Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Party on my timeline!

Thank you all for your love! 

(Photos by Amruta Nargundkar)

When I was growing up, my birthday was rarely celebrated on the date.

I was born on the day of Diwali. Mother doesn’t tire telling everyone that I was born at the most auspicious hour of Lakshmi Pooja muhurt- on the most important day of Diwali- which is the most significant and favourite festival for most Indians. Thence, it was always a double celebration for the family at Diwali with my birthday thrown in.

My grouse that we didn’t do anything on the “real” birth day,  could not stand up to Mother’s most enthusiastic, “Look, the whole world is celebrating your birthday on Diwali! The best day of all days!”

My first memory of a celebration was in kindergarten are around half moon karanjis and a return gift for each child of a notebook and pencil. I have a memory of Mother bringing in a steel container of those home- made karanjis for the class kids of Shishu Vihar. I also remember she had got with her my “birthday frock” and dolled me up at school.

But perhaps I didn’t need to rack my memory. This became one of the umpteen and oft-quoted anecdotes of Mother’s about her special sartor, the traitorous “always late Yadgiri Tailor”. It seems he had once again broken his promise on the delivery of the beautiful baby pink Hakoba lace frock, but Mother had sat in his shop (in Indian parlance- on his head!) till he finished sowing the last button on.

When I look at my childhood photos, I realise those tailored frocks were really pretty. In my world now a tailored frock for a kid would be considered an uber luxury. However, the little me considered it not cool. All my thin, slim friends could fit into “readymade” dresses. But not me, as they didn’t make plus sizes in kids clothes – for that matter in any ready to wear clothes.

So when an uncle gifted a ready made frock from an upmarket kids’ store called “Little Shoppe” one birthday, my joy knew no bounds. Moreover, it was a boxed gift, wrapped in shiny paper.

Very like the birthday a Pinky or Deepu from Hindi films would receive.

The box contained all the excitement and charm of the little red frock Jaya Bhaduri got from a doting brother in the film Guddi. I felt so fashionable! So posh!

The frock and the joy didn’t last long as it burst at the seams the first time I tried it on. I insisted it fit me very well, but Mother wouldn’t hear my pleas to mend the split sides.

It was not worth it, according to her, but certainly was worth spending one afternoon fashioning out a shopping bag out of it.

My ideal birthday party was only found on silver screen. There was something so compelling about the kids parties in the Hindi films of my childhood.  I am talking about the song and dance (the Twist!) routine, the short frocks and white long-johns and shoes, the party games, twisted paper streamers, concertina garlands and speckled balloons kind of a party. There would be an array of toys and gifts on a table and sweets and samosas. Turbaned and cummerbunded and funny waiting staff went around serving orange and rose coloured drinks to all the little guests!

On my 14th birthday, my last one while in school, I insisted on having a birthday party for my school friends, for which Mother and Dada did their best. Dada made mixed out wonderful milk shakes for the girls in our newly acquired Sumeet Mixer, a novelty for us in those days.  A few years older to me and a real charmer, he had a field day with the girls.

That was the time when I was into Mills and Boons romances, so I got 7 of those as gifts from my friends. That seemed like a treasure, but when one considered that we would knock one down in an hour and a while, this trove wouldn’t have lasted long, I suppose.

Having said that, there was something thrilling about being the first one to read a brand new book. 

Unfortunately, my memory of this perfect birthday is marred, for I never got to read all those books ultimately. Most of the girls bullied me into lending them all but one of those books saying I wouldn’t be reading all of them that night. For some reason, I don’t remember reading the rest. Maybe there was a reason?

For a long time in between, birthdays were lost in life’s Bermuda triangle of growing up, negotiating relationships and managing expectations and dealing with disappointments. 

Until my golden 50th last year.

This was a turning point, half time perhaps – as my little one would say. As a kid my Appu thought everyone lived for 100 years, and each year on my birthday she would count backwards, frowning a little less each year as she improved her mental math skills, trying to figure out how many more years I had before I turned 100.

My 50th birthday was a turning point, when I can say I learnt to unabashedly enjoy the day and lap up the love that came my way.

I realise I don’t have half time exactly – so why not!

