The last straw

A few weeks ago, a video of an olive ridley sea turtle in Costa Rica went viral. It wasn’t because the turtle was doing something cute or gif-worthy. It was because a plastic straw had got embedded into one of its nostrils and the turtle looked like it was having trouble breathing. It’s a hard video to watch – the scientists hover around the turtle to try and wiggle the straw out for ten whole minutes. At one point, blood starts to stream from the nostril, while the turtle looks miserable. There’s palpable relief as the ten-centimetre long wedged straw is finally pried out by the scientists. It’s one of the most horrible things to see, and most people I know couldn’t bear to watch the video. Even the mere mention of it makes everyone shudder.

A piece of straw is an innocuous thing. It’s itty-bitty and almost invisible. And the straw is just kind of there, bobbing about in your drink. Say, you are at a restaurant and your child wants fresh lime soda or watermelon juice (oh surely, you don’t mean cola), while you order cocktails, straws it seems, have become a must-have. In fact, it’s almost like that annoying practice, where the staff asks you – bottled water or filter water. The correct answer, as anyone with an iota of brain cell, knows is filter water. Yet, it’s a question that is responsible for tons of plastic being added to landfills and oceans.

And when it comes to straws, there’s an array to choose from – in fact, the fancier the better. There are the plain plastic straws, then the L-shaped ones, and then the bendy ones in all sorts of fun colours and shapes. Suck a bit, and it’s exciting to see your beverage of choice go up and down like a roller coaster. Wheeee! And for a child, it can seem like the coolest thing ever. Plus, the gurgling sound they can make at the end of a drink. Bonus points for that!

But what happens after you are done chugging the beverage? That piece of plastic goes into the bin. If you are at the beach and having coconut water, the chain is even more clear. The straw goes into the water. To bob along with marine life.

One of the saddest pictures I saw on Instagram was of a Yellow Goby fish who was living in a makeshift home inside an abandoned soda can. The photo was taken by Brian Skerry. The caption by National Geographic further explained that one estimate cites “5.25 trillion pieces of plastic [are] currently circulating with the ocean”. I don’t even know how to quantify this figure in my head.

There are ways to be less of a sucker though. And they are less difficult than having a turtle gag on a piece of straw and try to regurgitate the plastic through its nose. It’s simply explaining the restaurant staff, for instance, that you want a drink without a straw. Nine out of ten times they will still bring the drink with a straw. Like the other day, when we were at a restaurant and ordered lassi. The drink came in solid steel tumblers, but with straws! Who drinks lassi with straw? Why? How? It’s supposed to be thick enough to eat with a spoon. But no, straw we must. If your building recycles, then take the offending plastic piece home and put it in the right bin.

Most importantly, explain to your children why a straw is really a useless accessory. Kids are sensitive, and they care about animals and pollution. They will end up taking the lead in this drive.

Once you get started, it’s kind of hard to stop. Refuse disposable cutlery and accessories when ordering food. Most delivery services have horrendous amounts of Styrofoam, plastic, and foil in their packaging. I have a colleague who managed to convince her food delivery service to switch to steel dabbas. It didn’t even take time.

Of course, it would be great if restaurants make the use of straws optional. I am sure there are tricky customers who demand a straw. But perhaps it’s easier to explain why you are not offering a straw. Or like the bottled water versus filtered water question, this too can become part of your staff’s vocabulary. Feel free to rephrase the question but here’s an example – “Would you like that juice without straw? Or would you prefer a straw and cause permanent damage to our oceans and marine life with your choice.”

Homestays We Love: Mitali Homestay in Shantiniketan for Soul Food

Homemade khana and lessons in Bengali culture at this charming stay.

It was in Shantiniketan that I found the perfect antidote to writer’s block—a slow-cooked khichuri that came in a kadhai deep enough to swim in. Daubs of homemade ghee, fresh khejur tomato chutney, fried baingan slices, and papads were accompaniments to the dish, prepared to perfection by Sukanya Roy, our host at Mitali Homestay. I tucked in, devouring the rice and lentils, feeling the will to write grow stronger as the khichuri on my plate diminished. By the time my friends and I had polished off the mishti doi, I was ready to return to my computer, sated and buzzing with ideas.

Mitali Homestay epitomizes peaceful and verdant Shantiniketan. Surrounded by fruit trees and organic vegetable patches, the Moroccan-influenced bungalow, with its white-washed walls and large windows, has been a family home to the Dey family for almost half a century. In 2011, our hosts Krishno Dey and Sukanya Roy converted it into a homestay, opening their doors to welcome friends and travellers. We spent many long evenings, sitting on their rooftop terrace, swapping stories in the crisp winter air, and mornings walking around the mango and champa trees. One day, Krishno invited Baul singers and we spent an evening rapt in music.

food Mitali Homestay Shantiniketan

Sukanya meanwhile, introduced us to Bengal’s rich culinary culture, one homemade meal at a time. For breakfast, we had puffy luchis and aloo sabji; lunchtime meant steaming pots of Bengali food, like fish curry, eggplant slathered in kasundi, and dal cooked with kaffir leaves. At tea, we had kulhad chai and puchkas (the famous Bengali pani puri) and dinner was reserved for world fare such as Italian or Lebanese, but the Bangla khana is really the best. Better still, most of the produce that makes it to the kitchen is grown in Mitali’s garden, including the mushrooms.

When she wasn’t cooking, or clucking after us like a mother hen, Sukanya made batik prints and clothing. Her earthy apparel is available at her boutique, housed in an earth cottage adjacent to the main house called Bhab Kutir. Everything is crafted with attention to detail. And like the store, Mitali’s rooms too are lovingly maintained, with bookshelves on every other wall. Our “Honeymoon Suite” had hand-painted cupboards, a kitchenette, a terrace, and an additional room. It effortlessly embodies the “home away from home” that most places strive to achieve.

