Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Finally we hit our stride

Would you serve a Suriani dinner to him?
My sister and I host family dinners on alternating Sundays and this past weekend was my turn, which is always both a burden and a thrilling opportunity to show off. I was hesitant about cooking from The Suriani Kitchen because the dishes haven't been universally wonderful, but I went ahead, the stars aligned, everything was outstanding, the kids ate a lot of challenging food, the adults drank just enough wine, and all was well in our little world, despite a loud debate about whether Clint Eastwood's Republican National Convention speech was embarrassing or effective. Those of us who grew impassioned/obnoxious apologized. Again, I am sorry, Dad.

We ate:

spicy beef pot roast
lentils with coconut milk
double-decker apple pie

Dish by dish:

spicy beef pot roast -- Lathika George excavated this recipe from the vintage journal of a remote rubber plantation, which made it almost irresistible to me. The dish consists of chuck roast dosed with a truckload of Indian spices and braised for 4 hours. Here's the thing: I couldn't tell the difference between this Indian pot roast and an American pot roast. If pot roast was a person he would be a fat, merry older man with red cheeks who likes a glass of Port after dinner in front of the hearth. He's always genial company and spices can't change his essential nature, which is pleasant and accommodating. This particular pot roast accommodated 3 tablespoons of mustard seeds, 5 dried red chiles, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, and garlic and he was still just an easy-going old pot roast. That is what I love about pot roast.

lentils with coconut milk -- The ubiquitous Indian legume porridge -- which often goes by the name dal -- is also very forgiving, very relaxed and mild mannered. I've made lots of dals over the years and don't think I've ever had a bad one. This version was very good. My 6-year-old niece drank it like soup and asked for seconds, which made me glow, but I think I've made better, richer dals so I will not go overboard and type the recipe.
snow-white kallappam batter
kallappams -- This is where I want to use copious exclamation points, capital letters, italics, hyperbole. I loved the kallappams I made the other night, they are exactly the kind of dish I wanted to find in The Suriani Kitchen: New (to me) and totally delicious. Kallappams are thickish, spongy, coconutty pancakes, nutritionally empty, easy to prepare, and perfect for sopping up rich, spicy gravy. I've since found several recipes in other Indian cookbooks which look similar, and other recipes on the internet. I can only vouch for this recipe, though I would be open to variations. The recipe reflects my adjustments and opinions.

3 cups medium grain white rice soaked in water for 2 hours
2 cups water
1 cup dried, unsweetened coconut
1/4 cup cooked rice (SORRY! OMITTED THE FIRST TIME.)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons sugar (I'd cut it down to 2 unless I was eating this in a dessert or snack context)
1 teaspoon instant yeast.

1. Grind the soaked rice with the water in a blender or food processor for a few minutes until it becomes smooth and milky and the rice is broken into small bits. Add the coconut and cooked rice and grind for 2 minutes more.

2. In a bowl, mix the rice batter with all the other ingredients. Cover with a damp towel and let sit in a reasonably warm place for a couple of hours.

3. Pour 3/4 cup of the batter on a hot, lightly greased skillet (you really don't want much oil on the skillet because the pancake will soak it all up) and cook over medium heat until light gold on each side. Don't try to flip the pancakes too soon; wait until they're pretty cooked. Repeat until all the pancakes are done. 

finished kallappams
Double-decker apple pie. There are Suriani desserts I need to try, but it's easy to put off steamed rice paste porridge when hundreds of ripe apples on our tree are yelling at me to make pie or cake. I went with a double-decker pie from Southern Pies by Nancie McDermott: crust filled with apples, topped with crust, topped with apples, topped with crust. It didn't sound promising to me because I'm a filling person, not a crust person, but in fact this pie was terrific.
All day I struggled not to eat the last slice and then, at 8 p.m., I ate it.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The single supermarket solution

At least I don't have to crack and grate them by hand.
I live near both a Safeway and a Whole Foods. When I need aluminum foil, sugar, Windex or Rice Krispies, I go to Safeway and buy everything else on my list there. Except fish. If I was thinking of cooking fish, I decide to cook something else. My friend Lisa once said: "I won't get a flu shot from a place that sells fish, and I won't buy fish from a place that gives flu shots." I haven't been able to buy fish from Safeway since.

