Tuesday, 30 July 2013

A book in the hand

Whole-wheat Banana Cake (Photos by Amruta Nargundkar)

Aai, Dada-my brother and I are lying on our own beds reading our books. In that large open family home of ours we aren’t disconnected by individual bedrooms. Some of the family’s countless cats are thrown in for the effect – well, I stand corrected, they choose to place themselves where they please – on the bed, in the crook of our arms, on the pillow...

We are each reading our own stuff (at times after a stiff battle for a much coveted freshly borrowed book) but keenly attuned to what the other is reading, whether it is James Hadley Chase, Spike Milligan or Pu. La. Deshpande. Suddenly one of us hoots out their mirth and the others tear themselves from their books to enquire with genuine interest. 

The one who hails our attention reads the amusing bits aloud, we all laugh and chuckle together and then quiet descends as we resume our own book journeys in companionable silence.

Sometime during the night, mother removes the slackened books from our chests and switches the lights off. Or if it is a daytime reading spree, someone tosses the idea of making tea and fixing a snack and we bandy it around each convincing the other how they are best suited to fix the readers a cuppa  - until Aai caves in to make some tea for all of us.

Can we have something to eat, too? We push our luck…. we want cake…

We were able to enjoy such fun times and have these fond memories only because Aai herself was a voracious reader. In fact, this love of reading is the inheritance from a maternal grandmother and her sisters- in- law (great – aunts of mine) - who were iconoclastic, trendsetting female bibliophiles from nearly a century ago.

These women were compulsive readers of historical and social novels by the likes of V.V. Hadap, Nath Madhav and Hari Narayan Apte, inculcating enlightened ideas of women’s education, widow remarriages, condemnation of child marriages and other social issues of their times. 

The raft of what they read was impressive, ranging from Marathi peers of the English Romantic poets- Keshavsoot, Bal Kavi and their ilk to feminist writers Girija Bai Kelkar and Rama Bai Ranade. Biographies and works of Agarkar, Tilak and Savarkar and newspapers such as Kesari, the political literature around the new awakening during those times also made a deep impact on these women who hadn’t had much formal schooling.

Their interests were not just academic or artistic, for they acquired practical skills and absorbed knowledge in areas such as Ayurveda, public health, hygiene and midwifery through self-help books and shared their wisdom with other less fortunate women in their community.

Four of these women across two generations studied in Dhondo Keshav Karve’s  Hinganey Stree Shikshan Sanstha near Pune. Mai my grandmother had completed a few years of college at the Karves’ university.  She read the likes of Shakespeare, Marie Corelli, Dickens, Hardy to name only a few and would often tell her kids and later us grandkids, stories from her readings in the style of Lamb’s Shakespeare or at times gave us Bowdlerized renditions of these great works.

Periodicals like the Illustrated Weekly Of India, Women and Home and Reader’s Digest were delivered home, when my freedom fighter grandparents had patches of peacetime stability between dodging the Razakars under a shoot-at-sight order in the erstwhile Nizam State.

Aai is very proud of the fact that her social reformer father never bought his five daughters jewelry for their dowry – instead he would buy books, music records and plenty of goodies while returning home from his work related tours. Even to this day Mother’s face lights up when she recalls the shortbread and Shrewsbury cookies, the Huntely and Palmer biscuits in pretty tins and pound cakes that enhanced the siblings’ joy at their father’s homecoming.

A touching little childhood memory Mother ruefully laughs at is of writing a letter to her father who was in jail as a political prisoner, to bring home a lot of books and toys and cakes!

As I reminisce about what these mighty women two generations behind me read and relished, I am acutely aware that there was another and perhaps more enlightened generation of their mothers and mothers-in-law behind them supporting their literary efforts.

No mean feat this, in an era where little girls were punitively assigned grueling household tasks if their demanding mothers and mothers-in-law feared these kids would get corpulent when left at leisure. This was truer of child widows, whose destiny and dreams were shorn along with their locks and sealed in the constricted red or white wrap-around. 

Such strict matrons would add grit to rice and set the young girls to pick sack-loads of the grain to keep them out of mischief. When all else was done, some even had to draw heavy pots of water from deep wells, only to spill and waste the water along with their energy, time and any zest to improve their lot.

