Dear aubergine

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The first time my mum gave you in my school lunchbox, I saw a live worm scrawling towards me just as I opened the box. I ran for my life in the corridor, promising not to touch or even look at you ever again.

It so happened that after my marriage, deciding the daily menu became the hair-pulling chore of my new life. My cook at the time in Mumbai suggested your name, and I shouted a no. She still persisted. I had to try you for her talent’s sake.

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And you were wonderful. Your aroma was rustic and the smokey flavour was different than the usual dishes. Little did I know that I will fall for you at the first bite and you became a weekly thing then onwards.

It was on one Sunday morning, when I and my husband visited the farmer’s organic market here in Gurgaon. Just when we were stepping out of the place, I ended up at this stall that was selling clean potatoes and herbs. You were there, too. A woman picked you and asked the seller to check if there were no worms, and he passed it. I hadn’t tried any of you in the past few months, as the season wasn’t right. But it being spring, I picked you with pleasure and stuffed you inside my jute shopper bag.

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I got you home, after which I roasted, peeled and cooked you with utter joy. Thank god for the spring!

And I was back with a mantra. I will never run away from you, my modest aubergine.

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Recipe: Baigan ka Bharta/Roasted Aubergine

Ingredients:

1 medium-sized aubergine
1 onion, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, paste
1 green chilli, pound to paste
1 tsp of ginger paste
1 tsp turmeric powder
1½ tsp red chilli powder
1½ tsp coriander powder
½ tsp garam masala
½ tsp cumin seeds
A pinch of asafoetida
salt to taste
1 tbsp oil
coriander leaves, chopped

Method:

1. After washing the aubergine or eggplant, poke holes on it with a help of a knife. Put it on the stove and keep turning it from side to side, every minute. You want to cook it from inside, and from all sides. You might also have to make it sit for it.
2. After about 15-20 minutes of roasting, remove it onto a plate. After about a minute, start peeling it. Cut the top side and start cutting it length-wise. Here’s when you want to spot any worm, and make sure there isn’t one. If I see one, I don’t touch my kitchen counter for hours.
3. Meanwhile, chop your veggies and make a green paste of green chilli, ginger and garlic.
4. Take a pan, heat some oil in it. Once hot, add the cumin seeds and asafoetida. After a few seconds, add the other spices and quickly stir and add the green paste. Stir.
5. Throw in the onion and keep stirring. Avoid getting the spices stick on the pan.
6. Add the tomato and salt. After a minute of cooking time, start mashing the entire thing.
7. Next is the roasted aubergine’s turn. Mash it all well, and let it cook for about two more minutes. Keep stirring, as the spices tend to stick on the pan. (I hardly use any of your fancy non-stick pans; don’t mind my repeated mentions.)
8. Add the garam masala, and garnish it with coriander leaves. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any garnish that day. But it hardly mattered.

The humble meal

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Growing up, we’ve always sat on the floor to eat our meals. After coming home from school, my mom sat us kids down and fed us hot rotis with dal and sabzis. For me, a hearty meal is dal chawal. Place an aasan (a small mat) on the floor, your thali and eat with your hands till your tummy is full!

But at my in-laws’ place, nobody sits on the floor, forget eating there. Here, all eat at the dining table. It becomes awkward for me to sit on the floor and eat, in front of them. I and my husband live alone in the city where he works, and it’s completely all right to sit anywhere and eat! Not that any of my in-laws will have a problem with any of my doing. But it sure becomes comfortable for me, when they’re not watching me.

Also, for me, eating on the bed is something I find weird. Growing up, my parents never allowed me to sit on the bed and eat. “You’ll become sick if you eat on the bed,” my mum says. So, even if it’s winter and you don’t want to come out of your blanket, I make sure to get up and eat my meals near the kitchen.

Talking about my in-laws, they eat their rice with spoon. Which is why, it always becomes a comic scene (at least for me), to keep the spoon aside and mix the dal chawal with hands and hog! So, here’s what I generally do when I’m with my in-laws. I serve them the food, and once they’re done eating, I find a corner or wait for them to move elsewhere. It’s only then that I mix everything that’s there in my thali and eat with my hand.

