Tuesday, January 24, 2012

No cookie cutter

Fresh ingredients, a willingness to customise her menus, and a real flair for baking makes Natasha Minocha's food unforgettable

It’s Sunday morning but while others are still dragging themselves out of bed, Natasha Minocha is busy mixing flour, squeezing out mascarpone, dusting with cocoa powder, and throwing in lemon pulp and ground poppy seeds to create the softest, airiest batches of cupcakes you’ve ever eaten. You’re a fairly decent baker when you can manage to crawl into the kitchen but Minocha, who is Chief Artisan at her small, incredibly interesting catering outfit called Tasha’s Artisan Foods that she runs out of a spotless kitchen at her home in Greenwoods City, is in an entirely different league.
You first chanced to sink your teeth into her food at a Kunal Basu reading at the Quill & Canvas Gallery and the chicken and cheese bread rolls and quiches were so good that you abandoned the author to engage the chef in conversation. You’ve been dreaming of her food ever since.

“I’ve been baking since I was 13 years old,” says Minocha whose culinary adventures took off when her mother, to keep her from being bored, gave her a book on baking and allowed her to experiment in the kitchen. “She said ‘Do what you want, just don’t bother me’,” Minocha reminiscences. Her interest grew through her student years at SRCC where she studied Economics and later when she travelled with her husband to Russia and the US.
“At that time, we couldn’t get many ingredients here and one always had to improvise. Philadelphia cream cheese was unheard of and I remember I used to make cheese cake with paneer,” she says. The well-stocked baking sections of the Moscow stores were a revelation. But even that paled in comparison to the infinite variety of products on US supermarkets shelves.
“My family was very willing to be experimented on and I had great fun with all the different types of chocolate chips,” she says.
Back home in India, Minocha sank into life as a stay-at-home mother but word about her extraordinary food got around and soon she found herself catering for friends and then friends of friends. “Tasha’s Artisan Foods grew just by word of mouth,” says Minocha whose business philosophy is centred on using the opposite of the cookie cutter approach to food.
“The word ‘artisanal’ indicates something that’s handmade. It’s the opposite of the factory produced, so no two things are the same. So, because I use freshly-squeezed lemon juice, you might find lemon pulp in some of my cupcakes, and no two loaves of bread that I bake will come out exactly the same,” says Minocha who now takes orders for one-off events and also supplies to smaller corporates who want wholesome food.
“Because I’m small, I’m able to customise,” she says revealing that she uses gluten-free atta in the cupcakes she sends to a particular office as she knows someone there is allergic to gluten. Another company orders executive lunches that are hi protein and low carb with lots of veggies and meat preparations that use only chicken breast. “These things are challenging on a tight budget but they are interesting too,” says Minocha. “I have to think of the many ways to cook chicken breast. So, one day, I might give them meat balls, the next Thai chicken curry, grilled chicken on the third day, roast on the fourth and chicken cooked in a different marinade on the fifth,” she says.

Like a true professional she is very particular about the ingredients she uses. “When you use good products, you don’t need frills and this or that frosting. The food comes out good,” says Minocha who sticks to using ingredients that are in season and are locally available. This means she avoids lettuce leaves in her salads in summer as they wilt in the northern heat, and avoids making chocolate fudge and truffles too for the same reason.
“We get a lot more things in India now but you still have to be careful about expiry dates and always have to check to see if things are infested,” she says revealing that she does occasionally have bad days in the kitchen. Like the time she popped in two perfect loaf cakes into the oven. “They looked very good but when I turned around I saw that I had forgotten entirely to put in any oil!” she laughs. But even her kitchen disaster stories have happy endings! “Afterwards, I sliced them and put them back in the oven on low heat and made rusks for the family,” she laughs.
It’s Sunday morning and you are normally a late riser. The promise of Natasha Minocha’s exquisite food had, however, compelled you to shake off your endemic laziness. You are glad. Those coffee cupcakes with the delicious topping of mascarpone dusted with cocoa that literally melted in your mouth made it all worth it.

