Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Once upon a time...

The following is my first attempt at writing fiction, for the creative and unusual Of Chalks and Chopsticks event hosted this month at Bong Mom's Cookbook . Last month, I read the first round up with joy and amazement at the creativity of dozens of blogger-writers. It gave me the courage to spin my own yarn...

Mrs. Kumar and the Sweet Tooth

It might have started as a peaceful week, but today there was a great deal of excitement in the tiny town nestled among dense forests in the foothills of the Sahyadri mountains. The jewel thief had struck again. Mrs. Kumar set down her plate of Bourbon biscuits and her newspaper and joined the neighbors in the courtyard to discuss the latest developments.

For the third time this week, a home had been broken into, in the hours just after dusk. The thief was nimble and quick, climbing into windows or picking padlocks and looking for small valuables inside the homes-  silver platters used for religious ceremonies, cash from wallets and purses, gold chains, earrings and diamond rings placed on dressing tables and in drawers. So far, goods worth tens of thousands of rupees were missing representing the meager valuables of this humble middle-class community.

Distraught neighbors were standing and talking to the inspector and the constable, the two individuals that made up the sum total of police presence in that area. These two looked quite upset- here was their first chance to maintain law and order, to demonstrate their superior detection skills and they seemed to have no leads at all. Mrs. Kumar listened to the inspector explain that the thief seemed to hide out in the thick bushes behind the homes until darkness fell before attempting his break-ins. He knew this because as they looked around for clues after every robbery, they found discarded food wrappers and empty packets of chewing tobacco in the bushes behind the house that had been broken into.

Mrs. Kumar went home and made herself a cup of chai and finished the biscuits. This excitement called for additional snacks- she found a packet of chikki and started munching the sweet squares thoughtfully. She had retired a couple of years ago after decades of teaching high school science, and had shocked all her relatives and friends by buying a cottage in this tiny community several hours away from the city. No, I don't miss the malls or the latest movie releases or the endless weddings and thread ceremonies, and I most definitely don't miss the boorish loudspeakers and the pollution, she told everyone who asked, in her usual candid manner. Friends drove in occasionally to see her, bringing her treats from the city that she could not find there in the village, like those buttery mini coconut cakes from the National Bakery (Mrs. Kumar had a legendary fondness for sweets) and Amul cheese. They came expecting to sneer at this boring old village but instead could not help being charmed and soothed by the peace and the beauty surrounding the place.

Yes, she loved her tiny home, with a small vegetable patch out front and night-blooming jasmine outside her bedroom window. The residential community in the town was small, but there were quite a few stores, vendors and tiny restaurants to cater to the tourists and campers who passed through. She liked the down to earth neighbors and the thought of someone invading their secluded community frightened her just a little. Three homes had been broken into. The thief seemed to come here almost every day- the brazen rascal!

The next day, as Mrs. Kumar walked back from the vegetable seller carrying sweet tiny eggplants for the night's dinner, along with a small packet of gulkand burfi that she simply could not resist, she found the inspector standing at a street corner, staring thoughtfully at the ground. "Not again", Mrs. Kumar exclaimed. "Yes, yes", the police inspector replied with a mixture of tiredness and annoyance. Yet again, a home had been robbed the previous night. Yet again, no one had seen the thief and he had vanished into the night. Yet again, the discarded food wrappers were the only clue that he had been there. The inspector had plenty to do without the townspeople hounding him for answers.

Mrs. Kumar gave the inspector a withering look- the sort she saved for her most impossible students in years past. "Are those the food wrappers?", she asked, pointing to the crumpled papers in the inspector's hands, then took them in her own hands and smoothed them out. "Yes, same ones every day", the inspector said. A minute later, she was talking to the inspector in an urgent whisper and he was listening intently.

The following night, the inspector came around knocking on doors, grinning triumphantly and telling neighbors that the jewel thief had been caught; he had been wanted for theft in the big town and had recently switched to working the smaller towns where homes were less secure.