If I want fancy stuff like, I don't know, melons, prosciutto, dark chocolate, or French cheese, I go to Whole Foods and buy everything else on my list there, although if we need paper towels, I decide we can go another week without them. I can't bring myself to buy paper towels at Whole Foods when they are so much cheaper at Safeway.

Thursday was a Whole Foods day. I had filled my cart and was looking for sweetened coconut because I was making a Lane cake from my new copy of Southern Cakes and it calls for coconut. There was no coconut in the baking aisle, so I asked a clerk where they kept their sweetened shredded coconut.

He said, "Actually, we only have unsweetened coconut. You should probably know we're not really into sweetened products here."

Gosh. So foolish to assume that a store devoting half its shelf space to gluten-free Oreo knockoffs, chocolate-coated energy bars, organic toaster pastries, grape Vitamin Water, and soy ice cream would sell something as gross as sweetened shredded coconut.

Why can't one of the supermarkets in this town sell both good fish and sweetened coconut? Bulk beans and affordable dishwasher soap? Camembert and Snickers bars?

My life is very hard.

Lots and lots of cashews in Suriani cooking, and The Suriani Kitchen includes a recipe for a fresh cashew saute. Thursday night I made cashew chicken which involves cubed chicken breast, onion, yogurt, spices, and cashew paste. Lathika George makes clear that no component can be allowed to brown "as this will add color to the creamy whiteness of the dish." I allowed nothing to brown and the dish was indeed very white, almost scarily white. Tasty, though. There were the usual timing/quantity glitches I have come to expect from The Suriani Kitchen, but I can usually work around them. She calls for 8 chicken breasts to serve 4 people, which is way too much chicken. You need 4 chicken breasts (actually, chicken breast halves) to serve 4 people. Not a big deal.

Instead of rice to accompany the chicken, I made parotta, which, as the name suggests, is related to the more familiar paratha. George describes parotta as "a delightfully flaky bread. . . . The dough is folded, stretched, coiled, and then rolled into thick disks and cooked on a griddle. The flatbreads are then crushed lightly to fluff them up, which makes them soft and flaky."

This was not my experience of parotta. What I made was more like stiff pita and useless for soaking up the delicious cashew gravy. My fault? The recipe? I'm fascinated by George's roster of rice-based breads and pancakes, but they almost all call for "roasted rice flour" which I have yet to track down.

For dessert we had the Lane cake. It was fantastic, a vanilla layer cake filled with a rich, supersweet custard of egg yolk, sugar, butter, chopped raisins, pecans, coconut and bourbon, and topped with fluffy white icing. I didn't take any pictures, but this is how a proper Lane cake looks.

On another subject, I reviewed T. Coraghessan Boyle's San Miguel for NPR's web site. It's a terrific book. The heroines would probably give their eye teeth for any supermarket at all.

Today, we resumed work on our oven. The brick arch is giving me a lot of heartache.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Back to the old sod

 lazy photographer
Warning: This post touches only fleetingly on food.

My father and I went to Utah this past weekend to tour the new LDS temple in Brigham City before its dedication, after which non-Mormons (us) aren't allowed in. Neither of us would ordinarily jump on a plane to visit a building, but Brigham was my late grandparents' hometown and my father still owns some pastures there and wanted to touch base with the tenant. Also, Layne lives there and I wanted to meet her family, admire her goats, and talk for a few hours about religion, politics, child-rearing, Nie Nie, Disneyland, favorite cheeses,  Zappos, bicycle helmets, this clever blog660 Curries, basement houses, how teenaged girls should dress, and more.

What is a basement house?

I had never seen such a thing.
Layne's goats, by the way, were beautiful.