Natasha Minocha, Chief Artisan, Tasha’s Artisan Foods
Mobile: 9999038885
Email: info@tashasfoodscom

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Trying to solve the unsolvable

At the Gurgaon launch of his new book The Yellow Emperor's Cure, Kunal Basu talks about balancing research and storytelling

Into the second page of Kunal Basu’s new book The Yellow Emperor’s Cure, you begin marvelling at the effort the author has expended in understanding an alien culture, the depth of his research into its customs, his deft characterisation, his insight into human motivations and his grasp of early surgery. That admiration of Basu’s dexterity increased during his reading at the Quill and Canvas Gallery in Gurgaon on Saturday, 14 January 2012, especially when he launched into a masterful description of a scabrous syphilitic patient, his protagonist’s father:

“A field of roses blinded him as he ripped open his father’s tunic, the red rash that covered the body from head to knee, sparing no part except the eyes. In places the buds had dried out into ugly scabs, like leopards spots, chaffed and shrivelled. Hideous lumps flattened the balls of his feet and his palms, joined his neck to his chin and sent a ripple across the chest. Pus oozed from fiery cysts. His back resembled a field of millet. A deep lesion on his forehead gaped like a crater. Eyebrows had disappeared, along with hair from his head and limbs, the nose turned into a one holed flute. Saliva drooled though his gumless mouth, a tooth falling out when he parted his jaws to let out a howl. Antonio removed the covers fully and saw an abscess on the genitals resembling a flowering cactus, and testes that were far too swollen to hold in both hands. The stench of rotting flesh made him cover his nose.”

It’s the sort of paragraph that makes scalps prickle and turns stomachs. It’s also the sort of paragraph that makes you read on, for by now you have come to empathise with Antonio Maria, the young Portuguese doctor at the centre of this historical novel set in the late 19th century when syphilis was an incurable disease, the pox as divine retribution wreaked on mortal sinners. And eventually, it’s the sort of paragraph that makes readers wonder how the writer managed to balance all this heavy research with firm characterisation and how he steered his novel away from becoming a plodding beast burdened by the weight of research.

“I’m not a historian; I don’t have a favourite historical period,” Basu said in response to a question about his research methods from his publisher Saugatha Mukherjee, head of Picador and Pan India.

Saugatha Mukherjee and Kunal Basu

“I had already written about China (for The Opium Clerk) but I was ignorant about the history of medicine and syphilis; about Chinese medicine and the difference between Chinese and western medicine; about the Boxer Rebellion… But I was propelled by the story, and I only read enough to propel my story,” he said adding that in his “other life as an academic” he insists that his PhD students read everything they can on their subject. It’s an approach he avoids when writing historical fiction as then he would only be “reproducing that history”. So he reads sparingly, choosing his matter according to how much it helps his narrative. “You have to be very transactional, utilitarian… ‘This is what I need to tell my story’,” he said adding that he had to keep returning to research at different points during the two years that he spent working on the book.

“I hadn’t read Chinese pornography before so I had to go back and research,” he said. But he didn’t let his research, even if it was something as intriguing as antique Chinese pornography, overwhelm the writing.

“I’m a storyteller and I would go with research only as far as the story dictates,” he says revealing that the idea for the book came to him while he was wandering a few years ago through a “typically sarkari museum” of Chinese medicine in Beijing after a “boring lunch” with a former student.

The museum’s exhibits included “intestines of animals, paw of deer, large mushroom and cacti…” and it occurred to Basu that “if I, a 21st century citizen, am so amazed me, imagine what a 19th century European would have thought.” As he allowed his thoughts to wander further, he found himself wondering about the reaction of a young doctor, one who epitomises the brash arrogance of the 19th century European, to the same sights.

“I was thinking about all this as I walked through the museum and then I saw the image of a handsome young man standing naked in the summer palace and a young Chinese woman drawing channels on his body and I knew I had the kernel of the story,” said Basu, a professor of Marketing at Oxford University, whose haphazardly buttoned jacket gives him the air of the absent minded scholar. It’s somehow at odds with his articulate delivery and his almost effortless ability to hold the attention of the audience. There is no awkwardness, no blank moment as he steers them through the world of his young Portuguese doctor Antonio Maria who travels to China to look for a cure for the syphilis that is killing his father.

