In a State of niksen and Oatmeal Cookies

I come around here every time I think I have important news for you. This time is not much different. 2019 was here and it went by before I could even grasp the concept of its being. And that’s saying something, because I’m all about grasping vague and useless concepts. I have cookies too, by the way, so stick around.

The word niksen stands for the Dutch concept of doing nothing. Like the character of Julia Roberts in the movie Eat, Pray, Love learns about the Italian art of doing nothing, il dolce far niente. The Dutch have their version. And let’s not be too snooty here with all our international-ness, because the Bengalis have their version too — the infamous lyaadh. Or as the Punjabis might say — vella (although vella comes with the negative connotation associated with someone not doing anything just because they’re lazy). But you know what I’m talking about. It’s all the rage now, niksen. First there was hygge, the Dutch concept of coziness and adoring comfort. Now you’ll be seeing the word niksen pop up everywhere.

Anybody who’s ever lived an adult life, single or married, in complicated or uncomplicated relationships, have dipped their toes in this practice. It’s a beautiful thing. Some are bad at it, some are good at it, and then there are those that excel at it at a level that is virtually impossible for a Type-A like me to ever reach.

2019 was the year when I was surprisingly thrown into a life I had assumed I wasn’t cut-out for. Actually, I surprised myself. I very enthusiastically jumped into it knowing full well that I might have to pretend to like the stay-at-home-wife act. I was up for it. But what ensued was a lesson in the practice of niksen. A whole year of dong nothing. And guilt begone, I loved it! It’s been quite a ride.

A whole year of doing nothing. A whole year of slow brewed, fresh coffee in the mornings, pottering about in the kitchen in the afternoons, lunches on the white enamel Ikea table with Kumar everyday, spaghetti dinners on the teal area rug, in front of the telly every night. A whole year of lying on the bed, with the memory foam mattress, covered in the softest duvet, staring at the stucco ceiling that’s so typical to Texan mass housing, and ultimately spacing out. A whole year of doing nothing but running Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime in the background, while I lie languorously on the teal-colored sofa we bought from Nebraska Furniture Mart. Now that I think of it, a lot of our apartment is teal in color — the area rugs, the sofa, the baskets that hold the yoga mats, the bathroom accessories. A lot of it is grey, white and black too. Oh well.

If someone looks closer they might not agree with me, that I have been blissfully practicing niksen or il dolce far niente. I’ve been part of six art exhibitions, we’ve traveled a lot (a LOT), a few writing workshops, studies to get my Project Management certification. And then there’s THE BOOK. At this point, I’ve toiled away at THE BOOK for seven months now. Which doesn’t actually seem like a lot of time in the world of book writing. But to me it seems like an eternity. And yet, I’m here regaling you with my pro-niksen stance.

THE BOOK

We took trips to Colorado, Washington D.C., and Virginia (and blasted Country Roads by John Denver on the stereo, while driving along the Blue Ridge mountains!!). We drove to New Orleans for a long weekend, and to Tennessee for another. Thanksgiving was spent visiting the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky with Kumar’s friends from Uni. Thanksgiving was spent eating. We’d all driven down to our shared AirBnb and we’d hauled cooked and uncooked food with us. Sandy got the turkey, I got the pork and baguette stuffing and a delectable chocolate pie. Maddy was in charge of all the booze, while Suvadip and his wife took care of all the chicken thighs that were barbecued to perfection the next day. We toured the caves a day after Thanksgiving. It rained on the third day. So naturally we started drinking from 8 am in the morning (Moscow mules and Bellinis with leftover turkey breakfast, anyone?), sat and laughed ourselves dizzy and ended the day with a horror movie.

Christmas was spent in the Grand Canyon. No, I don’t mean a town near to the Canyon. I mean we booked ourselves a cabin right within the Grand Canyon National Park and endured four days of snow, slipping and sliding (dangerously, like ignorant fools) around the rim of the canyon. Grand Canyon has been a bucket-list item of mine. One of the achievable ones, I think. Looking at photographs of it, brown and flaming red, sun-soaked and gleaming among clouds, I had imagined I’d be awestruck. Well, I wasn’t just awestruck. The Canyon was covered in snow. Inches and inches of it, pristine white powder, like someone had tipped a bucket loads of vanilla ice cream over the ridges. And I stood dumbfounded, till I realized I was crying. Yes, actually crying. Tears rolling off my eyes like I was in a movie or something. Kumar chuckled a bit, but he didn’t say anything.

