine sweet high. Also, another favourite of mine is a dark chocolate icing that I whip up for cakes with fresh cream. It is smooth, dark and delectable.

Soon I shall be pouring the filling after cooking it simultaneously while the crust bakes to an alluring golden hue. And my fingers smell of the fresh and citrusy aromas of the orange that I just zested into the bowl of filling.

A bit of trivia I loved reading about why blueberries have always been such a favourite. If a Roman physician called Dioscorides prescribed blueberries as the perfect cure for dysentery, rich Roman matrons bathed in tea made from blueberry leaves to intensify their tan. And while the Celtics and Galli ate blueberries and at the same time used their juice as a fabric dye, during World War II, as a war tactic to intimidate the Germans, the British military spread the rumour that British pilots were able to see enemy plans even when flying in the dark due to a diet rich in blueberries -- apparently it helped improve night vision!

Meanwhile, have a lovely Sunday and here's to my bit of indulgence for the weekend.


A Porn Star Martini for you, dear November

I had it two ways. The Porn Star Martini.

But before I launch into a diatribe on it, know this that it is a glamorous cocktail of sorts and it is all about the passion fruit. Though along with passion fruit liqueur and passion fruit puree you should expect vanilla vodka, vanilla sugar and half of a passion fruit too. And a champagne chaser.

The first time I tried it, I bit into the luscious passion fruit (never mind the seeds), took a sip from my martini glass and subsequently downed the shot glass of bubbly. Oh it was such a beatific feeling, I promise. It even brought the most beatific grin to my face. It was my cousin brother's 38th birthday at the Hoxton Hotel in London and a few ros├ęs down, it was time for the martini.

The second time, it was bought by this drunk stranger, but boy was she fun and vivacious. She made me empty the shot glass into the martini glass and down it all in one go. The buzz was passion fruity and I could feel happiness bubbling all the way to my brain cells.

November, this year, has started on an exciting note. The very first day of the month, I did the quintessential girly thing to do. Shopped. For a few wardrobe essentials such as a black Paddington Coat, a black trench coat with military -style epaulettes with vintage gold buttons, a Christmas-sy red woollen skirt with little reindeer in white prancing around on it. There were more of course, but these were the highlights of my time out.

The weekend meanwhile was spent trolloping around London. And boy, was it cold and so windy that I could feel numbness and needles strike at the same time. But husband A spent time at his two favourite places -- Chipotle and Abercrombie & Fitch -- and declared that he wanted to return to London. Imagine my relief.

London is one of my favourite cities. There is colour, people, coffee shops and bars -- a medley of which set my senses running amok with happiness. What charms me more than anything is that you can walk almost anywhere and then there is the tube which makes life so easy. I am not really much for driving. So I give kudos to a city that encourages walking and using public conveyance as much as London does. Plus as the lights start shining from the nooks and corners of ancient white buildings of the city, nothing compares to it.

To return to my rambling, I have already got my first two gifts for my 32nd birthday. A vermillion red dress coat from Mango on Regent Street that screams chic. And a small jewellery box in wood with an enamelled top along with a beautiful raspberry-flavoured cupcake bath bomb.

November, you are happiness. Salud.


Pujo Leicester-style

I am a Bengali. As must have been established more than a few times in my little corner of cyber space. So one of the biggest things in the life of a Bengali is an annual festival called Durga Puja. Or Pujo rather as we Bengalis tend to refer to it. The 'O' sound being our favourite, much to the amusement of the rest of the world including my husband. He often mouths out khabo (will eat), korbo (will do) and jaabo (will go) etcetera as examples of the fact that my community loves the expression 'O'.

Well, this year is our first year in the UK celebrating Durga Pujo. It is interesting. We have our invite to attend the pujo organised by Leicester's probashi (NRI Bengalis) club.

The lady in the image I have put up above is Ma Durga. She is the Goddess who I have known as Ma (mother) Durga ever since I was a wee kid. She, according to legend, defeated the evil buffalo demon called Mahishasura and ever since it has been celebrated every year by us.

No city can do justice to Durga Pujo like Calcutta. It is the city where I grew up from the age of 8 years (before which I was in Oman), the city which taught me to love shorshe ilish (mustard hilsa), showed me how a festival can be enjoyed for five days (Shashthi, Maha Saptami, Maha Ashtami, Maha Navami and Vijayadashami)at a stretch with unparalleled pomp, gave me a pujo that has now been organised every year in the family since the last 80 years, instilled a deep love and appreciation for food.

Pujo for me has always been a time for new clothes. It is a common question that is bandied around during this time of the year among Bengalis, "Kota notun jama holo ebar (how many new clothes do you have this time)?" When I was in my teens I would be almost frantic with worry. I had to get at least five items in my wardrobe. How could I head out with friends every day to the pandals without one new salwar kameez or kurta each day? Now that I look back, I almost laugh with a little bit of derision at the vanity that prompted me to go ballistic. On the other hand, it was a childhood pleasure.

