Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Nailing Thai

Before you accuse me of nailing some Thai guy…let me specify that I mean the elusive Thai cuisine. As I had blogged here and here, I absolutely love Thai food. To me, savoring Thai red curry is pure ecstasy. I had made several attempts to try this at home. Although the results were satisfactory, I was not pleased at all. I wanted to nail the exact flavor as you get in a good Thai restaurant. Every time I went for dinner, I would savor every morsel and try to discern individual flavors and make mental notes. Flavors rendered to a dish due to ingredients such as lemon grass are easy to discern. It is extremely difficult to discern other subtle flavors and ingredients that are not common to Indian or western cuisine. One should also have proper recipes along with some explanation regarding the procedure.

Last week my coworker who is a gourmand told me about her unsuccessful attempt at Thai food. She thought that as an Indian and more eastern than she, an American with very a Waspy background, would be able to give her pointers. I told her that although my preparations are edible, I haven’t been able to nail the exact flavor. She came to work with fresh Thai basil from her garden along with lemongrass and handed them to me. She said that they could be of use to me. I took the ingredients with me and decided that I would once again attempt Pad Thai and Thai red curry over the course of the weekend.

I informed K about my plans, who was pleased as a punch and refrigerated a bottle of Reisling for us. The recipe for Pad Thai calls for rice noodles. I cooked it the way I would cook egg noodles or pasta, BAD IDEA! Rice noodles disintegrate fast and less is more in this case. So the dish was a big flop. I aborted my plans to attempt the red curry and drowned my sorrows in the Riesling. K said that I was being too hard on myself and that I should accept that Thai is not my cup of Thai iced tea!

The one thing I will not accept is defeat. I mentioned that to K. K’s response was that if we have access to great Thai restaurants why on earth would I torture myself to try all these dishes from scratch? K will never be able to understand the artistic pleasure I derive from my culinary endeavors. Yesterday I was in a great mood and decided to try one more time Thai Red curry and Pad Thai for dinner. On my way from work I stopped by at the Chinese store to get all the authentic ingredients. I do realize that there is a difference between Thai and Chinese cuisine, but this store is a one-stop shop for all things Asian! I was trying to locate red chili peppers. I approached one of the store workers and asked him in English, “Please can you tell me where I can get chili peppers?” The guy kept on staring at me and then said, “No English.” I saw a Chinese shopper in the aisle and requested him, “Please can you ask him on my behalf?” The Chinese man looked at me and responded in Hindi, “Do you think he understands Hindi?” I looked at the man completely embarrassed, as I guessed that he was either from Nepal or the eastern states of India that border China! I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me! I blushed and apologized and ran to the cashier with the store worker running after me. He asked rapidly in Mandarin (I am guessing, could have been Cantonese) and the cashier said matter of factly to me “Go Aisle 3.” It sounded more like a football warcry, similar to "Go Blue!"...who knows perhaps she was preparing in anticipation of the football season. The Nepalese or Eastern Indian guy was grinning from ear to ear. I just hope I never see the guy again.

I came home and made myself a coconut mojito and started cooking. You know ingredients are important but what is far more important is the procedure. I have to thank my mother for this, because my previous attempts at making Thai curry I heated oil in the wok. My mom advised that I should cook in coconut milk without oil. This was an invaluable word of advice as that was the procedure which gave it the flavor I was looking for. Also typical to Indian food, I would grind lemongrass in my red paste. That made the paste very stringy. My mother advised that I should tie a bunch of lemongrass stalks with a string and insert it in the wok and let it sit during the course of cooking the thai red curry dish. Once the dish was cooked, to remove and discard the lemongrass before serving!

The preparation and cooking time was about two hours but the results were outstanding. I FINALLY NAILED IT!!!! I will share both the recipes tomorrow. Right now I have only the photographs that I took from my Blackberry to share.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Happy Independence Day

It has been ten years today since I left my home to start my life in the United States. I chose to leave on my country’s Independence Day as it was very poignant to me. I was looking for my personal freedom to lead my life the way I want to; therefore leaving India on August 15th made a lot of sense to me. The weeks prior to my departure day were rather hectic. I was wrapping up all my professional commitments before making this move. I had also fallen sick so was faced with challenges from all directions. I was very pre-occupied and didn’t have time to think. Therefore I did not realize that I am moving so far from home that I will not be able to see my family and most importantly my spouse for a pretty long time. At that time my frustration with situations in my life was so overwhelming that this really didn’t seem to matter to me.

Due to my illness, I was convalescing at my parents home so I was not able to see K for a very long time. In the interim K was helping me organize stuff and would always tease me, “You will meet new people and forget about me. Perhaps even leave me?” I would laugh at him and joke, “Yes that is my plan…to go there to get away from you!” My mind was so occupied with unfinished tasks that I did not take a moment to realize that I was not only being insensitive in my smart aleck comments but the truth of the matter was that I would miss K too.