We didn’t spend much time outside Mitali, but I did visit the Visva Bharati school (1.5km away). The institution follows Rabindranath Tagore’s philosophy of education in harmony with nature and has several schools of learning, including music, fine arts, education, and rural reconstruction. Between bouts of writing, I discovered Shantiniketan’s other charms: steaming hot rosogollas made from palm jaggery, cotton saris at the Alcha Store in Ratan Pally Market, and Lipi Biswas’s studio for pottery in the Boner Pukur Danga village. Over the weekend, the Shanibarer Haat (Saturday Market) by the Khoai grounds in Shantiniketan is a must-visit. Stock up on cotton khes sarees, bedsheets, toys, and handicrafts, crafted by local artisans.

Cabbages Mitali Homestay Shantiniketan


Mitali Homestay has six rooms, a mix of doubles and singles: three in the main house, and the others in the annex and Bhab Kutir. All rooms are air-conditioned, except Bhab Kutir. Standard tariff includes breakfast, but it’s best to book all meals here. (Doubles ₹3,000; +91-9433075853, +91-9433898067. More details here.)

Getting there
Mitali Homestay is located in Phuldanga village in Shantiniketan. It is 167km/4hr by road from Kolkata, and 5.6km/20min from Bolpur and 2km/7min from Prantik, which are the closest railway stations. Toto (electronic autorickshaws) rides cost approximately ₹200 from the stations. Kolkata has the nearest airport. Taxis can be organised by Mitali Homestay on request.

Food on the go

Over the last few weeks I have been on a whirlwind series of travel for work and vacation — and I have taken all sorts of transport — flight, rail, bus, car, hikes, the works. For me, food and travel are inherently connected, like so many of us. And so, I found myself abandoning my Kindle to observe just how the nature of food we eat as we travel has changed.

A toddler ambled across our coach’s corridor, his beaming face crumpling when he saw his brother tucking into a packet of Kurkure. “Kudkude,” he yelled, his hand outstretched, trying to grab at that packet. His brother sulked as he was forced to share his precious stash, while the toddler settled into someone’s lap, happily nibbling at his Kudkude. He couldn’t say “Delhi” — his uncle was trying to get him to say that, but he could say “Kurkure”. Priorities!

On another train journey, a pair of tweens switched on their MacBook, attached a dongle, and promptly ordered themselves Domino’s Pizza, after a fairly intense discussion about the toppings. The pizza, it seemed, was scheduled to reach home about the same time that we would all get home. Not to mention, it would be washed down by the accompanying bottles of cola. At the hotel we stayed in Binsar in Uttarakhand, a mother proudly told the wait staff that her son just loves Uncle Chipps, and no meal is complete without it. On another flight, the cup-o-noodles were what most families were ordering for their children.

Our cities and villages are now dotted with little kiosks, where traditional local food such as podi idlis or banana chips are shoved aside by shiny packages of processed foods of all sorts. Our trekking guide at Binsar in Uttarakhand kept stopping to pick up remnants of such packaging that were littering his beloved forests, even though there were dustbins inside the sanctuary. Our walk in beautiful Andretta in Himachal Pradesh was strewn with packets of Uncle Chipps, Lays, and Kurkure, wrapped around plants and trees. All of this only underscores the many studies and research floating about — that Indians, including children, are taking to packaged and hyper-processed food with gusto. This, at great cost to our collective well being, including our children’s health.

Many of us un-millennials (is that a word?) have fond food travel memories. Our family summer vacations would almost always commence with us lugging Milton flasks filled with ice and water onto the train. As the train trundled on, mum would produce crisp aloo nu shaak, potatoes cooked in their jackets Gujarati style, along with methi theplas, a dab of mango pickle, and of course dahi. In intervals, sev mambra would be produced, carefully stored in ziplock bags ordered from the USA aunt, as well as sliced fruits, and godpapdi. Yet now that we’ve grown up and have our own families, we don’t always do that.

Of course, as I grew older, I would often be embarrassed by this stash of food we carried along with us — whether it was to Baroda or to Cape Town. It’s only now that I have come to appreciate the hard work that my mum put in, in the form of hours in the kitchen, to ensure that we would be well-fed through the trip.

But then let’s face it — all of this eating well takes effort and the burden almost always falls on the women of the household, unfairly so. I cook almost every day, but even the thought of producing that quantum of food is daunting for me. And it’s getting harder to trust street food — you don’t know what oil or water it was cooked in, cut fruits and vegetables are a strict no-no, and it is often deep fried starchy food such as samosas, kachoris, or vada paos.

It’s not surprising that hard-pressed for time and with fewer healthier choices on sale, we are choosing to pick up ready-to-eats, convenience foods, outsourcing our food decisions to corporates. The difference is evident in the way we travel. We can’t even be bothered to carry our own water bottles, preferring to buy plastic mineral water bottles instead. Who wants to lug about a steel water bottle when you can use and throw a plastic one. Never mind the environmental impact.

Yet does it have to be all packaged, salty, additive-laden food that we need to pack into our travel schedule? Many of these food labels read like a sci-fi movie, undecipherable, straight out of a lab, rather than a farm. Now when I travel, I pack myself a sandwich or get my cook to make me a stack of theplas. Add some fruits and you’re sorted for the journey. A friend carries homemade granola with her, another carries packets of puliyogare to mix into rice. On a trip to Madhya Pradesh, we looked at the unappetising train fare (no it wasn’t the Shatabdi) and cheered up when a friend produced luchis and aloo sabji for dinner from her bags. Really, who needed chips?

Farm-fresh for your table

Bijal Vachharajani spends a Sunday morning shopping at theFarmer’s Market and is mighty pleased with the expedition’s results.

