Food chauvinism, is that even a thing?

Eating and even cooking are entirely about taste and preference. Such things are subjective, eccentric and peculiar to the individual. So I find it strange that there are cooking competitions like the MasterChef series, where judges award the best dish and finally the best amateur chef. On the Fox History Channel’s Reverse Exploration, two Papua New Guinea tribesmen visit France to explore the modern Western world. The men are confronted on a ski slope with what they felt was the darndest dish ever thought up by the brain of Western man _ fondue. Sometimes when I am in a restaurant and given a perfectly fine dish that has been suffocated by a molten glacier of cheese and white sauce, I imagine I know exactly what those tribesmen felt. Leonard, the lactose intolerant lovable geek and long suffering roommate to Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, would know a thing or two about this too.

I eat meat if it is tender and well spiced. In India I wouldn’t dare try any rare. This is a taste idiosyncrasy peculiar to my palate, as there are plenty of people who like their meat gamey. Sometimes even in fine-dining restaurants you are given meat that tastes as if the poor goat hadn’t had a wash in the months prior to its appearance on my plate. I can hear Anthony Bourdain laughing somewhere as he scoffs at this need to have animals washed and smelling of daisies before their trip to butcher and then restaurant. Mostly I order in hope and then stop eating after a couple of bites. Aside from the religious food diktats operating in India and other Asian countries, eating and enjoyment of food are also prejudiced by the cultures we are rooted in. A lot of vegetarians in India can’t even look at egg, meat or fish, leave alone the smell of any strong protein that isn’t a ‘yellow-bellied lily-livered’ lentil.  I have heard stories about people used to tropical spicy coconut fish curry in their daily diet going to Germany and finding themselves unable to adjust to sausages at breakfast and dinner. Those delicately spiced and herbed brawny-flavoured meat preserves taste bland to a palate used to having its meat and fish swaddled in a swarthy flavour blanket.

a bottle of mustard oil very quirkily named "Husband's choice", extra-virgin olive oil from afar, that white un-labeled bottle contains home-made extra-virgin coconut oil. The trees grow in my parents' garden. The coconuts are harvested and husked. These are split open and then rather laboriously the flesh inside cut into little pieces, which are left to dry on a very hot terrace under the sun. It's a week long process and the coconut pieces get oilier and nuttier in smell as they slowly bake. At this stage, the dessicated coconut pieces are called 'copra'. The copra are collected and given for milling. The pith left behind after milling is good cattle feed.

The pleasantly bitter extra-virgin olive oil is an acquired taste for many in the older generation unaccustomed to global cuisine and for whom it remains the preferred unguent for body massage and not something to dip your bread in. Many north Indians go to the south of India and cannot for the life of them fathom why south Indians use coconut oil to cook their food in what they deem hair oil. But in the south, the coconut is omnipresent. So the oil from its giant seed is used omni-changeably, not only for cooking, but also as everything else _ moisturiser on skin and conditioner for long, black tresses. Even carpenters and handymen ask for it to grease a stubborn joint. And there are those who are put off by the pungent mustard oil in East Indian Bengali cuisine. Our cultural tastes can sometimes make us food chauvinists. But even when we are more wide-ranging in our tastes, everyone’s still a talk show host when it comes to their food.

Then there was the sight of celebrity Chef Gary Rhodes on Rhodes across India who seemed to find the full-bodied and complex coastal Goan curries a bit overpowering for his taste. Now, this was the same man who oohed and aahed over some of the cheesier, passata doused offerings on Rhodes across Italy. In Rhodes across India, however, I watched as he told Indian cuisine expert Marut Sikka that the traditionally prepared left-for-hours-on-the-stove Pav Bhaji, Sikka had prepared, didn’t taste as fresh as the one he Rhodes had made. The Rhodes version of one of Bombay’s famous street foods took only an hour or so to cook down. Of course, his sous chefs came out and agreed with him, I have never seen them disagree. I can only conclude that the European cultural palate is a great influence on Chef Rhodes.

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The problem with Facebook

Everyone’s first instinct is to be popular. To be part of a group is also human instinct or predilection, whichever way you see it. It’s basic anthropology 101. People use group identity to define themselves. How cool or nerdy you are depends on the group you choose. Belonging to a group used to be a survival tool out on the savannah, when we had already come down from the trees and were running through the tall grasses together in search of food and territory.

