Saturday, May 7, 2011

Eat, Pray, Love* - all at the same time!

After gulping down my last sip of lime juice, I felt I would burst. This lime juice was topped off after a cup of milk-coffee. I knew there was paneer in my tummy now. (I know it's gross, but that's what happens when you mix milk and lime). The barrage of food items had started after a deep afternoon nap. We were on a social visit to some of my uncle's friends. I could not say no and ended up stacking spicy chat, aloo aur paneer ke pakode, coke at one friend, then dhokla and coffee at the next and then chips-and-what-not and lime juice, at the third. Each time I would try to say, "No Aunty/Uncle", they would somehow manage to force me to gulp down more. I could almost imagine them pushing food down my throat using a shovel. "Lo aur khao!"

In India, (be it ANY community) one way of articulating love and respect for your guests is by feeding them. “Atithi Devobhava" - guest is God. But the polite, toned-down way of offering food to guests in the past, has now been replaced by a fervor to feed guests.

On the other hand, the atithi needs to relinquish, eat whatever he had been asked to and pray that his poor tummy will be able to sustain it all. If you are a guest and say no to what your hosts are serving you, their faces go tiny and all scrunched up. So, you have to be a good guest and show your love by munching through everything.

When a poor diabetic person goes to friends and relatives to distribute his daughter’s wedding invitation cards, they try to convince them to take a chooootusa bite out of an array of sweets - (Chalta hain!) not realizing that many such small bites at every house can be more harmful for him! But what to do, we are like that only*!

My dad is super-strict about not wasting food. So on more than one occasion, I have been stuck between an over-enthusiastic hostess and my dad glaring at my plate, knowing I was ready to give up. But I was a kid then and eating yummy, oily, junk food was fun.

It is quite a mind-game. You are offered the first serving. If you say ‘no’ to any of those items, they say, "Taste toh karke dekho! Pinky ki special dish hain". So you have to take it - to make Pinky happy. If you are washing your hands when your dish is being plated up, God alone save you! You need to be around and wary as to how much they serve you. If you finish any item, on your plate, a hawk-eyed hostess will jump up and serve you more of that item before you can say no. If you do get a chance to say no, they will say, "Kyunn?? Achha nahin laga??" Oye?? That's blackmail!

When they load your plate, you have to finish it. If you waste it, it is not only bad manners, but also means "Aapko achha nahin laga!" If you hesitate, (because you are my kind of a person who simply cannot stuff too much at one time, but is able eat more times a day) then they will ask you the most often-used question to embarrass the guest, "Oooh diet, huh??" Arre, I don't have that sort of a capacity, baba!

Sometimes, when I go to places where I know I will end up stuffing myself, my strategy is to convince my host that I have eaten quite well. (Heck, I hope they don't read this!) I have tried this, but failed every time. The next thing I try to do is to sit at such a place at the dining table where the hosts cannot easily access my plate to heap food unless they use a slingshot. And sweets! People just don't believe someone may not have a sweet tooth! I certainly don’t, especially for the ghee-soaked, strong-smelling ones. But I have never been able to convince my hosts.

t gets funnier around your own wedding time. It is a custom for all relatives, friends, neighbours to invite a to-be bride or groom and his/her parents for a meal before the wedding and only the groom and bride after the wedding. Luckily for me, my relatives, friends were generous enough to understand, that it is tough to visit a million places and hence threw me a combined treat. Traditionally, the bride/groom are fed incredibly beyond their capacities, so much so that they develop (a beginning of) chronic health problems around this time. It is supposed to show exuberant love to them, which is lovely. But people, we are a generation conscious of our waist-lines and wedding is definitely not the time when we'd like them to get inflated!

After my experiences, I sat back and gave it a thought. Guess what? I realized that I do the same to my guests! When someone comes over, I feel immensely guilty of not being a good hostess unless I make them scarf up a lot of food. If someone's come over for the first time, I feel obliged to make them hog more - else I may come across as inhospitable. If they refuse point-blank, I do feel a bit disappointed. I hate it when I don't have a range of things to rattle off to offer my guests, hoping they would say yes to at least one. What is it about us Indians that makes us feel like that!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

When I am stereotyped…

(Hi readers, the following stories are 100% true. Also, my view-points don’t apply to all…just a certain, but a substantial set of people!)

