May 2009


I can either write or experience, I can’t do both at the same time. The past few weeks, we were doing things crazily. Back to back theatre shows, the frontline, romeo and juliet (people on my hall, May and Marie afterwards) a Bollywood theatre production of Wuthering Heights, Borough Market…and then the big feast.

I’m chock full o’ disasters, I positively attract them. Like that one time Otis teased me about running into objects while I walk backwards on my tour, and the next second later I walk into a pillar, after I tell my tour group to warn me. This evening, I’d planned an oakra curry and saag paneer, with a final dish of yoghurt rice. On Friday, we visited Portabella Market in West London, where Tina picked up some oakra for her deep-friend Southern oakra dish. I thought I’d find some at Sainsbury’s or Waitrose – both stores failed me. But I never even made it to that dish as my first batch of saag paneer was all cream and no spice.

Help me out here, I’m not quite sure where I went wrong. I usually don’t have trouble making my dishes spicy and this time, I did it properly with mustard seeds and all. Mustard seeds, ginger, cumin, turmeric, gharam masala, red chili pepper, black pepper, paprika.

I used Laura’s blender which isn’t a container with a fitted blade, but rather an open blade. Its a blunt approach, direct contact between you, the blade and the food. And everything around it, since it’s kind of broken so saag flew onto everything. The walls, the salt shaker, the water filter, the table….everything.

And the coconut. It just appeared, no rhyme or reason to the storyline of the dinner, but a product of a bad bet Rob and I made. When will they learn, not to make bets, because I win. Or won a coconut as a reward for opening a container of lemon juice in those cheap plastic containers shaped like a lemon.

But coconuts are complicated. Rhdori laughed when we asked him to bring a hammer to open the coconut, and then Indian version of coconut rice is ridiculously complicated. I asked my mom, and she responded JUST DON’T DO IT. YOU CANT. I looked towards Thai, (because the cuisine is much friendlier) for a simple rice dish. It’s really not hard, I don’t remember what all the fuss these Indians are making with their two types of dhal and long list of spice list.

But to open the coconuts, how did we manage that without any hammer? Brute force, Rob and Frankie hit it against the walls. I just hear these awful banging noises (as I was cutting up spinach) and expected a sharp scream to follow. Piece by piece, the coconut fell out, unfortunately with its hairy exterior in tact. Rhordi then peeled it off and cut it up into orderly pieces. And then I made coconut rice and it was worth all this ridiculous effort. I hope.

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The small amount of oakra I was going to borrow from Tina hardened overnight so I had everything I needed for a curry, but without the center piece. Rob and Rhodri have disappeared for the week, so it was a quiet girls’ night in on Tuesday’s dinner. We left the lights off in the kitchen as the sun slowly set and we continued to sit in darkness. Peaceful. May and I bought a sack of potatoes and I made a version of a Bengali aloo dish that turned out perfect, except it was still missing the spicy punch characteristic of desi food. (Okay, I never intended it to be Bengali, but I didn’t really have a choice, they just own it and potatoes are cheap.)

And finally, the cocoa rum. There’s no good way to say it: rum hot chocolate, rum cocoa drink, hot rum toddy, rummy cocoa, Cocoa de Rum; Ya!, Adult Hot chocolate.

There were three. Baby hot chocolate (Frankie), Adult Hot chocolate (me), and Adult Soy Hot chocolate (Tina). Yes, the adult one was only for me, as I put more and more rum in it to extract a strong flavor, my taste buds became desensitized.

I melted a bar of Green and Blacks in cup of milk and a splash of rum. Since I used 70% cocoa and straight dark rum, the cocoa wasn’t sweet. I’m not sure how I feel about it, I think I want to try Spiced Captain Jack Morgan, or add my own cinnamon and nutmeg along with the rum. The flavor became stronger once I added the rum to the ready-made hot chocolate, but I want to produce a non-alcoholic drink, thank you. Hmm, must keep experimenting…

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Let me break it to you. Tea is just flavored hot water. In fact, you take water, that’s pure by itself and make it taste bitter with you tea leaves. And yet it inspires cults, the tea ceremony, the East India Company (wasn’t that tea?), the Boston Tea Party.