Nubians always make me feel disloyal to the Oberhasli.
In India, Owen and I visited a number of Hindu and Jain temples. They tended to be "relaxed" by which I mean they were open to the elements, you took off your shoes, and were welcome to sit on the floor. At one temple, women were noisily peddling marigold garlands at the entrance and the place was  festive and unregulated and -- there's no other way to put it -- dirty. I will not soon forget walking barefoot through that temple a few hours after a rainstorm, muck squelching between my toes. The temples were ornate and fancifully decorated with elephants and statues of gods and they were tactile, human in scale, almost cozy. You felt at one with the space. This is in sharp contrast to the mosques and other Islamic monuments we visited, like the Taj Mahal, which were grand and humbling.
Owen and friend in Jain temple
The LDS temple in Brigham falls on the grand and humbling end of the spectrum. It's a landmark in a town that previously had little in the way of landmarks, and there were busloads of people visiting. We walked in a long, hushed line through the temple while Layne explained what we were seeing.

What we were seeing was the most sacred of spaces for a Mormon. As a child, I often accompanied my grandmother to church on Sundays, but the church felt more like a meetinghouse than a sanctuary for spiritual searching. The temple felt like a sanctuary. Inside, it is hushed, pale and pristine, lit with crystal chandeliers and, in some rooms, flooded with sunlight. It feels safe and restful, but also like a place where you want to be on your best behavior. The walls are hung with paintings featuring American landscapes and there are peach blossom motifs incorporated throughout, as Brigham is famous for its peaches. There are peach blossoms carved in the lintels and stitched into the carpets, and, best of all, there are peach trees planted around the perimeter of the building. The temple was altogether lovely and worth the trip.

The rest of the weekend, my father and I visited places we remember well but which didn't seem to remember us at all.
My father's childhood home: "What did you say your name was? Nope, doesn't ring a bell."
We stayed at the Days Inn just off the freeway, built on one of my grandfather's old hayfields.
The old hayfield: "Can't you see I've moved on to bigger things?"
We drove by my great grandparents' house which had a sour cherry tree in the back yard that I picked clean circa 1974.
Great grandparents' house: "Those were good times and amazing pie,  but you need to move on." 
Then we drove up to the Wyoming ranch where my grandfather ran his cattle from June to September. My father worked every summer of his youth there and I vacationed there every summer of mine. You have no idea how much we loved this place, what dinners my grandmother cooked, what hell my uncle raised.
The ranch: "It's you! At last."
Just look at it. Sad. This was my paradise? Yes it was, still is, but it was sold and abandoned and someone has broken the windows and unlike all the other smug houses we drove by, this one remembered us and wanted us to stay. I felt terrible that we couldn't.

We did eat some delicious food. Every trip to Utah entails a meal at Maddox, a steakhouse that has negatively impacted the health of several generations of Reeses.

There is so much wrong on this plate.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Family dinner, volume MDCLVIII

This will be short.

Thursday was back-to-school night at the august local high school where Isabel is a sophomore. A lot of the other parents seem to have aged dramatically since we met them in first grade. I feel bad for them. I'm so glad that hasn't happened to my husband and me.

During his 10-minute presentation, the history teacher, Mr. Chamberlin, told us he regularly posts "homework assignments" for parents on his web site. The homework consists of a question related to the curriculum that parents should ask at the dinner table to "help conversation sprout and spout."

His words. I thought, that's very charming and idealistic of him.

We came home and it was late.

Ordinarily I use back-to-school night as an excuse to go out to dinner, but after India, it's temporarily lost some of its luster. Earlier in the day I'd made beef and potato curry -- cubed chuck, onions, spices, tomatoes, potatoes -- from Suriani Kitchen and I reheated it, along with the leftover rice from the night before.

Here's what the four of us discussed in a very desultory fashion:

-the history teacher's buff suede shoes
-the English teacher's extensive tattoos
-the kindly science teacher's regrettable speech impediment
-what weapons the kids use in Lord of the Flies
-whether Isabel or Owen would get to take the first shower

It's a little embarrassing when I type it out. And the next morning I had to struggle to remember any of it.  I went to the history teacher's web site and the question for Thursday was:

"Are there any countries in the world today that are ripe for revolution?"

