Sunday, 10 December 2017

"The Pakis Are Here!"

All Aboard The Darjeeling Express

A few weeks ago I went for a well overdue catch up dinner with a very dear friend who I have known since we were at school. We went to Darjeeling Express on Carnaby Street; I had been keenly following the head chef and owner, Asma Khan, on social media since back when she used to host her supper clubs in Kensington. The images of her dishes and descriptions of her techniques have repeatedly elicited wonderment and salivation, and I was silently ecstatic throughout the day. The food did not disappoint. We savoured authentic street food like paapri chaat and puchkas, immersed ourselves in the decadent Mughlai venison koftas and robust Bengali goat curry, and finally, full to the brim and slightly tipsy thanks to my irresponsible compulsion to sample one too many of the gloriously sweet and fragrant whites, we settled on ordering just the one bhapa doi to share. I find the term “mind blasting” ideal for the sensory experience that followed: a thick and creamy, very slightly set, steamed yoghurt with a deep and raw – yet never overwhelming – sweetness much like that of jaggery or treacle, delicately perfumed with cardamom and garnished with dried rose petals. There was silence.

What ensued immediately after was, to me, a very interesting discussion.

I am not sure where it came from, but we were suddenly talking heatedly about ethnicity and identity. My friend’s parents are from the former British West Indies, part of the diaspora of indentured Indian labourers sent across the colonies after the end of slavery. She herself was born and raised in London. If I remember correctly, I was either attempting to unravel the mystery behind where in South Asia her family originated, or I was bemoaning yet another incident where I had observed fellow South Asians failing to unite, continuing to publicise and promote ideas of segregation within the community, and / or distance themselves from their ethnic identity. I suppose it was always the same with me, and my friend had expressed earlier on in the evening that she refused to get into any sort of conversation on such topics.

“I don’t really care,” she declared wearily, laboriously going in for another spoon of that irresistible bhapa doi.

“See, this is what’s wrong with our lot,” I said. “No one cares. Everyone wants to do their own thing: get their heads down, earn a bit of money, start a family. It’s typical contemporary Indian mentality. No one wants to deviate from the norm and nurture the arts, or to delve extensively into, or even promote, their own history… Like…What happened to your acting…?”

“I’m not Indian.”

“Okay, well from a South Asian back – ”

“I don’t consider myself Indian,” she reiterated clearly before putting down her spoon.

I have to admit, I was shocked. And speechless, for once. But not for too long. Could it be the wine? She did not really drink as much as I had. Was she just really full, and therefore exhausted after a hard day’s work? It was also a pretty stuffy evening. Perhaps she was not able to think straight. Unless she was genuinely annoyed at my bringing up the subject yet again, despite her insistence, and was trying to shut me up.

I questioned how she could say that. Were the names of her family members not of Indian origin? Were her parents not practicing Hindus, enough to convert an entire bedroom in their home into a puja room? Did they not wear saris and kurtas at religious and ceremonious events? And what about the food? Was she not comparing the daal we were served earlier to the one that her mother made? She replied, quite matter-of-factly, that it was West Indian culture.

Okay, but she was not ethnically West Indian. Did she have Arawak, Wai Wai, or Carib ancestry? Did Afro-Caribbeans not acknowledge their African roots and history? But she kept insisting that she was not Indian, and that she did not identify as South Asian in any way whatsoever. “So what are you?” I asked. She was British West Indian. So that would mean I could refer to myself as British East African, seeing as my dad was the second generation to be born in Uganda. Apparently, I should.  

We argued back and forth: she maintained that identity was by no means tied to ethnicity, and that she and her family associated their part of the West Indies with Back Home. As long as she had no existing ties to the Subcontinent, why should anything relating to that part of the world shape her identity? I, on the other hand, still incredulous, took the unnecessarily dramatic route, bringing up factors such as DNA and physical characteristics, criticising our media for failing to represent us, lamenting our education system for offering us neither a place in history nor a story to present our very existence on this island. More interestingly, why was it more acceptable to express pride in West Indian cultural ties over South Asian ancestry? In the same way, why do some British South Asians like to identify themselves as something other than what they are?