Yesterday I spent several hours in used bookstores near Leicester Square. Somehow I’m magnetically drawn to bookstores no matter which city I go to. (When I was in DC, I spent more time in used bookstores and that 24 hour bookstore in Dupont Circle, than going out at night.) At one particular particular store, there was a section of books relating to food, including recipes from cuisines around the world and a few that dealt creatively with food, including their histories and tracing food history in Dickens’ literature etc. I picked up one book about tea to understand how words elevate something so ordinary to great heights.

Stupid me, I forgot to write down the name of the book.

“It would have been a soup of liquid jade rimmed with froth and presented like a jewel in a chunky bowl meant to be received in both hands.” and…

“Let us dream of evanescence and linger on the beautiful foolishness of things.”

Suddenly tea becomes precious in its comparison to jade, jewels and encased in beautiful worlds! I imagine not everyone would describe tea so, but if you’ve come to love something deeply, don’t we try to use words to capture what it means to us? The way wine’s taste is described in a paragraph, “fruity, full bodied,” oh and there’s so much poetry about wine. When to me, they all taste acrid and many studies have revealed that we don’t find expensive wine any more tasty than cheap wine, so all that full bodied stuff is just marketing crap that we just distracts us from our own judgements about wine.

And coffee, “deliciously creamy tasting froth with hidden depths of rich, Arabica coffee,” says the description on the back of my cappuccino mix made by Nestle. Honey, your lumpy in my milk and leave a weird after taste in my mouth. But it is still frothy.

Just like the aroma of food provides half the pleasure of eating, words provide even more in the pleasure of drinks. I’m definitely not the first one to realize this but I feel kinda jipped because these words are hollow, empty. But when I say them in my head as I hold a warm cup of green tea, especially when watching the wind blow the trees violently and know that I am safe with a cup of tea, it seems to become true. Its amazing that words can transform a drink so ordinary to…a special moment.

I wasn’t very happy when the author chafed at the simple innocence of hot chocolate. Proper hot chocolate is just as full-bodied as the best wine, and even better because it’s cheap and easy to make at home with proper chocolate. You don’t need any espresso machine or any aging process to “develop the taste,” or brewary. Yesterday Frankie made a delicious hot chocolate from a bar of Green and Black 70% cocoa. She added only a bit of sugar so it retained that deepy chocolatey taste. So often these drinks are marred by an expectation that cocoa means sweet. Vivia la chocolate! Hold on a few days, and I’ll create my own poetry to¬† convince you of the beauty of good hot chocolate, not just some innocent throway kids drink.

(Next up, a new cocoa drink infused with rum.)

Don’t tell me its that time of the month, but my diet in the past half-day has been entirely chocolate. (almost). Starting with this delicious rum chocolate bar with raisins that Frankie gave me late last evening, to Tesco chocolate brownies and chocolate crispie flakes for lunch for this afternoon. And cappuccino with a hint of orange chocolate, very interesting.

I also tried a digestive today, after forgoing it for months following an unhealthy binge. There’s something about digestives that pushes you to extremes, because May and Tina shared this experience of battling an uncontrollable desire for them. Its the wholemeal that disguises itself as semi-healthy food because it tastes so wholesome, it hides the vast amount of sugar intake. But today, it’s lost its appeal. Either that or I’d reached my chocolate limit, but one digestive was enough. An exception pointed out by May, “When I dip them in tea, they go a lot faster. But I can’t go through a pack anymore.”

Speaking of tea, I find it funny that Melinda and I just have a pack of Jasmine Green tea, but you won’t find any green in Rhodri’s cupboard. And he has at least ten boxes of different varieties of tea. Once upon a time, tea never held any taste for me but I pushed on drinking it until I could understand what made it so special to move history. I’m amused because its really just flavored hot water and it’s moved nations together and apart. Most importantly, however, “a cup of tea can solve anything,” said Frankie. When I was crying, I thought of that line and burst out laughing as I made myself a cup of tea. It doesn’t have to be true, but if I say it to myself enough then it becomes true. A cuppa with a digestive, please.

(I hated paying 1.20 pounds for it in a cafe at Bath when I knew that it’d cost me a penny if I had a store-bought teabag on me.)

