A-Z of Indian khana peena

January 31, 2009

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The taxi driver driving me from suburban Chicago to the airport was chatty (and loud and voluble) in the manner of most American taxi-wallahs. He quickly zeroed in on my nationality and after perfunctory discussions on the situation in Afghanistan, popped a question to me. “Sir, where in India I can source Ghost Peppers from?”

Ghost Peppers? Ghost? Peppers? Never heard of them, I wondered.

I said flatly, “No idea”.

He persisted, “Sir, hot peppers, very hot peppers from India. Ghost Peppers.”

I knew peppers, and I knew ghosts. But never heard of them together. And I told him so.

He was at his wits’ ends, and tried his luck again. “Sir, those vegetables. Green or red or sometimes yellow too. Very hot!

And suddenly the penny dropped! Hot= teekha, pepper= mirchi, ghost= bhoot. Yes, I had indeed recently read about this chilli from Assam, “Bhut Jholokia“. Only a few months earlier some scientist had established it to be mirchi-est of all mirchis in the world, beating hollow the then world record holder from somewhere in South America.

The taxi wallah, it transpired from the chat during the rest of the drive, was a serious foodie. One with a special interest in peppers. He peppered me, pardon the pun, with so much interesting trivia on peppers that I was rather sad when the journey ended at the airport and I had to part company with the taxi driver.

He would love this book “The Illustrated Foods of India A-Z” by K. T. Achaya.

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This book will delight all foodies. No doubt about that. A collection of around 600 food terms explained in great detail and with scholarly precision. Starting with Achar, moving to Falooda, then Jain food ambience, Laddu, Paan, Tamarind ending with a rather un-foody Zakat which I suspect has been included to round this “A-Z” book with a “Z” word. The author delves deep into the origin of the food, the historical references, archeological significance, different usages in different parts of the country and so on.

So, it transpires that the ubiquitous our very own aloo (potato) is not of Indian origin. It arrived from the South American shores much after the Mughals. It was it initially accepted only by the Europeans and then the Muslims and the Hindus only at the end.

And there were no green chillis before the 16th century in India. (kali mirch or black pepper was the pungency-inducing spice in those days. Guess where the green chillis came from. Good old South America! Introduced to India by Vasco da Gama or European voyagers of similar vintage. (Poor South American chillis, they had to get beaten by the Indian chillis, like the English cricket team getting thrashed by the Indians.)

And horror of horrors, the author has even figured out that our beloved idli is probably of Indonesian origin!

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Mr Achaya, and I quote from the blurb, is “…a renowned nutritionist and an authority on Indian food, pursued scientific research in the areas of oilseeds, vegetable oil, processed foods and nutrition….” Some googling revealed that the venerable scientist wrote extensively researched papers. Sample this: “The fatty acid and glyceride structures of Indian buffalo milk and depot fats, and some characteristics of eastern animal fats” published in 1946 in a British journal. So you can expect a lot of research, a lot of erudition and a lot of reliable information in this book.

The author has dug deep into ancient and medieval literature like the Vedas, Arthashastra, Ain-e-Akbari aming many others in his quest for information. He gives the correct technical names. Like Musa paradisiaca being the name of a popular variety of bananas. And he goes into deep technical detail sometimes. Sample this one about the popular (not so popular with many) bhindi.

“…..It was poetically called lady’s finger in colonial India and Okra in America. “Abelmoschus esculentus” is of African origin (et tu Bhindi? says Santosh Ojha), and though perhaps a late entrant into India, is a popular mucilaginous vegetable, cooked in dry or wet form. It is a polyphoid with 65 chromosomes, 29 from one genome and 36 from………”

But let me hasten to add that this detailed explanation is not the norm all through the book but the style certainly is scholarly and serious. Thousands of little details are scattered through the book which will appeal to anyone with just a little more than a passing interest in food.

I love food, I love trivia and I love books. And I am very happy possessing this book.

Black & white Biryani, anyone?

Black & white Biryani, anyone?

 

The one small quibble I have is that perhaps the publishers could have released a colour edition. This is a book on foods, and black and white pictures (and there are many of them in this book) do not present foods in an interesting manner. Maybe the publisher, Oxford University Press, will consider this suggestion sometime soon.

PS: Another great food book I read recently and would highly recommend is “Curry, A tale of Cooks and Conquerors” by Lizzie Collingham. This traces, chapter-by-chapter, the history and romance around dishes like chicken tikka masala, biryani, vindaloo, chai and curry. The author, a British historian, has done painstaking research.


Pitaji, I, and Vinoba

January 30, 2009

 

vinoba-cover

My father, Pitaji, has been an ardent student of Acharya Vinoba Bhave over the last 50-60 years. He has read perhaps all that has been written by Vinoba Bhave, and he still regularly reads and re-reads Vinoba literature.