The Totally Buzzy New Zealander

I had taken in a lodger a few months back. Funnily enough, my dad had introduced him to me, leaving me an excited voicemail enquiring over my spare room. He said that the guy was from India, that he was looking for a room specifically in East London, and that he bore an uncannily similar resemblance and manner to me. So much so, that my dad relayed having to do a triple take when he first saw this young man eating dinner at the Spiritual University in Dollis Hill. So the guy turns up for a viewing, and he looks absolutely nothing like me. I am not sure if my dad is blind, or if he has a questionable sense of humour (I actually moaned to my mum, and she was not best pleased with my dad!). He did, however, speak with a charming and unmistakable Indian accent, he was polite and engaging, he seemed really laid back, – almost eager to please – and we ended up having a laugh.

I asked him what he did for a living, how often he planned on using the kitchen, what he considered best hygienic practice. I asked him where he was from, and he replied, “Actually, I’m from New Zealand”. That didn’t seem right. Where was the accent? Did he recently move out there for work? Was he studying there? And then it came out that he was a Tamil Brahmin from Hyderabad who, after a number of years, had become a naturalised citizen of New Zealand. It was not that I really cared, I was just interested to know if I had visited the part of India that he was from, but if we put it this way: an Englishwoman born in Surrey with roots in Dorset moves to America to study. After gaining her Green Card, she decides to travel across Europe, settling in Prague for a few months. Does she tell the people there that she is from America, or does she refer to herself as English? I communicated this example to him a month or so later when he was briefing me on his “totally buzzy” weekend one Monday evening, and casually dropping how he introduced himself to the spaced out, hipster “bitches” as being from New Zealand.   

Never mind looking absurd, my point is that South Asians already have a stereotyped image attached to them – and they always have had, from the turbaned lackeys of yore to various exotic but obsequious, and frankly ridiculous, restaurateurs near the turn of the century – thanks to the media. In today’s America you have the submissive, heavily accented IT workers and taxi drivers, and here in the UK you have your arrogant and contemptibly avaricious business owners and opportunists.  Both stereotypes remain conservative and religious, always tied to their culture. And here was someone, my lodger, who could be perceived as “cool”, as “different”, as “refreshing”, “for an Indian”. Someone that was a trance DJ, was always experimenting with astral projection on psychedelic drugs, was not working in finance in Canary Wharf with an arranged marriage ahead of him next winter. However, he did fit the positive stereotypes: he practised yoga and chanted mantras every morning, he offered alternative healing therapies as his means of income, and he dressed and behaved like a white man in Goa. Why would you want to hold back on your Indian roots? He pondered over it for a moment, his bulging eyes looking to the ceiling, his mouth pursed in an ‘o’ shape, exaggerating his already herpetological features, before he beamed, declaring the revelation buzzy.

My friend too, being from a part of the world that is respected and acknowledged in Britain for its vibrant culture, for its community spirit, and most notably for its contribution to music. But how many know that people of South Asian ancestry also contributed a respectable portion to this culture? When I had first met my friend’s mother I was confused. I had never seen an Indian-looking person speak in a West Indian accent before. My next door neighbours growing up were from Jamaica, and I had heard Grandma and all the aunties and uncles speaking in their gentle, sing-song ways, along with some of the mothers at my school, and the stern nurses at the doctor’s, but they were all black. Would it not break the stereotype if it was widely known that there were South Asians from these parts of the world, whose mothers spoke in Jamaican accents (the entire Caribbean was Jamaica to us growing up – sorry, we were ignorant), and who legitimately danced at weddings in their salwaar-kameez to soca and dancehall music, as opposed to bhangra and Hindi film remixes? By at least being open about, if not proud of, your South Asian roots it offers an important opportunity to start discussions and question tired and offensive stereotypes.

In the end, my friend and I had no choice but to agree to disagree in order to avoid our delectable evening turning sour.

