Of hot saunas, warm hearts and cold winds…

I arrived in Helsinki around noon and seeing the airport almost devoid of people almost shocked me. In the last few years, serpentine queues for security and teeming millions trying to jostle for space in almost every major airport in the world, not to especially mention the chaos in New Delhi and the total lack of respect in London Heathrow. Besides, the complete lack of security checks did make me wonder for a moment if I had arrived in another era!!!!

The city bus was easy to find (I love the concept of having easy maps and city guides in every conceivable corner in Europe!), and in 40 min I was at the city centre, walking towards the hotel in downtrown Helsinki where I was staying. It was snowing mildly and despite the sub-zero temperature, I quite enjoyed the 10 min walk.

In the next few hours, I discovered an ancient Finnish tradition, that has remain unchanged for many thousands of years…the sauna. The sauna is a small room or hut heated to around 80 degrees Celsius. It is used for bathing as well as for mental and physical relaxation. Unlike the steamy saunas that I have seen, the traditional Finnish sauna believe in the principle of ‘sweat bathing’ as opposed to steam bathing in foggy rooms!

While a hot sauna may seem a cruel punishment to unexperienced bathers, it is actually a very pleasant experience. All you need is a towel and at least half an hour of time. I learnt through my Finnish friend that the sauna has a long history and close relatives in other cultures: the Russian banya, the Native American sweat lodge or inipi, the Turkish hamam, even the Japanese onsen, though the sauna is definitely of Finnish origin, and something that the Finns are incredibly proud of.

Unlike the weather, the Finns are a warm lot, and my friends’ home in suburban Helsinki was even more so. In their home, I learnt to make a traditional mushroom soup, that were freshly plucked from under the snow during the day. The dessert was also quite unique- bright red forest berries, from my friends’ summer cottage, topped with a cream-caramel sauce. He told me that they pluck these berries in the summers and freeze it for use for the rest of the year. I got addicted to the mildly sour Finnish rye bread, and ended up having it with every meal and even between meals!!

The few days I spent in Finland, were also an eye-opener in many ways. I was completely oblivious of the Finn’s contribution to design and art, which I found in plenty through the rich body of work I saw in the design museums, and stores like Marimekko. I also realised how geographical position can change the course of history, as it did and continues to do in the case of Finland. Its proximity to Russia and Estonia came as a surprise to me, as somehow, one always tends to club the Nordic countries as part of western Europe (most Finns do so too!!) and I realised the stong influence of the Russian mainland on their cuisine and culture.  

Even as the Finns prepare for the shortest day (Dec 21), where daylight is for a mere 5 hours, I make a promise to myself that I will return soon to this gorgeous country…perhaps in the summer where in the northern countryside, days can last for many weeks!!!!!!!!!

sights, darkness and smells in Hamburg

So I landed in Hamburg yesterday, on the invitation on my German friend who leads an initiative called the Dialog in the Dark. More about that later, but in this post, I want to share my first two hours in Hamburg and first impressions As I landed, there was this brusque looking guy (policeman, I was told by him, but I couldnt say that from his smart tweed jacket and jeans). He stopped me at the exit and started talking in German! Now I neither look nor can understand a word of the language except for Wasser and Danke!!! But when saw the dazed expression on my face, he switched to fluent English and asked some routine questions on why I am in Hamburg, etc. It was painless and soon I was out. Andreas had picked me up at the airport and soon we were on our way to his house, which is in a very nice residential area. I have been to other cities in I’m sure there are, but they dont scream out at you.
I was told the city has a population of just over a million, which is always so nice to hear for a person elonging to a country where even a small Tier 3 town has people wih eeming millions! I was also intrigued by the fact that despite being severely affected during the Second World War, Hamburg retains the same look and feel of a city with a hundred year heritage I was told by my hosts that when buildings came up after the aftermath, the town planners ensured that not only did they retain the same look and feel, they werent higher than the city centre or the town hall. And I must say, its had a lot of positive impact on how the quaint city of over a million people looks now
Among the places I visited yesterday, the highlight was the area around the docks. My hosts told me that since not much trade was dependent on the sea, the warehouses around the area, which date back to several decades are now converted into tea houses and lent to corporates for setting up offices, but the same look and feel of the buildings is preserved. It was awesome.
will share more as I enjoy my days in Hamburg- but want to share one remarkable observation about these buildings. Both the partment complex where my friend lives and the warehouse have no elevators……and

Two hours in Chandni Chowk

It’s a name that I have been hearing since I was a little girl growing up in suburban Delhi. Chandni Chowk. It wasn’t until I was 20 when I first visited this amazing labyrinth-like market sub town but have hazy memories of being rushed with a long shopping list for a friend’s wedding. I finally got an opportunity to visit this almost mythical (at least in my mind!) place last weekend…a trip much unplanned and pretty much on a whim.

