Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Parts Unknown

In the past couple of days, we've been to Myanmar, Jerusalem and Columbia, and currently we're in the middle of icy Quebec. Anthony Bourdain's latest series goes exactly where it says it will, to parts unknown, and surprisingly enough, goes beyond just the food in these parts. Without mincing words or attempting correctness of any sort, he addresses the political issues head on. Food happens to be somewhat incidental, although there's a good deal of very delicious and exotic looking food.

In Jerusalem, he launched right into the sticky issue of 'who made the first falafel - the Jews or Palestinians. In Myanmar, he shared a meal with an activist who'd been jailed for three years on a trumped up charge. In Columbia, he got right down to discussing the drug trade with the mayor of a town that formerly thrived on drug money. He wasn't cagey about admitting he was a former coke addict himself.

The great thing about Bourdain is that he's so watchable. You can't wait to see his expression when he digs into a spicy curry or a suspicious offal stew. He always seems to take it in his stride and mumble an appreciative comment. Above all, he tends to step back and allow the interviewee to take centre stage, encouraging them to open up and share about food, politics and life.

Week nights just got more interesting.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Date night with the 'Chef'

On Thursday night, having tucked the bub into bed and leaving overly detailed instructions with the maid, Mr. T and I snuck out to watch a movie in a theatre. It was the second time we'd done such a thing in two years. Yes, we were warned pre-parenthood that something of this nature might occur. Truth be told, for the said two years, we had more entertainment than we could handle anyway, so we didn't miss the cinematic variety. But yesterday, while browsing online for ways to enliven the evening, I spotted a movie that I was sure Mr. T and I would enjoy - 'Chef' directed and written by Jon Favreau, which also features him as the titular character.

Now, Mr. T is an ad man by profession but a chef by obsession. He loves to cook, and to eat, and there's many a thing I've learned about the finer aspects of food thanks to him. A couple of years ago, on a mini-sabbatical from work, he trained as a chef at a culinary school, which fuelled his obsession further. Since then, he's been toying with opportunities to get into the food business himself.

The movie about a chef who turns down a prestigious yet creatively stifling job to start a small yet innately satisfying venture while also bonding with his young son - seemed to go down well with Mr. T. What had us enthralled though, were the exquisite food shots.

(spoilers here and there)
There's a shot of Chef Carl Casper making his son a simple toasted cheese sandwich, and he makes it with so much passion and precision, as if he were serving it to the most exacting food critic. When his son munches on it and casually mutters, 'it's good', the chef shoots back, saying, "You're damn right, it's good." There's no place for modesty in a chef's vocabulary, I've learned from experience.

Chef Casper gets fired from his job on the eve of a very important evening at the restaurant. He gets home with his brown box filled with fresh, gourmet ingredients. But does he mope? No. He decides revenge is a dish best served hot, and so he starts cooking. Casper's apartment is bare, gray and strictly functional, but his kitchen is alive with color and aromas and artfully created food. The shots of him whipping up a spread are superbly contrasted with shots of chaos in the kitchen that he's just left behind. It all ends badly when he lands up at the restaurant, creates a scene and is thrown out of the place. So we never know what happened to all that wonderful food he made.

Casper somehow gets to Miami with his ex-wife and son, where he undergoes two life-changing experiences. He eats a lip-smacking Cuban sandwich, and his ex-wife's ex-husband lends him a food truck. The relationships in the film are questionable, but one of the most hilarious scenes involve Chef Casper and the eccentric (yet charming) ex-husband played by Robert Downey Jr., where the conversation rapidly moves from carpets to illegitimate children to business.

Although it hurts his pride to accept a handout from the ex-husband, Casper takes the truck and converts it into a gourmet fast-food joint, with a little help from an old friend and his son. Once again, it's time for glorious food shots - sizzling butter, golden bread, tender meat. It's all terribly sensual and appetising.