This entry is all over the place. But remember, it all happened within a few hours and I can’t always map out my life linearly. As a student, I’m just a handful of colorful splotches in time.

I recently started a Saturday afternoon picnic potluck thing with other Swatties in London. Last weekend we trekked out to Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath when it was blissfully warm and we each made a course. The same amount of good food you’d get at a restaurant, both its more fulfilling because we’ve made it ourselves and its much cheaper. And fresh.

This weekend, we anticipated a cold, rainy day so we moved the potluck indoors and combined Swatties with my hall mates. We each brought such different courses to the table. May made a wonderful french fruity salad with apples, grapes, pistachios, mozzarella and a homemade dressing. Melinda made green onion pancakes that were crispy and flaky like parata. I made a moong dhal soup with aubergine and potatoes, completed with garlic bread. Tina made rhubarb crumble. Rob made British sausages. Frankie and Rhodri made small cakes with icing and gave us custard to go along with the crumble. And Rhodri made a delicious Pims cocktail with raspberries, orange slices, mint and coconut. I hope your mouth is watering because it was an intense feast. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures from yesterday, but Anna took one of all of us last week.

I kept repeating to Frankie, “We’re having a potluck picnic on Saturday,” thinking that I was not enunciating clearly when actually she didn’t know the word potluck. Rob thought I was conniving, “Ramya, it’s smart that you bring your friends over to cook for you. Usually we cook for our guests,” or something to that extent. Very much missing the point of potluck. But I think they secretly understood by the end of it.

But damn it, the weather is so fickle! I changed my Sunday morning plans today because the rain was pounding the pavement, and then it became sunny and happy, and now its windy and cloudy again.

At any rate, I’m nearly broke so I look forward to more occasions where people cook for me. Cheers.

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Recipe for dhal soup:

I decided to make the dhal a soup with garlic bread on the side instead of a proper curry, but it ended up meeting me half-way. It ended up being like a lentin curry, really. Saute the garlic and onion, as usual, with gharam masala/saffron mix (cumin would prolly be good as well) and paprika, and then aubergine and whatever other vegetables, add a can of chopped tomatoes. Boil the lentils at the same time and then pour the sauted items into the lentils. It might be better to use real tomatoes instead of canned chopped ones because I dont think the juice from the tomatoes and the water from the dhal mix that well.

Because I wanted the soup to thicken, I boiled some potatoes and added it. I’m guessing you can just pop in carrots and celery as well. And courgettes. Most importantly, cover the pot with a lid and let the sauce thicken and the flavor spread. Make sure to add salt; I’m always in danger of forgetting this last bit.

I think the way my mom used to make it was leave the cooked lentils seperate from the sauce/curry, so the flavoring is up to the tastes of the individual. She was always badgering me to make mine more lentil-heavy because it’s high in protein – meh.

Melinda found the soup a bit spicy with my extra paprika. In such cases, add plain youghurt or drink some lassi or mango juice.

Although the dhal might seem too heavy for spring time, London’s spring is very chilly. I’ve been wearing sweatshirts all the time and constantly drinking tea – my two duvets are much needed. Don’t let the picture of last sunny Saturday decieve you – London’s a fickle mistress of weather.

I’m afraid to revisit restaurants that I really like because I fear that it won’t be so good the second time. The first time you are enamored with the experience, and the second time you start to judge it critically and notice its flaws. And there usually isn’t a third.

I went back to Hot Stuff with a few of my friends in the hopes of eating well at a budget. The owner decided to take our order in his own hands and order us far too much food. He didn’t exactly take no for answer, particularly when I said two rotis are more than enough for two of us. It was interesting to try a variety of dishes, but the ones that seemed innovative, like mushroom rice and cabbage curry were a bit disappointing. A pilou with mushrooms and sliced cabbages with some masala, not bad, but not meh. Aubergine and potatoes was really good, but I was disappointed how much oil I saw at the bottom of our dish. I thought of Hot Stuff as replicating “home made” desi food and with a good dish, you can’t see the oil. In fact, you don’t really need more than a tablespoon to capture the flavor.

