A yellow Nano and its Able driver

The first time I sat in one and turned on the little two-cylinder motor, it juddered and rumbled . It was uncanny how much I loved it at that moment. And I have sat in many a car and felt little, if nothing. So I understand why author Vanessa Able has humanised her sunshine yellow Tata Nano by christening ‘her’ Abhilasha, ‘a dear wish or desire’ in Hindi and Sanskrit.

After we bought our lime green Tata Nano, I was hungry for reading materials on this back-to-basics engineering wonder. I was curious about other people’s experiences of driving the little tyke, I wanted to know more about its engine and engineering. Did anyone else besides me develop a weary right-foot issue? As the high seating position makes it awkward for smaller feet to reach for the gas pedal; a problem I solved by putting in a thick rubber door mat to increase floor height.

Basically I wanted to tap into the prime directive on the Nano. Luckily, for me at least, the Nano story, unlike other cars that run amok in this country, is very well documented. ‘Megafactories’ on National Geographic is one easy-to-access example and a good documentary on the Nano and its making.

And so recently, I found Able’s unputdownable book The Nanologues. She’s very funny, refreshingly genuine, and the writing wrought. Able has condensed all her driving strains into various humorous acronyms and termed them the result of driving many “high-octane hours” leading to “physio-neurological hazards”. In her case, the right-foot issue is more the “Accelerator Foot Strain or AFS”.

After following her  _ 10,000 km plus the odd give or take 300 km long _ adventure around India, you want to take your own little Nano out on a long drive. Somewhere on some dusty page in Google, I read that she doesn’t like being described as brave. But I will call her that, because I am a coward.

Over the years, I have found myself shedding my courage more and more, feeling inadequate in the mean cities of India and even meaner, conservative hinterlands. So I admire someone, who, unjaded by the Indian reality, willingly seeks out lonely highways and treacherous guardrail-free hill roads presumably teeming with highwaymen, that would have unnerved a large number of women here. Perhaps adrenalin helps, or just coming in from the outside, fresh and unburdened by Indianness and going back to the humdrum sanity of the Island of Jersey, which has something called a ‘Filter-In-Turn’ traffic management system at some intersections. From what I have read, it is left up to civilised islanders…their steering hands gripped, little fingers doffed up…to patiently allow each other to pass. Imagine that..

FOT559CHere, hardly anyone obeys traffic lights, unless there is a cop standing around. And at junctions without lights, it’s survival of the most obnoxious. Drivers joust with each other and drive into the tiniest gaps available to them, moving ahead like pieces on a chess board till the intersection is noisily cleared after much angry honking and several dent-inducing close calls with two-wheelers and reckless jaywalkers squeezing past. Able does mention at the end of The Nanologues that she goes back to Jersey and frightens a pregnant driver pulling out of a shopping-mart car park with her aggressive new driving style acquired in ye olde India.

It was in one of her web diaries, I found a description of how she tried to apply for foreigner’s registration in India. After wading through queues, and mulish bureaucracies in several cities on her route, she, I think, finally managed to pluckily procure the said document in Kochi, Kerala. Kudos to her, for not being put off.

In The Nanologues, you will also come across quaint Britishisms like the ‘Central Reservations’ on dual carriageways. These are the grassy caged-off knolls, separating up and down roads, that we in India vaguely refer to as ‘medians’. Sometimes these are entire grasslands or just park strips or shallow concrete barriers depending on the mindfulness of the highway authorities concerned. It is nice to know that the median, the only thing that stands between us and speeding Audis/breakneck SUVs intent on taking all of us to our maker along with them, has an official title. When I came to that passage about people praying on the Central Reservation in The Nanologues, I think at that bit, Able was driving from Kolkata to Bodh Gaya, my brain sent me images of businessmen having conferences and reserving dinner tables in the middle of the road. I had to quickly put the book down and sheepishly do a Google search.

After the book, I was inspired to be a little less lily-livered and venture out in the Nano more, as it deserves, much to the annoyance of other motorists on Indian roads, who largely as a rule detest the Nano. I know this because most drivers will try to overtake one every time they sight a Nano. And if they can’t, and you have the temerity to block them, they blare their deafening horns at you to get out of the way of their bigger brattier cars. This, Able has covered in a section in the book about a kind of car hierarchy or ‘aukaat’ operating on Indian roads, where the Nano comes in at the bottom just above autorickshaws, bikes, ruminants and canines.

Is it a middle-class aspirational thing as is suggested in the book? Or is it just a social meme that people imbibe then mindlessly repeat and pass on like a virus? A lot of folk like to be seen and heard looking down on the Nano, loudly declaring that they would prefer instead to get the cheapest Maruti Suzuki on offer. My father, a representative of this city-dwelling in-betweener and a Suzuki owner, said many disparaging things about the Nano, of course, before he knew I was getting one.