Having stayed in Mumbai for a long time, when I moved out, I was in for a big surprise. I never looked at Mumbai from any other perspective than a place that is a big city bustling with life, a place where I lived my school and college-life, a place I call my first home and where I can shop and eat to my heart's content.
If I try to describe what it is like to live in that city, I could end up writing a book. But that's out of scope for this entry. :)

The first place I shifted to was Pune, where I met people from a lot of places in the country – places I didn’t know existed in India! Initially, I was completely taken aback when I was stereotyped for the first time in my life…

The B-effect
People assume we are related to gangsters who stand with guns at every corner, selling cocaine out on the streets. They think all Maharashtrians in Mumbai sit at the feet of the Thackerays to elicit gyan from them. They believe everyone on the streets in Mumbai is out to deceive them. (I have been cheated by autowallas in other places a thousand times more than in Mumbai!) You need to be on your toes in every big city – be it New York or Mumbai. But this is what Bollywood movies have done to the city and I pity the people who actually believe them!

The languages
People tell me that Marathi is a very crude language (after listening to the autowallas or maids talk the unpolished, rural version) and that Mumbaiyya Hindi is rude. The Hindi is not exactly rude, it is quite informal. The origin of this version is probably on account of the convergence of South Indians, Maharashtrians, Goan Christians, Gujratis, Marwaris and many other sects. All of these people speak different languages at home and cannot really speak the original, grammatically correct, “uptight” version of Hindi. A slightly closer version of this language is what I hear in my second home – Bangalore, and I love it!

The “Embarrassment-to-Mumbai-family” (who are originally not even from Mumbai!)
Once I was asked that if someone calls Mumbai, Bombay, while they were in the city, would they be beaten up? To answer that, I’d say, you would not be beaten up, but you maaaay get queer glances, coz most of us are into the habit of calling the city Mumbai now. Somehow, people got used to the change in name of Chennai, Kolkata, and other cities rather quickly. But Mumbai stayed Bombay for a lot of us. Let’s just tell the Thackerays that people like the older English name better, so please keep your minions quiet. (Oh, and did you know that their own name is Anglicized?!)

Girls in Mumbai
I have a friend who happened to step out of her house in Mumbai for the first time for her corporate training. She, too, went through the initial shock and surprise. Someone asked her when they heard she was from Mumbai, "Oh, so u must have seen the red-light areas, no?" (!!!)

Another instance was when she went to ask a group of fellow (guy) trainees if they wanted to go to Smokin' Joes (a pizza chain). Their eyes grew wide, said no and giggled behind her back.
Later, she asked one of them why they reacted like that when she had asked them if they wanted to eat pizza. His jaw dropped at that and said, "Oh you were asking us for a pizza meal?? We misheard you. We thought you were asking us to come to the Smoking Zone! We assumed, since you are from Bombay, maybe your female friends there smoke often and you don’t have company here!" Really????

Most of my friends stay with their parents and we have been brought up the way most Indian girls are. Of course, there are differences in what we see around us having stayed in the city, but maybe we tend to pick up the good lessons from that! Come on! It really is hard for a girl, to go to discotheques at 12 in the night and come back home drunk while staying with her parents. I thought that was pretty obvious. People were quite taken aback when they knew I was from Bandra, yet I had never been to a discotheque in Mumbai in the 21 years I’d stayed there!

I have seen some people go pipe dreaming when they come to bigger cities. The freedom is great, but the values don't change much for the local people! We are, after all, pukka Indians, we simply stay in bigger “villages”. I know of a girl who comes from a place called Krishnapur. (When you hear the name, you'd first feel like its some quaint old village). Having stayed in another metro for a couple of years, she now smokes like a chimney and drinks like fish! That, in turn, changed my perception about some people who migrate to the metros and get disoriented. How does that pinch, huh?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Kitchen, Kitchen!

(This is probably the most instinctive post I have ever written.
Though I have been brought up in Mumbai with a hugely cosmopolitan crowd, I have grown up in a Maharashtrian family. So, sometimes I get amazed and also overwhelmed by the amount of diversity around me, in terms of food, language, customs, traditions etc. This post symbolises not only the food, but the diverse cultures I am soooo closely associated with.)

As a kid, I would love to play "Kitchen" with my friends. My friend's grandmom used to give us grains of dal, murmura and stuff so that we could use it to cook "rice" and "subzi" in little containers.