Chandni Chowk is very accessible now with the Metro allowing one to have the freedom to walk around the narrow by-lanes of this crowded locality without worrying about finding a parking spot for your car. The Metro station in Chandni Chowk itself is surprisingly clean (not something I associate with Old Delhi…) and travel friendly. It is right in the heart of the main bazaar, which makes it extremely convenient, if you do not wish to hire rickety auto rickshaws or the hand-pulled rickshaws, and are not overwhelmed walking amongst a sea of humanity!!

Once you cross the very noisy and chaotic road that leads one into the main street, you get this feeling of nostalgia, of reliving history. The first thing that struck me walking on that crowded sidewalk were the “havelis”, many now in a dilapidated state, housing everyone from cheap travel agents to wholesale merchants. A “Haveli” was the traditional housing for the rich of yore, and the house is almost palatial in its scale. A normal Haveli would have a big courtyard surrounded on the four sides by spacious rooms. Many havelis, though non-descript on the outside still exist in all their splendour…though I still haven’t had the good luck to be inside one of them.

It also struck me that in the market, which is perhaps the largest in North India, shopkeepers and merchants selling wares of a similar kind are clustered together, more often than not. I learnt later that in Mughal times, there used to be a zone comprising of houses whose owners shared Landmarks & common feature, usually their mode of occupation. They were called “kuchas”- and many a Mirza Ghalib “nazm” began to have a new meaning for me!!  During Shahjahan’s time, zoning was a commonly accepted feature of town planning. (Hence the names Malliwara, the gardeners neighborhood and Ballimaran, the oarsmen’s neighborhood).

We walked rather aimlessly, much to husband’s irritation, who tends to be more result-oriented than me…but I was not done taking in the sights and smells of this place that had witnessed several hundred years of history. One of the places I was looking out for specifically was the much-famed “Parathewali gali”. With a little help from some friendly shopkeepers, we found ourselves at the entrance of what seemed like an extremely narrow lane where two people would find it difficult to walk together without brushing each other. Of course, they were fighting for space with motorbikes, cyclists and rickshaw pullers who were expertly maneuvering their occupants!!!! The overwhelming smell of pure desi ghee (clarified butter) is hard to miss. For a person who isn’t terribly fond of either the smell or the taste, it was rather strong, but my exploratory instincts over-ran any other feelings at that point in time. We stopped by at a shop that seemed to have a few vacant tables and got thoroughly confused looking at the long list of options of stuffed parathas (freshly made whole wheat breads), ranging from veggie fillings to khoya (sweetened milk solids) to dry fruits. We settled for a rather tame gobhi (cauliflower) and mooli (radish) fillings. For Rs. 30, we got 2 parathas, a potato side dish, 3 different kinds of chutneys and water to drink. Not bad at all….but this is definitely not for the weak hearted, for the parathas are made in pure ghee and shallow fried. But even I (who hates ghee) couldn’t help enjoying the spiced filling and the whole experience.

We stopped over at Haldiram’s, who has made a McDonald-like chain of similar looking (and tasting) food joints serving traditional Indian fast foods. The best thing about them (not different from McDonald’s) is that you can almost be ensured of the consistency in pricing, service and food quality, irrespective of which outlet you have been to. A delicious round of “Raj kachodi” (fried flour-cup filled with lentils, chutneys, curds and an amazing range of the most enticing spices!!) and “kulfi-falooda” (traditional Indian ice-cream flavoured with saffron and dry fruits served with a generous helping of moist noodles!) later- we were almost bursting at our seams, but our hearts couldn’t have been more content. The food also cheered by very bored spouse, and that encouraged me to go for another short walk exploring now the main street.

Chandni Chowk has the distinction of being perhaps the only trade market that also houses an equally amazing number of places of worship of all the prominent Indian religions. Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity and Jainism exist side by side in the 2 km. stretch between Fatehpur Masjid to Red Fort alone. Here one can find more than seven Hindu and Jain temples, two Churches, three Mosques and two Gurudwaras. This is excluding the numerous smaller shrines that exist in the remoter parts of Chandni Chowk. If this isn’t a living testimony to India’s very diverse, yet tolerant fabric, I don’t know what is.