The promise of fresh vegetables and fruits is one of the few things that I will wake up early on a Sunday morning for. Even as I grumbled to my friend who had suggested the morning expedition, I found myself heading to Nariman Point two Sundays ago for the Sant Shiromani Shri Savta Mali Athavda Bazar, Vidhan Bhavan’s farmer-direct market. The weekly market that has been set up across the State by the Maharashtra State Agriculture Produce Marketing Board.

Of course, I was armed with cloth bags and plenty of change. Since mid-August this year, every week, the lot between the Vidhan Bhavan and Inox theatre is transformed into a bustling bazaar of more than 30 stalls with farmers selling a staggering range of local and seasonal produce.

We joined the throng of people shopping for their weekly veggies, and marveled at the glistening tomatoes, fat sitaphals, fresh cluster beans, and pumpkins the size of Ravana’s head, that jostled for space with mounds of lettuce, stacks of asparagus, and luscious-looking purple cabbage.

Apart from the usual suspects, there was some wonderful indigenous produce. We found some early green mogri (as the Gujaratis call it), which I had last eaten in Delhi. Winter vegetables, these radish pods are spicy: the purple ones add a nice bite to raitas while the green ones are cooked into a vegetable, usually with brinjals. Though, these are just as delicious when eaten alone.

The market also sold fresh kidney beans in their pods, khatta sorrel leaves, and colocasia leaves for patras and stir-fries. We also found wild chikoos and guavas that when sliced open revealed a soft pink flesh. Flowers such as marigolds and asters were also available.

I went back to the Sahyadri Farmers Producer Co. Ltd. stall multiple times for their glorious pesticide-free black raisins, plump and sweet. My friends kept texting me that they also wanted a packet, and so I would return to the stall to buy yet another kilo, while sampling more of the raisins. The same stall promises chemical-free bananas as well, and are considering home delivery in the future. Another farmer who stocked garlic showed us how to plant the pod to grow it.

The haul from the market was a reassuring one, given that just the other day, my friends and I were bemoaning the lack of good produce available in our bazaars. The prices at the Sant Shiromani Shri Savta Mali Athavda Bazar are more than reasonable, and for those tired of the usual apples and bananas, there’s much diversity in the produce available. This is a definitely affirmative step by the government in enabling fair trade, by cutting out the middle men, and letting people buy directly from the farmers.

Don’t forget to carry your own cloth bag though.

The Farmer’s Market is held every Sunday in the parking lot of the Vidhan Bhavan, Nariman Point, from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.

The market enables fair trade by cutting out middle men and letting people buy directly from farmers

Of Mosquitoes’ Toes and Wampfish Roes

Of Mosquitoes’ Toes and Wampfish Roes

Roald Dahl’s birth centenary is a reminder that treats were an essential part of the beloved children’s author’s life – “never too many, never too few, and always perfectly timed.”

A few weeks ago, my family and I were dismayed at the prospect of the Parle Biscuit Factory in Vile Parle shutting shop. When we first moved to Mumbai in the late ’80s, we lived in an apartment block that faced the landmark plant. On most days, we’d abandon our game of Monopoly or our attempts at mugging up Shakespeare to sniff out what was being cooked up at the factory. “It’s Kismi Toffee bars they’re making today,” my mother would say, as a sweet caramel aroma wafted across the railway tracks. Another day, a nutty scent would linger in the air, and we’d agree that a fresh batch of Parle-G biscuits was being baked. Living there was almost like being inside a Roald Dahl book.

So I knew exactly what Charlie would feel like when he’d pass Mr Willy Wonka’s giant chocolate factory on his way to school. “And every day, as he came near to it, he would lift his small pointed nose high in the air and sniff the wonderful sweet smell of melting chocolate. Sometimes, he would stand motionless outside the gates for several minutes on end, taking deep swallowing breaths as though he were trying to eat the smell itself,” wrote Roald Dahl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1964.

Dahl effortlessly captured the luscious aromas and subsequent yearning for melting chocolate, and pinned it down in a book that would go on to become our strongest confectionary-related literary memory. Dahl went so far as to write, “If I were a headmaster I would get rid of the history teacher and get a chocolate teacher instead.” Not surprising coming from a schoolboy who signed up to test chocolate inventions for Cadbury.

On most days, I find myself baking or reading children’s books (so that I can write about them), and in Dahl’s writing, both my enduring interests dovetail. Every time I melt a block of dark chocolate, I think about The Chocolate Room, with its verdant meadows and chocolate river. I hear Mr Wonka say, “The waterfall is most important! It mixes the chocolate! It churns it up! It pounds it and beats it! It makes it light and frothy! No other factory in the world mixes its chocolate by waterfall.”

Like most children growing up during the ’80s, I discovered Dahl’s splendiferous stories only as a teenager. I was growing up on a steady diet of Indrajaal, Archie comics, and Enid Blyton. Dahl came to my neighbourhood library much later, and when I picked up his books as a gangly adolescent, people would look at me all biffsquiggled and wonder why I had never read him before. Once I started though, it was like being on a scrumdiddlyumptious rollercoaster ride for this human bean.

The recipe sounded swatchschollop (as revolting as the title promised): It’s a mix of butter, milk, and yogurt. But the result is surprisingly comforting.
I’m not sure whether it’s the fantastical stories that he spun, of a Big Friendly Giant who caught dreams for children or the horribly hairy Mr Twit with a food-speckled beard. Maybe it was the wondrous words that he conjured up: Over 500 of them from whizpopping to sogmire to mispise, that deliciously roll off the tongue. Or perhaps it was the worlds he dreamt up, where lickable wallpaper, rivers of chocolate, and a peach that’s actually an edible ship are as commonplace as a beanbag in a start-up office. Dahl’s stories are the zozimus (a dream ingredient, for the uninitiated) that childhood should be made up of.