I watched the Nano commercials on television, and realised that the ‘Mad Men’ minding Tata Motors were trying to combat this prejudice by not just culting out the Nano in a halo of history, but also catering to the youthful car consumer. Indians finally have their very own Volkswagen Beetle/Mini, so why not cash in. Even the peppier colours of the Nano, the sunshine yellows, candy oranges and lime greens echo the age of flower power, far from the Nano’s recent origins in the new millennium, whence Ratan Tata dreamt of  giving the teetering bike-riding masses the ballast of four wheels.

By targeting the young in their ads, the hope might be that the middlers who gravitate to the beiges, silvers and whites of the vehicular Daleks popular on Indian roads may soon catch on. And keeping with the Dr Who theme, Tardis-like, the Nano does present more space and leg-room on the inside. Pondering its extraterrestrial egg-shaped exterior, you wonder how all the frugal engineering made that space possible.

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Flowers wither as city bees stay away

a bee (apis cerana) visits the violet hued flowers of my purple basil

A bee (possibly apis mellifera) visits the violet-hued flowers of my purple basil

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The giant bee, apis dorsata, and a little dwarf bee, apis florea, come together for a drink of water

I used to take bees for granted, that is, till I started growing chilly peppers and tomatoes. In my mother’s suburban garden where gleaming, midnight-blue carpenter bees like to fly, eggplants, tomatoes, okra flower, then fruit, seasons turn, and all is as it should be.

But up here on the fifth floor in the middle of a busy city block, the nightshades I grew early on in the year did something strange. They flowered, but nothing happened after that. The flowers simply withered and fell from the parent plants stems and all. The issue was pollination, or the lack thereof. There were bees around, all kinds of bees, the little striped hive-making honey bees: apis florea (the dwarf honey bee pictured above), apis mellifera (the European honey bee) and the native apis cerana (the asiatic honey bee); the big ones: apis dorsata; and some solitary bees: nomia bees and resin bees. But soon I realised, they were just not the right kind, my little solanacea were after _ wild, native bees of the bumble, carpenter and halictid variety were absent from my terrace garden. Apparently, even a dulcet-toned breeze that shakes the self-fertile tomato flower could have done the job, but even these seemed to have gone wanting at the right time.

Dwarf honey bee (apis florea) visiting tamarind flower

Dwarf honey bee (apis florea) visiting tamarind flower

As I started reading up on this perplexing problem, it occurred to me that if I could not find the appropriate brightly-coloured almost-neon American halictid to do the job all the way here in India, I would have to depend upon sonicating or “buzz pollinating” local bees. Sensitive bumble bees stayed away from my garden as our apartment building stands in the middle of a densely-populated, traffic-filled area also crowded with mobile-phone towers. The next best buzz-pollinator was the blue-banded bee, which fortunately were plentiful here.

blue-banded bees

Local male blue-banded bees roosting on tamarind twig

I had found out that tomato and pepper flowers need to be sonically buzzed at opera style by bee-wing muscles and induced into spurting out their pollen, which is what certain bees like to collect in little white or yellow bundles on their legs. A portion of this released pollen sticks to the sticky stigmas of the same flowers causing self-fertilisation, and cross fertilisation takes place when bees rub their hairy pollen-covered bellies on the style tips. I found the best explanation here at the Old Drone blog.

sticky style tip of a tomato flower just showing from the centre of the anther cone.

Sticky style tip or stigma of a tomato flower just showing from the centre of the flower’s fused anther cone, which houses the locked-up pollen. The yellow petals have closed sightly as the picture was taken in the evening. I have buzzed at it with an electric toothbrush, and the tiny almost invisible white dots on the padded surface of the stigma are particles of pollen released from the anthers by the vibration.

Blue-banded bees with their dazzling turquoise colours do come to my garden from time to time. They, however, did not seem to be attracted to the yellow flowers of my tomato plant. They seemed instead to prefer the violet colours of a singular Buddleja specimen. In fact, the yellow tomato flowers and white chilly pepper flowers did not attract any of the bee visitors to my garden. And I hadn’t had a single tomato or pepper fruit yet, although the plants were all flowering profusely.

pollination in action: apis florea bee brushing past anthers of tamarind flower

Pollination in action: Apis florea bee (dwarf honey bee) brushing past anthers of tamarind flower. In this flower, the pollen just has to be brushed on to the bee’s hairy upper body. It is not locked inside the anthers, as in the case of the tomato flower.

apis cerana on mimosa flower

Wild apis cerana on mimosa flower

Male nomia bees roosting for the night

Male nomia bees roosting for the night high up in a tamarind branch. When the camera flashes at them, the white bands on their abdomens reflect rainbow colours. I have seen them referred to as rainbow bees.

At our local botanical garden, I had been witness to flowers of a nightshade brinjal being visited by other “apisian” guests. Sadly, being no expert, it was difficult to make an identification of the kind of bee. To me, it looked like a sweat bee, a halictid. A type of bee I have never seen in my fifth-floor terrace garden.

