Yet Another Indian New Year

Oh man, is it Navroz already? How did this happen? I remember Navroz happening when I was still at my last job, and thatwas surely just a few months back!Or was it?

Time, you’d better slow down, buddy.

You know, as an Indian, I always feel we tend to hit middle-age (and pot-bellies) quicker than most because we live through a dozen new years in each calendar year. First, towards the end of our tropical winter, there’s the English or Western New Year. Everyone parties hard and eats western food, and then dead-walks back to work the next day. If you’re in the much-ignored North-east India, though, you’ll notice the fun really begins once January has properly taken hold. In Mizoram, there is something called the New Year Festival, and it takes place on the third of Jan, not the first (or even the second). I know this because they list it on the official holiday list for the state. The Naga new year Kaing Bi is further in, on the fifteenth. Rounding up January festivities comes Bam Khana Shnong, the community feast celebrated by Khasis in Meghalaya. It’s not strictly a new year, but prayers are offered at the feast for a good new year, which I understand follows closely after the feast.

February passes without event.

In March, coinciding roughly with the Bengali month Chaitra, spring sets in. Or it used to, before industrialisation killed our six-season cycle and left us with just three – hot, cool, and rainy. So anyway, around what would once have been spring, the first wave of ‘ethnic’ New Years kick in, all over the country. Telugu people celebrate Yugadi, Marathi people Gudi Padwa, Rajasthani people Thapna, Sindhi folks Cheti Chand, and Manipuri people Sajibu Nongma Pangma.

Then, when days are getting nicely sweaty and mangoes are beginning to show up in the market, my people celebrate their big day, Nawbo Borsho, along with the Punjabis (Vaisakhi), Tamils (Puthandu), and the Assamese (Rongila Bihu). I believe the Oriya Pana Sankranti also falls on this day, but I’m not completely certain.

The rest of the year goes slowly by, till we arrive at Diwali, usually in October, when Marwaris and the Gujaratis – two of the most prominent business communities in India – celebrate their new year on Diwali. Muharram also tends to fall on October, though not everybody celebrates the first day of Muharram as ‘new year’s day’.

Finally, come December, while the rest of us are still dragging the old year around, tribal communities of Tripura end theirs with Tring. And that brings us right back to the Western New Year. A year has passed, and we in India have lived through at least four sets of new years. Pat those bellies, people!

Oh, and happy Parsi New Year, everybody! I am now off to steal some of your eggs.

BONUS: Classic Parsi ‘akuri’ recipe for you lot to try at home. Go for it!

Our Brave Dogs

Since the rains set in, we usually take our pups, Kaju and Shorshe, to the football field only on the days we give them a bath. They have a great romp in the gloriously green grass and puddles, cake themselves in mud from neck to toe, and generally have a stupendously good time. We wait till they’re exhausted, and then we bring them home and splash them straight into the bath.

This happened the first time we took them to the field. This season, the fields are besieged by a siege of herons, and we tried to get our brave little soldiers to run amok amongst them like television dogs, and watching the whole siege take off in a gorgeous fluttering of white. This is what actually happened.

Shalimar Restaurant, Mumbai

Shalimar has four outlets in Bombay. We ate at two of these outlets, and they were both divine. People say one of the outlets we didn’t eat at – the one at Andheri – is the best of the four, and therefore better than these two. I just don’t see how that can be possible. Improvements, if there are indeed any, must be so minuscule as to not matter. Or so I tell myself :-)

Here are the reviews of the one at Bhendi Bazaar, Byculla:

The Mumtaz Kabab

Mumtaz Kabab

We went to the Shalimar at Bhendi Bazaar by car, which, unless your parking luck is especially blessed, is a big, big mistake. Parking is pretty much do-as-you-like, and cars are parked along the street in whatever manner they drivers pleased. We cruised about a mile along both arms of the corner, and finally found parking after a good twenty minutes. Sweaty and irritated, we told each other the food couldn’t possibly be good enough to make up for this.