We climbed and trekked to the topmost point of the South rim (after we realized that the North rim is usually closed to visitors during winter). The trail was cold and silent, the trees and rocks and ledges all sleeping under a duvet of white snow. It felt like we were trudging through the clouds, on a three feet slippery path, a 3000 million year old mountain on our left, and a 7000 feet drop on our right. At points we stood to catch our breaths and these were the times we looked out at the immensity of the structure. We stared at the canyon in silence and it watched us back in silence. There wasn’t a sound to be heard, except for the soft pitter patter of snowflakes on our windcheaters. There is a certain ancientness to the place, a majestic show of scale and endurance that made me very conscious of how insignificant I actually am in the grand scheme of things. I wanted to stay up there in the cold for hours, hallucinating about wild horses and bare-chested natives who may have run across the plateaus among the canyons a millennia ahead of my time.

After we had our fill of the Canyon, we headed to Sedona and then onto Death Valley. Death Valley. Another spot of natural history that completely silenced us and left us wanting for more. 7800 square kilometers of arid landscape, that has been appropriately named. We drove through Death Valley, using our time to do a couple of trails through mountains that look like Plasticine in a myriad of colors were fused together in a hurry and abandoned in the middle of harsh salt flats. Every mile we crossed, the landscaped transformed itself into a harsher version of itself. Salt flats led to sand dunes, to dried and mangled tree groves, to a jarringly rocky flatland through which a minuscule but pure stream of water flowed. Mountains led to more mountains and then to Ubehebe, a volcanic crater wrapped in almost black rubble.

I stood and watched all of it, while my husband insisted that I film him doing Naruto runs across the bleak landscapes.

Throughout the day we strained our eyes to see across miles and miles of baked valley. When night fell, and the skies cleared, the stars shone. They lit up the sky. Our reluctance on driving out of Death Valley was apparent. We stayed quiet on the drive back to our rented cottage outside of the National Park. The Valley is terrifying — I cannot imagine anyone being able to survive in the vast openness and desertion that it brings down upon us mere humans — and I think that’s what makes it equally striking as Grand Canyon.

All this and I can imagine you questioning why I’m declaring myself to be in a state of niksen. I mean, food wise, over the course of 2019, we’ve made pizza from scratch multiple times, we’ve attempted bread in a Dutch oven and pulled that off successfully, I’ve added two cakes, two cookies, ad at least ten other dishes to my repertoire. That doesn’t exactly seem like someone practicing niksen. But it’s the gaps that matter. The gaps in activities, the breaks that I’ve taken in between all of it — lying spread eagle on the living room floor, snoring peacefully through the afternoons, spacing out at the telly, spending scorching, sunny afternoons walking to my local Walmart and just aimlessly wandering around examining and picking up things I don’t need, eating pasta for breakfast and fried eggs for dinner, sitting out on the balcony and watching the city go by on its miles and miles of concrete-laden roads, while my neighbors wonder why this scantily-clad woman chooses to spend time out on a balcony when the temperature reads 45 °C.

It’s been fun. You should try it sometime.

Now onto the cookies. yes, its one of the two recipes I picked up over the year. It’s simple and easy and packs a punch in terms of flavor. Not purely guilt-free, because it does contain a whole stick of butter and quite a bit of sugar. But I keep telling myself that its mostly made out of oatmeal and dried cranberries (superfood!), and that’s healthy enough for me.

Oatmeal, Cranberry and Chocolate Chip Cookies

Adapted from Cooking Classy. You’ll get about 20-24 cookies out of this mix. Recipe doubles easily.

Ingredients:
1 stick (100 grams) of butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup of light brown sugar (if you prefer a sweeter cookie, use 1 cup of sugar)
1 egg
1 tsp of vanilla extract
1 + 1/2 cups of rolled oats
3/4 cup of whole-wheat flour
1/2 tsp of salt
1/2 tsp of baking powder
1/2 cup of dried cranberries
1/2 cup of chocolate chips

How to:
In a large bowl, whisk the butter and sugar together till the mix is pale and the sugar has almost dissolved. Add the egg and vanilla and whisk more. The mix will look congealed for a bit and then it’ll smooth out. In a separate bowl, add oats, flour, salt and baking powder and mix with a fork. Add these dry ingredient to the wet ingredients and mix with a wooden spoon. Add in the cranberries and chocolate chips and work those in. Rest the cookie mix in the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes. Pre-heat the oven to 350 deg C. Line and grease a baking tray or two. Roll the batter into 1-inch balls with your hands. You can wet your hands with cold water in between rolling the balls to keep them grease free. Bake for 15 minutes. Let the cookies cool completely before removing them from the lined tray(s). Store in an air-tight container. You can also keep them in the fridge during summer months.

New, newer, newest

Sometimes it’s not lack of time that prevents me from coming here.

