We took a weekend trip to Darjeeling. A work thing. Mixed with tons of sleep. And food.
Well, I mean, look. Just look.
The last Friday night was spent swaying in a train, as we made our way to Darjeeling. At one point, the time when my folks honeymooned there, Darjeeling was quaint, cold and romantic. It is still cold. It is no more quaint. And the romance is stale and fragrant-less.
I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them.― Nora Ephron
When you grow up in the sweltering heat of India, sitting in a brick-clad classroom stewing in your own sweat, listening to your professors drone on about Structural Design, there is very little motivation for you to even like summer, let alone love it.
After your nineteenth birthday, you decide that it is time to fall in love. And the right candidate comes along very soon. A senior at the University and although his arms are a little thinner and danglier than you would have liked, he seems perfect. Tall, dark, almost handsome with a carved beard that makes him look like one of the Bee Gees. He also likes to dress in black from head to toe.
But the clincher? He owns a motorcycle — a ratty Yamaha RX-100 that champions at sputtering. That machine splits through the silent night air, every night and wakes up everyone at the girls’ hostel. He has the faultless makings of a “bad boy”.
If anyone tells you that you can’t spend an entire weekend in half-prostrate on your bed with your laptop balanced on your stomach, surfing through food blogs for inspiration with your left hand stuck in large bag of Cheetos, then cut them out of your life. You don’t need that kind of negativity.
Before anything else, let me warn you that I don’t have a recipe today. If you’re leaving then I’ll see you again in a few days!
Over the last couple of years, my habit of surfing through food blogs has largely dwindled. Sometimes when the load is light at work, I tilt the laptop screen at an angle that makes it difficult for my co-workers to notice what website I’m on. And then I go visit the food blogs that speak poetically about onions and bean soup, pieces on food tech start-ups, food movements in China and I especially pore over the ones by travelling gluttons. But gorgeous websites like Foodgawker and Tastespotting has remained largely untouched for the last two or three summers.
“Isn’t it to die for?” My friend gushed breathlessly between bites of Kati Roll.
I was meeting her after 10 long years smack dab in the middle of rain-infested New York City, and she’d dragged me to Greenwich Village to taste a popular Bengali import (or export? Import, if you’re anywhere out of West Bengal).
Versions — diluted, exaggerated and almost always awful — of the quintessential roll in various parts of India, do actually go by that name, so I can’t blame them.
Gujarat (and the Indian West Coast in general) has a version, inexplicably known as a Frankie, where the chicken is tomato red in color and amount of spice will produce a hole in your chest. Delhi’s back alleys produce “rolls” that are made of succulent kebabs wrapped in flimsy rumaali roti. Note how the word “roll” is within quotes.
I once also had a Bengali cook at an Indian food stall on Portobello Street make me chicken roll that had a white yogurt-based sauce that brought forth the same kind of emotions that underwear stuck in your butt-crack brings.
“Isn’t this the best chicken roll you’ve had outside of Kolkata?” She gushed again, this time looking directly at me. I nodded vigorously, making sure my mouth was too full to speak and hoped she couldn’t make out how much I wanted to dump that roll on her head.
Very rarely would you find a Bengali hauling a bag of squid or octopus home, to have for lunch.
It could be faintly surprising to outsiders considering how religiously we’re devoted to our seafood. No, really. We mummify dead fish, with shiny scales and twinkly eyes and exchange them as gifts at weddings. In case of a death in the family, it is customary to break a 14-day mourning period by eating, that’s right, fish. The bonier the better.
We put fish, fried, braised or steamed, on our plates everyday, at least for one meal. At least. We know and love our seafood as much as we love our Darjeeling and our afternoon naps. We pick the bones out with our fingers, eat them with our hands, suck and chew on the soft fish heads, lick our fingers clean and heave a giant burp out of our full bellies when were done. We are of the seafood.
It is always either a pleasure or a horror to go through old photos on Facebook. Also, one of the best ways to avoid the mountain of work awaiting to consume you.
I stumbled across a particularly random-not-so-random one yesterday — the beauty above is of one of our classrooms back in the Department of Built Environment in the University of Nottingham. I think it was one of those droopy Autumn afternoons when the room quickly cleared after an especially long lecture, and I found a quick second to capture the light outside.
I suddenly realize that I don’t attend lectures as much anymore. I only give them now. To students and subordinates at colleges and construction sites.
I may finally be a grown-up.
Winters in Nottingham are not harsh, but bone-chilling. It’s wet and damp at times, and slippery. But altogether enjoyable if you like a spot of snow, red winter coats and woks of mulled wine with housemates. Yes, woks. Our grad-student frugality didn’t allow for too many deep-bottomed pots or pans.
I wish I had spent more than just two winters in the city. She doesn’t have the jazz and glamour of London, or the cheery disposition of Swansea or the ancient-ness of Edinburgh. But Nottingham was home, at a time when I learnt from my Italian housemate how al dente pasta should actually be. Or exactly where to find perfectly sauced doner kebabs at one in the morning.
It is perfectly understandable that I cannot just come back to this space after two whole years and let a crème caramel wobble under your noses, just like that.
You’ll want an explanation. You’ll want to know why I disappeared. And all that is fair.
But before I tell you how I’ve spent the last two years travelling and eating and starting a new travel venture and getting my heart-broken, I have to tell you about crème caramel.
In case you happen to be a child from the colorful 70s or the padded-shouldered 80s, you will remember crème caramel with the fondness with which you recall the pink of prawn cocktails, or the nauseating cheesy-ness of an au gratin. Or chunks of white bread soaked in warm, sweet milk that mum made on a wintry evening, right before she’d tell you to do your homework.
With its Gallic roots, crème caramel can be quite the charmer. If the inner-thigh quibble is not enough to convince you of its sex appeal, then think of bittersweet caramel mindlessly dribbling down its sides into a wet, sticky pool around that eggy custard. You wield your spoon and the custard surrenders.