“What drew me to this plot is how human beings have tried to solve the unsolvable… and Antonio Maria was one such man. That’s an element of the human condition that I find enduring,” said Basu, who came to writing after meandering through a post graduate degree in mechanical engineering, stints as a literary journalist and a performer. He now seems to have found that elusive balance of which writers who juggle jobs are always in search.

“Academics is my day job,” he said. “I’m conscientious to the extent possible. I’ve learnt to weave my academics and my writing. I write 12 hours a day. It’s a tightrope walk and I might fall. If I fall I’ll fall on the side of fiction,” he added revealing that he opted for his current job because it doesn’t consume him like a corporate one would have done.

“Otherwise I would be reduced to the status of weekend writer, a hobbyist, I never wanted to do that,” he said revealing that his next work, which will also be published by Pan Macmillan – they have a two-book deal – will be a contemporary novel. This leads to the inevitable question from the audience about how much the author’s own life impinges on his writing.

“There is very little surface autobiography in my books. I didn’t fashion characters after my mother in law,” he said. “But I am sure there is deep autobiography.”
Certainly, there is no surface autobiography in the story of the doctor in search a cure for a devastating disease and, as the paragraph Basu chose to read showed, he has the rare power to transmit to the reader minute details without making it tough work.

Like a good performer he is conscious too that an audience shouldn’t be left with the horrific image of Antonio’s father’s suppurating sores. “After I spoilt your appetite for this small meal with syphilis let me try to revive it with love,” he said reading aloud from a section where Maria is left dry mouthed after a demonstration of the channels of his body according to the Chinese system of medicine.

The extract is erotic and dazzling and makes you wonder if Maria does eventually find a cure for syphilis. “Ah, but for that you’ll have to read the book. I’m not going to give away the end,” Basu said.

Afterwards, as you stand munching croissants and nibbling miniscule quiches, and engaging in what you hope is suitably literary chit-chat, you think that perhaps this time you will, indeed, read a book right through to the end.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Puppy love

Nadir Khan devotes his time and money to feeding, vaccinating and sterilizing the stray dogs of Gurgaon

Ground hero: At Sushant Lok 3

“Aao, aao,” bellows Nadir Khan as we stand in an open ground in Sushant Lok III and immediately, about 15 stray dogs, tails wagging furiously and faces plastered with happy grins, rush towards his red Maruti van. Sudhir, one of Khan’s two assistants, opens the back of the vehicle that contains a first aid kit and a huge heavy-guage vessel -- the sort used by caterers to make biryani -- full of a porridge made of dalia and meat. The dogs can barely contain their joy and leap about excitedly as Sudhir slops generous portions into bowls. A few shy females observe the action from the fringes, waiting patiently for the riff-raff to finish before they come forward for their share.

“I think she might have been stolen and brought here because someone thought she’d have cute puppies,” says Khan pointing to a gentle-eyed brown dog watching the action from afar. Apparently, the boys at the local car garage once took Khan to task because they believed their friendly neighbourhood dog wasn’t having pups because he had mixed birth control pills in her porridge!

“Whoever took her didn’t know she had already been sterilized,” says Khan who feeds about 150 stray dogs in Gurgaon every morning and is “in touch with about 1800 dogs here.” The resident of Sector 57 ensures that all his canine friends are sterilized and vaccinated against rabies and distemper, and that those suffering from a variety of ailments like mange, fever and broken bones are treated. Even as we speak, Sudhir prises open the mouth of a mange-afflicted pooch and stuffs a pill down its throat.

Yum yum free: The Hong Kong Market family

Khan seems to know every tyke in the area and points out the family who were rescued by the security guards at Hong Kong Market when their mother was run over, and their buddy Tintin, who once was a scrawny abandoned pup but is now a magnificent white hound. “I’ve named many dogs after my friends,” laughs his wife ecologist Pia Sethi adding “they aren’t too happy about it!”

Buddy system: Pia and friends

“This one is Puran,” Khan says affectionately patting the head of a friendly mongrel who, flouting all territorial rules revered by pack dogs, regularly follows the van unhindered as it travels through various sectors. Puran actually ‘belongs’ to a human with the same name. “I used to say ‘Arre where is Puran’s kutta?’ when he didn’t show up, and eventually I started calling the dog by the owner’s name,” Khan laughs.