The progressive women in my family supported their daughters' literary interests, bravely facing disparagement from nosy neighbouring women folk criticising the young girls and their mothers for “lolling in bed with a book on their chests” and “drinking umpteen cups of tea with milk” – so inappropriate and unacceptable in those days.

Lucky us, I think – for not only did we get to loll in bed with books on our chests, but also got indulged in cups of tea with milk – and some wholewheat banana cake, from a recipe very close to Aai’s heart.

A gift I cherish, as does that likeminded lady with a child-like pure-hearted love for books exhorting the world (in a little-girl voice) to give children that gift of reading a book. 

Yes, Rohini Nilkeni, your words so resonate with me! 

This is my entry to the "The Idea Caravan" contest on Indiblogger.

Franklin Templeton Investments partnered the TEDxGateway Mumbai in December 2012.

Whole-wheat Banana Cake


2 cups fine whole-wheat flour (atta)
2 large or 3 medium sized ripe bananas, peeled and mashed
1tsp baking powder
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¾ tsp salt
¾ cup oil
1 ½ cups sugar/ 1cup sweetener
2 eggs
¾ cup buttermilk + 1 tsp baking soda


Preheat the oven to 180 C. Grease and flour a 9”X5” loaf tin and set aside.

Sift the flour, baking powder, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt together in a bowl.
Combine the buttermilk and the baking soda.  Mix and set aside.

Beat together the sugar/sweetener and oil until light.  Add the eggs and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy.  Add in the mashed bananas and mix well.
Add half the flour mixture. Then add half the buttermilk mixture and stir well.  Then add the rest of the milk mixture and stir until the milk is fully incorporated into the batter.  Add the rest of the flour mixture and stir well.

Once the flour is mixed into the batter completely, pour it all into the prepared loaf tin.  Spread out evenly.

Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 40 - 45 minutes. If your oven has uneven heat areas, turn the pan once half way through. Test with a skewer or if the cake springs back to touch, then it is done.

Cool for about 10 -15 minutes before slicing.

You can have the cake and eat it too!

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Piece de Resistance

Phodnichey Pohe (फोडणीचे पोहे)

The bus has left Belgaum on time and is slowly warming up to the overnight journey to Hyderabad. As it motors away into the distant sunset, it picks up good rhythmic speed, lulling me into a slumber. When I wake up, we are at a tea-stop and my new husband (don’t worry, this is a story from 29 years ago) has stepped out of the bus, surely in search of something to eat, I jump to a backed-by-experience-conclusion, a tad impatiently.

How many times can I tell him about the importance of staying away from unhygienic street food – how can I convince him about the dreadful consequences of waterborne microbes, flies, bacteria, amoeba, impurities, rancid oil…

He grins at me charmingly, cutting my lambast mid-sentence and proffers a newspaper cone containing some steaming kanda pohe.

No way! I turn up my nose.

But the nose has a will of its own and won’t get turned up. Instead, it seeks that most delicious aroma wafting from the newspaper cone.

The eyes follow suit, taking in the perfect bright yellow phodnichey pohe or beaten rice,each moist but firm grain separate, beautifully garnished with fresh chopped onion, sev and coriander, a little wedge of lemon pertly perched on the side.

The mouth waters in mutiny, the stomach growls seditiously, reminding me that the hurried lunch I had had was long gusted from the gut.

I am ambushed into surrender as I reach out and scoop in a mouthful. My resistance all but gone with the first bite, I reach out once more, and more…

Shall I get some more, the husband asks and I nod enthusiastically – inadvertently ...conveniently ignoring the hint of teasing in his voice. These pohe are undoubtedly the most delicious ones I have ever eaten.

I crane my neck out of the bus to make sure he’s gone back to the poha and bhajji stall and settle back into my seat satisfied that he has picked up two cones. I smile at myself, thinking here is a tale for posterity – imagine Me! Yes ME! Eating pohe from the dilapidated and dirty stall in a hole in the middle of nowhere - called Yergatti…and then again, asking for more…

I am lurched out of my reverie as the bus starts. The husband’s not back yet. I look around me and am suddenly worried, where could he be! The conductor should have at least given a warning. But he was just around the corner – hey wait!

Worry turns into panic, but only momentarily so – I spot him making his way to his seat beside me, balancing his way forward while holding on to the newspaper cones.

“Ah, good! He hasn’t spilled the pohe! …

29 years later, I still get teased, baited, tempted, coaxed out of dogmatic or pragmatic resistance to any new idea – with a gentle reminder of the pohe of Yergatti.