This also probably explains the primal quality of the success of Facebook, which has tapped into human nature and taken advantage of primate-human programming in a big way.  In the film Social Network, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is depicted as gawky, shyly rude and clumsy in social situations, and you wonder is it just sheer irony that Mr Zuckerberg goes on to create the ultimate social networking tool? Perhaps, it is because the idea was not his, according to urban legend, but that of the two Winklevoss brothers and their Indian friend, who were at the other end of the spectrum of collegiate life _ handsome, athletic and socially endowed. Mr Zuckerberg takes the idea over and makes it more than workable.

A social network in real life is a complicated beast. We do not interact with everyone in the same way, maintaining an elaborate system of subtly different and individual relationships with those we meet. And we maintain this web of individualised relationships for the rest of our lives. We do it, other apes do it _ we are after all just intelligent human apes. On the virtual world of Facebook, this intricacy cannot be achieved because of the lack of privacy, but it is a little more possible that computer code has not caught up with the complexity of the ape brain.

On Facebook, the worlds of George Costanza keep colliding. In one classic episode of Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld’s engaged friend George finds his fiancé Susan befriending his friend Elaine, who belongs to his tight-knit social network of three friends. This network does not, absolutely does not, include his fiancé. He complains bitterly to Jerry that his personal worlds are colliding. And that is never a good thing. This, in a Seinfeldian nutshell, is also the problem with Facebook. A nosy acquaintance gets to read the comments you make to a real friend. They say you can block him, but not if you are afraid to offend the said acquaintance. Then even if you block this person, through mutual friends and other loopholes they can still see what you are doing on Facebook.

The virtual world of a Facebook page is like the crowded scene at an Indian wedding or an American high school reunion. You try to arrive looking your best. But everyone else who is there has come to mentally critique _ how good they look now, how much weight everyone else has put on, how reproductively challenged others are, how well others’ marriages are going, how smart their kids are, how much money they have and how much success they may have accrued. On Facebook, it is not friends you meet, but the judgement police.

It is like being in a National Geographic documentary about primates, and you have to be seen to be virtually grooming the flavour-of-the-month guy and seen to be leaving the right comment on alpha or beta’s wall to get a favour in return and climb up the social ladder. Have we been reduced to overhyped human chimps chained to our tribal,  genetic and computer codes? Being human means that we can choose to do things differently than we have been programmed to do. Perhaps we are just chumps forever falling victim to the next glamorous hustle that comes our way.

Footnote: Did a quick google search today (February 25, 2011) and came across another blog by Geeky Mom where she has aired her problems with Facebook and even made a reference, long before I did, to the Costanza worlds-colliding episode from Seinfeld . Small world.

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Jane Austen and the art of finding value in your life

"So much love and eloquence" - Mr. C...

Image via Wikipedia: Mr Collins proposes to Charlotte Lucas

So much of contemporary literature requires an author to be the uneasy, broody adventurous sort. If you have led an exciting life then you have material. On the shelves of libraries and bookstores are works by famous restless reporters and travel writers who have roamed the world in search of quirky druglords and penniless dancers. But what happens when you have spent a lifetime behind the bars of your routine, the only walls you see every day are those of kitchen, living room and grocery store. Where then will your stories come from?

This is why I love Jane Austen. She had the life of an 18th century woman cocooned in a conservative middle class English family and yet she wrote the most wonderfully nuanced romantic comedies, full of delicately poised moments. Could it be she spent so much time indoors, noticing and analysing every fleeting expression that transited over the faces of loved ones and friends that these became the fodder for her stories? With that trademark gruelling archaic dialogue, these classics it turns out are not just simple love stories. Most of the scenes in books like Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility take place in living rooms and gardens, and though innocuously titled, they are unputdownable in their own slow food kind of way.

