Food for Thought…

imagesI proudly looked at my handiwork of cutting the avocado into two perfect halves and lifting the seed out with the whack of the knife. No big deal for most but for a woman to whom avocado was a stranger for the first thirty years of her life it my friend, is an accomplishment par excellence. Drum roll!!

Leaving home adapting to new places, people, culture, traditions and FOOD has been a constant in our lives. Growing up in a small town in India we thought we were adventurous with food as we ate culinary delights from all over our vast country where the simple potato, beans, peas, carrots are cooked differently in every corner of the country. The north makes drinks with carrots, mix it with peas, beans, potatoes for curry or even dessert in the form of carrot pudding. A part of south uses it in lentils while another part  uses it with coconut milk to make stew. The people in east believe in eating fish with everything, carrot, peas, meat, rice or dessert while the west spices up everything with a tinge of sweet. In the 1970s and 1980s many Indian restaurants proudly offered ‘continental food’ in their menu and if you dig deeper there is nothing called continental food really. Precisely, there is nothing continental in food. It may constitute a variety of food served under one roof, pasta, noodles, fried chicken or even a sandwich which by the way was a big deal when we were kids. Of course we also ate Chinese- the Indian Chinese which would make a Chinese dive off a cliff in indignation and shock.

The first time we lived overseas was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I thought we were mighty adventurous to try the Queen of Fruits Durian. Durian looks like jackfruit but it wins hands down to be the stinkiest thing ever to be eaten, grown, seen or avoided. Kuala Lumpur introduced us to roti canai (a kind of Indian bread served with gravy), nasi goreng (fried rice popular in South East Asia), Mi Goreng (fried noodles), Ice kachang (shaved ice with beans and anything under the sun).  Every thing was a discovery! I would read about a certain dish expecting it to be sweet and it would turn out to be a savory. At work I was surprised to find people gorging on boiled eggs, fried eggs, chicken and rice garnished with shallots and dried fish for breakfast. That was their go to food, comfort food comparable to the baked potato in the United States. In Zambia we were introduced to the meali meal basically maize flour and the locals used it for a variety to cuisine. When I expressed my wish to cook chicken and also teach it to our Zambian help he nodded wisely and said of course maaadaaam! Hearing a cacophony in the kitchen I rushed down to see two huge, really gigantic, well fed chicken fluttering in his hands while he delightedly looked on to me showing off his prize products ready for cooking! I didn’t have the heart to cook those two thereafter and they made a happy cosy home in our backyard often chasing the help’s kids or getting chased by them. I felt both the kids and the chickens were having a good time and that is the only time I came close to seeing chicken smiling.

7343d52d5d0637a88290007408569663In Japan our home was near a blowfish restaurant and I would hear about the expertise needed to cook that deadly fish, as in if gourmet food could kill this one was it! We became adept at using chopsticks and eating sushi and sashimi while introducing our Japanese friends to tandoori chicken, paneer tikka from North India and dosa, idli, uttapam from the South. Surprisingly, they loved my tea and I fell in love with theirs though I am told that both are acquired tastes. In Australia, the son’s class had an international cuisine day and with lot of expat children in the class we saw cuisine from everywhere, Sudan to Singapore. A local  family proudly presented vegemite and toast as they felt that was true Aussie cuisine. The Indians had turned up with the whole nine yards and I got the impression that most were overwhelmed by the variety presented between the mere four Indian families. We do love our food and we are not shy about it, are we now?

Fresh off the boat America  hit us, shocked, amused and overwhelmed us with its gigantic serving sizes in food and drinks. Small, medium, large are known all over the world but grande, venti and trenta? Hello, who wants to dive into a coffee and drown? I believe trenta is a whole thirty fluid ounce and people do drink it! Then there is this Italian restaurant near our home which gives one free pasta/ spaghetti or whatever you order to take home for every pasta you eat in. Buy one and get one free taken to another level surely and the soft drinks just keep flowing. There is no end to refills until explicitly requested to stop and I feel the poor wine does get a step motherly treatment, no refills unless explicitly requested.

I baked sweet potatoes today and smiled to myself reminiscing  of the time we ate baked/boiled potatoes in India. They were cut into pieces, liberally mixed with chopped raw red onions, green chillies, cilantro, lemon juice, red chilli powder, crushed black pepper mixed with garbanzo beans and with a nice little whack of the hand mixed well in a little pouch made with leaves. The Aussies baked their potatoes by throwing spices, mixing flavors, splashing herbs to present quite an exotic yet simple dish of baked potato while the Japanese took it to another extreme with wasabi, miso, scallions and thousand other ingredients all of course very finely chopped, intricately decorated, delicately presented so much so that I hated to spoil the effect by digging into it. Then we came to America and discovered the version here- the baked potato was wrapped in a aluminum foil and was just that- a potato wrapped in foil and baked! A small container of sour cream sat neglected in the corner of the plate and trust me, the family and I burst out laughing. There is so much fun and joy to be found in our differences.

Why all this talk about food when the world is on a perpetual diet? Just to remind us that food is not just something to get rid of hunger. The scope of food is beyond that. It binds people just as it unites them. It is a discovery- of people, culture, regions, countries, geography, history, chemistry and even physics. The Italian cuisine in Italy tastes vastly different from the one cooked elsewhere and it is not just the tomatoes. Closer home the Italian cuisine in California is grossly different from the one in New York as is the Indian, Japanese or any other cuisine. The reactions of food- the chemistry, the ways and means of cooking – the physics are all intriguing. If my mum were alive today she would be tickled pink to find me switching on my gas stove without a gas lighter or a matchbox but with a simple turn of the knob that worked as ignition.