The food truck rolls through New Orleans and Austin, drawing eager foodies along the way. In Austin, they stop by a place to buy something that looks like charred wood, but which turns out to be exquisite, slow-cooked pork meat. They carve tiny slivers to taste it and groan with such pleasure that it's almost embarrassing to watch.

Of course, it all ends well for Chef Casper. Almost too well, I might add. But it's the kind of movie that you leave feeling inspired. And hungry.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

21 months later...

You wake up calling out to me,
I am the last word you speak before going to sleep.
You make me smile,
You make me scream,
You make me want to be a better person.
I love your joy, your sense of fun,
The way you dance on the bed,
Or the way you twist and hide yourself in the curtains.
The way you walk on your toes,
and the way you throw your hands out to me.
Your energy seems to be in inverse proportion to mine.
You are loud and assertive, unafraid of authority,
You cannot be cowed down by shouts or stern expressions.
You throw yourself on the floor at the least provocation.
I love your spirit
and your unexpected hugs and kisses,
rare as they are precious.
I love how you call me both 'mama' and 'dada'
(And how you do the same for your father)
The way you try so hard to communicate,
stringing words together with some unintelligible sounds in between.
The way you say 'come' for 'go'
And 'down' for 'up'.
The way you call both a rooster and a crocodile, 'crawk-a-doody-doo'
And speaking of animals, you can't get enough of them
From the 'tat' (cat) and 'dog'
To the 'athen' (elephant), 'uppo' (hippo) and 'makki' (monkey)
Or even the 'rhindo' and 'jiaff'
The inexplicable one is the 'bada', as you've christened the zebra.
Or 'di-do' as you call the tiger.
I enjoy hearing you sing
Your favorite songs are 'Head shoulders knees and toes'
And 'Twinkle twinkle'
'Winko winko itti tal' - you sing it.
There are times when I can't wait for you to fall asleep
And there are times when I am tempted to wake you up
So I can enjoy your shenanigans.
I learn (and unlearn) new things every day
About you,
About myself.
Am so lucky I get to be
Your mom.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Scenes from the Greens

The tiny, sloping, grassy patch near the lake in The Greens doesn't even qualify as a park, but in a city starved for green spaces and play areas, it's a welcome oasis, and every evening it draws a swarm of kids, nannies and young mothers.

The littlest ones wave their tiny fists and gurgle as they take in the world from their prams. The toddlers practise their gross motor skills with varying degrees of success, the uneven ground presenting both a challenge and an opportunity to develop their fledgling muscles. There are a few limestone boulders strewn about the green patch, which are about a foot tall. Occasionally, an adventurous child will attempt to clamber atop one of the boulders, under the watchful eye of an adult.

The best time to visit this little patch of green is just before sunset. There's a golden sheen on the water, and a cool breeze brings respite from the day's fierce heat. The gulls fly in low, lazy arcs and hit the water surface, creating gentle ripples. The mynahs and sparrows swoop and hop as close as they can dare, ever watchful for a fallen tidbit or for hunks of bread flung by fascinated tots. Sometimes, one of them will lead a wobbly toddler on a merry chase, before spreading out its wings and soaring to the skies.

The nannies sit in clusters and exchange news and gossip, the words tumbling out in exotic-sounding languages - Nepali, Yoruba, Sinhalese, Somali, Tagalog... They watch over their wards with a sort of distant attentiveness. The young mothers bond over stories of their kids' milestones, sleep challenges and food allergies. Play dates are planned and coffee mornings are slotted.

Dog owners walk their pets around the track that lines the lake. There are an astonishing variety of dogs - little furry terriers, solemn looking mastiffs, even a muzzled hound who the owner assures is friendly. The little children watch the canine parade with a mixture of curiosity and uncertainty. One of them growls and says, 'Wuvv wuvv' and goes out towards one of the dog with arms outstretched to pat it. The dog responds enthusiastically, neck stretched forward, nose quivering. The little boy is suddenly unsure about what to do with the clammy tongue that's licking his chin and backs off a little, his chubby fingers now attempting to grab the animate tail.

