Monday, September 29, 2014

Summer Reading 2014

A parade of eclectic books came through my life in the last two months.

Before a long trip, most reasonable people will be seen shopping for the trip and packing their bags. Me? I was in a reading frenzy, trying to finish all my library books so I could safely return them before I went away.

The last of my pile was Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. This is a novelist's memoir written with deep feeling and a talent for articulating things that are very hard to articulate. Winterson was adopted as a 6 week old baby. Her mother cruelly told her that she "picked the wrong crib" implying that the adoption was a mistake. The mother's religious fanaticism and depression made for a horrible home life. Books were not allowed in the house. But Winterson found them anyway and against all odds, went on to go to Oxford and earn a degree in literature, writing an award-winning novel at the age of 24. “Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.” 

This Spring, I won a giveaway on Goodreads, an advance copy of The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism
by Jeremy Rifkin. What a title! This might be the most interesting book I've read in a while, and the hardest to read- partly because of the dense writing but mostly because economics is not at all my field of expertise. I read it as I would a textbook, over a semester, digesting a chapter at a time and taking copious notes. 

In a nutshell, what Rifkin is proposing is that the current capitalist system is on the decline. It will soon be replaced by the collaborative commons which is an economic system based on social entrepreneurs, shared economy and crowdfunding. We're already seeing more of that- think couchsurfing, kickstarter, zip cars etc. My notes on the book are here. I really wish the writing was tighter and more accessible, and that the book was better edited but if you like cerebral books, it is completely worth your time.

Just before we left for India, our library had their annual fund-raising book sale. Gently used, donated books were being sold for a couple of dollars so I rummaged around and bought a few. Over the two long-haul flights to India, I read an old but goodie, Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories by Agatha Christie. I think I read this collection once every decade or so and they are always fun.

In India, from within the depths of a junk drawer in a parental home, I rescued a yellowing paperback, The Way Through The Woods by Colin Dexter. It is the 10th Inspector Morse novel. I'm an ardent watcher of the Inspector Morse detective series on TV (we've watched it on PBS and Netflix) but this was the first time I read one of the novels that the series is based on. I give the novel 2 thumbs up for the literary references and for bringing the irritable, intellectual Morse to life.

Over at my parents' home, I read Myth = Mithya A Handbook of Hindu Mythology by Devdutt Pattanaik. I've read and heard and seen stories from Hindu mythology- Ramayana, Mahabharata- all my life, but this fascinating little book was full of aha moments for the ancient Indian interpretation of everything from cosmology to cultural mores. 

Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet: Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health by Sharada Dwivedi and Shalini Devi Holkar was a fluffy and quick read. The book is written in the form of a fictional memoir of a Rajput princess. She talks about her life in her childhood home (a palace) and life in her married household (another palace), cloistered in a women's compound (zenana). The princess describes rituals related to health and beauty, providing several recipes for everything from a masoor (lentil) face mask to pancakes that aid lactation. Descriptions of the hours-long elaborate baths left me exhausted and thankful for my 5 minute showers and single bottle of shampoo+ conditioner! Obviously, most of us don't have the luxury, time or even the inclination to make a career out of pampering ourselves. But the book is a nice reminder of relaxing beauty rituals that take no more than a few pantry ingredients. The book is worth looking at for the sumptuous historic photographs alone.

In India, there was another novelty- daily newspapers delivered to the door. We don't subscribe to newspapers here, preferring to read online news if and when we feel like it. But I got a daily dose of the Times of India and Mumbai Mirror and Bombay Times, with its unsettling mix of brutal rape reports and inane celebrity gossip. I got to read comics and do sudoku and crosswords every day (I'm good at the former but frustratingly bad at the latter.)

Since my return home, I've been catching up on the New Yorker magazines from the last 2 months. This article about Vandana Shiva was very illuminating and it is published online in its entirety: Seeds of DoubtAn activist’s controversial crusade against genetically modified crops by Michael Specter. 

And I started reading another book sale find, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. This book won rave reviews but personally I'm not enjoying the writing and the story is not very engaging either. I'm donating this book back for next year's sale. 

The next book on the pile is Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver.

What are you reading these days?

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Koli Cooking Class, and my New Craft Blog

Hello, friends! I just got back from a long trip to India, and even in my foggy, bleary-eyed, jet-lagged state, I'm missing this little blog very much.

