The Glass Powder

They say time heals everything. Every wound. Every cut. Every scar. But, I somehow, don’t think anything can ever heal the minute broken pieces of the glass powder. When pressed against the skin, it can hurt the most. And when there are a million pieces of glass broken into a powder, the jar can never be kept close. Never. It has to be abandoned. Immediately. And forgotten. Wish, we could abandon our dreams too. Forever.

Words

“Our lives are not in the lap of the gods but in the hands of our cooks. Hence befriend your cook because so much of the enjoyment of life lies within his power to give or take away as he sees fit. It is the invariable test of a wise man whether he has good food at home or not.”

– Confucian (Chinese teacher) view of food (as read in the book, The Essential Andhra Cookbook)

Spark joy?

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I was in no mood to cook. It was the weekend, and at least once or twice a week, it’s no big deal to order food from outside. Right? But, we really didn’t want to step out for long, so we took a look at the various restaurants, which could deliver food at our doorstep. And, I liked none of them. Wasn’t up for Biryani, no noodle dish, no pizza, or any other thing. Nothing created a spark in my mind, and I thought, I might as well feed our hungry selves and get over it.

So, the menu was set, as usual a last-minute task that I excel in. Dal Tadka, whole-wheat Tandoori Rotis and Coriander salad. I was excited for the coriander part only. It sparked joy (Marie Kondo style).

As a young girl, I always thought what these coriander leaves were meant for in a salad or side-dish like this? Aren’t these supposed to be meant only for garnish? My aunt, Tamanna Mamiji, who’s my mother’s sister-in-law, made this quick recipe with super fresh coriander leaves. “My mum used to make it and feed us when we were kids,” she once told me.

The truth is, I could eat my Rotis with it, without any other sabzi. It’s tangy, spicy and fresh. Also, this mix of coriander leaves and lemon juice, is loaded with vitamin C. Goes out and shows, how one shouldn’t underestimate small or simple things. And that night, never did I imagine that this tiny side-dish could do the trick for me, and boost my dull mood.

Who likes to step out in winter anyway? Go, try this coriander sabzi, salad or side-dish–whatever you may like to call it–that can be made in less than five minutes.

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Recipe: Coriander salad (serves one or two)

Ingredients

1 cup fresh coriander (roughly chopped)
juice of half a lemon
salt to taste
¼ tsp red chilli powder
a pinch of cumin seeds

Method

In a bowl, mix all the ingredients. Mix well for 30 seconds and you’ll notice that the size of the coriander batch has shrunk a bit. Salt does it, I think. When it does, go ahead and serve it with a hot Roti.

An Indian Safari

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Khem Villas, Ranthambore

It was March, 2017, and I and my husband were looking for a place on the internet, where we could go and celebrate our marriage anniversary. My husband always wanted to see a tiger, roaming in the jungle (not in a zoo).  So, I thought, why not? The thrill of a safari ride made me gave in to his idea of Ranthambore. And we booked a room at the luxury jungle camp, Khem Villas.

Khem Villas is a gem of a place that offers a peek into the wildlife of Sawai Madhopur. It was the perfect offbeat spot for us. It’s amazing to discover a place like Khem for travellers like me, who want to ditch the so-called most-trending resorts that only offer villa-sized rooms and on-time services. Khem is different. It gives you a taste of the wild, and the stories you get to hear every day from the people who work here will never fade from your memory.

We hit the road, and it took us a couple of hours to reach Ranthambore from Gurugram. After parking our car at the villa, I asked the helper boy if he’d ever seen a tiger in Sawai Madhopur. “Madam, a tiger was spotted in our CCTV four days back, exactly where you have parked your car,” he quickly replied. I almost had terrible jitters. Surely I don’t want to be eaten by a tiger!

At the entrance, I met Mittal Gala the naturalist, who took us around the property. Soon, I realised that if I genuinely want to explore nature, I need to spend some time with her as she seemed to be fearless and knew amazing facts about nature.

At Khem, you will only be served vegetarian food (mostly organic), and all the rave reviews you read about their food on Trip Advisor are true. The food served here is not just tasty, but the menu (comprising multiple cuisines) is divided in such a way that you will never eat the same item again. I was already impressed after our first meal in the mess area.