An introduction to Vinoba Bhave if you have not heard about him. Acharya Vinoba has been considered by many as the spiritual successor to Mahatma Gandhi. He was born in 1895. He was actively associated with the Indian freedom movement. However he is better known for some significant post independence movements; Sarvodaya and Bhoodan movements. He will also forever be remembered for his talks on the Gita which were published under the name “Geeta Pravachan”. This has been translated into many languages and is still popular even some 70 years or so after it was first published.

Pitaji, an ardent “Geeta Pravachan” fan, is known to gift copies of this book for many years now. He carries a few copies with him even on travel!

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It occurred to me a few months ago that I am not conversant with the works and teachings of Vinoba. Who, I thought, was better to guide me in this than Pitaji. Since we stay in different cities, he in Jamshedpur and I at Bangalore, I requested him to write to me a letter on his understanding of Vinoba’s works. This was sometime towards the end of 2007. One letter of course was not enough and I asked him to continue writing to me. Eventually this progressed into a series of sixteen letters, each discussing in detail different aspects of Vinoba’s works. Vinoba’s thoughts on the Geeta, Sanskrit language, Maharashtrian saints (e.g. Gyaneshwar, Tukaram, Naamdev), life and death, Hindi language etc.

Letters in Pitaji’s finely crafted handwriting, steady and even. I would get home in the evenings from office and my kids would inform, “Baba’s letter today!” Baba meaning grandfather. I would open the envelope and see photocopied sheets of Pitaji’s writing stationery. I had asked Pitaji to send me only copies of his letters lest the original was lost due to the vagaries of the Indian Postal System.

I would call him up after reading the letter, and he would respond enthusiastically with his queries.

“Did you like it?” (yes, always!)

“Did you figure out what I wrote about?”  (not all the time, sometimes I had to ask clarifactory questions)

“Was the handwriting clear?” (almost always!)

Sometimes I felt guilty subjecting this old man to some rigorous writing exercise. An 83 year man, otherwise healthy, but suffering from significantly severe eye damage. His writing and reading is limited to daylight hours and his detailed letters meant that he had to forgo reading which is his passion.

Pitaji would pull out Vinoba’s books from his collection to quote relevant portions. He also delved into notes he kept from his meeting with Vinoba in Jamshedpur four decades or so ago. I never knew that these notes existed.

Sometime in the middle of it all Pitaji had a writer’s block! “There is nothing else I can think of writing”, he said. It took some counseling from me- and suggestions of fresh topics- and the letters resumed.

I realized over time that this series of letters was something which would benefit others who may want to know something about Acharya Vinoba. I decided to get the letters published as a book.

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“But you never told me that these letters would come out as a book”. That was Pitaji’s reaction when I informed him about my plan.

“Don’t worry. I have enjoyed your letters and I am sure some others will too.”

“But these were meant as letters to you!” he was more alarmed.

“Pitaji! I have found your letters useful and I am sure that some others would like to read these too.”

Reluctantly, he agreed. But he said he would write one final letter in the series giving his version on the letters getting published as a book and a suitable preface as well.

“Of course, you must!” was my reaction.

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Then followed a hunt for a printer. We found one in Jamshedpur. I was certain that no publisher would touch a book written about Vinoba, and that too written by an unknown 84 year old author!

The search for a name for the book proved to be a taxing exercise. Pitaji shorlisted a bunch of Sanskritized names which for some reason I was not comfortable with. (“Mahapurush Sanshrayah”-   was his pick). I posed this issue to my friend Anshu, in Lucknow, and he promptly came up with the name “Vinoba, Mein aur Tum” (Vinoba, I and you). I thought this was the perfect descriptor for a book of this nature. A father telling his son about Vinoba.

Lots of encouragement came from Narendra Kohli ji, a student of my father. Kohli ji is an eminent Hindi writer famous his novels on the Story of Rama, Mahabharata and Swami Vivekanand. He is based in Delhi. When I hesitatingly called him up, he not only encouraged me but also agreed to write an introduction to this book. What a delightful read his piece is!

A couple of gentlemen known to Pitaji in Jamshedpur offered to do the editing, proof reading and other logistics work.

So now the book of my imagination was indeed getting into a book shape!

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The book is being released next on 4th February in Jamshedpur. All six of us brothers and sisters and other relatives from all parts of India are turning up on the 4th February to attend a public meeting for the book release. I reach there a day before along with my wife.

We all will also wish him a very happy birthday; Pitaji embarks on his 85th year on 4th February.

