Saturday, December 22, 2012

What's left is memories

I wrote this when I lost our daughter in 2001. She was only 34, and left two lovely little girls aged 6 and
 2 1/2....

It always happens to someone else or so you think. The tragedy of death. You commiserate with those who face the irreparable loss and your heart is squeezed. Nevertheless somewhere inside is the relief that it had not happened to you, and you float on the feeling of being forever protected. Alas no one is really protected from life’s strange vicissitudes….

Without warning, in one fell swoop, the inexorable axe of death separates you from the one you love more than life itself. A slow numbness spreads starting from your brain to the rest of your body. In an incomprehensible waking dream , you are as it were, insulated from reality. You go through the motions mechanically, the last rituals, looking at the stream of people, coming over to condole you, and you listen to clichés which you expect they will mouth, and staring at them with disbelief when they don’t.  “ You have to be brave,”  “Time is the best healer.” “ If there is anything you need we are there for you.”

One part of you is touched by their kindness and caring. Another part screams hurt when people lack sensitivity. When they ask probing questions. What  really happened? How did you let her go? You who are educated and know so much? Couldn’t  the medical care have been better? How is so and so taking it? It is the Indian way of showing concern. You cannot blame them. They all mean well, every single one of them.

Every single detail that led to the ultimate end is etched so finely in your mind. What you talked about. The dreams and the future. The smiles and the tears. How you tried to keep the visitors at bay. How they would sneak into the ICU for a seemingly last look. How your insides burned to have them view the spectacle of your loved one with tubes all over her body. Did it provide them satisfaction to have a look? Was it the sight that they hankered for?  “Well meaning” relatives who had the “right” to look in, could never be put off, however much you pleaded for privacy.  However much you pleaded that in the battle for life she be left with some shreds of dignity.

Shock and disbelief surge through your being, when you are told she is gone. You can’t even cry, because it did not happen. Someone else is laid out, someone else is cremated, the loved one is there in another room, sure to come out smiling, and soon…people come in droves or so it seems.

No room  is large enough. Did one really know so many people, or are they all strangers, acting out a part in a movie? You cringe as the blackness takes over. There is no day or no night. They silently file past, and say the right things to you, as you hang your head, ashamed for being alive, for being hungry, for wanting to sleep and to go through all the motions  of life in a search for normalcy.

You freeze as they wrest the physical body from your tender clasp, and agonise to hear that her ashes are scattered over the holy rivers, into water she was always a part of, into the outdoors where she really belonged. You search desperately for her astral body. And then you break down. Your cry from the depths of your soul is never heard. Because it is soundless. Enough, enough, please don’t speak to me, let me lay my head down, let me die, let me go.

Never mind if you go in and out of hospital. You need to get back into the mainstream of life for the living. The dead are gone, it is a tribute to the living to help them get on with their lives. The  living need you. Please hang in there. Look at so and so. Her tragedy is worse than yours she how she manages. I couldn’t care less about so and so. Your grief is unique to you and you alone, and it is your pain that you care about.  How you will address it, how you will work your way through it.  Why me? You ask yourself. Why not you? Pat comes the answer. Look  around you. People have lost their entire families. What about the earthquake in Bhuj so recent? How about 9/11?

And then start the sleepless nights. If only, you tell yourself, she were here. If only we had done this. If only we had done that. If only we were there early enough. The saddest two words and the most painful…”if only”. Regret, bitterness and guilt. The emotions cascade over you like waves. Grief stabs your body in hot pain. The dam bursts. You cry till you have no tears to shed. You go through desolation and black depression. You cannot focus on things which were dear to you just months ago.

Nothing matters anymore. There is no meaning to life. You go through the motions of daily living with mechanical rigidity. The spark of life which people found so attractive to you has gone maybe forever. You lose interest in the home, in how you look or how you dress. The long line of visitors dwindle, and there is a strange emptiness, for they too have been part of your daily routine. You are finally left alone with your thoughts, and your desolation and you plod one, wondering if there is any light at the end of the tunnel.

Somewhere out of the blue you hear a voice, “ I am just here with you, though you cannot see me. I love you and want you to carry on as you always have. I am watching over you…..” You hear it again and again. The tide turns. You see the familiar smile, the mannerisms and her voice in the children, and you know it is a miracle, and it is a message from her….Petal fresh memories linger with their own brand of fragrance, of happy times. You learn to shape your lips into a smile.

Before you realize it you are looking at the first anniversary. Friends and loved ones call, write or visit you, to say they remember. Flowers fill the house. You cry unabashedly at every single memory that unfolds. Anything triggers it… a particular piece of music, a smell or evern a colour. You lean heavily on people who have been there for you, consistently, through the year. Those who have nurtured you,  tenderly, helping you hold your head aloft, motivating you  to live and not sink into abysmal gloom.

After the enormous tidal wave, calm sets in, very slowly. Not an uneasy calm but a resigned peace thanks to meditation, the solace of spirituality and submission to the inevitable. Knowing that your loved one was halted at a time when she was beautiful, robust with health and youth, and realizing she will be so eternally, at least in your memory. A calm is born out of knowledge that she is at peace and that her karma in this life is fulfilled and that she responded to a higher calling. Knowing that she is there for you , to be summoned at will, and that she continues to live in her children and the ones who loved her. The voice sounds again, this time more gentle, more persuasive.

“Move on, as you always have. Don’t let this stop you. I am there if you have eyes to see. Look upon this as one more challenge met, one more lesson to be learnt. Look after the family I have left behind. Love them as you loved me. They are in your trust. Move on…..amma.”

And yes, you move on. But you wipe your tears first, as otherwise your path is blurred.

