Thursday, December 8, 2011

Miyazaki, Japan, and the mother of all meals

As the flight readies to land, the air hostess notices my lit ipod screen and fusses about it needing to be shut down.  I tell her that it does not have an on-off switch.  Having just finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs on the plane, I want to tell her that Jobs deliberately did not install on-off switches on his ipods, that genius though he may be, he hadn’t prepared for the eventuality that I was faced with.  She looked pissed, I tried to explain, then mercifully the screen went to sleep, and she went about her way.

All of my trips to Japan so far have been in and around Tokyo.  This is the first time that I travel south, to the city of Miyazaki, on the southernmost island of Japan, just a couple of hours from Taipei.  The domestic flight from Tokyo flies in from the ocean on a crisp, clear night.  A single police car with a flashing red light stands at guard on a narrow access road against the edge of the water, the runway a stone’s throw from the ocean.  Miyazaki is calm, and cool—palm trees grace the dividers of large highways, the temperature is at 9 C. 

After a confusing sequence of conversations that resembles the characteristics of a diode, the taxi driver eventually takes me to my intended hotel.  I have seen this repeatedly with Japanese taxidrivers.  The key moment is the one when you disclose to him your intended location.  If he nods a curt “hai”, you will arrive at your hotel without drama.  If he repeats the hotel name and throws it back to you as a question, then you are in for a sightseeing tour.  And, given his legendary honesty, if he ends up taking you to the wrong place as an interim pit stop, then he will not charge you the extra amount incurred. 

Japanese hotels have the most high tech bathrooms that I have ever seen.  A low rumble from the hotel room toilet greets me.  There are various functions available to the seated adventurer, including a seat warmer and a couple of plumbing options that can turn it into a small waterpark for your rear end.  I am confident that in a couple of years these will come Ethernet ready.

I go for a pre-dawn jog—my jetlagged body responds well to the bracing air.  There are few cars and just a handful of joggers around.  I take a path by the river, bordered on one side by line of dim lights set on concrete posts.  The line of the river curves on the other side.  At the end of the path there is a small, circular concrete amphitheater with steps leading down to the river.  I stand there by the river and take a  break. The place is empty, except for the dim figure of another jogger running past.  It is a beautiful calm sight.

Dinner that night was a welcome,  formal multi-course meal at a traditional Japanese restaurant with pine woodwork and Japanese style furniture.  These dinners grind you in a game of crushing seduction, dinners that stretch into hours, course by course, where you-- discombobulated by alcohol, by jetlag, by the unfamiliarity of the language, by exotic flavors, give in willingly to the strange food goblins that toss you from lap to lap till you are spent.  The meal starts with a threesome of little appetizer sized bowls of angler fish liver, oyster and protein rich soy skin, followed by one of the most gorgeous soups that I have ever had: a smoky, light, clear broth with matsutake mushrooms, shitake mushrooms and pieces of chicken.  The dishes come, sequenced against one another, like the ebb and flow of a great river.  Sashimi arrives: tuna—probably from New York, bream and mackerel and a giant lobster sized shrimp.  My neighbour passes over the next dish-- mushroom with sperm of Cod.  I decide to go for it.  If I could have eggs, this could’nt hurt--what was good in the goose was certainly good in the gander.  Then, following some chunks of Miyazaki beef, a point of pride with the locals, we wrap up with seaweed, fish egg, shrimp, a salmon and soy gratin and fruits.  This, was the mother of all meals.

The hotel was a welcome walk away and as I exit into the night air and head to the street, my Japanese friend motions me to hold off for a bit.  There was a commotion about 25 meters ahead.  Three young women in tight, baby doll getups, flurried around a cab.   One frisked up to in the restaurant in impossible heels and after a brief conversation with the staff, returned.  A slim man in his late fifties in a suit emerged from the taxi, seemingly agitated.  And then after some more consultation, the women and man got into another taxi and drove off.  This was the Yakuza, I was told, and while they usually did not bother the common man, it was best to avoid them.

The next day we drive into the countryside.  Japanese countryside looks like Assamese countryside that has been Europeanized. We drove on a narrow road raised on an embankment, either side of which were small marked and bordered fields for cultivation, some of them paddy.  Grass and shrubs grew at the edges of concrete footpaths that were stain darkened by the humidity.  Neat houses with sloping roofs lay adjacent to the fields, connected by narrow lanes.  There were hills in the background, bamboo outgrowths by the road.  This could be Assam, this was a very Asian landscape, except that the houses had the ship shape fittings of Swiss dwellings, there were solar panels on the roofs, late model cars were parked by the farmers houses, and a bicyclist wearing a Bissell outfit hunched over a road bike cornered a bend in the road.  And there were no temples.

On the way back at Narita Airport in Tokyo, I look in vain for a store that would sell Japanese ceramics and traditional pottery, things like that.  The entire place is filled with booze and perfume shops, kitschy Japanese objects and overpriced Western designer stores filled with stuff that looks crass against the muted delicacy of Japanese design.  I give up and retreat to the Kookai Noodle Shop for a bowl of Ramen.  Always guaranteed to uplift a tired traveler.  But more on than later.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

How does a chapati or roti fluff up?

Many of us are familiar with the way to make a perfect chapati or roti:  (i) roll flat a piece of moist dough evenly, (ii) heat one side on a pan, (iii) flip and heat the other side, (iv) then put it directly onto the flames.  If done right, the chapati puffs up like a balloon, a giant bubble of water vapor contained within the intact surface of the roti.  Why and how does this happen? Centuries of chapati making have led, through trial and error, to this sequence of steps. Think through this, as we did through a dinner conversation with my younger son, and there are clear scientific reasons behind each of these steps.

When a chapati is heated, dissolved water in the dough evaporates and collects together to form small bubbles which then coalesce into one large bubble. As more dissolved moisture is converted to vapor, the bubble grows, pumping up the chapati and pushing the malleable dough outward.  Instead of growing large as it does, why doesn't the water vapor bubble simply escape by perforating the front or the back surface, as in the figure below?  These surfaces are readily available to the bubble less than a millimeter away!

The answer lies in the manner that the chapati is heated.  Take the hottest part of the chapati—the bottom surface that is in contact with the hot pan.   Water vapor that has formed within an escape depth of this surface leaks out through the back.  This water denuded outer layer of dough now hardens, losing its malleability and making it harder for a  water vapor bubble to punch through.
Now the top surface needs hardening as well—which is why in the best puffed chapatis you need to heat one side, then flip over to heat the other side.  Once both surfaces have been hardened, the escape routes from top and bottom have been sealed, the growing bubble is frustrated and forced to expand laterally, as in the figure below.

Why is there a single bubble and not many?  When a bubble is formed, a new surface is created (i.e. the circumference of the bubble).  This has an energy cost because atomic bonds have to be broken to create the surface (if you split a wooden log in two, you have expended energy to break atomic bonds to create two new surfaces that weren’t there).  Systems in nature always try to minimize the energy cost if they can. If two bubbles of the same radius coalesce to form a single bubble, the surface area reduces to 2-1/3 of the original area, if n bubbles coalesce, the area reduction is a factor of n-1/3.  Creating a single large bubble instead of many small ones therefore requires a smaller area of surface to be created, and a lower energy cost.  It is thus fated that the bubbles must give up their individuality.  This is why in a good chapatti, in the end, there is one huge bubble. 