Sometimes it’s just a loss for words.

One thing I was sure of, at the fag end of 2017, was that my life would remain within the set lines of the coloring book I had imagined it to be. I would be able to color within the lines with whatever color I want, and the color would never stray out to the unknown edges of the page.

I was wrong.

The eight months of 2018 have left me dizzy and out of breath. Sometimes with food and sometimes without. In fact, I came very close to saying goodbye to this space. My little haven for a life living in gluttony. A space where I have felt safe to share all the good and the bad that comes with being a displaced Bengali girl. You’ve heard me through the hum of good food and the through the disappointment of the burnt and ruined bits. So I can’t say goodbye. On the contrary, I have a distinct feeling that I might be spending more time with you in the near future.

With reference to the photograph above, you should know that I was initially here to talk about hot dogs. Not your everyday grab-on-the-go-dogs-in-soggy-bread kind. But super special ones that we made for Christmas last year. Yes, that’s how long I’ve been holding on to that recipe. You’ll have to wait for the next post for the entire story on that. But first, here are the new, newer and newest:

The first new thing that happened this year, wasn’t technically a twist of Fate, but Fate in her happy, merry way pretending to work hard. I published a book.

Yep, you read that right. My stint as a commissioned editor a couple of years ago, led me to work with a most interesting group of young writers who were looking for help to self-publish their books. And 2017 was spent editing numerous manuscripts, designing book covers, working closely with PR professionals on the nuances of book selling, and realizing the immense amount of talented writers that exist out there. What resulted was a comprehensive resource box of advice that I compiled into a book and published it in May this year. I’m more than happy to report that it’s doing rather well.

Did I ever think I’d be working…maybe I should say semi-working…in the publishing industry? No. But here we are. Besides that, I’m now on the mission to publish my fiction pieces in as many literary journals as possible, while I work on The Book. Remember, The Book? Yes? No? Oh, who knows.

Next came art. Another industry I didn’t ever think I’d have a foot in. But I find myself now standing knee-deep — both knees — in it. Out of having nothing to do but work and a serious bout of bad mental health, I turned to art. I do that though. I turn to food, art, design, literature, till I turn mad with all of them dancing off my head.

Last year, I plowed through a 100-day art challenge and sold off half of them, the proceeds from which went to relief for Syria. It wasn’t pretty, the challenge. For someone who hates seeing things through, or more accurately is totally lazy, committing to a 100-day challenge was something to write home about.

But this year art took center stage and I have a sneaky suspicion that it will be standing squarely in the center for a long time. February this year, I started taking commissions from people (I’m going to be fancy and call them “clients” or “friends” and “family”) who had followed my work through the 100-day Art for Syria Challenge.

After a quick holiday to Thailand, Bali and Singapore (that included a barrage of chicken rice, seafood barbecue, pork hotpots, babi guling and plates and plates of nasi goreng), one thing led to another, a dead Instagram account led to a busy one, commissions led to a group exhibition (!!!!!). A group exhibition led to another. And now I’ve popped off my work to International galleries and art curators for upcoming shows.

That escalated quickly. Yikes. For sure.

It was almost like walking through a surreal, time-stunted painting, earlier this month when I put up a small collection of paintings at a group show in The Birla Academy of Art & Culture — an institution I’ve had immense respect for since I was a wee kid, walking by it on my way to school. There were people who visited and then proceeded to stand and stare at my work. They even talked about it and some of them wrote about it in newspapers and pointed cameras at it and broadcasted the coverage on the telly.

Unreal. Unreal. Unreal. I kid you not, all I did was float through it, numb with the idea that my work was actually being noticed.

The coming months hold a lot of promise.

I jest. It holds fear.

For you Londoners out there, I’m on the list for ArtRooms London that’s in January, 2019. There are a couple of group shows that I’m also going to be a part of, the dates and names of which will be released later. I’m currently collaborating with a UK-based art consultant (I’m shamelessly going to boast about how they’re one of the biggest ones in the industry) in an effort to make abstract artwork by new artists more accessible to new collectors across the UK. I might just dry and shrivel up into a bean of a human with all the work. One of my followers on Instagram suggested that I should start vlogging (yeah right! I laughed out loud at that one) about my art and process and all that fancy shit on Youtube.

Can you imagine a socially anxious, untalented hack trundling through the art world and recording it at the same time for all the planet to see? No?

Neither can I.

But wouldn’t it be something if I meet you at my next show?

