Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Gaajar Halwa and the Goodness of Jaggery

Winter brings red carrots to New Delhi and this has been  for as long as memory can recall. In the last decade or so, orange carrots have been available, all through the summer and are useful and colorful, but it is the deep red carrots of  December that announce the arrival of the winter cold.
 My parents were the first members from their families to take up residence at New Delhi and winter vacations when we went back home to Chennai and Chidambaram  meant carrying cartons full of carrots and cauliflowers   that were carefully shared out  among relatives.

 Red carrots  became part of  seasonal home cooking,  because my mother and mother-in-law in their respective homes embraced New Delhi's red carrots with delight and  presented them at mealtimes in salads, vegetables, lentils, soups, biryanis, custards and  kheer.  What we looked forward to the most  was the  halwa made out of red carrots which could  put most other halwas in the shade. The only other halwa that can hold its  own is the badaam halwa ( and no,  the badaam halwa  made by the kitchens of  India, is not a patch on the badaam halwas  made in South India) but  then, we are discussing the the imperial almond here, which  transforms into astonishing halwa only for a price.

Gaajar ka halwa, is more elemental fare. Pulled out of the ground, washed, peeled,  grated and boiled with milk and ghee; sugared and 'cardamom-ed' and garnished with cashew nuts and almonds and raisins; (my mother-in law preferred pistachios) it makes for a cloudburst of joy on the palate.
 Imagine returning home on a cold winter  evening,  after a day of work at school or college or at the office. The sun  dips down by this time after having been  quite desultory and listless  for the greater part of the day and the evening bleakly edges towards a smog filled night. Hunger beckons and delicious aromas emanate from the kitchen. Guided entirely by the nose,  the  feet head in the direction of the food. The eyes are fixated around the halwa bowl. Hands find bowls and spoons into which the halwa is scooped  and eaten  hot off the fire.  All this motion is involuntary and free flowing. This is food vinyasa!

It is only after the first mouthful has been savored and has traveled deep into the interiors of one's being, mopping up the coldness of the season and workday blues that stability, emotional and psychological,  re-surfaces.  The rich red treasure  in  the bowl, moist and crumbly, interspersed with the crush of raisin and the crunch of almond and the soft bite of the cashew, obliterates every lingering  trace of  unhappiness.  The bowl is replenished  and this time it is carried  to  the dining table.  The second phase of  gaajar halwa eating involves sitting down at the table,  holding the sides of the cup with one hand and scooping out more spoonfuls with the other.  This round reiterates the joys of  being alive in the cold weather. By this time, the halwa is warming the core of one's being, in the manner of  a hot water bottle inside of one's  body. Warmth and comfort  is now radiating  through right down to the last toenail. This is also the point at which you are filled with  enough joy and bonhomie and  become willing to share halwa with your neighbour.

 This has been my gaajar halwa experience, year after year. This is a second generation delicacy. My grandmothers never made gajar halwa, so this winter i tweaked the recipe a little bit and  used jaggery  instead of sugar to sweeten the carrots.  I have on earlier occasions used shakkar, but jaggery has a stronger flavour, so I experimented with a smaller batch of carrots.

 One kg of grated carrots are cooked in one kg of  full cream milk. When the carrot strands have drunk up all the milk, add  around 150 grams of jaggery. Adding  jaggery earlier can make the milk curdle.  When the jaggery has melted, saute the  contents of the bowl in two tablespoons of ghee. Garnish with green and brown cardamoms and your favourite selection of dry fruits.  Serve hot and store the rest. My son,  currently both fooda-holic and health freak, says that this is the best halwa he has ever had, and that it tastes fantastic  even on Day I. (He has a theory  that gaajar ka halwa  tastes better as it ages). We will take this exploration further, but I do not think I will  be sugaring my gaajar halwa  anytime in this season.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Punitive Expansion