A variety of toys lie strewn around. Walkers, toddler bikes, trikes, balls, rattles and so on. The kids routinely make a beeline for the toys not their own, and power battles ensue which end in tantrums and tears. The one toy that gets most of the kids excited is the bubble blower. They watch in awe as the translucent orbs form and disperse. The smaller children wave their arms and clap as the bubbles descend on them, the bigger ones rush around trying to 'burst' the bubbles.

The resplendent lake surface turns darker and the gulls waddle faster to their hiding spots. The little ones are bundled into prams or tucked under elbows and shepherded home. The 'park' empties out, and the joggers and pet walkers move more assuredly unimpeded by the wee obstructions. 

Sunday, April 06, 2014


For the first time in exactly 1 year and 8 months, Lil A took a nap all by himself. The two of us were alone at home in the morning. I was sitting at my desk and making my day's to-do list. He was on the bed, lying down and playing with his toys. After a few moments when I turned to glance at him, he was unusually still. He flashed a wide grin, the kind he usually reserves for moments when he's been caught doing something he shouldn't be doing. I smiled and winked at him. A few seconds later when I turned to look at him, his mouth was open and his eyes were shut.

I tiptoed out of the room, shut the door and then fist-pumped like mad. This was a boy who kept us awake through the night for the first six months of his life. A boy who woke on an average of five times a night even until his first birthday. A boy who needed (and still needs) anywhere between 5 - 25 minutes of patting and singing and shushing to fall asleep. 

Here he was, emitting soft snuffles as he lay on his tummy, almost an hour before his scheduled naptime. No cot, no blanket, no favorite soft toys to cuddle, no blinds drawn. He had just put himself to sleep, with no fuss whatsoever. 

I knew it would be too much to expect him to continue the feat at every naptime. Still, watching a miracle unfold once gave me hope. 

Saturday, April 05, 2014

True Story

Two writers walked into a bar called Story. One ordered a Whisky Sour, the other called for club soda with lime slices. They sat at a table on the terrace, which overlooked low office buildings. A cool breeze blew, even as flashes of lightning lit up the sky every few minutes.

"Not to worry," said the steward, "it won't rain for another hour at least."

He was wrong. Fat drops of rain pelted the table within fifteen minutes. They barely managed to run into the bar with their drinks, the sweet potato fries and the quinoa salad. The bar was not as much fun on the inside. There were too many office goers who'd stopped off after work to have a drink. They were noisy, smoked inside the bar had that 'can't-wait-to-get-drunk-and-forget-work' look about them.

Also, the techno music, which was pleasantly muted while the writers were seated outside, seemed too loud and intrusive inside. It was difficult to resume the conversation they were having outside about Peruvian food, the rise of an independent cafes and the food habits of a 20-month-old boy.

They decided to call it a night and headed home. End of Story

Thursday, April 03, 2014


A trip to Adil Stores never fails to amaze me. Essentially, it's an Indian supermarket which has a wide selection of dry groceries and kitchen items, but what it really stocks is Indian nostalgia.

For instance, here's where you can find Milan Supari or Amul Shrikhand or Rasna or even 'Indian Maggi'. The larger supermarkets like Lulu or Choithram's may have Mother's Recipe or Priya Pickles. But at Adil, you can find Bedekar's brand of pickles. Again, at the larger supermarkets, you can find a wide range of Basmati rice, but at Adil, you can get the lesser known Ambe Mohar or Kolam varieties. You'll also find things you might have lost a taste for back in India, but may suddenly develop a yearning for like khari biscuits or boiled sweets shaped like orange segments or amla supari. 

Going beyond foodstuff, Adil recreates another old Indian tradition - of grinding grain in a stone mill and packing it right before your eyes. This used to be the norm in the India when I was growing up. I remember how my sister and I would heave a metal tin filled with wheat to the stone mill, and then lug home the hot tin with soft, golden flour. I remember how we giggled at the man in the stone mill whose hair, moustache and clothes were always covered in white flour. 'Ghost ghost', we'd whisper to each other.

