Life of Chai

The bubbles burst faster than they should and suddenly a warm golden and then a dark orange color takes over. I know it’s 4 o clock in the afternoon. Bangles tinkle and the sound of something hot pouring into a glass fills up the atmosphere. It’s time for chai. My mom has been doing this for as long as my memory goes. Had she auditioned for Cinderella’s character, ever, she would have won the role hands down. Impeccable timing, so what if it’s not midnight!!!!!

I would not ruin her reputation by calling her tea. CHAI, she has been for the last twenty six years that I have known her. Yes, her. She does not need an introduction. She is a member of all our families. She wakes us up, when we want to catch up on the extra five minutes of sleep. She keeps us awake when we are busy burning the midnight oil. She is a friend for all seasons. A perfect excuse for the most baseless chatter. She is a perfect alarm clock.

It does not matter which garden she was born in. It does not matter which brand brought her up. It does not matter who takes her home from the grocery store. She knows she would mingle with everyone in the family. A steel tumbler or a porcelain cup, she would happily dance her way into it. Though the kullhad is her favorite abode.

She is hot. She is an addiction. She controls us. She is a sadist and enjoys the most when we yearn to be with her at the exact time dedicated to her. She demands respect. Your heart swells with pride, when someone asks “khana banana aata hai” and even when you know nothing, the answer echoes” haan mujhe chai banani aati ati.. 🙂 “. She can be strong. She can be mild. Her complexion reflects her strength. Gingered for the sore throat and with a hint of cardamom for the tired soul. When the chants from the arti in the nearby temple overpower all other noises, sitting by the window with a mind like a blank canvas, chai helps you paint the prettiest picture you want. With every sip, figments of imagination,  come to life.

She is a perfect companion. A cigarette in one hand, chai in the other, the world is at your mercy. The latest project, the approaching deadline. Appraisals and increments. Planning higher education. She has been a part of all the conversations. She has been the perfect stress buster. She is the bread and butter for so many. Chai wallahs in the train with their distinguished accent. Chai ki tapri on the meandering treks, even where habitation is sparse. Sitting on a hill top gazing at the valley. All you need is a cup of chai and her best friend, the glucose biscuit. They are inseparable. Pakodas are the closest next but they are seasonal.

She loves the rain. On a rainy evening, at a dingy stall, in a transparent glass, she seduces her way to our lips. Love stories spring around chai stalls. Rains and chai have the best cinematic history( only after the saree clad actress). Remember Tabu walking towards Ajay Devgn, in the movie Vijaypath, on the foot over bridge at  the legendry chai stall. Or, the Shahrukh from Dil se…, where the incessant rain and the beauty of Manisha Koirala could be contained by the kullhad of chai, and nothing else. Salman’s moment of towelled glory.. ” ek garam chai ki pyali ho”. She has her strong hold over politics too. Who could forget the famous Amma tea party.

Winters at their peak. The temperatures fall to 3 degrees. I wouldn’t even want to imagine below that. We lose count of the layers of clothing. Shoes, socks, muffler scarf, gloves. Yet the chill runs down the spine. It nips any part of the skin that is exposed to the weather. Frost bites. Frozen palms after a bike ride. I wonder how would arctic feel like. Winter chill seeps in, through the multiple layers of clothing. You hold her tight in your palm. The vapor rising from the cup.Take a sip and suddenly the strange warmth envelops you. Purse your lips after a hot sip and gulp in. Heaven. Nothing comes close to a hot cup of tea on a chilly winter evening.  Hands half covered in woolens, hold the cup as tight as they could.

Summers are not left out though. Heat takes over and the frequency of having chai  reduces. However, we still need to wake up. Gossip doesn’t take a back seat in summers. Chai knows her importance even in the peak of summers. Bread pakodas and chai outside college gates and a group on friends. A packet of glucose biscuit and cups of chai, don’t we just miss the hostels sometimes.

Across seasons she has held her position in nuptial arrangements. She gives confidence to the nervous would-be-bride when her prospective in-laws come to woe her for their son. The trembling hands with the tray of chai is symbolic of the iconic arranged marriage system in our country. The ritual might have faded away but its symbolism hasn’t. The unforgettable number” shayad meri shadi ka khayal dil mein aya hai .. isiliye mummy ne teri mujhe chai pe bulaya hai..”

