My dearest Madras…

Today marks the 380th anniversary of my beloved city, that I call HOME. Studies and work have taken me away from this warm city for a decade now, but Home is still where the Heart is!

Growing up, I could never answer questions from people outside of my hometown about where you could go to, in Chennai, on a week long visit. You see, being a madras-vaasi, it’s hard to think of places a tourist would enjoy, and easier to take the things we did have for granted. But that’s it, this place is for a traveler, not a tourist! The people are warm, the food is beyond amazing, and the cultural hodge-podge, unparalleled!

I had all along been trying to answer the wrong question! Instead of “Where can you go around in Chennai?”, the question asked should be “What can you do in Chennai?”!!

Chennai is so much more than the cliched list of things people from here and others fondly think about. But, the list is cliched for a reason! They are some of the most amazing things that define the place.

Filter kaapi

I grew up in a family that started the day with half a tumbler of coffee, progressed into mid-morning with another half a tumbler, refreshed themselves after a siesta with a whole tumbler, had a second – evening coffee late evening, and made more excuses to have coffee whenever anybody visited. However, I was brought up  with no exposure to caffeine, except for my occasional trips to meet aunts who would sneak me a glass every morning, till I was 16. I am still making up for my loss.

As much as a Chennaiite loves his/ her coffee every morning, they come to appreciate it only in its absence! Ten years later, my dad still travels with his own coffee powder when he visits us, and leaves behind an ‘eversilver‘ coffee filter.

Dunk the idlis

A typical breakfast in everyone’s homes is idli with chutney/ sambar or even molagapodi (nobody calls it gun powder guys, sorry!). If you walked into a restaurant for tiffin (not breakfast guys, learn the jargon!), a plate of idly, pongal and vadai with sambar and thenga chutney is the go-to meal for most! And you do not dab the idlis in the sambar, you dunk them!

Better still, make a trip to Ratna Cafe in Triplicane and get a bucket of sambar to pour over them.

Of course, it goes without saying that you finish your meal with a filter kaapi.

We are a coastal city!

I cannot stress enough how much we take this for granted! One hasn’t seen and experienced Chennai without catching a sunrise at the beach. It wasn’t until my trip to Goa at 11 years old, that I saw another way of going to the beach and experiencing the water. While I do love the lazy day at the beach excursions near where I live now, and on vacations, my beach experiences back home were not even close to this. That was my beach day for the majority of my life, and it’s not with fond memories of the people I went with, and the stories that still stick with me.

The popular Marina and Elliot’s Beaches are chaotic and busy, but everyone has their spot to do their thing amidst everything else going on around them. Families run to the waters to take a plunge, while one designated member sits around the footwear and bags to ‘take care’ of them; young and old boys run around, playing completely different games with overlapping boundaries! One could be playing cricket and the other, volley ball!; older men walk with their running shoes and shorts; vendors place stalls (oh the stalls!) to sell Ice cream and specialty Beach food.

A beach trip is incomplete without some balloon shooting, Fun Orange ice cream sticks, molaga bajji and kaara manga!

Kutcheri season

December – January, the tamizh month of Margazhi is fondly called kutcheri season. Maamis, Maamas and youngsters alike, don their best sarees and traditional attire and make the rounds to Carnatic music concerts all over the city. The music needs to be experienced to develop a taste for it. How can I not mention the Bharathanatyam recitals?!One must go to a recital not just for the talent, but also for the beautiful costumes on the beautiful dancers. The sabha canteens are an added bonus!

A temple run 

The most popular temple visit among tourists is the majestic Kapaleeswarar koil in Mylapore. One could easily make a day out of a visit to the Mylapore area. Stop at Kapali koil in the morning, run to Karpagambal mess for breakfast, catch a concert in Mylapore fine Arts/ Rasika Ranjani Sabha, lunch at the concert venue canteen, shop at Rasi silks/ Giri Traders and Shukra Jewellers, have some rose milk and panneer soda at Kalathi and get back to Kapali koil to sit and chat with friends, and get home for dinner. The temple and it’s kolam (tank) are beautiful, and catch the essence of every temple in the area. You could walk into any other old temple though, and experience the same vibrations, bhakthi and everyday activity there. The city is steeped in history and there are any number of old temples with their own sthala puranam (temple history).