Ten years ago airport security in India was not as crazy as today but definitely far more stringent than pre-September 11 America. That particular day however it was worse than the security that we have today. The day being our Independence Day, there was a terrorist bomb scare at Mumbai’s International Airport. My flight was supposed to depart at 1:45AM but knowing the crowd we decided to be there at least three and a half hours before departure. As soon as we reached there, we were told that only the person traveling could go in the lobby. Anyone accompanying would have to leave. So that was it for K and me! That moment it hit me hard that I was actually not going to see K for at least a year. He had promised to visit at the end of the academic year. He couldn’t make it during Christmas and I was not sure if I would be able to as well. That very moment I had tears in my eyes as I realized I had grown to be so attached and dependent on K in our three odd years of married life. K laughed and said, “Are those tears of joy as you are happy to get away from me.” Must say, it was not a great time to make such jokes as upon hearing that comment the tears kept streaming down relentlessly.

I asked K if we should request the cops to let him stay for an hour till I left for my security check etc. K looked at me as if I had completely lost my mind. I was a woman on a mission and completely irrational. Therefore I walked up to the cops and asked them in Marathi, “I heard you are not allowing anyone except those with valid tickets to go in. Is that correct?” The person said, “Yes.” I showed the person my paper work and said, “This is my husband and I won’t see him for a year. Would you mind, if he sat with me for at least an hour till I leave.” The cop looked at his supervisor for an answer. Then I read the supervisor’s name and said that I was a fellow Maharashtrian and probably of the same caste as him…then I again requested if he could let him sit with me. My caste and ethnicity card totally worked in this instance. The supervisor reluctantly agreed and said, “I might lose my job for this but I can understand how difficult it is for you. Yes, I will allow him but you will have to be within our sight.” So K and I sat in the lobby under the watchful eyes of the cops and within their earshot. K thought it was ridiculous as being a very shy person; this made him extremely self conscious. We sat there for an hour holding hands and not speaking to each other. Our marriage was fairly new…only three years and few months old so we realized that it was a trying time for both of us. However we didn’t let such negative thoughts bother us. Today it has been ten years since I came here and sixty three years since India made her Tryst with Destiny as blogged here. My road in our new adopted country has had its bumps but K and I have been together dealing with it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Of Limca, lost and found

The past weekend was excellent weather-wise. Today, however, it was hot. Hot summers remind me of India in April and May, prior to the onset of monsoon and invariably my childhood. Funnily today I was craving for Limca, a lime and lemon flavored soda that is so Indian. After India opened her markets in 1992, Coca Cola bought the company that produced this popular Indian soda. I have a childhood story attached to Limca.

My paternal side of the family is extremely close knit. We would go on vacations together and invariably do a lot of activities together. My father is very close to his cousins so our trips included our extended family as well. We would go on vacations and short weekend trips. My parents are polar opposites; my mother was and still is extremely protective while my father always let his kids be independent. I was a daddy’s girl and always used to follow my father like a shadow.

When I was around eight, my family went on a weekend trip to Lonavla, a popular destination in the mountains. While returning home, my father’s car broke down and we decided to leave it there and take a train back home. My entire extended family, including uncles, aunts and cousins decided to take a train from Lonavla back to Bombay (it was not called Mumbai then). I remember that we had to get off at Karjat, a major rail terminus and take a connecting local train to our respective destinations. Our group consisted of 20-25 people and we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves singing songs, laughing and joking.

Karjat is famous for its vada pav, which is a fast food dish native to my state. My parents were strict and did not like us to eat street food especially food that had zero nutrition. My uncle, however, decided that there were no rules on a Sunday, which is a fun day, and treated all of us to that. After we were done eating, all but my father and I, walked away. The reason was that yours truly wanted another Limca. While my father was paying for it, I smartly suggested that I would walk by myself to where the group was waiting. My father asked me if I knew where they were and I rather confidently said yes. It was on the same platform but in the opposite direction of the cafeteria and I thought I was smart enough to go there by myself.

Unbeknown to me, the station announced the platform from where the train would depart and the group left to go to the correct platform. So I walk out of the cafeteria and along the length of the platform, to find that my group had already left in the interim. I ran back to the cafeteria to find my father gone as well. Before you think my father is irresponsible, he thought that I had reached the group while my mother thought that I was with him. They were in for a rude shock when they didn’t find their second born in the group. Within minutes the platform was deserted and there was not a soul in sight!

