Food, glorious food

The Hindu Business Line,January 1, 2016

Cook It Slowly
By Mamang Dai

‘All day we are doing nothing, but we feel hungry,’ says my mother, laughing.

Yes, I hanker for grilled octopus, cheese and olives, but I also remember the serene faces of a group of women sitting around a fire where a pot is on the boil. Their conversation goes something like this:

‘Don’t let it boil too fast.’

‘Hai, take the lid off.’

‘Hai, the taste will evaporate.’

‘Cook it slowly.’

‘This is the best time, when the red ants are seen on the leaves.’

‘Hai, it is a sign.’
‘The ants are clever …’
It is a quiet, languid conversation in a village house on the art of cooking the popular On-giin leaf, or Clerodendrum Colebrookianum. It is a tall, vigorously growing perennial shrub of broad, dark green leaves with a hint of bitterness. As children we used to hate this stuff but ate them because we were told it would make us grow tall, especially if we held up the greens, stem and all, and tilted our heads back to eat them. Now food scientists have analysed that Clerodendrum contains medicinal properties for the treatment of diabetes, rheumatism and hypertension. I go to the market and buy bundles of the leaf. They grow in the garden too, and I look out for the red ants to appear.

What is khautektongtepkhau-laam and dungpoo?
In case you are wondering, these are all rice preparations — steamed, wrapped in leaf, powdered, mixed with sesame seeds and flattened into cakes. They are then rolled into balls or cooked in bamboo tubes. Rice is the most widely consumed staple grain in Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, it is believed to be of divine origin. One story goes that rice is a gift from the gods that came to a race of sky dwellers in the land of fish and stars. It happened during a great hunt when the faithful dog of a legendary hunter lost his way and strayed into the kingdom of the Great Earth Mother, the Goddess of Grain. The dog told her how he was lost. The goddess heard him out and then sent him on his way with a few grains of rice, which the faithful dog carried back to his master in the crease of his ear. Today, rice is cultivated throughout the state and many varieties are grown — they can be classified into two broad categories: that of highland or mountain rice, which is grown in the cyclical  jhum fields of shifting cultivation, and the lowland or wet rice cultivation. A hardy species of mountain rice, known locally as ‘Mipun’, is believed to be the original seed that was brought back from the granary of the Earth Mother.

Rice preparations are required on many occasions. Rice cakes using red, short-grained sticky rice wrapped in leaf are an essential item at weddings. Rice is also the chief ingredient for the local beer that, according to popular folklore, makes men equal to the gods and restores health and laughter in this world.

Khau-laam or bamboo rice is a clean, convenient way of packaging cooked rice that can be carried easily when out on a journey. The ingredients are simply rice and water. I am using the word ‘khau-laam’ of the Khampti people where the variety of bamboo used is known locally as ‘khaulam-ba’. It is a soft bamboo with a thin membrane that coats the rice as it cooks, allowing the cooked rice to be removed in one cylindrical piece. The rice is left to soak overnight and filled into bamboo tubes, leaving enough space for expansion. A little water is poured in and the bamboo is sealed with a leaf of arrowroot. The rice-filled bamboo tubes are cooked over an open fire, and a good deal of attention is required to ensure that the rice is thoroughly cooked and not burnt. Bamboo rice can be eaten by simply pulling back the soft bamboo, or by slicing the bamboo into pieces. Its flavour is unparalelled and can be savoured best while sitting in the shade by a river with the breeze on your face. Then nothing else is required except  khau-laam and maybe a little salt.

Chilli High

By Bulbul Sharma

It was a gloomy, wet morning in 1965 when my mother landed in England. She was nervously clutching in her hand a red velvet bag. It contained her precious gold jewellery, her tulsi beads, and six red chillies. Now, almost fifty years later, I am doing the same thing. In my luggage there are five packets of dried red chillies along with home-made ‘chat masala’ and ‘panch phoren’. Sniffer dogs eye me suspiciously at the airport but then go away since they are not sure what this heady, nose-tickling aroma means.

Things have changed from the days my mother travelled. Now you can buy red chillies in London quite easily, but they do not contain the same flavour as our home-grown ones. Deep ruby red with a hint of orange running along the sides, our chillies are pungent and can set your tongue on fire with the first bite. They will bring tears of joy to your eyes and clear your head.

Like most Indians, I am addicted to chillies and cannot do without them. At home there is no problem since green chillies come free along with a bunch of fresh coriander when one buys vegetables from the market, but when I have to travel abroad, the scene gets dismal. I can last about three days without tasting a green chilli but after that I am like a demented person searching for anything that will give me a chilli high. At first I thought this was a family trait confined only to our clan, but gradually I found that there are hundreds of fellow Indians who suffer from withdrawal symptoms when they are in a place where red or green chillies are nowhere to be found. Over the years I have made friends with the unlikeliest of people, the only thing connecting us being our relentless search for a chilli fix. ‘Have you got any left?’ a bank manager hisses in to my ears. I ignore him. ‘Only half but I can share it three ways,’ replies a professor who is more generous than me, furtively digging into his briefcase.

My adventures with the chilli began when I was a student in Moscow during the bleak Soviet period. The only vegetable you saw there was the symbol of working-class pride — the humble cabbage. Huge football-sized cabbages, pale and translucent as jade, were served to us everyday for lunch and dinner, either boiled, baked in lard or burnt crisp. The burnt dish was the best since we could not taste the cabbage at all in the cinders, especially if you added lots of salt and pepper. A bit of tomato ketchup would have helped, but those were the days when the Russians hated all things American and ketchup was a bad word and you could be fined for uttering it.

As I ate this burnt offering which the fertile land of Mother Russia had produced, I would remember my grandmother’s finely shredded green cabbage dish served with hot poories. Tears would roll down my cheeks as I recalled the single green chilli sitting on top of the delicious cabbage like a tiny emerald glittering on a crown. My fellow students thought I was crying because I loved the Soviet cabbage so much and would generously heap more on my plate. Then, one day, I told them the truth.

‘Chillies … you want chillies?’ asked my roommate, a lovely dark-eyed girl from Georgia. ‘I will get you some. My grandmother grows them in the Kalkhos (a collective farm). She is not allowed to, but she grows them all the same.’

It took Elena quite a while to get through to her grandmother since there was no phone in her village and the postal services were erratic. But one day, just when I had given up all hope, a small parcel arrived. The hostel warden, a giant of a woman with a black moustache and mean eyes, called Elena to her office. She took me along for moral support.

‘What is in this packet?’ growled our warden staring at Elena and then turned to smile at me ferociously, looking like the famous wolf in grandmother’s clothes. They had instructions from high above to be polite to foreign students.

‘Chillies, Comrade Galina Petrovna,’ said Elena.

‘Chillies … from where? You know food from outside is forbidden?’

‘They are from my grandmother’s Kalkhos. I want to show my friend from India that we can grow anything we want,’ said Elena, thinking on her feet.

There was a brief pause as the warden unwrapped the parcel, tore the brown paper with her huge fingers and then bit the string off with her bare teeth. There on the white plastic table lay ten chillies — four red and six green. They had travelled all the way from Georgia by train, then by van to our hostel — from one extreme corner of the mighty Soviet Union to another, yet they looked as fresh as newly picked chillies. The warden shrugged her shoulders and let us go. We ran to our room and I sat down at my desk, took out a packet of salted biscuits and ate one whole green chilli as my friend Elena watched me, smiling like a proud mother duck watching her duckling nibble a strand of weed.

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