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Ranthambore National Park

So, the next morning, it was our time to experience our first safari ride ever! The pressure of spotting a tiger was high! It was 5.45AM, and I saw foreigners and other tourists with their individual blankets wrapped around them. Some of the travellers were spotting birds or a planet through a powerful set of binoculars that Digvijay the young naturalist had (you don’t want to miss talking to him, if you want to see the local birds, stars and the planets).

My husband is the most calm person I know, and unlike most of the restless travellers, he gave me a suggestion right before our safari began. “Just enjoy the ride. Don’t be disappointed if we don’t see the tiger. It’s all about the wildlife experience, and that’s why we are here.” The bitter fact was, nobody was interested in seeing the deer or the monkeys; all tourists came here to see the tiger. What he said actually made sense to me later.

I clearly thought in my head that our chances were anyway less, as our canter bus was filled with a chatty group of tourists who couldn’t stop cracking stupid jokes on each other! But, guess what? After about two hours, we saw Krishna the tigress, who was sitting on the ground, hiding in the bushes, and was about to sleep soon. I couldn’t believe our luck. The talkative crowd on the bus? I didn’t mind them on our way back.

During our evening snack time near the bonfire area, Usha Rathore, the GM and CEO of Khem Villas, shared interesting bits of information with us. She said that Machali, the ever-so famous tigress of Sawai, breathed her last here at Khem Villas. Usha pointed out the exact place. Machali was here for more than 15 days before she passed away. Fateh Singh Rathore, Usha’s father-in-law, was known as the tiger man. He had made a huge impact on the conservation of the local tigers here; and they say, even the tigers knew him well. “He had a flirtatious nature about him, and may be, because of this, tigresses like Machali liked him in return,” said Usha, with a broad smile.

So, usually, during the bonfire time, we get to see the stars with all the chirping of the local birds and tourists sharing their experiences with one another. But, I’m a food person, and I couldn’t stop munching on the crispy and hot momos and onion fritters that the waiter boy served us.

Next day, a guide from Khem Villas took us to the local fort and temple. Babu bhai, the guide, took us to every nook and cranny of the fort, and I had to actually stop him from talking so much, as he couldn’t stop sharing historical facts about the place! It was amazing to hear his stories, though. “How come you don’t have any fear of the tigers?” I asked him, while he constantly checked for the alarm calls from the monkeys and other animals here and there. Babu bhai said that he already had an encounter with the tiger, and since then, he doesn’t fear the big cat. “Just keep looking the tiger in the eye, and you’ll be safe,” he added.

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Babu bhai, the best guide we could ask for

After our fort tour, we settled for yet another delectable dinner which comprised the crustiest apple pie in the world! We had two more days to go. Although we did spot Krishna in our first safari tour, I wanted to see her walking or drinking water from one of the lakes. My greed was clear. And soon, our last night at Khem Villas came by. We didn’t spot any tiger in our last two safari rides, but, I really didn’t want to leave.

We had booked a normal room for two nights, but for our last night, we were upgraded to a luxury tent by the manager.

We were at the bonfire area where I caught up with Usha, and asked her where she came from, and she replied, “Actually, I grew up in Udaipur. I still remember, my first few nights as a newbie wife in Sawai Madhopur. You won’t believe, we had our honeymoon in the jungle! I remember, one night, we were in the middle of the jungle, and we had to sleep in a jeep in the open jungle. After some time, I stopped fearing the wildlife. In fact, now, I can’t live in the city! I get agitated by all the noise pollution, and it’s in the cities that I’m afraid to sleep in. Who’s scarier than us human beings? You tell me.”

Usha surely was trying to help me as I struggled with the idea of sleeping in the tent. Most people I assume would have liked it. But the truth was, unlike my husband, I couldn’t imagine myself sleeping calmly in the tent.

Many scary thoughts came up in my mind when I walked my way to the tent late after dinner, in pitch dark. I quickly rolled the canvas fabric down that served as a door. After an hour of reading, we turned off the light. I was trying hard to sleep, but, then, I heard an animal walking towards us. I knew I won’t be able to sleep in the tent after that minute! My husband also heard the noise from the animal, but he was too sleepy to think about it. I had no option but to call Usha for help around 12 in the night.