Growings older allows the registering of how personal lives criss-cross fault lines in history. A visit to Guntur led to the discovery that some of India's most fertile cropping lands around Guntur would make way for the new capital of Andhra Pradesh. Of course new states must have new capitals, but do they they have to be constructed over the irreplaceable arable land that feeds everyone? Clearly our leaders draw in strange ways from our antiquity. Indraprastha, the fabled home of the Pandavas, was built when Dhritrashtra allotted Khandavaprashtha to them and bid them to live and rule over it. A forest was burnt and subsequently levelled. The tribes and species of birds and animals inhabiting it were smoked out. Those who did not perish in the hostile environment were killed in active combat. To build themselves a magnificent palace, the Pandavas enlisted supernatural help. The architect of the gods came down and built it for them. Krishna, the avataar himself, did field duty with Arjuna and helped initiate the sacking of the forest. There were protests: in fact the extended generational war with the serpents is another story curled up at the edges of the Kurukshetra war narrative and Indra, to whom the forest belonged, hurled his thunderbolt at Arjuna. To propitiate him the new city was subsequently called Indraprastha. Honorary mentions effectively soothe the very gods. Modern India has less metaphysical happenings. Most of our gods now rest within stone temples or concrete edifices. What is visible now is the grabbing of land by land mafias and ambitious political satraps. We need able administrators and apparently the administrators ably take land away from those who need to feed us. The countryside around Guntur is also home to ancient sites of worship and memory. All of this is slated to disappear under the onrush of building, expanding new capitals. Meanwhile,I worked hard to persuade my reluctant son who being "higher educated" at a hostel in another new city capital Naya Raipur. Three years after wearing down continual resistance, we planned a trip to his hostel and to sections of Bastar. The touchdown at Raipur airport was unremarkable. Moving out of a fairly modern building flanked by Jindal's metallic men, we headed out to the Hidayatullah National Law University(HNLU) . Stretches of green land on either side, fenced and dotted with the occasional date palm greets the eye. The only people on the road are the two of us and Deepak who is driving us. After a long green silent interval. I see men and women working at some construction. One green stretch is scheduled to become a railway line. I am shown a large fenced in stretch of land where the station will be housed. Eventually we reach HNLU and head for the boys' hostel. we stand at the entrance of a nondescript building, having half circled the academic block.The eye meets green fields beyond. The courtyard of the hostel is unapologetic concrete bricks . There are buildings half finished on the campus. Three years ago these were to be blocks housing invitees visitors and parents at HNLU. Like every good idea, this one apparently has been taken off the list. After coaxing the guards on duty to allow him to leave his suitcases in his room, (three days before term ),I was allowed a hurried look at the facilities on the premises. Tiny rooms, almost cubicle sized that can be locked, with a table and a bed and a deep stone shelf in the wall. Add to this, functional common toilets and a shabby common room. The threadbare state of the hostel extends to the outside as well. The college is far away from any other habitation. To buy groceries, provisions, eat something different, watch a film, everyone at HNLY has to head for the town. A bus service is provided for students. Surely a residential university should be doing far more for its residents? We drove out soon in the direction of Dighapur. Small shanty towns dot the road. there are miles and miles of cultivated land with delicious green rice paddy and lots of water bodies. This is stunningly beautiful country. the land stretches out on either side of the road and there are green fields that touch the ends of the sky.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Na Rahega Vishvavidyalaya, Na Rahenge Shikshak.!!!