This birthday was a quiet celebration on the family front. A birthday cake lovingly baked by my firstborn, a cosy dinner at the Coconut Lagoon, phone calls from loved ones… 

What made this birthday most memorable was the gush of greetings and wishes, the outpour of love and affection from my friends and family on my timeline and inbox on Facebook, email, SMS, phone and even LinkedIn!

Thank you all my dear folks for the “party” on my timeline and in my favourite food groups – replete with streamers, paper chains, speckled balloons and glitter; with boxed gifts nudging a huge birthday cake!

So blessed, so privileged, so fulfilled to be loved so this birthday! Who needs another 49?!

In our typical Indian style, I am ending this on a sweet note – with a falooda that I had made for my Amu’s birthday some months ago.  



1cup vermicelli
4 glasses chilled full cream milk (try not to boil the milk, if you can)
Sugar/sweetener as required
6 tsp sabza seeds (basil seeds)
8-10 tbsp rose syrup
6 scoops of vanilla ice cream
1 packet red coloured (any flavour) jelly (I used a vegetarian one!)
½ cup chopped pistachios
½ cup chopped almonds
6 strawberries (optional)


Set the jelly according to package instructions.

Cook the vermicelli in boiling water till al dente. Drain and rinse in cold water and chill in refrigerator till needed.

Mix the rose syrup and the crushed cardamom with the milk and add sugar/sweetener only if required.  If you are confident about the milk you are using, try to use it without boiling it. It tastes better! Chill in the refrigerator.

Soak the basil/sabza seeds in a bowl and pour enough water over them to completely submerge. When they swell and look like blobs of jelly with small black dot in the centre, strain and keep aside.

To assemble the falooda

Frost 6 tall glasses. Divide the cooked vermicelli between all the glasses. Add a few spoons of jelly. Repeat the same with the soaked sabza seeds. Pour the milk over them, taking it up to the three-fourths level. Add a scoop of ice cream to each glass and drizzle with some more rose syrup if required.

Garnish with chopped almonds and pistachios. Place a sliced strawberry over each glass and serve with a straw and a long spoon.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The sublime and the subliminal

Appi Payasa or Poori ki Kheer (पुर्यांची खीर) 

दसरा कशावर बसला ? (What sweet/mithai did you make for Dasara?) was the opening gambit for many a conversation of women chatting to their neighbours over fences and walls or balconies and windows.

These festivals had their ritual favourites – Holi was partial to puran poli, Ganesh Chaturthi mandated modaks, Narali Paurnima was nothing without a narali bhaat and Makar Sankranti synced with Tilgul and Gulpoli.

Diwali, the king of feasts, was in its own league and delighted in a wide variety of sweets and snacks.

That left Dasara and Gudi Padva a bit of latitude with a choice of shrikhand/basundi/ sudha ras/aamras/with the usual palaver of pooris in tow. 

For the less enthusiastic women/householders, there was recourse in a “sluggish sheera” or a “cursory kheer” and kanavla.  For a very curious but equitable reason, just as a batch of karanjis or gujiyas never went without a chaperone modak brother, the feminine kheer was always accompanied by a little ear-shaped boy calzone known as kanavala – after its shape.  

Taking a step back, cleaning preceded cooking. Days before every festival, women would vie with each other in cleaning their homes. One neighbour would set the tone and others followed turning the street into a veritable dhobi ghat, with sheets washed and rugs beaten bare. 

Ridding their homes of webs and dust, the women set about stocking their stores after getting their walls whitewashed or their thresholds decorated. The bright yellow turmeric smeared doorsills dotted with vermillion and white lent symmetry to the mango - marigold torans, while giddy sugarcanes propped precariously against the jambs. 

Rangolis -riotous or regimental - claimed their rightful role in the foreground.

This Dasara, “What to make” lost the duel to “What to clean”. A grueling work schedule had seen me out of the house for most of my waking hours preceding the festival.

But, while this was a very agrarian thanksgiving festival, we couldn’t venerate the gods and goddesses out of a sty, could we!

If dirt is matter out of place, there was no dearth of dirt in our midst.

The first half of the day was spent in cleaning the house, and our minds of sloth and filth in no particular order.

Cooking could only start after the house and I, as the head chef, stepped out of a state of pollution and profanity and entered शुचिर्भूत sacredness. 

And I wasn’t even thinking of सोवळ /ओवळ - the traditional notions of purity and pollution. 