Givers and Takers


There is a nip in the air, as I write this, a great Chennai experience… imagine dipping to 19 degrees at night!! It reminds us that we are into the “ winter” season.. Despite  the cheer it is a long run of heavy expenses, buying sweets, clothes, household gadgets what with the offer of great discounts and the buying of gifts for loved ones, from the very top of the rung to those right at the bottom, not forgetting the annual bonuses for our workers. Which brings me to the topic of the month!
Gift giving has been a staple of human society for centuries. Tribal leaders would give one another gifts in exchange for peace, protection and food. The Romans exchanged gifts during  celebrations held during the Winter Solstice which was on  January 1st. The gifts were originally evergreen branches, and later they moved to cakes, to symbolize prosperity and sweetness in the coming year.
The culture of gift giving was so different at one time. When we were invited for dinner or lunch we would just go along, enjoy the meal and return satiated. Likewise when we returned the gesture we welcomed our friends or relatives and laid out sumptuous fare. Alas, the unwritten law today is that you cannot  make a casual visit to a person’s home without taking some gift in the form of sweets, fruit or some  token. When I make a note in my diary of the date of an invitation  I put in a reminder note for buying “something” to take along. like edibles. Edibles meant something overly sweet, but the more prudent of folks today, assailed by threats of diabetes, cardiac diseases, hypertension or high cholesterol, now sensibly bring fruit, or nuts which are clearly more welcome.
We live in an era of excesses. When I encountered what my children faced in sending their kids off to birthday parties I was  appalled. The gifts were as expensive as the wedding gifts we bought for a bridal couple. As if this was not enough the persons who hosted these parties had to dole out return gifts to each of the little invitees and they had to be of a certain accepted standard. This kind of barter leaves me cold. We did give small take home gifts at the parties we held for our children, but they were just tokens and not necessarily high value items. We shopped excitedly for pencil boxes,   hair clips, crayons,  small note pads etc. My son-in-law thoughtfully gave as return gifts, small potted plants, and for the next birthday the return gifts he arranged for were a few fish in a small glass bowl. I wonder how much these unusual gifts were appreciated, and whether the plants or the fish were tended to lovingly, or just dumped.
We as children treasured the few things our parents gave us and preserved them for years. Nowadays children have so much of everything that it is difficult to decide what they would like so it’s best to give them cash. We attend innumerable weddings and unless the family is very close to us, giving a present is meaningless,  lost as it would be in the sea of gifts and not really appreciated. I have seen huge bouquets of expensive flowers dumped in the wedding hall for takers! I admire the couples who request in their invitation that donations instead of gifts are welcome for a specified charity.
One good idea is giving of coupons from a favourite shop.Instead of throwing lavish parties for ones birthday it makes sense to contribute money to the underprivileged or buying food for the destitute children or adults. It gives more satisfaction than anything else.
Gifting has lost its meaning. Come birthdays and you receive such personal gifts which are rarely  to your taste. Face creams which you would not use, artifacts for your home when you have no place to put in a pin, saris you would not be seen dead in, handbags which you consider flashy, a box of expensive chocolates when you are planning to diet…the list is endless. People are becoming smart and have learnt the art of recycling unwanted gifts. So have I. I have a shelf full of these things. Someone’s birthday was coming up and we were invited at the last minute. I opened my gift shelf and found something which the lady would use and it went well with her personality.  In a very magnanimous flourish  as it was an expensive thingy, I handed it over telling her that she would love it. She opened the gift in my presence, and exclaimed with such vehemence,  “My dear, it is the same thing that I gave for your birthday six months ago!”
To avoid such acute embarrassment you have to learn to be more organized. Label everything, as to who gave what, and for what occasion. Date it, as everything has an expiry date. And for God’s sake if the gift is mere junk, just trash it and don’t ever think of recycling otherwise your reputation is at stake.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Miracle at Krishnagiri

Do you believe in miracles? Or the power of prayer? I do. I also believe in good vibrations and thoughts and positive thinking which wards off ill effects even though we might not be able to vanquish them entirely. Before you think this is going to be a treatise on “how to live your life”, let me tell you a small story to illustrate my belief…
My husband is a bridge enthusiast, and playing bridge at Gymkhana Club is a passion with him. Every year he garners other bridge buddies and goes on a short trip to Coonoor where bridge tournaments are held. This year it was no different. My husband along with Major Lakshman also a Gym Club member and three other friends decided to hit the road early morning.  Call it intuition, or what, my husband was bugged with my questions. Who will drive the car?  Is he a good driver? Is he used to hill driving? Call me from time to time! Thinking it was rather unusual of me to ply him with queries, he just brushed them  aside with his usual broad smile and the men set out on the journey like excited school boys. I kept praying off and on that they should be safe as I could not dispense with the strange uneasiness that I usually did not feel.
The Krishnagiri route is usually very good, with the dual carriageway and a scenic beauty of its own. You look at the hills in the distance and the ambundance of verdant greenery on the side that we always took this route to Bangalore and enjoyed the drive. Very typical of our civil engineers, the route on that fateful day was speckled with diversions and dug up at various places, and sand and stones were  everywhere on the road.  The Scorpio at a particular juncturent skidded on a patch of sand, and the Major lost control of the car, which nose dived in slow motion into a 8 ½ foot deep trench, and turned turtle. The seat was hurled forward and my husband’s hand got embedded underneath  it. Help came in the form of many young men who broke open the glass to extricate the passengers. By God’s grace, no one was greviously hurt and got off with small bruises, except my hero who broke his forearm and suffered  huge blackish bruises on his shoulder and back and some on his face.
The ambulance arrived in 3 minutes flat and all who could leave were taken to Krishnagiri for first aid, and my husband was sent in the same ambulance to Chennai where he got admitted to the hospital in Porur. He had his surgery after a few days of checking all the vital parameters. We had to cool our heels for five full days before the surgery was undertaken. As I write this he is safely at home looking over my shoulder!
 On hindsight, why couldn’t this road be blocked as it was so dangerous for driving? Why didn’t the passengers fasten their seat belts? It is not enough if the front seat passengers have their seat belts on. If only the belts were used in the rear seat as well, the injuries would have been minimal. It was horrific to see the picture of the car…which was reduced to metal scrap the roof and the sides dented, and the mess was lifted by crane. People who looked at the car wondered how there were survivors….I was told that the car took the impact and saved the passengers.This then is the blessing of a higher power and the protection given…otherwise I cannot think of any logical reason. It was a real miracle. The gift of life is the best gift I could hope for this Deepavalli, we don’t need anything more.
People were quick to point out that it would not have happened this way in a foreign country. No one would have been allowed to use the road.. I do remember on our last visit to the US, my friend implored me not to trip over and fall as I have an uncanny knack of doing this. “ You could sue me for a huge amount if you fell in my house,” she said with a chuckle. I was imagining, given the present situation,  suing the corporation for negligence, not posting enough warnings and plus  suing them for a large amount for the mental trauma caused, and for hospital expenses which cost us a pretty packet. Alas, as true blooded Indians we “accept” and call it our karma and inevitably thank God for small mercies. The younger generation is more belligerent and believe in fighting for their rights and oppose the scant concern for human life. A good thing if I may say so and, without doubt we need more Kejriwals!

Hope for Diabetics

India houses over 61 million diabetics and a forecast that diabetics will cross 100 million by 2030. China today is the world capital for diabetes with India following as a close second. And Chennai is the diabetes capital of the country! 
Diabetes Mellitus a Latin term meaning ‘honeyed urine’ was well known to ancient Indian Physicians, from 400 B.C. “More than 70% of middle aged Indians, will suffer with non-insulin dependent diabetes during their lifetime.  Results of a ten year analysis from Southern India (1994 - 2004) reveal a trend towards increasing prevalence in both urban and rural population and more number of younger persons, particularly women,  afflicted with diabetes. “Though diabetes is caused by a complex interaction of genetic  and lifestyle factors, the most obvious reason for this increase in the number of young diabetics is their frenetic  lifestyle”, says Dr. Rajesh Shah, Consulting Physician and Cardiologist,  Better Health Foundation.
In layman terms, diabetes is a metabolic disorder in which the body is unable to control the amount of sugar in the blood, because the body either does not produce enough insulin or there is resistance to the action of insulin. “Diabetes is one of the diseases that affects the endocrine system. The pancreas produces a hormone, insulin. In type 1 diabetes, the insulin producing cells in the pancreas are destroyed. In type 2 diabetes, insulin is still produced but the body becomes resistant to it.” Says Dr.M. Ravi Kiran Endocrinologist, Agada Health Care. “We as endocrinologists can help you manage your diabetes, by prescribing insulins and/or medications, and offering diet plans .”
“Diabetes may damage almost every tissue and organ of the body, the kidney being one of them”, says Dr. Soundarajan, Head of the Department of  Nephrology SRMC.  “Neglected, one could go into diabetic nephropathy. Once a month albumin in the urine, blood urea, and creatinine levels should be checked. Diabetics should avoid painkillers.. One should watch out for swelling of the feet, extreme fatigue, weakness and breathlessness. Obese children should also be screened for diabetes.”