And then there is the food itself – the glorious, scrumdiddlyumptious food. Before molecular gastronomy became something of a trend, Dahl’s stories were already a whizpopping culinary delight. They are replete with familiar foods and mysterious ones, those that had no explanations in the human bean world. But it doesn’t matter, because our imagination fills in the gaps. We were a generation anyway accustomed to reading about scones, ginger pop, and humbugs, without the faintest idea of what they actually looked or tasted like. So it wasn’t hard to imagine what Frobscottle – that fizzy green drink where bubbles sink down rather than rise up – felt like. Even now, tinda and karela distinctly remind me of the ghastly snozzcumber, a knobbly vegetable with black-and-white stripes. All of these were brought alive by Quentin Blake’s illustrations.

Invention was key to these stories. Who else could dream up the concoctions in George’s Marvellous Medicine, full of ingredients such as Golden Gloss Hair Shampoo that was sure to wash Grandma’s tummy nice and clean, and toothpaste to brighten up her horrid brown teeth? It’s remarkable how Dahl knew just what children loved to do: My nephew can spend hours concocting all sorts of potions with coffee beans and water. He looks high and low for bits and bobs to add to it, relishing the results that look more and more vile. Rules, when it comes to invention, must go straight out of the window.

Like this particular ditty from James and the Giant Peach:

I often eat boiled slobbages. They’re grand when served beside
Minced doodlebugs and curried slugs. And have you ever tried
Mosquitoes’ toes and wampfish roes
Most delicately fried?
(The only trouble is they disagree with my inside.)

I don’t know what a doodlebug is, but just the thought of a boiled slobbage is enough to make me want to unwrap a piece of dark chocolate and try to forget about it. Or wickedly threaten my nephew with that when I meet him next. But then perhaps, Dahl was just prophetic, with insects being proposed as staple, resilient food thanks to climate change.

Just as Dahl’s stories were cautionary about the excesses of food, they tackled the grave idea of hunger. As Mr Fantastic Fox’s family go hungry, Dahl describes the anguish the fox parents go through. When the cubs cry from hunger, he writes, “‘How long will it be till we get something to eat?’ their mother didn’t answer them. Nor did their father. There was no answer to give.” Later, Mr Fox says, “Do you know anyone in the whole world who wouldn’t swipe a few chickens if his children were starving to death?”

In The Chocolate Factory, Charlie’s family is so poor that “the only meals they could afford were bread and margarine for breakfast, boiled potatoes and cabbage for lunch, and cabbage soup for supper. Sundays were a bit better. They all looked forward to Sundays because then, although they had exactly the same, everyone was allowed a second helping.” The same book is a lesson in food security: On one hand Dahl writes about poverty and malnourishment, while starkly contrasting it with the “haves” who revel in gluttony, but ultimately are acquainted with the pitfalls of greed. Obesity, in most of his books, was not a trait he loved.

Yet, what’s unmistakable is that so many of the stories are about the joys of food, sharing it, and eating it. And some of the recipes are not even that difficult to pull off. In Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes, “an interpretation of some of the scrumptious and wonderfully disgusting dishes” from his books, you will find recipes for Mosquitoes’ Toes and Wampfish Roes made with cod fillets and Lickable Wallpapers made with fruit and gelatine. In the introduction, his wife Felicity Dahl writes, “Treats were an essential part of Roald’s life – never too many, never too few, and always perfectly timed.”

Parsing the recipe book, I couldn’t help but wonder about Butterscotch, which makes the Oompa-Loompas whoop up with joy. The recipe sounded swatchschollop (as revolting as the title promised): It’s a mix of butter, milk, and yogurt. But the result is surprisingly comforting. It didn’t make me tiddly, but it was “tasting as wonderfully of crodscollop”. I replaced the corn syrup in the recipe with golden syrup, and the skim milk with normal milk, and used a blender to mix it all up (the Oompa-Loompas would be scornful of the skim milk, I’m sure).

Next on my agenda is the Lickable Wallpapers recipe. In an America’s Test Kitchen podcast, Felicity Dahl talks about how children would come out of a screening of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, begging their parents to buy some Lickable Wallpaper. Whenever my nephew watches the movie, I know I can be ready with some.
When Bijal Vachharajani is not reading Harry Potter, she can be found traipsing around the jungles of India. In her spare time, she works as a communications consultant and writes about education for sustainable development and food security so she can fund those trips and expensive Potter books.

How the gulab jamun travelled from Iran to India and other stories

How the gulab jamun travelled from Iran to India and other stories

Reading Yasmin Khan’s The Saffron Tales is like tucking into an expansive meal. As you turn the pages with luscious photographs and read the lovingly documented recipes and stories, you are enveloped in a sensual world of delicate aromas, myriad textures, and subtle flavours.

Khan’s book is a celebration of harvests, traditions, and stories. She writes about the delicacy of the saffron harvest, traces the history of some of the celebrated Iranian produce such as pomegranate, and delves into their contemporary use, while taking the reader through the many different sofrehs (the patterned tablecloth on which dishes are served) of Iran. The Saffron Tales coaxes you to step into the kitchen and try many of the recipes out. And it’s not difficult, and that’s mainly because when you rummage through Khan’s extensive ingredients list, you realise that most of these are easily available in our kitchens.

Iran was at the heart of the old Silk Route, and its location enriched its cuisine, making it, Khan says, “a poetic balance of subtle flavours such as dried limes, saffron and orange blossom”. In India Food & Cooking: The Ultimate Book on Indian Cuisine, Pat Chapman talks about how Iran’s monarchs Cyrus, who invaded northwest India in 532 BC, and Darius, his successor, introduced the region to Iran’s “indigenous ingredients such as spinach, pistachio, almond, pomegranate, saffron, and rose water”. Chapman further writes, “Rice was not indigenous and probably arrived there by trade after the Aryans first encountered Dravidian cultivation terraces. But it soon became the Iranian staple”.