What do you think? Not in terms of answers, but about posing such a question at the dinner table? Anyway I'm going to try it. I can imagine the ways an interesting conversation might "sprout and spout" and we can hardly do worse.

About the curry. It was red and spicy, very delicious. I don't understand the nuances of curry, though, and I'm going to try to educate myself. I don't know what the balance of flavors is supposed to be, so I can't tell if it's heavy on the ginger or turmeric-dominant or even what is appropriate. I just know what I like and I liked this. I have a lot to learn about Indian cooking.

Again with the excess water, though. The recipe calls for 8 cups and I cut it down to 4 and cooked it for longer than indicated, but even so it was watery. Isabel doesn't like her foods to touch and the thin sauce ran across the plate, so she had to put up a dam of bread to keep it from touching the rice. Then she ate it all up, curry and rice and bread.

Unbelievably, I got on a plane again yesterday. More on that later. This morning we have a temple to tour.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Owen: "Where's the spaghetti?"

Better my photo of the Manvar blacksmith than my photo of the meatball curry.
Gosh. I thought I was sparing everyone by not writing travel logs from India and now I feel like I've fallen down on the job. Maybe there's a way to work my "twisted little takes on things" into forthcoming posts on The Suriani Kitchen.

Last night we jumped in. Why not? It's been a while since I tackled an out-there ethnic cookbook and I'm pretty excited by the prospect of steamed riceball cakes and ripe mango curry. My excitement was somewhat checked by glitches in the first recipes I tried, and I just now read one that says to braise short ribs for 20 minutes. If you've ever braised a short rib, you know this is a mistake. But if The Suriani Kitchen doesn't pan out over the next few meals, I'll just move on to Sri Lankan cuisine.

for atmosphere
Some facts:

-Syrian Christians are called "Suriani" in Kerala.
-Suriani have lived in Kerala, a state in southwest India, since approximately AD 52 when Saint Thomas the Apostle arrived.
-Unlike their Hindu brethren, Syrian Christians eat beef. Unlike their Muslim brethren, they eat pork. But mostly they eat fish.
-In northern India, wheat is the staple which is why Owen and I ate so much naan when we were there. In Kerala, the staple is rice and they make bread, fritters, porridges, cookies, and cakes from rice flour.
-The author of The Suriani Kitchen, Lathika George, is a professional landscape designer, but even she has struggled to grow a curry tree outside of Kerala. I feel better about my failures on that front. Should I try again?
-Writes George: "My mother, Thangamma, like most mothers around the world, believed that the strongest bonds between children and their culture are forged through food and the preparation of meals."

We are in deep trouble in my household if Thangamma is correct.

The meal I prepared last night, unobserved by either of my children:

meatball curry
string bean saute
basmati rice
Ozark pie

problems and thoughts:

meatball curry

-Mixed as directed, the meat mixture (I used lamb) was too slimy and wet to form into balls. I fixed that by adding 1/4 cup of breadcrumbs.
-George is omits important details, like whether to seed the chilies or not. I took them out. If I was cooking only for myself, I would leave them in.
-She calls for ginger paste and garlic paste, but doesn't explain what these are or how to make them, so I just put ginger and garlic up in the spice grinder and what I scooped out a minute later sure looked like paste.
-She calls for 6 cups of water in the gravy. I knew that was too much but added it anyway and then had to cook the bejesus out of the sauce to give it a little body.
-She calls for too little salt.

After I solved these small but annoying technical problems, the meatball curry (kofta karri) was outstanding. Tender meatballs in a rich curry that had a lovely sourness to it from yogurt and lime juice. I set a high bar for posting meatball recipes. A meatball has to be better than Nancy Silverton's Mozza meatballs to warrant the effort of typing the instructions. These weren't better than the Mozza meatballs, but they were excellent and so completely different I'm going to type out the instructions anyway.

string bean saute

George calls for cooking the fresh beans in water until the water evaporates. Problem: they were getting soggy long before the water evaporated. I drained them and proceeded to stir fry.  Everyone liked them, but they weren't special and I was bothered by the sogginess. Do Indians ever cook vegetables al dente? Maybe the recipe is correct. I just really don't like soggy green beans.