Yesterday I was a fly on the wall in one of the most bizzare live TV shows in recent times. Called Smriti ki Pariksha,the stage had jaunty panels with photographs of the prime minister wearing many hats (one hat and several decorated headdresses since accuracy is a value). Smriti Irani, the HRD minister, was late and on arrival evinced surprise that the show was for a two hour period. Apparently the organizer had only asked for half an hour of her time. Anyway, the show began with the anchors posing inconsequential queries regarding the ministerial visit to Amethi. The minister was at an advantage. Her years of training in media ensured that she called the shots, corrected assumptions, fielded questions, bowled googlies with her replies and left the anchors feeling compelled to defend the integrity of the show. At this stage, the anchors gripped their roving microphones, would not invite any of the assembled teachers for a discussion on politics and higher education and continued to aggravate the situation further The show morphed into a Jan Adalat. A student who spoke of SOL students no longer being allowed to attend regular college was told the minister would accompany him to the vice chancellor's office. The problems faced by SOL students have been compounded by semesterization, which has sealed off mobility for all SOL students ever since. Supporting her governments decisions as non-bhagua, the minister informed the nation at large the the president of the DUTA was from a left group and often came to the HRD seeking solutions to problems at the university. Ministers with affiliations to political parties are as difficult to persuade as members of the AAD who insist on referring to the DUTA leadership as DTF-led-DUTA. The DUTA President and yet another colleague did firmly communicate that every teacher. irrespective of affiliation. was opposed to the introduction of CBCS. Partisan politics has no place in the context of the grave academic disaster staring Delhi University and the rest of India in the face. The issues plaguing the university were not voiced. There was no opportunity to ask the minister that when the ground situation was the same as last year; why were unprecedented academic reforms being rushed in post haste, without discussion, debate or consultation with teachers. Meanwhile, the minister committed herself to a personal appearance to address the differential in fee structure for a visually handicapped student at a campus college. Oddly, complete silence surrounds the role imagined for teachers even at the level of school education. We were told of the online system where NCERT books could be downloaded from websites. These downloads apparently are to be soon available as as mobile apps. So in the near future, all the country's children under fourteen years of age will receive all their education via downloads on mobile phones. "What an idea Sirjee!!" Clearly, providing teachers to train and develop minds and imaginations is not a part of this scenario, wherein technology is the undisputed king. No lessons need to be learnt from the laptops uselessly stockpiling all over Delhi university colleges. Looking at how teaching vacancies are being filled at Delhi University; arbitrary appointments or none at all; it is not difficult to envisage that the university teacher will be entirely dispensable in the scheme as it unfolds. This would explain why the CBCS is being brought in unders the most peculiar and unfair circumstances. A good liberal education, a nation of thinking people, academic standards and rigor will be the only casualties.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Memory and a Journey

Many decades ago, on a railway track en route to Chennai, our train slowed down and halted. Across us, on the next track was a goods train with endless bogeis. One of them was open and loads of baskets covered with gunny sacks had tumbled out. Men were lifting the baskets and trying to put them down back in the bogie, while we watched idly from our window. There is always a lot to see from a train window, sometimes even, when the train is not moving. One of the men looked in our direction and saw three children staring out of the window. He reached out for a large mango from one of the baskets which seemed to have fallen apart, and walked across the track to hand it to my brother, who gazed at it and after being given permission, accepted the mango. It was an enormous green mango, and we had not seen a mango fruit of this size before. At this point, our train began to move, and all that remained of this unexpected tableau was the outsize green mango that a small boy clutched with both hands.
On a recent visit to Guntur, in the hot month of May, I spotted mangoes similar to the basket of fruit we had seen from the window of the train. Vendors with smart carts sold them to passers by, cut into thick chunks. They were large in real life and their size fleshed out an old memory. I discovered that they were called "cobbara-mavadu." 'Cobbara', possibly from the tamil(copra) and malayalam(coppara) means coconut and this particular variety has the dimension of a tender green coconut. Mavadu is a term that describes tender young mangoes soaked in brine and red chilly water. The picture here of three cobbara mavadus, unfortunately, provides little scope for anyone to marvel at their size. The name suggests that this raw mango is rather like the coconut. When cut, the flesh is cream-coloured and crisp,pulpy and non fibrous. The raw fruit is delicious, and tastes of the summer. Since it is not sour, the cobbara-mavadu makes for a great salad accompaniment with celery, chopped onions, tomatoes and grated carrots. There are hundreds of varieties of mangoes in India. Most of us get by with identifying around ten or twelve varieties of the ripe fruit. The raw fruit varieties are far less known. The kili mooku or the parrot nosed green mango is another well known variety. This is sour and is a seaside favourite all over Tamil Nadu. It is much tastier when raw, and as the picture below shows, recalls the parrot or the kili from which it borrows its name.
The fruit, thanks to Safal is now found all over New Delhi at innumerable Mother Dairy outlets.However, the kili mooku is disappointing as a table fruit.In its more tart earthy avatar, with salt and red chilly powder, it is more tantalising. Naming a fruit and thereby fleshing out a memory is an enriching experience. It is also rooted in very culture specific practice. As a nation we seem to be moving in the direction of a nameless uniformity. Can diversity be sustained through such odds? The loss of fruit and vegetable names should concern us because the first obliteration, that of memory,subsequently allows for the loss of the fruit itself.