Later, the Mughals and the Parsis enriched and cemented the culinary synthesis. In her book, The Penguin Food Guide to India, Charmaine O’ Brien talks about the influence of Persian cuisine during the Delhi Sultanate rule. “The hallmarks of medieval Persian cuisine were dishes of meat cooked with rice; meat cooked with fruit; and a generous use of nuts, dried fruit and distilled flower essences such as rose water to flavour both sweet and savoury dishes.” From the biryani to naans and kebabs, so many of our foods trace their origin to Persia. For instance, Michael Krondl writes in The Donut: History, Recipes, and Lore from Boston to Berlin about how Persian invaders brought with them a “round fritter that eventually became gulab jamun. (gulab comes from the Persian word for rose water, while jamun refers to a local fruit of roughly this size.)” He adds, “The [Indian] recipe is more complex than in the Middle East, requiring a mixture of dried and fresh milk thickened with flour. But as in Iran, the mixture is fried and soaked in rosewater syrup”. Most commercial gulab jamuns now come without the rose water, but it still conjures up the beauty of rose petals being distilled into a fragrant essence.

It’s not just a spice whammy

At the beginning of her book, Khan writes, “Those unfamiliar with the food often come to the sofreh… expecting spicy, fiery flavours, perhaps more befitting the country’s climate and politics, and are often surprised to find that the cuisine is gentle and soothing…” Not unlike our country, where different regions have a different staple, produce, and recipes.

Khan explains “slow-cooked stews known as khoresht and elaborate rice dishes layered with herbs, vegetables, legumes, meat, nuts and fruit are the bedrocks of Persian cuisine, creating a dazzling mosaic of scents, textures and colours…” The khoresht is cooked depending on the region and the seasonal produce, but each has a distinct sour and sweet taste balance. In India too, spice doesn’t dominate the palate, rather it’s about striking that perfect balance.

Persian cooking, of course, uses more herbs, than spices. Flavours stand out like in the Chelow, a classic Persian dish, which is perfectly cooked rice with a “buttery saffron crust”. Or, the Bagalee ghatogh, where fresh beans are cooked with turmeric, garlic, and dill. Even the gheimeh, slow-cooked lamb shoulder with dried lime split peas, doesn’t have a lengthy list of ingredients, but promises a unique citrusy flavour with the addition of dried limes.

Familiar ingredients and recipes, with a twist 

Seasonal produce and ingredients sparkle in The Saffron Tales. For instance, Khan writes about Rasht, the capital of the Gilan province in northern Iran, where fresh young garlic is often eaten raw at the dinner table. Similar to what Gujaratis do in the winter months, the only difference being they sauté it in ghee before serving.

Many of the recipes are familiar – burnt aubergine dips (think baingan bharta), yoghurts flavoured with vegetables and herbs (raitas), and naan (well, naan). Like many Indian recipes, Iranian cooking constitutes of approximate measurements of ingredients, easily substituted with another based on availability, and mostly by following the smell and taste of food as it gets prepared.

Fresh fruit, salads, and yoghurt are ubiquitous. Like most of our meals, Persian meals are not complete without the salad, “adding a welcome crunch and freshness to complement the hearty stews and gentle rice dishes”. Salad Shirazi, for instance, is a simple mix of cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, and radishes tossed together with dried mint, olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, and black pepper. Quite like the Maharashtrian kachumber of onion, tomatoes, green chillies, and coriander tossed with nimbu, salt, and pepper. But the dried mint is a fabulous addition.

One big Hum Saath Saath Hai meal 

Khan points out that sharing food is central to the Iranian approach to eating. “An Iranian would never simply reach into the fruit bowl and take a bite of an apple; instead they would cut the apple into slices and offer it around the whole group, even if that meant there was only one slice left for them at the end”. In her introduction, she writes about how usual it is for food to be offered to strangers in bus or plane journeys. And that reminds me of the great Indian train journeys, where dabbas of food are generously shared with co-passengers.

Traditionally, writes Khan, “Persian food doesn’t separate starters from main courses. Instead, the table or sofreh is dotted with small plates of vegetables, yoghurt, olives, pickles and salads that are eaten alongside the rice dishes, stews and kebabs”. Much like our thalis and thaals, where everything is served together.

The sweetness doesn’t always come from fruits 

In the way that Indians coax the natural sweetness out of vegetables, Khan’s recipes do the same. One such recipe is the morab-ye kadoo halvaa-ee, a spiced butternut squash preserve. Unlike our mango morabba which is more gelatinous in texture, this one is a sweetened pumpkin puree which works beautifully with morning granola and cheese cake toppings. Her carrot, cardamom and rosewater jam with a dash of orange zest will most probably elevate the humble bread and butter as a breakfast option.

Fruits, conversely, are used to flavour savoury dishes. There’s a river fish that is stuffed with walnuts, basil, and pomegranate molasses and baked. Plums and apricots are salted and dried added to stews and soups.

Eating a revolution

British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is hoping to bring about a change in the way they approach food and nutrition

Today, British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s campaign, Food Revolution, kicks off in 10 countries across the world. In what he calls a global day of celebration, Oliver is hoping to get people to think about the world health crisis by raising awareness, sparking discussions, and inspiring people to bring about a change in the way they approach food and nutrition.

The campaign focuses on children and the need for a robust and fun food education system. On his website, Oliver points out that “millions of kids are eating too much of the wrong food, while millions more don’t get enough of the good stuff to let them grow and thrive. We need to unite as one strong, single voice to force governments and businesses to create a healthier, happier world for the future.” In India, chef Kunal Kapur and actor Jacqueline Fernandez will be cooking live on Facebook from Pali Village Café in Bandra.

In an email interview, the chef talks about food education, his online presence, and how Indian foods have influenced his palate. Edited excerpts:

Tell us the idea behind Food Revolution. What is new this year?

