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?

The Case of the Smoking Hard Disk

April 16, 2006
The trouble with digital photography is that you get digital photographs. Digital photographs require digital storage. And, for any avid amateur photographer who can’t tell good from bad from positively ugly, and who therefore indiscriminately refuses to delete any photograph, even those resulting from an accidental click of the shutter, it requires an abundance of storage space.Now, as you all know, we are a fairly tech savvy couple, with a combined wealth of three laptops and a desktop, which total to about 150 GB (plus three CD writers). Not all of this is meant for photographs, of course – some of it must be reserved for office work. Still, if you discount about 20-30 GB for office work, we should have enough digital memory to store photographs for some time to come. Or so it would seem.

However, the fact remains that we are perpetually out of disk space and perpetually fighting over what little remains. (This is in part due to the almost total inaccessibility of the desktop. It is a Linux box, whose monitor has been stolen by the laptop, and which must therefore be accessed remotely by means of VNC or somesuch magic, even to the extent of booting it blindly.)

So, to solve the photo storage problem, we went and bought an external hard disk. A second external hard disk, to be precise, because I had bought one when I went on my extended vacation in the Himalayas. With these two we had an additional 120 GB to play around with, if only we could get them to work. We’d already had some trouble getting a consistent result from the first one: it frequently made a noise like a time bomb ticking and then refused to explode or do anything else (thus putting us in a state of permanent suspense). But with the new disk, we were full of hope. This one would surely work and solve all our problems. All we needed was an external case with a power cord.

We spent the next four weekends visiting all the computer shops in Koramangala, MG Road, Brigade Road and even going as far afield as Commercial Street – and believe me, that’s a lot of computer shops. It’s not that we didn’t find any cases; we found plenty. They just didn’t work! The first one we tried allowed us to read and format the hard disk, but not copy any data. After that, it was downhill all the way. By the end of our tour of computer shops, the cases, when connected to a power outlet, would immediately start smoking and promising leaping flames in the immediate future.

But the thing is, the hard disk wasn’t faulty. This we knew because we had tried it on a friend’s computer and it worked beautifully, both externally and internally.

By now, I thought we might be acquiring a degree of infamy among the Bangalore computer stores. I could see wires buzzing as the new flew around network: BEWARE THE YOUNG COUPLE WITH THE SMOKING HARD DISK!!! I even fancied I could glimpse some computer stores hurriedly downing shutters, the shop assistants scuttling nervously out and ducking into side alleys as they saw us approaching with hard disk in hand and grim determination written on our faces.

So we decided to try the hard disk out on our friend’s computer once again. If it worked, we might even persuade him to buy it off us. So off we went on Saturday and cajoled him into testing it. And guess what… his computer wouldn’t even boot up once it was plugged in!

Post Script: It wasn’t until much, much later that we conclusively found the problem. It lay not in the hard disk, but rather, in the casing. It was the case of the hard disk that was smoking – get it?


January 9, 2006

My tennis sir called me a liar! What cheek! And not once, but thrice!!!

It was like this. He asked me to play against the wall. So I lined up and whacked the ball at the wall and it went away somewhere (the ball, not the wall, I mean) and didn’t come back to me. I tried again, with a similar result. Then, the third time I sent the ball, it came back somewhat as I expected. I whacked it again and it bounced back again. So I rallied with the wall with a modicum of success, about five shots. That’s when he called me a liar.

According to him, a beginner cannot play with the wall so well. It’s not easy, he said. But I thought it was far easier than playing with a person. The wall is always predictable, you don’t have to wonder whether it’s going to hit the ball hard or soft or from the sweet spot or not, or with a top spin or a back spin or a sideways spin. The wall hits it back the exact same way every time.

Anyway, I tried to explain to tennis sir that playing with the wall was a question of timing, rhythm, nothing else. And though I’m a beginner at tennis (I tried to assure him) I do understand rhythm because rhythm has to do with music and music I have long experience of. Playing music, I mean, with others, in a group, in a strict beat. He looked a little fazed and very far from convinced.

Oh well. That’s what you get for playing well. Next time I’ll be sure to play badly for a while.

Dinner with a Sting

January 5, 2006

Q: When is a dinner out not just a dinner out? If you said, when it is a celebration, you would be right, but, there’s another answer too. When it is a sting operation.

Let me explain.

A friend has a friend who has a restaurant. The restaurant (which shall remain un-named) is run by a manager. The friend’s friend (i.e. the owner) suspects that the manager is cheating him, by generating hand-written bills for some customers and pocketing the cash.

Enter the Dreadful Duo. (That’s Amit and me, in case you were wondering.) Go have dinner there and collect a bill, the friend instructed us. And keep your eyes open while you’re there (not that I usually dine with my eyes shut) and see what kinds of bills other customers get.