“A person afflicted diabetes needs to take utmost care of his or her feet”, says Dr.V.Ramnarayan, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon SRMC. “Watch out for numbness, foot ulcers and carefully examine spaces between the toes and the soles of the feet.. Socks should be washed regularly and changed everyday and one should use footwear preferably with ankle support. Nails should not be cut short and sharp edges should be filed. Lack of trained professionals in diabetes foot care in India and podiatry as a profession being non- existent in India compound the problem further.” Patients with neuropathy who visit religious places during summer months when the day temperature varies from 40 to 45 degrees celsius, develop severe thermal injuries as they have to walk barefoot.“Trivial foot lesions precede 85% of leg amputations in India. Almost 75 percent of amputations are carried out in neuropathic feet with secondary infection, which are potentially preventable.”
“When diabetes is diagnosed the patient needs to go in for regular eye check ups,” says Dr. Amar Agarwal Chairman and Managing Director, Agarwal’s Eye Hospital. “The retina gets affected, and the blood vessels in the eye start leaking blood. Fluorescein angiography is performed to trace the leakage, and laser surgery performed to stop the leakage. Diabetes also produces early cataract. In extreme cases where diabetes is neglected the patient can lose his or her eyesight.”
“There is a strong relationship between depression and diabetes”, says Dr. Thara, Psychiatrist and Director, SCARF... Research studies have also demonstrated that the chances of developing diabetes within two years was increased for persons with current depressive and/or anxiety disorders. “Some of the newer drugs used in the treatment of mental disorders might increase blood sugar levels. It is now important to monitor all patients on such  drugs for their blood sugar levels.”.
“Diabetes is a generalized micro and macro vascular disease, affecting various organs” says Dr. S. Thanikachalam, Chairman & Director of Cardiac Care Centre, Prof. &Emeritus, Sri Ramachandra University. “It is the prime responsibility from those involved in Cardio Vascular Disease Management to address the evolution manifestation to quell the cardiovascular disease in diabetics as they have 2 – 4 fold higher risk of CVD as compared to normal. The cluster which harbours  hyperglycemia, high BP, altered lipid profile, smoking, high body fat content and sedentary habits needs appropriate intervention to prevent emerging epidemic of sub clinical and manifesting CVD. A concerted attempt to identify the pre-diabetics and intervene to reverse the metabolic abnormality will prevent further increase in the prevalence of diabetes, with its inherent complications.”
According to Dr. M.Thanikachalam, Cardiac Surgeon, (American Board of Thoracic Surgery) preventive health check up and a year-round management of health and wellness customized to one’s health profile and screening are absolutely essential. This led him to follow his dream project Agada a one stop institute for comprehensive therapy with the focus on preventive treatment, and established in association with the world leader in Diabetes Prevention Management and Care, Joslin Diabetes Centre, Harvard Medical School, Boston USA. “We believe in empowering you with skills to take ownership and manage your health optimally”, says he.
The future is not as bleak as it was, and with tri annual checks and regular physician consultation diabetes can be kept under control without the feeling of despair that it usually evokes. See box below
·         Under normal circumstances the blood glucose level does not rise above 160 mg/dl even after food
·         Normally the kidney does not allow any glucose to be lost and hence the urine is sugar free. However if the blood glucose level rises above 180 mg/dl, sugar "spills over" into the urine.
·         Symptoms could be excessive thirst, excessive appetite and excessive urination and swelling of feet. Delayed wound healing, frequent infections, nausea, vomiting and weight loss may be other symptoms.
·         Neglected, diabetes will affect the heart, eyes, kidneys and all major organs
·         With proper treatment, counseling and personal management,  diabetes can be controlled.
Sabita Radhakrishna   (

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Khadi giri

Come October, and one always thinks of Gandhiji.  Greatly venerated, often maligned, one has to accept that he changed the course of Indian and British history, and every Indian worth his salt should recognize Mahatma Gandhi as a leader who led the way to India’s freedom. The bonfire of British textiles, those gossamer chiffons and silks which the Indian ladies of yore thought most fashionable were cremated in a consuming fire as more and more patriots threw their foreign clothes in. A powerful statement, it later burnt a hole in the British exchequer as Gandhiji himself sat quietly and began spinning cotton on his humble charka. It morphed into  a movement as foreign goods were boycotted and Indians were encouraged to use Indian handlooms. This marked  the beginning of khadi an icon of the Swadeshi movement .and the spinning wheel became a national symbol, and khadi became known as the freedom fabric.
Khadi is a handspun fabric — rough due to its being handspun and woven on simple hand operated looms. It symbolized self sufficiency and freedom and a resurgence of the craft movement in India.  The saris today are plain, with small borders, and usually have a natural ground of off-white for the body  with understated pallus. The modern versions carry a thinner quality fabric, with small butis all over the body; at times with zari to make it more dressy. Some high end designers from Ponduru and Srikalulam from Andhra Pradesh have worked with khadi. Jagada Rajappa works with natural dyes and brought out some beautiful saris which are quite pricey.
Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Rta Chisti, textile expert who has worked on khadi and was herself wearing (along with her protégé) the most stunning khadi sari, so fine that it was  transparent, and draped in an unusual way, without an underskirt…a cross between the Iyengar, Orissa and Bengali style. What was even more unusual was the way Pallavi ( in her early twenties) carried off  the sari, with an off-the-shoulder blouse. The off white sari was in fine count khadi with a korvai mustard border and a simple pallu. Both the ladies wore their  saris for the whole day and were very comfortable!. Only the price tag would be heavy for most of us. Priced at 10K  the saris are sold out as soon as they are woven.
According to Chisti who has committed herself to handwoven textiles, there is a possibility of  recreating the finest of handskills in the region of traditional textiles, given a form of limited period patronage, enabling the handskill sector to rediscover its relevance both in terms of application and material. If this premise were developed consistently in all areas that still retain handspinning skills capabilities on the  traditional Charkha (spinning wheel) combined with handloom weaving, then in ten years we could perhaps be the only country in the world with this unique resource for a national and international market.