What made her great were the dimensions she gave each character, for instance Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice, who settles for and marries the oblivious Mr Collins to secure herself a sinecure marriage of sorts. But it is not so clear cut. Austen keeps writing out Charlotte and she emerges from those delightfully shambling paragraphs as someone who is not that easy to deride or even pity. We begin to admire her strength and common sense. Not for her the romanticism of Elizabeth Bennet or the shy beauty of Jane. She’s no heroine and she’s middle-of-the-road happy, not for her the dizzy joy of denouement. Lizzy Bennet is at first scornful of her decision to marry the bumbling and officious Mr Collins. But she comes to respect Charlotte, though still not for this decision, but for what Charlotte makes of her lot in life. She seems to come close to what we know of the real Jane Austen, who never got the chance to be a Lizzy Bennet, and her life was apparently not a romantic comedy. It is not clear whether she ever loved anyone, all we know of her is that she flirted a bit, but mostly remained at home living with her sister where she used her superb intellectual resources to write her novels. From this confinement and this taking of her circumstances in stride came some of the best literature.

Once you get the hang of the knotty language, you find an author who is unpretentious and worthy of her craft. Whether it’s really compelling television or a good book, the reader or viewer recognises the work of someone who is genuine and unassuming. Prejudice or even Persuasion are books I could curl up with every year as a ritual. Under the covers late in the night, I loved to go through them all over again to find something new, details and shades I had missed in previous readings. Any work, if turns out to be good, had to have been somehow edgy and reassuring at the same time, like time travel episodes on Star Trek and Lost. With some Borg and their space cubes thrown in for good measure these episodes of Trek were gripping or as in Lost,when Desmond was jolted through time in search of his constant Penny.

Authors are constantly going on about finding stories outside of their lives, and they have made it taboo, or have made it out to be laziness, when another author, not them of course, turns to their own life for fiction. If you are not as intrepid as they are in finding the exotic and unfamiliar, why can’t we explore the exotic, unexamined moments of our own lives for fiction. Most of what we chat about in our daily lives is fiction anyway. When we describe an event or an incident, we pull ideas around to stretch-fit the image of the version of events in our heads. When we use our words to fit the idea in our heads, we are rubber-banding our limted vocabulary to articulate the moments of our lives. A lot of imagination flows into our everyday conversations and we are not even conscious of it. If like Ms Austen you want to employ your life in the cause of good fiction then go ahead and do it. Don’t let another author’s do’s and don’t’s stop you from finding meaning in your own life when you are writing or attempting fiction.

So much of writing these days is much too full of itself, affected and condescending lacking heart and humility_ turning to Lost once again, like its last season. I saw an advertisement the other day on Indian television for a laptop called Ego (really! it was actually called that), its selling point being if you’ve got it, then flaunt it or else be forgotten. That seems to be the recipe for success in these our modern times. Network and kiss air, and if you are smart, smug, smoothly dark and sardonically bearded, you will be able to sell your literature. But if you’re an Austenian ‘Mr Collins’ and not so intellectually aware but still smug, then use Plan B: get on a reality show.

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Monsters in the garden

At this time of year, you can find monsters hiding around the corner almost at every neighbourhood nursery. Winter is at bay in this corner of India and summer is not yet upon us. The plant nurseries have wares to advertise and sell. But when you stand among these freakily vibrant flowers you begin to feel that something is not quite right. Sniffing the air gives you the first clue. There is a chemical odour hanging heavy in the moist air. It is the smell of fertiliser liberally doused. The flowers begin to look like little monsters, too large and shiny, as if they were dancers in full make up, who have finished their performance and in one last held pose are waiting awkwardly for the curtain to fall, so that they can droop.

For me the contrast is stark as in my little terrace garden the flowers, herbs and beans are teeny in comparison to nursery specimens. I make some compost for them every year using the cut flowers from my vases, egg shells, banana peels, vegetable peelings, coffee powder, tea leaves _ all of this mixed in with straw, dried leaves, some dried cow dung and the sweepings and trimmings from the garden itself. Whenever we boil eggs or wash lentils, the water used in cooking these is also added to the plants.

And that’s about it. I read other gardening articles and blogs and find people following a calendar for sowing and harvesting. Obviously, every seed has its season. But here all I do is follow the hot weather and rainy seasons. When these have passed, I start to plant in the winter. I like to start experiments by scattering any extra seeds I have left over in all manner of weather to see what will happen. Of course like the researcher who gets a grant to test in his lab what would happen to an egg dropped from on high, it turns out that the hot dry Indian summer is the worst time to plant seed. My planting method is not professional. I always experience a child’s joy of discovery in the garden. It is magic that flash of green as a seed bursts into life and to observe all the changes as it reaches up into the air. And finally the anticipation as a bud prepares to flower. It’s a present wrapped in green, the final bursting forth of colour is Christmas day or Diwali day or Id or Qwanza or…as the case may be.