We are still left with step (iv), that the best chapattis are made when—after heating each side on a pan--the chapatti is put directly onto the flames for a vigorous fluff up.  There is a reason behind this as well. The dough is not perfect.  Some water vapor can still leak out through the top and bottom surfaces.  There is therefore a small “leak rate”.  Now when the dissolved moisture is converted to vapor in a hot chapatti, there is a certain gas generation rate. If this generation rate is much larger than the leak rate, then we can expect a good puff, otherwise not. Sticking the chapatti directly onto the flames raises its temperature and rapidly converts the moisture into gas—greatly increasing the gas generation rate and making the leak rate negligible in comparison.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Indian food, the Ngram viewer, and some statistics

I heard an interesting talk recently by Jean-Baptiste Michel from Harvard’s Cultural Observation Laboratory, on tracking the appearance of specific words in print since the early 1800s.  Their database was the vast collection of digitized books, that now cover about 4% of all printed books in English.  The results offer a window into cultural trends through the ages, and has the potential to become a useful quantitative tool in the hands of social scientists.  This tool is available on the web ( and for some amusement, given that this is an Indian food blog, lets take a quick look at how Indian food has been received in the West through the years.
Blue: tandoori; red: vindaloo; yellow: raita, green: mulligatawny

Take a look at the graph above.  The Y axis shows the frequency (as a function of percentage of all printed words) with which the words tandoori, vindaloo and raita appear in all English books printed since 1800 that are available via Google Books.  I picked these words as being representative of Indian dishes popular in the West.  They make their appearance in print around the 1960s, coincident with the wave of sub-continental immigration into the UK.  The curves rise rapidly, reflecting the popularity of Indian food the past 15 years.  Compare them against the granddaddy of Anglo-Indian cuisine—the Mulligatawny Soup.  Nobody has Mulligatawny soup these days, we never had it growing up in India, and it is largely unavailable except in some Indian restaurants in the US (and perhaps England) who strain to create a “Raj” ambience.  But at one time in the 1800s, Mulligatawny was king of the hill, and one of the first culinary products that came out of the British –Indian encounter.  Consider this advise given to a young man considering a commission with the East India company in “The Surgeon’s Daughter” (1800) by Sir Walter Scott,
 “'If you, my dear fellow,' continued he, extending his hand to Middlemas, 'would think of changing sheep-head broth and haggis for mulligatawny and curry, I can only say that, though it is indispensable that you should enter the serv-ice at first simply as a cadet, yet, by , you should live like a brother on the passage with me; and no soonef were we through the surf at Madras than I would put you in the way of acquiring both wealth and glory…
And, Walter Scott was not the only one--the graph shows a steady representation for Mulligatawny since the 1820s that has continued to this day.

How popular is Indian food compared with Chinese?  The figure below shows the frequency of Chow Mein, Chop Suey, and Lo Mein over time. Chinese food of course became popular at an earlier time compared to Indian--this is supported by the graphs; what is also interesting is the relative use of the words themselves. Chop Suey is an older term, was at the height of its popularity in the early 1940s for reasons that are unclear (perhaps related to WWII?). Its usage has dwindled, though it is still popular today, at about the same level as Chow MeinLo Mein camd later, around at the time that Indian food started becoming popular.  I would have thought that Chinese fare is still ahead, but we find that the popularity of tandoori and Chow Mein--at least in print-- are now about the same.

Blue: chow mein, red: chop suey; green: lo mein

And, digressing a bit from food, what about Indian stereotypes?  Even into the 70s and 80s, the “Indian snake charmer” kept alive the colonial concept of the mysterious East; it was even pandered to—I recall Mad Magazine from the 70s with a spread from the well known Indian cartoonist, Sudhir Dar, which had an entry that played on this same theme.  This embodiment, as we all know, gave way to the Indian programmer in the 2000s—even making their way into TV commercials the past few years.  So how do they look on Ngram? Surprisingly, the Indian snake charmer is still around, after enjoying some peak attention between 1900 and 1920 for reasons unknown.  The Indian programmer has climbed steeply since 1990, though unexpectedly, still neck and neck with the snake charmer .
Blue: Indian programmer; red: Indian snake charmer

Monday, October 24, 2011

Neerob, on Starling Avenue in the Bronx

Neerob is a Bangladeshi restaurant that is part of a block’s worth of Bengali shops in the Bronx, known as “Banglabazaar”.  In the evening the small restaurant is crowded with young Bangladeshi men sitting around tables, in the middle of an “adda”(a rump session), with cups of tea.  Neerob does a brisk take out business with an established clientele, and the occasional newcomer attracted by the recent review of Neerob that appeared in the New York Times.

Most Bengali restaurants in the tri-state area are Bangladeshi, and as far as I know the now shuttered “Babu” in Greenwich Village was the only restaurant from the Indian side of Bengal, i.e. the state of W. Bengal.  This is not a bad thing as the East Bengalis (i.e. folks from Bangladesh) have a fabulous cooking legacy and they will sneer at the prissy cooking habits of the West Bengalis, their lack of spontaneity, and their annoying habit of adding a spoon of sugar into anything that they cook.  Mass migration of hindus from eastern to western Bengal took place during India’s independence in 1947.  The nation partitioned along religious lines into India and Pakistan, and the food and culture of West Bengal changed forever. 

The Bengali food from Bangladesh differs in two respects from Indian Bengali food.  The first is the heavy muslim influence: the use of beef and aromatic spices more common to North Indian cooking.  Try the Beef Tehari, for instance, something that you will not find in an Indian restaurant.  The second difference, characteristic to many Bangladeshi restaurants, is the heavy handed use of chilli powder and spices, making the food discomfortingly “hot”.  Unless you are at the “macho man” stage of South Asian food appreciation, this will not be too exciting.

The biryanis at Neerob are fragrant and have chunks of tender meat in generous amounts--I would go back again, for the biryani alone.  The hilsa fish curry comes packed in oil, like chunks of sodium that explode in your mouth with heat.  Hilsa is a delicate fish that sings to you when lightly cooked , with a streak of mustard across its tender meat that is held together by a gossamer scaffold of a thousand bones.  It is a travesty to cook it with so much oil and chili.   The goat curry was surprisingly mild and, like the biryani, had soft, quality cuts of meat.  In the confections department, the rosogullas were a delight, with restrained use of sugar.  But the gulab jamuns, which taste fine, show hints of artificial coloring: their whitish cores were tinged with crimson.  There is no need to add coloring—this is a thing of the past and if Neerab is to get the attention of an increasing variety of clientele, they need to pay attention to things such as these.

But go there for the biryanis, for the tea that they will pour out in paper cups at a dollar a cup, and for the ambiance of the adda that grabs the place every evening—for that alone, it is worth a trip to Neerob.
Neerob on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Obergurgl, Zurich, and the Dark Prince of Burkliplatz

Rail transportation has a distant civility about it in Western Europe, a quietness with which a train arrives precisely on time, the methodical motions of the embarking and disembarking passengers like two insoluble streams of fluid, and a hushed whisper with which the train plunges through wonderfully engineered pathways.  Heading out of Zurich I had changed trains at a small station in Austria, Landeck-Zams, en-route to Obergurgl, a small town high in the Austrian alps.  The lady at the Zurich airport train station had, with unwavering politeness,  outlined for me departures, arrivals and changeovers precise to the minute under whitish fluorescent illumination that seemed to bathe the place in a cloak of efficiency.  So I was now in Landeck-Zams, waiting for it to leave, at exactly  the time that she had said I would—in a few days I would be disembarking at stations looking at my watch rather than the station’s name on the platform.

My train compartment is largely empty except for a gaggle of ten year olds on their way back from school.  They travel by themselves on the train, running around, pummeling each other playfully.  When the train stops at a small village with a cute brightly colored micro car parked by the station road (these autos seem to be the mascots for small railway stations, just like the rickshaw stands by the railways in the outer towns of Kolkata), a couple of kids hop off (there is no platform), jump over the tracks and head on home.  My train creaks as it climbs up the Alps, past angry mountain brooks fed by waterfalls and man made networks of gutters, coniferous forests, sheer walls of rock, past little villages with tidy houses, farms, pickup trucks and bales of hay sealed in plastic sheaths.  I get off at a little station called Otztal and then am driven up a winding mountain road with snow on the ground, through hairpin turns and dollhouse villages, taverns with signs for “Table Dancing” (a sign of the large tourist trade during skiing season), the roads wet with constant rain.  49 kilometers later I am dropped off with my bags at a tiny village, Obergurgl, one of the highest towns in Austria at 2000 m with moutains all around me, and a conference center run by the University of Innsbruck where I will stay for a few days. 