I saw the stone mill in a sectioned off area in Adil, where flour was being ground, but there was no ghost. The man working the mill wore an apron and his head was covered with the mandatory hairnet. Everything was sanitised and neat, as per municipality rules. The freshly ground flour was packed in a brown paper bag. (I once worked with a multinational client who dealt in packaged flour, and he mentioned that his competition wasn't other packaged flour brands, but Adil Stores.)

I also saw a poster in the store which said, 'Gluten Free Atta'. Given my intolerance to gluten, I was intrigued. The flour featured a blend of rice, sorghum, garbanzo and other flours, and cost about Dhs. 20 for 1 kg. I was impressed that gluten intolerance was even acknowledged in an Indian supermarket, given that rotis and naans are such an important part of an Indian diet. I also spotted organic basmati rice and organic sugar and even organic jaggery.

Clearly, despite its stronghold on the nostalgia market, Adil believed in keeping with the times.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Yoga for beginners

I’ve been practicing yoga on and off in the last three years (admittedly, more off than on). I’ve been to 6 different studios and maybe a dozen or so instructors. I’ve done Hatha yoga, Bikram yoga, prenatal yoga, post-natal yoga and even a 10-day yoga seminar. 

With all this practise, one would have thought that I would be all lithe and limber by now. That's not the case though. Far from it. As I found out at class today, I don't even know how to breathe. I suck in air too fast and exhale too noisily, emitting the sound from my throat rather than my nose. While I do manage to get my fingertips and toes to meet without bending my knees, I huff and puff through the series of sun salutations. I shake like a reed during the shoulder stand. And when the instructor announces the child's pose, I crawl into the pose and weep like a baby. 

If there's one thing I'm moderately good at it's doing a lying down spinal twist. The pose requires you to intertwine your legs, raise them to your chest and then twist to one side, while the shoulders twist in the other direction. 

My spine sets off the loudest cracking sounds that echo around the studio. A feeling of indescribable bliss courses through my sore body after that crack. I endure the class for this moment. It's like a drug (not unlike that other less salubrious yet addictive 'crack').

Today, I discovered that I could intertwine my legs without assistance from the instructor. I turned to one side and CRACK! 

Aha, said the instructor. 

Aaaaaahhhh, I replied. 

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Yion Book

In the last 20 months that he's been around, Little A has amassed a modest collection of books. These books fall into three categories.

1. Books that can be thrown, torn, chewed and used as tantrum fodder. These are books that are either hand-me-downs or second hand books, with dull titles like Alphabet 123 and First 100 words and Shapes. These books occupy the lowermost shelf of our bookcase, and are easily accessible at all times.

2. A second category of books are those placed out of reach in a box on the window ledge. These are books that have been curated and bought after considerable research. Books like Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr, Peepo by Janet and Allen Ahlberg, Bus Stop by Taro Gomi, Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Eric Carle... and a selection of Dr. Seuss classics - Hop on Pop, Oh the Thinks you can Think, There's a Wocket in my Pocket... These are our much-loved reads and we dip into this selection through the day, and especially before dinner and at bedtime. Some of them show signs of use (and occasional misuse), but on the whole, they're well maintained.

3. There's a third selection of books that's neither found on the shelf nor in the box on the ledge. In fact, it's not easily found at all. This category consists of a single book that is tucked away under nightclothes in our wardrobe. It's titled The Happy Lion by Louise Fatio and Roger Duvoisin, and is better known in our household as the 'Yion Book'.

The reason for the odd storage place is that it is technically a Second Category book, but which is fast turning into a Category One book because of uncommonly heavy usage. There are mornings when we are jolted awake from sleep with shouts of 'Yion, YION!' And there are nights when we've had to pry 'Yion Book' from under a slumbering little form who had steadfastly refused to go to sleep without it. 'Yion Book' is the definitive remedy for all kinds of boo-boos and has been known to bring tantrums to an immediate standstill. Paradoxically, 'Yion Book' can be both a stimulant and a tranquilliser, and can stretch brief attention spans into long minutes.