Flower of brinjal variety being visited by a possible sweat bee.

Flower of brinjal variety being visited by a possible sweat bee.

After some internet searches, I decided to resort to the old electric toothbrush technique. My first attempts at hand pollination were on a Thai chilly pepper growing on the kitchen window sill. I discarded the brush end of the toothbrush and touched its vibrating metal head to the flower’s anther cone, and voila, and pollen spurted out. I collected this flying pollen and used a cue tip to transfer pollen gently onto the stigma of the pepper flower.

Before: This is what the anthers look like before they were buzzed with the electric toothbrush

Before: This is what the anthers look like before they were buzzed with the electric toothbrush

After: After sonicating, the anthers have release their pollen

After: After sonicating, the anthers have released their pollen. (The above depict two different flowers on the same plant)

When the flowers were successfully pollinated and I got them to fruit, I began my toothbrush experiments on the tomato flowers.

Red Thai chilly pepper

Red Thai chilly pepper. The fruit is still wearing its withered flower as a little head skirt.

On the whole, it was a satisfactory experiment. Since the pollen-receptive stigmas of my tomato flowers lay just inside their anther cones (see picture above), my attempts at transferring pollen with a cue tip did not work. In this case, merely sonicating and gravity did the job of pollen transference. My little tomato plant produced a whole bunch of fruit before it finally gave into blight.

Tomato flowering

Tomato flowering

fruiting tomato

Fruiting tomato

Pollination by toothbrush

And finally, pollination by means of headless toothbrush

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Not everything home made is manna

The flames have all died down and shop-front sweet-box displays have been put away till Diwali season arrives again in India next year. Our local sweet shop did so much business this year, that it encroached on the sidewalk to set up an assembly line for its colourful array of shiny-pink-wrapped boxes of milk sweets. Post Diwali, the papers are filled with features about fasting and detoxing from festival binges. But is that really enough? How are we eating the rest of the year? We earnestly believe that foods prepared naturally in our homes are nourishing, and that junk food is the resident evil turning us into zombies.

The Hairy Bikers: Mums Know Best on the TLC India feature hard-working mothers with some of the tastiest looking, but also some of the starchiest, cheesiest recipes. Most of the foodies arrive at the Mums Know Best carnival tent with a cooked-up personal favourite and a side-serving of childhood memories. So blame childhood for the skewed reasonings we carry around without serious examination. My fondest memories too revolve around delicacies from the age of innocence.

Tea time with ctc tea.

Tea time with ctc tea. I choose to brew my tea in a teapot rather than boil it as is the preference in local tea stalls and most homes. It all comes down to taste. And taste is subjective.

I remember late afternoon tea as that time of day when sweet milk tea always had accompaniments like buttered pita bread dipped into south Indian theeyal curry. According to Indian custom, my mother would usually boil the dark tea-leaf pellets on the stovetop along with a generous splash of milk. These tiny pellets are the cheaper remnants of the tea industry, known as CTC (crush, tear, curl) tea, and these shrunken former tea leaves can put up with being boiled, unlike the more delicate, refined leafier teas.

My mother often whipped up an upma, which is basically cooked semolina, tempered with black mustard seeds, sauted shallots, curry leaves, salt, if need be a pinch of turmeric for a more golden result. The fluffy upma (up meaning salt, ma meaning cooked dough) recently put in an appearance in MasterChef Australia. It is strangely bemusing when things from our daily lives make an appearance on global prime time, and, just for a moment the mundane is elevated to the exalted. Upma is a savoury south Indian cereal, and it is as quotidian as it gets on breakfast tables in southern India.

If we could brush aside these warm memories from the nest, we would begin to see that most grain-based home-made recipes, even minus the preservatives and fancy chemicals, are still almost as harmful for overall heart and brain health as junk food. As an urban species, we are not bungee-jumping every day to burn off the amount of starches we consume as a result of our agriculture-induced lifestyles. But even that notion may just be a popular misconception. A lot of people I know harbour the belief that it doesn’t matter what they consume, as long as they burn it off running on the treadmill. Though exercise will help in overall calorie balance, it will not negate the side-effects of excessive insulin spikes, which latest research points to as the root cause of many a modern ill.

As a child, I had bad health, and after years filled with visits to doctors our family was none the wiser. It did not help that we lived in an apartment with limited opportunities for play or exercise. Now, I believe our grain-heavy Indian diet was to blame. In this country, we tend to rely on grains and legumes for starch and protein. Rice, roti and daal _ this is the triumvirate dominating the average Indian dining table. And the average Indian dinner plate will be three-fourths rice or wheat, with tiny portions of vegetable and legume accompaniments.