The Food Revolution is my attempt to create a worldwide campaign to discuss, debate and adopt a healthier way of eating. The statistics, especially concerning children, are startling and this makes me scared about global health. 159 million children are too undernourished to grow properly, whereas 41 million children under the age of five are overweight.

I have been campaigning for healthier food and better education about nutrition for 15 years now. One of the first TV shows I created in 2010 was called Food Revolution. It was centered on reforming school lunches in US schools and also trying to create a conversation about healthy food and nutrition in America.

This year the Food Revolution is taking place on a huge scale with 10 countries involved in the campaign, in an attempt to spread the conversation to a global audience. It kick-starts on May 20 with live-streaming on my Facebook page. I cook healthy meals, provide advice and of course have lots of fun. The live-streaming makes this an interactive medium where people from different countries can be a part of the Food Revolution. And the best thing is that I have some of the best chefs and best known personalities coming on board, teaching people watching them in their countries just how easy and inexpensive it is to make nutritious food. The campaign will then continue in Australia, India, Germany, Netherlands, Brazil, USA, Kenya, Tanzania, Canada and Nigeria.

This is the first time you are officially doing something in India for the Food Revolution. What can we expect?

Being British, I can safely say that Indian food has influenced my palette. The British love Indian food precisely for the reasons it is famous for. It’s wholesome, fresh and delicious. My blog is filled with Indian recipes! Therefore, I really feel a connection to India and I am so glad the Food Revolution has spread to India.

I want people to be better educated about food. In a country like India, which has the world’s youngest population and where starvation and obesity exist simultaneously, it is important that people are made aware about how our diet impacts our daily life. In India, the government is trying to reduce the number of malnourished children by launching initiatives like Infant and Young Child Feelings Counselling Centres in certain states. At the same time, it is beginning to tackle the obesity crisis by raising awareness of the negative impact that poor dietary and lifestyle choices can have on health, with programmes like the National Programme for Prevention and Control of Cancer Diabetes, Cardiovascular Diseases and Stroke. However, still more can be done. I’m also looking forward to one of India’s top chefs, Kunal Kapur, cooking with actress Jacqueline Fernandez to show the audience just how fun and easy cooking can be.

Food Revolution is a massive online campaign. Tell us about running the campaign through social media.

The live-streaming feature makes the entire event interactive and inclusive to a global audience, through a virtual medium. But even prior to this event we have constantly used the support of social media to get our message of healthy eating out there. We have started a petition to include practical cooking for school children and people all around the world have signed it and most importantly shared the petition for others to sign. The world is now at our fingertips and social media helps in uniting everyone especially for important causes like global health. With our Food Revolution Day website anyone will be able to access information regarding the campaign and we hope the #FoodRevolutionDay trends worldwide to spread the importance of eating healthy around the world.

At a time when people are increasingly obsessed with food, we are also increasingly spending less time making our food. It’s a trend we are seeing in urban India as well. How does one start to bring change then?

The Food Revolution is an initiative wherein we use our buying power as consumers to take a stand against unhealthy practices. As consumers we have the power to make a lot of change in the food industry.

Many people believe that healthy food is more expensive than junk fast food. We help clarify these myths. That is why it is important to start this discussion so people can debate, ask questions and become more aware.

We especially encourage parents and schools to adopt healthier eating habits so it can impact their children’s lives for the better. Small steps like cooking with your children, reading up current issues about the food industry can come a long way in educating your child about nutrition.

By adopting a healthy lifestyle you are allowing future generations to access, consume and understand food better than we ever could.

That is why a campaign like Food Revolution is important as it encourages better food education.

One of the campaigns you actively advocate is involving kids in food appreciation. Tell us about the importance of food education for children.

Like I said our children are our future, and with India’s having the world’s youngest population. the youth are fundamental to India’s growth as a nation.

To better educate them about food means to better education future generations to come. It is essentially to adopt a healthy eating lifestyle early and at the same time ensure that the kids are excited and eager to learn more about food.

The Kitchen Garden is a program I started that teaches school children how to plant a seed and eventually cook a meal with the ingredients they have grown. Whether you are a teacher or a parent inspire your children to love food.

Becoming a good food advocate is especially critical as a climate adaption method. How far do you think campaigns such as Food Revolution Day help people think about how their food is grown?

Campaigns such as Food Revolution Day are based on accessing and using fresh, local produce. That is why campaigns such as Kitchen Garden help children to learn and think about how their food is grown and what they are putting into their body.

One of the most important campaigns I have worked on is the Ministry of Food Campaign. It aims to keep cooking skills alive as it has been proven that cooking from scratch has many healthy benefits to your eating habits. Through a national network of food advisers and cooking teachers we help make the public make better choices about food and nutrition.

Being a food advocate means imparting your knowledge and allowing people a chance at a better food education, which is what the Food Revolution campaign aims to do.

As a chef, how do you ensure a transparent supply chain for the food you cook with?

Sales of organic and more responsibly produced food are on the rise, and like anything, if we demand more, more will become widely available. I find it impossible to be 100 per cent organic, but I do trade up whenever I can. When we trade up to organic meat, it will be more expensive, but really this change is to instigate the habit of eating less meat, and choosing the best when you do. It’s all about quality over quantity. When you buy organic meat you are also ensuring the animal has led a good life before this and that’s what it is important to me. We have to be ethical and compassionate in our food industry. At the same time if they have lived longer you are eating a healthier bird! You are reducing the fertilisers and chemicals you are ingesting. I also love growing my own food. Therefore I adopt these principles as far as I can.

Do we expect to see more of Jamie Oliver in India?

I hope now that we have introduced the Food Revolution Day in India it will never stop. We will ensure that the fight for healthy eating continues and hopefully India will continue the campaign. I do also of course have my restaurant Jamie’s Italian in Delhi so a piece of me is already there!

Chef Kunal Kapur and Jacqueline Fernandez will be cooking live on Facebook today at 3.30pm.