On my metro ride back to Connaught Place….I mentally make a promise to come back again……….

the grand ona sadya

Last weekend was Onam. One festival that is celebrates across religions and castes in Kerala, a state in the southermost part of India- also called “God’s own country (also happens to be mine!!), making it rather unique in the fractured but yet “together” society that we have in India. But just as all other festivals in India, it revolves around food! In fact the high point of this festival to celebrate bounty is the “Ona Sadya”, which means the festival meal, or feast prepared on the day of Onam. We used to eat the Ona Sadya every year when we were kids, but I don’t have a particular recollection of my mum making a sadya at home. We usually used to feast as part of a community event, and get together with other fellow Malayalis and have a sumptuous meal, outsourced to efficient and extraordinarily gifted cooks in the community. So, while I knew vaguely the various ingredients that went into a grand meal, I had very little idea (and this was a few years ago) as to what went into their making.

About 10 years ago, when the cooking bug caught me big time, was the time when I started to actively take interest in traditional cooking. The net was my biggest source of inspiration and during my research when I learnt everything from baking tarts to making exotic payasams to biryani. I also, very interestingly learnt that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ Ona Sadya! Well, it’s true. From north to south end of Kerala, the items, ingredients and basic character of Ona Sadya differs drastically. The Sadya differs from region to region, from caste to caste. And, it has transformed radically down the years. The typical ‘Sadya’ or feast of Kerala took its origins from the kovilakams (palaces of the Kerala rulers), and at the illams (households of Namboothiris, a Brahmin community of Kerala). The cooks at most of the palaces, had belonged to the Tamil Brahmin community, who were an integral part of Kerala’s society for centuries, primarily having migrated as royal cooks and thereafter took to teaching in a big way. These royal cooks developed the strict vegetarian cuisine followed in the kovilakams, introducing many flavours from their own country across the Western Ghats. It is said that avial, celebrated as one of the hallmarks of Kerala cuisine, was invented by these cooks. Similarly, sambar and rasam, the quintessential Tamil dishes, were introduced into Kerala by them. I was very intrigued to note that even till the early decades of 20th century, ingredients like sambar, or rasam that are considered an integral part of traditional Keralite diet, were not a part of the Ona sadya . The basic dishes for the sadya originally came in multiples of four. ‘Chathur vibhavangal,’ four dishes, which were kalan, olan, erisseri and, madhurakkari, or the sweet dish. It must have meant, the payasam. Kalan, olan and erisseri remain the fundamental basics of any traditional sadya in Kerala. Then, the ‘uppilittathu’ which literally means, ‘those pickled in salt.’ ! They were mango, lime, then, puliyinchi and inchithayiru (also called inchi pachidi). Puliyinchi is the special dish made in central Kerala for Onam. Large quantities of tamarind pulp and jaggery are boiled in stone vessels over low flames for hours. Chopped green chillies and ginger are added to the boiling mixture. Finally, once its done, seasoned with mustard, fenugreek, curry leaves and more chopped green chillies and ginger. This can be stored for long. Inchithayiru (ginger in curd), is literally that. Chopped and slightly crushed ginger and green chillies added to beaten curds. And, salt, of course. This was a great digestive to cope with the over-eating that is bound to happen with feasting!
The fried items are the next. Besides pappadam, Ona Sadya should have banana chips. Both plain chips and sarkkara upperi.

 

 

 

 

 


Nobody in Thrissur district (broadly where my ancestors belong!!!) can think of an Ona Sadya without the ‘Pazham nurukku,’ or boiled / steamed bananas. Not just your average variety, but the fantastic tasting ‘nenthrakkaya,’ specially cultivated for the season.

 So, I spent the last weekend, making a lavish Ona Sadya, complete with Erisseri, Vella payasam (made with rice and jaggery), avail, pachidi, etc. I had to make some deviations from the traditional dishes to appeal to the less adventurous palate of some members of my extended family who joined us for the meal. For eg., I had to substitute the traditional red parboiled rice with ‘basmati rice’, and make it in the rice cooker as opposed to the traditional way of boiling it in water and draining the extra water (I do love the way that awesome rice smells, but have to leave that to some other occasion!!).

 

I am sure King Mahabali , in whose honour the festival is celebrated, would have been a pleased man at my place that Sunday!

are we really free?

India

celebrated 60 years of Independence on the 15th of August, 2007, with lots of hype and flair. Rightly so. We fought hard for it, and we deserve to celebrate the day in style. Had it not been for the pomp and show, my 6-year old would never come to know why this day is any different from any other holiday! But are we really free?? 