Food- Yes, there is a lot to it, far more than it will ever get credit for. What have your experiences with different cuisine been? Do you feel that it forms a connection? Does it make you stare at your plate in awe or gasp with wonder or at times proceed with caution or maybe eat at own risk…..

 

Picture courtesy: http://www.santabanta.com & http://www.twentytwowords.com

A world full of heart…

'Stocks rose on the news that random acts of kindness today outnumbered random acts of violence.'

I truly believe people are inherently good, sometimes we just have to pause a moment, breathe in and wait to savor it because more often than not that goodness just happens, unfolds and passes by taking us unaware just like sunrise each morning. Today’s post is dedicated to all those unknown people, perfect strangers actually who knowingly or unknowingly touch a life, making random incident memorable, turning  traumatic events bearable, to be talked about, reminiscing over a cup of coffee, glass of wine or simply…

I recall the time the son was a baby, a mere 4 month old happy cuddly little fellow with the widest gummy smile and eyes glowing with happiness. He was born with a congenital kidney problem and needed multiple surgeries. That was in Mumbai and after painstaking efforts from the nurse, wails from the son and silent tears from me an IV line was set up on his podgy little arms. After the first surgery he was discharged from the hospital with the IV line on for the next few surgeries as no one wished to put the baby through another trauma probably saving the doctors, nurses, mum and dad too from the same. So there we were headed home with the husband driving, trying to reach the four year old daughter waiting for us, while I sat behind with our boy who happily grinned at me from his basinet as though sensing that we were going away from the place where he was poked and prodded. Suddenly  we were flagged down by a cop. The husband ‘apparently’ had driven through an amber light turning red. Unlike the United States, one doesn’t hand over license/registration while sitting in the car when stopped in India, but gets off to stand by the sidewalk with the cop with  an explanation/license/registration/cash-bribe, and not exactly in that order. I viewed the two talking in the side view mirror and was surprised to see them walking towards the car and next the cop peeped inside to see me and our boy whose big toothless smile was still in place probably only getting wider. The cop and the baby exchanged toothy/gummy grins as if sharing their own little joke.  He saw the IV and looked again at the two of us, dropped his notebook back into his pocket, gave me a little salute and bid the husband adieu with a big hug and instructions to take good care of the baby and drive safe. Yes that is Mumbai…a city full of heart.

It is not surprising to encounter these warm incidents in Mumbai. The city indeed is full of heart. It gets battered with bomb blasts and rises up the very next moment with everyone walking an hour or more to reach work with public transport suspended. It gets flooded and the city that was supposed to grind to a halt continues to move, with neighbors helping each other, picking up a child, reaching food or even sharing groceries with supermarkets closed or sold out.

London is famous for being cold, weather and otherwise, no offense intended but I feel it has the most amazing heart. Another time the husband had flown to London on work and on landing at Heathrow airport saw my text message that the daughter was admitted in hospital. At immigration when asked the purpose and duration of his visit, he told  that he was supposed to be in London on work for 3 days but was going to take the first flight out as his child was in hospital. The immigration personnel picked up the phone and murmured a few words and an airport ground staff appeared to escort him through the quickest shortest way to baggage claim and customs, reaching him back to the United Airlines Global desk in a few minutes skipping all lines and waits. And United Airlines, not exactly famous for its great service on grounds or inflight wasted no time having him back on the same flight that reached him to London and soon he was flying home having touched down in London, cleared immigration, taken baggage, gone through customs, back in with new ticket, check in, security check in less than two hours!

In Tokyo our friends visiting us forgot their backpack containing a high end camera with multiple lenses and a $ 1000 in cash in the overhead compartment of a train. On lodging a complaint with the Station Office we were directed to wait at the exact place we had disembarked and check in the train when it returned in 43 minutes to be precise as it had a circular route. He was convinced that it would be found exactly where it was left since it had not been deposited at the Lost and Found department. Robbery was not an option even considered. We never really  expected to find the lost bag but there it was exactly where forgotten, waiting for its rightly owner having escaped both theft and bomb disposal squad.

During one of my walks in the neighborhood park, I was getting to a point of discomfort since another walker, a young man kept looking at me very blatantly every time we passed one another. I didn’t believe that I was unsafe but nevertheless felt hesitant until he stopped in front of me with a big smile and said, “you are wearing Kathmandu, you must be from Australia.” For those unfamiliar to the down under, Kathmandu is like the Nike of Australia- everyone does it!

 

'Beauty is on the inside.'

Last few weeks my brother-in- law was visiting from India and we had been hiking pretty often as I showed him the sights and sounds of bay area. He couldn’t get over the fact that strangers walking past each other either said hello, how’s it going? or remarked on the good old weather or simply nodded. There was always a courteous, respectful acknowledgment. In a world rocked by terror these simple etiquettes go a long way in building better communities.

Do you recall the moments when perfect strangers made your day? Or does an incident with an unknown make you break into a smile or feel grateful and blessed? Reminisce those  and share,  let the world know yet again how wonderful it is….

 

Picture courtesy: http://www.cartoonstock.com