Type 2 diabetes is commonplace, and the newspapers have a tendency to blame the epidemic on junk food. My uncles were suffering from diabetes long before junk food emporiums invaded the semi-urban area they inhabited. We are not yet ready to admit that the culprit may lie in the heart of our homes, it may be vast quantities of rice and wheat consumed three to four times on a daily basis. On an evolutionary scale, grains probably fuelled the fast flight of little birds. But after humans discovered agriculture, we did not sadly evolve wings to work off the starches we began to consume by the generation.

Brown rice grains

Brown rice grains

As simple starches became evil, whole grain came to the rescue. Food brands in India have been sinking millions into the whole-grain idea, no questions asked, with the latest ready-to-eat products touting the back-to-the roots mantra. As yet no one mentions the problems of phytic acid, lectin and other anti-nutrients in whole grains, though gluten has recently made it to urban Indian’s consciousness. Dutifully, I too followed the whole-grain advice, and couldn’t understand why I always had a problem stomaching brown rice, millets and whole wheat. On one occasion, I went to the trouble of fermenting brown rice, in lieu of par-boiled rice, for the popular Indian breakfast dish idli. A few bites into the fruit of my labours, my throat closed up in a severe allergic reaction.

Whole wheat, and millets, leave me with unexplained headaches, hangnails, tooth ache, patchy roughened skin, and joint pain especially in the case of whole wheat. I find millet roti (flattened pan bread) made with either bajra (pearl millet) or jowar (sorghum) a little more palatable and dentition-friendly in the presence of dairy. This perhaps explains the traditional North Indian Punjabi combination of whole wheat chapati with ghee and paneer. It was only when I came across the website of the Weston A. Price foundation, and began reading up on how phytic acid in whole grains impedes the absorption of vital minerals in the gut, did the light bulb turn on in my head.

Mainstream advertisers latching on to the latest fads don’t realise that even our ancients were wary of whole grains. In the north of India, people found a way to make unleavened whole-wheat roti more digestible by combining it with dairy in the form of home-made butter, made from milk of grass-fed cows, and paneer, a home-made cheese, easily precipitated out of milk by using a little whey or lemon juice.

Par-boiled rice

Par-boiled rice

In the south, ancients discovered par-boiling as a way of making rice more acceptable to the gut. The south Indian breakfast dish idli is made by steaming saucer-shaped batter discs of ground, fermented par-boiled rice and sticky black gram daal, which has been soaked overnight. Par boiling probably makes the b-complex vitamins in the grain available for absorption. After par-boiling, the rice is husked and milled thereby getting rid of the bran with all its anti-nutrients.

I add a couple of seeds of fenugreek to the  sticky black gram lentils as it soaks overnight. This is supposed to attract wild yeast to the soaking liquid. And sure enough, the next day, the mixture is frothy and smelling pleasantly yeasty. I have tried the same trick with the soaking par-boiled rice, but for whatever reason, the yeast seem to prefer the lentils. I wonder if this has anything to do with the nitrogen in the lentils, or the rhizobium harboured in root nodules when the plant was in the ground. Fermentation of the ground batter eliminates more of the phytate content remaining in the grain.The idli batter is also rich with the residue of bacteria and yeast involved in the overnight fermentation, possibly adding to the nutritional value of the eventual idli or dosa made from the batter.

But even after all this, there is just so much of this treated rice-and-lentil wonder that I can stomach without feeling a tightness in the gut by late evening. The only way out of the malaise seems to be to go easy on the grain, even if it is impossible to sidestep it altogether in a grain-centric culture.

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My garden is a macro world

My garden is really a macro world in the sky. I am up high on the fifth floor and right now I am fighting back an invasion of mealybugs. And doing that organically is no easy task. At first, they were only attracted to the hibiscus plants and a couple of weak plants. But after applying rich compost to all the pots, the bugs migrated to the lush, new growth on the plants. As a final resort, I have had to whip out the ‘tabaccy’.

Ageratum flowers

Soak together in hot water, tobacco from a cigarette, a head of crushed garlic, some bird’s eye chilly, mashed up turmeric root, a splash of milk, insecticidal soap and a bit of yellow laundry soap _ a type of soap we get here in India. Let all this sit around in the heat of two afternoons _ sounds like a witch’s brew, doesn’t it? It’s only missing the eye of newt. All this yields a foul-smelling brown gungy liquid, which is filtered then diluted and poured into a spray bottle with a bit of insectidal soap. I make sure to spray after the bees have gone to bed, as I don’t want to poison them by mistake. What I’ve noticed is that this spray keeps the cottony mealybugs at bay for a while, and the plants seem to like this gungy emulsion, they seem to look fatter and healthier to my eye the next day.

