If you’re Italian, I suggest you turn away, because all things considered I definitely do not want you to wretch or cringe at what I’m about to share. I also do not want you to think less of me as a cook, because I’ve had enough of people thinking that every time I tell them how I once burned water while boiling it.
The last few days have gone by in a haze of confusion. A few of my recipe testers got back to me with their feedback on the dishes they’ve been testing and I have to say that I’ve been left bamboozled by some of their notes. This is no laughing matter, people. I think I will pour myself a drink tomorrow, better yet I’ll just hold the entire bottle close to my chest, and go through all of the feedback. I will report back on that.
Between recipe testing and writing and studying and attending baby showers in Texan suburbs, I have improvised upon the traditional spaghetti carbonara. It seems like me and Kumar (you guys can call him Sundaram, if you want) are preferring meals-in-a-whirl more and more, especially for the past few weeks of the new year. The mornings are quiet and cloudy, because that’s what Plano has been serving up for the last few weeks. But now and then, the sun will come out and bathe everything in bright, eye-hurting gold. Love those days. And all we want to do is walkabout outside and sit with our backs to the sun. We hardly feel like spending too much time in the kitchen. But we haven’t stopped cooking. We’ve just been finding shortcuts.
We made a fish curry that took exactly five minutes of prep. We make omelets with leftover mushrooms for breakfast and we don’t even bother to toast the bread. We learned a plain tomato pasta recipe from a friend of Kumar’s, that has sustained us multiple times over the last year and we have already made that four times in the last month. And then there were those cookies(which take less time than a pedicure, and is infinitely more pleasurable). All that is, of course, interspersed with generous doses of tonkatsu ramen from Ramen Hakata and Monta, dumpling from Sichuan Folk, and gelato from Amorino(only so we can dig into a big bowl of it while walking by the fountains in Legacy). Let’s chart it up to lack of time and convenience.
And now this carbonara. Which is not just for people out of time and non-Italians, it’s also for cooks who don’t always know what they’re doing in the kitchen.
Spaghetti Carbonara for Non-Italians
Adapted from a recipe by Nigella Lawson, and heavily altered.
Ingredients: Dried spaghetti, 2 servings worth 3-4 strips of smoky bacon 1 tbsp of minced garlic 2 tsps of red chili flakes ½ cup of chicken stock ¼ cup of cream cheese, softened to room temperature 1-inch piece of Parmesan cheese, plus more to grate over once the dish is ready Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste 2 eggs, lightly beaten ¼ cup of freshly chopped parsley Extra virgin olive oil, to dress
How to: Bring a large pot of water to boil. While you’re waiting for the water to come to a boil, cook the bacon in a large non-stick or stainless steel pan until most of the fat is rendered. Remove the bacon from the pan and place on a bed of paper towels. When the pot of water starts boiling, add a generous amount of salt, add the spaghetti and cook till al dente. It’ll usually take 8 – 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in the pan in which you cooked the bacon, add garlic and chilli flakes. Reduce the heat to medium low and cook for 30 seconds. Add the chicken stock, cream cheese and the piece of Parmesan. Cover and cook on medium low until the stock is reduced to almost half. Before you drain the pasta retain ¼ cup of the starchy pasta water. Chop up the cooked bacon and add it back to the pan along with the spaghetti, the pasta water, salt and pepper. Cook uncovered on high heat till most of the liquid disappears from the pan. Take the pan off the heat and add in the parsley and lightly beaten eggs. Toss the eggs with the sauce and the spaghetti quickly to prevent it from scrambling. Serve and top with grated Parmesan and a generous drizzle of EVOO.
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes it feels like I’m 22, bent over on rolls of tracing paper at my college drafting board, wondering when I’ll hear the roar of motorcycle engines outside, signalling the possibility of a midnight mini road-trip.
Sometimes it feels like I’m 42, bent out of shape, exhausted and wondering when they’re going to invent a bed that will be able to swallow me whole.
But I turned 32, almost a fortnight ago now.
I feel like I have to whisper it, lest it sets off people into asking me if I’m married or if I have children.
I’m not. And I don’t.
Does it feel weird?
Yes and no.
Yes, because when I was younger, much younger, I had imagined – not in too many details – my life to be somewhat different. Maybe a little more accomplished, a little thinner. With a toddler by my knees and a one-off house in Devonshire.
No, because it has been a roller-coaster ride so far and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. Accomplishments have come, gone and come again. I could be much thinner. There are no toddlers around, but there’s calm and stillness, a complete command over my own life. I don’t wake up to wet nappies, I wake up to chocolate cupcakes.
And some news. But I will totally understand if you skip the news and scroll right down to the cake recipe.
The travel startup I started with Priya, a while back is in its final stages of conception. We’ve named it Altertrips.
You know, after the words “alternate” and “trips”. Get it?! Ha ha, LOL.
After 12 years of being an aspiring nomad, of changing jobs and countries and continents and holidays, certain acute aspects of the travel industry has started to bother me. And we’re looking to address that problem.
As we’re inching towards the launch – December, yikes – my palms are getting sweatier, my fingertips are bloody with all the nail biting, I’m hoarse after continuously yelling at my co-founder and my tech guys (I’m quite sure they’re ready to strangle me by now, but that will be a battle for another day).
I will talk to you about it soon, in another blog post.
Let’s just say for now, that it has been lesson after lesson, on life and on overcoming obstacles. We’ve been deeply humbled, overwhelmed, excited, triumphant, confused and angry at times. Sometimes all of that at the same time. And the intensity strengthens as we near, what we will call from now on, LAUNCH DATE.
“What’s your favourite kind of fish?” asked Priya.
Her mouth was full of badly made chicken patty and her legs were propped up on the center table, on which lay few more chicken patties, more horrible than the other. The 6-month-old puppy that hardly looks like a puppy anymore, sniffed around for scraps.
We’d tried to get as much work done on the Help Center article for our travel website, as possible. Curiously, it has given us a lot of clarity. Priya, someone I haven’t introduced to you, is a childhood friend. We met when we were both in the sixth grade, at a dinner party her family threw. She talked my ears off and I just sat there wearing a kimono.
Nineteen years later and we’re partners in a travel start-up, yearning for a nomad life and 26-inch waists. I mean what is the point of running a travel website, if you can’t travel and look fucking fantastic while doing it, right?
I’m writing to you from the mundane blue and white of my office, where I have taken a break from Excel worksheets to think about food.
This may be the coffee talking, but is there nothing you can’t do with chicken?
The photo above makes me want to plunge my face into the wok. I don’t want to think about what the hot oil might do to my face. The truth is that I’ve been trying to lose weight. Considering the fact that I’m the last person on earth to conform to a routine life of carefully selected food and regular sessions of well-rounded exercising, this might be the toughest mission I have ever embarked upon.
I spent much of 2014 getting nibbled on by a heart surgeon.
Tall, curly hair that fell onto his Michael Caine-ish glasses and a waddle that could give Donald Duck a run for his money. I’m not even joking.
He was charming, which I found to be a novelty because I haven’t been around too many charming doctors. Unless you count those who come up with uncomfortable puns depending on whatever illness you’ve gone to them with. Maybe learning how to pun is part of the Gross Anatomy syllabus, who knows.
Our first date was in China Town where he watched me gorge on golden fried prawns and siu mai. On our second date he watched me down three gimlets and a plate of tandoori chicken. On our third date he explained an extremely complicated heart procedure — that he was apparently quite good at performing — over cherry ice-cream. By the fourth date he knew my dating history and I knew that his first cousin’s brother-in-law’s best friend had a questionable mole on his right cheek.
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.
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.