Despite my bravado, I was still an eight year old child. I did what any eight-year old would do, which was burst into tears. Suddenly a crowd gathered around me asking me questions as to who I was, where I lived and if I were lost. In that crowd was a group of tribal people, the Bhils, who insisted on taking me to my parent’s home. I had not seen Bhils in my life before and to see strange people speaking a strange form of Hindi was scary. I barely understood Hindi then so started crying even louder. I have to say that a child’s instincts are rather good and I had paid attention when my mother used to teach us to not speak to strangers or take anything from them or go with them. Therefore I stayed glued to the ground bawling on top of my lungs. In all probability the whole town of Karjat might have heard me.

Suddenly in the commotion, which I had caused, I hear a gentle voice ask me in Marathi, “Do you know where you live child?” I look up to see a beautiful Maharashtrian woman with peaches and cream complexion and deep green eyes. She had no make up on and was dressed in a pretty cotton saree, mangalsutra and bindi (I must say the Wikipedia entry has another fellow Maharashtrian of course with a lot of make-up). She was with a boy, probably her son, who was around my age. I was shaking and between my sobs, I tell her that I know my parents address and my home phone number. She asked me if I knew how to get home from the train station, and I nodded my head in agreement. Then she gently asked me if I wanted to first come with her to the station's office as she was confident that my parents must be worried sick and must be looking for me. I calmed down and agreed to go with her, when I heard another gentle voice calling my name. It was none other than my mother! I leapt across the crowd into her arms. She hugged and kissed me and we ran towards our waiting group. In her excitement she forgot to thank the lady. When she realized that, she turned around but the kind lady had already left. My mother for a long time after that used to feel bad that she had not thanked her. You know this incident is etched in my memory, however I don't remember if I even drank the second limca or what happened to it after I got lost.

The course of events of my being lost and found probably occurred in less than five minutes; however it seemed like an eternity in my and my parent’s mind. When I got back to the group everyone was relived that I was safe and sound. When the tense moments subsided, everyone was back to enjoying themselves and did what any self respecting older cousins would do, which is make me a butt of their jokes. To date the nickname “Limca” has stuck on! It is a term of endearment now, but every landmark moment in my life has been, “Oh our Limca is getting married” or “Oh our Limca is going to pursue her graduate studies. Please don’t get lost in the US.” The cousin who helped me set up my apartment as blogged in the previous post, was part of that group then. True to the spirit of the Limca tradition, he made fun of me when I decided to drive to Chicago from Ann Arbor to spend my first Christmas with him! I am not certain about this but knowing my mother, I can safely say that my father must have been in the doghouse for a pretty longtime after this incident.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Bitter-Sweet memories

Sometimes life puts challenges in front of you and you have to deal with those. If you succumb to the pressure and cannot deal with it then you are weak. The more you face them, the stronger you get. There is a proverb in Sanskrit that brass and gold both glisten, so what is the difference between the two? When put to test under intense heat, brass burns but gold becomes even brighter.

This month marks my ten years in this country. I came to the United States in August 2000 to pursue my graduate studies at the University of Michigan. In my mind this year was a breakthrough, as for the first time in my life I realized my self-worth. When I came here, I was an architect who had practiced for a few years and I was a wife. Most importantly I was extremely attached to my family so it was difficult for me to leave them along with my husband in India. Yes, it was my ambition to pursue further education but I was also facing some difficulties in India. It has been ten years and I have moved on so I will not use this blog for anything negative.

Sustaining a happy and healthy marriage is always work in progress. Sometimes you have your great days and many other times you don’t. K and I have been together for many years. Today I would say our relationship has reached a level of understanding, mutual respect and comfort. This period of separation, I would say, was the most trying period of our life. I have saved all the emails that we have exchanged and I read them from time to time. They remind me of the hardships and the uncertainties we faced then. Most importantly they remind me of how our mutual respect and trust helped us sustain this relationship! There are times when I get very annoyed with K, and reading those emails makes me realize how valuable his presence is in my life.

I came here sometime in August 2000 and started rooming with two other women. K had warned me about sharing an apartment with strangers as I had not done that before and it is especially difficult if one is married and has had her own home. I didn’t want to live alone in a foreign country and preferred Indian roommates because of the shared ethnicity. NOT A GREAT IDEA! Within two days I realized that I was so na├»ve and lived such a sheltered life in India. I used to miss K a lot and felt very insecure that he might just leave me. I wanted to go back to India and hold on to my life there. I had such conflicting emotions, on one hand I wanted to realize my dreams, but on the other I wanted to hold on to my personal life as well. This was before Skype and Reliance India service so it was expensive communicating with him in India. We still managed to speak three to four times a week.

My cousin and his wife, who live in Chicago, took it upon themselves to help me set up the apartment. I showed them around the beautiful campus. My cousin’s wife, a Ph.D in Physics and a stay at home mom at that time, realized how sad and lonely I looked. She advised that I should enjoy being a student again as very few Indian women, especially married ones, got such an opportunity. She said that not everyone had supportive spouses like I did. Actually that statement made it worse for me as it fed on my insecurity that my supportive spouse could potentially leave me…out of sight and out of mind!