Well, now that I’ve rattled off every boring thing that I’ve been up to for the last year, I’m going to ask you to hold on. There’s more news. The newest of them all, actually. And this is the one that scares me most, right out of my stinky evening-walk shoes. But I’m about to dole out the band-aid rip off treatment on this one because there’s no other way of saying this:

I’m getting married.

You heard that right.

And that’s all the news for tonight folks. Let’s talk about hot dogs in the next post!

Madness

It feels like I’m about start leaking marbles from my ears. Can you see it? Can you see the veins against my temples starting to split at their seams? In a moment, I’ll leak and be declared insane.

You, darling reader, would be happy to know, that I have survived a meltdown. Of elephantine proportions. There is a chance I’m exaggerating, but allow me this. Saying that I have “been busy” would be an understatement. You already know that I have been in this state of busyness, for a while. But last week was it for me.

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Seriously…

It started two months ago with a small idea of reviving the “book”. Which in hindsight has proven to be a bigger task that I have ever come across, but we all know that I’m prone to biting off more than I can chew. The “book” has been on and off for the last ten years. Even before I graduated from college. Back then, it was mostly about friends and the comic heights of being a student of architecture. It then moved on to life inn Mumbai, graduate studies in Nottingham and then finally London.

I’d write pieces. Stow some away. Some I would use and put them in the blog here, mostly the ones related to food. The others would just sit quietly in the vastness of Google Drive. Right after we traveled back from our SE Asian holiday, an ad-man friend, Richard — who comes as a complete set with the sculpted beard and curled up mustache — asked me to review a short story he had written and was thinking about submitting it to a literary magazine (!!!!). As expected, the piece was brilliant. But more inspiring than anything.

“Do you think you can take it on?” I found Priya asking me, a week later. We were discussing Richard’s piece over Skype, and how I felt hungry and tempted to fire up that old Google Drive account and retrieve all my forgotten stories.

“You know where we are with the company,” she continued. I did know. I do know.

We have a Bali retreat coming up (in a week’s time!) and in my anxiety I have chewed off all my finger nails. Priya’s daily routine now includes rocking back and forth on her office chair, every morning, for two hours, imagining all organisational disasters that could possibly happen during the retreat. There’s an Egypt trip coming up in December, which adds to the frenzy. We’re about to announce our 2018 dates. The website is being pricked and prodded and torn apart by an SEO expert. The Indian banking system is a nightmare to navigate. We’re rapidly running out of money we had set aside for marketing. The affiliates’ program is about to be launched. Bloggers and influencers rule the world. Our tech guys are more scholars than executors.

Continue reading Madness

Mum’s Chicken Rice

I’ve inherited close to a ton, from my father. Like him, I’m an unnecessary level of logical. Inherently pessimistic and resourceful (which makes me one of the best people to stay close to during a zombie invasion, if you’re taking notes). I have a dimpled chin and narrow set eyes like he does, and I’m almost as awkwardly sarcastic in uncomfortable situations.

I’ve also inherited a few things from my mother. Not much, but a tad. I like to think I’m as resilient as her (my friends have informed me that I’m actually not). I might even say I have a fraction of her sense of humor and her aversion to housework. Apart from that, the most precious things I’ve inherited from her is a camel-colored wool winter coat, a very rare bracelet made of uncut diamonds and all the recipes in her repertoire.

I have to, at this point, put it out there, that my mum is no accomplished cook. She won’t be offended at this, because more often than not, when she’s asked to cook, we end up with either under-salted or over-salted food. But like many uninterested cooks out there, she has a handful of recipes that she’s brilliant with.

Chicken sandwiches, for one. You could live off my mum’s chicken sandwiches. She always makes them with marbled bread. The chicken is shredded and pummeled with salt, cracked black pepper and even more butter till it resembles handmade paper. And there’s always a smidgen of mayonnaise. On occasions I’ve supplied her with homemade mayonnaise, but she swears that the sandwiches work better with store-bought. Don’t ask.

Continue reading Mum’s Chicken Rice

What we eat

You know what the rains are like here. We get swept away and washed off of all our sins every season. Then we roll right out of bed, grab black umbrellas left behind by our grandfathers, go back to work and dream of khichdi.

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Khichdi with fried aubergines and cubes of potatoes coated in a poppy-seed crumb, crispy fried of course, and a large dollop of ghee on top for good measure. Khichdi, like this, or with flaked fish British-style, is something I will cook forever. I have done my research online trying to find poetry or pretty prose that might have been written on khichdi, but I have been unsuccessful so far. With fried hilsa fish, with popadoms and mango chutney or with an omelette on top. It is not a head-turner in any sense. It is not something you’d find in QP LDN’s menu for sure. But let’s be real here. As much as I enjoyed QP LDN’s food last summer, I did walk out of there still feeling a little hungry (and lighter in the pockets) and ended up gorging on a quarter-pounder form Burger King. That should tell you a lot about how we eat. And more importantly, what we eat.