In the heat of april, there is some profusion of colour in this sky garden. Stinky Ageraturm blue-ball plants have flowers that in macro seem to be sprouting glassy violet tentacles waving about in the viscous heat. I found out recently that the similarly stinky goat weed that regularly appears in my garden is also an Ageratum _ Ageratum Conyzoides. But the goat weed’s flowers are small, white and insignificant, probably what ancestral Ageratum flowers once looked like before gardening and human involvement. The deep magenta of gomphrena, despite my best efforts, is getting washed rather white by my lens. Probably more the fault of the still-learning photographer than the lens.

The papery gomphrena flower is actually a deep purply magenta. Try as I might I was not able to catch the colour on camera.

Flowering hippeastrum: A plastic bucket is providing the blue background.

That white spot in the middle of this dwarf marigold bloom is a pesky little mealybug getting comfy beneath.

Here's a friend to the garden, a spider on a hibiscus flower, whose name eludes me. But on its abdomen there appear to be markings tracing out a human face.

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An equation for compost

At the beginning of the universe, there is a time when energy and matter are one and everything is smushing about namelessly and without form, creating everything else we hold so precious, the very stuff of stars and even us down here on this ball of rock and lava. This is the closest I can get to describing what I feel when I churn my compost two or three times a week. You feel like an alchemist _ yes, that mystical forebear of chemistry practised in the middle ages _ watching stuff that was once kitchen waste, straw and leaves mere weeks ago transmute into something as basic and fecund and nutritious as soil. The alchemists never made any gold, if only they had quantum physics and gazillion-dollar Star Trek replicators.

An organic gardening tip: My Hippeastrum started doing well when I gave it some egg water. What happened was that I was boiling eggs and one of them cracked and made a mess in the water. I filtered out the water and gave it to the plants. Worked out well.

But in making compost, I have been able to create something a little more valuable, at least to me, than gold _ black soil that I have often heard people describe as black gold. Isn’t it strange? Words like nutritious and gold being used for what is basically dirt. Let me also add ‘wholesome’ to my pile of adjectives. What amazes me is that composting is a way of mimicking that process at the beginning of it all _ transmutation _ matter gets churned, microbes and little insects have a feast, poop and heat is released in the form of energy and what remains is something that looks different from what went in. Pure physics and gorgeous biology. For the life of me, I wouldn’t be able to write an equation for compost though it really deserves one, something like E=mc2 or the Drake equation that predicts the existence of intelligent life out in the galaxy and beyond.

Compost made in a black garbage bag. It is brown in colour due to the sawdust, which was easier to handle inside a garbage bag and also takes a while to break down.

The ancients understood the magic of composting at the dawn of settled agriculture thousands of years ago and it is incredible how all this knowledge disappeared in the middle of the modern era, sometime in the 20th century with the rise of the chemical fertiliser and pesticide industry. The economists always point out how without these chemicals we could not possibly have fed a planet full of people. But while doing so, we have also killed a lot of soil, and along with pests also decimated pollinating insects that had evolved in collusion with flowering plants over millions of years. And let’s not forget the beneficial microbial, fungal and insect life living in soils. Millions have been fed, but somehow our daily nutrition is now riddled with gaping holes that affect us in more ways than we even know of and these holes have had to be filled in with synthetic vitamin capsules. That is just not ideal, even for the economists.

Maybe this modern shift away from soil has something to do with the way we love to pour concrete over everything _ that ultimate construction garnish that defines our modernity. As the cities I lived in became more urban, laid down more road, and the cement and iron fortresses tore into the grounds and skies, there was one common indicator that the native soil was disappearing. It was the dust. Friction, from millions of feet, tyres and just the wind, grinds on the concrete. Fine particles are released into the air, which rub against more cement and the process goes on, and a lot of it just flies in through our windows onto our shelves and into our lungs. Dust is also the result of denudation, when the weeds and plants are pulled from the ground for whatever reason and the top soil left bare is stripped by the wind. So many ancient civilisations have fallen to this slow dust and been buried. The dust of our Indian cities is a spectre that we perhaps ignore to our peril. We should see it as a warning suspended in fine particles carried in the wind.

Compost made in a clay pot

Here is a recipe for compost: I don’t have much space living as I do in a concrete fortress. But one year, I even managed to make some compost in a black garbage bag, not an ideal situation, but something was better than nothing. Although, I do have a 165 sq-ft terrace balcony that makes composting just about possible. I now have clay pots for the job, but when I was using garbage bags and plastic buckets I had less of a problem managing the critters that are inevitably attracted to the process. Within the 30 litre lidded plastic bucket or a largish black garbage bag (remember black absorbs heat), the compost cooking was faster as there was more condensation and humid heat. But getting air into the mixture was a difficulty. When I kept the critters out, I also kept out a lot of air. Now I use environment-friendly clay pots made by cottage-industry potters, but all the problems got reversed. The lids are all ill-fitting, so ants to beetles every journeyman insect likes to party in my compost. The clay is porous so I constantly have to moisten the pile. From all this, I learned to cover the pile in the pots with a layer of thick newspaper. It keeps out the flies and allows the heat to build in the pile without escaping.