But that was by no means an isolated incident.

The Pakis are Here!

I have near and dear ones, all with the same or similar family stories of immigration and terrifying discrimination, who are with white British partners and spouses that voted to leave the European Union for reasons relating to such ludicrous ideas as immigration and the overpopulation of the United Kingdom being a direct strain on jobs, housing, and the NHS. But we are deemed okay because we have assimilated into the culture. I apologise to even have to explicate that ‘we’ have nothing to do with the European Union, and the European Union has nothing to do with the broad range of people, cultures, and races that are currently being accused of failing to assimilate. My near and dear ones grow to agree with their other halves because they are not part of those being ostracised by the whole of the “developed” world.  

I was speaking to my aunt the other day, now that it has been two years since I moved into the old family home in Stepney, and I was asking her what it was like to live in the area over forty years ago. As I had imagined, the row of quirky renovated houses along the charming cobblestone mews leading up to the old church of St Dunstan and All Saints, used to be a row of shops selling everything from children’s toys to ladies’ underwear. There used to be a pub on every corner, with the two almost adjacent to the block having since been converted to an NHS Health Centre and a chicken shop. “I used to go into both of them sometimes,” my aunt told me in her ever-strong East End accent. “Everyone used to know your name and ask how your family was.” She told me how in her teens in the late Seventies she used to spend most of her wages at a record shop run by an old Jamaican man on Grove Road, and how a group of black boys always protected her at school when the white kids used to pick on her and throw chewing gum at her hair. I asked her what it was like when they first moved to the block. My aunt described how the family – my grandparents, along with my dad, two uncles, and two aunts – were given many options to relocate from the RAF Camp turned refugee camp at Greenham Common in Berkshire, to such enticing destinations as Manchester, Leicester, India, and even Canada and the United States, but my grandfather was staunchly set on London, and that too the East End, with its textile and wholesale fashion industry on Commercial Road and the abundant possibilities of work for a tailor like himself.

After almost a year at the camp, my aunt remembered how a group of families finally hopped on board a minibus destined for London. One by one, not too dissimilar to a travel company coach dropping off families at their luxurious, all-inclusive destinations along a strip of glitzy yet oppressive hotels, my family was let off at their final stop: a smart and tidy council block just along Regent’s Canal. I was told that we were the first and only non-white family to move into the block, and that every resident of each flat had come out to see who had arrived. The woman that lived downstairs was a “racist bitch”, being the first to loudly bemoan, “the Pakis are here!” as my family huddled confused, unsure what to make of this new future ahead of them. “Pakis, Pakis, Pakis, Pakis, Pakis, Pakis,” my aunt whispered almost manically, “That’s all I could hear around me. And we were thinking, hang on! We were confused. Why were these people calling us Pakis?”

I had recently finished reading, and thoroughly enjoyed, Shappi Khorsandi’s autobiographical A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English, where she describes her own experiences as a child from pre-revolutionary Iran growing up in West London during the 1970s and 1980s. Many times in the book her family are insulted as Pakis, with one particularly memorable passage relaying a time with her father at Portobello Market. Her father is haggling down an item when the aggravated stall owner resorts to racial abuse, with someone ultimately calling him a Paki. Her mother is shocked at the ignorance of the English, who are not even able to tell the difference between a Pakistani and an Iranian. Khorsandi herself makes many subtle references throughout the book to distinguish herself from South Asians, be it mentioning the boys in the playground who enquire over whether she is an Arab, Pakistani, or Bengali, though “The boy himself looked Indian” (?), or even making one of her closest friends seem almost like an exotic alien because she came from India. Although, to be fair, Khorsandi also ardently differentiates herself from Arabs and Iraqis, and any ethnic group that is not Iranian.

