Jun 24, 2015

Afternoon moments

It was a cloudy afternoon, with swishing winds and a brief drizzle. I was hoping my 3.5 year old daughter would take her afternoon nap but as always, she had other plans - asking "I want to eat something" for atleast 10 times (though she had a late lunch), telling me "don't be so tired, amma" when I tried to act sleepy and finally declaring "I don't want to sleep" in a strict tone. Around the same time when the negotiations were happening between us, our two visiting cats (they adopted us) were peacefully napping in opposite corners of the house.   It felt so peaceful, to just take a few seconds to observe and admire them. Unperturbed by the noises of a toddler, without any worries or concerns, they were at peace - stretching and cuddling with their paws and taking a perfect siesta.

I'm grateful to have experienced more such peaceful afternoons with them in the last 4 years - bright sunshine gently peeking into my living room, quiet moments with no traffic noise whatsoever (though the main road is just 100 mtrs away), gentle breeze, cloudy and rainy days that give me enough reason to grab an extra cup of chai, cool and pleasant weather that inspires me to switch on the oven and bake a quick tea-time cake and many more. Taking a break for a couple of years and later choosing to work from home has helped me grab these precious afternoon moments. Moments that have made me realize and appreciate the importance of slowing down.

Life is lived in these tiny present moments, not in the distant past or foreseeable future. Just pause and absorb these moments, for it would sure give you inspirations in various areas of your life.

Which parts of the day inspire you the most - quiet mornings, peaceful afternoons or reflective evenings?

Jun 23, 2015

Book review - India on a Platter by Chef Saransh Goila

With the food habits of urban, young Indians having turned into a sad state like this - "readymade cereal for breakfast, subway sandwich for lunch and burger/pizza for dinner", this book comes as a wake-up call to all of us to appreciate the vast number of cuisines of India. I have watched many of his TV shows in FoodFood channel and I have found Chef Saransh to be a simple, down-to-earth person - be it his recipes or his friendly demeanor.

His book "India on a platter" takes the reader on a journey to the depths and breadths of India, exploring different states, cultures, traditions and most importantly, the cuisines. The book takes you on a journey to Ladakh, Jaipur, Kutch, Goa, Munnar, Hyderabad, Lucknow and Guwahati and many more. More than just a breezy travelogue, the book also dwells into the intricacies and differences in food habits, preparation methods, spices and cooking practices of these cuisines.

The thought of such a dream journey to travel across the country and learn about food from people local to each region is amazing. But executing it for 100 days and writing about the experiences in detail is a challenging effort. For someone like me who's born and brought up in the South, I got a good exposure to many of the cuisines of North, West and East, thanks to this book. Planning to read up more and check out some recipes on Mewari, Awadhi and Kutchi cuisine soon.

Many of our food-related habits and best practices are undocumented clearly and I'm glad this book has taken some steps towards this direction. Not only in terms of food, the book also captures glimpses into the lifestyle practices of the various towns and villages. Seriously, we the city-dwellers have a lot to learn about life and simple living from them.

Apart from a sneak peek into the cuisines and cultures, the chef has also detailed out 50 recipes to try out. For someone like me who loves to cook, there's now enough reasons to revisit the book again and again to try these recipes. I only wish there was an "Index" of all these recipes. Maybe, a few pictures of these recipes would have also helped. I would have also loved it if there was a Map with the route sketched that plots all the places visited.

My only regret about this book is that Saransh didn't include my state Tamilnadu in this whole journey. If he had explored, the book would have covered a little more about the vast Tamil cuisine other than the popular idli, dosa and sambhar. (He did take a trip to Pondicherry though).

Well, as he rightly said in the book, "It might take more than a lifetime to experience and explore our very own brand 'India' ".

If you love to travel and eat, then I highly recommend this book. Lots of interesting anecdotes, history and insights that will kindle your interest to explore more on Indian food and cuisines.

P.S. The book was sent to me by Flipkart as part of their "bloggers initiative". The review is my honest and unbiased feedback on the book.

Jun 15, 2015

How I'm taking a DIY approach in my kitchen

“We have so much, too much, that we can buy, yet the basic labor of doing, the making with our own hands, is what enlivens us and makes us feel human." - Dan Lepard
I came across this quote in one of the food blogs and it inspired me to write this post.