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PS: The picture you see above is the cover of the book. I do not feel guilty about sharing the cover picture before the book release as I know that those who read my posts may not attend the function and those who attend it may not read my blog. 

And, dear reader, if you want a copy of the book, do let me know.


“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell: Brilliant Stuff

January 25, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell is back again. This time with the argument that outstanding success is not a consequence of individual brilliance, talent or intelligence alone. These certainly are required, but what really does matter is the contribution of the society, the environment in which one grows, parenting etc.

This is the premise of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, “Outliers”. For those not familiar with the author, he is a journalist who already has two super-sellers.

His first book, “The Tipping Point” analyses trends which spread hyper quickly at a certain point. The second book, “Blink”, discusses how choices- and decisions- get made in an instant.

Outliers are those, in the author’s words, who achieve things that are out of the ordinary. Outliers inhabit all fields, again in Gladwell’s words, “geniuses, business tycoons, rock stars, and software programmers”. The author has explored scores of these outliers. Right from the physicist Robert Oppenheimer ( I did not know that he attempted killing his teacher when he was a student), to Beatles (I never knew that they played long, long, hours in the strip clubs of Hamburg, Germany, before they got famous. And they mostly played cover versions of the then existing popular numbers). The great- and supremely rich- Bill Gates who started doing programming as an eighth grader.

Gladwell has interesting stories on why the Asians are good in Math. He does not mention Indians (of the Asian variety) but I suppose the logic he gives fits Indians as well. And stories on how culture has a lot to do with plane crashes.

The author even profiles a super-super genius American (IQ better than that of Albert Einstein’s, no less!) who has been a failure in life.

This book continues the trademark Gladwell expertise on exploring (and explaining) social phenomena in his utterly readable easy-to-understand style. This book is simply un-put-down-able. (The easy-to-hold paperback edition helps!).

Boredom you will never experience, but for those who may want to think through the arguments in this book, these points may come to your mind. Like: The author does not tell you how to be successful. No how-to-be-successful kind of advice. (Though the book is sub-titled “The STORY of SUCCESS”.). There is a tip though: to be insanely great in something you must practice it for ten thousand hours.

Malcolm Gladwell does not discuss exceptions to his theories of successful people, no mention of those who have defied his theory of success. To be fair, he does discuss high IQ people who do not succeed, but not vice versa.

All said and done, this is an eminently well-written and well argued book which I would strongly recommend.

I wonder about the “outliers” in the Indian context. Here are some of the true modern Indian outliers. 

Sports: Sachin Tendulkar, Vishwanathan Anand.

Entertainment: A.R. Rahman.

Business: Dhirubhai Ambani.

I wonder how these persons became outliers. Which of Gladwell’s theories explain their super successes? Maybe someone could explain that for me.


Ahmedabad: Uttarayan 2009

January 24, 2009

The detailed comments from some of my dear friends to my previous post “Ahmedabad: Uttarayan Eve 2009” say more than I ever could have. They have described the festival and the associated feelings so well!

What I will do is post some pictures which I took on Uttarayan morning.

Here are a couple of headlines from Times of India, 14th January 2009. “The Patang Party Begins” exults the headline on page 1. The headline on the supplement Ahmedabad Times cautions revelers to “Fly Safe”

The Grand Party Begins!

The Grand Party Begins!

 

 

Fly Safe!

Fly Safe!

 

Thanks to a colleague of mine at Ahmedabad I could get to fly kites. He gamely set the kite up and handed me the ‘controls”. I tried some deft manouvers trying to act like one kite-flying cat. And sure enough, and soon enough, my colleague had to intervene to save my kite from other predator kites.

Bach Gaye!!

Bach Gaye!!

 

 

 One great advantage of visiting my colleague was that he stays in a high-rise building and I could have a great view of the neighborhood from the terrace on the 11th floor. Terraces after terrace were filled with people, some flying kites, while most enjoying the action. Here are a few pics:

The Kite Flyer

The Kite Flyer

 

 

Terraces....

Terraces....

 

....Even more terraces...

....Even more terraces...

...Lots more Terraces

...Lots more Terraces

And here is a resting place for these objects of joy.

Resting place

Resting place

Ahmedabad! I will be back for Uttarayan next year. For a longer stay. And with my family!


Ahmedabad: Uttarayan Eve 2009

January 18, 2009

There are kites, and there is kite flying and then there is the Uttarayan festival in Ahmedabad. 14th January is celebrated by Hindus across the country as Makar Sankranti. Gujaratis call this Uttarayan; this is the day when the Sun starts its travel towards north in celestial sphere. In Gujarat Uttarayan is marked by day-long kite flying by millions of people there.

