Fish in Tamarind, Tomato, and Coconut Gravy

October 13, 2006
That’s what I’ve made for dinner – an attempt to redeem myself in the aunt’s eyes in terms of specifically my fishy culinary skills. I think there should be a Mallu name for this dish, cos it tastes like something I’ve eaten in a restaurant (and just as good, though I say so myself) – but if there is, I’m not aware of it. It was orignially intended to be a plain fish curry. Then I added the tamarind – but it was waaaaaaaaaay too much. What to do? The choices were sugar, potato (supposed to absorb flavors and can then be chucked out; but I didn’t have any at home) or dessicated coconut. I opted for the coconut and voila – it turned Malabar! Hopefully this concoction with some wonderful basmati rice should do the trick.

Any which way, we’re off to Darjeeling and Peling tomorrow! Happy Diwali All!

In Flying Colours

October 8, 2006
The weekend is almost over and the pending invitation to the distant rellies is conspicuous by its absence. What a relief! Meanwhile, I’ve been working hard to rectify extremely negative first impressions generated by the disastrous welcome meal. Since Friday evening, the kitchen has been my domain and I have churned out masterpieces one after the other, starting with chicken soup from a packet improved by adding real chicken stock and scraps of chicken, and progressing in gradual stages through fried arbi, to prawn in coconut curry.

Yesterday evening was torture, though, because it involved making a bong horror story called Shukto, which consists of many inedible ingredients such as egg plant, bitter gourd, raw banana, flat beans, white radish (or whatever Mooli is called in english) and drumsticks. While my trusty cook and I were in the midst of putting together this nightmare dish under instruction from the aunt, three other items were also in the frying pan, namely, slimy dal (urad dal made slimy – don’t ask me how, I’m still trying to figure it out), malpooa (a sweet – something of a cross between shahi tukra and gulab jamun), and chicken curry. At least I was the sole owner of the last named… but with four people crowded into my tiny kitchen putting together four items in parallel, the evening could best be described as chaotic.

This morning, we of course had enough food left over to feed a small army, but I was feeling done out. Last evening having been spent receiving instruction, I needed to do something to redeem my reputation – or perhaps to establish one – as a capable cook. Mutton curry, I felt, would do the trick. Not to be unduly modest, mutton curry is one of the things – apart from cakes – that I do know how to make and make well.

So, Sunday being a lazy sort of day, mutton was ordered home by phone and at 10.30 I disappeared into the kitchen with it. In my opinion, cooking is best done in a slow, leisurely fashion. So it was 12.30 before the mutton was ensconced in the defective pressure cooker, and 1.3o before it was declared done. Meanwhile I had been busy filing my nails, oiling and washing my hair, and making polite conversation on the phone and fending off intrusive personal questions from another bunch of distant rellies.

Needless to say, the mutton curry was a hit. It went down so well, that I’m sure the aunt ate more than she should have from a red-meat and blood pressure perspective, and less than she would have liked. She asked searching questions about the preparation, which I answered openly as I have no culinary secrets from her (except for the small matter of sambar powder, which, had I told her, might have shocked her to the core). From the tenor of the conversation I gathered that this mutton curry was about to go down in the extended family history as my culinary masterpiece – being the head of the family and a discerning gourmet to boot, her opinion counts for a lot. She even invited me to repeat the dish at Amit’s birthday party, at which 20 plus of the family’s most important members would be present. I wormed my way out of that one…  while I do make a pretty scrumptious mutton curry, what if just due to performance anxiety I were not able to pull it off in those circumstances? It would not be my own kitchen, after all, nor my own defunct pressure cooker. And besides, where would I get sambar powder???

Anyway, only a dinner to go and then we’re done… and there is a little bit of mutton curry left, to reinforce the impression made at lunch. Everything going well, I might pass the culinary test in – to borrow a phrase from a comment to the previous blog – flying colours.

In-law Update

October 5, 2006
Despite what some of my friends may think, I do not fare well in a crowd, specially if it is a crowd of strangers, or not-very-well-known people. Throw in a communication barrier such as a heavy dose of Bengali, which, contrary to expectations is not my mother tongue (though it could possibly be considered my “father tongue”), and I’m at my quiet best. I have been “acquiring” the language for the past eight years, but beyond some stock phrases and a limited “daily-use” vocabulary, my powers of expression have not progressed.

So most of my interactions with my extended circle of in-laws have been brief and superficial. Since I usually meet about two dozen of them at a time for a period of not more than two days at a time, communication by way of a smile and a nod worked just fine on most occasions.

This time with Amit’s aunt, the head of the family, it’s been different. I’ve actually been trying to hold regular conversations on advanced subject matters such as trekking – and though I’m sure my pidgin Bengali is a pain to any sensitive ears, at least we are communicating. It’s quite nice!

After spending one short day with us, she went off to stay with another branch of the family. The exchange was carried out over a family lunch. This other branch of the family stays quite nearby but we haven’t met them more than once in all the years we have been in Bangalore. The reason: family politics. Somebody’s father insulted somebody’s brother several decades ago.  Since this aunt is closely related to both branches of the family, meeting them was inevitable. We went over there for lunch and were subjected to exquisite formality and polite interest in our lives and vocations (and, for that matter, vacations). Everything was warm and friendly and nice. Their apartment was lavish, posh, extravagant, huge (there was a living-room-sized verandah adjacent to the ballroom-sized living room) and pristine. The lunch was scrumptious and handmade by the two women of the house. As we left (minus the aunt) promises to meet again were sincerely exchanged by all.

Now social convention demands that we invite this lot (ten people and two kids!) to our place for a lunch and soon. But Amit has very little intention of obliging this particular social convention. Today he will stop by at their place to his way home from work, to pick up the aunt, but unless she holds a gun to his head, he doesn’t intend to invite them over this weekend (or any other weekend for that matter).

This suits me fine. You see, I welcomed the aunt last weekend with a meal that was a complete disaster. The traditional potato preparation was anything but traditional, and the fish curry was only just short of poisonous. Bengali cuisine just does not run in my veins. If we had to entertain them to a meal, what would I serve? Non-bengali food is not likely to find favor with this lot. To make matters worse, my mutton curry, which I consider my strong point in my culinary skills, would be totally put to shame by the dry mutton masala preparation that they had served. Of course I can make cakes like nobody else can, but one can hardly just serve cake for lunch.

So now it’s Friday morning and the aunt arrives this evening for dinner. Instead of concentrating on work – of which I have plenty, for a change – I’m only worrying about what to do for the next five major meals of the weekend (breakfasts don’t count). Any advice?

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