Ever since I started to consciously incorporate healthy eating as a habit, I have been focusing on eliminating various processed/packaged foods from my shopping trips and ensuring I address most of my cooking requirements from scratch. Over the years, this do-it-yourself (DIY) practice has become a habit now and it doesn't take too much of my time as I had initially thought.  Little bit of planning is all that is needed.

(1) Pasta sauce
I just counted the number of readymade pasta sauce bottles I had purchased over a period of 2 years. There are 14 of them, each used to cost around Rs.350 and a bottle would last for 2 weeknight pasta dinners. Apart from the cost factor, the taste feels artificial. You can't expect more from something that is imported and has a 2 year expiry date, right? Nevertheless, these glass bottles are now helping me towards a plastic-free pantry :-)

When I make pasta sauce from scratch, I can never get the dark red color even though I use ripe red tomatoes. I'm sure the packaged sauce has some form of artificial coloring added to it.

I prepare the pasta sauce, just before making my pasta. It hardly takes me 30 minutes to make fresh sauce and add freshly boiled pasta directly to the hot sauce. Tastes yummy, I can guarantee you.

(2) Curd/Yoghurt
Our weekly grocery store visit used to end up with 4-5 Nestle dahi cups. I remember a 400 ml cup used to cost around Rs.16 in 2005. And the rates have now gone up to Rs.55 per cup. The thick and tasty curd kept us hooked onto it for many years and we didn't feel the pinch of rising costs. Since last year, we decided to cut down on luxury expenses. The monthly expense on curd was going up (Being a South Indian, our meals always end with curd rice!). I started to buy an extra pack of Nandini milk and prepare curd every night. The home-made curd doesn't come out as thick as the store-bought one, but tastes much better. All of us at home have now got used to home-made curd, which used to be the norm when I was a kid.

(3) Idli/dosa batter
Every South Indian household would stock up on Idli/dosa batter in the fridge. For some reason, I have never been able to like the taste of store-bought batters. Either the idlis turn out hard or dosas come out with a batter-y taste. I prepare the batter at home using my mixer 1-2 times a week. Remembering to soak the ingredients is the key challenge here. Once that is planned, grinding the batter hardly takes 10 minutes. Admiring the freshly fermented well-risen batter first thing in the morning is a sheer joy to me. Apart from the regular idli/dosa batter, I make a variety of millet-based batters that increases the nutritive quotient of my family's breakfast. I mix-and-match the cereals and pulses to break the monotony.

The famous ID idli batter brand costs around 50 bucks a pack. I buy them rarely when I'm short on time or when there's nothing left in my fridge to prepare a quick dinner. I find the boat-shaped packaging (which was intended for direct use) extremely inconvenient to handle and most importantly, we are adding more plastic to the garbage. 

(4) Spice powders
Once in 3-4 months, I dry roast the ingredients and grind the powders for sambhar/rasam at home. Since I make in small quantities, it stays fresh. I can adjust the spice/heat according to my family's tastes. Recently, I have also started preparing the idli chutney powder at home. Store-bought ones are very spicy for our palate. And I'm sure of the exact ingredients I use.

(5) Sprouts, veggies and fruits
Being hygiene-conscious, I'm very skeptical of store-bought sprouts and pre-cut fruits/veggies. Even for the high-effort, tear-inducing small onions and garlic, I prefer not to buy the peeled ones. Who knows whether the person who does the peeling has washed his hands properly or not? For sprouts, I use a sprouts maker, which is just a plastic pan. You can easily make sprouts by covering soaked lentils in a piece of wet cloth and placing it in a small casserole/hot pack. Making them at home also gives you the flexibility to mix-and-match, adjust the quantity and store properly.

I don't pre-cut veggies before hand and freeze. The nutrients get lost, even though it makes life easier. I cut the required veggies just before cooking. It does take more time for me to cook a meal but I know that I'm eating fresh and getting most of the nutrients (Some are already lost in transportation and storage).

Next steps:
There are still some more food items that I buy regularly from the store. Planning to DIY these items in my second phase of DIY project.
Ginger-garlic paste
Coriander/garam masala/jeera powder

Will share more as I continue on this journey. Leaving you with this quote from Dumbledore that moulded my thinking to a large extent
"We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”
Are you on the DIY path in your kitchen? I would love to hear your experiences.