Phodnichey Pohe (फोडणीचे पोहे)


2 cups medium thick pohe
1 large onion, chopped
1 large potato, boiled, peeled and cubed
½ cup raw peanuts
2 finely chopped green chillies (or more)
10-12 curry leaves
1 tbsp lemon juice (or to taste)
1 tsp sugar
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
A pinch of hing
4 tbsps oil
Salt to taste
2 tbsps grated coconut (optional)
2 tbsps chopped coriander


Sieve the pohe in a colander to get rid of pohe dust and chaff and pick the paddy bits, if any. Wash the pohe in cold water and drain in the same colander and keep aside for about 8-10 minutes. Fluff the soaked pohe a little.

Heat the oil in heavy bottomed kadhai. Add mustard seeds and let them crackle. Add the peanuts and fry for a minute or two, then add the hing, chillies, curry leaves and sauté for few seconds. Add the chopped onions and sauté till translucent and then add the cubed boiled potatoes cook for a few minutes.

At this stage add the turmeric – if you don’t cook the turmeric too much, it will give a nice light yellow tinge to the pohe. Now quickly add the soaked pohe, salt and sugar to taste and mix well. Cover with a lid and cook for a further 5 minutes till you see white steam escaping from the lid.

You will have to test the grain of poha to see if it is cooked. If the pohe are dry, sprinkle some water or milk and cover and cook further for a few minutes. Remove from heat. Add the lemon juice and mix.

Serve hot garnished with chopped coriander leaves and grated coconut.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Passing the baton

Börek Batons

We line up to buy the börek in front of the Turkish kiosk in Queen Victoria Market . This is one place in orderly, monochronic Melbourne where shopkeepers don’t do just the one thing at a time and customers don’t line up in a single file, forgetting to observe their unspoken code of personal and public space.

And so naturally, this is that one place that even I have no qualms in pushing my way through or egging the girls to go forward edging out people pushing past you and jumping the queue.

Why? Well, if you tarry out of politeness, you lose your turn grabbing the hot batons called böreks. They hardly ever stay on the bain-marie on the counter, what with people swarming like feeding fish (piranhas?) around it the minute a batch comes out of the oven…

Are these böreks so good then?

Well, they are OK… could do with a little more salt – perhaps some more spice. The garlic is too overpowering and the parsley could have been chopped finer. Could do with a little mint? No nigella seeds…

“Well, why don’t you make them at home then? Wow! Look at that – this is such an enviable business, where they have to send away people or make them wait”, says the husband. “This is the kind of business one should have!”

I look at him a little alarmed – do I detect more admiration loaded on to the second sentence? Was the first remark, incidental, or - a way to shut me up?

But maybe not – let me not be so petty, possessive… “I can, and will make this at home, and much much better”, I mutter…

But all this while, the words of Patrick, our advisor ring in my ears.

“Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur”, says Pat every time we see him and he asks us what we are up to. “And you don’t have to spend a decade with a business like you did with your last, you’re so imaginative – you can be a serial entrepreneur!”

Why does this seem like getting a suggestion – or blessing- to become a serial k-er-entrepreneur?

But he is right, I think. It may not be so bad. In fact, I quite fancy that role of an entrepreneur who continuously conjures up new ideas to start a new business.

Moreover, at this stage in my life, if I could start up an innovative project and give it away to someone to manage, I would be happy (and relieved) to hand over the baton to someone else and move on to a new idea and a new venture. I will also be sharing my knowledge and skills with others and learning from them.

On a selfish note, how else will I be able to manage and see to fruition all my brainwaves and idea-sprouts as well as people’s unsolicited/solicited suggestions? – an iconoclastic gourmet Indian restaurant that serves more than the regulation paneer and makhni types, a puranpoli by order business, a daily dubba business, a food van that sets up shop every day at a different venue, a typical Maharashtrian घरगुती खानावळ (home made food restaurant) , a bhajjia/pakora kiosk that pops up on the corner of Lonsdale Street when it rains, corporate training events like cookery for teambuilding…

The ideas keep streaming, seamless… then reason, that spoilsport devil in an advocate’s robe robs me of the momentary pleasure of daydreaming…

Why, oh why remind me of the ungodly hours of sheer hard labour, the possibility of the resurgence of my frozen shoulder, the growing stiffness in my weather weary bones on cold mornings, the pilferage by helpers, the …and uncountable other immitigable menaces that defy any risk assessment and management…


Oh well, perhaps I should start a business that selling such ideas only…

Before Beelzebub in black peers over my shoulder, let me finish telling you about the absolutely delish turkish böreks I made the other day.