Archaeological wonder

Make a day trip out of a visit to the Mahabalipuram shore temple. What is standing today, is just the seventh in line of six other Pagodas immersed in the Bay of Bengal. The stunning rock carvings and monuments were built back in the 7th century by the Pallavas, and have stood the test of time. Book a cab now, will ya!

Apart from all these reasons to experience Chennai, the people are warm, everybody knows their neighbors, new people are welcomed in with open arms and served more filter kaapi, a small effort to say Vanakkam is well received and appreciated, you could walk into an upscale mall in a saree or go to a temple in jeans and mallipoo.

So next time, ask the Madras-vaasis “What is Chennai?” After all, it is an emotion!

 

P.S. My daughter now grows in a world not even remotely close to my Home, physically and culturally.I hope she experiences and sees  the beauty of her parents’ hometown while developing fond memories of her own Home!

Glossary

  • Madras-vaasi : Dwelling in Madras
  • eversilver: Used in a Madras household in place of stainless steel
  • Kaapi : Coffee
  • Idli, sambar, chutney, molagapodi: Breakfast items. Please google and drool away!
  • Kaara maanga: Raw mango rubbed with red chilly powder and salt
  • Sabha: Organisers/ venue of concerts
  • Chennai and Madras are used interchangeably.

P.P.S. The image used is not my own. It is from google, and it has its watermark intact.

Aah, Pressure cooker, you marvel!

When I moved in with H, I brought with me 50% of my kitchen utensils. I still consider them my essentials because some of them are from India, and I thought it was hard to lay hands on a good brand that is easy on the wallet, here. That’s not true, I learnt on further investigation.

My priced possessions included some stainless steel ladles, tea strainers, stainless steel tongs and lemon squeezer, a coffee filter, idly steamer, two pressure cookers of different sizes and a few other things because I am a partial hoarder. :p

Pressure cooking being an essential with most Indian dishes (there are other time consuming methods, but who would want to wait three hours and has the patience to cook dal in a closed pan?!), H had two of his own. He had a better stocked kitchen, including idly plates (microwaveable and stainless steel), mortar and pestle, two more coffee filters and a tea strainer. Add to this, the vadaam pressing machine(?) and the aapam kaaral sent in from H’s mom after our wedding! We ended up downsizing most of our vessels, except for the pressure cookers. We can never have enough of them. They were all of different sizes, and both of us hated doing dishes immediately, and ended up wanting the pressure cooker for next day’s cooking.

I believe this is the best decision we made. Of course, given a choice, I wouldn’t throw out anything, but trust me, getting H to agree on that, is quite an achievement!For weekday dinners after a busy day at work, one pot one shot dishes were quite a relief.Initially I was making just dal in it, but on further research and improvisation, pressure cooking was a weekday staple! In fact, we like some dishes better, only when they are made OPOS.

Last night, I made pav bhaji, and was done with the whole process in two hours. That includes half hour when I had time to fold laundry! Minus an hour to cut all veggies and the prep work. This can be avoided while buying pre-cut frozen veggies.The pressure cooker is definitely a god-send,  if you don’t find time in a day for cooking, don’t like cooking too much, nor are you a fan of eating out everyday, for the health-nuts, or if you are just plain lazy! This is coming from a girl, whose cooking skills were restricted to making maggi and chai till the age of 21! So you know I mean business!

All you have to do is invest in a good pressure cooker. There are some good options on Amazon. I found some Indian brands that I am used to, too. I prefer the stove-top ones to the electric ones, because i get to do more cooking all in that cooker, which also means less dishes to wash!

Summarizing the wonders of the pressure cooker without all the above blab, here are four very good reasons to love your pressure cooker.