I was five. I loved watching my dad sip something from a handled something( my picture book said  C  for cup). Each sip would be taken with the same enthusiasm and ended in the same satisfaction. Sometimes the uncle on the opposite sofa or my mom would have synchronized sips. Sometimes there was a rhythm. I was inquisitive(Doesn’t bournvita say brain develops maximum by the age of 5.. so mine was at the pinnacle of development). What is it that is served to everyone who visited our place but not to the kids. So, one day I decided to taste whatever it was but was scared to ask my mom. As usual my parents walked out with the guests to see them off. I sneaked into the hall and tip toed towards the  cups. Since there was very little left in all the cups, I poured all of it into one. My joy had no boundaries. So what I did not have pebbles like the crow in the story I could still bring the level of the liquid up… Just when I was about to take a sip, there was a strange burning sensation in my left ear. Was it the effect of the liquid but I didn’t drink even a drop. Immediately I reached for my left ear. It wasn’t there. My eyes welled up with tears. My ear was in my mom’s hand and suddenly I found myself rising and the ground moving away from me. I was beaten black and blue. Why didn’t my mom beat my dad, why me? Kill the crow who taught me how to bring the liquid up. Today, I know I was beaten up not because I wanted to have chai but because I had used the tactics of the crow. Bloody Crow!!!!! However I haven’t had chai….EVER… Not till date.

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Love, Sex and Golgappa!!!

It wasn’t love at first sight but there was something about it that attracted me. It was peeping from a plate in my mom’s hand. I tugged at her saree and she placed one of the round wonderful attractive crispy structures full of tangy water into my mouth. That day and today the love affair continues. Call it by any name, Golgappa, pani puri, phuchka…… 

When I was eight, my father met with an accident and had to spend around six months in the hospital. I spent those six months at my grandmother’s place amongst innumerable cousins and every evening, without fail, we, my cousins and me, used to go on a golgappa hogging(as everyone ate out of his or her limits) spree. One night I had this acute pain in my abdomen and I puked as well. The blood test results (which came a few days later) said I was suffering from jaundice. The reason cited WAS golgappas. Immediately, golgappas were replaced by bland colorless khichdi. I had to take precautions as my liver was weak. This had to be done for around two months. Two months later….. Golgappa resumed its princely status and till date khichdi stays away from my menu. Something which made me sick was welcomed with open arms and something which was a boon for my liver was banned forever. Now, this is love. It makes you sick but you just don’t give up on it and whoever said love is blind, trust me, love has the best taste buds.

School life, usually, is the biggest shareholder of our memories. Since I am not unique, I too  have the best memories from school. When I was preparing for my engineering tests, like several others, I had joined tuitions for various subjects. No, I did not need them. My parents needed them, to ensure they left no stone  unturned in their efforts to make me an engineer. So, every evening my friend and I would religiously ride our scooter to the class and then wait for it to  end. You know why? To stop at the golgappa wala in the colony (we took a special longer route back home) and have golgappas. 12 for 5 rupees. We had even struck a deal. Whoever rode pillion, would have 7 out of the 12 golgappas.

As already informed I completed graduation in the southern part of the country and golgappa aka pani puri was not as popular as it’s in the northern half of the country. In fact it was completely different. The stuffing instead of the regular potato mixture, included boiled peas mixed with chopped onion and tomatoes and the pani of the pani puri did not have the regular spices. But this did not dampen my enthusiasm. It’s been years and the bond between me and the golgappas seemed to have strengthened with age. Like a true lover I have always followed my heart and gone out of my way to find out the best spots in the town to have my favourite golgappas.

Have you ever noticed, whenever we place a golgappa in our mouth , our eyes close automatically, just like the first kiss. Innocent and ecstatic. A mouthful of heaven(obviously the golgappa HERE 😉 ). When we open our eyes there is  a warm glow  and there is smile on our lips. Kiss or Golgappa, have you ever seen someone sad after the experience. I haven’t. They always end in a smile even if the eyes are brimming with tears. The spicier the better. We never want to stop at one,  do we? The spicy one is followed by a meetha wala and then a spicy one again. It’s addictive. We feel full but the  heart yearns for more. There is no better place than having it in public. People turn if you shriek out of excitement, how can something as small as a golgappa make us so happy. The unnumbered Golgappa competitions. The people waiting for their turn stare at you scornfully( “how long will they keep eating”) . The vendor gives you a stare, when at the end you say “ bhaiya ek sookha dena”, as if you just proposed to his daughter. It’s not shameful asking for that one extra papdi.  Though lips on fire, we would not have something to cool them down. We do not want  that lingering taste to fade out soon. 