Make these böreks at home, and tell me if they weren’t better than the VicMarket ones.

Keep passing the baton…

Börek Batons

For the filling

4 medium potatoes, boiled, peeled and roughly mashed
1 medium Spanish onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp garlic, finely minced
4 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley
2 tbsp chopped mint
½ cup feta crumbled cheese
1 tsp crushed red chilli
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
Salt and pepper to taste


Heat a pan and add the olive oil and butter. Add the sliced onions and sauté for a minute. Add the garlic and sauté a little more. Now add the mashed potatoes and cook for a few minutes. Remove from the heat and add the rest of the ingredients. Check and adjust the taste. Set aside to cool.

For the pastry

3 cups plain flour, sifted
1 tsp (7g/1 sachet) dried yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 cup warm water
2-3 tsp nigella seeds
1 egg
2 tbs olive oil


In a bowl, mix the sugar and warm water. Sprinkle the yeast on the surface and a keep covered in a warm place for about 10 minutes.  Combine flour and salt in another bowl. Make a well in the centre, then add the yeast water and break an egg into the flour. Mix well and knead into a dough. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes or until smooth and elastic.

Brush a bowl with oil and place the dough in the bowl and lightly coat with oil. Cover with a damp tea towel or cling film. Set aside in a warm place for about 40 mins to an hour or until the dough has doubled in size. Punch the dough back once and keep for some more time till it has risen again.

Divide the dough into four portions. Sprinkle the nigella seeds on the rolling surface and roll out into thin rectangles and cut each rectangle into half, making two rectangles. Place the filling in the centre of each rectangle and fold it over, in a roll or baton shape, making sure the edges overlap. Pinch the ends together.

Place these rolled börek batons, edges down and gently dab a pastry brush dipped in milk or egg on the surface.  

Preheat oven to 200°C. Place baking tray on the middle shelf of the oven.

Cook for 8-10 minutes or until golden. Cool on a wire rack.

Serve hot.

Remember - hot is what sells!

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Many wrongs make a right

Doodhi Burfi (a non-recipe)

Some of my most favourite topics for essay at school were “The day everything went wrong”, or “If I were a millionaire” and “If I were Prime Minister or Principal for a day”. These topics had so much potential for a wordster like me to spin yarns. They allowed, nay – called for unhinged flights of fancy, allowing a limitless scope for farfetched fantasies. The whackier, the better! And the best part of it was you could be as brash and brazen as you could bring yourself to be, sass as much as you could stomach, without any fear of consequence.

These were rare occasions in our little contained world, that we would be certainly rewarded for the cheeky proposal to ban exams if we were the principal for a day. And when else could you expect to get a big tick for your precocious remark that had you been a millionaire, you wouldn’t be writing a piddly essay on this topic.

All you needed was to give dainty disclaimers declaring the caprices wrong, impossible, improbable, and provide a happy denouement – such as waking up and realising it was but a dream. Then again, if you coveted that + on the A and threw in something about helping the poor and uplifting the downtrodden, you could get away with the kill.

But in real, grown-up life, one needn’t necessarily have to contrive any whimsical misadventures – if things have to go wrong, they will - every step of the way.

Kitchen catastrophes are in this category, where often times and for lesser mortals, (just kidding!) there is no salvaging of situation.

However, being my mother’s daughter, I have inherited the make-do-with-makeshift, dish-fixing, disaster-recovery gene.

Mother, who never believed in “chucking” any food without a good reason, was always successful in rescuing the most seemingly gone-cases of dishes.

Once, after her annual sun-dried potato chip making binge, she decided to use the dregs of the sedimented starch to make some soup. The soup was thick and gluggy, so Mother didn’t get any brownie points for innovation. The next day, when we came home from school, ravenous, we were greeted with the most delicious savoury pancakes.

Not so smart this time, we unsuspectingly gobbled up the pancakes, much to the amusement of a mysteriously reticent mother.

