Today I baked a carrot cake,inspired by all the variations of carrot cake I had eaten at various cafes during my last visit to Northern Ireland, three months back. I think,in a span of a fortnight, I ate carrot cake in four different cafes. Each had a distinct flavour, and yet all of them were carrot cakes. Add a dollop of fresh cream, and one is in food heaven.
I woke this morning to a dark, broody and rumbling sky. It was raining heavily. As I lazed in bed, it came to me that it was perfect weather for a carrot cake. The cinnamon which goes into it, makes for a perfect combination with a cuppa on a rainy day like this. Today I combined this cake and tea with some good old Hindi film songs, and my Sunday was made!
Chai Pe Charchaa…a small, sunny café tucked away in one of the many by lanes in my area. Though small, its quirky decor strikes a note and one is immediately tempted to sit in its cozy interior and chat. Two days ago they sent out a flyer announcing a ‘Bhajia’ (fritters) festival to mark the advent of monsoons in Mumbai. Monsoons in this city are synonymous with hot masala tea and fritters. Preferably,with an engrossing book or some raucous company of old friends.
Two of my friends and I made a breakfast date to go and sample the variety of fritters advertised in the flyer. The weather obliged us this morning by raining and making an ideal backdrop to our fritter binge. And binge we did. The array of bhajias made it difficult for us to make our final choice and finally we opted for the ever popular onion bhajia and a portion of spinach bhajia. We got a bit greedy and also ordered a portion aloo paratha (flat bread stuffed with seasoned and mashed potatoes) accompanied by fresh curds. A meal like this is best complemented with a cup of hot tea. We couldn’t have asked for a more fulfilling meal as we feasted on a favourite snack, to the background music of raindrops on the awning.
The sweet and heady fragrance of vanilla essence.
A mound of tutti-frutti.
Some flour and few eggs.
Bright spoons and a measuring jar.
Even brighter face of my 11-year-old.
It’s the weekend.
Time to bond over some baking.
As we whisk and stir, she shares her school news. At 11 the world is not so simple as when you are a single digit old. There is so much buzzing in the head. School, studies, peer opinion, her own queries. The kitchen is a melting pot of various sounds, strangely soothing. She chats, I hmm. There is the soft whoosh of the eggs and flour being stirred. The fan whirls above. It’s our own little world.
No matter how many fancy restaurants one has eaten in, comfort comes from the simple foods. We are making a fruitcake. One of our favorites. A simple teacake. But the aroma is heavenly. Infuses the whole house.
My son comes home from a class and throws his head back to inhale the welcoming scent. Next comes the husband. And then before we know it, there are only a few crumbs left on the plate.
Ardent followers of the Master Chef series, my children are more than happy to see a well ‘plated’ meal. Tonight was no different. When I served them grilled fish with coleslaw and herbed potatoes on the side, there were two beaming faces at the table. My 11-year-old also loves to use the terms she hears so often on the show. So she exclaimed over the ‘plating’, and then proceeded to ‘drizzle’ some lemon juice over the fillet. She has always been interested in the intricacies of cooking and it’s due to her enthusiasm that I have been nudged into trying out new dishes. The other two members of the family are willing partakers of these new experiments.
I am a social drinker. Am a willing consumer of alcohol two to three times a year. But give me a ‘situation’, good, bad, ugly, happy, sad, thoughtful, and I will turn to my good old cuppa tea. And no green or black tea then. My strong masala tea is what I prefer. And serve it in a glass instead of a cup…ooooo…nothing like it!
As a child I wasn’t allowed to have tea. My grandmother convinced me that when children consumed tea, they ruined their complexion. But once in a while I was allowed to have tea. Today I call those cups of tea, ‘cheat tea’. A cup of milk with a dollop of tea, to give it a hue, which floated between white and off-white?
As I grew older, my father flouted this rule during the road trips we took. As bottled water was not popular those days, he allowed us to have tea as it was boiled and hence reduced the chance of a tummy bug.
But my bond with tea was established during my teens. My childhood friend and I have spent countless hours at the kitchen table in their home, nursing hot glasses of tea in our hands, and pouring out our hearts to each other. Even today when I spend time with my close-knit group of four friends, we make ourselves a pot of tea and spend time chatting. And when I find myself smiling at an English heroine offering the hero ‘tea’ as a panacea to a situation in a movie, I can quite relate to it. I think in a given situation even I would do the same.
And there are a few situations where I cannot complete the picture in my head without a cup of tea in it. A chat with a good friend. Over a cup of tea of course. A good book to read. A cup of tea by my side naturally. Browsing through old picture albums on a rainy day. How could I do it alone? I need a cup of tea by my side.
That’s not to say that I drink tea by the gallons. But somewhere in my head I think that the tea is equivalent to the bubbly needed. As another one of my bosom buddy says, “We are so drunk on life, who needs to drink?”
Today I cooked bhetki (Barramundi or Asian Seabass) in gravy of mustard paste (shorshe baataa). A very traditional fish preparation from the state of Bengal, this dish is a popular one not only amongst the Bengalis but also a cultivated taste for people from other states who relish fish. This spicy preparation is best complemented by rice and green chillies.
The key to the perfect mustard paste is to make it by hand and not in an electric grinder. The shil nora (grinding stone) is still seen in most Bengali households and I remember it as a permanent fixture next to my mother’s gas stove. She used to quickly grind the masala and add it to the dish cooking on the gas. On a day when she was running late and decided to add ready-to-use powdered condiments, we could immediately detect a change in the taste of the meal. Anyone who has tasted dishes with freshly ground condiments will know what I mean when I say that.
I have a shil nora at home, which I use for certain dishes. Though I must confess that I too have fallen prey to the electric grinder and the ready-to-use condiment powders. But for dishes like the shorshe baataa I always make it a point to use the traditional method.
Shorshe baataa is made from mustard seeds, turmeric powder, green chilies, and a pinch of salt. Mustard when not handled properly has the tendency to turn bitter and thus is the make or break factor of the dish. The trick is to briskly grind the mixture into a fine paste.
When I learnt to cook this particular dish, my teacher (a friend and not my mother) passed on a secret to getting the taste just right. She said that to ensure that the rhythm of my arms remained brisk and strong, I was to think of my mother-in-law and the way she managed to get my hackles up. And the anger/ irritation, which coursed through my mind with those thoughts, would fuel the grinding of the mustard paste. And the briskness would also ensure that the mustard wouldn’t taste bitter.
When she saw my startled expression, she had a good laugh and enlightened me that this was a story passed on from generation to generation. And even though I really don’t have much to be upset about with my mother-in-law, each time I grind the mustard paste, I always get this big smile on my face when I recall the ‘secret’ of a good paste.