  1. Easy-peasy cooking.Easy to multitask with one of these doing the cooking.
  2. Quicker to cook with.
  3. Flavorful dishes.
  4. Energy saving. In comparison to pans/ slow cookers.

Go on now, grab yours too and make that avial!

 

 

 

So what is it about travel?!!

There are several answers thrown at us when asked this question. “Soul searching, adventure, exotic lands, food trails, life and learning, spirituality”. Cut. This answer almost feels like a “When Harry Met Sally” spin-off, except that it is about travel.

For my family, travel was never a go-to thing, what with most of the family in the city! There would be the occasional four or five day trip once in two years, and almost always included temple visits (no complaints there, I love old temples and their history!It’s the crowded ones that I really like avoiding). An occasional tantrum once every year would make for a small trip to take me out somewhere! Maybe it was the inner craving that I had as a kid, to see new things, that is still in the back of my mind, that makes me yearn for more travel and new experiences.

When I came to the US for the first time, the charm of the airport was lost in my sorrow at leaving my family for the first time and anxiety of the unknown. It wasn’t until my first trip out of our small university town, that my love for airports grew. I love the hustle and bustle, the drama, the travel outfits, the small dogs in their bags and all the Facebook updates and Instagram selfies. That is also the only time you can ever read a magazine, completely guilt-free! Oh how I wish I had the money to travel to use up all the time in the world that I had then! My travel those two years were restricted to visiting relatives and making the occasional university organized tours and one very small road trip with room mates.

Each of us friends getting jobs in different cities, made for travelling easier, and fun! We would plan to meet at a different place each time! I never did get out of the budget-travel mode; let’s face it, for the amount of travel I wanted to do, I would have to be on a budget to be able to make it sustainable! That was another thing, the thrill of making travel plans to have the best experiences, but at the cheapest cost!

It’s different every time you make the trip to the same destination. Be it the itinerary, the people you go with, or the small experiences and anecdotes you make of them. And a very important factor to factor into all this discussion, the people who make it happen. There is always one friend who makes impossible plans, but figures out a way to bring that all together in an itinerary, one friend who brings everyone together and communicates ideas from one to another, creates groups on messaging platforms to connect and make plans, and one friend who keeps everyone crazy-excited and googly-eyed till and while the trip is made. Adding to that, a travel partner for life, who will make those trips that never clicked with a group, those smaller two-people kinda trips that have their own charm and one who will also help make new airport memories with you!

I am not one of those people who loves making travel plans to explore places, alone! So the question, “What is it about travel” can make for several answers, but boils down to two things for me- THE PEOPLE, and MEMORIES.

travel

The perfect backdrop we found a small cafe on one of our travels! 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

The story of an Indian, vegetarian in a foreign land!

These are no longer the days where people land in a foreign land and are left stumped about what to order in a restaurant, what to cook as a student, what groceries to buy to make it taste remotely like paati’s saapaadu. Our uncles and aunts and several Indians who came before us, have already established a foundation for us F1/H1B visa holders landing with US flag’s starry eyes and dollar signs in our heads. Let’s face it; with competitive tests, assignments, bagging assistantships and staying with room mates, food should be the last thing you need to worry about! Oh, how we wish that was true!

Things are definitely easier these days. My room mate had bought samosas for me to have for dinner the moment I landed, and two days later, another new room mate’s sister sent us a huge USPS dabba full of bakshanam. This was followed by visits to relatives’ who hosted us during holidays and always sent us back well fed, and with a big box of brownies, milk sweets and lemon pies to share with the other forlorn souls near the university (who came back with their own stock). There was someone around, who’d make a trip to India each break, and they would come back with 2kg of bakshanam and sweets, from the mothers who thought that their kids (paavam) were cooking everyday for sustenance. Sambar and rasam podi came from four or five households in the very beginning, and stayed in the top shelf/ freezers in zip lock covers, to be transported two years later, upon graduating, to the new accommodation we moved to on finding jobs.