But I guess, when you decide to compost even in the close quarters of an apartment, you have to make your peace at least with some of these critters, my amnesty, however, ends with cockroaches and rats _ don’t want them anywhere near my pile. I take precautions like never adding anything sweet, processed, cheesy, fruity, starchy, fishy, meaty or bony to my pile _ not even potato skins, though I do add the skins of beetroots. I have noticed that if the banana skin count exceeds a certain upper limit, there is the possibility of attracting nesting black ants. Though I said nothing fruity, I add banana skins for its potassium content. Once I forgot that tomato was a fruit and started adding all those squishy tomato cores and was rewarded with a terrible fruit fly problem. I had flies in my eyes and hair. I have stopped adding the cores, but I still add the ends or stubs of tomato that we cut off on the chopping board (as for the body, everything in moderation for the compost too). Remember that the compost pile like your body needs different coloured veggie and flowery remains, well, almost like your body. Different colours mean different pigments and these break down into varied micro-nutrients.

One of my composting pots (from dailydump.org)

It took me years to master my compost recipe. It was trial and error, which I mostly enjoyed, before I found the mixture that suits me best. I have heard chefs say that their fascination with cooking began as they watched their mothers cook. It was the same for me, except with composting. My mother has a garden, and she would bury all the kitchen scraps, including fish bones, around the garden. She didn’t have any particular method, but I could see that the soil in those patches turned black and crumbly in around six months. And some of our fruit trees gave more munificently after they were fed thus. On my own living in apartments, I found quickly that I needed a recipe.

And this is what works for me now. I start building in alternate layers of brown and green. The greens are formed by a mixture of kitchen scraps _ tea leaves, coffee grounds, vegetable odds and ends from the chopping board (cut-up peels from onions, garlic, leeks, orange/lemon, discarded stems of spinach, broccoli, peppers etc) powdered eggshells and cut flowers from the vases. I collect the kitchen scraps in plastic bags and store in the freezer. When I need them, I take out the bags and leave to warm up till the scraps start to smell vaguely like pickles before adding to the pile. Freezing also does the job of shattering and shredding the kitchen scraps. Those large ice crystals can really break up the insides of veggies. Remember, compost is not supposed to smell bad, if this happens, I quickly add sawdust. This always works for some scientific reason that I have not been able to fathom. Perhaps, it absorbs the excess moisture that the anaerobic bacteria need, thus creating more space for air to get into the pile and restore balance, but I don’t know for sure.

The browns are made up of crispy brown, fallen leaves, straw, sawdust and cut-up egg cartons. In between these layers, I like to add what are called compost accelerators. They speed up the cooking process. An accelerator could be any one of these things _ powders of chamomile or valerian, dried cow dung, a teaspoon or two of old expired Spirulina freed from their capsules, half-formed or fully done compost from previous batches and sweepings and prunings from my balcony garden. Sometimes I add alkaline lime (calcium hydroxide), if there’s too much acidic lime (lemon rinds) in the compost.

After going to the trouble of building these layers, I promptly go at them with a pair of garden forks, stirring everything together adding a little water if I have to. But never let it get too wet or you’ll end up with gloop. I will continue adding these layers and stirring this active pile two or three times a week, till it grows to fill about two-thirds of the container, then I stop adding to it, but continue turning the pile two or three times a week. I will then start a new pile in whatever other container I can find. For me, composting stops during the Indian monsoon. Living in an apartment, space is limited and as long as it is not raining, the composting carries on in the open-to-the-sky terrace/balcony. Once the rains start in June, I am forced to cover all the previous year’s work in tarpaulin and leave everything to mature for about six months. By November, I open up my pots or buckets to find nice sweet smelling black earth that the plants love.

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Enid and Julia: Virtual and real food memories

Most of what we enjoy about food today has something to do with our earliest food memories. Those were the days before The Simpsons, before Homer could utter your name and voila you became instant pop culture reference. Julia Child was the ready-reckoner cooking personage mentioned on TV shows. So she has been in the zeitgeist a long time, and the problem with being in the spirit of the times is that you take these icons for granted without examining too deeply. I knew vaguely that I was making her scrambled eggs, having got the recipe from 1001 Foods (subtitled: The Greatest Gastronomic Sensations on Earth). And I knew they were something special when the almost runny eggs came out buttery, creamy and completely different from what I had previously termed scrambled eggs. But still I chose not to analyse or research. Then came the asteroid hit that was Julie and Julia, and I found myself running around like a headless chicken in search of ever-more information on French cooking and the Childian mystique.

Red onion and tomato quiche filling in a rough puff pastry pie.