“Hey! Sorry, all our rooms are booked. But, you can sleep in my room,” it was the naturalist, Mittal, holding a glass lantern, outside our tent. I quickly tip-toed outside the tent and held her hand, tightly. “Do you need a room as well?” she asked my husband. “No. I’m all right. Just take her along with you,” he said in a cool manner. And, I went to a room inside the building.

I was pretty embarrassed next morning. “There was a cat near your tent. You had forgotten your cookie tray outside on a table. She ate the cookies and ran away. You thought it’s a big animal that will eat you up,” the naturalist said. “A tiger was also found walking in the mess area,” she quickly added, with a straight face. And, my heart skipped a beat.

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That’s me, looking at the Machan and enjoying the view

I bid Khem Villas farewell with some great unforgettable memories. After leaving the property, we shopped a few items made by the local women at Dastkar next door.

While driving back, I wrote a text message to the naturalist, thanking her for all the help. “The next time you come here, you will explore the insects and worms in the greens,” she texted me back. “No. I’m afraid of them,” I quickly reverted. “Okay. Butterflies and birds?” came her reply. “Yes! I would love to!” I wrote back.

If I had stopped overthinking, I could sleep in the tent that night. After reaching home, I kept thinking about the people who worked at Khem Villas. I could hear the monkey calls (actually made by our society dogs) that were considered alarm calls of a tiger or a leopard nearby there. But, did I feel safe in the house? I don’t know.

A December in Surat

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I hate flying; particularly, taking flights from Delhi to Surat. But, because of the recent reduced air fares or inflated train ticket prices, I take the former option more often. I was going for a month-long trip (November-December) to Surat, my parents’ place from Gurugram (where I live with my husband).

After my 7AM flight landed, I was already hungry. Of course, I had better things to eat here than the breakfast served on the flight. You see, I’ve gone on my dad. We share a lot of habits. One of them is, being impatient, when hungry; and to eat whatever you actually want to eat, without shame or guilt. For example, if I have to eat a particular dish that none of the family members want to eat, I will still go ahead, cook it and eat it. I have to; there’s no other option.

And just when my parents came to pick me up at the airport on a beautiful Sunday morning, I wanted to eat Tameta Bhajia (tomato fritters). I had to eat it. Dumas is the near the beach area, from where you can catch a sight of the Arabian Sea from far. And near the beach entrance (which is a rather muddy place), at the crossroads, is the Bhajia shop, where 4 to 6 people at a single stall, sell these mouth-watering fried items.

You get Aaloo Bhajia (potato pakoras or fritters), Tameta Bhajia and I believe, Onion Bhajia; out of which, I love Tameta Bhajia! You know, in this particular fritter version, you dip a slice of tomato with a layer of coriander chutney into a gram flour batter, and fry it till golden in colour. When you bite into the sizzling hot and crunchy Bhajia, you can actually taste the steamed tomato in it. The best part is, you don’t even have to dip your Bhajia into a chutney, as it’s already stuffed inside.

My parents were not even surprised to see the long queue at this tiny food stall. “It’s Surat. Anything is possible! People love to eat! So what, if it’s 7.30AM in the morning? It’s the best way to start your Sunday morning, right?” I thought in my head. After about 25 minutes, my dad returned to the car with a pack of Bhajias. And I knew it was my day. I could see my soul return him a big smile! I and my friends have been coming to this spot since our school and college days and each bite of the Bhajia brought back so many memories and happy faces.

At home, we had preparations going on for my brother’s wedding. One such afternoon, around 12.30PM, I was out to get some craft material that my creative cousin asked for. I was at Sargam Shopping Centre, on my two-wheeler. After buying the craft item, I realised that it was the perfect time to hit the Khaman seller, whom I could view from across the street. He only comes and sets his food cart around 12.30, five to six times a week; and I was more than happy to see Kaka’s face, which brought back fond school memories. This junction was on our way, where we school girls used to take a halt after school, and snack on some soft and flavourful Khaman that was served with chopped onion, nylon sev and tempered green chillies.

I bought a huge pack for myself; but before that, Kaka gave me a handful of Khaman and asked me to have it, before my turn came. None of the people from the queue got it, and I couldn’t stop blushing. He did recognise me, I muttered. For many, this Khaman was their only lunch item.