Talk to the hand: Puran

But doesn’t Puran’s owner look after him? “Many of these people are poor and they think giving a dog a few rotis a day means looking after him,” says Khan who is often approached by impoverished dog lovers for advice and medicines. At one stop, a young workman shows Khan his black pup rather absurdly named ‘Sandy’. “Keep her warm and when she’s a little older bring her to me for vaccinations and medicines,” says Khan as he advises the boy on the right diet for the pup. Pia reveals that Sandy is a replacement for another much beloved black dog, also called Sandy, who was snatched off the street by “some men who came in a car”.

“Can you imagine a desi stray dog being kidnapped?” says Pia shaking her head, “but in Haryana they consider black dogs lucky, especially ones with a single white marking on their bodies, so that’s probably why they took her.”

Sandy spot: Nadir and Sudhir in Sector 57

Since organisations like Friendicoes-SECA and PFA (People for Animals) Sadrana have been sterilizing dogs in Gurgaon with the assistance of individuals like Nadir Khan, very few pups are now born here, which is why the original Sandy’s grieving owner had to trudge to Delhi to find a new companion. “Most of the dogs here are old,” says Khan. A few very senior individuals now live in the couple’s home, which serves as a kind of doggy sanatorium. Many who benefitted from their treatment - like the dog who broke his forelegs when he was thrown off the first floor of a building by construction workers -- now live in the barren land outside, keeping a constant watch on their saviour’s residence.

“Dr Anuj Synghal, who is a qualified vet, helps us with many cases,” says Nadir who isn’t a vet himself but has learnt to treat particular canine ailments in the years since 1998 when he began feeding strays. “I had two German Shepherds and I started feeding street dogs with their leftover food,” Khan reminisces. One thing led to the other and soon he was setting aside a large amount of his time and resources -- Rs 40,000 per month -- towards feeding and treating the loveable and very intelligent desi stray. “I’ve given up opportunities to work abroad. When my wife was in the US for eight years, I never went there because then who would look after and feed these dogs,” says Khan who is a senior executive with a logistics firm in Delhi.

Besides good karma, his work for stray dogs has brought him many friends within the community as everyone from pujaris at local temples to beat constables and humble workmen approach him for assistance with their animals. “I help out those who don’t have the money to look after their desi pets but I tell the richer folk with their German Shepherds and Labs to get things done themselves,” Khan laughs recounting the tale of someone with a fleet of cars asking him for a jacket for his dog!

As Pia and Nadir leave for the rest of their morning 15-stop round, you realise you’re as happy as a cheerful Gurgaon stray to have met them.

All pictures shot by Manjula Narayan on her much used and abused Samsung cellphone

This article appeared in an edited form in a local newspaper called Friday Gurgaon

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Far from home

Tea for three

It seems Manipur leaps into the nation’s consciousness only when a bomb goes off just ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit, as it did earlier this month, or when Anna Hazare says he intends to visit Irom Sharmila, who has been fasting for the repeal of the AFSPA for more than a decade now. Slowly, however, the state is making its way into the Indian mainstream. Much of this shift has to do with the large population of Manipuris who now live outside the state.

30-year-old Kevin Paochinthan Simte is one of the Manipuris who has chosen to make Gurgaon his home. “I was told that a senior executive with a large public sector organisation wanted someone to work for him in Gurgaon so I came here in 2002,” he says. The money was better than what he made working at a company guesthouse in Shillong and so he took a chance. But things didn’t go according to plan. The job was at the executive’s home, he had to sleep on the living room floor and the lady of the house wouldn’t permit him to turn on the fan in the height of summer.

“I didn’t sleep properly for months and felt bad about being treated like a domestic servant so I decided to leave,” he said. A cousin talked him out of returning to Manipur where employment is scarce and soon he was assisting her in her flower-selling business. Now, he works at a store that sells jewellery and showpieces for the home at the Galleria Market.