"Mrs. Kumar cracked the case. She told me exactly where I should go to find the thief. We called in extra help, staked the place and followed everyone who came there. Sure enough, one of them slunk away to hide in the bushes behind this neighborhood and we apprehended him", he told the puzzled crowd.

Mrs. Kumar beamed- "I only had to look at the discarded food wrapper. It was a page from an old FilmFare magazine, stained with small blotches of oil. And you know, of course, that there's only one vendor in town who is selling fried snacks wrapped in that particular magazine paper- the one at the side entrance of the bus depot. He sells the best garam-garam jalebis. You simply must try them".

* * *
I imagine that the mini coconut cakes that Mrs. Kumar was so fond of were similar to these coconut muffins. In my quest to eat down the pantry this month, I was looking to use up some sweet rice flour (much stickier than the rice flour we use in India, because it made from glutinous high-starch short grain rice). Compared to most recipes for Asian sweets using this flour, this recipe is an easy gluten-free cake recipe that sounded just so good. I added cardamom for an aromatic Indian touch, halved the recipe and baked in muffin cups because the reviewers of the original recipe praised the crust, and muffins have a high crust to crumb ratio.

Coconut Cardamom Muffins
(adapted from this recipe from Epicurious, makes about 15 muffins)

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl:
1 12 cups sweet rice flour (I used ener G brand)
1 cup sugar (or less to taste)
1 tsp. baking powder
14 tsp. salt
12 tsp. cardamom powder

3. Mix wet ingredients in a medium bowl:
1 can coconut milk
2 tbsp. melted butter (I used vegan Earth Balance)
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. vanilla extract

4. Mix dry ingredients and wet ingredients, scoop into ungreased muffin cups and bake until golden brown.

Confession: I messed up while making this recipe and forgot to add sugar- aargh! Multitasking just does not work sometimes. I realized the sugar omission after the muffins had been in the oven for 5 minutes and yelped in horror. Neighbor Girl was visiting and came running to the kitchen and we pulled the muffins out and sprinkled some sugar on each one. Neighbor Girl tells me, "Don't look so upset. Maybe this will be like the penicillin thing where adding sugar on top is a new discovery". Yeah, right. But in the end, they tasted pretty fine, with the sugary crust. Healthier, actually ;)

If I make this recipe again (and I am positive I will), I might add some fresh (or thawed frozen) grated coconut to the batter. The muffins tasted fantastic, very reminiscent of the rice-coconut-cardamom flavors of modak or karanji. And very easy to veganize, I imagine, just by using an egg substitute. The rice flour makes the muffins light and tender with an interesting chewy texture and crispy exterior. At least this is what they tasted like a few minutes ago, fresh from the oven. I'll update the post tomorrow with how the muffins taste after a day of being made.

Have a sweet evening, everyone.


  1. That'a an awesome story Nupur.. Nice suspense till the very end. Good job.. Loved the coconut muffins too.

  2. Nupur, your fiction work is incredible! i so much enjoyed reading the story and your writing ofcourse has always been very catchy. you so inspire me to do things beyond my comfort zone :) the muffins are great too, but today i'll reserve the entire comment for the fiction.

  3. Baap re.. Mrs. Kumar sounds like a totally foodie Chacha Chaudhary! :D Nice story! :)

  4. Loved the tale Nupur, most of all loved Mrs.Kumar and the little town. You should now think of a Mrs.Kumar--the Indian Ms. Marple series. It would be a big hit

    I have been getting so many lovely entries, that I am totally stressed. The recipe for my story got made tonight and now I need to write it, phewwwwww, what pressure man

  5. That is a cute story Nupur. I just realised that a story should have a heading or a name ... mine does not. :p
    And would plain rice flour work for those muffins? I may not get sweet rice flour here.

  6. :) I love that you unleashed the inner writer in you! What a tranquil place Mrs. Kumar's little town sounds like! I love the combination of coconut and cardamom... what a great way to start off the morning!

  7. thats a great story Nupur...we can see another Miss. Marple in making. the muffins look great. My maa sometimes make sugar free muffins which she serves with liquid jaggery flavoured with little ginger. they taste heavenly. if needed try this out.

