Monday, December 28, 2009

Dear Theyie, a Happy New Year from Dehra Dun

Dear Theyie,
Thank you for your spicy Christmas wishes!

Your note about the Raja Mirch in the context of Naga cuisine was a treat to read. Something that fascinates me endlessly is culinary diversity, chillies, citrus and with the BT Brinjal bringing things to light Brinjal. It is great to see the endless varieties of these you find as your travel the world and what different cuisines can do with them. You see, like the rest of the world, I first heard about The Naga Chilli when it scorched its way to world fame with its formidable heat. In fact it was that same quality that attracted me to them. I have made optimum use of the Naga chillies you got me but that is for another post. Right now I want to tell you about how our garden grows here Dehra Dun.

I will say this though there is much more to the Naga King Chilli or Raja Mirch than its heat. But I suspect it takes being completely clueless about an ingredient or a cuisine to break the barriers on its traditional usage! And from the caution I sense in all the ladies here in Dehra Dun when I talk about tabouleh made with jhangora (a local millet) or chicken smoked with Pharan (a local chive like herb used to temper dal) I know that is so.

It has been years since I have been here in the winter. But I cannot tell you how glad I am that I braved the biting cold of winter this year. I was so afraid of the cold I forgot about all the great things that winter brings in Dehra Dun!

Boisterous cuddly mornings waking up with the kids, all robust pink cheeks and spiky hair; Natasha’s endless excuses to avoid a bath because she feels cold, followed by rocking her precious weight to sleep in the winter sun; chasing Aman to get him to put lotion when he is clamouring to get out. And the thing that most gladdens my heart - the kids voracious appetites from playing on the frosty lawns all day.

One of the things I most treasure about coming to Dehra Dun is our garden. Not just for the frontal decorative front half that gives my kids space like they can never get in Mumbai but also for the other functional half that is rich with growing things.

A thumb that is decidedly NOT green and living in a Mumbai flat means I am lucky if lemongrass survives under my zealous attention. I either over-water the hapless thing to drowning point or forget about it! In direct contrast, my father in law was a prolific accomplished gardener. And coming from a traditional family and marrying into another in which daughter’s in law do not talk to father’s in law overmuch the garden was often the centre of my memories of him.

In fact it was on the same trip of the cucumber discovery that I had my first lesson in gardening from him... I still remember – in technicolor - the first time I saw the flourishing Chilli plants in our garden. That particular crop was so hot that the tiniest pinch was enough to liven up a dish for 4. We used it so sparingly that the yield lasted 2 years! (We’ve had a fairly fiery harvest this year as well and I am bringing some for you. ) Not only did I learn where chillies came from but I learnt many things about chillies from my father in law that day; chillies from the same plant range from mild to wild! The smaller the chilli, the hotter it is; chillies whose tails point toward the sky are the fieriest and the occasional black ones are potent!

Over the years each trip brought new garden to kitchen experiences and exchanges of information. One winter I spent a back breaking couple of hours at daybreak (because that is when greens are at their best) picking the smallest, most tender leaves of spinach, (only a few leaves of each plant to ensure continued yield). To the entertainment of the galleries if you please ... I remember my Pa – in – law and his brother standing at the kitchen door laughing at me! But when I tossed my meagre harvest with raisins, slivers of toasted walnut and EVOO into a salad it got lots of praise from the same two people! (Not easily earned where new dishes are concerned).

One summer the gardener pulled up some stray turmeric rhizomes. My mom – in – law was going to dry them to grind into powder but I remembered an instant pickle that was made of fresh turmeric in my mother’s Gujarati home. Peeled rhizomes were sliced fine and pickled with mango ginger and green chillies in salt and fresh lemon juice. I did not have Mango ginger there but I did have tender new ginger that made a delicious substitute.

And then there was the last summer before we lost him. I was pregnant with Natasha at the time and I went looking for something piquant to eat (Cravings!) one afternoon when everyone was asleep. I was debating between green mangoes or green guavas in the garden, when I spotted a solitary fat, plump, juicy, red tomato in the tomato patch. Of course there was not more thought after that. I plucked it off, sliced it into thick wedges, sprinkled it with salt and relished every bite, slurping down the juices in the bowl after. The next morning my Pa-in-law came in from harvesting greens for lunch, fuming. Someone had cut the tomato he’d been saving for the seeds! Of course everyone knew it was me, nobody else was that dumb! But once that bit of information came to light he just gave one of his indulgent smiles and walked away shaking his head!

This year the garden is a bounty of greens, we have rye (mustard greens), fenugreek, white raddish leaves, spinach and Pahadi palak. Feathery dill and green garlic are rife and the Guava, Kumquat and Chakotra trees are heavy with fruit even as the last of the chillies and Brinjals are still being harvested. I have always loved watching things grow and eating freshly harvested produce but more that that I love the access to ingredients that would not be available to us in Mumbai that access to a garden yields, green at the moment but later there will be edible flowers and tender pods that are the happy result of the growing process of plants and something we will never get in the city.

They say that we should all plant trees for our grandchildren to enjoy and I am thankful to Papa that we have this little haven of green to savour ever so often even if it is not something we can give the kids round the year.

I have been cooking up lots of yummy hings, marmalades, pickled mushrooms and sesame chutneys, I oforward to your sampling them! I will nd here, bt would like to tell you that meeting you has been one of the nicest bits of 2009 and I look forward to 2010 which I hope will be all theyummier because of all the tings we will cook up together.
Much love and may you eat well in 2010.

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