My first potluck. Awake with the sun, I put curry leaves and mustard in hot oil, and let it sputter. My contribution to the potluck lunch: chili paneer.
Seated around the dining table in a mansion in Greenville, Delaware, some of us sipped white wine, and some others orange juice. There were eight of us. Five women and three children. All united by one thing common: Indian roots.
Some where born in India. Some were born elsewhere but had grandparents, great grandparents who were Indians. We discussed Bollywood movies, spices, history, politics and food. “It’s funny, a sprig of curry leaves here costs $1. Back in India, they would give a bunch of it free with vegetables.”
The smell of chili paneer, chicken curry, and dal puri, filled the room. We ate, even as questions dribbled on the table: “Where was your great grandfather from? What were your Ancestry results? Oh did they loose everything after the India Pakistan partition?”
The children, most born in the United States, munched in silence.
The rest of us talked about Indian weddings, child rearing, the feeling of being away from home… We understood each other, just like we understood the spicy food on the table.
Time to leave. We stepped out, and the hostess let us pinch small sprigs of curry leaves from her plant, to take home. We each held the delicate stems with care. The uprooted plants will soon have another home. Just like each one of us.
A Sunday afternoon, there is nothing to do. No calls, no guests, just the two of us. And on this blank-calendar day, we decide to make some lip-smacking lasagna.
Angus and Julia Stone plays on the speaker. Soft sunlight filters in through slats of windows on to the carpet.
Lasagna sheets are placed neatly on the pan. On top of it, like a ream of papers in a government office, are several more colorful layers — of cheese, creamed spinach, leftover potato curry, the sun-dried tomato paste, lasagna sheets, and some more cheese.
The tray is sealed and placed in the oven. All that is to be done now is to wait. 30 minutes later, the smell of tomato and garlic fills the room. We squat in front of the oven, face to face with the seething dish. Excitement and anticipation rise within. Just like the billowing cheese. We take it out; a cheesy red perfection.
With forks and knives, we devour our home-made little pan of lasagna, which, more than its taste, would forever remain a reminder of our carefree Sundays in the summer of ’19.
P.s. Remembering late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, whose birth anniversary it was yesterday. It was he who said: ‘Context and memory play a powerful role in all the truly great meals in one’s life’. Our lasagna, was one such.
I. Go to Big Bowl Noodle House, and order a plate of curry fried rice with fried tofu. Chew on the crunchy tofu pieces, and say a quick thanks to all the soy beans in the world.
II.Once your tummy is full, it’s time to sit in a darker room and reflect on life. Head to Chronic Town, order an Adios Hookah, and pair it with a cup of Garuda—vanilla, honey tea.
III. Now, if you plan to stay back, then get a good night’s sleep at The Atherton Hotel, and wake up early to stand in the already snaking queue outside The Waffle Shop. Don’t fret, or get vexed, know it in your heart that it will be worth the wait.
Outside, the roads have turned white. Like someone sat and scrubbed them with a chalk piece all night. No sign of human beings, just cars covered with layers of thin ice.
A friend of mine sends me a video of her cousin throwing a mug of water into air, and watching it turn into powdery ice. The cousin is in Chicago.
I scroll through my news feed, and see two dogs trying to shake a frozen tennis ball off the ground, in Ohio.
Niagara Falls looks like it was cursed by the White Witch.
And just then, it hits. Out of nowhere. A deep yearning for some soft warm muffin. A couple of hours pass, the sun shines bright — a weak consolation. The temperature increases from 6 to 8 degree Fahrenheit; the yearning remains constant.
So I put on my snow jacket, beanie, gloves and boots; decide to get my heart’s desire from the nearby supermarket.
As the door opens, the sudden dip in temperature feels like a tight slap on my cheeks. In response, my nose starts running. My fingers grow numb. My ear lobes turn beetroot red. And my vision blurs every time I exhale. I hold the image of a golden brown banana nut muffin tight in my mind and walk on.
From narrow slits that are now my eyes, I see a person walking towards me; before I can smile, he says, “Where are you going in this cold weather, young lady? God bless you.” I pause: Maybe I should go back home, I think.
So I walk past brick walls covered with soft ice like molds on stale food, past stiff blades of grass that would crunch under your feet, past people rushing into their cars, holding hot cups of coffee in their gloved hands…
Inside the supermarket, I shake my hands like a puppy out of water. And once I feel the blood flow again, I walk with a sense of calm to the bakery aisle and drop a box of banana nut muffins into my basket.
I cradle the one pound of sweetness back home.
Once inside, I pull a chair to face the window. I see lamp posts swinging as if in a trance, the crisscross of tyre tracks on ice, and then, a little far away, a lone man walking towards the supermarket.
Maybe to get a little muffin, I wonder, and take a large bite out of mine.
I am back home, in Delaware. Outside, the snow is forming a thin blanket. On any other day, I would have jumped out the window and waddled on to the ice cold grass. But today, I am drenched in thoughts.
