Glory of an afternoon tea

We had moved to a new place in Gurgaon, and I had a brief introduction with my neighbour. Although we often bumped into each other and she would sweetly invite me for tea but I hardly gave any attention to it. Back in Mumbai, nobody ever called me for tea, in fact, my neighbours used to happily shut their doors on my face. And as it is, I used to be too busy sulking in the bed when the clock ticked noon, and it usually were hours full of anxiety or restlessness or just boredom.

One day, Shesh, my neighbour, called me to have tea at her place. In my mind, I was like, no way! Have I turned into an aunty that I would go to her place for a cup of tea? I don’t even want to have tea (too lazy to walk into the kitchen for myself). The idea seemed way too weird to me.

In Gurgaon, I have had neighbours asking me what do I do, and when I blurt out that I’m a freelance writer or that I work from home, they quickly nod with disinterest and disappear. Mostly, I only found housewives or women who worked from home smiling at me after a line. Anyhow. I knew I had little scope of making friends, and having no kid didn’t help me either. Why would any mother at the park indulge in a talk with a fragile, pale-looking woman like me? I had no stroller to take around, and no smiles or hellos. But it was fine. I struggled with my writing career, and was mostly stuck at home. And that was life for me in Gurgaon.

Soon came the day when I did give in to idea of knocking at the neighbour’s door for tea. A few cookies would be good, too. But, yes, that was the sole idea. I was a little conscious in my Kurti-legging look that I layered with a mismatched pair of socks and a loose cardigan. Winters ruined my home looks to an extent. My neighbour, Shesh, happily opened the door and I shyly went in. Still too nervous. “Will she like my fierce, strong and wild thoughts about life? I really hope not to reveal too much of my opinions about my life. Look at her lovely kids; she seems to be blessed,” I had too many things running in my head, and I didn’t seem to care too. We will see, I thought, and took a breath.

While I was sitting on the sofa, Shesh went into the kitchen to make the tea. I followed her, and for once, felt really good to see a woman making tea for me. Her kitchen was spick and span, in spite of the three kids running around the house. “What kind of tea would you like?” she asked me. I loved the question. “Just. Normal,” I replied. She was pounding some ginger in her steel mortar pestle, and I didn’t feel like telling anymore. Ginger tea would be perfect for a cold afternoon like this one. She then added in some cardamom too. Even better, I thought. Shesh made sure that the tea boils properly before pouring it into two colourful cups. She placed some biscuits in a plate, and then we walked back into the living room. Why didn’t no woman make tea like this for me before? It already felt good.

And then, started our usual talks and question-answer rounds. This woman didn’t seem like others. She had kept that judgement button behind for sure. I felt at ease while talking to her, explaining my almost non-existent writing career, and a bit about my family. She was much elder to me, but there was a connection, and I loved how she dealt with her kids in a composed manner. Shesh told me that she never had a neighbour so close before. “This building has been empty for years,” she said. The tea that she made was good; although I did ask for some namkeen (savoury dry snack) like bhujia later on. And our time went by. That cold afternoon didn’t feel bitter that day in some way.

That was how a beautiful friendship started off in a faraway land, my dear readers. I felt almost alone in the city, with hardly any friends. And it was humbling to see this woman whom I could trust for life. We loved sharing food, and talks that we couldn’t share with our husbands or mums. It’s wonderful how during our tea-time we used to lighten our heavy hearts to each other, and felt alive again. Sometimes our talks were plain silly, but the positive vibes bruised our souls for sure. You start your day in any manner, but when the noon hits, there can be days when you realise what’s wrong with your life. But with Shesh beside me, those empty hours filled up with happy cheers, and sometimes roars of laughter. Yes, there were days when one of us would tear apart with little hope, but by the end of our meet, both of us would be fine enough to face the remaining of the day with a big smile.