You know, I sometimes wonder how these things taste the exact same even after decades. I mean, it’s been a decade or even two, us school girls coming here for Kaka’s Khaman. The taste of the Khaman till today is the same, just like Kaka’s innocent smile. Sound memories, these.

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Apart from the usual Vrindavan’s Cold Cocoa and Chana Jor Garam chaat (flattened black chick peas) that we get on the roads in the evenings, wintertime in Surat stands out because of a few special delicacies. Ponk (green ripe Jowar seeds) tops it all. I was buying a gift item for my brother and sister-in-law; and after about an hour of strolling from shop to shop, I knew what to go home with. After voicing my order loudly in the middle of the crowded stalls near Rangila Park, I bought a huge batch of steamed Ponk, some Ponk Vadas, smooth green chutney and a small batch of Lemon Sev to go with it all.

I haven’t seen Ponk anywhere in the country but Surat. They say cities like Baroda also have it; but mainly, it’s a Surati food item. A lot of my cousins buy it in bulk and take Ponk to their respective cities for their friends and families. Ponk is very nourishing for health, and the wintertime delicacy that is rejoiced and relished by all Suratis. The basic steamed Ponk is soft in texture, and extremely fresh in taste. And the hot Ponk Vadas have spices and condiments in them, which make it a perfect winter snack item that you can have in mornings or evenings. At social gatherings and parties, people don’t miss adding these Ponk dishes in their menus. It’s a must.

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What makes Surat a truly rich city is its food. Be it the poor, the middle-class or the rich, everybody in Surat likes to hit the street food vendors and eat their heart out. No wonder, the city’s food scene is famous. Those who haven’t been here, can only wonder what one attains by eating such delicious and historic food items on the streets, footpaths and in every nook of the city. We don’t crave for restaurants, in Surat! Never. I craved for some homemade Undhiyu, another Surati wintertime dish, but didn’t get a chance to have it.

Having lived in Surat for more than 23 years, I cannot even begin to tell you how much I miss the Surati street food. I left the city seven years ago. Which is why, I can say, it was a special December, indeed.

No rules in my kitchen!

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Frankly, I was very reluctant when my husband asked me to try some Lebanese food. ‘How will I like it? I have never eaten it in my childhood!’ I said. Yes, as kids, we had pizzas, pastas and Chinese noodles, but not Shawarma. Thanks to this restaurant, Lub Lub Lebanese here in Gurugram (run by a Masterchef India contestant), which had rave reviews with the food that was fairly priced too, we went ahead and ordered a Paneer Shawarma. And, after a few weekends, we ordered a Lebanese platter that changed my thoughts about this cuisine. It was mouth-watering, the platter; everything in it, from the dips to the Paneer Shawarma.

After ordering this platter for the fifth time, I thought it’s time that I make this platter myself. But, where are the recipes? I started researching for the recipes on YouTube, and let me tell you, it wasn’t so easy. There were so many sauces and dips and spices, I started to think that it’s going to be one expensive task, this one.

So, weekend after weekend, I started to collect courage to try the entire platter. And last Saturday afternoon, I hit a gourmet store with a huge list of ingredients. Now, I decided to make everything from scratch. I’ll tell you what; local food companies literally loot us when they sell a Tzaziki Sauce. It’s so freaking simple to make; why pay so much for a bowl of it? And, when I saw the prices of Tahini sauce, Harissa sauce, etc. I was all the more surprised to see the prices. If I’m getting a Lebanese platter for Rs300, why should I pay Rs300 for each sauce and dip and make it an affair of Rs3000? Just saying.

Here’s how I went about it. I researched all the recipes from scratch and picked up all the local veggies only. In fact, I used all the Indian spices that I had with me. You know, this is what I have learnt from my experience. I end up buying all the expensive ingredients and then the bottles and packets go waste in the fridge.

My husband kept telling me that he could order the platter from the same restaurant, as he wanted to save me from the drill, but I didn’t listen to him or cared for his expressions. It was almost 5.45 PM when I entered the kitchen and the platter was ready by 8PM. Yes, it took me almost two hours to make this entire spread, but I did it.

One of my resolutions this year was to try authentic world recipes, and that’s what inspired me to go crazy for this one. Was I happy? Of course! We ate for almost 45 minutes, and then, gave up. There was no space in our tummies for anymore; we had stuffed ourselves so much.