 

Freedom, in my mind, is the ability of an individual to do as he pleases, as long as it does not harm anyone else, or infringe on someone else’s freedom. Does the India of today provide that freedom to me? Surely, it has to be more than being able to sing Vande Materam instead of God Save the King, or for that matter being able to decide who gets to rule you and me (not that we have much to choose on that front!). It has to be more than promises of a secure future, of finely laid plans to eradicate poverty and unemployment. It has to be the Freedom to LIVE. 

 

I will consider India as a free state when two adults in a remote village in Haryana are not brutally butchered just because they happened to marry against the wishes of their elders. India will be truly free when films won’t be banned because they show a particular political party in a bad light. More importantly, India will be truly free when we have a framework, in form of laws and punishments for those who infringe on freedom- not just on paper, but enforced. 


Till such a time India will be a sovereign but NOT free. We have struggled hard for our sovereignty and I am very proud of the fact that we are our own masters. But we have never really taken any effort to be really free. The only weak effort I can think of in recent times was the protest march against the freeing of Jessica Lal’s killers. Do we see any protests against banning of books needlessly in the name of maintaining religious harmony? Do we even see a whimper of protest when women are burnt over a few thousands of rupees in dowry. What is scary is that these evils are being taken for granted in our country. 

 

Our freedom struggle is yet to start. Hopefully the day we celebrate the day when we are truly free isn’t too far away…………..

 

 

the beginnings of a sommelier!

My tryst with wines started really about 3 years back. I have always been a cocktail lover, though occasional port wines whenever we went on our annual pilgrimages to Goa were the norm. It started with a trip to Brussels actually. I was on work- and it was my first real travel into continental Europe- as transit in insipid airports like Frankfurt and Amsterdam (OK that’s not so insipid!)- don’t really count.
I reached a good 8 hrs ahead of my work schedule and instead of getting ensconced in the (really nice) hotel room, I decided to explore the city. I must have walked around for a few hours, taking in the remarkable combination of the old and new that the gorgeous city ahs been able to preserve, when I reached the city centre and decided to take a food break. I have to mention that apart from the fantastic artist studios where one gets to see real painters in action, the one thing that I find totally charming about Brussels are that the small but extremely well laid-out tables, complete with starched white table linen, shining wine glasses and fresh flowers, outside every eatery- big or small.
And when I did decide to take the food break, I simply had to do justice to the cutlery and fine crystal that was laid out at this really small eatery in the city centre!
Since I had been never into ordering or enjoying wines much, I asked the gorgeous man who arrived on the scene to serve me to do the honours. In his broken English, he tried to explain the fine wines on the very ordinary looking, laminated menu card, and I decided to just go with his recommendation, which was a Pinot Blanc, a dry, crisp wine, which wasn’t sweet at all. A far cry from the very sweet ports that I was used to. But the taste grew on me and  I realized soon that a glass of fine wine with fruit, nuts and cheese invigorates camaraderie, even if one is traveling by oneself!!!!

the first two hours

I have been meaning to write for a long time. To share the many interesting two hours I have had in my life and continue to do so. Some people drift through their entire life. They do it one day at a time, one week at a time, one month at a time. It happens so gradually they are unaware of how their lives are slipping away until it’s too late.
I do believe it is not the years in your life but the life in your years that counts. Like the time I saw the first Broadway musical in NYC. It was “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”- the movie version of which I had seen at least thrice. But the two hours (well, not exactly, but little over!!) I spent experiencing the show seem so surreal. The show itself was no great shakes- decent acting and little over the top comedy, but walking from the W-Union Square hotel to the theatre, past at least a hundred nationalities in the streets of New York, taking in the sights and smells of my fave city made it worth every second. Its tough not to find, no matter where you’re from, to find somebody in New York who seems alien to you. Culturally, geographically, and socially, it’s distinct from any other place in the United States. For that matter, it is very different from any other place that I know. For starters, how many places in the world can claim that the billionaires they house ride the subway to work, not merely because of a populist affectation — but because its more efficient. From having grown up in Delhi, where “taking public transport” is a sure way of evoking sympathy and moving up in life is synonymous with being driven, fed, and waited on by a bevy of people, New York City is a revelation in more ways than one!!! Big leveller for starters!

Like I said, the show was incidental- that two hour experience in the streets of New York was one that made me realise how little of humanity I had touched- there are so many people, cultures, lives that I have to experience……………