Evenings revolve around golgappas. “Aj golgappe khane chalein?”. The news spreads among friends. The more the merrier. We sweat in the warm light emitted from the bulb at the stall but that does not discourage us. We all, at some point of time in life,  have had a  favourite stall. We laugh when the water spurts out each time we try to tame the mini monster. We can’t get enough of it.  The heartburn during the deed and the sigh of relief at the end of having it all. The satisfaction when we finish our quota of golgappas. The cool pudina pani on a hot Delhi evening or the tangy imli version on a sweaty Kolkata afternoon. We love it all.  

Luckily everyone around me  loves golgappas. Even my super health conscious mom.  She even tried  to recreate the flavor and taste at home and I am glad she failed on each and every occasion. The result was always a pseudo-golgappa. Obviously the home made version is the winner,  hands down, when it comes to  health. But it was nowhere close in terms of taste. Obviously the stuffing was not mashed with sweaty hands. The water was not from the nearest municipal corporation tap.  However, how many times do we get to say – The dirtier the better. 😉 . Our dear golgappa steers clear of all the controversies. Do hell with water borne diseases. Who cares? It’s all in the moment, when no one can come between you and the golgappa. I have never tried making them at home and wouldn’t …EVER!!! Till we meet for the next golgappa outing…………. CHEERS!!!!!

 

 

Rich Da(L), Poor Da(L)

My mother has two distinct qualities. First, dragging God into matters where she thinks her logic fails to convince us and second, choosing health over taste. ALWAYS. Since God is busy multitasking and seldom comes to my mom’s rescue, my mom leaves no stone unturned in exercising her second quality. As a result of this she only thinks dal and veggies. She prefers calculating the amount of protein to calculating calories. So, where cakes and goodies make special appearances, dal is the undisputed king of the dining table( courtesy the abundance of protein). Its availability makes it a clear winner against the seasonal green vegetables.  It is there on the table every meal, 365 days of the year.

 I started, like any other child, with detesting it. The yellow slimy liquid yelled out health each time I popped a spoon full of it  into my mouth. For me each bowl of dal (though different colors when uncooked) had the same color when cooked…that of Hatred. However, it did not take me long to realize, there was no escaping the evil bowl of health.  Slowly I stopped making faces but I had preferences. I could not make out which dal I was eating but would quickly refer to my memory and yell, “Ye wo dal nahi hai, tasty wala”. My mom read between the lines. So before I could decipher which of those colors I liked, my mom knew. 

Then came the obvious next step (after I was old enough to place a pressure cooker on the gas burner) of taming the monster. I learnt how to prepare dal even before mugging up the color coding and nomenclature involved. I would rush, with a jar full of one of the colors, to my mom to confirm whether that was the one to be converted to yellow, on that day. I do not remember when I started recognizing one color from the other. Just like I do not remember how did I learn how to check time (Do you?). By the way I still have friends who cannot name different kinds of pulses, so I chuckle, each time I think I can.


After leaving home, at 18, I traveled down south for studies. Only to find all new preparations and flavors of dal(by now my favorite). The density reduced and the sourness increased. The only common thing, its omnipresence. From sambhar to rasam to vada to probably everything. Luckily I did not take time  acquiring the taste. I fell in love with it instantly.

Lately, I realized the irony. While the most exotic Indian menus (especially vegetarian) have a “dal makhani” included, the term dal is always associated with lack of wealth. This came to my mind when I was text-chatting with a colleague of mine, who was waiting to place his order for lunch at a dhaba near office. The topic of discussion was appraisals and increments and the moment I messaged  that I thought there were going to be none, the reply was, “thought of ordering something exotic but now that you say there would be no increments, I should order dal fry.. 🙂”  By the way we do realize that after inflation and price rise, pulses have become costlier than most of the green veggies( commonly available), don’t we?

 The protein laden lentils are a staple. Subsidized for the class which can afford it and abundant yet out reach for those who can’t. Hostels and jails(very thin line to differentiate them)  would cease to exist if they did not have dal ( followed by potato) to their rescue. The most aesthetically shot jail shots include the prisoner being provided with dry roti and a bowl of dal. We have songs written on the humble dal. The rich have dal with desi ghee or butter and the poor have it without the extra richness but they all have it. The multipurpose legume has its reign over different palates, across  classes.