Jun 8, 2015

Minimalistic lifestyle - a new series

It's strange that I haven't written much about one of my core guiding values of my life - "minimalistic living". Though I have been practicing many of the principles throughout my life, I never consciously thought about a minimalistic lifestyle or tried to improve upon it until a few years back. Now that I see the need and importance of such a lifestyle in today's world that promotes consumerism, let me share my thoughts around how I go about adopting minimalism across various aspects of life.

Yesterday evening, my daughter wanted us to take her to a mall nearby. I hate visiting malls, especially on weekends and tried to divert her attention through many ways, even by tempting her with some ice-cream. Nope, that didn't work. She was persistent that we go to the mall. As we entered the mall, I noticed shopping carts with loads of bags (more plastic….sigh!). As we reached the first floor, I noticed there was a flea market happening. There were stalls with people selling cotton kurtas, sarees and other knick-knacks. "No bargain" was clearly written in big, bold fonts. I didn't venture into the clothes stalls but couldn't help hearing the conversations with prices of cotton kurtas being quoted from 600 - 800 bucks. I had to buy a couple of hair bands for my daughter's bushy, untame-able hair :-) Got a good deal, bought 2 pieces and I left the flea market.

The second floor was even more crowded, with more discounts on home furnishings and kitchen items, conveniently labeled as "home-makers festival". 5 years ago, I would have jumped at the deals on plastic boxes and grabbed a few for my kitchen. But not now. Deals on cheap plastic boxes, melamine cups and plates are no longer attractive to me. I'm transitioning over to glass and ceramic in my kitchen. Will talk more on that later.

We didn't bother checking out the rest of the section, as we didn't plan for anything to buy. Our weekly grocery list - the must-haves are ordered online. I took a walk on Saturday morning to a local vegetable market with a jute bag and got my weekly requirement of veggies. Jumping at deals/discounts and unplanned shopping have reduced to a great extent in our lives these days. Thankfully, my husband and I are in it together in adopting this lifestyle. And it really makes a big difference.

Hoarding, excessive consumption, impulse purchases, shopping being treated as a "therapy" or relaxation - these behaviors are turning our homes into cluttered spaces, leading to stress and anxiety. Through a series of blogposts, I hope to share my experiences on
- how we are reducing clutter,
- how we are cutting down on unnecessary expenses,
- how we gravitate towards richer experiences than materialistic things
- experiments and projects towards adopting a minimalistic lifestyle

I'm very much excited to kick-start this series. Hoping it would help someone in similar paths to get some ideas.

Jun 3, 2015

Coriander - small onion chutney

Most of my chutney recipes are standard - either picked up from a recipe book, blog or a youtube video. But the one I'm sharing today is something I "discovered" through an experiment :-)

A few months back, I had been to Grand Sweets, Adyar and ordered a plate of kuzhipaniyarams. The chutney that was served was a pale green-cum-orange colored one, spicy, tangy and tasted yum. While coming out of the shop, I asked the lady who was making hot paniyarams off the pan "What's this chutney?". She curtly replied, "pudina chutney". If she was a little more friendly, I would have probed her for the recipe but she sounded busy and in no mood for a conversation.

After this incident, I wanted to recreate the same chutney at home for dinner one night. I didn't have mint leaves but I had a big bunch of fresh coriander leaves in the fridge. I tried this new chutney recipe and it was an instant hit. My husband loved it and so did I. It tasted almost close to the green chutney I had at Grand Sweets. This has become a keeper recipe at home now and I make it often for idlis/dosas.

Coriander leaves - 1/2 bunch
Curry leaves - 1 sprig
Small onions - 10 - 12 (use small onions/sambhar onions/shallots)
Tomato (medium sized) - 1
Grated coconut - 2 tsp
Urad dal - 1 tsp
Red chilly - 1
Tamarind (soaked) - 1 small gooseberry sized
Salt, oil as needed
For seasoning - mustard, hing, curry leaves

Clean the coriander and curry leaves.
Peel and chop small onions into half
Roughly chop the tomato

Heat a pan, add 2 tsp oil
Fry urad dal and red chilly for 2 min until the dal turns light brown
Add small onions with a pinch of salt, fry for a min
Add tomatoes, salt as needed
Fry till tomatoes turn a little mushy
Add coriander and curry leaves, tamarind, coconut. Mix well and turn off the flame.
Let it cool
Grind to a chutney-consistency without adding water.

Fry the seasoning ingredients in a few drops of oil and add to the chutney.

Spicy, tangy coriander chutney is ready to serve with idlis/dosas/adais/oothappams.