After the initial exhibition titled ‘Khadi – The fabric of freedom’ in 2002-2003, the original sponsors Volkart Foundation on the recommendation of Martand Singh, handed over the exhibition for its promotion and development of Khadi fabrics to Rta Kapur Chishti  and her team. After the first year, it was realized that the cotton quality and availability was not reliable so a collaboration was initiated with farmers to cultivate local cotton varieties organically which would be bought back and distributed to spinners for cleaning, combing, carding and spinning which was passed on  to weavers. These cottons are ideal for fine textured, inlay patterned and three  shuttle weaving which is supported and promoted. The challenge is to combine the unique skills in spinning and weaving for contemporary usage for both stitched, unstitched garments, furnishing & home products.
With  the passage of time hand spinning on the indigenous charka had become obsolete. It was the semi mechanized Ambar Charka which come into popular use from the last 50 years. Chisti worked on developing hand spinning to about 115 counts on the desi charka and 115-500 count on the Ambar Charka. This way the fabric was way above mill cloth which had an average of about 120s count.
Designers and craft activists have to work on new ideas to contemporarise traditional skills, enticing the young to look at the sari as a fashion statement which holds its own against any designer apparel. At the Bridal Mantra fashion show, Indian designers had outdone themselves in retaining traditional skills and seducing young buyers with their designs. The pavadai davani which is today hardly seen, looked priceless on the ramp, as they had combined it with swirling, yards and yards of skirt with a stiffener inside to make it look flouncy. Of course, set off with skimpy, exquisite blouses, each creation was gorgeous.  I for one keep hoping that we will never lose sight of our priceless sari heritage whichever form it might take.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Our parents inculcated in us the habit of visiting the bathroom before we went out...a habit which has carried right into our adulthood. A question of practicality, then and now.... bathrooms are not conveniently positioned and reachable in the most urgent of situations.  For the male of the species large expanses of open spaces provided ample scope for bladder spurts. Today those very spaces have shrunk leaving the men no alternative but to look around.
During our various travels round the world, it  one did not have to rush to the toilet just when we were about to leave. The number of toilet signs one read posted were heart warming. Every mall had a loo, so we could spend hours loafing,  comforted by the thought that a clean bathroom was at hand.
Did you know that the toilet with the flush cistern is only about 100 years old, and it was considered then, one of the marvels of modern technology and a simple way of removing human waste!  About 60-70 years ago old homes had to use improvised methods where conservancy workers removed human waste from outside the toilet.
The California Institute of Technology in the US won first prize for a solar powered toilet which breaks down water and human waste into hydrogen gas for use in as fuel, in a competition for next gen toilets to improve sanitation in developing countries. It was a challenge set by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which required designers to develop a new sanitation model which hardly changed since Alexander Cummings developed it more than 200 years ago.
What is the universal name for bathroom? What we called bathroom became toilet because you did your toilet there and placed your toiletries, which you used after a bath. When we travelled outside India there were other names to boot. You had to enquire where the restrooms were...did one rest there?  Or were they washrooms, certainly you didn’t go there just to wash, on the other hand in a dry bathroom there is no water.  And then of course there is the loo which rolls off on your tongue. 
The most valuable invention is the health faucet, and God bless the inventor whoever he may be. I remember encountering it for the first time years ago at an actor friend’s place and she had already christened it “bum shower”.  The bidets are there, but are certainly not so effective. And you have the “Hindustan commode” where one squats and presumably the most hygienic, and very popular in France. The European commode widely popular which you considered a private throne, and the reinvented Anglo Indian commode which had dual purposes, a cross between the two.
About ten years ago we visited Manila and were out on a picnic with our hosts.  We wished to make a beeline to the bathroom.   None of the locals could understand our needs. We tried every trick in the book, gesturing wildly as the urgency to find one increased by the minute. At long last when we mentioned restroom, some kindly soul pointed to a small lone building at a distance, but not too bad as the end was in sight. Since I reached first, I gingerly opened the door which creaked in an eerie manner and entered a dusty room. Lo and behold, right in the centre of the room which was about  8’ x 8’ was a potty, thankfully with a seat cover. When I looked around, there was no wash basin in sight, no tap no water, no flush. Mercifully I had some wet wipes in my handbag which I had the sense to carry, but my Indian habits die hard and I couldn’t wait to get home!
Which reminds me...why does every five star hotel boast of not just spotless toilets but ones devoid of water?  After all the hotels are based in India where almost every Indian likes to wash however large or small the usage might be.  Can’t they have a health faucet?   If  I have  dinner at a 5 Star restaurant, and I need to go to the loo,  I have become smart enough to carry my glass of water with me..  Sometimes I lament the fact that my parents inculcated the cleaning-with-water routine even for small jobs!  Why do the men get off scot free?
Most public toilets in India are deplorable and either you brave them holding your nose and gingerly stepping over puddles or risk urinary infection. Each time you board Air India aircrafts the smell of dank urine reminds you that you are heading home.  Travel first class in the train and you still are confronted by dirty toilets, even dirtier toilet seats, and the balancing act is quite dangerous when you are rhythmically rocking with every move of the train.  Please can we have those disposable plastic seat covers which slip on every time you use the flush! If you are very fussy, cut a wad of old newspapers in the shape of a toilet seat, but don’t forget to cut a largish opening in the centre!!!

And remember, if you have to go, you have to go....

18 August 2012

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Maids To Order

When I heard that member couple of our Gymkhana Club took to a Retired People’s Home like ducks to water when their maid of several years standing abandoned them, I gasped with disbelief. Confronted with the topic of “maids” at every social gathering, I used to be glad that I didn’t have any complaints to air. However, quite recently when my own faithful maids moved to an inconvenient distance, and regretfully gave in their notice,  I realised how corroding our dependency on domestic help could be. 
Worst hit when I was hospitalised, the household just didn’t function.. And to come home to dust and disarray was a chilling prospect. Our whole lives change when the maids quit, without a by your leave. For one who prided herself on holding her maids ad infinitum  I have had the largest turnover in the last three months, sometimes at the rate of one every two days despite trying every trick in the book.  The fastidiousness of sticking to a pecking order, what to clean when, and giving those inaccessible corners a lick with extra soap and water, and changing water for swabbing with every room have all gone with the wind. You have to pretend the cobwebs don’t exist unless they hang like seaweed in long dusty tendrils. The bathrooms don’t get an extra wipe, and if you slip ma’am that’s your lookout, see you have to be careful. Pay scales have sky rocketed, and admittedly the cost of living has gone up. You are willing to pay for it but it does not meet with their expectations. The women demand  wages by the hour often bordering on the ridiculous.
There are some working maids who, loth to work in your home produce a stream of women you could interview and ultimately engage. You wonder why they are so obliging till the maid herself tells you that the procurer is an unofficial agent. One woman took umbrage at my asking her if she was an agent, but all the same she said she did expect a generous tip for her helpful spirit.
The characters I got are worth fleshing out for future use in a forthcoming play or a novel. Mops are of course in and if you as much dare suggest  they wipe the floor with a nice swab cloth, they look at you as if you are demented. I have a collection of mops in my broom cupboard as each maid likes her own brand.  No use adding Lysol or cleaner to the bucket of water, as it is only one dip and the entire house is swabbed with it.
The cutest of maids I have had is The Duo, who defy any suggestions of Hindu-Muslim differences. Rajeshwari is a staunch Hindu, and Shakila a dyed in the wool Muslim. They would only work as a pair, one for cooking and one for the cleaning work. “How can you employ a Muslim?” ask some orthodox friends. “Arent they human beings? And when I preach about secularism in my writing there cannot be any duplicity, I have to set the trend...” I say a tad defensively. Shakila a giggly young woman with flowers dripping all over her sari would arrive in a burqa which she would carefully remove in the privacy of my utility  assisted by her friend Rajeshwari. It didn’t matter that the cook got paid a higher salary. They would share their earnings equally. They worked as a team and left for home together. The Duo lasted only for three whole days. When Shakila injured her ankle, Rajeshwari was with her nursing her in hospital!  When one was absent the other would take off as well. That was the end of the conjoined twins as far as I was concerned.
Stay-at –home maids are dreams from the past, even if you have an elderly person at home who does not require nursing, just someone to keep her company and attend to her needs. There are no takers despite an offer of a fat salary.
What is the solution? Take a leaf out of the book of your NRI children. Change your lifestyle. Resort to one dish  meals.  I have several recipes for meals in one. Reena could help us too! Stop entertaining at home. Why should you when you can relax at the club without having to sweat over preprations? Our home has always been “open house”..I even had house guests when I was convalescing. Forget it, close the door and never mind if your friends think you have suddenly become inhospitable. If they do they were not really your friends. Get over your paranoia for cleanliness and order. ( I am trying very hard believe me) And if you get the maid of your dreams, pamper her, increase her salary in fits and starts, and though you need to be firm, overlook her idiosyncrasies and whining.
Be on good terms with your watchman, and if need be your neighbour’s watchman and the roadside ironing people. This group is the richest source of producing maids or drivers. The catch however is that they will fix the salary and if it is as high as they can negotiate, they take a cut from the working woman! Being street smart is the key to survival, and it is a question of increasing demand and diminishing supply. Stop complaining and moaning, because we Indians are  a pampered lot, who have been slowly stripped of the luxury of slaves. Accept the situation gracefully and revamp your life, though I know it is so so hard.
And last but not the least, if none of this works and you get worn out and nervous by the day and find your pressure rising, and you are a senior citizen,  just seriously consider shifting to a retired peoples home. You won’t have to worry about housekeeping or cooking or looking for a maid to order...