This is why I say the glory of an afternoon tea can be immense, my dear readers. It’s almost hard to define. Somehow, it was Shesh and her pure heart that took care of a messy me. And when I found her lost, I immediately tried to fuel her up with positive thoughts. Our friendship was like therapy for the soul. And, today, there are so many beautiful afternoon teas to look back and cherish. In our last days in Gurgaon, Shesh took care of me like a mother; yes, there is a huge age gap between us. I might find it difficult to explain to people how we spent our time together. But who cares? I got a friend whom I can keep for life.

Next year, I plan to visit that city for a day and knock at her door for a hot cup of tea. I would, as usual, be folding my legs on her sofa before we start pouring our hearts out to each other. Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

I always miss you, Shesh. Care for some tea?

Dolly hates yogurt

Just like any other family, even we were excited to welcome a new member into the family. You know, you think of all the beautiful moments you are going to spend with the newbie relative of yours. My younger brother’s fiancée was visiting us on one of the occasions. And just when she was about to leave, we started talking about food, and I accidently asked her, “So you do like Raita, right? You know, for us, it’s like a staple food.” She looked down and shyly admitted, “No, actually I hate yogurt.” My mum laughed and didncourse’t react. In fact, none of us did. Of , she must be joking!

After getting married, it was one of her early days at home. Our excitement levels still very high. I and Dolly were having thepla and soon, I called for a bowl of dahi (fresh yogurt). She immediately got up and brought a new plate for herself. “Hey, what happened?” I asked coolly, without realising my mistake. “I told you, di, I don’t like yogurt,” she said, with a big smile. “You got to be joking, bhabhi! We love yogurt! It’s like out staple food. We can have our roti with it and call it a meal. Okay, fine, come back, and eat with me. I will keep this bowl of yogurt at my side,” I tried to make up. “I don’t even like it in my plate, di,” she said. Oh. My. God. Is she kidding me? How will this work? What is going to happen in future? She really can’t hate yogurt, I thought to myself.

But, it was true. Dolly hates yogurt. There followed endless ‘eating’ occasions when without knowing I kept asking for yogurt, and the poor thing had to unhear or overlook what I did to her. It used to occur to me pretty late. I just couldn’t fix it in my memory.

Some time back, she visited us in Gurugram, and we took her to Cyber hub, a posh locality where there are endless swanky restaurants. It was me, my husband and Dolly. We decided to take her to Farzi Café, as the Indian dishes there have a twist and it’s such a thrill to bring someone new with us to taste it.

I was busy over the phone, and it was so urgent that I had to walk out of the restaurant. After I came back to our table, I saw my husband sitting idle. “What’s wrong? Where’s Dolly?” I questioned him. “She went to the loo,” he said. “Why. Is everything all right?” I beamed. “Actually, I really didn’t know that the complimentary starter that these guys give is made of yogurt. And I offered her, and she almost puked,” said my husband, in a low, soft voice, almost regrettably. “Oh my God! Yes! Mishti Doi, the Bengali sweet, is made of yogurt! How could you forget that Dolly hates yogurt?” I replied to him back, almost breathless. “I’m sorry. I just forgot about it,” said the husband. “No. It’s okay. It’s really hard to remember it all the time. May be we should fix it in our memory as soon as possible.”

And there she was, donning a big smile. “I’m really sorry you had to eat the yogurt! Did you really puke?” I asked Dolly, all concerned. “Oh, di! It’s all right. I realised it after eating it. It was served very differently, looked like an eye ball. And I do hate yogurt, di. They say, when my mother was carrying me, she ate yogurt so much so that I hated it since childhood. I have never had yogurt. Never liked it. And I can’t help it,” confessed Dolly.

I almost felt sad about the situation. Here was the reason why she hates yogurt, and Raita, and yogurt ice-cream and buttermilk and almost everything that’s made with yogurt.

As they say, acceptance is key. And just like how I hate to eat a few things (count donuts, waffles, pancakes and all sweet-laden junk food items) even this girl hates a few things. And that’s the reality.

You see, every new family member brings different things to the table. And it’s up to us, how we accept it.

But sometimes I can’t help but wonder, does she really hate yogurt?

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.