Of late, I have started making chana dal once a week. My mum prepared it on special occasions. I absolutely love this dal. Give it to me, and I will let the world’s best pastas and pesto sauces go away. A basic dal chawal after a long day makes me a happy person.

You can use this recipe with any other dal as well. It’s just that, generally, dals like arhar, require two whistles in the pressure cooker, and chana dal requires more.

Also, whenever you are done boiling the dal, make sure you whisk it well. Once, my father’s elder brother (whom I call Bade Papa) was home. I served him a dal that was not at all whisked. He could make it at the first glance, and softly uttered, “Dal ghoti nahi hai,” (you didn’t whisk it). I was in the kitchen, and my arms were up with embarrassment. It was a lesson I’ll never forget. Each technique shows.

Recipe: Chana dal

1/2 cup chana dal or Bengal gram dal (I usually consider one full fist for a person)
1 medium tomato – chopped
1 medium onion – chopped
2 green chillies – chopped
1 tsp grated ginger
salt to taste
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
2 pinch garam masala
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp sesame seeds
1 pinch asafoetida
ghee for tempering
coriander leaves (chopped)
curry leaves, for tempering (optional)
1 tsp crushed garlic (optional)

Method:

  1. Soak the dal for at least half an hour or overnight. Boil it in the pressure cooker, and give it 4-5 whistles. Once it’s done, whisk it for a couple of seconds with a wooden whisker. Keep aside.
    2. Heat two tsp of ghee in a kadai. I use my iron kadai, which gives it a dark shade as well. Add all the spices (except garam masala and salt) and give it a quick stir. Add the chopped green chillies and ginger as well. Ginger is the hero of this dish.
    3. Add in the chopped onions, followed by the tomatoes and salt. You might want to bring the flame to medium from low. Sauté it well, or else the masala will stick on the kadai. Just in case if it already has, scrap it off and sauté again.
    4. Mix in the boiled dal that you have whisked once.
    5. Add 1 cup of boiled water, if the consistency is not thin.
    6. Let the dal boil for a few minutes. Add the garam masal before switching off the flame.
    7. Garnish with coriander leaves. In the picture, you can make out that I was out of it.

Recipe: Rice

Soak basmati rice for at least half an hour. I take one and a half cup of rice for the two of us. Take the soaked rice in a pan and add clean water to it. I usually keep adding water until the level of it is about half a finger from the rice, and then I start the boiling process. The flame is usually slow. When a rice granule breaks easily with my finger tip, I know it’s done. I also put a wooden spoon on the pan so that when it boils, the water won’t flow out. Then, I strain the rice to remove the excess water and place it in a vessel or casserole with a dollop of ghee shining on it.

Because, when it comes to dal chawal, the more the ghee, the happier I am.

A slice of heaven

Experience magic in the offbeat side of Mussoorie, in a small cantonment town of Landour. Just like any other die-hard fan of Ruskin Bond, even I wanted to know what inspires him to live here and write about a life around nature. Get lost in the beauty of this tiny piece of paradise and return home feeling rejuvenated. Here, I have listed down 10 things you can do in Landour.

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1. Stay at a homestay
If you want to find a home in the hills with the perfect hosts, meet interesting people, indulge in endless conversations, spoil yourself with scrumptious food (from around the world) and slow down looking at the paramount views of the hillside, La Villa Bethany is the place for you! Run by the Kundle family, this eco-friendly homestay offers matchless hospitality and an ideal approach to explore the town like a local. A pleasant welcome from each member of the homestay, including Sunita, Amarjeet (owners) and their lovely daughter, Srushti, will fill your heart with warmth!


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2. Walk in the woods
Make sure to bring your walking shoes and binoculars (to watch birds like the red-billed blue magpie) with you, if you want to vanish in the incredible calm of the tall and centuries-old trees (pines, oaks, deodars) of Landour. You might, however, want to take a wooden stick along, if monkeys scare you. Walking on a long, yet beautiful stretch is something we city dwellers are not used to. Which is why, the steep roads might force you to stop and catch a breath. But once you get a hang of it, you’ll feel rewarded at the end. Thanks to the Woodstock International School and Landour Language School, you might see a few foreign fitness enthusiasts running, early in the morning.