It was too much food, I’ll have to work that out for weeks, but it came out to a reasonable price. But I’m not sure that I can go again.

On another note, I’m really confused by items on the menu such as rojan josh and kormas and vindaloos. I’ve definitely never seen “vindaloos” in any American Indian restaurant. But these are meat dishes so its entirely possible I’ve skipped that section…yet vindaloos, kormas and josh’s are the hallmark of brown food in Britain. In fact, its only a tiny regional sampling of a vast and complicated cuisine. Especially chicken tiki masala, there is a world outside of that. I promise. Try a dahi vade, no even I’m locked into South Indian specialties. What about dishes from Orissa or Kerela, or the northeastern region of India? You won’t see much of them here because they are still in India!

Ah well, it’s a complaint typical of all immigrant-based dishes, especially Chinese which is even bigger than India. I will keep on the look out for other desi restaurants.

I go quiet for a couple weeks and then burst out with a stream of posts. Well, I went to a new play called Frontline that’s playing at the Globe. 2-5 its Romeo and Juliet and 7:30-10 its Frontline. It was kind of exciting to see some caste members of RJ in the groundling audience last night.

Frontline reminds of Midaq Alley because its situated in a static place – a public square in Camden Town – but the performance follows multiple story lines. It’s drugs, sex and…cooky vendors. There’s was so much energy from the great trumpet and piano music, the bright lights and stage that extended half-way into the Yard. In the beginning, all the storylines were presented at the same time that I was really confused and it was too much noise! And then each thread was pulled apart and developed until I got very attached to some of the characters. I was standing in the crevice between the main stage and the extension and I loved being right in front of the drama. Because they had a really big caste that made a point to speak to the audience at certain points, this play did a much better job at utilizing the entirety of the main stage.

Some of characters just touched your heart. The hot dog vendor, who narrated the story, was Scottish while the coffee vendor was Afghani, the crazy actor was Irish, one drug dealer was Ethopian (Christian) and another was Muslim (location, no idea) and then there were a bunch of white “chavs” as my neighbors call them. And the lap-dancing woman, bouncer and her daughter were black – so a really diverse crowed, so many different types of voices coming together.

I’m surprised that most seats were empty. What a shame when they were facing empty seats on the side bays. 5 pound tickets, go see it!

Aside from the niches populated with hippie vegans, Hindu vegetarians, and everyone else British who is a bit afraid of the meat, being a vegetarian in ordinary London is a bit easier than in America. New York and California are different countries.

An ordinary menu offers one throw-away dish to vegetarians as a minimal acknowledgment of our existence. It usually some version of cold aubergine with cheese, tomato, basil and mozzarella or some equally mundane combination that I could make better and cheaper at home. In London, at least, there are cheese falafel sandwiches and a unique salad, but they are so tame! In a restaurant that might sell squid or blood pudding to challenge the palettes of our meat eaters, the vegetarian options hide shyly behind conventional dishes. I want equality for vegetarians and meat-lovers!

Vegetables promise an array of tastes in itself. Ignore the enviromental reasons, the economic, animal rights, we don’t need to justify it except that it’s tasty. Meat in itself provides litle but texture, which you can replicate in vegetarian dishes away by way of microfybrin (fake meat, if you really need it) or tofu. Tibits, a restaurant off of Regent Street has a dynamic menu of innovative dishes inspired from international cusines. Yes there’s a paneer over there and black beans over here. There’s no question that vegetarian dishes offer a range of flavors, so I don’t understand why its taboo to explore vegetarian menus in non-niche restaurants. I’m grateful to the few restaurants that can excite me and my carnivorous compadres and London has showed me that I don’t need to apologize for my tastes. It’s not great, average still comes out to only a few items, but it’s definitely progress from most metropolitans in America.

There are a million cookbooks touting easy, cheap, and innovative vegetarian recipies. I’d like to see more buisness incorporate the philosophy. Anyways, next week is National Vegetarian Week, and I’m particularly look forward to restaurants that are deviating from their meat-heavy menus, to see what they can come up with. Although I am still knee-deep in finals (more so than my peers at Swat, roar.), and strapped for cash, I’d really like to blog it. Stay here for updates!