So, dear readers, here’s how I went about it. Hope you like the recipes; in spite of all the local ingredients in it. I couldn’t get the recipe of Paneer Shawarma that I liked from the Lub Lub Lebanese restaurant platter, but I tried to go as close to the dish as I could.

For the recipes, I would like to send my huge thanks to the YouTubers, BaytBushra (you’re awesome) whom I referred for Musabah and Muhammarah, Akis Kitchen (run by a passionate chef) whom I referred for the Tzatziki sauce, and Cooking with Jen (owned by a sweet home chef) whom I referred for the Harissa Sauce recipe. I would ask you guys to subscribe them and spread some love.

Recipe: Indian-inspired Lebanese (Mezze) Platter

  1. Tahini Sauce

Now, this is something that you’ll need a lot, so, make this one first. Churn some white sesame seeds with a little olive oil, two cloves of garlic, salt and two tbsp ofwater (I just couldn’t get the right consistency without it).

  1. Musabaha (or Hummus)

Soak some chickpeas overnight, and boil them. In a small grinding jar, add 3/4 cup of boiled chickpeas. Add 2 tbsp Tahini sauce,olive oil, two cloves of garlic, 2 tbsp lemon juice and all the spices (salt, pepper, cumin powder and red chilli powder). And your Musabaha (as chef Bushra likes people to call it) or Hummus is ready. Serve it with a drizzle of olive oil on top with a sprinkle of cumin powder.

  1. Tzatziki sauce or dip

This was the best dip on the platter, and I’m always going to have it my fridge. I love the smell of the dill leaves; it’s so fresh! By the way, both the ts are silent here, so you actually have to pronounce it as Zaziki. And I couldn’t stop repeating it in my head.

For the Greek yogurt, all you need to do is take a colander or strainer, put a cheesecloth or muslin cloth on it. You can also use an old but clean white handkerchief. And add two or three cups of fresh curd. Now, twist the cloth and keep it on a deep plate (for the excess water to drain off). After about six hours, you’ll see that the curd has become half, and you’re left with a waterless yogurt called the Greek Yogurt.

Now, to a cup of Greek yogurt, add half grated cucumber, 1 crushed clove of garlic, a tsp of distilled white vinegar (or white wine vinegar as chef Akis Petretzikis highly recommended on his channel), and some chopped dill leaves (my local veggie vendor had it; didn’t go to gourmet store for it and saved some bucks). Don’t forget to add a good drizzle of olive oil and season it with some salt and freshly ground pepper.

  1. Muhammarah (Red bell pepper dip)

All right. So, the ingredient list of this specific dip freaked me out. I didn’t have pomegranate molasses, and nor did my local gourmet store had it. I felt a feeling of guilt while trying this recipe. But here’s what you can do. I googled what it is, and it’s basically a concoction of pomegranate juice, sugar and lemon juice. So, don’t freak out or buy that pricey bottle of pomegranate molasses; just make your own. I skipped it for this dip, but I can do this recipe for later surely.

For this recipe, add a roasted red bell pepper (deseeded) in a grinding jar with a handful of walnuts, 2 tbsp Tahini sauce, 1 toast of bread, and a drizzle of olive oil. Grind it to a paste. Now, add 1 tbsp of water (I used it for a smoother texture), and season it with some salt and red chilli powder.

  1. Falafel

In a grinding jar, add two cups of boiled beans, 1 cup chopped coriander leaves, 2 to 3 chopped green onions (optional), 5 cloves of garlic. Blend it, but mind my tip-off. I grinded it so much so that it became a runny thin paste. You don’t want to do the same. Add water only to blend it all. You want to make a thick paste for the Falafel tikkis or balls. Don’t make the mistake that I made. I had to use huge amounts bread crumbs to make it thick. So, always check in between while grinding this paste, as we are looking for a thick paste. To finish it off, add the spices (salt, pepper, coriander powder, red chilli and cumin powder) with a ½ tsp of baking soda. Now, you need to make tikkis and deep-dry or shallow-fry them. As you like it.

  1. Pita Bread

I just made some dough with my whole wheat flour and a pinch of salt. Then, I made 3 thick parathas with no ghee or butter. Just roasted them on the griddle. And cut it with my kitchen scissors.