I read this wonderful book Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis. There’s bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes and tiny insects in the soil all munching away at fallen bits giving us the best organic manure possible. Compost can be bacterial or fungally dominated depending on what you add to it. The addition of straw makes it more bacterially inclined. Woodland likes a more fungal soil because of the association between tree roots and mycorrhizae, which are really a type of fungus. And our garden soils prefer a bacterial mix. Who knew?

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Today I saw something amazing in my garden. I found this packet of Japanese orange cherry tomato seeds withthe most decorative writing all over it, so of course I had to plant them. In amongst them I threw in my home-grown black gram lentil seeds. The black gram dal as we call them in India are hulled and split and sold in shops. They are a very sticky lentil. Soaked overnight then ground with soaked rice and mildly fermented, they make a very popular Indian breakfast dish ‘idlis’ (steamed) and ‘dosas’ when fried. The seeds of both tomato and lentil sprouted almost simultaneously in about seven days. Every couple of days, I do a little pruning of the seedlings, removing any which look diseased. Anyway, my lackadaisical planting method means I always have too many seedlings all crowded in together infecting each other in a mass die-off _ hence, the cutting back.

I pulled out a couple of lentil seedlings today and was about to toss them in the bin (I never add the diseased ones to my compost pile) when I noticed the nodules on their roots. How many hours did we spend back in school in biology classes, listening to the poor teacher drone on about rhizobium bacteria and their remarkable ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen for the plant, thus alleviating the need to add chemical nitrogen. Well, here they were in front of my eyes, a miracle even the ancients had known about, and I am wondering why I never noticed them before. I tucked them back into the soil after throwing away the stem with the diseased green leaves. The nodules on my plants were a cream colour and I was reading over at Dave’s Garden http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/2429/ that the nodules have to be pink, if they are white then they are not really doing anything. I hope the nodules on my plantlet’s roots start ‘working’ or are already at work. Fingers crossed.

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Do you want to exercise or get thin?

The best gym I ever saw was in a movie. Oddball comedy Dodgeball starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughan showed us the two metaphorical extremes possible in the world of gymnasiums _ one run by a fanatical former fat person played by Stiller and the other a loose assemblage of quirky ‘loser’ exercisers doing their own thing, run by the easy-going Vaughan character. Over here in real life, I would like to see something like the Vaughan gym, but in every neighbourhood I’ve ever lived in there has only ever been a Stiller gym. The Stiller gym is full of wanna-be model and actor types pumping away, sweating compulsively, trainers running around frantic with bathroom scales and tape measures. Sadly, the Vaughan gym is still a figment of the Hollywood screen writer’s imagination.

A couple of years ago, I joined a gym. Having been burnt once in another neighbourhood where a Stiller gym convinced me to pay up for a whole year (I had to fight to get my money back), I went in vowing I would ask for a one-month trial before agreeing to pay for a year. The manager reluctantly agreed. But just like in the other gym, she insisted that I meet their nutritionist. I tried telling the nutritionist that I couldn’t go on a whole wheat, milk-only, lentil diet. But this iron lady would have none of it. I managed to get a sentence in by saying that whole wheat was an irritant to my system and dairy gave me allergies, but she only looked at me incredulously. Then I made the mistake of saying I didn’t want to get obsessed with weight loss and wanted only exercise. The woman almost jumped out of her seat furious and ready to crush my weak attempt at verbal paradox. Just behind her was a poster that advertised her as the gym’s main draw to some very sad looking overweight people also featured in the said poster. She lectured me about the dangers of obesity, as I wriggled to remove myself from her firing line.

Upstairs in the gym, I continued repeating to trainers that I had come only for exercise not weight loss. They treated me as a crazy person, ignored my protestations and kept attacking me with a tape measure. They needed my measurements to chart the inches lost as the days progressed. They could not manage the business of getting thin without knowing the client’s vital stats. At this gym, I lasted exactly a week and a half. I felt tortured and bruised every day. The trainers reassured me that the pain would go away as my system got accustomed to machines, circuit training and the inches dropped away. All true but I just wanted to exercise not get thin. One day as I panted down a glass of water, I said to my trainer: “you know I used to walk around this building, and the only reason I decided to come in and join was because the traffic fumes got to me.” I had foolishly assumed that I could walk car-fume free on one of the gym’s treadmills and lift casual weights.