Now, I am never going to attempt an aspic, nor do I possess the discipline to embark on a year-long recipe project. All I can do is read, read and be occasionally inspired as I was when I nose-dove into the wonderful intricacies of crafting short-crust pastry and rough puff pastry. I remember forgetting to add lime juice into the cold water for the mix to make rough puff pastry dough, as you are told to do on Rachel Allen Bake, blogs and Youtube videos, and feeling defeated that all this rolling and turning had come to nought. Then a quick flip through Julia Child’s The Way to Cook and I felt reassured, as Ms Child had not anywhere used lime juice to make rough puff pastry. I watched her making a French omelette on a black-and-white egg special on PBS.org and I was struck by the woman, her lilt, and that wonderful eager-to-teach, easy-to-approach demeanour of her early cooking shows. By the time she was showing us puff pastry with Michel Richard she seemed vaguely more sophisticated. Perhaps it was down to years of dealing with people while in the throes of unexpected fame, old age and ill health. But I enjoyed the footage of the early Julia, her sepia-toned tour of Provence, and her friend Simca in Spinach Twins and her demystification of Creme Fraiche in La Tarte Tatin.

Some of my own treasured food memories are rather more virtual, than real. As a child reader, I loved ‘pre-mobile phone, pre-Facebook, pre-My Space’ Enid Blyton books. Even today, I can conjure up picnic passages from The Famous Five, which involved the adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timothy the Dog. They would ride out on their bicycles during summer holidays, stopping over at sunny watering-holes to swim and picnic sitting on grass. Inevitably there were boiled eggs, bread and butter sandwiches, scones, biscuits, sardines and root beer or ginger beer. In the cold light of adulthood, these seem alright enough, but child me was completely under the thrall of these imaginary luncheons when I didn’t even know what ginger beer was exactly, still don’t know. In my imagination, it was a sweet ginger flavoured cordial of some kind. But what in tarnation is root beer? Perhaps a misnomer for ginger beer? Then there were the girls who boarded at Malory Towers and their midnight feasts. The only modern-day virtual equivalent is the moment at the end of a Nigella Feasts episode, when Ms Lawson raids her frigidaire in a satiny dressing gown to savour some of her day’s efforts. That one little act of hers has done a lot to alleviate food guilt worldwide.

I made an interpretation of Tart Dijonaise after watching an episode of Planet Food, where Merilees Parker, on tour in the countryside of Burgundy, comes across a little home-style, family restaurant. She and the farm-owner’s wife who runs the place get down to making Tart Dijonaise. All it involves is short-crust pastry rolled out using an empty wine bottle, some liberal painting of the pie-crust with Dijon mustard, a cooked onion and tomato filling and French emmenthal cheese on top. It all looked easy, but after reading the pastry chapter in Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat (essential reading for pastry do’s and don’ts), it was drummed into my head that I had to keep the pastry cold _ use cold water, cold butter, cold bowls, no touching with warm hands or fingers, to chill the pie crust for 10 minutes after it has been beguiled into a cold quiche tin _ cold being the operative word.

Also, how sticky the dough gets depends on which part of the world you live in. Short-crust pastry and puff pastry were invented in colder climates, where butter does not have a physical need to melt. No wonder that near the equator in India, such pastries were never thought of because the climate here, unless you are far up north in the Himalayas, is more suited to the use of oil and flowing ghee. A famous example of a hot Indian pastry is the samosa, where rolled-out triangular slivers of wheat flour-and-water dough (everyone here has a handed-down secret for crispy samosa skin) is stuffed with potato, peas and delicate spices then fried golden brown. Ghee is made from cooking accumulated cream collected over weeks from whole milk, till all the water has evaporated and the milk solids have fried up. What remains is blonde ghee, which is then filtered out. At least, this is how my mother makes it. Thanks to electrically-powered technology like the refrigerator and freezer, even here in the dry heat of the Western Ghats in March, it is now possible to play around with cold European butter pastry. In my version of the Tart Dijonaise, I used a filling of spinach and onion cooked in olive oil, along with salt, pepper and dried thyme. Also, I left out the cheese feeling rueful about the copious butter in the flavourful crust. And after all this, well, the taste, let’s just say it was worth the trouble.

Tart Dijonaise with spinach

Ingredients

For the pie crust:

200 grams of refined flour,
100 grams of butter (I used salted butter though the advice is to use unsalted)
a tablespoon or two of cold water with a cube or two of ice added to it,
one egg yolk beaten with a half a squeeze of lime.

For the tart filling:

Two to three big onions sliced,
two to three tomatoes sliced,
a bunch of chopped fresh spinach with stalks and stems removed,
a quarter teaspoon of salt,
same of pepper,
one teaspoon dried thyme
two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil,
one potato sliced very thinly with a mandolin,
and a very generous tablespoon of Dijon mustard or as much as it takes to paint the bottom of your tart.