It was also the time of the year, when I would be forced to get up early -- I have never been much of a morning person -- bathe, put on my new clothes and drive off to the family pujo which would be held in rotation at three houses in the family each year. Our house is one of those three luck houses.

Every fourth year, the pujo shifts to my place in Saltlake.

Mornings during those five days were almost always to be started without food unless we had prayed and offered anjali (chants with flowers) to Ma Durga. The chant went thus:

(O, Jayanti, Mangala, Kali, Bhadrakali, Kapalini, Durga, Shiva, Khama, Dhatri, Swaha, Shwadha, my earnest dedication to you all. Ma Durga, salutation to thee).

Then the prasad (blessed food) would come in the form of pats of banana and lentils mashed together, various sweets, and my favouries: white and chocolate coloured narokler naru (traditional roundels of sweets made with coconut).

I have memories of helping my mother grate the coconut on the dau (a sharp iron instrument for chopping and cutting) and her making narus with milkmaid. The narus especially tasted delicious when made with milkmaid.

After some time spent with cousins bantering around, we would trip for lunch made by the thakur. And most usually there would be steaming platefuls of rice, accompanied by beguni (fried eggplant), jhuri bhaaja (thin juliennes of potato fried crisp), shukto, some other vegetable dish. On Ashtami or the eight day, there would be kosha mangsho (spicy mutton) with luchi as a special meal. Oh, how it makes me nostalgic.

The day that I would really cherish and at the same time feel horribly sad was the last day or the 10th day of Vijaydashami. I loved it because of the tradition we have of going on the visarjan (immersion) of the idol to the ghats of the river Hooghly. It happens usually on a truck. So the idol is hoisted onto the truck and then the family clambers in, taking their place on chairs placed within the truck or simply on rugs. It is not a very clean affair. CClothes do end up getting dirty. After all, you are in a truck. So most of us tended to wear old, worn clothes. After a beautiful drive in the truck passing by the picturesque Victoria Memorial, which looks even more beautiful at night, when we arrived at the ghats of the Hooghly the girls would chomp on bhelpuri and jhaal muri and all kinds of fried snacks. While the men would carry the idol to the water for immersion.

Last year, I got to sit atop the truck on its topmost deck above the driver's cabin. It was my high point because when I was small, only the elder brothers had the privilege.

Once back home, we would see a small fish tied to the gate as a symbol of good luck and prosperity and enter for a small puja after which we would touch the elders' feet and then hog on big, syrupy sweet amrittis (a fatter version of jalebis). Dinner followed right after when we would feast on the most sumptuous food cooked for the occasion. My favourites were always the shorshe ilish -- I would have three to four pieces of fish -- and the Durga Doi (yoghurt tempered with spices) and tauk (tamarind water). Then everyone would go home and just suddenly I would feel incredibly sad.

Here is a chant from the Durga Shloka to leave you with

Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu Matri rupena samsthita
Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu Shakti rupena samsthita
Ya Devi sarva bhutesu Shanti rupena samsthita
Namestasyai Namestasyai Namestasyai Namoh Namah

(The goddess who is omnipresent as the personification of universal mother
The goddess who is omnipresent as the embodiment of power
The goddess who is omnipresent as the symbol of peace
I bow to her, I bow to her, I bow to her)


Chancing upon a ghost town...

...is always exciting, yes. What is its story? Why did it transform into a ghost town? Who were the people staying there and how did it affect them? The questions run amok in my mind.

While reading a travel writer, Bill Bryson to be precise, I came upon the story of this town called Centralia in Eastern Pennysylvania. Now, maybe some of you have already heard about it, but this is a first for me. I am curious, and intrigued, and I am contemplating putting it on my must-see list.

Centralia became a ghost town because in 1962 a fire on the edge of town ignited a coal seam. And thereafter, as much as the fire department tried to douse the fire, it kept springing back to life. Bryson quite aptly makes an analogy to 'those tricky birthday candles that go out for a moment and then spontaneously reignite'. Now what is of crucial importance to this incident is that Centralia was a coal town mining anthracite which is hugely combustible. The fire therefore never really died out.

Yet people continued to live there. Till two major incidents forced them to do a rethink. In 1979, the owner of a fuel station found the temperature in his undergroud tanks scaling up to 172 degrees farenheit while roads started caving in. The second major incident took place in 1981 when a young boy called Todd Domboski, aged 12, almost felt into a pit spewing noxious fumes of carbon monoxide in his grandmother's yard. The town was abandoned slowly but apparently a few people are still hanging onto their houses and residing there.

The same year, in 1981, The Time magazine also did a story on it calling it The Hottest Town in America.

The photographs I have culled are images of the town that smokes on, its caved in roads and the last image is of Domboski staring at the pit he was rescued from.


The Naked Chef

No, I am not just going to launch into a diatribe on Jamie Oliver -- remember he is often referred to as The Naked Chef. I am assuming not because he cooks in the nude, but more probably because of his book that went by that very title.