I had no idea of the book's mystical powers when I picked it up at 'Woods in the Books', a charming bookstore in Singapore. I thought the book's bright orange dust jacket would look nice framed, and didn't even take a look at the contents. I didn't know then it was a vintage gem that was first printed in 1954 and only reprinted in 2004 to commemorate its 50th anniversary. The Happy Lion was the first collaboration by the husband-wife team of Louise Fatio and Roger Duvoisin who went on to write ten books in the Happy Lion series.

At the heart of the book is a sweet story of a friendship between an unusually content and well-mannered lion in a city zoo and the zoo keeper's son. The genial lion cannot comprehend why people who are otherwise so friendly and polite when they see him at the zoo, suddenly turn into frenzied creatures when he decides to walk out of his enclosure one morning.

Little A gets most excited when I dramatize the 'sound effects' in the book. Ratata boom BOOM!  The town band is in full form before the shrieks of the crowd drown them out. TootoooTOOOT goes the fire engine. When the suspense gets too much, Little A grabs the book from my hand and decides to 'read' on his own.

The last couple of days I've begun scanning the Internet for the entire Happy Lion series. "Are you sure he won't outgrow this book in the next few weeks?" asks pragmatic Mr. T.

Chances are, he might. But I'm not so sure about myself.

Monday, March 31, 2014

A trip to Positano, Dubai.

On Valentine's Day this year, Mr. T and I ended up going to a zoo. Granted, it's not quite the spot for a romantic rendezvous, but with an 18-month-old toddler calling the shots, and with 'Valentine frenzy' peaking at most hotels and restaurants, the zoo seemed like a serene option.

One of the unexpected outcomes of the long drive to the Al Ain Zoo, however, was winning a radio contest on the 87.9 Abu Dhabi Classic FM. The prize: dinner brunch for two at Positano, the Italian restaurant at the JW Marriott Marquis.

The dinner brunch is only on a Sunday, and we finally ended up redeeming our prize yesterday. The staff was genial and friendly, the restaurant felt spacious and welcoming, the vibe was good. I'd sneaked a peek at a few reviews before we left and they all seemed glowing. I couldn't wait to find out for myself. 

The manager requested us to wait at the bar while they set up our table near the window. As we took in the views of the place, I sipped some fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon from Puglia. We didn't have to wait long before the manager appeared again, offering us a 'tour of the buffet' which turned out to be as extensive as the winding roads on the Amalfi coast. 

There was a table groaning with pretty appetisers, and a ham section, followed by a cheese section, which led to the pizza counter, which was next to the pasta counter, which was followed by the seafood and the meats... The dessert buffet involved another delightful trek.

Wanting to pace myself so as to enjoy the entire spread, I nibbled a bit of everything. The aubergine parmigiana that had to be scooped out of a tiny cup was spectacular as was the bruschetta made with black bread. The burrata simply melted and slid down my throat without much effort. Mr. T focussed on doing justice to the seafood and especially the Parma ham and Napoli sausage. The cheery staff at the pizza counter encouraged us to go for a split pizza - so we tried the Buffalota and Positano special. The crust was light and crisp and the buffalo mozzarella the best I've ever eaten. I tried the ricotta and spinach stuffed ravioli in a roasted tomato and basil sauce. I found the ravioli a bit too doughy and dry at the edges, but the sauce was incredibly flavorful.

The dessert counter was immorally large. There's no way that one could wade through all the above mentioned counters and still have space for the spread, but I did my best. The tiramisu was good but the superlatives belonged to the cheesecake. Another favorite was the airy lemon sponge cake. And the espresso mousse. And macarons. And did I mention the gelato?

We staggered out content with the experience. We're definitely going to be back for more.