A recent report in the newspaper suggested that getting attracted to fatty foods could be attributed to the genes present in human beings. I did not need that report; I can see it live in my family. Had it not been my mother, my father, my sister and me could have made it into the limca book of records for being on the wrong side of the weighing scale. She made sure having unhealthy food was like a barter system. So for every extra spoon of butter chicken that we had for lunch there was an extra spoon of bitter gourd on our plate, for dinner. She has made healthy eating a habit for us. I do not say that we are the epitome of fitness, we do realise its importance. Now the two of us, my sister and me, live away from parents and as the cliché goes, have realized the importance of healthy food only after leaving home.  

Now dal(again for its availability), for me, has become conscience food. Whenever I have had a heavy lunch I make sure I have a bowl of dal at night. With a little bit of butter at the beginning of the month and without it at the end. I don’t say I sleep calorie-free but definitely guilt free!!!!! All thanks to my mom’s quality of choosing health over taste. ALWAYS. She doesn’t even need to drag God into convincing us. 🙂

That’s how I make dal fry:

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup Chana dal( I like it the most)
  •  4 Cups water
  • Oil /ghee/butter for masala
  • Cumin seeds
  • Dry Red chillies(2 or 3)
  • 2 onions( chopped or sliced)
  • Ginger-garlic paste( chopped ginger and garlic would also suffice)
  • 2 tomatoes
  • salt
  • turmeric
  • garam masala powder
  • hara fresh dhaniya(finely chopped)

How I make it :  

Rinse  the chana dal and place it in a pressure cooker. I then add water, salt to taste and turmeric. Close the lid of the pressure cooker and place the whistle. I keep it on medium flame till the first whistle and then simmer it down completely for three more of those loud whistles. 

Meanwhile : 

i)In a pan I  heat the oil. Add cumin seeds and then the split dry red chillies and wait for them to splutter. Once done I add the ginger garlic paste and fry till the paste turns a golden brown.  I then  add the onion( chopped or sliced depending on my mood) and wait for it to change color to brown.

ii)To this I add chopped tomatoes and fry the mixture till the tomatoes soften and the bhuna mixture starts releasing oil. I add a little bit of garam masala towards the end and a little bit of water.

iii)To this mixture I add the dal from the pressure cooker and add some  water depending upon the needed consistency. Allow it to boil for a few minutes and then add  finely chopped hara dhaniya and a blob of butter or spoon of desi ghee.

 Variations: 

a)     Instead of the paste we could add finely chopped ginger and garlic. This adds texture. I do not do it because I do not like the taste of garlic but do not mind the flavor.

b)     Asfoetida( heeng) could be added. A pinch of it with the garam masala. That too depends on personal preferences.

 

 

Baked for each Other

PicCourtesy: Dini PhilipAfter spring came the summer of 1992. My little sister was born and she chose to share my birthday month and thus started the adorable tradition of celebrating birthdays together. The most important ritual was baking several cakes of different sizes as we always had a tiered cake. The top tier would hold  the number of candles corresponding to kiddos age. My mom would religiously sieve the flour fold in the butter , beat the batter, grease the baking tin, pour in the gorgeous batter( I always thought of eating it raw, why torturing it by putting it into the oven 😛 ) and place it in the oven.

However,  I think I volunteered for the toughest job, watching the cake slowly rise and  attain that beautiful golden color. Grow old as you might, your mother , till her last breath, would  tell you,  “careful!!!”( didn’t you just smile), as you came closer to the oven( mine still does that). It might sound easy but staring at the oven WAS a tough job. Especially when I knew that I was not going to get a bite till later in the evening when all my  friends would be drooling over the cakes with greedy eyes and their moms( if invited) would be  full of praise for what a wonderful baker my mom was.

Coming back to cakes. My first step in baking cakes was sitting with my mom in the kitchen watching her. As I grew a little older she would allow me to do odd jobs like sieve the flour, measure the sugar( grinding not allowed as it required ” electric” mixer grinder), beat eggs, and  finally fold the batter. Mind you, all this did not happen overnight. It took several years and at  least thrice its number of  cakes for my mom to pass on the legacy but I successfully graduated.

Living in and out of hostels and company accommodations, never let me settle down in life after Bokaro. Then Delhi happened. A city where I have spent the longest duration after college and where( after changing several accommodations) I finally have a beautiful kitchen. I had crappy ones too but who wants to know the sad story. Finally I could  bake cakes but I still did not ( or for that matter do not) have an oven. That’s when the age old pressure cooker comes to my rescue. 