For more details, see jamies

Stop the ‘Kissa Quinoa, Couscous aur Kale ka’, and switch to rajgira or millet instead

The growing demand for quinoa in India and across the world is gravely affecting communities in South America and Mexico. But there are some signs of hope yet.
The first time I came across quinoa was five years ago, when a Bolivian friend cooked it for us in Costa Rica. Until then, I had only read about quinoa on international food websites. As I inspected the traditional Andes super crop, I noticed how the quinoa looked like translucent flat beads, each grain fluffy and distinct. It reminded me of the broken wheat khichdi we eat at home, and my friend Stephanie Weiss and I began exchanging notes on prep methods. I ended the conversation by saying that I couldn’t wait to tell my friends back home that I had tried this heritage grain.

Little did I know that by the time I returned from studying climate change, like the rest of the world, quinoa would have caught the fancy of hipsters in India. Quinoa burgers, quinoa salads, quinoa what have yous’ were everywhere. People were spending as much as a week’s fruits and vegetables budget in buying quinoa. Not only that, we were scattering Mexican chia seeds over our morning oatmeal and buying tossed kale concoctions from salad bars. All food flown from different parts of the world, piling precious carbon miles onto our plates. In fact, reading restaurant menus was like watching a star-studded film – Kissa Kinoa, Kous Kous aur Kale ka.

According to Stephanie, now an environmental researcher and consultant in Bolivia, as the demand for quinoa spiralled across the world, it led to a change in consumption habits in the places of production, mainly Bolivia and Peru. “It became more profitable to sell quinoa, rather than eat it,” she said. “This has an adverse impact on nutrition and tradition. According to the Bolivian government, only 15 per cent of the quinoa produced in Bolivia is consumed within its borders currently.”

Our eating habits and culinary fads are having a colossal impact on communities in South America. “The craze for quinoa has had a direct impact on the price increase for local markets in recent years. It’s also led to degradation of the fields with declining fertility, increased pests and diseases, lack of respect for natural cycles soil,” says Arafat Espinoza Ortiz, an agronomist in Peru.

Food miles and sustainability aside, our “let’s eat what’s trending” consumption phase has even led to quinoa and chia seeds being grown in India. Often, these are market-driven decisions, sometimes pragmatic or ecological ones. An organic farmer from Amravati, in Maharashtra, shared that they are all disillusioned with cotton and are looking at growing foods that the market wants. “We don’t want to grow cotton,” Rahul Bole said. “Tell us what to grow next, something like baby corn, something that the market likes. The Mumbai market, especially.” Bole’s community is contemplating growing kale or marketing their free-range eggs.

Look at grocery stores and hypermarkets a little carefully the next time: All of them have begun stocking alternatives including bajra idlis mixes, ragi biscuits, and packets of little fox millet. The quinoa trend has fuelled a resurgence in India’s ancient cereal crops – millets. A more sustainable option, millets aren’t thirsty crops like paddy. Rather they are hardy, healthy and versatile when it comes to cooking them.

Also look at menus with a more discerning eye. Restaurants are making local, seasonal, and indigenous fare an integral part of their menu. Gondhoraj lemon, Gobindobhog rice, and moringa leaves prominently feature in the Bangalore-based Toast and Tonic’s menu. Millets of Mewar, in Udaipur, makes Nutella-drenched millet pancakes, aloo tikki and kebabs, while Smoke House Deli has a fabulous health menu with millet risotto and spinach and millet soup. Food companies are also bringing their organic A game to shelves. Bengaluru-based brand Vaathsalya sells ragi popcorn and chocolate ragi malt, while OrgTree makes millet cookies with foxtail and kodo.

Accept food logic. As Somji, an organic and Fairtrade cotton farmer with Chetna Organic in Telangana, put it, “All you city people love to eat rice. We don’t eat that. For us, it’s jowar and makki. We eat the food of our ancestors – millets.” Once you start looking up ingenious foods, you realise how much a part of our diets they are, hipster trends not withstanding. Until now they weren’t cool enough, rather they were something just made in our home kitchens. Gujaratis, for instance, make crisp, delicious puris out of rajgira atta, which is made from the seeds of amaranth. Moringa leaves may have now caught the fancy of international chefs, but we have been cooking them with dal in the south for ages. And then there’s ragi and jowar rotis, hearty and healthy rotis that deserve to be eaten more.

It’s a paradox in many ways – at one end there are concerns about sustainability, food miles and the impact on smallholder farmers; but at the other end of the spectrum, it has created a market for traditional produce. Producers are expanding to newer international markets, compelling them to adopt more ecological, fair trade practices. And chefs and cooks are experimenting with traditional produce, tossing in diversity into our diets. Stephanie dug up a quote from Delgado F and Delgado M, Vivir y comer bien en los Andes Bolivianos: “The importance of quinoa in strengthening food security and sovereignty lies in the traditional uses and customs, recipes and culinary techniques adapted to this grain and inherited by generations”. Which is pretty much what we could do with indigenous foods in India as well – celebrate them by cooking with them – for the farmers, the climate, and for us.


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This weekend, make cold mango dessert in a jar

This recipe is a piece of cake: No baking, just throw in mango, Mascarpone cheese, ginger biscuit and stick it into the fridge.

While I was studying climate change, one of our professors would come to class with his laptop and a mason jar of water. It wasn’t to stick flowers in, as I discovered. It was his water bottle. As we pored over climate governance case studies, I couldn’t help but wonder about the idea of drinking from a mason jar. Of course now these jars are everywhere – hipsters are chugging cocktails from it, the health conscious are putting salad layers in them, designers are turning them into mini lanterns, and some people still use them to store jam in. There are reasons behind the “rise of the jars”, as this ThinkProgress article explains – from being more economical, ecological conscious, and because it evokes a sense of nostalgia.