I am here for a conference and taking advantage of a break one afternoon I head for a hike following a small road that heads towards the mountains.  A while later it changes to a dirt road, and then to a hiking trail.  I feel awkard in dress slacks that I have tucked into my socks  to avoid the snow, as I am passed by a purposeful hiker with walking sticks, his long, leathery, alpine-sun tanned frame gliding past me like a vigorous dancer.  This is a ski paradise--the white mountains are criss-crossed by ski lifts and the dormant hotels come alive starting November as the tourists arrive in droves, but for now I have the place more or less to myself.  The resident population is in the few hundreds, but it winter swells to close to a hundred thousand.
Most of the locals are long time residents.  The older gentleman who drove me out to Obergurgl has been in the Otztal valley since birth and runs the local car service outside the train station with his wife.  He had been to New York once, as part of a firefighters delegation a decade ago, and described his memory of the city as one with a narrow view of the sky above, with his peripheral vision blocked by walls of concrete. New York City always brings about a wistful look in the eyes of those who have visited it only once and they will recount the city often with a single defining experience. As he spoke of NYC, this gentleman had the same look, the same symbolic wave of the hand, that I had seen in the Minneapolis cabbie years ago who, upon learning I was headed to NYC, declared that his one visit there with his girlfriend years ago gave him “the best sex that he ever had”. The city stands as a singularity in their imaginations, these two cabbies, one passing slower trucks with deft maneuvers in his Mercedes on an alpine mountain road, the other in a boatlike town car surging through the St. Paul suburbs in a cabin full of crimson upholstery.

A few days later I return back to Zurich and one evening I meet up with my old high school buddy S, a long time resident of Switzerland.  She takes me for ice cream to Movenpick, a chain store about 5 mins from the Burkliplatz neighborhood.  Listening to us speak in Bengali, the counter attendant responds in in the same language.  Originally from Bangladesh, he has married locally and settled down in Switzerland.  Overhearing us, a customer seated in the restaurant folds his hands and addresses us with a  Nomoshkar kemon  aachen (hello how are you).  It is nine o’clock at night, downtown  Zurich--as is normally the case--has started thinning, and here are 4 Bengalis in a Movenpick by the lake.  The customer is a dapper young man in a black suit and a goatee and we end up sitting at the table next to his.  Debonair and engaging, he has worked in Zurich for the past 4 years after graduating as an engineer from Jadavpur.  Koto din Aachen ekhaaney (how long have you been here) asks S in polite conversation.  Ami apnar cheye onek choto, amakey tumi bolben (I am much younger than you, please address me with “tumi”— which is a form of address directed for people younger than you).  I can see that S, who looks younger than her years, is not amused. The man’s Swiss girlfriend arrives soon after and following introductions, they drop off into deep and at times anguished conversation.  We pick up snatches-- there is a misunderstanding, he had not expected her to get as emotionally involved as she had.  This does not help his stock in S’s eyes--the young lady is probably around our children's age.  After a while, preparing to leave, he bids us farewell.  “Dekha hobey kokhono” (see you later) says S in parting formality, her lips pursed.  With a gaze that Rajesh Khanna reserved for his heroines he looks her in the eye “Nishchoi hobey.  Sundar mookh ami kokhono bhuli na” (we will certainly meet—I never forget a beautiful face).  And with that, the dark prince of Burkliplatz glides off into the darkness with his flame. S remains unimpressed, though deep inside, I suspect that the flattery has made some amends.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Pan IIT 2011 Global Conference in New York City

Registering for the Pan IIT 2011 Global Conference in New York City gets you a jute bag with the conference schedule and a bunch of goodies.  One of these goodies is a sticker backed “radiation protector” for use on laptops that will “improve the Pulse rate and other health parameters of users”.  After examining this, I spend a few hours listening to a first rate discussion on education from a well balanced trio of speakers: a business school dean from Harvard, the president of NYU, and Narayana Murthy--the charismatic founder of Infosys.  The first two speak eloquently-- on US education and its global outreach in the changing world, sticking to the high road, often taking philosophical turns, but sidestepping discussion of the commercial forces that can also influence such outreach.  Narayana Murthy, a no-nonsense man, discusses the importance of higher education and research in the IITs, and offers a recipe for bootstrapping the IITs into world class research institutes.  The night closes with dinner and a thumping Bollywood style dance performance, with a moderator who at times describes the dancers as “girls” to a largely middle aged, male crowd.  These three events highlight the discordant bandwidth of this conference, an odd mix of diamonds in a swirl of mud. 

The speaker list was impressive, commandeered by an alumni corps with hefty amounts of influence and wealth.  In the end it was a sober list, including Chuck Schumer and Sam Pitroda, though it appeared at one time to include filmstars and social circuit talking heads, names culled when wiser heads prevailed. The core of the meeting was about business and the art of making money.  The coverage on science and technology was underwhelming, notwithstanding a session on energy that turned out to be soft and inadequate.  This was a pity given the enormous changes that are today imminent in computers, energy, communications, and sensors; and a missed opportunity to resonate with these exciting times.  This was a time to not just make a business case, but to extend the purview to a broader vision that could have been fundamentally and intellectually satisfying. Given the business minded focus of the conference, it was understandable that many IITians—particularly the ones not associated with the business end of things, stayed away.  In the end, the purported theme, “Solutions for a better world”, remained as ill defined and murky as the phrase itself.

It has been pointed out that at times IITians can be preoccupied with their self-importance, this narcissism even progressing to part time mania since CBS’ 60 Minutes featured the IITs in 2003, describing them as “Harvard, MIT and Princeton put together”.  That hubris was certainly on display, on the aisles, and by the captains of industry on the dais, who spoke in absolutes.  Yet, at dinner, there was almost an hour set aside for a humbling set of presentations by alumni from non-governmental organizations who spoke of nurturing the gifted within India’s vast underbelly of poverty, or of bringing solar lanterns to remote villages in India that lacked electrification.   This latter example, described by a charismatic individual, Mr. Yatendra Agrawal of Ecosolutions in Mumbai, opened my eyes to the speed at which technology can propagate today. 

Mr. Agrawal delivers solar lanterns, built in China to a US design, that use gallium nitride white light emitting diodes, a crystalline silicon solar cell and a lithium battery.  The devices deliver state-of-the-art performance and price points.  The lithium iron phosphate batteries were based on a 1996 discovery at the University of Texas—they are a relatively new product even for the western world, yet deployed in parts of the globe that has escaped technology so far. The longer lives of the batteries mean fewer trips to deliver replacements.  It is a textbook example of how quickly technology becomes available across the world today, stimulated by a vast network of criss-crossed, interbred, internationally savvy expertise.

I spoke with Mr. Agrawal in hushed whispers later that evening, while the Bollywood dancers swayed to Sheila ki Jawani.  Even in this dim, pulsating hall where colored spotlights skimmed over the dancers, his enthusiasm was infectious.  I asked whether he feared for his safety when he travelled the remote corners of North-East India, across Assam, often into Arunachal, where insurgency can be an issue, and where I come from.  He waved them off—he had never felt intimidated, and he loved the North-East.  

It was a humbling, context setting experience for someone used to examining these electronic devices in the impersonal settings of a conference room or laboratory--to be made aware of their lifestyle altering influence in tribal villages that were beyond remote, where the smoke and hazards of a hut illuminated by burning pine wood or kerosene could now be eliminated with solar powered lighting.

Humbling further, were the descriptions of bright children born to families below the poverty line, of magnet schools chartered nationwide to identify these kids and offer them a free education, of children of day laborers and farmers who through a network of altruistic support systems successfully competed and enrolled at the IITs. It was unclear how accessible this outreach is today, but it is a step that did not exist when I went to Kharagpur in the early eighties.  Had the playing field been more level at that time, I surely would not have made it through the entrance exams. 