Ozark pie

As you perhaps guessed, this recipe didn't come from The Suriani Kitchen. It came from Ken Haedrich's Pie. I was really plagued with recipe glitches last night, because he calls for 1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder when I knew in my bones he meant 1 1/2 teaspoons. I used 1 1/2 teaspoons and the crustless pie worked beautifully. It's very similar to this amazing Huguenot torte, but not quite as amazing. Make the Huguenot torte.

You can see the pie on the right side of the butcher block table.

That is some awesome food styling.
This was our first home cooked family dinner in a long time and the food was superb. No one complained; I think we're finally past that. I wish I could say it was a joyful evening of sharing and family harmony, but some of us are having a rough transition back to school and there's been a lot of anguish around the house. It will pass. This was a magical summer. We miss it.

Meatball Curry adapted from The Suriani Kitchen:


1 pound ground lamb
2 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons minced green chili (I used serrano, removed the seeds)
1 1/2 teaspoons minced cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup dry breadcrumbs

cashew paste:
1/2 cup raw cashews
1/4 cup cilantro
1 tablespoon fresh mint leaves
3 green chilies (serrano, seeds removed)

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped (she calls for quartering them, but: too bulky)
1 tablespoon ginger paste (put ginger in spice grinder or mash in mortar)
2 tablespoons garlic paste (put garlic in spice grinder or mash in mortar)
1 cup plain yogurt
2 tablespoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
3 cups water (she says 6, but I would go with half that)
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon lime juice (don't skip this)

1. In a bowl, mix all the meatball ingredients and shape into 1-inch balls. Set aside for 1 hour.

2. In a food processor or with a mortar and pestle, grind the ingredients for the cashew paste into cashew paste.

3. Heat the oil in a skillet and fry the meatballs for a few minutes until browned on all sides. Remove to a plate.

4. Fry the onion in the same oil until soft. Add the tomatoes, ginger paste, and garlic paste and fry for 2 more minutes. Add the yogurt and cashew paste and stir-fry "until the oil rises to the top." (Ok, this was  mysterious to me and I never saw the oil rise to the top. I just let it cook until it looked thick and well amalgamated.)

5. Add the spices and continue frying for 1 minute. Add the water and salt. Bring to a boil.

6. Put the meatballs in the curry sauce and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes or until the meatballs are cooked through. Add the lime juice. Serves 4 generously.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

One day I'll go back to coffee, but meanwhile

Hotel chai looks boring, just like coffee.
India is how I imagine much of the world was until a century ago: unregulated, fecund, profuse, haphazard, earthy, dirty, vital. It's like a giant compost heap, and I mean that in the nicest way. Driving through San Francisco on our way home from the airport I thought, where are all the people? Where are all the carts? The animals? Where is all the life?

Back to cookbooks, with preamble.

The highlight of the trip to India, for me, came on the last day when our bags were packed and I was counting the hours until takeoff. We were staying in New Delhi, which is (relatively!) clean and orderly. We decided to visit Old Delhi, which is not. We found ourselves in a byzantine warren of alleys and streets that I imagine looks little different than it did in 1912. It seemed to stretch forever in all directions, both temporal and spatial, and was teeming with people, spice shops, silk shops, kitchenware shops, ribbon shops and at least one man with a cobra in a box. I saw things I have never seen, like sticky, wet cakes of asafoetida. I saw people selling khoya and paneer and milk pails and stands that have been producing deep-fried snacks since the 1870s. Vendors were squeezing green oranges into juice, which was almost irresistible given the heat, as were the open bottles of fresh lime soda. I saw pots of chai boiling on little burners right there on the street and served in tiny cups on overturned crates. There was also a lassi stall where they served the yogurt in disposable terra cotta cups. Walking around here was my favorite hour of the entire trip.

Unfortunately, I did not feel it was prudent to eat those snacks or drink anything at all, but in another life, on another vacation, traveling without an 11-year-old boy, married to a doctor who could hook me up to a Cipro drip? I would.