And then there was the time, impressed by a recipe doing the rounds of the staff room, I slid some uncooked gulab jamuns balls into hot oil, and they immediately burst and started the oil started foaming. Some quick thinking on my part and the disintegrated dough was mashed further, the one-string syrup was fortified into an almost hardball syrup, and –

Voila! I had a lovely halva, cut into nice rhombus shapes.

For days later, the staff room resounded with laughter as colleagues recalled my recipe of the gulab-halwa, which was prefaced by the much-hyped gulabjamun recipe till the point “deep fry the balls in oil” – and then epilogued with the rescued recipe.  

The ricotta rasgullas, based on a recipe shared by another colleague in another country faced a similar kismet. I believe this cunning co-worker had very generously shared the sweets with us, lapped up all praise, but deliberately left some important detail out of the recipe that we begged of her.   

It’s only because I have that gene I was talking about some paragraphs ago, that the curdy mess of dissolved ricotta and syrup metamorphed into an exquisite kalakand.

The doodhi halwa I made this time takes the cake for calamities. 

The sugarfree mawa I had made last week with a cup of milk powder and four tablespoons of cream zapped for 30 seconds in the microwave, had left a nervous aftertaste in the mouth, brought about by the stevia based sweetener.

But it clinched the deal on what to make for dessert when we had some friends over. Out came the doodhi from the fridge, peeled and grated into two cups, to mingle with the blob of mawa and a cup of sugar and the requisite cardamom into a wide heavy bottomed pan. I even added a tablespoon of ghee to make sure the mixture wouldn’t stick to the bottom.

This time, mind you, I followed two internet based recipes for doodhi burfi – one of them a TV masterchef’s rendition!

But no! No amount of stirring and scraping inspired confidence in me that this mixture would set. So in went half a cup of powdered pistachio and almonds, which I had rescued when my daughter wanted to rubbish them after she (slightly) burnt them.

Well, still no luck with the caking, so I added two tablespoons of icing mixture. Ok, that seemed to have worked, so the hot mixture finally was patted to rest in the greased plate.

To err the side of caution (as if I hadn’t erred enough), I reasoned that placing the plate in the fridge for an hour or so would help it set perfectly.

But the stage was not yet set.

If I were infirm of purpose, I would have served the unset mixture as a halwa in a bowl, or rolled it into small balls coated in some more of the powdered pistachios. But now I was a woman scorned, whose fury was greater than the 80C in the oven, where I placed the plate to dry out for about 30 minutes.

Running out of patience and time before the guests arrived, I cut the squares, and YESSS, I was able to pluck some of the squares out.

A bit of reshaping here and there, some powdering up with pistachios, and a bolstering of the morale with lovely yellow daisies, my delicious burfi was ready to be presented.

The day actually ended quite right. What say?

And for those who really want the recipe-


2 cups grated doodhi/lauki (peel the doodhi)
1 cup mawa/khoya
For home made mawa/khoya - mix 1 cup skim milk powder with four tbsp light cream and microwave covered for 30 secs, mix again and if required, microwave again for another 20-30 secs.
½ cup milk
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup powdered pistachios and almonds (reserve a little for garnishing)
1 tbsp ghee
½ tsp powdered green cardamom
2 tbsp icing mixture


Grease a 9-inch plate/thali or similar tray with some ghee and keep aside.

Squeeze most of the juice from the doodhi. If you retain the juice, it takes much longer to dry the mixture. It’s ok if you are making a halva  – but if you intend to make the burfi, that’s one of the mistakes you could avoid.

But please don’t discard the juice – add it to any dal or sambar or even roti dough.

Heat a heavy bottomed and wide pan, add the ghee and the grated lauki and milk and cook on low heat till the mixture thickens, stirring and scraping the pan from time to time to prevent the mixture from sticking to the bottom or burning.

Next add the sugar. The mixture will suddenly become a little loose when the sugar dissolves.  Cook till the mixture thickens again, stirring frequently. Add the powdered nuts and cook for a few seconds to get the nutty flavour. Crumble the khoya and add to the mixture and mix well and cook further till the mixture is ready to roll into a ball.

Remove from flame and add icing mixture and mix vigorously and then turn the ball onto the greased plate. Pat the mixture evenly in the plate with a spatula. Sprinkle the reserved powdered nuts on the top and pat them in gently. Allow the burfi to set, if required in the fridge. Cut into squares and serve.

Store in the fridge.