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3. Chill at a local mountain bakery

After your long walks, spend a few hours chatting with friends, sipping some great coffee with delectable pies, cookies, croissants or cakes at the Landour Bakehouse. The view from here will want you to make a corner of the bakery your home-office for a few days, only if you have made the mistake of carrying your laptop. Café Ivy in Char Dukan, is another cool place to enjoy music and munch on some appetising food like pancakes, pastas and pizzas in a vintage-inspired ambience. If walking in the pitch-dark lanes is not your thing, ensure that you reach your guesthouse on time.

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4. Enjoy a meal at a picturesque restaurant
Part of the well-appointed Rokeby Manor Hotel, Emily’s has a British-style décor and offers some lip-smacking food. Apart from beautiful landscape views, the restaurant has an impressive food menu with a mix of Indian and Continental cuisine (I liked the Veg Shammi Kebab, Lasooni Palak Patta, Garlic Cheese Naan and Rokeby Sticky Toffee Pudding). You can head to the hotel’s pub (The Stray Dog) to see a comedian’s or an artist’ live performance, or relax at their spa (The Little Salon & Spa Shed) for a wellness experience. Both are at a short distance from Rokeby. Doma’s Inn, a gorgeous guesthouse that looks like a Tibetan monastery has a restaurant as well, which you must check out (Ruskin Bond’s home is next to the door!).


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5. Watch the sunrise
View the spectacular Garwal Himalaya mountain range and the snow-capped peaks from Lal Tibba, which also happens to be the highest point of Mussoorie. The winding road towards Lal Tibba is adorned with sky high oak and pine trees on its sides. On the way, you’ll come across a Christian cemetery that has stone graves dating back to the 1800s and has its roots in the foundation of Landour. As going by history, the town was established as a depot, where the severely-ill British Indian army soldiers could recuperate at its sanatorium. The dark forest trees add to the serenity of the mystical setting.

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6. Get a glimpse of the celebrity homes
The sleepy hamlet of Landour in the foothills of Himalaya serves as a home to many a celebrity, including Ruskin Bond (Ivy Cottage), Tom Alter, Victor Banerjee (as seen in the picture), Vishal Bhardwaj (Bond’s neighbour) and more. In fact, many writers from around the globe, come here to pen down their creative thoughts. Victor had to rebuilt his residence, though, as the entire house once caught fire; luckily, he was safe. And, if you’re lucky, you may spot a famous person, like Sachin Tendulkar, who often comes here with his family.

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7. Make friends with the Tibetan mastiff
During your walks around Landour, you’ll also get to meet the magnificent Tibetan mastiff dogs. They might chase you or want to play with you or even accompany you at one of the tea shops. Stay calm and be sociable, as they say, mountain dogs are the friendliest.


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8. Go for a picnic in the meadows
This is something that we often get to see in the movies, but not in real life. Don your hat, carry a few board games, a mat, some snack items and fruits for a little al fresco party! Luckily for us, Sunita Kudle, our host at La Villa Bethany, offered us to tag along to her daughter’s secret place in the green pastures of one of the hills. While coming back in the evening, the dream-like time lapse of clouds accompanied us!


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9. Sip a soothing tea at Char Dukan
The Char Dukan area offers a few shops selling cheesy noodles, pancakes, burgers, momos, shakes and more. The hot honey lemon ginger tea at the Tip Top Tea Shop is a must-have drink to sit back and relax your nerves. Pick a few fresh goodies from A Prakash & Co. at Sisters’ Bazaar; the store has been making homemade cheese, jams, chutneys and peanut butter since 1928.

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10. Enjoy sky gazing
Go in the month of January/February to witness the winterline and snow! During other months, the cloudy sky that envelopes the mountains in the evenings, gives the town a tranquil feel. In the nights, take pleasure in a pollution-free sky, as the shiny moon and stars engross you.