A man I had dated for a very short while, had studied my Instagram feed very carefully. He said, “You really love food, don’t you..”

I do. But he wasn’t really asking a question, it was more of a self-assured whisper under his own breath, as if he was looking for clues to help him decide what to give me as a birthday gift. He then proceeded to observe, “You eat fancy!”

He didn’t last till my birthday, but I still think of that conversation.

The sausage salad

The truth is that we don’t eat fancy at all. We eat out. We visit our favorite Indo-Chinese establishments or stroll to the neighborhood burger place that has, in recent times, turned magnificent. We get biryanis home-delivered. But those meals, although scrumptious enough to swear by, are hardly ever the kind of fancy you would want the world to be envious about. Good food. Great food, even. But not fancy food.

Most of our meals are home-made. Cooked or slurried together due to lack of time. A mutton curry, the recipe of which was handed down to my mother by her mother, with fluffy white rice. A homemade vanilla cake my colleague baked for Christmas, that we had with coffee. I found myself with some cooked pork sausages yesterday. I threw them in a bowl with a 6-minute egg, day old lettuce that already had a few brown edges, and dollops of mayonnaise. I then called it a sausage salad. That’s my daily level of fancy-ness. It may be comfortable, mediocre or cherished. But it is what it is.

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We took a whirlwind tour of Bangkok, Singapore and Bali. I travel to eat — for the most part — and I was not disappointed. Big bowlfuls of kuay chap, rolled noodles with crispy pork, hokkien mee, unctuous plates of Hainanese chicken rice, nasi goreng, barbecued pork ribs, piles of seafood by the beach and cups of robust Luwak coffee with sweet coconut milk. Nothing plated, ready for Instagram. But everything made to fill an insatiable appetite for good food.

We returned to a rain-drenched waterlogged city. And within 24 hours of arrival, I was craving khichdi. A steaming plate of gooey rice and dal, to warm you up in the chill of monsoon. So we had khichdi for lunch. And a quiche for dinner.

Continue reading What we eat

Radio silence. Berlin. And the problem that sparked the idea.

Do you hear that?

The radio silence that makes it seem like the blog’s gone dead?

Well, it hasn’t.

I’m coming to you from somewhere high above the Atlantic, as I fly back home. The airplane cabin is dark and quiet. The baby in 24C was crying a while back. He’s fallen asleep. I’ve just a finished a spectacularly bad meal of pack-n-seal biryani. But buckle up, this is going to be a long one.

It would be OK for you to assume that I haven’t been doing much of cooking or baking, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Barring junk-that-will-make-you-slobber-uncontrollably hot dogs and a chicken and mushroom quiche, which I will share with you shortly, I haven’t really spent much time in the kitchen this year. So far.

Remember how we discussed Altertrips over lemon cake? I did promise to share more with you and now is just as good a time as any.

Two summers ago, in 2015, we took an impromptu flight to Berlin. Just because. Fauri, my BFF from Uni (and fellow kebab-lover), was finishing up with her post-grads in Dessau and I was looking for a short break. Germany seemed like an attractive option. Unfazed by the popular consensus about the starkness of bratwurst, my family wanted to come along. And so they did.

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I don’t have to tell you how family vacations are completely different from vacations with friends. It’s the priorities that get you. Hostel vs Hotel. Sightseeing vs Eating. Eating Indian vs Eating local. Walking around all day vs Going back to the hotel for an afternoon siesta.

Luckily, my family’s made up of champs and travel-hungry people.

We booked an AirBnB, a charming two-room apartment in Barbarossastraße, with the tiniest of kitchens and a bathroom that was so narrow, you wouldn’t be able to stretch out both your arms sideways at the same time. The apartment was stacked with its neighboring units and overlooked a cozy courtyard. The coziness and the green of the courtyard was welcoming. However, it meant that neighbors could easily hear you talking if you raised your voice a couple of notches. Toddlers looked up from their playtime and quietly watched us drag our luggage to the first floor.

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On top of the Furnsehturm. Tickets Here.

Continue reading Radio silence. Berlin. And the problem that sparked the idea.

Take the mountains’ word for it

We took a weekend trip to Darjeeling. A work thing. Mixed with tons of sleep. And food.

Well, I mean, look. Just look.

Fish Au Gratin, Glenary's - The Subjectivist

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.

Now it smells of horse-shit, from the ponies that carry children around the market square. It also smells of smoke from the Continue reading Take the mountains’ word for it