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Treading the tech-savvy path

How did we manage without the computer?  Pen and ink of course, later ball point pens, reams of paper, typewriters, erasers, correction pens and we were all set. I’ve carried my writing book to doctors’ waiting rooms, trains, airports and kept a pad and pen in the car!  With the computer, the drudgery is literally off penning several drafts. Now it is a question of cut, paste and delete,  and viola there’s a neatly typed manuscript in the font of your choice.  But what we don’t realise is that the workload is on the rise. Expectations are increasing, you are expected to perform in a relatively short time, shorter deadlines have to be met and communication either through social networking, or email is all instant, where conference calls are the need of the moment, and you don’t have to leave your office or your chair to discuss serious issues with your colleagues.
And there is Facebook, Twitter and Blogging. “c’mon ya, how else will you reach out to friends across the globe?”  And you don’t have to be a computer nerd for that.  Well, the result is that the mind goes on an overdrive.  According to researchers at the University of California, the average computer person consumes  almost three times as much information as what the typical person did in 1960.
The experts tell us that you could have loss of vision due to over excitement of the ocular nerve by screen frequency or due to EMF entertainment.  Your tendons could get inflamed, and you could have skeletal, wrist and elbow disorders. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common computer disease, and how about DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis) due to lack of circulation. One has to remember to blink at regular intervals and shift your position in the chair, stand up and walk to avoid just that. What I dislike intensely is the anti social atmosphere it creates. You visit your children and they are so informal with you that they sit with the laptop and attend to matters much more important than you. No need for an office, as they can work in any room in the house, even the bathroom,  and repeatedly send out messages through email or the cell phone. And their children who are computer geeks themselves, presumably “read a lot” through Kindle or I pads. When you talk to them they don’t hear, not intentionally of course but because they have tiny ear phones plugged into their ears where they are listening to pounding music. The way they are multi-tasking is amazing, they can work on the computer at the same time have a cell phone glued to the ear and nod appropriately when you talk in a dreary monotone!
Never mind if you try to tell them that multi-tasking on computers and digital gadgets affect the way information is processed. With the onslaught of information coming in you can digest it anywhere, in your pocket, in the car or even in the bathroom. Even if we sit on ergonomically designed chairs, nature did not intend us to sit in them for a major portion of the day crunching numbers, filling in IT entries, writing accounts using Tally and detailing administrative work without side effects!
When I look at my library of books, among them my dog eared collection of cookbooks, some of them treasured acquisitions over generations, I sigh because there will be no takers. My granddaughters say they can with typing a few words,  get any recipe, and with You Tube to boot with demos so you can’t make a mistake. The Dictionary is getting obsolete, for the computer fills in most effectively. All those heavy Readers Digest books on how to find the Right Word, the Thesaurus and other heavy books which occupied shelf space can now be dispensed with.
Though the computer is among my most priceless possessions as it contains years of research and writing, I swear to myself that I will not become a slave to the machine and thereby lose my social skill and have a congested gridlock brain that is either frazzled or numb!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

When I get quizzed on culinary topics!

Button mushrooms are now easily available in the market. Can you suggest some easy ways to make them?

Eat more mushrooms, as they are good for you , considering the total fat  and carbohydrate content  is minimal  and low cholesterol to boot. Do not buy mushrooms that are wet and dark. Store them unwashed in a brown paper bag or plastic containers and in the frig. Do not store them for over two days, they taste best when consumed fresh.

My favourite recipe for 100 gms mushrooms ...

Clean the mushrooms thoroughly and slice them, discarding  the edge of the stalk. Chop 2 spring onions both the white part and the green tender stalk. Fry in a tablespoon of butter, add 1 tablespoon of refined flour and switch off the stove. Work in a cup of milk, reheat and cook till thick. Add salt to taste, ½ teaspoon of freshly ground pepper, ½ .teaspoon of mustard powder and 3 tablespoons of grated cheese.  Top on toasted buttered bread, or use them to  make sandwich toasts.

Use sliced button mushrooms to make a pulao, or  just fry them in oil with salt and pepper, or serve them sliced on pizzas with a layer of grated cheese. Make delicious mushroom soup as you would any other vegetable soup, liquidise before serving.

Note: Do not  eat mushrooms before cooking or steaming them, it may be dangerous.

What is the difference between cupcakes and muffins?

They do look alike don’t they?  A cupcake really is like a miniature cake, light and decorated with icing often with a small fruit or nuts and made with refined flour. A muffin is significantly heavier in texture and also in weight. You do add fruit before it is baked, also using nuts or chocolate chips, and as a rule muffins are not iced, and taste like a fruit cake which is not too sweet. Some recipes call for cooking with bran as an ingredient.

I use the Victoria Sponge cake recipe for cupcakes  ¼ kg butter beaten till light and airy with ¼ kg castor sugar. 4 eggs added one by one to the mixture, beaten well with each addition, a teaspoon of vanilla essence for flavour. ¼ kg of refined or all purpose flour sieved with 2 level teaspoons of baking powder and a pinch of salt folded into the mixture. ¼ cup of milk makes the cake lighter. Place paper cups in muffin moulds and spoon the batter into the cups allowing room for the mixture to rise. Each batch would take about 15-20 minutes in a moderate oven 180 degrees. Lift off the paper cups, and start with the next batch. Do not overcook.
Blend 50gm of butter with 100gm of icing sugar, apply over the top of each cupcake when cool, stick a cherry or a pineapple piece and please eat the little cakes fresh!

As with all children, mine reach out for junk food. My son loves burgers. How do you make these complicated things at home?

Not at all complicated if you know how! Junk food commercially sold, often have leftover meat, stale butter and other undesirable ingredients. At home you know what you put in. Firstly prepare the patties at home. Use minced meat, minced chicken or soya granules for the vegetarians. Cook the mince with salt and allow to dry and absorb the water keeping the utensil on low heat. Grind the mince with green chillies, green coriander, a little bit of onion, ginger garlic paste, and bread slices immersed in water and squeezed dry. Sometimes I mix in mashed potato and any other vegetables I have in my refrigerator.  Make balls and flatten them into patties, shallow fry in oil.
Buns commercially available are sliced in half, and  mayonnaise spread over each half. Place a cleaned, washed lettuce leaf, a slice of tomato, a slice of cheese, then the pattie. Close the burger with the other half of the bun, fix with a toothpick and place in the oven just for a couple of minutes,  before serving.