Act 1 Scene 2: The Dreadful Duo enter the restaurant, eyes open, senses on high alert. We seated ourselves strategically in this charming little restaurant and craned our necks this way and that to see what kinds of bills other diners were getting. Then we thought we might appear a bit suspicious ourselves, so we indulged in muted conversations and, instead of craning our necks, let our eyes roll around in every direction, sneakily. If the restaurant had served alcohol, people might have thought us a little drunk. Since it only served fresh lime soda, I wonder what they thought.

At any rate, they must have thought us more than a bit strange because, whenever a waiter approached or passed us, Amit would kick me on the shin to warn me to shut up (if I happened to be speculating on the nature of the bill, which I mostly was). And whenever a table had apparently finished their meal, Amit would stare fixedly in their direction until they were presented with a bill and then he would all but get up and go stand behind the host to see whether it was hand-written or not.

All our observations (and while we dined, we caught a glimpse of a grand total of two bills!) led us to conclude that computer-generated bills were being presented, hence indicating that everything was above board and that the friend’s friend was being unjustly suspicious.

Then came our turn. The waiter approached with the bill. He delicately (but tactlessly) placed the folder in front of me. Then he withdrew. With bated breath, Amit watched as I opened the folder. Fully aware of the tension, I slowly lifted the flap and saw: Rs 245. Ok, that’s not too bad, I thought (the food was actually rather good). And then I realized I was supposed to be looking at the bill, not the amount (a rather difficult thing to do, I should tell you; you must try it some day).

It was hand-written.

With some difficulty I restrained Amit from pouncing on the manager there and then. Calmly, I paid up. Should we tip? Why, asked Amit, they’re pocketing the entire bill amount anyway. Good point.

Feeling rather smug with the indisputible success of our sting operation, we headed home.

The Joys of Exercising

October 19, 2005

Imagine snuggling in bed, curling up with someone under a cozy blanket at 6 o’clock on a slightly chilly, rainy morning. Isn’t it the most wonderful thing in the world?

Now imagine the wretched alarm going off. First at 6, then at 6.15, then at 6.30! I feel like just destroying the miserable thing, the instrument of destruction of warmth, and sleep, and dreams, and love.

And why, pray, should I torment myself by setting the alarm for 6 a.m. in the first place, you may well ask. To get up and go for a morning walk? To give up snoozing and mooching under a blanket for vigorous exercise on a drizzly early morning? Wha..? Do I look stupid to you?

But that’s exactly what this stupid husband of mine has been persuading me to do. Sadist. Masochist. Considering that he’s the one I’m busy curling up with. What an idiot.

And all in the name of good health. Fitness. Weight loss. Humph!

So anyway, for the past few days I have been stumbling groggily around the neighborhood, sleep oozing out of my eyes. I even looked right through my next door neighbor as though she were a dream – and not of the nicest kind, either. I had to go and knock on her door and apologise to her later. I mean, one can’t afford to give offense to one’s default letter box, can one? She collects our post and couriers for us most of the time. Sometimes, when she hands it to us, she has this puzzled expression which Amit interprets to mean, “Why do you buy a flat if you never live in it?”

So anyway, off I go on my morning walk, unwashed, unbrushed, and only half dressed. One day, as I trotted around the park, I found that my socks were misbehaving. Sock, to be precise. It kept slipping under my heel and bunching up between the sole of my foot and the inside of my shoe. This was so irritating that I decided it was a sufficient reason to shorten my customary 40 minute-walk to a mere 20 minutes. Thereafter, I started wearing that sock much more often, until it finally got worn to shreds (it wasn’t in any great shape to start with) and Amit threw it out.

And then, today, he had a new trick up his sleeve. When I came back from my walk, I found him performing various masochistic contortions on the living room carpet, as is his wont (in the name of exercise). I didn’t bother to ask him what on earth he thought he was trying to do, and went about getting myself coffee, breakfast, and a hot shower. Somewhere in the midst of these activities, he appeared in front of me and said that he was trying to touch his head to his knee, which was quite impossible. “Like how,” I asked, falling into the trap promptly.

At once he got me to raise my leg above shoulder level, prop it on a handy piece of furniture, and bend over it till my head touched my knee. This, much to his irritation, I could do without major trouble. Then he got me to sit on the cold floor and try various other impossible positions, most of which I could do with varying degrees of success. Not bad!

At last, I realized that it was all a trick to get me to do some bending and stretching exercises! I don’t know what devious motives lie behind it…

And after all that, the blasted weighing scale doesn’t work properly either. It refuses to budge below 58! Useless machine.

Well, after so much strenuous exertion, I think I deserve a treat. Let me see what delicious item I can find for lunch. In fact, why wait that long, I’m even entitled to a pre-lunch snack. (I’m staying away from cup-cakes though.)

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