  1. Paneer Shawarma

All right, so this was the most difficult recipe to find on the net. I wanted to make the exact Paneer Shawarma  that we order from Lub Lub Lebanese restaurant. But, there was no way I could phone the chef and get the recipe, no? I had to find its recipe, and I just couldn’t figure out how. But, then, I knew there was Harissa Sauce in it. So, I found a YouTube video wherein the home chef made the sauce. I tried her recipe and added a few things for that zing. And it worked. So, here’s what you can do for this.

In a hot pan, add cumin and coriander seeds. Roast it for some time. Now, some olive oil, 1 chopped red bell pepper, 1 chopped onion, 2 red chilli pepper (I used the local thick red chillies), 1 clove of garlic and salt. Roast everything until you can smell the aromas. Now, let it cool and grind it to a paste.

In the same pan, add in the paste, 3 tbsp tomato ketch-up, 1 roughly chopped tomato, and cook it. You might want to add 2 tbsp of water to improve its texture. Now, add some chopped pieces of homemade cottage cheese or paneer (recipe: boil 1 litre milk and quickly add juice of 1 big lemon; switch off the flame and strain it in a colander that’s covered with a muslin cloth. Twist the cloth and put something heavy on it for 2 hours). Finish it off with a dash of lemon juice.

  1. Salad

In a bowl, add some length-wise cut red bell pepper, capsicum, lettuce (I didn’t have it at the time), beetroot, onion, etc. Whatever you have in hand. Mix lemon juice, vinegar, salt and black pepper and give it a mix.

My husband was happy when he tasted the platter, and it was fun to prove him wrong. My dishes were almost there, if you know what I mean. A total win-win this one. Also, I have saved the dips and sauces for later. I will share how I use them this week. Until then, happy cooking! And, remember, always keep an open mind when you try new cuisines and know that you can cook anything in your kitchen because there are no rules!

The art of jamming

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It’s January, and I’m already learning my lessons; both in the kitchen and otherwise. Don’t beat yourself up. Learn to pray. Think happy thoughts (the toughest). Believe in yourself a bit more. And, yes, don’t forget to make your bed, every morning.

Moving to my food experiments, there are so many YouTube chefs that I follow; I have been wanting to try their recipes. One of them is Maangchi, who makes Korean dishes and shares the authentic recipes on her channel. I keep looking for the vegetarian part of her videos and make notes of the things that I can create in my kitchen.

My husband, the other day, said that one of his friends can get reasonable strawberries from some place. So, I asked him to get me two packs of fresh strawberries. Well, that was after I saw Maangchi’s video of strawberry jam. I was really keen on trying it; and my fridge was out of jam anyway.

The jam turned out to be yum, and since the day I made it, I haven’t been able to put the jar down. Believe me, guys, homemade jams are delicious, and way, way better than the store-bought ones that are filled with endless ingredients.

With this one, I kind of wish to make a fruit jam in every season. You can have this jam with any kind of toasted bread or even crispy roti or paratha for that matter. Spread it generously on a crispy slice of bread and enjoy the goodness of the berries.

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Recipe: Homemade Strawberry Jam

Ingredients

Strawberries (2 packs – normal ones that are available in most food markets)
Sugar – 5 tbsp (or as per your wish; I wanted to use as little as I could)

Method

  1. Now, first things first, wash the berries and remove the tip of each piece.
    2. Dump them in a big, solid vessel with the sugar.
    3. Put this on low to medium flame for about 15 minutes with the lid on.
    4. Switch off the flame and start mashing it with your potato masher. Keep the jam aside to cool.
    5. Store in a clean jar.

Note: All right, so here’s the deal with this jam. When I kept it on the flame, and closed the lid for a few minutes, I noticed that the strawberry mixture was bubbling and coming out of the vessel. Then, I shifted the mixture into a bigger vessel and put a heavy kitchen item on the lid so that the mixture doesn’t come out. Well, guess what, my stove was red with the bubbling jam mixture still escaping from the vessel. So, if you want to avoid this from happening, use a big vessel and after about 8 to 10 minutes, keep a watch on the jam; stir it to avoid the spill. Also, a lot of people use lemon juice in their jams; I didn’t, because the strawberries that I had were citrus enough.

Make this jam at home and get ready to put smiles on people’s faces. A good start for January, no?