We were wrong. The food was SUPERB.

Here is the itemised review:
1. CHICKEN MUMTAZ KABAB: Imagine a beautifully tandoori-roasted tangdi/chicken leg. Then imagine the chefs opening it up before cooking, stuffing it with mince, then closing it by some magic, and then roasting it. That is what the Mumtaz kabab is. I cared a little less for the stuffing than I did for the succulent white meat, but that is only because I am not fond of dry-ish mince stuffings.

2. NIHARI: One of our cribs, as recent settlers in Mumbai, is that the local Mughlai flavours are not to our taste. This was our problem at the otherwise lovely Naaz at Kurla (review on my Zomato profile). But Shalimar’s cooking blew us away. The day’s special was nihari, and I have seldom tasted such succulent deliciousness. Even though we’re medium eaters, five of us demolished THREE big bowls of the rich, spicy, oil-based thin gravy, and its generous portion of tender, juicy mutton chunks.

Raan Biryani

Raan Biryani

3. RAAN BIRYANI: this Shalimar specialty is a stunner by way of volume. I think it would take about five hungry people to clear one plate of it. The raan under the subtly-flavoured rice is slow-cooked to such tenderness that it comes off the bone at the gentlest pressure from the forks. Of course, those of us from Calcutta insisted their city’s biryani is more flavourful, but not, they conceded, by much.

The Raan in the Biryani

The Raan in the Biryani

4. FIRNI: despite the last little trip-ups, however, we ended on a very high note with the firni. I’m not fond of rice porridge type things, and I ended up eating almost two servings.

In short, I recommend this place to every non-vegetarian person living and passing through Mumbai very warmly. GO EAT!

Food My Lovers Taught Me to Love, Part I

You know how advice columnists always say, “If he’s trying to change you, put on your lace-up flats and run!”?

Now usually, I’d be completely on their side. If ‘love’ for someone is predicated on wistful goodbyes to everything else, then the time to cut the cords is NOW!.

However, ‘change’ could be a good thing. It might mean ‘positive affect’. It could be a broadening of horizons. It can certainly be personal growth, and in some cases it might mean ‘intensifies’. For instance, you might be a clock-watcher dating another punctual type. If you two move in together, you’ll probably enable each other till you’re both obnoxious human clocks, being forever on time and tut-tutting at the rest.

Don’t go down that route unless you fancy punches to the nose.

Now me, I’ve had some pretty colourful relationships. And being Bengali, a large chunk of them have revolved around food. My first relation propre was with an Anglo-American gent. In my initial American months, mealtimes were a despondent chore. I cooked simple curries twice a week and hated eating them, because cheap supermarket vegetables in America taste like soggy newsprint, and I knew no other way to make them more edible. I also hated cheese, dismissed bacon, ill-trusted sausages, and looked with suspicion upon roasting and baking.

Then, as my supply of home-ground spices was finally running out, I met him.

He was tall, blue-eyed, Boston-blond, and just as impoverished as I was. But he knew his way around American shops and kitchen. He introduced me to high-protein breakfasts, salads-from-scrap, crispy bacon, sausages with mustard, fluffy pancakes cooked in lard, homemade pasta sauces and deli-end sandwiches. We could rarely afford the good stuff, but he also taught me to love cheese – the nutty gouda, the sharp cheddar, the rich goat, the creamy brie.

When I look back at my time with him, I almost can’t believe how comprehensively he changed my palate, yanking at the edges of my considerable stubbornness till I gave in, and fell in love with it all.

My range in the kitchen expanded dramatically, too. Till the Transatlantic Sojourn, I was a dab hand at Bengali things, but everything beyond that was a vague, foggy mass.