Regardless of whether we are from the West Indies, East Africa, South Asia itself, or even evidently parts of Central Asia and the Middle East, when push comes to shove we are indistinguishable in the eyes of many. Before 9/11 we were collectively known as Pakis, and we have since turned into Muslims and terrorists regardless. I can imagine a contemporary role reversal of Khorsandi’s book playing out with North Indians: “Of course I am not an Arab / Iranian / Turk! How can I be a fundamental Muslim if I am Indian?” (and I have experienced a very similar example with a middle aged work colleague who, when staff were asked if they would be taking time off for Eid, flatly declared, “Why would I? I’m Indian”). What difference does it really make? Why succumb to their divide and conquer?

I understand and accept that it is fair to identify with what you choose, be it your ethnic or racial background, the country of your ancestors, the country of your birth, or even your adopted country. But all of that is superficial in the fight against ignorance and prejudice. There are many varied and beautiful cultures from all over the world in Great Britain, and I feel as if all the different ethnicities, from Moroccans, to Kurds, and even to Nepalis, who are still considered South Asian, acknowledge their ethnic identities with pride. What is wrong with the rest of the South Asian diaspora? 

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Winter Warmers: Lasanyo Rotlo (Garlicky Pearl Millet Flatbreads)

Throughout the winter of 2014 I was in India on a clinical placement and, considering the mild winter we have been experiencing here in London, I can honestly say that our winters can be, at times, comparable. Especially so in the states situated more towards the north like Gujarat and Rajasthan, the latter of where I was finally forced to request an electric heater from the hotel reception after layers of socks, shawls, and clothing still had me shivering in my antique wood four-poster bed. Staying at a family home in Jamnagar I swear I could feel the cold in my bones at night, my nose and feet numb, since I was practically offered a charpoy set in the courtyard with just a mosquito net and a couple of thick blankets for company. For protection and sustenance during the colder months, warming and bulking foods have always been consumed as part of an essential winter diet on the Subcontinent, and this generally continues to be observed, at least among the older generation and the rural population who are known to adhere to long-standing Ayurvedic principles. Energy-rich pearl millet, or bājra, replaces wheat flour rotis, and are eaten with pungent pickles made sharp from the generous use of mustard and mustard oil. The heavy qualities of jaggery are appreciated over cooling sugar through moreish peanut and sesame brittle confectionaries, found in abundance during the cold season, and fiery garlic chives are added to everything for aromatic piquancy.

Cardigans and shawls in Rajasthan
Gujarati man taking a stroll on a sunny winter's morning

I was discussing such observations with the same friend that brought over the shrikhand, inspiring my post on yoghurt. She relayed to me that one of her favourite Rajasthani winter treats happens to be crumbled bājra roti mixed together with ghee and jaggery. In much of India these bread-based dishes are referred to as chūrma or chūrā (chūr literally means powder, but also indicates shredded and crumbled pieces of unleavened breads), and can be prepared as either a sweet or savoury instant snack with leftover roti. The recipe I am presenting today happens to be a favourite of Kathiawar, or so I have been informed. I had never heard of it before, having fiercely detested bājra roti as a child; it was too thick, too dry, and had an unpleasantly crude bitter and smoky flavour. In Jamnagar, I was served bājra rotis with a sweet and sour fruit pickle and spoonfuls of the richest, creamiest ghee I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. The ghee had solidified in the cold, and had to be scooped up with a piece of the thick, rigid roti. This combination was taken as a light supper, along with mung bean khichri, cumin potatoes cooked in a simple tomato sauce, and a cup of hot tea. And it was delightful.

Funnily enough, I did not come across lasanyo rotlo in Gujarat. Instead, my cousin introduced it to me while I was in unbearably hot Mumbai for a short while. She has always loved cooking and impressing guests with her eclectic repertoire. On this particular occasion we had plans to go shopping in Bandra, and my cousin wanted to rustle up something quick and easy, yet nutritious enough to last us until dinner. “Hey, Cheraaaaaagh!” she exclaimed. “Have you had lasanyo rotlo before?” When I said that I had never heard of it she declared that that was exactly what we would have for lunch. The maid was asked to prepare a handful of bājra rotis, before being sent to the market to pick up a bunch of garlic chives. “And make sure you come back with a fresh, fat bunch! If you dare return with a withered yellow bunch like last time I’ll send you right back,” my cousin shouted after her. 