The night wore on, and the dancers expertly brought in the audience that by evening’s end formed an amorphous, swaying mass on the floor.  The halls had thinned, the bars were full at the Hilton, and the drippy rain of Manhattan showed no intention of abatement.  One of the attractions of such alumni meetings is the coterie of old friends that assemble as a result.  It was time to move on with them, get a drink, and catch up.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Saravanaa Bhavan in the Upper West Side, New York

413 Amsterdam Ave

Saravanaa Bhavan opened up a few years ago on Lexington-- on the Indian strip in Manhattan.  I have reviewed it earlier, it has remained vastly popular, though with food that has been uneven over different visits.  Their success has prompted this global chain to open a second restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue. 

We were there last week with A&U, and S who was visiting from B’lore, old friends with plenty to talk about, children jettisoned to college (except our youngest), taking in a cloudy Manhattan afternoon and its assortment of sour faced New Yorkers enmeshed in a buzz of their own activity.

The dosas come on an impressive stainless steel plate with 4 depressions at the head of the plate, containing 4 different dips –sambar and a couple containing lentil and coconut pastes.  They were a disappointment- too oily and crusty.  They should have taken lessons from the Pakistani cook who runs the Dosa truck near Columbia.  Only in New York, will you get a guy from Lahore who can concoct a better dosa than a pedigreed chain from Madras.  The idlis were fresh and the sambar wholesome.  The South Indian coffee was a tad watery, though, after years of Starbucks, this may be my own perception problem.  We had badam halwa for dessert—ground almonds cooked in ghee (clarified butter) and honey.  It felt like a full frontal slap with a gob of fat, while someone pours a bucket of honey over your head.

Saravanaa Bhavan, named after the Lord Muruga, started out of Madras around 1980 and is now a worldwide chain with outlets in France, UK, and Singapore among other countries.  The enterprise has a sweatshop reputation in India for making its employees work long and hard hours, and its founder, who built the business starting from scratch, was given a life sentence recently for committing a murder driven by unrequited passion.   

Anyway, the Upper West Side now has a sit in South Indian place, and dosas are getting as common place as tandoori chicken (almost).   This is good news.  But the Lord Muruga would have been better served by the man from Lahore that afternoon.

Saravanaa Bhavan on Urbanspoon

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Dosa Cart on Broadway between 115th and 116th Streets near Columbia University, New York City

There is a Pakistani guy from Lahore who runs a Dosa Cart parked on Amsterdam near the entrance to Columbia, who will make you a dosa as good as any for five dollars.  It is a simple dosa with a hot, fresh and clean tasting potato filling.  It is about 12-14 inches in length and chopped into portions that can be conveniently eaten standing on the sidewalk.  I was drawn to the cart (actually a little van) by the sign advertising dosas.  Chatting with the guy I found that he was a Punjabi from Lahore—I had never had anyone from Pakistan make me a dosa, a South Indian specialty.  I would have imagined that his cart would specialize in kebabs, but this fellow seemed to specialize in vegetarian food.  Any trepidation however, dissolved at first bite.  For five bucks and an additional dollar for a soft drink, you can stand right beside the gates at Columbia University and have a great meal.  It is a sign of the times that Indian street food available in NYC is as good as Indian street food in Indian cities.  It is a sign of this city’s successful multi-ethnicity that a great dosa can be made by a Pakistani!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pork Ribs with Indian pickle and South Indian spices

This is a dish that has not been a disappointment in the 4 or 5 times that I have cooked it.  I get pork ribs,  preferably of the baby back variety.  The marinade features an Indian pickle that I pick up from Bhavik’s Indian grocery—a garlic pickle in olive oil.  The past few years, health consciousness has made olive oil based pickles more common and you should find this in any decent Indian grocery.  I really like the garlic one, but any other pickle will do—do not compromise, however, on the olive oil base—it makes a difference.  Pour a generous dollop (about 3 tablespoons for 2 ribs) of this pickle and add to this a medley of South Indian spices—the star of which is the “Milagai Podi” (, a wicked combo of ground lentils, chilli and sesame seeds: if you have eaten at a South Indian restaurant you may recognize it as the condiment that is served in a little fingerbowl seeped in oil.  Add some other spices—ground cumin, coriander, and some coarse sea salt.  Mix it all up so that the marinade reaches a pasty consistency—it should not be too “wet”.  I also like to add to this some vinegar or lemon juice (a couple of teaspoons)—the acid is supposed to reduce the formation of carcinogenic compounds in charred meats, in case you get any charring.  Get the pork ribs out of their plastic covering and rub liberally with the marinade.  Its good to leave it on for a while, but I usually don’t have time for this.  I cook this in the oven set at around 350 C.  Convection roast is the setting that I prefer.  The key is to cook this for a long time—my ribs stay for about 90 mins, with a turn at the hour.  You could drop the temperature a bit and go even longer on the cooking.  The pickle and the garlic gives a nice, toasty taste and the meat falls off the bone.  The spices used, strictly speaking, were developed for vegetarian food and not pork, but sometimes you can get surprising results by bringing a knife to a gun battle.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Conversations with a smartphone

There is a kind of eager beaver who is itching to touch his touch pad, for nobody clicks any more these days.  Conversations with such folks can be stupefying.  Follow, for instance this recent conversation with a friend, who has his iphone handy for every occasion.  Commenting on anything, that has even a hint of speculation, can be hazardous.  “It looks like it might rain this evening” I said, one day—I am not a gardener, nor a farmer--the comment was one made in passing interest.  “Let me see”, he says.  We wait as he pokes around his screen, we wait, and we wait some more as the data downloads.  “There it is, 40% chance of rainfall”.  I suck in air to begin to speak again, but he suspends my inhalation mid-air, “Wait, lets see”, his index finger strokes the glass screen once more, “drops to 20% chance of showers after 10 pm”. This search for precision kills me.

We promise a world that will be sensored and networked extensively. And we will experience our surroundings by poking at what our screen tells us.  Take my son who runs to the monitor to see if it is raining rather than viewing the clouds outside: two decades later, his children might tap into a sensor that tells them whether they have awoken from sleep in the morning. A reality from within.  Is this good? We simply do not know.  More than two decades ago, one of my friends, SG, used to joke that when we called his house, his refrigerator would pick up the phone and state that the answering machine wasn’t available to take the call.  Those were the days that appliances starting becoming multifunctional.  Today if you call me, my phone rings audibly.  Then my television, if it is on, flashes the message that I have received a phone call, and if the caller has checked away a certain portion of his privacy rights, then his name is displayed at the top of the screen.  This can impart a certain significance to the call.  In the event that I do not take the call,  I am shot off an email, I can call a number to retrieve the message, or I can hear this on my laptop, or have it transcribed into text on my computer.  And when all of this happens at the same time, a jolt of activity triggered by an innocent ring, and the orchestrated participation of my phone, my television, my computer and, as I secretly suspect (based upon my friend’s earlier assumptions) the complicity of my refrigerator, the intensity of the experience urges me to attend to the call at once.  Does this really help me?

My friend with the i-phone checks everything out on the mobile web.  When I see him I think of him as strapped to the camera at the start of Star Wars("long long time ago on a galaxy far far away....") asteroids of information coming at, through and past him, this information that we always call “digital”, but one with which our interaction is always analog.  He keeps our conversation accurate, but screws up the rhythm.