My naked chef was a petite lady in an all-white ensemble and a white turban who presented her guests with the most fantastic naked food lunch on her 60-something birthday.

So have you ever been to a raw food party? If the answer is a resounding no -- given that you are probably thinking I am loony to even suggest it -- you should simply procure an invitation to one. Seriously.

On a particular afternoon, while feeling horribly bloated, I had to still make my way to a studio in Jangpura for Ms S's lunch. Lest you are a bit curious, she is a raw food specialist along with a host of other things. Read: acupuncturist, hypnotherapist and yoga instructor.

You can imagine my state of mind. It was ruled by three things at that point of time – bloating; the fact that I was working and had to be on my toes noting down everything; and last but not the least, the prospect of digging into raw food.

With great reservation, I climbed the steps of a two-storey house to find a round table of lunching ladies – a gathering of a bunch of socialites and expats. At the head of the table was the hostess.

It all started with a prayer and an exhortation from Ms S to start chewing in slow motion.

The first bite had me hooked. It was a dehydrated onion cracker that kind of inaugurated the session for me and I cannot tell you how I craved for more. But all I did was tell myself to behave and continue munching demurely.

The affair with raw food started with a plate of appetizers of those delectable onion crackers, a dense non-flour bread, non-dairy cheese, fig tapenade and sundried tomatoes.

Next in line were small crunchy sticks of vegetables wrapped in collard greens, mushrooms stuffed with raw falafel and a zuchini apple salad. Then came a course of ravioli, made not of flour but ingredients like spinach, flax seeds and non-dairy milk (churned out of almonds).

Yes the courses were many.

The denouement but lay appropriately enough towards the end when Ms S started rolling out the desserts bit by bit.

Mint cookies that were inspired by American style- Girl Scout-esque cookies (reminiscent of Ms S’s childhood growing up in America), a parfait of vanilla cream, strawberries and chocolate, macaroons, some spicy ginger sweets, chocolate hearts, chocolate brownies, and whew, a non-dairy ice cream too made with coconut and non-dairy cream.

It was washed down with soothing lemongrass and ginger tea at the conclusion of the afternoon.

Sounds like a food-filled noon right? Yet I felt not the slightest hint of sluggishness and returned a raw food enthusiast.


A little ode to times gone by on a slow Monday

There are days you turn up happy and hearty at work. You have that skip in your step. You love the cute, cosy office with the chirpy orange walls and the tight knit group of colleagues you think of as friends. Then there are days when you would rather be anywhere but work.

You could be browsing through book shops in the cobbled alleys of Khan Market, reading a book while nibbling on a delicious crepe and washing it down with a soulful mug of cappuccino, deciding on the must-have clothes for summer, dozing off at home with no agenda but to do a few asanas and some 30-odd rounds of surya namaskars. Pet the dog, watch a few episodes of Gossip Girl, sip on a cup of green tea before turning into bed. Snuggle upto the husband. Just talking about it makes me feel good. And it makes me sigh.

Ah yes, I do sigh a lot it seems. Though not very volubly. After all, I do not want to risk being branded the archetypal Barbara Cartland heroine who always needed healthy doses of hartshorn and a rugged hero to faint on, do I?!

The rhetoric apart, as you can detect, I am in the I-want-to-do-nothing-for-a-while mood. There are these bouts of nostalgia that are threatening to take over my day even while I strive to file a cover story for the Sunday magazine.

Memories from long ago flit in and out. College. Friends. Canteen. Promod da (the portly owner of the canteen). His chicken shingaras. Playing cards with the most random set of guys in the dark recesses of our canteen -- oh, that beloved canteen with political rantings inscribed all over its walls!

Collecting a rupee from each and every one around just to make up the requisite ten bucks to buy Pepsi on those hot summer afternoons. Casting puppy eyed looks at the crush of my life. Going for cheap Chinese meals at the hole-in-the-wall joint called Gunjan. The paan shop off College Street offering a hundred varieties of paan that included my favourite Dilkhush paan. Bengali rock bands playing in the college grounds on those evenings during the college fest.

Browsing for cheap books on College Street. Wandering off into Coffeehouse across the street from college to see the big deal about it. Reference: Manna Dey’s wistful number, Coffeehouser shei addata aaj aar nei, aaj aar nei…The disappointment that almost always accompanies heightened expectations to see a shabby, smoke-filled old place instead of the place that was known for the kind of people who frequented it. Yes, it was the point of rendezvous for everybody from poets to artists and people from the world of art and culture. Names like Satyajit Ray, Manna Dey, Amartya Sen, Mrinal Sen and Aparna Sen all were regulars at a point of time.

The simple life of a college-going girl in the city of Calcutta. Growing up the simple way. No frills or furbelows. How I have missed you Presidency!

And yes, thank you. For all the times I have had since the time I entered your historic porch in 1999.