Kevin is part of the small but very visible population of Manipuris in Gurgaon who man counters at shopping centres, are receptionists at clinics and guide diners to the best seats at restaurants. “There are people from different tribes here. There are Nagas, Kuki, Paite, Hmar, Mizos and Simtes, among others,” reveals Kevin as he watches music videos of Manipuri pop singer Mami Varte in his immaculately maintained single-room home in Chakkarpur village. Each tribe has its own organisation and though all the Manipuris have strong bonds formed mainly at church and prayer meetings, they don’t have a single representative body.

“I know that there are 1200 people from the Simte tribe in Delhi and Gurgaon because I’m a member of the Simte Youth Organisation (SYO) but I couldn’t tell you how many Manipuris there are here,” says Kevin who adds that most live in Chakkarpur, Sun city and Sikandarpur where rents are lower.

His friend Thomas Maram (28) who lives down the street with his wife Rose and two small children George and Phillip is an ex-serviceman from the Assam Rifles who opted for voluntary discharge before trying his hand at a series of jobs, including a stint at a detective agency in Hyderabad. Now the captain at the swanky K2 Korean restaurant in Plaza Mall, Thomas gives you a glimpse of how tough life is in the insurgency-ridden state when he talks about the frequent blockades there. “Petrol costs Rs 140 per litre and a single gas cylinder costs Rs 1000,” he says.

And though his father was with the BSF, the family had its share of troubles. Back in 1996, when he was still a boy and the family had settled in Churachandpur, a young soldier form the Paite tribe, who was going home on leave, was murdered by some Marams. The family soon heard that plans were afoot to carry out retaliatory killings and realised that since they were Maram and also happened to live where the crime had occurred they would be definite targets.

“My Bengali brother-in-law has a sharp brain and he immediately bundled us all into a jeep and drove us out of there. We left our property and belongings behind and started afresh in Senapati, which is where the Maram tribe is from originally,” he says adding that there are about 20 Marams living in Gurgaon today.

While violent ethnic strife isn’t a feature of life in the millennium city, both Kevin and Thomas have experienced discrimination. “The people here don’t know that we are Manipuris. They think we are Nepali and since we look similar, they look down upon us,” says Kevin who adds that north eastern girls bear the brunt as they are mistaken for women from Nepal who have been coerced into the flesh trade.

“Our girls also dress fashionably. It’s part of our culture. Nobody notices it at home but here everyone looks,” says Thomas who recounts how he had to intervene to protect a Manipuri girl who was being sexually harassed by her landlord. “The man had a daughter who was the same age but still he kept troubling her. He even said he wouldn’t charge her rent if she gave in!” says Thomas. The exasperated girl finally moved out.

24-year-old Leena Ching Suan Vung, who works at a toy store, prefers not to notice the negatives. “We have to live. It is difficult here but it is also nice,” says the soft-spoken Kuki girl from Churachandpur who perks up when she talks about attending services at the Free Church in Jantar Mantar and prayer meetings held every Tuesday by the Gurgaon Prayer Cell. “Each tribe speaks a different dialect. The pastor might deliver the message in Simte or Zhou but we all understand it and each other too,” she says.

Far from home and living amidst an alien culture, it would seem the Manipuris of Gurgaon prefer to forget the tribal differences that have made life insufferable in their native state.

“Actually, all the north easterners try to stick together here. Recently, when a young Naga man died in Sikandarpur, people from all over the NCR came to give their condolences to his family and left money for his wife and child,” says Kevin. And with the relaxation of the old taboos and more interaction with each other, there are more mixed marriages happening too.

Kevin, Thomas and Leena speak with affection of their homes in Churachandpur and Senapati and of their close bonds with fellow tribesmen but all of them seem to believe that their future lies in this city of gleaming towers that now attracts people from every state in the Indian union and beyond.

This article was first published in an edited form by local weekly, Friday Gurgaon http://fridaygurgaon.com/news/693-Far-From-Home.html

Picture courtesy Friday Gurgaon

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Behind the mall

Reminds me of Tarkovsky's Stalker... with a Gurgaon twist.

Wandering about the half finished mall, I was transfixed
by the unexpected sight of tall reeds

I moved closer to the window and wondered about the
reeds growing in this arid landscape... Don't they
need water and soggy land?