Twelve hours later at the airport bookstore I bought:

-Camellia Panjabi's 50 Great Curries of India. This is a beautifully illustrated and thoughtfully written cookbook. Panjabi begins by explaining that what most Westerners know of Indian cooking is actually Punjabi cooking, from one small corner of India, and that there is much, much more. Which is true. Then she explains that she sifted through the mountain of regional Indian recipes and pulled out the very best, most classic recipes. I planned to start cooking from this book the second I got home. Alas, once I did, perusal of negative amazon reviews made me doubt the merits of the book. What do I do? Should I try a few recipes just to see? I'm undecided. I hate false starts.

-Delhicious by David Elias. Bright softcover with lots of gorgeous photos of people, cows, and street food accompanied by recipes for things I wanted to try, but couldn't, like limeade with black Himalayan salt. (You have to be an incredibly thirsty Westerner walking around Delhi to understand how alluring such beverages can become. Trust me on this.)

-The Suriani Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of Kerala by Lathika George. How could I not? Just the title alone. I am especially intrigued by the crab curry and banana jelly. Amazon reviews are glowing, though no one seems to have cooked from the book. Do I plunge into this one?

Thirty hours later, we got home and I fell into a fathomless pit of sleep.

The next morning I pulled out Delhicious to try the recipe for chai. You all know about chai, right? It's a hot, milky, spice-infused black tea that is served in India everywhere, at all times of day. It is supposedly healthy because of the salubrious spices. I don't know about that, but I see no reason you couldn't make it with green tea, which would definitely be healthy.

The ingredients in the Delhicious recipe -- whole cardamom cloves, cinnamon stick, tea -- were listed out of order. That was a bad sign. I proceeded, although the quantity of tea leaves seemed scant and the tea was not steeped. It was no surprise that the chai was weak and pale. Big demerit for Delhicious. I'll keep it for the photos, but will probably not cook from it.

The next morning I made chai according to this Kitchn recipe and it is superb.

The next morning, I was colossally tired and made coffee, thinking it would perk me up. I fell asleep mid-morning.

Yesterday, I made chai according to a recipe from this blog, started by a couple who went on a chai pilgrimage. It was excellent, but I didn't like waiting for the water and ginger to boil for 10 to 15 minutes.

This morning, I combined the same couple's house chai recipe with the Kitchn's, and it is the best chai I've made. This is what I did:

3 cups water
a few slices fresh ginger
1 small piece cinnamon stick
10 green cardamom pods, crushed in a grinder or mortar
1 clove
5 allspice berries
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
a big pinch saffron
1 heaping tablespoon black tea
1 cup whole milk
sugar to taste (optional and delicious, though I don't use it because I consume enough already)

1. Start heating the water while you slice the ginger. Add the ginger to the water along with the cinnamon stick. Let this come to a boil while you gather your other ingredients at a leisurely pace.

2. Add your other other ingredients. Bring the tea back to a boil. Turn off heat. Steep for 2 minutes. Strain into a teapot or very large mug and drink immediately. Serves 2.

On another subject, I just read T.C. Boyle's new novel, San Miguel. In closing I will share the Depression era dinner menu cooked by one of his characters:

"In addition to two legs of lamb, mashed potatoes, chili beans and the traditional hot sauce, she was planning a pudding of canned pineapple, odds and ends of bread, cornmeal, sugar and leftover bananas that had gone black and densely sweet since the last delivery, the whole to be tied up in a muslin sack and steamed in her big pot. To start, there'd be clam fritters wrapped in bacon, and a half dozen loaves of sourdough bread. . . "

It sounds repulsive, that pudding, but I can't get it out of my head.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

I need my ruby slippers!

Jaipur, the pink city, was a bit damp.
We're back in Delhi waiting for our flight home. . . in 28 hours. I would start walking right now, barefoot, if it would speed our return. Tomorrow we're going to see more of Delhi, but I really just want to eat some butter chicken at Karim's and get on that midnight plane. I'm going to buckle the seatbelt, open a tiny bottle of Delta's finest red, toast the accomplishment of a lifelong goal, put on the headphones, and fall into a stupor watching Prometheus.