I have grown up now, but I still love to play "Kitchen" - albeit, in my real one. It's one place in the house where I am reeeally happy. The smell of different foods, spices make me feel heady. But my kitchen happens to be different than most others. It is open to everyone. The number of people who have cooked in my kitchen, in just one year, is huge. And what's special, is that they are all of a different ethnicity!

Let us begin with my maid. She is a Nepali. She cooks food that is closer to North Indian food. I have Keralite in-laws. I have pukka North Indian friends who visit us as often. I happen to be from a Maharashtrian family. (What's more, my bhabhi is Punjabi and my niece and nephew are mac-and-cheese loving Americans. But that's a whole different story. She is very adaptive and has more or less acclimatized to my mom's style of cooking and we, too, love her great style of cooking...)

We have a lot of guests, at all times of the year. With each guest, my mode of thinking in terms of grocery shopping starts to readjust. When my North Indian friends come, mustard oil, (bucketloads of) butter and ghee leave their places on their respective shelves for the day. The vegetable-shopping ranges from the quaint old cauliflower, mushrooms to blocks of paneer. My kitchen smells of awesome ginger or masala tea...And the chicken jumps into a completely different broth. I had a North Indian roomie, so I more or less have stuff heaped according to the old PG kitchen we had. There is basmati rice, kasoori methi, the pink and brown masoor dals, rajma and a different set of spices.

When my in-laws are here, my kitchen gets into a very different mode. The first thing to come out is the coconut grater.
The story of the coconut grater is thus. I have two of these things. When my mom and mom-in-law noticed that I dont use coconut in my cooking, they promptly got me one grater each during the same visit! Recently, one of my North Indian friends, found one of those in one corner of the kitchen. It was funny, because he did not even know which side was up. He held it upside-down and asked me what it was. On the other hand, I stifled a smile when my husband's aunt who was visiting us, frantically asked where it was, when she could not find it. It had been sadly sitting in a corner, as in the previous week, we had the North Indian folks cooking! But now, it suddnely was the star of the kitchen!

When the Kerala cooking begins, the coconut oil mightily shoves the mustard oil out. Curry leaves, curd and dosa batter come and sit in my refrigerator. So does the awesome South Indian coffee! And of course, lots of bananas. The tools that comes out of the shelves are also different - the dosa ladle, the puttu maker, and sometimes the idli stand. At this time, the atta feels ignored a bit as rice is the center of attraction...

Sometimes, I find things I didn't know exist in my kitchen. Once I found a very old packet of "red matta" rice. I really didn't know what it was, or who had bought it, but I let it stay - lest someone comes looking for it. There were also some black coloured tiny grains. I still don't know what they were, and who got them. Sometimes, my friends get into a sudden mood to make macaroni or pasta that, in turn, need lots of cheese, tabasco or a tartare dip. So, I have that stacked in my kitchen, too. Luckily for me, all my guests have been kind enough and very adjusting. They don't mind the absence of certain ingredients in my kitchen and voluntarily run out to buy whatever is missing from their recipes...

When my mom comes into my kitchen, she inquisitively looks around and sees tools she cannot figure out what they are. She looks at the pink and brown coloured dals in my kitchen and cannot believe that it is her own daughter's kitchen, who is a Maharashtrian! :) She is relieved when she sees a jar of sabudana and poha. A sweetheart that she is, she tries to rearrange things for me in the kitchen for my convinience, but it sometimes confuses me and my maid, and we start on yet another hunting expedition around the kitchen.

I have seen the sabudana khichdi travel to Kerala, North Indians hog on dosas and my mom cook rajma. A complete cultural exchange right under my nose..I know how much green curry leaves in rajma, black specks of mustard seeds in pav bhaji and the absence of coconut in sambar can super-annoy a North Indian, a Mumbaiite and a Malayalee respectively.

I have often wondered what would happen if all of them came together. That has happened a couple of times - at least my parents and in-laws have stayed together. But it went so smooth. We had a whacky meal of sambar rice, popadum plus roti and baingan ka bharta! My mom-in-law could not stop talking about it! My mom made a perfectly dry sabudana khichdi and awesome aalu ke paranthe. Amma and I oooh-ed on as the alu-stuffing didn't ooze out even one bit. And Mommy and I ooho-ed on while Amma made perfect crisp dosas that we could never make! :)