Sunday, February 27

Mrs. Beeton vs. Mrs. Balbir

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English women going out to colonial India packed a number of cookbooks and household guides in their trunks. Chief among the choices available was the classic Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. It not only had over 900 pages packed with recipes, but also contained chapters on hospitality and conversation, fashion, medical advice, preparing banquets, managing servants and animal husbandry among others. It was an all round guide for the nineteenth century housewives. More so, for the newly-married women, setting up homes in a new country, it must have been an indispensible companion.
I carried a cookbook with me too. Mrs. Balbir Singh’s Indian Cookery. Not in my suitcase though because I was terrified that my luggage will get lost in transit and I will, horror of horror reach England without it. So I kept it in my handbag, where it’s reassuring weight comforted me through my journey.  

I am sure you will not find me paranoid when I tell you that it is an heirloom cookbook, belonging to my mother. A book that she used as a young bride too, it had been her guide through the tremulous time when as a nineteen year old girl, she found herself in charge of her own kitchen, cooking for a large extended family. This book must have seemed like a lifeline to her. And when it came to guiding me through my trial, she knew that she could not be there physically for me, so she gave me this book instead. Hence the paranoia!
During the early years of her marriage, Mrs. Balbir Singh travelled to England with her husband too and the family spent several years in London while Mr. Singh attended Medical School.
In London, she began to teach Indian cooking and to help her students she decided to break down the recipes in clear steps and quantities. A difficult task as Indian cookery is all about approximations and finding your own style. It’s practically a verbal legacy, passed on from one generation to the next, as daughters spend many hours at their mothers side, helping, observing and learning their mothers secrets. With time, they adapt and add their special touches, so that every woman boasts of her own personal recipe for each basic dish.
Mrs. Singh’s book like Mrs. Beeton’s was one of the first cookbooks written by an Indian woman for Indian women in a practical manner about good home cooked food.  First published in 1961 the book quickly became a bible for newly-wed women in the country and abroad. It was awarded a silver medal by the Gastronomische Akademie Deutschlands in 1964 
The book and I are sharing a kitchen together since I arrived and slowly we are becoming good friends. It gives me great ideas for dinner and reveals delicious secrets to me while I cook. Small keepsakes kept and forgotten in its pages - two recipes written on yellowing bits of paper in my mother’s hand, one for mango pickle and the other for pineapple squash. One evening, I find a photograph of my brother dressed as a maharaja! So the recipe on that page becomes our dinner that night.
It is a fabulous recipe for “Tandoori Machchi”, or fish baked in a clay oven. A delicacy made popular by the cooks who migrated from Peshawar in Pakistan to Delhi. It is one of my favorite street foods and walking down the streets in Delhi, it is very easy to locate your nearest fish shop. You just have to follow your nose! These shops are tiny one-man establishments with their fronts carefully arranged to entice the passerby. Adorned with rows of skewers threaded with marinated fish.

You choose a skewer and it is baked there and then, while you wait, mouth watering in anticipation. The baked fish comes on a palm leaf, served on a bed of mint leaves and green chilies with lemon wedges if you prefer your fish extra tangy. I certainly do!
Mrs. Singh’s Tandoori Machchi
(Adapted from her book Indian Cookery)
The fish can be cooked equally well on a bar-be-que as well as under the grill.  Use three whole medium size haddock (approx. 350 g each)
For rubbing over the fish:
1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
1 Tsp salt
For the marinade:
1 Tsp coriander powder
1 Tbsp vinegar
1 Tsp red pepper
6 cloves of garlic
1 Tsp ginger
½ Tsp Cumin powder
3 Tbsp lime juice
1 Tsp butter per fish
Make deep cuts on one side of each fish, rub in the lime juice and salt and set aside till you prepare the marinade.
For the marinade: grind garlic and ginger finely, mix with coriander powder, cumin powder, red pepper, lime juice, vinegar and butter. Rub well over the surface and cavities. Leave in the marinade for one hour.
For grilling: Pass a pointed skewer lengthwise through the fish and grill for five minutes per 1 - 1.5 cm thickness, turning once. Most fish will take 5 – 7 minutes. Haddock turns white when cooked and will flake when tested with a fork.
Serve hot, with a salad of mint leaves, parsley and red onions tossed in lime juice and honey.

Tuesday, February 22

A stunning Black and White space: Logomo Cafe, Turku

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Turku as the official European City of Culture for 2011 recently inaugurated a new grand cultural arena. The arena is will host a variety of exhibitions and shows ranging in themes from flames and football to photo and video art. But despite all the exciting exhibits, everybody’s attention and admiration has been fixated on the stunning café.
German artist Tobias Rehberger is the designer behind the gorgeous Logomo café. He has used Artek furniture as a base to create an interior space, which combines painting, sculpture, architecture and design. At first glance, it looks like the handiwork of children with black marker pens gone wild in a white room. However, the moment you notice the details you realize that it is clearly the result of a very clever and precise mind. 
The space stuns and confuses and at times it is hard to make out the difference between the floor and chairs or walls. To create this effect, Tobias drew from camouflage technique developed by the Brits in World War I, which makes the perception of the space optically difficult. 
Blurring the boundaries between interior space and art installation, Logomo café allows the public to practically step into an artwork and experience it while having fresh brewed coffee and pumpernickel. Have a look at the amazing space and see for yourself.

All images courtesy Artek

Sunday, February 20

Brown mem·sa·hib

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The inspiration for this blog comes from the book “Women Writing Home, 1700-1920: Female Correspondence across the British Empire”.  
“Women Writing Home assembles a wide range of women’s letters from the former British Empire and two major sections in this book are devoted to ‘colonial women’ in India.   
Transferred to India along with their husbands, these women were instrumental in constituting what could be called a ‘home away from home’, exporting as much as they could of their accustomed way of life in Britain and reinstituting it as far as possible in India, adapting to and accommodating the new and often ‘alien’ cultural contexts as they went along.
The letters reveal the many different ways in which these women perceived colonial society. Sometimes the new context offered opportunities unavailable at home but often these letter-writing women pined for what they had left behind.”
The book struck a deep chord and soon I was spending hours researching letters written by colonial women living in India. Reading their letters was like a soothing balm for my homesickness. I could relate to these women, for although our situation was the complete opposite the same mix of emotions twisted my heart into knots too. I could feel their heartache at parting with their family and leaving home to recreate life in a strange and alien land.
Some of these women were newly married like me and setting up home on their own, they felt deeply devoid of a supportive female network - mothers, sisters, cousins and girlfriends. Like them, I realised that a mother’s advice never feels as precious as when a woman is trying to set up home without it.
The only way they could fill that void was to write home extensively with detailed descriptions of all that they saw around them. These women were prolific; they maintained journals and diaries, wrote letters home, authored novels, cookbooks and penned their memoirs. These letters were to them the equivalent of a chat over a cup of coffee with their sister or best friend. It was the one vent for their loneliness and sadness at being far from home and their circle of friends.   

So, I decided to write home too, with details from my life in England as a reverse memsahib – an Indian woman living in England, wearing English clothes, eating English food and speaking English - I'm afraid I am living the life of a brown memsahib!
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