So it was, that even as we arranged the “पाटी -पूजा/ आयुध पूजा ”, or worship of books, tools and implements in thanksgiving, we were undecided about what “sweet” our Dasara was going to “sit on”.  The pantry hadn’t been stocked - what a piteous state of affairs, when the atta flour bin was empty.

Flitting between the kitchen and the altar, giving instructions to an already ravenous family  - knead the maida, grate two carrots, pluck some flowers and wash the niranjans with silver polish…where’s that piece of sugarcane?

Everyone brought whatever he or she revered to place in the pooja – books – pens – the poet/dreamer in the family brought her book of poems– the drummer, her sticks - while I set a litre of milk to boil, thinking I should at least make the quick-fix-kheer and a couple of kanavalas for the “sake of shastra” …   

We forgot the tools! Get some of your fancy shmancy tools, I said to the husband.  “This has got it all,” he said, handing me a shiny red grip.

His latest fad purchase from Bunnings Warehouse is a multi-tool – scissors, three types of knives, cutting pliers, wrench – and what not - all in one.

Whatever -  I have no time - I must go back to the stove to mind the milk that’s reducing very patiently in the midst of the flurry. Now to make the kheer and fry some pooris and the naivedya thali will be ready.

I am really tired now. Happy tired, but tired nevertheless. And still undecided about the sweet dish.

My mother-in-law used to come up with something unique for naivedya all the time, in times of plenty and periods of paucity, for umpteen religious occasions right through Shravan maas to dhanurmaas and Sankranti. 

As I stood staring at the dough in front of me and shushing the milk threatening to spill over, I thought of Atya, as I call my mother-in-law. 

Always smiling, always resourceful, she is the epitome of patience and peace - and piety.

That was a light-bulb moment– when her unique two-in-one kheer called Appi Payasa that I had tasted once, came to mind - and settled the matter.

Our Dasara sat on Appi payasa or a kheer made with miniature pooris.

The multi-tool is subliminal, too? Wow!

Appi Payasa (Poori ki Kheer)


For pooris

1 cup atta or plain flour
1 tbsp semolina
1 tsp sugar
A pinch of salt
1 tbsp oil/ghee for shortening
Oil for deep-frying

For payasam

6 cups full cream milk
100 gms khoya, grated (you can use some cream to thicken the milk
3-4 green cardamoms, crushed
¼ tsp grated nutmeg
A pinch of saffron
Splenda/any brand of sweetener/ Sugar/ to taste
Slivered almonds, pistachio nuts


Mix the plain flour, semolina, salt, sugar and shortening with a little water into a stiff but pliable dough. Rest for about 20 minutes. Then knead the dough for a few minutes. Divide the dough into five or six portions and roll out each ball into a large chapati. Cut out small pooris using a round cookie cutter.

Deep fry a batch at a time till golden and drain on absorbent paper.

Boil the milk in a thick-bottomed saucepan stirring it occasionally. Add the grated khova and let it dissolve. Then add the cardamom, nutmeg and saffron. Remove from heat and add the sugar/sweetener.

Slide the little pooris into the thickened and sweetened milk and rest for 10 minutes until the pooris get soaked. Garnish with slivered almonds and pistachios.

Serve warm.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Potato Kisses

Potato Kees ( बटाट्याचा कीस) 

I have just surfaced – after a surreal, subhuman 12 days of 14-15 hours of mind-fraying and backbreaking work on a client’s audit prep. 

And suddenly cognizant that one of my worlds is celebrating the Navaratris. 

I miss those days of the festivities, the mild fragrance and vivid hues of seasonal flowers like orange and maroon झेंडू  (marigold), the florid velvety कुरुडू  (cockscomb), the pretty pink and purple asters, the yellow शेवंती (chrysanthemums), the magenta सुपारीची फुलं  (Gomphrena). 

These flowers lay in heaps, waiting to be strung into garlands for the gods and door decorations or the colourful bathkamma floral arrangements that the neighbouring Telugu women would carefully prepare for their ritual dances at night. 

We too would gather these flowers, but Aai- my mother would encourage me to think out of the box, and come up with floral arrangements that would preserve the flowers for longer without mauling them and stringing them up to dry in an untimely manner. I was amazed when one year, after buying long stalks of marigold from the flower market, she chose to arrange them in all the large porcelain pickle jars (बरणी) she could find in the house, instead of plucking the flower heads and garlanding them. They looked beautiful- almost like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, lent our home such a festive air- and stayed fresh for such a long time.