My cousin’s family and I had a picnic at Gallup Park, which is Ann Arbor’s most popular recreation area. My cousin’s mother, i.e. my father’s brother’s widow, was visiting from India so was with us as well. My uncle had passed on a few months prior to that. After lunch my cousin and his wife took the kids bike riding while I sat with my aunt quietly enjoying the bucolic landscape. She asked me how I was faring and I said I was well but missed India and K. Suddenly she burst into tears and I held her close. She is a lady of few words but I realized that she must be missing my late uncle. The last time she was here, he was with her and now she was alone. That is the time I realized that although K and I were separated by two continents and a 10.5 hour difference we were still able to communicate with each other. For the first time I realized how difficult it must have been for her to be alone after 40 odd years of togetherness. My trepidations and worries seemed so trivial then. I realized that I was indeed given an opportunity to do what I wanted to do and that I should make the most out of it instead of imagining the worst! It is weird that I am writing about this now. It is just that I happened to read one of my old emails and all these memories came flooding back.

Monday, August 02, 2010

My Jersey Biases

(I am very tired, so all you grammar nazis please forgive my typos and grammatical errors, if any.)

Last week was very hectic and intense for me professionally. The weekend before the last was hardly a weekend as I worked for 12 hours that Sunday. I had a deadline this past Friday and I was so paranoid about not meeting it that I worked on a Sunday. The religion of books say that even God rested on Sunday, but being a Hindu I can say that mine does not! Of course they say that it took six days to create the world but I believe in evolution, so why even discuss this. Thank God I don’t belong to the Bible belt because both my color and beliefs could have made me an easy target. I am not sure, just painting everything with a broad brush of generalization. Besides Bobby Jindal, a fellow desi is the Governor of Louisiana, so I am just being silly here. Those who think I am offensive, please stop reading now because its going to get even worse in the following sections.

When I moved to the great state of New Jersey from Michigan, my idea of the state was the industrial landscape of northern Jersey. I was really disappointed to move to Jersey after living in a great town like Ann Arbor. However now that I am here, I have come to appreciate it a lot. Besides I live in a very nice part of New Jersey so the varied landscape came as a pleasant surprise to me. However I had no idea that South Jersey was a different country altogether.

I am always nervous of my olive skin whenever I go to South Jersey, the home of the Pinelands and the Jersey devil. There is a reason for that. When I first moved to Jersey, I had asked my friend who along with his significant other participates in Triathlons about biking in the Pinelands. He looked at me incredulously and said, “You can go but if you hear banjo playing the background….keep pedaling and fast.” For those of you who don’t know or haven't followed the popular culture reference, he was alluding to the movie Deliverance.

Few years ago, I had to go on a site visit to a town in the Pinelands. I was very nervous about it. I was talking to K while I was in my car and expressed my trepidation. He said that I was completely paranoid. As long as I was there at daytime, he couldn’t see an issue with it. I kept the engine running the entire time so I could get the hell out of there if things got bad. I am concerned about the environment and hate those who keep engines idling, but then I want to be alive to enjoy the green earth so I made an exception here. I drove within the site boundaries and sat in the car taking notes. While I was minding my own business, a woman with a mullet and a flannel shirt came up to my window and tapped it. I was startled and jumped up. I roll ed down the window and greeted in my fake Jersey accent, “How you doin’?” She asked me what “youzz doin’ in these parts.” I said that I was there on behalf of *My company* . She said that “youzz people from college with your fancy degrees come in and tell us what to do.” I was nervous and K who was listening to the conversation was somewhat nervous as well. I responded rather calmly, “I ain’t got no fancy degree. I hear youzz…them rich people don’t know nothin’.” She replied, “damn right they don’t.” She smiled a toothless grin and yelled at her six kids, “Don’t y’all harass that nice lady.” NARROW ESCAPE! I thought that she might call me a “damn Benny” with my fake North Jersey accent. Thankfully I was left alone and continued what I sought to do. A few minutes later, as I was pulling out, a shirtless guy with man boobs and a paunch started running towards my car. I had no interest in engaging in a conversation with him so hit on the gas and got the hell out of there. For some reason he reminded me, paranoia personified, of the movie Deliverance. In case you are curious... NO…I don’t play no banjo and I ain't gonna squeal like no pig!

When I went back to work the next morning, I repeated this conversation to my colleagues who were in splits. I was informed that once upon a time KKK was rather active there. Sure enough I ain’t going to no such town anywhere in the United States unless I have my favorite Shiv Sainiks or Bajrang Dal with me! (For you non-desis, these are far-right wing Indian factions. Before you stop visiting my blog...please I am only kidding!) The moral of the story is that there are crazy people everywhere in the world.