My sister was summoned to the kitchen and instructed to proceed crumbling the rotis. I was not looking forward to lunch, especially with it being centred on bājra, and must have been in a strop of sorts after my own suggestion for lunch was rejected. My cousin kept insisting I join them in the kitchen to observe, but I persistently found some excuse to keep away. Lunch was ready in a flash and, as she snapped at the maid to prepare a jug of lassi right away, my cousin brought a large serving bowl to the table. Upon lifting the lid, the tantalising aroma of garlic and coriander wafted towards me and started to make my mouth water. She served me a generous portion of what essentially looked like toasted breadcrumbs flecked with the brilliant green of freshly chopped herbs. “What do I eat this with?” I enquired. “You eat it just like that!” came the irritated response. And then, a little gently, “But you have it with lassi, otherwise it will feel too dry and heavy.”

I remember finding it weird at first, almost like eating a bowl of cereal without milk. But then the textures and flavours started to mingle and sing: soft and chewy with crunchy crusty bits, strong with garlic and onion flavours, and a deep earthy note, possibly cumin or asafoetida. Every now and then, you caught a tiny bit of green chilli to shake things up, and it was all washed down with silky smooth, creamy lassi. It was definitely a very filling meal for something that took such little time and effort to prepare, notwithstanding the dear maid.

The Ayurvedic view of winter is that the colder months provide increased energy and digestive power; it is the best time for growth and muscle development, and the time to take rejuvenative herbs along with food items that are high in fat and protein, and those that have just come into season. It is also a time to increase the consumption of unctuous and heavy substances; oils and butters to help moisturise the skin, rich comfort foods for sustenance.

Bājra is considered astringent and sweet in taste, with drying and heavy qualities, and a heating potency. As a result, it balances kapha and vata, and increases strength in the body. Because it can be difficult to digest, bājra is preffered to be eaten in the colder months, when our digestion is strongest; our digestive fires burning more effectively from the heat generated to counter the cold. It is recommended for metabolic disorders, obesity and weight gain, and to alleviate feeling cold. It also serves as a heart tonic. To assist the body during vata and kapha-dominant seasons like winter and spring, bājra works by virtue of its increased fibre content, encouraging the elimination of toxins, and for providing the extra energy required when exercising.

Pearl millet has the highest protein content of any grain, and that too with a balanced amino acid profile. Though it is a high-energy food, it contains fewer carbohydrates and more fat per 100 grams than what is found in both wheat and rice, which is specifically why the north-western states of India traditionally prefer bājra during the colder months. Pearl millet also contains twice the amount of iron than whole wheat, and more fibre than both wheat and rice. The consumption of pearl millet has been shown to greatly benefit those with Type 2 diabetes, as it has a low glycemic index. It has been found to inhibit the development of malignant breast tumours and colon cancer cells. Because it contains beneficial amounts of such essential nutrients as B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, and zinc, the inclusion of pearl millet in your diet can assist in maintaining a healthy heart and reducing the risk of such metabolic disorders as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and weight gain. It is also a gluten free grain.

Bājra rotis tend to be on the dry side, which is why they are often served with lashings of ghee or butter, and eaten with lassi or a cup of tea. In this recipe, the crumbs are fried in a generous amount of ghee to not only encourage bulk and lubrication in the body during the cold, dry months, but to also give the dish its wonderful crisp and chewy texture.

If garlic chives are not available, I just use regular chives or spring onion along with finely chopped garlic. This way, you still get that satisfying vegetal crunch and the welcome aromatic pepperiness of garlic.