Our cousins, sisters and brothers visited us every now and then and took a few of us for nice lunches and dinners which they thought we didn’t get often. This was true to an extent, because for the first two semesters, we were restricted to the free pizzas handed at events around the campus. (The ten or more pounds I put on the very first month in the US, can vouch for my unlimited supply of pizzas when I wanted them. If you were vegetarian, of course, you’d have to limit yourself to the cheese pizzas. So sad!). If your town had a Chipotle, you were saved. Black beans, rice, pico de gallo, salsa reminds you of rice, channa masala and thakkali thokku. Closest associations to Indian food! and of course, the chappathi,er… tortilla!

So what’s the struggle, you ask? The struggle comes mainly from trying to order in non-Indian restaurants. Some restaurants (just not steakhouses/ seafood places) give you the stare when you ask for vegetarian options. H always rolls his eyes the moment I start ordering something, because I am always directing the chef on how to cook and present my dish. “Can I have the combo three, replacing the chicken enchiladas with mashed potato enchiladas, have black beans instead of refried beans, and oh, do you cook your cilantro rice in chicken stock?!”, “Is your roasted tomato soup made with veggie broth?”, “Can I just have the baked potatoes, without the bacon, please?”, “Does your marinara sauce have meat in it?” and the list goes on.

I have to pat myself on the back, for finding ways to stay vegetarian all these years. There are things you learn not to order. Thai soups that come with your lunch plate usually have oyster sauce in them, or some restaurants make their marinara sauce with chicken stock, or some authentic Mexican places make their tortillas with lard. Can you blame my dad or H’s mom for asking for “thuliyoondu thayir sadam” for dinner?

So here’s to all the struggles we have, on days we don’t want to cook, have no relatives in the area that day, and no Chipotle around in town!

Carrot-Lentil Soup

Sundays that we are home, are usually filled with cooking for the week. Yesterday was no different. I was home for the entire weekend after a long time, and after a relaxing (read shopping) Saturday, it was time to cook for the week on Sunday.

You won’t believe this; a year back, when I was still in Houston, I would fill my grocery cart with chocolate-y cereal, quick on-the-go Mac and cheese cartons, red velvet flavored yogurt, and at least two packets of chips, and a salad greens packet. After the week ended, it would be time to fill my cart yet again with the junk that I gorge on, and the salad packet would still be sitting in my fridge,to be thrown a week later after its expiry date. It’s been quite a year of changes, and one of the good changes would be the change in my eating habits. My husband, being the health nut that he is, is hard to please with vadais and semiya payasams. Or maybe I should re-phrase that! He is super easy to please! All it takes to get him happy, is soups, salads and smoothies!

soup

So I decided to make one soup for the week. Pinterest can be a lifesaver for picky people like me, who need variety. I decided to make a desi version of a Carrot soup that I came across here:

Moroccan Carrot Red Lentil Soup

My soup uses most of the ingredients that are given in Julia’s recipe, but I am not sure I can call it Moroccan carrot soup, as I have never tasted one! After how this turned out, I will be sure to try an authentic version of it! I used a OPOS technique using a pressure cooker, that was extremely quick!

The ingredients are more or less the same, with a few alterations:

  1. 6 carrots
  2. 2 medium sized tomatoes
  3. 1 medium sized onion
  4. a few sprigs of cilantro
  5. 2 cups Masoor Dal (Indian Red Lentil)
  6. 4 cups of vegetable broth
  7. 2 cups water (alternately, you can use 6 cups broth like the recipe calls for)
  8. Turmeric
  9. 2tsp Cumin powder
  10. 1tsp Ground Cayenne Pepper
  11. Black Pepper (Freshly crushed)
  12. 1 spoon Olive oil
  13. Salt to taste

Method:

  1. Dice the onions and tomatoes. Cut the carrots in the method easiest to you. These veggies will be blended after cooking, so the appearance doesn’t really matter as long as they cook uniform.
  2. Add olive oil to the cooker, and to this, add the onions and cilantro and cook till the onions turn translucent and the cilantro wilts. (You can use the pressure cooker to shallow fry the onions or do it in a separate pan).To this, add cumin powder, some salt and the cayenne pepper powder. You can increase the pepper quantity if you want it to be spicy. I thought I would alter the spice level using my black peppers at the end. Set this aside.
  3. Wash and clean the masoor dal, add this to the cooker along with the tomatoes, carrots, turmeric and salt, and add the veggie broth to this in the pressure cooker and cook for three whistles.
  4. Once you can lift the whistle, and open the cooker, look at the consistency of the dal and cooked veggies, and if required, add water. I cooked the dal and veggies with 4 cups broth, so I added 2 cups water.
  5. Let this cool for a bit.
  6. Add the onions and cilantro mixture to this and mix well.
  7. Blend the dal and veggies mixture.
  8. Adjust salt to taste, and add crushed pepper before serving.

The quantity will easily serve 8.

I have to work on becoming a food blogger! I do not have step-by-step pictures of the process, nor fancy serving pictures with the perfect cutlery, but I can vouch for the yummy soup!

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What’s my calling?

mood04

 

I spend two hours of valuable time everyday commuting back and forth from work, and my mind keeps me entertained! Last night was another example; Miss D was drawling away on the radio, taking a whole minute to complete her short sentences. “Howww aree you aall doooiiinnnggg? It is a beuuuuutiful day todayyyy…”, she went on and started giving callers (I still wonder if it is a group of people set up to provide questions, for her to provide relationship advice to!) her opinion on how they should run their lives! That’s where my mind wandered off.Hmm, I can definitely do a better job at being a radio jockey? Then I thought about my short-lived tryst at public speaking. I had lifted my sword as the Rani of Jhansi at a fashion dressing competition when in middle school, and froze there,  glittering Rani dress, mang tikka, big bindi, et all, but no words of encouragement to the open mouthed (and now snickering) middle school kids. Rule that thought out!

I then thought of how my decisions had always been a process of elimination. I don’t like this, this, this, this, and oh, that doesn’t sound like a bad option, I would think and land at the only option on the table. So if not an engineer, what would I have been? What was my calling? I am one of those people who dreams big, but is too afraid to move out of my comfort zone to try something out. An average person (read non-Indian) changes their career seven times in their life. I have changed it about thirteen times (all in my head). I have loved being a part of so many extra curricular activities when in school. Dance, music, art, and even the Exnora club! I loved every one of them, all except my physics and chemistry that I was doing in high school! In one dream, I was an active volunteer with the Exnora club, doing my master’s in Waste Disposal,in another,I was teaching tiny tots Carnatic music, and in another one, I was a personal stylist, telling the ladies ( and some clueless gents) what would look good on them!

There have been several occasions at work, when too much stress has always left me thinking “Maybe I am not cut out for this!” I was moving from my first job, and a few uncomfortable days at my second one proved me wrong. Some of the traits, that were hidden at the first one as a newbie, came out while handling situations at the second work place.My survival instincts had to be used because I was now outside of my comfort zone, and hey, I survived! I was not bad at my job, I had been inexperienced. A new city, new work and social environment, new responsibilities, and a new husband gave me perspective!

The new place and no known faces around in the beginning, and the long commute, made me wallow in self-pity. The commute did one good thing though; it gave me enough time to think about what would make me happy. I decided to stay as actively involved as I possibly could in everything I liked. Sure, I can’t make a living out of trades that I was no master at, but I can still stay in touch to stay happy! Bharathanatyam classes, Paint Nite once in a while, blogging (I did miss mentioning that I had had a penchant for words and writing as a kid, that I completely lost touch with), reading, styling my clothes ( read shopaholic) and singing for myself and my family can keep me as happy as making a living out of any one of them! In fact, happier; now I am proud to be the jack of all trades, but the master of none! 🙂

The image used is off the internet. You gotta love Calvin and Hobbes!