  8. Lovely! Two things that appealed to me the most: the way your etched the scenery and the foodie scene :).

    You too have a beautiful evening!

  9. Hi Nupur this recipe seems delicious .... Where can i get the sweet rice flour ? coz i have not heard about it. can i get it at the Indian store or can i substitute it with regular rice flour ?

  10. Nupur have you read "No 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series by Alexender McCallSmith? If not, you should def pick it up. Your story actually reminded me of that book. The main character of the book loves her food and solves everything armoured with BUSH TEA . It is a beautiful,simple book based on Botswana!

    I made your Masoor Shengdana Amti with some Wild rice for yesterday's meal,and my 3 year old ate the whole portion up without any fuss! A very rare event in our house . Thank you so much for sharing that !!

    Keep writing. You are a girl of many talents.

  11. Dear Nupur,

    Lovely story and the coconut cardomom muffins (esp with the sprinkled sugar on top)recipe is great....the clicks are great...i will def try them too
    I have always admired your style of could shift to fiction anytime....we fans will look forward to that as well :))
    Great work and keep it up...

  12. The write up is very catchy and good! I loved the muffins as well :)

  13. Hey what a great first attempt. Loved the coconut muffins, have to make them soon. I will try to find this sweet rice flour. Can you name a few more brands?

  14. Agree with the other comments: Definitely an Indian Ms Marple in the making. Lovely story.

  15. A nice story Nupur. Mrs Kumar sounds like Mma Ramotswe from the #1 Ladies Detective Agency!! have you read that book??

  16. Immensely enjoyed the story Nupur. The place where Mrs. Kumar lives is indeed quiet fetching. These muffins are fantastic too.

  17. Lovely Nupur! Mrs.Kumar reminds me of Mma Ramotswe. Love how you wove the foodie part into the story. I hope we see more stories in this series.

    I don't have sweet rice flour at home, but I do have sweet rice. I bought it last year and I still haven't used it. Your BB4 series is inpiring me to use it up soon. Do you have any recipe suggestions, preferably savory dishes, that use sweet rice?


  18. Quite an engrossing piece of writing there. Something similar to getting absorbed in R.K.Narayan's stories. When you wrote "spin your own yarn", I thought you are going to literally spin yarn out of fleece and maybe dye it. I heard a spinner at a wool fest, saying we can do it at home with a CD spindle. Have to try it.

    I am going to try making these muffins without eggs.

  19. Pavani- Thanks :)

    PJ- Thanks for the encouragement. It is funny- now I appreciate fiction writers even more, especially those who weave interesting plots. It is really hard to do!

    SS blogs here- Chacha Chaudhary, man, it has been 25 yrs since I read anything about this character!

    Sharmila- LOL actually I added the name only when I realized that Sandeepa asked for the title in her event announcement.
    Plain rice flour- don't know if it will work the same way but it is certainly worth a try.

    Bong Mom- A whole series and all is beyond me :D one little story was hard enough! But it was fun to do something different.
    Can't wait to read your story written under the tight deadline.

    The Housewife- The combination really was tasty!

    musical- Thank you! :)

    Sayantani- Great idea with the syrup, but surprisingly the sprinkle of sugar was good enough.

    Anonymous- In the US, sweet rice flour can be found in Asian groceries, online stores, Whole Foods and health food stores.

    Arati- Yes, I've read the series and absolutely love it.
    So glad your little one liked the amti, thank you very much for letting me know. That makes my day.

    Rujuta- Oh dear, no, fiction is too difficult to write. I don't have the imagination to come up with clever plots!

    Preeti Kashyap- Thanks!

    Amruta- Koda Farms blue star is another brand. And Bob's Red Mill, I think.

    Jaya Wagle- Thanks :)

    Supriya- Yes, I've read the whole series and I love it!

    indosungod- So glad you enjoyed it :) I want to go live there if only I knew the name of the place ;)

    Mamatha- If the lightbulb goes off with more plot ideas, I'll certainly write more stories :)
    I have some sweet rice too, believe it or not, sigh. How about buying fried tofu skins and stuffing them with cooked rice? Or serving it with thai curries? Or rolling cooked rice in an omelet? I don't have any tried and tested recipes though.

