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 The author delves deep into the origin of the food, the historical references, archeological significance, different usages in different parts of the country and so on.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.

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“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.


Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh: A Review

July 13, 2008

It takes a story-teller with prodigious skill and supreme confidence in it to assemble a diverse group of characters, draw stories around each one of them- some intersecting while some independent- slowly bringing them together aboard a ship and letting them adrift in the Bay of Bengal.

 

This is a story of victims. The once-widowed village woman and her low-caste husband, victims of their gender and caste respectively in their Eastern UP village. The urbane English-spouting Raja from Bengal, victim of his family traditions of extravagance. The gutsy and erudite young French woman victim of fate and sexual exploitation by her guardian. The Hindu clerk in the service of an English trader in Calcutta victim of his intense devotion to Lord Krishna. The man from Canton, a victim of his opium addiction. Victims all, their lives criss-crossing each other and inexorably drifting towards Ibis, a ship being prepared to ferry them across the oceans towards an uncertain and scary future.

 

The story is set in early 19th century, a couple of decades before the first war of independence in 1857. Against the backdrop of the early consolidation of the British empire, and the forced cultivation of opium in the Gangetic plains of Eastern UP and Bihar the stories of the individuals are told with unbelievable detail and empathy for the situation they get into. The story centers around Ibis, a massive ship which is being prepared to transport indentured labourers to the sugarcane fields run by the English in far-off countries across the “black waters”. The ship is owned by a self-made trader, Burnham, who uses his religious beliefs to justify anything from forcing the cultivation of opium to attacking China for preventing the trade of opium, right down to his sexual tastes. The ship prepared for sailing, loaded with the labourers and a couple of convicts is assigned to an aging captain on his last sailing mission. The captain is assisted by a foul-mouth and vicious first mate while the second mate is a mulatto American. The crew consists of sailors from various parts of the world including Rohangyas from Burma.

 

As this motley group sets sail, there are tales of torture, killings, confessions, intrigues and yes, even an on-board wedding complete with song and dance. The laborers may be victims in their home-land and maybe sailing away to a land which no one knows anything about except for stray rumours like how they would be slaughtered once in the distant Mareech (Mauritius), hung upside down and oil extracted from their heads. But they are determined to forge a new future for themselves, away from the rigid social shackles of India. As they share their limited physical space and limited resources they form new bonds of jahaj bhais and jahaj bahins breaking the centuries old shackles of caste system.

 

The author clearly has done some intense research on the time. The description of the opium making process and the factory, the sailors’ language and terminology, the functioning of a ship in those days, the English language used in those times, even the marriage rituals and songs of the Bhojpuri region people. The use of various languages is something which may overwhelm the reader. Sample this from the Rohingya sailor Serang Ali. “No hab see? Mistoh Oc-tuh-puss eight hand hab got. Make heself too muchi happy inside. Why Malum not so-fashion do. Ten finger no hab got?” And this from Mrs Burnham, “This mate-his name was Texeira I recall- was from Macao, a Portuguese, and as chuckmuck a rascal as ever you’ll see: eyes as bright as muggerbees, smile like a xeraphim.” You nearly want to pull out your copy of Hobson Jobson to decipher this!

 

One quibble which I have is the author’s portrayal of the Englishmen as ultra-evil, they nearly look like card-board characters.

 

The end of the book leaves you wanting for more as the author leaves the story mid-way with some key characters try to escape the ship. We are told that this volume is the first in what is called Ibis trilogy. We will await the next installment eagerly.