 “That’s what will make the Gods happy, no?” She would say…

Aai’s Gods were always kind and gentle-hearted. And had a thing for aesthetics.

The deities were discerning foodies, too, and would enjoy a daily fare of sweets and savories.  There were the puran poli days and the phulora (sweet pooris) days, along with all other trappings. The complexity of the menu grew along with the wheatgrass grown in a ताम्हण  (plate) on a कलश , and varied with the ceremonial change of the flower mala offered – yes each of the nine days saw a different floral offering. 

But what remained constant as the non-stop-nandadeeps that she carefully tended to day and night for nine days, were Aai’s fasts. 

Legend has it that someone in the family had promised the Goddess to light an oil lamp and one with ghee for the nine days. For many years, as a dutiful daughter-in-law maintaining the family tradition, she rolled out scores of cotton wicks on the little board she used for making sandalwood paste. The cotton had to be the  whitest she could find and oil had to be from the best ghani, the ghee had to be the purest. 

With the house stocked up for the nine-day fuelling of the lamps, their receptacles, the tall brass समई  lamps balanced on a beautiful cobra head would come out of their long hibernation and get an extra shine with tamarind, salt and aritha. 

In a most filmy way, my very non-filmy Aai would also get up in the middle of the night to check the oil and wicks, so the lamps wouldn’t go out. The pathetic fallacy of the Hindi filmy mother like Nirupa Roy cupping the flickering flame in a storm, preventing it from dying out while her offspring fought for their life flashing in my little mind, I would feel happy and secure to see her care and commitment to her family. 

Wasn't that the very purpose of all these activities?

And I may say, as we (and she) grew older, she began to rethink of the purpose of some of these rituals – “I would rather help some needy family buy a liter of oil to cook their food, or a kilo of ghee to nourish their kids, than simply burn it.” 

And Aai's Gods and Goddesses surely approved of that, too. 

Sorry, I got lost in the lamps… so… I was telling you about Aai’s fasts. 

I always wonder how she was able to plan and cook all those exquisite naivedya meals, when she herself abstained. She would eat one meal a day, either the usual fare of sabudana khichadi, bhagar amti, (samo seed and peanut soup) rajgira thalipeeth, potato subji and one my most favourite- potato kees (kees means gratings in Marathi)

Years later, this changed too. Aai stopped fasting, believing she achieved oneness with the almighty by being prudent and restrained with her daily diet, without excesses of any sort that would need to be avoided by punitive fasting.

Her Gods have been all right with this as well.

As for us, we were such greedy kids that we ate all the festive goodies, plus eyed her plateful of “vrat” stuff. But we couldn’t help it - she WAS and IS such a great cook.  And as is all mums’ wont, she would never refuse us an indulgent spoonful. 

She would be rewarded with a little kiss in little game I devised - “Give-me-some kees-and-I-will-give-you-a-kiss” - which being a very undemonstrative parent like most in those days, she would brush off - but not without a smile and some kees, of course.

Potato Kees (Batatyacha Kees)

This is a traditional Marathi dish made for vrats and upavas and is nothing but stir-fried grated sweet potato, much like a rosti or hash browns.

‘Kees’ refers to the action of grating, like ‘kadu kas’ in Hindi.  The finished product is form of cooked gratings, but I have pressed it into a mould for presentation! 


2 cups grated raw potato (I don’t peel potatoes if they have clean skins, and place them in water as soon as they are grated to stop discolouration)
2-3 green chillies, chopped
3 tablespoons roasted crushed peanuts
2 -3 teaspoon/s oil ghee
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon sugar/sweetener (not required if the potatoes are sweet in taste)
A squirt of lemon juice
Salt to taste
2 tbsp chopped coriander

Some people add a dash of grated ginger.


Heat the oil in a shallow pan and add the cumin seeds to splutter. Add the green chillies and then add the grated potato after squeezing out the water. Mix thoroughly and cook covered on low heat for a few minutes. Then add the peanuts, sugar/sweetener, lemon juice, salt and mix thoroughly, but with a light touch, so as not to mash the gratings. Cook further, stirring minimally, only to avoid burning from the bottom. The grates get cooked and look translucent very quickly, within a few minutes.

Remove from heat and serve garnished with coriander.