Indian food is  so laborious to make and yet so delicious. Can you give tips on how to make it easier to prepare?

With our current lifestyles crowded and the pace of each day certainly accelerated, we don’t have the time grandmothers did to labour over wood fires, grinding masalas fresh on stone! I believe in short cuts without compromising on the taste.

The ginger-garlic paste for instance without which survival is difficult, if you love Indian food.  Take equal quantities of ginger and garlic, clean thoroughly and grind together.  I prefer grinding them separately, as some recipes call for one ingredient without the other. Store them in small airtight plastic containers, in the refrigerator. Use only clean dry spoons to take out the specified quantity and place the containers back in the frig. This way the pastes can be safely kept for two weeks without spoiling. Mine last! Other ways of ensuring that the pastes keep, are adding a pinch of salt when grinding, or use a few drops of vinegar.

Coconut is an essential ingredient, and I always grate the coconut ahead and store in plastic containers in the freezer compartment of the frig. You may grind the coconut and store the paste, but I do find that this does not work so well. Of course coconut paste and milk are commercially available if you are hard pressed for time.

If you have a lot of cooking to do, onions chopped and stored in airtight containers for the next day work well. But they have to be used up, and it is not advisable to keep them for long.

I keep my spice powder mixed and ready. For our type of cooking, we use chilli powder and dhania powder in the proportion 1:1 ½  I have them ground in a mill and store this in my pantry cupboard.

When tomatoes are in season, puree them and pour into ice trays and place in the freezer. You can straight away use tomato cubes for cooking.

1     .I am always afraid to cook cauliflower, as it has worms  sometimes.  I also find that it gets soggy very easily when I make them. What can be done for this?

You have to be very careful when you cook cauliflower. Buy them when they are fresh and white. Cut them into florets the size the recipe calls for, and soak in a large vessel of hot water with salt. Alternately, place them in a vessel of cold water to which a tiny pinch of potassium permanganate is added. Wash thoroughly after 20 minutes of soaking.

Cauliflower cooks very soon, and is  tasty when crunchy. The best way is to steam them in very little water, and then use them in whatever dish you are making. If you are making a baked dish, there is no need to steam the cauliflower but just wash them thoroughly before you bake them.

2.  Bread always gets leftover, and when it gets mouldy, I just throw it away. How can I use left over bread?

There are many ways you can use leftover bread. You can just sun dry them or warm them gently in an oven, and leave them in a cold oven for a day. The exposure dries out all the water, and the bread becomes hard, after which you can make them into breadcrumbs. You can use the stale bread as a base for making au gratin. Use them in a bread pudding, or shape into vadais, deep fry them and pour beaten curds over them, and add the seasoning to taste.

3. Many recipes call for pine nuts which are not easily available here. What can be used as an effective substitute?

The most effective substitute are walnuts. Gently warm the walnuts before using. Here is a no fail recipe for pesto sauce.

Recipe for Pesto Sauce
Grind to rough paste the seven ingredients below, adding the oil little at a time.
1 heaped cup parsley (substitute with green coriander)
¼ cup pine nuts or hazel nuts (substitute with walnuts) roasted lightly
2     cloves garlic chopped
4     tblspns olive oil
¼ cup parmesan cheese
½ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper powder

200 gm mushrooms
Chopped red capsicum, yellow capsicum (1/2  each)

200 gm pasta of your choice, preferably fusili (spiral)

Cook the pasta al dente,  in a large vessel of water where a table spoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of olive oil have been added.  The pasta should be soft not mushy, and not chewy. Drain the water in a colander and run cold water over it. Set aside.
Clean mushrooms, slice and cook in a teaspoon of water and set aside. Dice capsicums.

Heat a little oil in a wok or kadai and fry the chopped capsicum and mushroom. Add the pesto sauce and ¾ milk just before serving. Mix in the milk, stirring all the time. Remove from fire. Pour over the cooked pasta just before serving, and mix lightly.

4. These days excess of salt is considered very bad for health.  What do I do when there is too much salt in say a gravy, how can the salt content be reduced so that I can still use it?

All of us maids included have used extra salt at some point.  If your curry is salty, just add a whole potato, skin removed and cut in four into the gravy and boil till the potato is cooked. Amazing how this versatile vegetable uses up all the salt. In a dry fry, add a little water and add pieces of bread to it.

5. I always make excess of chutney and keep it in the frig. But I don’t like to eat it cold. Would heating in the microwave oven spoil the taste?

This is a genuine problem.  The chutney would have lost moisture and becomes thick.  Heat or boil about half a cup of water and stir it into the chutney just before serving. Voila!  You are able to use the chutney at room temperature.


  1. What is the difference between a mousse and a soufflé?

Both are similar in many respects. A mousse is a light soft preparation either sweet or savoury, where the ingredients are whisked,  and then folded in. It is set in a mould and usually served cold. Sweet mousses can have fruit in them and the most popular are chocolate mousses with the addition of coffee and served as a dessert, in tall glasses.
A souffle is rather like a cake but more airy and cooked and refrigerated in baking dishes. This could also be a savoury souffle like cheese, tomato etc or a sweet souffle. A custard is made with egg yolk, milk and sugar and the whites beaten into peaks and folded into the mixture..the flavouring could vary like lemon, strawberry or chocolate with an inclusion of cream. When a hot souffle is required it is baked and served immediately after removing from the oven, so that the whole mixture does not collapse.

  1.  Is there any way of preparing an Xmas cake faster…it is so laborious!

Some things in life do not work with short cuts!  More so in cooking when you take time over a dish and prepare it with love it turns out beautifully.  I always make the traditional Xmas cake a month earlier. It is the preparation of fruit which is laborious. Wash the fruit and dry out with paper towels or. sun them. Then soak in brandy for a few days. This eliminates the drudgery of doing everything the same day

  1. We don’t eat turkey. What is the best way to prepare stuffed chicken instead of the traditional turkey roast?

Buy a fresh  whole chicken.. Clean the insides thoroughly and smear salt.

The stuffing for 1 ½ kg of chicken:
8 slices of bread, 1 apple, 1 bunch spring onions, 1 bunch celery, 1 capsicum,salt and pepper to taste ,½ tsp dry rosemary, 100 gm butter

1.      Crumble the bread, chop the apple and other vegetables.
2.      Melt butter mix in the chopped ingredients, add rosemary and adjust seasoning.
3.      Pack the stuffing tightly into the cavity of the chicken. Insert the legs into the cavity and bind with twine so that the stuffing does not spill out.
4.      Heat the oven to 180 degrees and roast in a baking pan for 1 hour and turn at intervals so that it browns evenly.

The same recipe applies for turkey, whenever you change your mind and want to try it out!

4.  What is a healthy alternative for bread croutons for soups?

It is when you deep fry bread croutons that it packs in the calories.  Cut the bread into cubes and toast them in the oven ….and you have the same crunchy croutons  minus the dangers of deep frying.

5.      Can you use anything else other than white bread crumbs for cutlets?

It is better to avoid refined white flour which is the main ingredient in bread that is usually bought. You can use stale brown bread slices to make the crumbs, but care should be taken when frying as the brown bread crumbs will assume a darker colour and look burnt. A better option is to use fine soojee or crushed cornflakes.