Our weeks in warm, rainy Mumbai were spent catching up with close family and friends. But I took one morning to treat myself to a rather special experience- a cooking class taught by Anjali of Anna Parabrahma. The Koli community are the native fisher folk of Mumbai and for years, Anjali has been blogging about her native Koli culture and food. She has now taken it a step further, organizing tours of seafood markets and teaching Koli cooking classes. For those who don't eat seafood, she has a special Koli yet Veg class that focuses on vegetarian specialties from her community. How could I resist?

And that's how I found myself in Anjali's bright, pleasant and immaculately tidy kitchen one Friday morning, cooking with her and her beautiful friend Gauri. The morning started with a cup of masala chai, snacks and a chat with Anjali and her wonderful Dad, who is himself a good cook.

Over three hours, we made five dishes. All the while, the conversation flowed easily and I was amazed at how knowledgeable and passionate Anjali is about regional Indian home cooking. And she has a natural instinct for how to create a well-balanced meal where the flavors and textures of the different dishes complement each other perfectly.

The main course for the meal was Vala che bhirda. Sprouted vaal (a variety of beans) are cooked in a coconut curry. My grandmother made this dish often and I make it myself but every family/community makes it a different way. The koli way is to skip the tadka (tempering) and use their savory, full-bodied koli masala (made with over two dozen ingredients) instead.

The second dish was kokum saar. Kokum is a tangy coastal tropical fruit, and saar is not quite a soup or beverage or curry but perhaps a hybrid of those three. Anjali talks about kokum saar in this touching post. I've used kokum quite a bit but never in the form of kokum agal (extract) which Anjali uses to make the saar conveniently. Later, I asked my parents about it and they bought me my own jug of kokum agal to bring back. The radish and jaggery in this saar make it irresistible and this dish was my favorite of the day.

The other two side dishes we made were a fiery potato onion bhaaji and a garlic chutney. Finally, Anjali kneaded fresh dough and expertly made rice rottis- flatbreads made with whole rice flour.

With some freshly steamed rice and papads that are not in the picture, the whole thaali came together. I savored every morsel in happiness and gratitude.

More pictures of my experience are on Anjali's blog. I blissfully left with a bag of goodies from Anjali- dried vaal, rice papads, chai masala, malvani masala and peanut paak.

And of course, I made sure I bought a bag of koli masala for my own use here. An expertly made masala is worth its weight in gold. By just adding a spoonful or two, you can turn everyday ingredients- vegetables, lentils- into a special meal with no hassle at all.

Taking a cooking class while on vacation was great fun in so many ways- I had a memorable experience, learned something new, made warm connections and got some edible souvenirs to bring back. I'm going to try and do this on every trip I take.

I was talking about vacation cooking classes with a dear American friend who will be living in Bangalore for a month next summer. Does anyone happen to know of good, informal cooking classes in Bangalore? She and her husband would love to take one.

Have you ever taken a cooking class, whether on vacation or not?

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If you've been visiting this blog for any length of time, you know how knitting, crochet, sewing and quilting has been slowly but surely encroaching on this blog-formerly-known-as-a-food-blog? I never wanted to start another blog for the crafty stuff because keeping up with one blog is hard enough and keeping up with two would be sheer madness. But you know you should never say never.

My sister happens to be wonderfully creative and talented at sewing and other crafts, and also runs a small, independent sewing business. When I visited her a couple of months ago,  I started pestering her into starting a blog to chronicle her projects. She turned right around and talked me into joining her- so to make a long story short, we're now blogging together about our sewing and craft projects at our new blog, Cottons & Chai. If you're so inclined, I invite you to go take a look.

Our goal is to post twice a week, usually on Mondays and Thursdays. Of course the minute we started the blog, I promptly ran off on vacation and left poor sis to do most of the posting so far. Kashmira has posted free tutorials (like this one for a baby toy), craft ideas (potato stamps shaped like cute produce) sewing book reviews, upcycling ideas and original patterns for purchase (like this hair organizer; she made one for Lila and we loved it so much that I insisted she write a pattern).

A soft and crinkly toy for tiny, curious hands
This flower organizer hangs in the bathroom and helps to corral
Lila's umpteen hair bows and clips
I've posted a quilt I made and a quick birthday gift idea.

Going forward, I'll post my sewing and craft projects on Cottons & Chai and leave One Hot Stove to deal with food and books!

I'll see you next Monday as usual- no, it won't be a recipe post, but I'll tell you about lots of interesting books I've been reading. How have you all been? What's new in your world?