  20. Nice readup Nupar...liked it..and muffins looks gud ...yummy combo

  21. Great story Nupur. Btw, can these muffins be made with normal rice flour?(maye add some extra sugar?)

  22. Very cute story, like your other blog posts, well written and full of food!!!

  23. Great write up Nupur.. Love your muffins too..

  24. I love how your mystery tale is overcast with subtle humor :) It's not an easy feat-- you have a flair, Nupur.

  25. Too good! Mrs Kumar sounded just like a desi Miss Marple to me :)

    I have always been intrigued by how the detective types are so keen or particular about the food. e.g your Mrs Kumar having that sweet tooth, remember Karamchand munching on the carrots & even Hercule Poirot so strict about his 'Tisane' :)

  26. Nupur -

    Brilliant !
    Am sure we all need to hear more & more about Mrs. Kumar .... what a character ! :) :) :)
    You should start the Mrs. Kumar series or something like that ! I can see all of the foodies(us) love her already !!!

    The muffins looks awesome...


  27. I really enjoyed reading the story Nupur. I hope u write some more. I thought the thief would be a monkey :D

    The recipe sounds delicious! I love modaks so will definately give it a try. Your muffins remind me of 'Nice' biscuits that has sugar on top. I love those too!

    I LOVE ur blog!!! I check it everyday! :) You r just amazing...keep blogging.

    - Priti

  28. That's a charming short story, Nupur. Enjoyed reading it like all your recipes.. Awesome looking muffins too.

  29. I absolutely loved this post. How ingenious of Mrs. Kumar to use clever food deduction -- just like how Byomkesh bakshi would have solved the case :)

    You do write very well. Keep it coming.

  30. loved your story - i always admire people like you who can really work a plot into such a small amount of text - and a great heroine - would love to see more of mrs kumar

  31. Hey Nupur that was a engaging story and I love mysteries and the accidental detective that Mrs. Kumar is. The muffins look interesting. Thanks for leading us to the event.

  32. Nupur, I absolutely loved your story. You know, it reminded me so much of No. 1 Ladies Detective series. Perhaps you could compile your own series some day?

  33. Priti- Thanks

    Priya- I don't know, you'll have to try for yourself.

    jk- Well, they asked for food fiction so food had to be central to the story :)

    Nitha- Thank you!

    Vaishali- Coming from you, that means a lot :) but truly, writing fiction is HARD.

    bhagyashri- I love Miss Marple so no wonder her influence is apparent! I agree with you about detectives and food, probably why I like mysteries so much ;)

    Leena Ajgaonkar Goutam- Oh my I don't have the imagination for a whole series but maybe you can come up with some clever plots for me ;)

    Priti- I LOVE your idea about the thief being a monkey, now why didn't I think of that?? :) Thanks so much for your kind words!

    GaramMasala- Byomkesh Bakshi!!! I had almost forgotten about him, I loved him :)

    Sapna- Thank you so much!

    Johanna GGG- Thank you for saying that, I'll try to come up with another story if they host another food fiction event :)

    Anjali- Accidental detective, just like I am an accidental blogger :D

    ammani- No, but YOU could compile a whole series, you write so well. I loved No.1 Ladies' so there's no question I am influenced by the sweet Precious Ramotswe.

  34. Lovely story. The style was free-flowing and made a nice, light read!

  35. Very very cool :) Definitely Mme Ramotswe would have approved :)

    What is sweet rice flour? if I used plain rice flour, would I have to increase the sugar?

  36. excellent story!! hard to believe its your first attempt! its very very good... love the build up- the quirky mrs kumar. maybe you should consider an entire series with mrs kumar.

  37. Wow Nupur, you are a creative writer, loved your story a lot.....write some more I love food and I love suspense. I love your recipe also , will try it out soon.


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