Jun 2, 2015

The trip to Ooty, a year back

I have written travelogues for all the trips that I have ever taken since I started this blog. For some reason, the Ooty trip of last year got missed out. Being a stickler for finishing projects, this has been in my to-do list for a while. What better time than now to reflect about this trip!

It all started with a casual conversation with my dad when he was visiting me in May last year. He casually mentioned that it's been 19 years since he had visited Ooty. When I was a kid, my dad used to frequently take us to Ooty during summer holidays. I might have done atleast 5 trips with him earlier. So I started planning the trip with my husband, booked a hotel and packed. The night before our trip, I had a spark to check if I could book the tickets for the Ooty heritage train in advance. I quickly looked up IRCTC and was pleasantly surprised that you can reserve tickets for the "kutti" train. I booked a trip from Ooty to Coonoor and was very excited about the train journey more than anything else.

We started off at around 5:30 AM and drove towards Mysore with a breakfast stop in between. The route passing through Bandipur was pleasant and smooth. We spotted some elephants, monkeys and deers. D was excited initially but soon she fell asleep. After reaching Theppakkaadu, we took a left turn and the steep hairpin bends started after some time. You could feel the weather change as you climb up, though it wasn't very cold as I remembered the Ooty of 80s and 90s.

We reached our hotel "I-India" around 1:30 PM. The views were amazing from this place and we could clearly see the valley and the cloud cover. As we were quite hungry, we headed straight to lunch and it was a decent spread. Everyone else were so tired that they were having a deep afternoon nap while I was wide awake. So I took a walk by myself around the locality, with the weather changing from warm to pleasant to cold, in a matter of 2 hours. After a cup of tea, we drove to the town and roamed around a bit. We spotted Nahar hotels, had some snacks and took a walk. The Charring Cross area was very crowded, given that we were visiting in the busy peak season.

We left early the next day, went for the usual touristy spots - Ooty Lake, Botanical Gardens and Doddabetta peak. D was excited to take the train and the boat ride at the Ooty lake, ran around for a little bit at the Botanical Gardens but then she became so tired that we had to carry her all along. We couldn't roam around much carrying a toddler. After a late lunch at Nahar, we came back to our hotel, relaxed a bit and then took a short drive to take a peek at Lawrence School.

The next morning, we were all excited for the toy train journey. When we came to the railway station, there was a long queue waiting at the ticket counter. I was so happy that I had booked the tickets in advance. Once the train journey started, it was so amazing - the breathtaking views, the cool breeze, the cluster of mountains, tea plantations and the little railway stations enroute. D also enjoyed but was very sleepy as we woke her up early in the morning. After reaching Coonoor, we booked a cab and went to Sims Park. As soon as D noticed a play area inside Sims Park, she was in no mood to leave. There wasn't much of a crowd, she had the place to herself and was super-thrilled. The cab driver took us to a tea factory where we noticed the different stages the tea leaves go through before packaging. The aroma of fresh tea was refreshing and we also got a taste of chocolate tea, ginger tea, masala tea etc in a little tea shop. Bought some packs for home as well.

The cab driver dropped us near Coonoor bus stand around 12:45 pm. We had to wait for more than an hour to get a bus to Ooty. It was so hot, there wasn't any shelter where we could wait and our little girl was also getting restless. Finally, a bus came and everyone rushed to catch a seat. Thanks to my dad, we got a seat and settled in the crowded bus. Thankfully, D didn't cry as she was too tired. She just hugged me and fell asleep. We had a good thali lunch at Nahar, shopped for some time and retired for the day.

It was time to leave the next morning. We decided to take the longer route through Mudumalai and Gudalur. On the way, we stopped at a pine forest which looked like a tourist spot and there were a few activities like horse riding. D and her dad took the ride and they went around the forest for nearly 30 min. D enjoyed the horse ride so much that she made a big fuss to get down from the horse. We also stopped at Pykara falls and went for a walk but the water flow was very little. It was a tiring walk up and down but the views made it worth the effort. We grabbed some fresh carrots and beetroots from a roadside vendor. Couldn't have asked for a better souvenir from the hills than these fresh colorful veggies.

I wouldn't recommend I-India for the stay. It's extremely overpriced (2500 per night) for a very basic, small room. What they call as complimentary continental breakfast is just bread toast and bread omlette. It has a good view of the valley and slightly away from the crowded market area. But it's not worth it.

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