…of the time I lay on a wicker recliner with the cool breeze ruffling my feathers.
…of that bright evening, when I stood so close to a lamp, that I could see the wick slowly drinking up the oil.
…the sound of the ocean, the green of the coconut tree, and the smell of ginger tea and filter coffee that made mornings official.
These days, the dreams I have are of steaming hot idlis, rolled-up sweet paans, and pots of payasam (sweet porridge). In the deep quiet here, I imagine walking along the street-side stalls of Chennai, soaking in the smell of camphor and incense sticks, the sound of temple bells, and the feel of salty air from the sea.
Is there a cure for a holiday hangover? Maybe a plate of paneer tikka would help.
I was right. Travel was in the cards. In fact, I am writing to you all from a compact house in Chennai, India. Behind me rests a series of photos of various Indian Gods and Goddesses, and the air carries a whiff of sambar and rasam. People constantly honk on the roads, and every now and then there is somebody at the door. I am still getting used to the doorbell. There is sweat on my webbed feet, and for a minute I am scared that the black on my back will smudge into the white on my front. But I must say, I feel alive, amidst people. I am no longer alone in a room, staring out at a balding tree, in Delaware.
P.s. On our way to this Southern beauty of India, we halted at Athens. More about it in my next.
A few days ago, two of our friends from Boston suggested that we all go to music artiste Prasanna’s concert in New York. Prasanna is a renowned guitarist from India. We were immediately excited about the idea. Though we had been to several concerts over the last few months in the States, never had we attended a concert by someone from our native place — Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. So we packed our bags, and after wrapping up the day’s work on Friday, drove to Grove Street, New Jersey.
Amid rows of black trash bags, we walked to a vegan bar called Pet Shop in downtown Jersey City. It was almost 11 pm, but the streets were lively with small groups of people engaged in lively conversation. All warming up for the weekend ahead.
Inside Pet Shop, now joined by the two friends, who drove all the way from Boston, we worked on our beers. As the bottles emptied, our conversations gained momentum. Personal life, lives of friends, college stories, politics, office gossip, everything was poured out, dissected, and laughed about. It was 2.30 am. There was no change in the number of people in the bar. A floating crowd, even as a bunch walked out, another bunch walked in. The place still buzzed, like the evening had just begun.
We stopped at another place, one of the few that was open, to get a box of sweet potato fries. By the time we reached our hotel, one box was empty. With our mouths full, we said goodnight.
The next day, we woke up at noon, and headed to Kati Roll Company, to try one each of their every vegetarian variety. Mixed vegetable, panneer and channa. We washed it down with mango lassi, and headed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to check out some South Asian and European Art.
Three hours later, after soaking in the works of Rembrandt and Anthony Van Dyck, we walked to the subway station to take a train to Terraza 7 in Queens. The event around which we had planned the weekend. Terraza 7 was nothing like the set definition of a concert place. A small mexican bar with two floors. The upper level is where the concert happens, and in the lower one is a big screen that casts the live performance. With a seating capacity of 50, the band might as well have been playing in someone’s house. But this ambiance is what made the event unique.
Prasanna and his five-member band played A R Rahman hits of the nineties, songs that most of them in the crowd knew the lyrics to. We finished our drinks, and gave in to the music, which went on for two hours. After which, we made our way to Pye Boat Noodle in Astoria and met two of our other friends. A nice plate of Pad Thai later, we dug into a slice of cheese cake at The Strand smokehouse. Rest of the night seemed a blur, until we reached our hotel, and fell into one of the best sleeps ever. The next morning, we checked out, and stopped by Cafe Lalo for an elaborate brunch. Fed on a fresh mozarella, pesto and tomato sandwich, and a cup of affogato, it was time to drive back home.
Over the last one week, I have been sketching quite relentlessly. Trying to reduce the time I take to finish a single sketch. So much so that, I have ended up with a terrible neck ache. But it’s an addiction that I am not willing to let go. Capturing the world in simple black ad white lines helps me makes sense of it.
Hope you like them. Also, if you have any suggestions, would love to read them in the comments section.
#1 The Strand
I heard about The Strand bookstore in one of the news articles. Apparently it is one of the best bookstores in the whole world. Located in the corner of East 12th Street, in the neighborhood of Manhattan, it welcomes you with a tome of books on either side of the door. All kept under the burning sun for passersby to peruse. At discounted rates, a thick travel book about Ireland is definitely a good buy. We enter, and there are just shelves and shelves of books. Enough for one to play a good game of hide and seek. And if its not books, then it is The Strand merchandise. Bags, T-shirts, sketchbooks, etc. We spent a good 30 minutes just walking in the aisles, surrounded by books, just too confused to pick just one.