Years later, the stuff that we marvel at today, we will affectionately dismiss as clunky. The batteries don’t last beyond a few hours, the phones choke up your pockets, the sound quality is terrible, the screen is rigid, I have to poke at various things to do a few things.  Years ago, there was a company that was interested in retinally scanning images into your eyeballs. Perhaps this might come back.  You will see without having to look. Perhaps instead of batteries, these appliances will power off of your body.  You could eat all you want, without regard to calories—a surgical implant and a modification to your liver will allow your body to absorb only the energy that it needs, routing the excess energy that is today stored as excess fat, to charge your smart phones. You could be a trim glutton, wired in more ways than one. You would have a trim machine enforcing a trim owner. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Earthquake at the Union Station, Washington DC--lunch at Aditi Indian Kitchen

I have reviewed Aditi Indian Kitchen at Union Station before, and praised its no nonsense honest fare.  Today, I arrived into Union Station on the metro with a few spare minutes for a quick lunch before catching the 2 pm Acela Express. Loathing the idea of a grab and go sandwich, I decided to give Aditi a shot. So at 1:33; sped down the circular wooden staircase at the center of the station that arcs down to the basement. At 1:34; after waiting behind one customer, placed my order of chicken biryani, goat curry and an alu(potato) bonda to the efficient guy manning the counter.  At 1:36 paid for my food, and begun my lunch—the chicken curry was reliable, the goat meat tender and beyond what I had expected (some places can skimp on the quality of the meat leaving you with bony, chewy pieces), the curry a touch too spicy.  But mixed together, the biryani and goat made for a great, quick lunch.  The bonda was a couple of hours past its prime.  At 1:43 I was done, headed to gate F and in a few minutes seated and wi-fi’ed on the train.  At around 1:55 or so, the earthquake hits, I think it is one of those cases where the bogeys jump around a bit when a new engine is attached to the train.  Except that it went on for a few tens of seconds. At 1:58 a fellow passenger lets us know that someone just texted him about an earthquake.  A bit later I learn that it is a 5.9 earthquake.  Probably not large enough to seriously shake up a place like DC.  A nice lunch.  And a brief rumble.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A visit to Naulakha, Kipling’s house in Vermont

In the heart of Southern Vermont, amidst scenery as quintessentially American as can be, there is a house named Naulakha on a hill that is built of wood and sits on a mortared stone base.  Named after the pavilion in Lahore that was built by the Emperor Shah Jahan at a cost of nine lakh (Nau-lakha) rupees in 1633, this was the house that Rudyard Kipling built in the early 1890s in Brattleboro, and where he spent 4 of the most productive years of his literary life writing several books, including the famous, Jungle Book.  Beautifully restored and maintained by the British Landmark Society, Naulakha retains 60% of Kipling’s original furnishings and is rented out for overnight stays. 
We reached Naulakha after a 3 hour drive from New York and a glorious lunch at the People’s Pint in Greenfield, MA, a New England restaurant in the best tradition of the hearty new American food that pays particular attention to local farms and fresh produce.   We also detoured to visit Richard Bissell Woodworking in Putney  (a few miles east of Brattleboro)--a custom cabinetry shop on a winding dirt road where a trio working out of a quiet countryside workshop amid rolling meadows and sunwashed barns produce elegant clean lined furniture of cherry, maple, ash and walnut.  

Kipling chose the location for Naulakha carefully, and designed the house with a series of oversized windows that view down to the valley and hills beyond.  The house has a serene dignity and a calming presence, similar to the Ramakrishna Mission retreat in Kingston, NY, a country mansion where Swami Vivekananda stayed in the 1890s.  Like the oil stains in a long abandoned garage, Naulakha has a faint feeling of India, its interior reminiscent of colonial circuit houses in remote Indian outposts, its rugs Central Asian, some of its furniture incorporating Indian panels with inlayed patterns.  I find a bookcase of obvious Indian origin—it has the characteristic skillful engraving, and the poor engineering typical of Indian furniture—a tradition that remains alive to this date. 

Wood fills the interior: floors of dense pine, varnished six panel doors, wainscoting in the passageways, and exquisitely detailed moldings that attest to the craftsmanship of both the original French Canadian artisans who built the house, as well as the contemporary restorers who have maintained it, though Kipling might disagree: for this is what he had to say about American workmanship in the 1890s in a letter to a Mr. Henley,

The moral dry rot of it all is having no law that need be obeyed: no line to toe: no trace to kick over and no compulsion to do anything.  By consequence, a certain defect runs through everything-workmanship, roads, bridges, contracts, barter and sale and so forth-all inaccurate, all slovenly, all out of plumb and untrue…….

In the morning we go for a run down a country road that makes a steep descent.  It is the same road Kipling would have taken on his way downtown, and perhaps he might have been accompanied by Arthur Conan Doyle who had visited and stayed with him at Naulakha, bringing with him his golf clubs and introducing him and the bemused townspeople to the game at the same time.  The meadows are filled with knee high grass and sparkles of Queen Anne’s Lace.  Beyond, the house gardens have a studied dishabille; showing off bunches of purple phlox.  Occasionally a pick up truck passes by, carefully circumventing me. At the end of the circuit, we run up to Scott’s Farm, a neighbor of Naulakha and a working farm since 1862.  There are boxes of fruits out there—apricots, apples, plums and blueberries and we pick some up.  Men in Vermont retain a “frontiersman” look to them: unkempt in hair and with full beards, they are trim, polite and friendly, without the redundancy in speech that you might find in New York.  The farmer at Scotts is one of them, the life here is one of unhurriedness – he brings us samples to eat, and throws in a few apples instead of change when I pay for the fruits. 
Late at night I looked out of the 3rd floor attic, a warm room with pine paneling and a large billiards table, a gaming room in today’s parlance.  Small turret like twin windows gazed into the distance.  It was pitch dark outside, with a few scattered lights on the faraway hills, and a gentle breeze blew in through the mesh screens.  The light from the house bled out to the grass below throwing barely discernable shadows of dark grey, graduating into a pitch black into the middle-ground, and then further beyond, the black lightening to a dense brown from the faint and diffused light from Brattleboro.  It is a study in darkness, and aside from the slight glow in the distance, it is the same view that Kipling would have taken in.  On this night, the eye plays games in this mammoth darkness that is punctuated by the sounds of insects, while the heat and humidity collude for an imminent thunderstorm.  The eye picks out swathes of grey in the distance, that could be fog over the trees, or a distant hill, but which vanish and return by whim.

One evening we go to downtown Brattleboro to pick up dinner at Thai Bamboo.  There were specials full of mango—in the duck, in the chicken, in curries that were splattered with this fruit—this was an evening for mango madness.  It is the worst Thai food that I have had in years, supporting the maxim that you do not venture into ethnic restaurants in small-town America (exceptions are the cosmopolitan university towns where you can get food that rivals the metropolises—Ithaca and Amherst are a couple of examples).
I had not read much of Kipling earlier.  He, like Churchill, had been contemptuously ignored as imperialists in the sensitive climate of post independence India.  I discover him through his books that are scattered about the house, his travel writings, and his letters. He writes with a gift for descriptive clarity that reminds me of Naipaul.   Kipling was a young man in his twenties when he lived here, already a famous writer who had earned, by his own account, about 25,000 pounds during one of those years—a significant sum for the times (his house cost 11,000 pounds).  He was to leave in 4 years, after a public falling out with his brother-in-law and unwanted attention from the press.  He was never to return to Brattleboro, and, aside from a visit to New York in 1899 during which time his daughter passed away, was never to return to American shores.

The calamitous Thai food was more than made amends for the next day, when after driving up to Burlington, we ate Pho bowls at the Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Hong on Winooski Avenue, sitting outside on plastic chairs and tables in the evening breeze among a gaggle of university students.  Our waiter was a young man in his twenties with a Boston accent that almost sounded British, who arrived in Burlington to study graphic design, but stayed on, in his words, as a ski bum—the stream of youths who live for skiing in the winters, and work the summers to save up for the experience.  But the Pho bowls with their broth and noodles, and rare beef tendon or minced beef were made to perfection for that evening-- warm, and nourishing, meant to be washed down with a beer.

Earlier that evening we had spent a bit of time on the fishing pier on Lake Champlain, trying to catch fish on a windy day as choppy waves whipped up the water surface.  Another angler was wrapping up his gear.  He had caught nothing that evening he said, and predicted (correctly) that we wouldn’t either, for the waves sent the fish away from the surface.  But yesterday, he mentioned, he had caught forty fish; so fecund was this site on a good day.  I wanted to suggest that he was perhaps forgetting to count the 5-foot bass that he had also hooked that evening, but I held my tongue.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Sakoon, Mountain View, CA

On a recently visit to Silicon Valley, my friend KC took me to Sakoon, a newish restaurant in Mountain View.  It has a labyrinthine layout, with passages leading into inner rooms, and then more passages and rooms further beyond. 