 

As I drove from the airport to the city on 12th January, enough posters and signages were visible along the way talking about the just concluded International Kite Festival. This attracts hundreds of kite flying enthusiasts from all over the globe flying kites of different shapes and sizes. Since I had missed watching this competition, I was determined to make the most of the opportunity I had as my trip to Ahmedabad coincided with Uttarayan.

 

Sponsored by Airtel

Sponsored by Airtel...?

 

 

 And the first step was a visit to a prominent kite market, Raipur, the evening before the D-Day to window-shop for kites.

 

Raipur Kite Market:

 

This narrow road, barely half-a-km long, was choc-a-bloc at 5 in the evening. And we were told that we had not seen anything yet, the bulk of the business happens after 9pm and all the way to 2 am!

 

Crowds at Raipur Market

Crowds at Raipur Market

 

 

A Kite Shop

A Kite Shop

Hundreds and hundreds of shops selling kites, phirki and manjha. And lots and lots of accessories. More about these, later. First, the kites.

 

Kites:

 

Raipur that day was THE supermarket for kites. Millions and millions of them in all colours, shapes and sizes. I was told that an average family would buy upto 100 kites for this day! Assuming 5 lakh families fly kites on Uttarayan – I am making a very rough estimate here – the “consumption” of kites would be something like 5 crore kites in one single day! Maybe I have made insanely erroneous estimates, but one stroll down the Raipur market street is enough to convince you that this city LOVES kite-flying!

 

Kites in the regular diamond shape in a multitude of colours. And in multiple sizes. And multiple shapes as well, including a round kite, a kite-shaped kite, and other assorted shapes.

 

Seen a larger Kite?

Seen a larger Kite?

 

 

...or a black kite with tassles?

...or a black kite with tassles?

The Circular Kite...

The Circular Kite...

If you are a film buff, shop for “Singh is Kingg”, or Salman or Shahrukh or the large tall Rani Mukherjee kite.

 

Thoda filmy ho jai....!

Thoda filmy ho jai....!

 

 

Pari hoon mein...ya Rani?

Pari hoon mein...ya Rani?

Kite kite....!

Kite kite....!

 

And choose from a large range of phirkis. Hanging in clusters from shop fronts. All made of plastic. I wonder what happened to the wooden ones which we used as kids.

Phirkian-hi-Phirkian

Phirkian-hi-Phirkian

 

 

 

Manjha:

 

In the bylanes one could see the manjha-wallahs furiously at work giving kilometers and kilometers of thread their murderous edge.

 

For those who do not know, manjha is cotton thread used for flying the kites. The thread is coated with glass powder with the help of glue and the glass is what gives the thread the sharpness to “cut” other kites. A good quality manjha will make the difference between two dueling kites in the air (besides, of course, the skill of the kite flyer). For good measure, the manjha mixture is tinted pink to give the thread its sinister, or festive look. Depends how you look at it!

 

Occasionally manjha not only cuts kites but also injures birds. The manjha freely falling kite which has been cut is known to slit throats of unsuspecting cyclists on the ground.

The manjha applicator moves

The manjha applicator moves

 

 

The thread moves... (Method 2)

The thread moves... (Method 2)

 

The manjha application is a fascinating process and surprisingly quick. I could figure out two broad methods of manjha coating, thread moving and manjha applicator stationery and manjha artist moving and the thread stationery. I am no expert in manjha matters, so I have no idea which process is better.

 

This is how it starts....

This is how it starts....

 

..but the effect is gorgeous.

..but the effect is gorgeous.

Accessories:

The accessories collection add colour to the market place. What accessories, you say, once you have bought the kite and the phirki and the manjha. Those are only the basics. What about finger-gloves to protect your fingers from your own manjha? And caps and goggles to protect you in the sun? And binoculars to keep a track of the goings-on in the sky? Sun burn lotions, adhesive plasters for protection and even an assortment of masks to add to the festive spirit, the possibilities are many!

 

A basketful of accessories

A basketful of accessories

 

 

And my favourite pic of an accessory

And my favourite pic of an accessory

As I was returning from the Raipur market that evening I was wondering what the atmosphere would be like on the D-Day! I was not disappointed, to say the least. But that is the stuff for another post….

 

Postscript:

But not all were kite-flying….

Gujaratis, being what they are, were also doing serious business on the side. Uttarayan is the time when the Gujarat government organizes the “Vibrant Gujarat” symposium which attracts leading industrialist and investors from across the globe. The Ambanis, the Tatas, the Mittals; you name them and they were all there! Making huge investment commitments to the state.

 

Here is the front page of Time of India, Ahmedabad edition that morning.

TOI Headline on 13th January morning

TOI Headline on 13th January morning

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