#2 Newport Center selfie corner
Right when you enter the Newport Center mall, on the left side is a colorful selfie spot. The backdrop is a nice scenery, with the ropes of the swing ending right on top of a tall stool. You can sit on the stool, and act like you are holding the rope. It is fun and creative. In this sketch, while everything else is as is, I took the liberty of getting rid of the stool legs.
#3 Times Square
This was just a few minutes before we entered Radio City Hall for Ludovico Einaudi’s concert. It was a Saturday evening, and Times Square was buzzing with activity. A sea of people floated in front of us. Tons of people rested on the steps, below the flashy billboards, taking snaps of what is probably the busiest part of America. After standing, a little dazed, for a few seconds, we mixed in with the crowd, like thin brooks joining a river. And flowed we did, to our respective seas.
#4 Quill and ink
I had bought a set of quill and ink from Quincy Market, Boston, almost five months ago. It came with a nicely yellowed, almost archaic-looking, crushed, parchment. I had forgotten about this buy, until recently when I had an urge to write my journal with an ink pen. So I mixed the ink powder with hot water, and let it rest for a while, before filling my ink pen with it. There is something so primal about seeing fresh ink dry up on a white page.
And here is what I did with the parchment. Borrowed a quote from the coolest man, Ron Swanson (Parks and Rec, anyone?)
It’s summer. Period.
#6 The Halal Guys
Just done with the Ludovico Einaudi concert, we were starving, and my heels, still not broken in, were biting my feet. However, we walked the extra mile, to the ever-crowded road-side eatery The Halal Guys. While it is best known for its gyro and chicken, we, a bunch of vegetarians, wanted rice with falafel. We waited for almost 20 minutes in a long queue. Only to be told that the vegetarian meal is over. Such is the demand of this dimly-lit mobile food joint.
Until the next five.
Happy weekend all!
I blog this as I am having my cardamom tea. A morning ritual that I would never miss. Though of course, I can trade it for a cup of ginger tea or pomegranate tea, maybe. Anyway, over the last few days, I have been taking pictures of what I eat. As soon I see a dish, instead of taking a spoon and a fork, I take my camera out. While it seemed silly at first, as I began to spend some time and sketch each, I realized that each dish is as fascinating as a piece of architecture. The myriad folds, colors and textures. Replicating them into a book using a Micron pen is fascinating process, to say the least. The smooth buttery layers of the avocado, the dark brown spots on the soft thin layer of Indian bread, and the shiny varnished skin of an apple… So taking a cue from Paul Cezanne who immortalized a simple apple and jar of milk, and Salvador Dali, whose basket of bread looks startlingly real, I did these three sketches. Now, having food as an inspiration for your sketches is interesting. For one, you are never out of ideas as long as you keep eating 🙂
Thus is Indian bread with a filling of fried potato, and a side of curd.
June 15, 2018| 6 pm
We had a four-hour drive ahead of us. But first, food. Hunger silenced us, as we inched towards dinner time. We pulled our car right over at Bollywood Grille and Bar in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and placed our order. Then came the inevitable long wait. We let our eyes wander aimlessly on the inverted glasses and yellow napkins on the next table, on the single bulb that shone light on our heads, and a wall lined with Bollywood movie posters. We attempted to guess the names. But couldn’t get past three. Soon, our table was filled with a plate of hot Indian bread with butter, and a bowl of okra gravy. Before we saw it, we smelt it. A rich aroma of garlic and spices. We devoured it. The soft buttery pieces of naan. Dark green pieces of okra doused in oil and masala. Old Hindi songs played in the background in an extremely low volume. You had to stop chewing to hear it. “Rasmalai,” we unanimously decided, once the main course was done with. An Indian dessert made with balls of curdled milk. It came in a steel bowl, cool to the touch. We dug our spoons, and scooped out a soft piece that had been left to simmer in the sweetened milk. Satiated, we got into our car, put on some loud LP music, and navigated our way to The Buckeye State, Ohio.
We gazed at the endless blue of the Pacific Ocean, only disturbed by the sturdy pillars of the Golden Gate Bridge; we marched along the steep roads of San Francisco, sometimes chasing the slow-moving cars along the famous ‘Crooked Lane’ at Lombard Street. We spent some mornings soaking in the brilliance of Paul Klee and Andy Warhol at SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), and evenings, watching a pod of seals share docks at Pier 39. We hopped on and off of ‘Caltrains’, and stopped to drink soup out of sourdough bread bowls and gobble spoons-full of Affogato. Some evenings we spent smoking orange mint hookah, and some others, getting spooked inside a 134-year-old haunted Winchester Mystery House. We bid goodbye to California, but missed our connecting flight to Philadelphia. Stuck at Phoenix for the night, we traveled along roads, marked with tall cacti on the sides, to a nearby hotel. Finally, we reached home at dusk the next day. Now, as we put our feet up, and leisurely sip tea at our patio, we miss the cool breeze of the Bay, and the bark of the seals. It’s been a good trip.