For the December issue one more question

I have heard the term “praline” used, but could never make out what exactly it is?

Praline gives a caramelized delicate flavor or filling to desserts and sweets.
Blanch 200 gm of almonds, remove skin and toast them in the oven to a golden brown. Place ¾ cup of sugar and 1 tablespoon of water in a heavy pan and melt over high heat. When the mixture bubbles, add ½ teaspoon of vanilla essence. When the sugar melts and turns brown , add almonds and mix briskly for a minute. Leave to cool and pound praline finely as required.

Praline is also a cake which is layered with the sponge cake and praline butter cream and sprinkled over with chopped almonds.

  1. When we lived in Bangalore, Aapams came out beautifully because my mother used to add toddy to the batter.  Now it is just not available and I am unable to make good aapams in Chennai, could you suggest a substitute?

Yes, nothing works better than the natural stuff. But we do have to learn to improvise!  add grated coconut while grinding the batter. While it is being ground,  add 1 teaspoon of dry yeast to half a cup of warm water, adding 1 teaspoon of sugar. After the batter is ground,  add the fermented yeast mixture to the batter, and a tablespoon of curds.  When the batter ferments overnight, you can make lacy aapams the next morning for breakfast.
Recipe:  1 cup raw rice, 1 cup boiled rice, under ¼ cup urad dal, 1 heaped tsp fenugreek seeds to be soaked together for 4-5 hours. Grind to a smooth paste with ½ cup of grated coconut, add yeast mixture, and curds and salt and allow to ferment overnight.
Serve with vegetable stew and coconut chutney.

  1. What is the secret to making good crisp dosais which are uniformly golden brown?

Dosai making is an art, the aim should be to make golden brown dosais, which are crisp on the outside and soft inside. The batter should not be as thick as a cake batter at the same time not thin as in a pouring consistency. You will determine the consistency with experience. The tawa (cast iron is best) should be warm not hot. The dosai should be poured quickly in swirls, and the heat increased moderately, and kept till it is evenly brown and the heat switched off. If the inside is cooked, there is no need to flip it over. When one dosai is made don’t just pour the next. Test if the tawa is warm, not hot. Use a cloth dipped in water and rub it over the tawa to cool it down quickly. I use two tawas which makes it easier, if you alternate between the two.

And please please, this fabulous dish is called DOSAI   not DOSA!

  1. I have heard the term, “baking blind”  what does this mean?

We bake blind when we prepare pastry cases and flans. Prepare a pastry dough according to the recipe you want to follow. Roll out to a thickness of 3mm. Grease and flour  a 11” flan ring or pie dish, and mould the dough to fit inside, lining it in a way that it stays fixed, pressing the sides and top gently. Do not stretch the pastry. Pass a rolling pin on the fluted  edge  of the flan ring so that extra dough rolls off. Prick the base with a fork, and cover with a greaseproof paper. To keep it flat  sprinkle some dried beans or peas on the paper. Bake in a preheated oven about 180  degrees C for 10 minutes. You can add the filling of your choice after removing the paper, glaze the crust with beaten egg and bake for another 5 minutes.

  1. Is it easy to prepare au gratin at home?

Of course it is. It is a French style of cooking. Once a casserole is prepared with say vegetables and a cheese sauce, it is given an au gratin topping.  Season breadcrumbs with pepper and salt, blend in butter and grated cheese and sprink liberally over the casserole and place under a grill or in a baking oven. The dish is ready when the top turns golden brown and a crust is formed. Even sliced potatoes with béchamel sauce can be served with an au gratin topping.

  1. How do you prepare asparagus for various dishes?

This exotic looking vegetable can seem daunting! Cut off the tips of the asparagus, and discard the portions of the stalks which are hard.  Tie up the tips  which should be about 4 “ long in bundles of 10.Peel the lower part of the asparagus which have been cut  away and chop into small pieces. Boil in water for 4 minutes, then add the asparagus tips and cook uncovered for 8 minutes. Remove bundles and dip into cold water. The tips and the water could be used for soups as garnish or as a tasty dish with mayonnaise or cheese sauce.

What is a quiche?

Quiche is pronounced “keesh”.  It is an open tart originating from Lorraine.  You make a pastry shell, which is baked blind as described in my previous column. Do not bake the shell for a longer period, as the shell becomes hard. Remove when the pastry shell is light brown. You can vary it with fillings of your choice.  My favourite is mushroom with a cheese sauce base, blended with cream, spiked with mustard, salt and pepper. This mixture is poured into the pastry shell, and baked again.

Can mayonnaise be prepared without egg?

Yes. Make a cup of thick white cheese sauce, seasoned with 2 tsp mustard powder, 1 tsp sugar and ½ tsp freshly ground pepper powder. Add oil in a thin stream, very very gradually, till the mixture becomes thick and light cream in colour.  Add the juice of a whole lime, and more if you like the mixture to be tangy.

When you boil vegetables say for poriyal it loses its colour and looks insipid. How can you make it look attractive? Can I add a pinch of soda?

When you cut the vegetables the pieces should be the same size. Boil with very little water..approx 2 tablespoons of water for 1 cup of finely diced veggies. Boil on high heat uncovered and keep on heat till all the water is absorbed. Vegetables should always be crunchy and never overcooked and soggy. I never use soda. If you cook them in the microwave the colour will be retained.

I have seen crisply fried colocasia.  Is it because it is deep fried?

When you buy the vegetable select all the same size. Scrub them clean. Boil water and place the vegetables in the water, and allow cook. Test for being done using a skewer or a fork, and if necessary, remove the ones which are cooked earlier. Peel off the skins, and cut into  roundels less than ¼ inch in thickness. Prepare a marinade with 1 tsp chilli dhania powder, ½ tsp turmeric powder,3/4 tsp salt and 1 tsp thick tamarind juice. Add one heaped tsp of rice flour. Mix it into the cut  colocasia pieces and leave for ½ an hour.

When we visit Kodaikanal or Pondicherry I get tempted to buying loads of cheese. How do I preserve it?

Firstly, don’t buy loads of cheese its not good for you!  Keep out only a smaller amount of cheese which you will use up and the rest should be stored in the freezer in the refrigerator, in a box.  Another recommended method is to cut the cheese into sections and store in an air tight jar in the refrigerator. If you would like the cheese stored whole as it is ideal for grating, wrap it in a cheese cloth moistened with white vinegar, which may be kept outside if you are using it regularly.

What about paneer? Is it better to buy it as an when you need it?

To keep the paneer fresh, a slab of paneer may be  immersed in water in a bowl and kept in the refrigerator. But please remember to change the water every day!

  1. What is the difference between red onions and white onions?

Onions are normally available in three colors: yellow, red, and white. Yellow onions, originally from Spain, are full-flavored and are a reliable standby for cooking almost anything. Yellow onions turn a rich, dark brown when cooked and give French onion soup its tangy sweet flavor. They are mild tender and sweet, and can be eaten raw or cooked.

The red onions have dark purplish red skins and extensively used  in India. The Italian red onion is smaller than its French counterpart and is generally oval in shape and a bit elongated.   In terms of comparisons with other onions like the smaller onions they are mild and slightly sweet. The red onion is a good choice for fresh uses or in grilling and char-broiling.