Measure out the cold sifted flour and dice the cold butter. Sieving is supposed to aerate the flour. Roughly toss flour and butter together and put in the freezer for 10 minutes. Then quickly tip the butter and flour into a processer and process till the mixture looks like shattered crumbs. At this point, add the beaten yolk and lime mixture, then process and if the mixture doesn’t look like it is coming together, stop and add a teaspoon of cold ice water through the funnel and process again. The mixture will start to bunch together in the bowl, at this point switch off the machine and dump out the now rather sticky mixture on to a sheet of cling film. Pull the cling over it, then very gently just press it together into a ball of dough inside the cling. There’s no kneading. Flatten into a thickish disk. Refrigerate for an hour, or overnight.

For the filling, cook the sliced onions slowly in olive oil. Add salt, pepper and dried thyme. After a couple of minutes, when the onions have softened in the oil, drop in the chopped spinach. Cook these down gently slowly on a low flame for about 20 minutes. Do not let it burn. Shut off the flame after 20 minutes, and let it cool down. The residual heat ensures that it will cook down a little more.

Next take out the disc of cool pastry dough, unwrap it from its cover of cling. Flour your board and a preferably heavy cold rolling pin (I use a marble rolling pin) as the disc gone stiff in the fridge needs some weight to roll out. Then roll it out into a not-too-thin disc just bigger than the tin you are using. Brush off any excess flour. Wind this rolled-out disc of pastry over the floured rolling pin and take over to tart tin. Unwind into the tin from edge to edge and then press it very gently with fingertips into the sides of the tin. If you want a neat edge, slide the rolling pin over the top of the pie crust in the tin to level off the pastry. Prick the bottom of the dough and eggwash a little with the left-over eggwhite, then into the fridge with the pie tin and crust to chill, because the rolling and folding will have slowly made the dough sticky, which means that the butter has started to melt.

And we can’t have that, because say ‘the collective voices of chefs who know better’ in my head _ the crumbs of butter have to stay intact to create a finished flaky pastry. Take out the cooled pie crust and spoon in the Dijon mustard and paint away. Then layer on the sliced and lightly salted potato. Spread a layer of sliced tomato also sprinkled over with a miserly pinch of salt, then a layer of the cooked filling of onion and spinach. Repeat these layers, till the last tomato layer is level with top of tin. Cool again if you feel the pie crust feels sticky or looks wilty. Bake in a pre-heated oven for 20 to 30 minutes at 200 C, for however long it takes to get a nice golden-brown crust. Take out and cool for 10 minutes before removing from tin and cutting out a slice.

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The haunt of the urban naturalist

Wild pockets exist within our cities, enduring in the undergrowth of house gardens and in the canopies of the city’s avenue trees. The urban naturalist has to find a way to peek into the treetops to discover this hidden upper realm. It is disheartening to see how wilfully we eradicate these pockets of wild and pour in ever more concrete for roads and skyscrapers. The only advantage to living in one of these concrete monsters that crowd the cityscape is that I have a view into the canopies of the surrounding mango and jamun (Syzigium Cuminii) trees. From my lookout post, I can see high-flying butterflies patrolling these sunny haunts. Some of them like the striped lime-green Tailed Jay butterflies are so feisty they even chase away their tiny sunbird neighbours.

Male purple sunbird

And the sunbirds what glorious little sun-catchers they are _ glossy, iridescent feathers ghosting sunshine as they flit about, hovering among the leaves of the few remaining trees. It’s as if they were still flying among their old wild tree homes. You can’t but admire their tenacity. I have a beautiful Bauhinia growing on my terrace. Resident and any visiting sunbirds to the area are attracted to the big magenta orchid-like blooms. A sunbird will perch and dip its long curved beak into the centre of the flower to sip up nectar with its long needle tongue. If there is no perch then the sunbird will hover like hummingbirds, but not for long, before it has to perch again.

Here in this western corner of India on a spur of the Western Ghats 18 degrees above the equator, we went through bit of a cold spurt that caused the mango trees to joyfully flower all at once. Sitting at my fifth floor window looking out into the canopy, I was suddenly awash in an ocean of delicate fragrance. It was the scent of the tiny cream and pink flowers of mango trees wafting suggestively in the breeze. But these sprays were not propositioning me, they were calling to the bees and all other winged pollinators who had the equipment to receive these subtle signals. And oh how the bees responded _ little yellow and black striped ones, giant ones with tan and black abdomens, more little ones with black, white and light blue stripes. I wish I knew all their names.

Wet in the rain, a red-whiskered bulbul sits among dead mango flowers

The flowers have all died back now, withering en masse in bunches of limp brown, and miniature green mangoes have started to form from the fertilised baby bumps of the female flowers. In this part of the world, mangoes are big business. In the hottest months of the year in April, May and June, different varieties ripen one after another, are harvested and the streets will then be full of mango vendors. Balmy, mellow sunset flavours lie in wait for you in May and June, as you cut into this plentiful fruit in the clammy heat of Indian summer.

Baby green mangoes

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