Thinness should be a side-effect of exercise. Neighbourhood gyms morph into weight loss businesses as it has become profitable to sell Greek-statue body sculpting and bloating lentil-diets to witless customers, some of whom like me were only looking for their daily fix of movement. When did weight loss become about getting thin? It should be about getting couch-bound people moving to get their blood circulating again. Surely weight loss will come when you start walking, running, swimming, gardening, playing tennis, doing yoga or whatever it is that you love to do. And of course eating flexible non-diet meals that include fibrous vegetables, fish, fruit, whole grains of your choice, lentils for those who can eat them and not to forget that weekly slice of pastry. But here in India, newspapers feature advertisements for ‘weight loss clinics’ that say ‘lose two kilos for 1,000 Rupees or 10 kilos for 10,000 Rupees’ _ where weight loss is proportional to wealth loss. To them overweight people are animated plump dollar signs that need to be pruned of their fat. Many of us are looking for a place where we can go spend an hour using the machines, treadmills, weights and not have drill sergeants fixate us on how much weight we lose. We don’t want to be treated like sheep on a farm going in for shearing.

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Here’s to Lisa who fought for a starry night

Our cities have lost their skies. And it is all because we couldn’t care less. Do we have to go far out into the Atacama Desert in South America like Professor Brian Cox in Wonders of the Solar System to see what a night sky is supposed to look like? For me here in the big Indian city, the night sky is a tangle of glowing red and green neon signboards, black lines of cable strung between buildings and permanent city haze left behind by vehicular traffic. It is a common sight in the city to see spotlights lasering apart the night sky. The city’s gaggle of event organisers uses them every other night as if to scare off make-believe World War II bomber planes. This need to pollute the night sky just for some tame mall opening or political speech shows how the starry sky has been downgraded in the imagination of the modern urbanite.

the night sky above a modern Indian city

In India, the talk is all about development and small towns are itching to be big cities. No longer is there any interest in our home galaxy _ the Milky Way _ as it sweeps dreamily through autumn constellations. One night in my big city, I managed to spot the ghost of the Milky Way as the haze lifted somewhat that night and the moon and clouds stayed away. But such a sighting is rare. In the small town where my parents live, the bright starry strip of our galaxy is more visible and I am grateful for it. I can close my eyes and imagine what it was like for the ancients as they looked up into the night and were so inspired as to give birth to everything from astronomy to navigation. If you’ve noticed I have left out astrology. I am writing a blog where I can hopefully digress, be myself and don’t have to be polite to the average denizen who takes advice from these bottom feeders, one of whom decided by the way that I had to water a Pipal tree every Saturday for 15 years because the planet Saturn was driving my horoscope bonkers. If you’re still reading this and wondering…I do have a little Pipal bonsai, and I am not really sure that I am watering it on Saturdays. So I lead a cursed and exciting life. I call them bottom-feeders because these aren’t the mild-mannered gents who write astrology columns for newspapers. These are people who feed off misery by pretending to predict all manner of things that can possibly go wrong in your future. And offer solutions which involve convoluted and multiple trips to Hindu temples to perform expensive ceremonies that scare away evil portents. This was the only bad thing that came out of those beautiful starry nights. I better bite my tongue here just in case future alien species more lethal than quack astrologers start sprouting without warning from those same starry skies.

In one memorable episode of The Simpsons, Lisa succeeds in darkening the night sky of Springfield because she wants to watch a meteor shower. But that day as on all other days on ‘The Simpsons’, it is Bart who steals the show, as Lisa’s agenda is just too ‘nerdy’_ that horrible American word invention. It is casually done _ terming people ‘geeky’ and ‘nerdy’, but labelling them so is also reducing them, lessening their worth, almost as if America’s decided that knowledge is uncool. So I am wondering now if BBC producers chose Professor Brian Cox as presenter of Wonders of the Solar System for his boyish good looks to glam up science and ward off hisses of ‘geek’ from a whole potato-chomping, couch addicted generation or Friends of TV’s Ross who loved to mock his dinosaur spiel.

the night of the Geminid meteor shower washed out, not by the moon but by a neighbour's terrace light

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