The white onions are larger in size, with a white skins and are milder than the red and sweet. They are quite tough. They are excellent for salads. White onions are the traditional onion used in classic Mexican cuisine. They have a golden color and sweet flavor when sautéed.

Once peeled onions oxidize rapidly and can become toxic, so peeled or cut onions should be stored in a covered box.

  1. What are the different kinds of tomatoes available in the market and what do we use them for?

Tomatoes are rich in lycopene and ward off cancerous cells. Tomatoes are originally from Peru..the name itself is derived from Aztec (tomatl) Until the 18th century, tomatoes were thought to be poisonous, and were grown as ornamental plants. It was only in the 19th century that it became well established and used extensively for cooking. Most of the Indian recipes 2 generations ago, didn’t have tomatoes in the list of ingredients.

In the market today we have Bengaluru thakkali (higher priced) and naattu thakkali. Lately cherry tomatoes are also available.

The Bangalore tomatoes are large, internationally known as beefsteak tomatoes, they are sweet and ideal for making stuffed tomatoes, because of their firm thick skin. This apart they have excellent flavour.

The medium size tomatoes or nattu thakkali and have all round uses, in curries, stews, salads etc. They are sour and not sweet as the large tomatoes.

The cherry or miniature tomatoes have thick skins and can be used for salads either halved or whole. They can be skewered with kababs or used whole or braised in gravies.

Recipe for stuffed tomatoes
Use firm ripe tomatoes. Cut a circle round the stalk, and remove the seeds with a spoon. Enlarge the hole slightly so that the stuffing will go in. Lightly season the inside with salt and invert the tomatoes on kitchen paper so that all the liquid drains off. Arrange the tomatoes on an oiled baking sheet and warm them for five minutes in a hot oven. Drain again and stuff with ingredients of your choice.
You can opt for mincemeat made as you like, or soya granules prepared like keema but fried dry. Or you could use mashed potatoes seasoned with salt and pepper with cheese, crushed garlic and chopped coriander or parsley. Stuff the tomatoes carefully, sprinkle breadcrumbs on top to seal the opening, dot with butter. Smear the tomatoes with oil and bake in  a preheated hot oven for 20 minutes.

If the stuffing is precooked gently for about 10 minutes the tomato will not collapse when stuffed and baked.

3.What are waffles?

A waffle is a thin light batter which is cooked between two greased and heated plates of a waffle iron. The sandwich toasters you get in the stores have waffle plates, and are made of non stick material.. Popular in the US waffles are served with maple syrup for breakfast.

Sift 500 gm refined flour with two teaspoons baking soda, 4 teaspoons baking powder and 2 teaspoons salt. Add 3 tablespoons castor sugar, 150 gm melted butter, 5 eggs lightly beaten, and 3 ½ cups of milk. The batter should be runny. Heat the waffle plates in the toaster itself. Pour a ladle of butter in one half of the open waffle iron. Close the mould and turn it over so that the batter is distributed equally in both halves. Leave to cook remove waffles, sprinkle with icing sugar and serve.

4.I have heard that you can use flowers for cooking.  Can you give me an example of at least one flower that one can use?

The nasturtium is a good example. It is an ornamental plant with edible leaves, flowers and seeds. They are colourful and look beautiful when arranged in a salad. The leaves are a bit pungent, peppery but the flowers are milder by comparison and can also be used as a garnish, including the leaves.You can pickle the seeds and use them as condiments. The flower buds and seeds  can be pickled, and have similar taste to mustard. The Tuber nasturtium come from Peru, can be used as garnishes for hors d’oeuvre and cold cuts.

5.What is a fondue?

A fondue is a Swiss speciality, essentially cheese, two or three different kinds of cheeses. The cheeses are melted in a pottery fondue dish, and it is flavoured with wine or other kinds of seasoning. It is blended to creamy consistency then gently warmed  over a small spirit lamp. There can be many variations, like the addition of cream, milk or shaltlots. Some prefer adding sliced mushrooms. Strips or squares of toasted bread are forked and dipped into the melted fondue and eaten as an accompaniment to the main dish. Roast meat cubed can also be  dipped into this delicious  fondue and eaten hot.

Then there are vegetable fondues as well. It is a name given to finely chopped vegetables cooked on a slow fire till they become pulpy. Fondues made with carrot, leeks, celery etc can be served as accompaniment or as an ingredient for other dishes.

  1.  There are so many different vinegars available in the market.  Can you describe some of them and what best they are used for?

Vinegar is a sour liquid used for enhancing the fIavour of certain food, as a dressing or as a marinade. It is a dilute solution of acetic acid obtained by  fermentation of wine or any other alcoholic solution. I will  list the commonly used vinegars.

Balsamic vinegar is the most expensive and is a richly flavoured wine vinegar from Modena Italy. It is made from selected grapes which are reduced to a concentration of liquid and fermented for at least a year in wooden casks. Sometimes it is allowed to mature for 10 years and hence is precious and should be used sparingly. It is used as salad dressing, or drizzling over roast meat or vegetables or cheese.

Wine vinegars red and white are used more often, to make vinagarette sauce, salad dressing or marinades. Red wine vinegar is used to flavour red meat and vegetables and white wine vinegar for fish and chicken.

Apple cider vinegar is a milder vinegar and not all that expensive, useful for dressing, and providing the sharp tang to sauces and  drinks also for pickles and cooked chutneys.

Malt vinegar is obtained from malted barley and is slightly milder than wine vinegars. The Brits consider malt vinegar part of the traditional accompaniment to fish and chips.

Rice vinegar is made from rice and the mildest of all vinegars and used in Asian and Chinese cooking.

Vinegar should be kept in tightly closed bottles in cool, dark places, and generally are good for a year then lose their flavour.

  1.  What is apple crumble?

Apple crumble is a dessert made with apple and a crumble mixture and baked in an oven/

1 ¼ cups (150 gm) refined flour, 150 gm butter, 150 gm castor sugar processed in a mixie till the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.Mix in ¼ tsp cinnamon powder or grated nutmeg.Remove the skin of the apples,( 1.5 kg) core them and chop into quarters.  Lay the apple pieces in an oven proof dish and spread the crumble mixture over them, and bake in a preheated oven for 35-40 minutes at 200 degrees C.   Serve with any custard.

  1. What is lemon grass and how is it used?

       This is a special variety of grass which grows in South East Asia with a lemonish smell and flavour, and used for Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian and Vietnamese cooking. You can grow it in pots very easily. It could be used fresh or dried and powdered. The grass should be fried before placing it in curries to get the full flavour, and ideally removed before serving.

  1. How is a sweet potato different from the usual potato?

A sweet potato is also an edible tuber which was first discovered in North America and it reached New Zealand, Europe and Asia besides other countries. It is reddish or violet coloured as opposed to the creamy colour of the potato and is floury and much sweeter. It can be cooked with the skin, baked or pureed and added to desserts, in gratins and even in souffles. Many people confuse this with yam, which is tough and quite different.

  1. What is a good substitute for sour cream? And for cream cheese? So many recipes  call for these ingredients..

      Commercially sour cream is available. But I find that our home made curds make good substitutes especially if you know how to make thick curds. I strain the curds and use the thick portion immediately to substitute for sour cream, blending it first to a smooth paste.  For cream cheese you could make hung curds, where curds are strained and hung overnight. This is firm and can be used for many dishes.