Indian restaurants have started paying far more attention to the presentation of the meal.  This is not important to me, but for some can be an added appeal.  Sakoon offers an intriguing appetizer—the avocado jhalmuri (avocado seems to go well with Indian food—Tanzore in LA had a similar pairing).  Jhalmuri is of course the traditional Bengali street food often served in makeshift cones of recycled newsprint.  This jhalmuri came in looking like a bride, a colorful cylinder of packed muri glued together by the condiments, sitting on a bed of mashed potatoes and avocado. 

KC gets a headache if he consumes a vegetarian meal, so the jhalmuri was paired with seekh kebab—not as moist as I would have liked, but restrained on the spices (I know this sounds like a broken record in all of my posts, but this is important).  For the main entrees we ordered Punjabi Bhindi (okra), Kashmiri lamb chops, and Lakhnavi murgh (chicken) biryani.  You will note that as in many other Indian restaurants, the dishes at Sakoon  bear the names of places in India, implying a certain regional authenticity.  This is by and large BS—there may be some regional guidance behind the spirit of the dish, but the authenticity generally has as much credibility as the Manchurian Gobi (cauliflower) that is popular in today’s Indo-Chinese restaurants.  This is not to say that these dishes do not taste good.  If it helps, the regional reference can offer the seduction of ethnicity.  Imagine that that the lamb chops that you are eating, where folks at the next table are talking about 10G Ethernet technology, could be the same as that cooked  on an open fire, by brooks bearing ice melt from the Himalayas.  Or that the Lakhnavi (from Lucknow) biryani is the one that a chess playing nawab takes a spoonful of askew while he makes his move on an ivory chessboard, eyeing his zenana beyond.

The biryani came casserole dish styled, with the mouth of the dish sealed with a naan, similar to dum cooking, where the food is mildly pressure cooked in its own aroma and vapors by putting a lid on a casserole that is sealed by the flour batter.  This had subtle themes of spices, and rice that remained white rather than the typical yellow coloration that biryani often takes.  The lamb chops, notwithstanding visual imagery, were marinated and cooked to tender perfection.  We used the Bhindi, a blackish looking dish in the dim lights of the restaurant as dry curry added to the biryani or had it with the naans.  It was good, though I always have a love-hate relation with Indian vegetable dishes, where the essential technique involves overcooking the vegetable.  There was Kingfisher on draft available, which is always an added bonus.

For me, Sakoon brought a dose of respect back for North Indian restaurants in the Bay area, given my earlier disappointments with Shiva’s in Mountain View and a restaurant in Burlingame a couple of years earlier.    

Sakoon on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Entropy & D Nu English

“Sm1s lkn HOT!!!!!”  gushed the Facebook comment on a profile picture, the economy of letters so impressive at the beginning, jettisoned in a gust of apostrophes at the end.  Of late I have been befriended by nephews and nieces and in their posts, I see a terse elegance and minimalist language, an English that is being reheated and hammered into compaction through texting and social networking.   Nothing brings the sense of urgency like “nuf  sd”, the superficiality of a “ :-) “, or the delicious longing in the suddenly redundant  “meeeeesss youuuuuuuu!!!!!!!!”.  Writers and poets speak about compressing lines till they express only what is intended, no more, no less.  The poet Linton Kwesi Johnson in an interview on NPR spoke about whittling down a poem, cutting away at the words like a sculpture, till it became a perfect distillation that carried his thought. 

This new language take us further along this minimalist path. From the poet’s task of tightening the sentences by removing words, the objective expands to economizing the letters within the words themselves.  It is like adding a new dimension to the space: words, themselves previously static, now acquire varying textures and shapes.  The communications theorist  Shannon studied redundancy within the English language in the 1940s and found that most sentences could be shrunk down by 50% without losing their import.  Shannon first introduced the mathematical concept of entropy as a measure of the amount of information in a message—something that has had enormous significance in data communications (I thank M for this exposition).  Digging into the English language, he estimated its entropy by identifying the probabilities with which certain letters follow others (such as u after a q which can make u redundant). These posted FB and cellphone missives of today are arrows in the direction of Shannon’s wind, messages stripped down to their bare entropic content, an entropic English devoid of redundancy, whose sparse beauty gains meaning through the principle of minimal expended effort.

This style of messaging is very popular in India-- quite the opposite of what we were taught, a flowery version of English where one adjective was merely the opening salvo.  This was less than 25 years past Indian independence, at a time when little children still wore sailor outfits—the traces of the last century still not quite gone.  Exuberant writing in Indian English took its roots in the 19th century (it is more or less absent now, the last well known Indian English author who wrote in this manner was Sasthi Brata in the 60s).  Here is the famous poet Michael Madhusudhan Dutt writing in English in the 1840s to his friend, upset over an arranged marriage that his father had planned for him (he subsequently converted to Christianity to successfully avert the marriage):

“My dear Gour,
It is the hour for writing love-letters since all around, now, is love-inspiring.  But alas!  The heart that “Melancholy marks for her own’ imparts its own morbid hues to all around it….........It harrows up my blood and makes my hair stand like quills on the fretful porcupine! My betrothed is the daughter of a rich zemindar;--poor girl!  What a deal of misery is in store for her in the ever inexplorable womb of Futurity!  ……… The sun may forget to rise, but I cannot remove it from my heart…..” etc.

Had Madhusudan had the benefit of a mobile phone in 1800s Calcutta, instead of turning to paper and quill, he may have simply texted:

And while it is unclear how Gour responded, had he lived today, he might have countered:

That would be it! There would have been no subsequent body of his poetry and prose in English, no admonition from John Drinkwater Bethune that what was needed was not another Shelley or Byron in English, but one in Bengali, and perhaps no mid career metamorphosis, when Michael Madhusudhan , turning to writing in his mother tongue, emerged as one of Bengal’s greatest poets.

Borrowing from Shakespeare (and as has been noted by others) “2txtrNt2txt tht is d ?”  Do we tarnish our literary skills in this new age of texting? In general, the arguments appear to be pro-texting.  The British linguist David Crystal in his book, “Texting: the gr8 db8” holds that what we are seeing is simply a welcome and natural progression in the evolution of the language.  Similar endorsements abound on the web, along with some scattered curmudgeony resistance.

Part of texting seems to draw from a communication philosophy that is similar to the stoic ethos of speech in the Midwest—depicted with accuracy in the movie, Fargo.  Two farmers stand against a backdrop of flatness, in slanted physical acknowledgement of one another.  Peering at the sky in a drawn and stony silence, one of them finally punctuates the cold Midwestern air that seems so averse to the propagation of sound: “its gon’ rain tonight”.  A brisk “yup” from his companion ends the conversation. Five words, several seconds of silence, and there in front of us lies the brevity of spoken Midwestern English.  There is one part of texting and social networking lingo that draws us in this direction-- peremptory entries and precise information that discourages further engagement.  And alongside this style, looms the other tempestuous, larger than life side of messaging that can expand imagery through the process of compaction ( for instance, “rotflmao”) or lets it all hang out with the rubber band stretching, “ sooooooo beeauuuutiful”.  What it misses between these two end positions of the pendulum, are the mid tones of emotion. Like the photograph that has reduced its grey scales, there is no equivalent in this new language that could grade the emotions inbetween  “  :-) “ and “ :-D “, for instance. 

I have been slowly warming to the use of this new style of communication, though a bug in my instant messaging software on the Mac makes the application crash every time I try to insert a smiley.  As a result, I never smile—and, just so as to even it out and appear not to look like a crabby old guy, I never “frown” either. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Aditi Indian Kitchen at the Union Station in Washington DC

Food court, Union Station,Washington, DC

I met an old friend after almost 25 years and had lunch at the Aditi Indian Kitchen, in the food court of Union Station in Washington, DC.

This is a barebones affair.  A few dishes are set out behind the counter and they dole it out to you on paper plates.  The vegetarian dishes caught my eye, for they are not that common. There was vegetable biryani (common enough), but along with it “bonda karhi” and “chana saag” (chickpea-spinach)”.