Union Stars and Stripes helped me bake my first cake, and taught me how to make a lovely four-ingredient salad dressing. When November rolled around, we bought a turkey, made our own stuffing, prepped and roasted the bird, and made a lip-smacking gravy with the pan-droppings. You’d think mashed potatoes are easy, but before I met this kitchen-dreamboat, I had no idea alusheddho with salt, butter, milk and pepper – instead of, you know, mustard oil and green chilies – could be so divine.

By the time our relationship had unravelled beyond repair, I had begun keeping roasted garlic and pine-nuts in my kitchen for comfort meals, homemade peach preserves and cantaloupes for snacks, broccoli and pork chops-on-sale for quick pick-me-up dinners. If ever a man succeeded in endearing boiled broccoli to a woman, it was this man. Of course, he also drove me to the best chowder and bisques in town, but as a Boston man, I’d think that was more his civic duty than an act of love.

The best thing he taught me to make and love, however, was damn near a miracle, for it involved almost every single thing I once hated: bacon, hard-fried eggs, cheese. What he put together with these things, though, was just fabulously wonderful. I’ll call it the baked egg, because ‘baked’ is effectively what the eggs become.

You begin by lightly greasing a thick-bottomed saucepan, and layering it with deli-ends or bacon. You flip the meat after a minute of browning, and layer the cooked side with cheese, onions and chopped chilies. Then, you break whole eggs over it, two eggs per person. The final garnish is salt and pepper, and maybe a little parsley and sage. You give the eggs a minute to cook on medium flame, then cover the pan, and simmer. In about three minutes, you have soft, creamy baked eggs, on a bed of melted spicy cheese and crispy bacon or meat. This, you eat with hot buttered toast (though I must say Americans are rather stingy with their toast. ‘A stack of toast’ is not a transatlantic phenomenon).

It’s been a few years since the Anglo-Am and I have broken up, but the strange foreign things he taught me to love has changed the way I cook and eat almost completely. Tucked away beyond north Calcutta, I missed the cheese and meats for months, as my tongue readjusted to dal-bhaat and curried veg at every meal. It’s true we had rather fierce arguments about food and cooking, and there are favourites of his that I wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole (banana-split, yuck!), but a man who imparts the secrets of crisp pork fat has, in my opinion, transcended the judgement of schmucks who used to turn away from bacon.

Jewish = Muslim

Indian hardliner ‘nationalists’ have plumbed solidly for Israel in the current conflict.

Palestine deserves destruction, they say, because it has housed terrorists who have been annoying Israel for decades. Israel has been patient. No one can say Israel has not been patient. But now it has struck, and it will rip threats to its nation out by the very roots, and stomp on them till they’re dead, dead, dead!

Now, it so happens that Palestinians are mostly Muslims. And that is what triggers the orgasm of approval from our ‘nationalists’, not their sense of fairness or balance. Indian ‘nationalism’ exists superficially to combat ‘western culture’, but it’s roots draw true sustenance from Islamphobia, and fear of Muslim dominance in the state. So for them, Muslim-bashing anywhere is always good news. Couched in Israel-Palestine dynamics, they see the constant ‘oppression’ of a patient India by rabid Pakistan, and wish fervently that India would ‘teach a lesson’ to Pakistan in similar fashion.

There is just a tiny problem with this analogy, and it is this: Palestinians ‘terrorised’ Israel because Israel was carved out of Palestinian land without their consent, to house a specific religious minority.

Much, in fact, like Pakistan was carved out of British India – in the face of immense public opposition (and suffering).

So when Indian ‘nationalists’ go berserk with righteous joy at the suffering of Muslims, and defend Israel’s violence fervently, they should remember that in their tortured “West Bank is the subcontinent” analogy, Israel is really Pakistan.

The delights of your ignorance, my fellow patriots. The delights of your ignorance.