That’s how I made the first Chocolate Cake in Delhi.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup Maida( *refined flour* for the elite :P)
  • 1/3 cup Sugar
  • 1/4 cup Oil
  • 3 tbsp Cocoa Powder
  • 3/4 cup warm milk
  • 1/2 tsp Baking Powder
  • 1/4 tsp Vanilla Essence
  • 2 tsp Unsalted Butter
How I made it : 

i) Sieved together refined flour, salt, baking powder and cocoa powder and kept aside.

ii) In a vessel mixed together refined oil, butter and powdered sugar and beat well. Added the sieved flour mixture and mixed well. Added the vanilla essence and then added the milk a spoon at a time to adjust the batter to a pouring consistency. The cake batter was ready.

iii) I then greased a the baking tin( usually aluminium but you could use a steel vessel) with 1/2 tsp of refined oil and dusted the surface with refined flour. Poured the cake batter into the greased tin. (The  batter should fill half the baking tin and not more.)

iv) Pressure cooker and and about an inch of Water in it were put on a flame. Then kept a stand inside the cooker to hold the baking tin. Once the water came to a boil placed the cake tin on the stand( and yes… ” careful”..I was)

v) Closed the lid of the cooker. Removed the whistle and placed it on low flame. Allowed the cake to steam for 30 minutes. Opened the cooker and allowed it to steam without lid for 5 minutes.

vi)Inserted a knife to check.(The knife should come out clean. If it sticks steam for some more time.)

There is a reason why I make the cakes egg less and not with eggs. My mom is a religious woman and follows some rules like not having ” non-veg” (which includes eggs) on particular days of a week ( I hope she realizes that there are only seven in a week). We never made chocolate cakes  at home. My mom does not like the smell( yes she made it a point to say smell and not any other word like flavor or aroma) of chocolates. We never forced her to make one either. After all, she would have the first bite after we would cut the cake. She is our mom. Now I relive my chocolate dreams but try to keep the cake egg less.. 

We spell cakes with a ‘c’ because that’s what we spell celebration with. However now that I bake cakes, we hardly  celebrate birthdays together. Work, studies and above all distances have taken a toll. Now when I bake a cake, I miss staring at the oven, my mom saying .. “careful”… and even though  I can have the cake immediately after I make it… I wouldn’t mind waiting till all of us are together…. 

Salt and Dad



The spring of 1992. My mother was heavily pregnant with my sister. She had to appear for her exams in order to complete her masters degree in history. This meant she had to leave the town, thus leaving us alone for a while.

So, left in that beautiful spring were my dad and me, to take care of each other. He  cooked regularly to  make sure I did not go hungry even when he was away at work. That is when my tryst with taste started. My dad, with a clean towel over his shoulder and a happy smile on  his face, would conjure the magic with spices and I would drag a chair to hop on, to be able to peek into the pressure cooker.

If you look at me and my father, we look like the products from the same manufacturing unit, just a few decades and a gender apart. The only other common feature among the two of us is our passion for cooking and absolutely nothing else, not even our education in engineering( he chose to be an engineer and I was convinced to become one). Here I would also like to mention that it is cooking that intrigues me and not food. The process and not the end product surprises me.

It’s Therapeutic. It heals, rejuvenates and above all makes me ( I guess all of us ) nostalgic. A trip to the local markets, looking for the best meat, fish and veggies, clinging to my father’s fingers. Cumin Seeds spluttering in hot oil. Applying my engineering drawing precision into chopping onion . Memories make up the skeleton of whatever I know about cooking.

Recipes travel across generations and our memories gracefully lend their shoulders silently for them to travel. We repeat the recipes which have conquered our taste buds and thus  registered their irreplaceable position in our memory book. When we eat out and repeat our order we compare it to our previous visit, even without realizing that we just compared.

Nine years of living away from parents taught me how to cook, through hostel food and thus survive any kind of intestinal encounters. I am not a culinary genius. I do not have a formal training in Culinary art. I am an engineer and all my life have observed two algorithms of cooking at home:

Mom’s:    Everything for health

Dad’s:       Anything for taste

And after scheduling I found a middle path:

Healthy Conscience, Tasty Eating

This way when I want to add that extra blob of butter, just to add that extra sheen to the butter chicken, my hands spoon out only half a blob.

My father, however has always dominated. He has been a constant inspiration and the best companion in my culinary journey and one of his first lessons was: Instead of a spoon use your palm to measure the amount of salt that goes into a dish and use your fingers to sprinkle it. I do not know whether this is right but trust me, it has never gone wrong….He taught me how the aroma tells you that the salt in the dish is just perfect….