Do I make it sound like we haven't had fun in India? We've had lots of fun. But I didn't expect to relax and haven't. I feel braced for disaster even when sleeping. I'm a hyper-vigilant Western princess! Between terrifying road conditions (camels, tractors, speeding trucks, overturned buses, sleeping cows, naked toddlers), ignoring sad beggar children, avoiding belligerent cows, avoiding noisome bathrooms, remembering to take the malaria pills, scrutinizing every morsel that goes in Owen's mouth, wondering if a cap-sleeve dress is modest enough for rural Rajasthan . . .

It's a lot harder than pricing peaches at Whole Foods.

Tourist miscellany:

From a buffalo? Cow? Goat? Definitely unchilled.
-In Jaipur, we saw farmers pedaling around with giant cans of milk that they deliver from the countryside every morning. According to our Jaipur guide, most Indians prefer their milk "fresh and raw." (They heat it upon delivery, so it is not technically raw when consumed.) He added that much local milk these days is watered down and then doctored with additives to give it a thicker mouthfeel. I blame bad milk in hot chocolate for Owen's upset stomach, which has come and gone and come and gone the entire trip and was last seen at noon today. Tomorrow, he is not allowed to drink hot chocolate. And I may rethink the butter chicken. (I have been fine. Probably gained weight. NOT COMPLAINING.)

-People make the yogurt, buy the paneer. Or so said our Jaipur guide. If I ever come back to India, I need better culinary sources.

-Diet is tightly linked to caste. Very low caste Hindus eat the pigs that you see rooting around in the garbage. Brahmins aren't supposed to eat meat at all. When you order "mutton" at a restaurant you are probably eating goat. We ate "mutton" on one occasion and it was delicious. I am truly sorry, Natalie.

-After I swore off shopping in India altogether, we ended up in one last textile shop. Walking toward the front door, I steeled myself for the onslaught of the salesmen. I told Kumar, no thanks, I absolutely didn't want to try on a sari.
And it was the ugliest sari there.
But suddenly I was wearing a sari. I also said no to the block-print tablecloth, but somehow it is now in our suitcase.
  I still like that kid.
-Gunpowder chutney. I mixed it with ghee and drizzled it on masala dosa this morning and am definitely making this fabulous condiment when I get home. Ditto lemon pickle.

-The Taj Mahal. So perfect, I almost cried.

I wrote a report on this in 4th grade.
No, this trip has been fantastic. 

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Like a horse heading back to the barn

I think this is a bhakri (buck).
Friends, I have never been more puzzled and exhausted and overwhelmed and overheated and overexcited than I have been on this India vacation and what blog posts I mentally compose during the day are lost because there is rarely internet in our hotel rooms. I'm currently sitting outside in the soupy 8:45 a.m. heat to bring you this, whatever this is.

Other than "thank-you," I have learned three Hindi words on this trip. Bhakra, which means goat. Gai, which means cow. And bhens, which means water buffalo. Don't laugh if you know how to spell in Hindi. I'm just trying to get my dairy animals straight so I can figure out what kind of milk they are using in the chai. This morning it was gai milk. The other day: bhens. Sometimes it is made with bhakra milk, which one waiter told me is excellent, although the waiter this morning told me bhakra milk it is far too salty. People are funny about milk. The chai made with bhens milk was extremely rich and fattening -- check out the calories. Whoa. I think some of the really amazing and velvety paneer we've eaten has been made with bhens milk. Does anyone raise bhens in the United States? Someone should. All you need is a big muddy pond where they can wallow.

I'm not going to lie, I'm ready to go home. I woke up this morning and thought, only four more mornings in India! It is wearisome, navigating in this crazy heat, ignoring the relentless salesmen, and making Owen wash his hands every five minutes. Did you see Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? Mostly I feel like Tom Wilkinson, but I regret to say that I can identify with Maggie Smith.

Would my husband be upset if I brought one home?
I will never, ever admit to a Penelope Wilton moment.