The Answers in the Catch

Having just found my father’s tattered copy of Catch 22 in our last unpacked box from home, I have been catching up on my Joseph Heller after years.It is wonderfully liberating to read a book from an era where depth of thought was not alienated from wit, and wit was not alienated from a social conscience. I look around at popular culture today, and find far too many fart jokes getting in the way of pro-people critique of power, which is what comedy is supposed to achieve politically. Instead, people are now convinced that comedy is ‘just a joke’.

Chew on this bit by Heller. He is a very funny writer, and Catch 22 is a very readable book, but it also raises questions we’d do well to think about from time to time.

“Nately was instantly up in arms again. “There is nothing absurd about risking your life for your country!” he declared.

“Isn’t there?” asked the old man. “What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”

“Anything worth living for,” said Nately, “is worth dying for.”

“And anything worth dying for,” answered the sacrilegious old man, “is certainly worth living for.”

Review: Chili’s, Powai, Mumbai

ZOMATO RATING: 1 out of 5
‘sup Chili’sPowai, you’re pretty shit.We went to Chili’s once before, just the partner and I, because we miss Mexican somethin’ fierce, and were willing to settle for Tex-Mex. However, that first time, there was too much salt in every dish, and smallness of the portions crossed over from ‘we’re too posh to give you eough to eat’, to ‘we’re mean little fuckers’. So we decided, sensibly, never to return.

Except that a few months down, a group of us local folks were taking an out-of-town friend for dinner, and when he spotted a Tex-Mex joint, he totally had to have it. We hoped Chili’s had received constructive feedback in the meanwhile, and had improved itself.

As it turned out, no, it hadn’t. And the positive reviews that I see now on Zomato makes me think it’s not completely Chili’s fault. People are so delighted to be fleeced by yet another American fast food chain that they don’t apparently care what they actually stuff down their gullet.

Here’s a synopsis of the food from our second visit:
1. The three-item combo platter was downright miserly. I was embarrassed on behalf of the management for serving THREE SMALL PIECES OF EACH ITEM in a combo platter. This, when they charge similar prices to TGIF, which serves a small mound of each in its own three-item combo platter. “Is this all there is to the dish?”, we asked the waiter, who looked at us for a second, and then turned and walked away.

2. It gets better. Cross-checking with the menu, we realised that this shameless rip-off of a dish was actually short one promised bowl of sauce. We called the waiter back, and taking care to be polite and friendly, requested the missing bowl. He nodded and went off. This process had to be repeated thrice before he gave us the bowl of sauce. It might be that Chili’s wasn’t trying to save a precious quarter cup of sauce by stiffing us; they were merely careless. In which case, I’m just as disgusted, because oversight shouldn’t be part of a premium (and premiumly-priced) chain’s delivery.

3. In sight of the lousy combo platter and the enchilidas two of our group had ordered (they were of the generic plastic Boston/New York Tex-Mex kind that all my Californian and Mexican friends scoffed at), we cancelled all our other orders, except the plate of ribs that was apparently already being cooked.

4. The ribs actually were fairly good, though the BBQ sauce was downright shop-bought. When a Tex-Mex place opens shop, one expects better than a sauce one can buy just down the street at the supermarket.

Before leaving, we asked politely for the response forms. The waiter and greeter were a little reluctant, but we remained friendly and firm. If we like the concept of a place but not the execution, then as a food-enthusiast and consumer, I think we should provide feedback to the management. We left a polite, constructive note, and left. Within ten minutes, we got a call.

“Madame, you were not even at Chili’s, how can you leave a negative review?” demanded a voice.
“Is this the manager?” I asked.
“Madame, were you actually at Chili’s today?” the voice insisted.
“Yes, I was”, I said. “And we didn’t have the best experience.”
“Sorry ma’am”, the voice said, “we don’t even have a reservation in your name, how can you be here?”
“Is this the manager? Would you like me to come back and show you the bill Chili’s just generated?” I asked sternly.
The other side disconnected the phone.

So, in conclusion, and to return where we began: ‘sup Chili’s Powai. You’re pretty shit. Goodbye, and I suppose, good luck.


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