My Food Wishes for 2018

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I was going to write the title of this piece, my food resolutions, but going by history, I hardly follow what I resolve to do every New Year; so here are my food wishes that are close to my heart. I have been thinking about them a lot, of late. Hope I continue to follow my gut in the kitchen and don’t get bogged down by situations that seem daunting no matter what. For me, cooking is a healing therapy. It might sound cheesy or even a joke; but, believe me, right now, I have nothing to hope for. It’s just me, my kitchen stove, my kneading bowl and a few equipment that I use three times a day, just to see some optimism throughout the day. When you live in a city that hardly inspires you, have no job in hand, and feel unaccomplished, let your kitchen be your companion in thick and thin.

  1. Swearing by my granny’s kitchen rules

She will clean her kitchen and keep it spotless, especially before going to sleep in the night. Her kitchen is locked when not in use, and the stove top shines. She doesn’t even waste food; but for her, respecting food doesn’t mean eating a dish that was cooked two days back. You see, some people keep refrigerating food thinking it will be the same forever. Not this lady. She doesn’t even use the fridge. My Nani ma (mother’s mum), was a revelation when I got to spend some time with her a few days back. As a grown up, it was a different experience; I kept watching her in the kitchen. For example, she never leaves her dough for next day; there will be stale rotis in the box. Stale rotis, according to her, are way more nutritious than stale dough. So, basically, I don’t need to look at any international chef or a celebrated author to tell me what to do in the kitchen. Nani Ma is enough.

  1. Bring in the pulses

All right, so up until now, I thought cooking is all about veggies. If there are no vegetables in the kitchen, I can’t cook anything. Well, I did a bit of research (just looked at my pantry, to be precise), and found that I absolutely forget most of the pulses. Only three to four of them go in use. So, here’s a food wish I truly want to work on. Why leave the pulses behind?

  1. Use less oil

Whether it is cold pressed oil or unrefined oil, the truth (according to my recent readings) is that too much oil is anyway not good for you. So, I want to make sure I keep changing my oil every day; and that, I use less oil. If the vegetable is sticking on the pan, I should add water; but I anyhow should avoid using spoonfuls of oil just to make the dish look rich in flavour/colour or texture.

  1. Try skipping wheat, once in a while

Nani swears by Bajra; and hence, I have realised that it’s high time I give wheat a break, at least a few times a week. Up until now, I only cared for rice, but now, I want to explore more. Jowar, Ragi, and other ancient grains, bring it on!

  1. Make your own goodies

All right, so if possible, try making your own sauces, butters and jams. That’s something I have been telling myself a lot, lately. From pizza sauce to peanut butter, there’s a little improvement that I have made towards this. But, there’s still a long way ahead. Also, if one makes something at home, he or she will make sure it’s finished. Your store-bought bottles will never achieve the same stature. No? Also, I have learnt how to bake bread. So, if I keep my lazy self alert, I can actually bake bread and cookies, instead of avoiding the ready-to-eat ones altogether.

  1. Record more recipes

It takes determination to ask rigid family ladies their food recipes; yes, I experience it all the time. Either they think that their recipes are worthless or they are too busy to share the actual recipe with you. But, if you actually crack the task, you can get a hell lot of unique and great recipes that will be otherwise forgotten. So, whenever I taste something flavoursome, something that’s extra ordinary–be it a basic chutney or pickle–I make sure I ask that person how to make it, without letting shame or impatience come my way.

  1. Seek authentic world recipes

Let’s accept it, cooking wasn’t easy as it is now. We have a huge database of recipes before our screens all the time. Each day, colourful photos hit our social media feeds. All you need to do is cook the recipe. But, I need to draw a line here. Instead of knowing the trendy dishes like mug cake or kale smoothie, I need to try authentic recipes from various cuisines and enjoy cooking a few of them. This gives me a boost, as I get to cook something that’s a part of an other land. Second, it forces me to be creative. And third, I believe that it is a way of respect, which only the original recipe that is years old, deserves.

What are food wishes for the year 2018?