The food was just what you would expect on a busy street restaurant in India.  Nothing delicate about it.  The vegetable biryani was good--it is really hard to screw up a biryani.  Curry is derived from the traditional North Indian “karhi”, made with yogurt and gram flour.  It is a smooth yellow sauce, and the yogurt seems to bind everything together, soaking into anything that it encounters.  Let lose into this karhi are the “bonda”, pronounced not as you would 007’s last name, but as in “bone”—potato dumplings with a crusted batter around it.  After being cooked in this karhi the bonda loses its crispness aquiring the pliant texture of a junior accompanying artist.  There is nothing junior about the bonda though, when it is well made, and this was a good karhi that afternoon at this Indian Kitchen.   The chana saag was somewhat watery, not as dry as the curries you get here, which is a good thing for North East Indian palates like mine, the spinach nicely offsetting the  bite of the chanas.  The food was hot, but it was not due to an overdose of powdered red chili—this is only too easy.  It was honest food.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Trip to the 2011 North American Bengali Conference (NABC) and Longwood Gardens

The annual North Americal Bengali Conference (NABC 2011), a major affair attended by several thousand Bengalis from all across the country,  took place at the Baltimore Convention Center over the weekend of the 4th. of July.  Having never attended one before, we decided to take a road trip, detouring for a day at the Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia, one of the grand gardens of this country.

I hoped to do some photography at Longwood, and I packed both my cameras --an old Nikon D70 with my favorite 60 mm f2.8 macro, and a small Panasonic GF1 with a 20mm f2.0 lens, a great street camera for those who cannot afford Leicas.  The sun was high at the time that we arrived at Longwood, too high for good photography, but the garden was breathtaking.  Built up by the du Pont family in the early 20th century, this 1000 acre property was a planned arboretum since the late 18th century and is home to the most magnificent trees and gardens.  M  walked eagerly ahead.  She rattled off names, histories, breeding histories for plants, while I worked the shutter. A couple of hours passed by.  It is a worthwhile education even for a non-gardener like myself.  There are spring gardens, forests, fanciful wood houses integrated around enormous trees, elaborate waterworks, and an indoor conservatory with rolling lawns, several ship’s worth of exotic plants, and a roomful of pianos.  It is not just the variety of botany, but the opulence of early 20th century, ultra-rich in America that one gets a feel for. 

We head for Baltimore the next morning along US-1 South:  a semi-rural highway lined with old stone houses and cornfields that takes us across the Mason Dixon line. The car pops up and down over gentle undulations on a largely flat countryside.  It is a blazing hot day.  A yellow sign by the road warns that the bridge ahead may be frozen.  Many years ago, as a schoolboy, I had seen an American comic book with a picture of a field of rutabagas, somewhere in the flat Midwest, and in the middle of it a bleak, forlorn house.  The image impressed upon me the enormity of the scale of the American countryside, and has remained with me.  It gets reinforced on trips such as these.

Three to four thousand Bengalis from all across the country have descended upon the convention center at Baltimore.  The NABC is a mega-cultural event conducted with commendable efficiency over the course of three days, packing in film screenings, concerts, theatre performances from top “artistes” (this now a word that the Bengali language has appropriated—arteeste—offering a certain license, both sartorial and behavioral, to the personality deemed as such) flown in from Kolkata.

The downtown Hilton has been taken over by Bengalis.  We pass a couple in their fifties, the woman regal in a sweeping silk sari with muted elegant colors, her moth eaten husband with a half head full of unkempt hair, a plastic shopping bag and sneakers follows a step behind.  Inside the convention center, another lady in her 50s berates her husband—“you are really something” the befuddled man has been trying to find a cell phone number.  In his red T-shirt with a breastpocket full of pens clipped to it, and an old Lt. Colonel style mustache, the little man passes by us with a grunted namaskar--a seasoned boxer who knows how to roll with the punches.  The world is small.  A professor of nanotechnology, whom I know professionally, walks past me.  Bengali friends from various places are here.  We define ourselves by our children—what they are up to, where they are headed.  My older son is with me. I suspect that he tires at times being with us and is reassured when one of my friends lets him know that he will skip the comments on how big he has grown in these years. 

We walk into a large exhibit hall with a moderately sized trade show representing real estate, jewellery, and music, but very few books and not a single dedicated bookstore of quality.  This I found to be uncharacteristic-- for it is unthinkable to me that the middle class Bengali can be too far away from a book.  But yet , there was the distinct feeling that in this enormous hall full of sari clad women swirling around like whirling dervishes, and men in long embroidered kurtas, there is a changing of the guard and an emerging lifestyle that is part Bollywood glamour, part American pragmatism.  I see little signs of the introspection of the traditional Bengali intelligentsia, except for brief glimpses of a famous writer who in his younger days spent time with Allen Ginsberg and the poets around Washington Square Park, but now seems resigned shooting the shit with the somewhat duller edge of the industrious Bengali diaspora.

The evenings had performances by several singers with both regional as well as national standing—their common denominator was a connection with Bengal.  On the first evening, we heard the magnificent Srikanta Acharya, a singer who takes us through a mountain full of exhilarating turns with his silken V8 engine of a voice, singing just past midnight.  The second day, there were even bigger national stars—Sanu and Yagnik—singers who have broken all kinds of records and won all kinds of awards.  They reaffirm their love for Bengal and the Bengali, and the crowd roars its approval.  They sing with rich, luxurious voices, and handle the audience with practiced aplomb.  Their catchy numbers send sari clad middle aged ladies bounding to the dance floor ready to dislocate their hips.  Under the blue and purple spot lights of the stage, they hold the magician’s wand that night.

The poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore hangs like a giant piece of stalactite over any dispensation of Bengali culture.  Several of the songs sung these nights are his, composed mostly in the early 20th. century.  His writings and compositions have changed the course of Bengali literary thought, at times freezing the path for new movement. But where is a Bengali without his poetry?  And for that, all of the songs, plays, and dances, are deftly linked together by occasional recitations of Tagore’s verse by the expert master-of-ceremonies on hand, Ms. Maitra.  There is a practiced cadence to Bengali recitation, honed through the decades, and memories flood back of bright summer mornings in the school yard where these poems are recited or Rabindrasangeet sung, against the backdrop of vendors vocally plying their trade on the street outside, of children with wet, combed hair; of the lower lip that quivers slightly in extolling the intonation of a tune; of the flared nostrils of a seasoned elocutionist who sends your pulse racing with his recital of a poem (as my father could).   

There are screenings of new films.  In the Indian film industry the crown is often passed from parent to child, and the Bengali film industry is no exception to this inheritance system.  Sandip Ray, the son of Satyajit Ray is here with a new film.  Prosenjit, the son of the actor Biswajeet and an actor himself,  masterfully captures the compassion and intransigence of the 19th century minstrel Lalan Fakir in Moner Manush, Gautam Ghosh’s riveting film that examines the Bauls’ conviction of the way human life, desire and belief should be freely enjoyed without divisiveness.

The Bengali band Bhoomi performs on the afternoon of the last day.  They are unpretentious, talented, and play multiple instruments—they remind me of “Dispatch”.  Bhoomi arrived in the early 2000s with a fresh sound referred to as urban folk, but it seems as though they have reached their peak—their song production has slowed, and they sing that afternoon with too much reverb built into the microphones--it provides a satiny quality to the voice, but sucks the life out if it.
They say that the best way to examine the history of a culture is to examine the mores of an immigrant population for they “time-stamp” their practice of the culture to the period of their departure.  One observes this in the festivities of the Trinidadian and Guyanese Indians—my previous Guyanese neighbor use to refer to 19th century hindu festivals that I had never heard of.  There are some signs of this cultural disjoint in the Bengali diaspora, but they are fading, for in this massively networked society, events like the NABC are the great equilibrators that do not allow differences to build up over distances any more.