On a higher floor, I peer through another window and
catch sight of a mongoose scampering through the tall
grass. When I click, I am gratified to see the
reflection of my cellphone emerging from the grass in
the middle distance, a ghost amid the 'real' buildings.

Blowin' in the wind

(An edited version of this story appeared, this week, in a local paper called Friday Gurgaon)

Ahead of me, the land stretched out vast and flat, the unusual grey-white mud underfoot smooth as a playing field. As I step into the harness and tighten it around my chest and legs, I notice the Aravallis rising like a blue wall in the distance. Around us -- a mixed group of urban Indians and foreigners brought together by Escape Delhi, a company that organises imaginative trips outside the city – a noisy gaggle of villagers has congregated.

There are numerous children so poor they don’t have any lower garments to protect them against the December cold; there are old men in straggly beards; there are prepubescent girls burdened with snot-nosed younger siblings; there is the occasional village idiot who gawks at the women with an unpractised leer and there are lots of very young men atop tractors and on shiny motorbikes. The villagers, clearly, don’t have much to occupy them on this fine Sunday afternoon and our group, intent on riding the wind, is the exciting paisa-vasool show of the weekend! Indeed, though the village of Chhapda in Sohna is only about two hours away from modern Gurgaon, it seems to live in the middle ages even in terms of entertainment options. It wouldn’t have been surprising to learn that the men driving the tractors were charging for the show.

These thoughts course through my mind as I prepare to run after the jeep, to which I am tethered, until my parasail lifts me up into the air. Suddenly, my phone rings. It’s my mother. I dare not tell her what I’m up to. The knowledge would most definitely cause her to lapse into the stress-induced asthmatic fit of the year.

“Oh, I’m just out for a walk,” I lie. “I’ll call you back as soon as I’m done,” I say watching one of my group run a few steps and then take off in the air, his parasail rising above him like a beautiful silken mushroom.

I stand there gazing up at him and wonder about Pierre-Marcel Lemoigne who, according to wikipedia, that great collective brain of the modern world, developed the first parasail canopy back in 1961, and about how it was another 20 years before the world discovered the joys of soaring through the air while being umbilically attached to a moving vehicle.

Not to be confused with paragliding that requires enthusiasts to enroll for courses and earn a license, parasailing requires nothing but common sense and a slight instinct for self-preservation, at least from the parasailer. The person attached to the parasail, is towed by a boat or a vehicle, in this case a jeep, and carried into the air by the wind. Unlike paragliding, which requires instruction, practice and skill, a parasailer only needs to relax and enjoy herself and, of course, ensure that she doesn’t do anything stupid in midair like get her hands entangled in the harness strings.

It doesn’t seem particularly frightening though a few miniscule butterflies do flutter in my tummy when my turn approaches. Thankfully, I have no time to ponder about my nervousness or the lack of it. The instructor, a fast talking energetic man in Raybans, yells at the spellbound audience to step back, revs the jeep engine and we’re off. I’ve barely run a few steps when I find myself treading air and just like that, I’m airborne.

It’s quiet up there, 50 feet in the air, and I can hear myself think. It feels almost like an out-of-body experience. Far below me, the villagers are reduced to little pawns and the instructor looks like he’s driving a dinky jeep. Not so far away, mustard fields stretch out like a thick yellow carpet. It feels like I am being carried through the air by a giant bird, the Roc out of Sinbad the sailor. It’s blissful. But all too soon the jeep halts and the descent begins. I stiffen my legs and feel wildly exhilarated as I glide onto the ground like a giant butterfly. So exhilarated am I that I whip out my cell phone and call my mother.

“I just parasailed for the first time,” I inform her.
“Phew, good thing I went to the temple this morning,” she responds with a laugh.

The one big takeaway from my parasailing adventure: I should always present my mother with a fait accompli. Ah, soaring through the air has definitely helped with life lessons!

Escape Delhi: https://www.facebook.com/escapedelhi
Tel: +91 9999438784
Email: info@escapedelhi.com

Picture credit: The pix are my own humble work. Shot on my detested but very useful Samsung Galaxy that has turned me into a photofreak, who wants to capture everything...