Bakers, of course, love these jars, pressing all sorts of desserts into them. From tiramisus to creamy concoctions, everything’s now available in a glass jar. And given that Bengaluru’s going through, what can only be described as extreme weather conditions, I decided it’s time to make desserts in a jar and tuck them into the fridge for SOS it-is-too-hot moments. Because honestly, it is too hot to get close to an oven. Which is why I am thinking sorbets, ice creams, and cold desserts.

I have been trying all sorts of combinations – Greek yoghurt, seeds, and mangoes; Mascarpone cheese, ginger biscuits, and mangoes; ice cream, mangoes, and leftover cake. I am guessing you can see a pattern there – mangoes. Maybe I should say fruit, but really it’s been mangoes that have been going into the jars, but you can use whatever fruit is in season. And the best thing is it really doesn’t need exact measurements – you can add more fruit, more yoghurt, more cheese, depending on what you feel like. Or what the weather allows.

For the filling
70g- Mascarpone cheese
70g- Cream cheese (Britannia has an Indian one now)
20g- Fairtrade castor sugar
1/8tsp- Vanilla extract
1 to 2- Mangoes
1- Jar (let us not forget the jar)

For the biscuit layer
½ packet- Ginger biscuits
2 tbsp- Melted butter

* Blitz the biscuits in a blender until fine.

* Mix the crumbs with melted butter until it can come together to form a ball when you squeeze it.

* Layer the bottom of the jar with the biscuit-butter dough. It can be about a centimeter thick.

* The ginger, you will find, goes very well with the mango. Don’t pack it down, else it will stick to the bottom and freeze. Stick the jar into the fridge.

* Using a hand-held mixer, whisk the Mascarpone and cream cheeses along with the sugar.

* Make sure there are no lumps in the batter. Now add vanilla extract and give it one more whizz. You could add a smidgen of ginger powder or cinnamon instead.

* Add a spoonful of the cheese mix to the jar.

* Next add chopped mangoes. Drizzle in some more of the biscuit mix.

* Add another layer of the cheeses, and top with more mangoes.

* Let it chill for at least a couple of hours. Dig in straight from the jar.


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Bake an aamras cheesecake this weekend

“It’s never been this hot at this time of the year,” said Settu, one of the farmers who is part of the Samalpatti Mango Growers Association. We were walking around a mango orchard in Samalpatti in Krishnagiri, in the heart of totapuri mango growing landscape. Raw mangoes hung temptingly from trees across the countryside. We snacked on slices of raw mangoes daubed generously with paprika, salt, and lashings of jaggery and talked about the future of this precious fruit. The relentless heat is of concern to the smallholder mango farmers when it comes to yields, but they are also hopeful. Mainly because they are no longer isolated smallholder farmers tackling problems of climate change, pest proliferation, and market fluctuations. Rather, they operate as a unit.


In 2009, 91 farmers from the region came together to form the SMGA co-operative and got themselves Fairtrade certified. Which means they get a minimum price for their mangoes, despite market fluctuations and an additional premium on what has been sold on Fairtrade terms. Their mango pulp is now being exported to European market, and it’s a source of pride for the community.

So far, the farmers have invested the premium money in fish water ponds as an additional source of income – mangos are biennial yielding crops – and a primary school in their village. It’s a story of promise, of climate adaptation, and the power of the collective.

I came back home and decided I needed to bake with mango. And not just mango, it had to be aamras, because you know, there’s nothing like pure mango pureé. So I baked a cheesecake, stirred some aamras into it, and even topped it with that. There’s also nothing like too much mango. I used The Kitchn’s recipe on my friend Aditya Raghavan’s recommendation, and adapted it slightly. I would recommend reading through their recipe because it goes into a lot of details, which comes in handy when baking a cheesecake. It’s not difficult, but it’s got short, fiddly steps.

Adapted from The Kitchn.

For the crust
170g- Ginger biscuits
5tbsp- Butter

For the cheesecake
900g- Cream cheese (room temperature)
1 cup- Sugar
1 tbsp- Corn flour (optional)
A pinch salt
½ cup- Greek yogurt or hung curd
1 tsp- Vanilla extract
3- Large free range eggs
1- Large free range egg yolk
Pulp of 2 mangoes

For the topping
3 to 4- Mangoes

For the crust
*Grease a springform pan (10”). Now put the pan on two diagonally placed strips of aluminum foil and cover it on all sides. This is to stop water from entering the pan while baking it.

*Preheat the oven to 350F/ 180C.

*Blitz the ginger biscuits in a mixer.

*Mix in melted butter until it clumps together.

*Spread the mixture on the bottom of the pan, use the bottom of a steel bowl to even it out.

*Bake for eight minutes until the crust starts to brown.

*Let it cool.

For the cheesecake filling
*Using a hand-held mixer, whisk the cream cheese, sugar, corn flour and salt until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Make sure all the cream cheese lumps have evened out.

*Add the yoghurt and vanilla and beat again.

*Beat in the eggs one at a time.

*Give a last stir with a spatula.

*Mix in the mango pulp.

*Pour it on top of the biscuit layer.

Baking the cheesecake
*Cheesecakes have to be baked in a water bath.

*So place your pan into a larger baking dish.

*Boil water and pour into the baking dish, making sure no water falls into the cheesecake.

*Fill an inch of the pan with the water.

*Bake at 350F/180C for an hour.

*You know the cheesecake is done when it’s slightly puffed and set and a little bit wobbly in the centre.

*If you see cracks forming, then stop immediately.

*Switch off the oven and leave the door open a crack.

*Cool for about an hour.

*Now bring the cheesecake out and remove the foil.

*Run a knife around the cake’s edge to make sure it doesn’t stick to the sides of the pan.

*Cool completely and then freeze for at least five hours.

Cheesecake topping
*Peel the mangoes and blitz them to a fine pureé. Top the cheesecake with the aamras and serve immediately.

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