Alumni networking sessions have been planned for in the afternoons.  The Jadavpur alumni complain that they cannot match the organizational capability of the IIT Kharagpur alumni.  The IIT Kharagpur meeting itself ends in a pissfest—some are despondent about their inability to recruit high quality faculty.  The discussion spills over to the American education system.  Even that is going down the tubes, comments one participant, in sad but assured reflection.  An argument breaks out--that as far as I can make out--seems to be in search of an argument to argue over.  I finally get a glimpse of the Bengali despair and angst that I have been seeking—it is alive and kicking.  It is time to return home.

Monday, June 13, 2011

When fathers cook

Supratik Guha

Jhumpa Lahiri has written an affectionate essay in the New Yorker (2009) about her father and his skills at cooking rice.  It is a rice that he has made for decades, feeding at times upto hundreds of people.  The site has an accompanying web video showing the 80 year old gentleman make Persian fried rice, a Pollao, as it is referred to in Bengali.  He seems an endearing gentleman, a meshomoshai, at peace with himself, in a kitchen that could belong to so many East Coast Bengali immigrants-- happy suburban professionals in split levels, colonials and ranches, where the gentle breeze of Bengal blows in every day, thru the snow,  through the virunga like green foliage after the summer rains, through the ochre and sienna Fall. 

Mr Lahiri makes a mean Pollao and watching the multitude of precision steps in his cooking, two things come to mind.  The first is the sizable chunk of butter that Mr. Lahiri drops into the frying pan.  This is not just fried rice, it is langorous rice bathed in contentment after an orgy with molten triglycerides.  My second thought is, why does the father get all the attention when it comes to cooking?

I have seen this in my own family.  I remember the kosha mangsho (dry mutton curry) that my father made in Pune when I was 5, though it is my mother who does the lion’s share (very big lion!) of the cooking.  It was the same when I had my own boys, who—when young and not yet insouciant teenagers--would whoop with joy when Daddy concoted a dish that had more enthusiasm than substance.  Mom’s cooking was the constant dedicated supply of balanced nutrition, Dad’s creations the blips on top, at times adding, at times subtracting, but always remembered beyond their technical merits.

In the West, grilling has assumed the mantle of the stereotype for the male non-professional cook.  Jim Harrison, writing in the newly released collection of essays “Man with a Pan”, has this to say about grilling and men: “Men learning to cook often start with the BBQ grill, perhaps because they have been roasting meat over fire for a couple of hundred thousand years.  Of course women do it equally well, but then they must think, Let the d***head go at it, I’m tired of doing all the cooking.”  This is perhaps true, and I would venture that that a hot grill is self cleaning, and therefore a point of great appeal at to me.  Indian men in India do not grill, indeed grilling is not common among either sex there (you will not find tandoors—Indian grills—in the average Indian household), but Indian food generally goes well on Western grills and Indian men in the US have adapted to this technique.  Meats marinated the Indian way need some caution during grilling: spice-yogurt based marinades tend to burn quickly, so the heat needs to be directed from an indirect source.  Removing the skin of the chicken, as we often do, also leaves the meat dry after grilling, so constant basting with the marinade is advisable.  Vegetarian dishes like paneer (sort of like a farmer’s cheese)—get the one called Nanak paneer—grill nicely, marinated with some olive oil, cumin and coriander powders.

Why do men cook?  A British report can be found floating around on the web (see, describing “The Gastrosexual Man”,  heralding a new generation of men who are more generally involved in cooking than their predecessors: "It is certainly true that women cook more than men. However, it is interesting to note that it is not the occasional male cooks, not the barbecue kings who claim the most enthusiasm for cooking....” Through data gathered from polling the British public the report claims that more men in the 25-40 age group are cooking these days, in part anchored by the idea that it makes them more attractive to the opposite sex.  On the other hand they are 4 times less likely to be doing the cleaning and laundry compared to women, new avenues, possibly, for furthering their appeal.  I am not sure what to make of this study—was it an instance of trying to push a catchy title by putting some statistical meat around it?  Poking around on the web, it is easy to see that this is an oft touted concept and understandable at some level.  This is still not a satisfactory reason, I believe the answer lies deeper, probing other urgencies of the mind.

The aforementioned Jim Harrison leads us to a couple of other speculations: “For the man who cooks perhaps twice a week, the prime motive in cooking is to have something to eat worthy of your heart’s peculiar desires.”  This is believable.  Cooking can also be a be a counterpoint to one’s working life, what you cook is entirely within your control, a remedial lever to what you cannot control at work: “I recall a day when I got fired (for arrogance) yet again from Hollywood, and the murk of the dismissal was easily leavened by grilling five illegal baby lake trout,…..

Back to Jhumpa Lahiri and her father.  Mr. Lahiri is depicted as a creature of habits with a strong sense of measurement, of the type that a good experimentalist would have.  He has 15 raisins on his oatmeal each day, he knows exactly, and in a scalable manner, how many glasses of water are needed for how many cups of rice.  He seems to like a set routine.  I know people like that—like Dr. X, who is also a creature of habit.  Dr. X used the four letter word once a week, right after taking the wrong exit on Rt. 287 while ferrying his son between piano and guitar lessons every Saturday morning.  Since this was a routine occurrence, Dr. X built the 10 minute delay into his schedule, leading to a satisfactory solution that corrected his errors. Grilling for him was an exercise in set pieces, a robust reaffirmation of causality.  It was a Newtonian world of mechanical fulfillment that had its own contentment--the click of the piezoelectric fire starter, the low growl of the three burners as they catch light in sequence, the linear blue flame that plants butterfly kisses on the nozzles streaming past them with the turn of the gas, the pork ribs marinated in Indian achar(pickle) and olive oil, the adjustment of the burner settings to a touch below “medium”.   You let Dr. X know when the ribs needed to be ready, and he would build the time factor in:  7 minutes for getting the gas grill hot, 5 for slitting the plastic package around the ribs and slathering them in achar, 45 minutes for the ribs with a turnover inbetween, and then 5 minutes for cool down.  He would consume one Amstel or Heineken Light during this process.

Dr. X also has a chicken stock that he makes for his family, the recipe adapted from his wife, then usurped as his own, injecting into it the drum beat of his methodology.  The process is undeviating—the back and wings of a free range chicken immersed in water along with pieces of celery, whole black pepper, coriander seeds, chopped onions, chunks of ginger, cilantro, bay leaves, a spoon of vinegar to leach out the calcium from the bones.  Boiled on a low, simmering, bubbles-rising-to-the-top kind of heat for an hour, the aroma plays lightly around the kitchen.  There is something wholesome about steam rising from a big and heavy cooking pot, particularly on a winter’s weekend morning.  The liquid is strained out, then chilled to raise the fat to the surface for skimming.

Dr. X cooked on occasion, because it gave him a sense of rhythm, and the melody of a loose recipe that drove him as in a hunt.  There was a sense of satisfaction, of a completed evening within a larger incomplete one, when the food was laid at his table.  And then the expansive  sense of elegance beholding one’s creation, and transcribing into words in one’s mind, the method, the smells, the sounds and the wholesomeness of handling heavy cast iron pans, the steam and the clarity of the liquid in the broth with its globules of fat suspended as little bubbles, scattering the ambient light helter skelter.

Just listening to the elegance of a dish is in itself a kind of meal.  And here is an example where Pablo Neruda, in his Ode to Conger Chowder, gives the following prescription for cooking a kind of eel:
You bring the conger, skinned,
to the kitchen
(its mottled skin slips off
like a glove,
leaving the
grape of the sea
exposed to the world),
the tender eel
to serve our appetites.
you take
first, caress
that precious
its irate fragrance,
blend the minced garlic
with onion
and tomato
until the onion
is the color of gold.
Meanwhile steam
our regal
ocean prawns,
and when
they are
when the savor is
set in a sauce
combining the liquors
of the ocean
and the clear water
released from the light of the onion,
you add the eel
that it may be immersed in glory,
that it may steep in the oils
of the pot,
shrink and be saturated.

Such is the power of  the poet’s recipe.