Lasanyo Rotlo

(serves 2)


150g (1 cup) Bajra Flour (pearl millet flour)
2 Tbls Whole Wheat (Chappati) Flour, plus extra for rolling
½ tsp Salt
½ tsp Carom Seeds (optional)

2-4 Tbls Ghee or Unsalted Butter
½ tsp Cumin Seeds
1 pinch Asafoetida
1-3 Green Chillies, finely chopped (or cut in half for less heat)
100g Garlic Chives (or Spring Onions), finely chopped
3 cloves Garlic, finely minced
Large handful of Coriander or Parsley, roughly chopped

·  First prepare the rotis by adding the two flours, salt, and carom seeds to a bowl and mixing well.

·  Gradually add about 120ml (around ½ a cup) of warm water to the flour mixture and knead to a stiff but pliable dough. Cover with a damp cloth and leave aside for 5-10 minutes.

·  Heat a skillet or frying pan over a medium-low heat. To make the rotis, divide the dough into four equal balls, and roll out into ½-inch thick rounds with the help of a dusting of chappati flour. Sometimes it helps to use cling film to roll out these rotis as the lack of gluten makes them rather sticky and fragile, and a bit of a challenge to roll out.

·  Place on the frying pan and cook until faint bubbles start to appear on the surface of the roti. Turn over and cook the other side, gently pressing down with a spatula or such implement to ensure even cooking. Repeat on the other side as necessary. Stack the rotis on a plate and smear with ghee or butter if desired.

·  Once cool enough, break the rotis into pieces and place into a food processor. Pulse the pieces to make rough breadcrumbs. In Indian homes, this process is meticulously done by hand, pinching the rotis to a coarse crumble.

·  In a heavy-bottom pan, heat the ghee over a medium flame, and add the cumin seeds. Once they darken and start to sizzle add the asafoetida, allowing to cook for a few seconds. Tip in the garlic chives (or chives / spring onion), the garlic, and the chilli, and stir fry for about 20 seconds, or until that raw smell of garlic just begins to cook out.

· Immediately tip in the breadcrumbs and salt. Increase the heat, stir frying and pressing the breadcrumbs to the bottom of the pan from time to time in order to catch and crisp up. Continue this for 2 to 4 minutes, until a warming, toasty smell begins to rise, and sprinkle generously with chopped herbs for added succulence and freshness.

·  Serve hot with a tall glass of cold salted lassi, or any available yoghurt drink. I tend to accompany this dish with spiced roasted aubergines for a complete meal; one of my favourite winter comfort foods.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Lusophilia: Lisboa, te amo!

Fado na Alfama, by Markus Lüske

I recently returned from a week in Lisbon. The holiday was an incredibly thoughtful birthday gift from a friend, as I have always had an unusual passion and interest for all things Luso. As young children, my parents took my sister and me on our first holiday to the Algarve. I cannot say what it was about the country and its wonderful people, but subsequently, I chose to do my first memorable school project on Portugal. In my late teens, I developed a taste for Brazilian electronic music, a deep enthusiasm for such artists as Suba, Cibelle, Fernanda Porto, and Céu, then branching out to baile funk music and Angolan kuduro, the latter genres being introduced to the international mainstream by Diplo and M.I.A. I loved Maria Rita, Bebel Gilberto, and Mylene Pires, and owned all the latest bossa nova compilations of both João and Astrud Gilberto, and Stan Getz. I discovered the intense beauty of Portuguese fado. It was from a desperate desire to understand Cibelle’s poetry and identify with Amália Rodrigues’ longing that I sought out a Portuguese language teacher in Neasden.

The music of my youth

My friend and I debated for a while over which part of Lisbon we should stay at, and upon learning of its status as the birthplace of fado, my friend opted for history and culture over nightlife, and booked a bijou apartment in Alfama. The eccentric owner of the flat, Maria, met us outside Santa Apolónia railway station on the Tuesday evening that we landed. She proceeded to guide us down Rua Jardim do Tobaco, and began relaying amusing anecdotes about previous guests, the neighbourhood, and her colourful personal life with gusto and an air of effervescence. As we followed her across the road opposite the Museu do Fado, we passed through a small public square to enter Alfama’s archetypal labyrinth of steep and winding, narrow streets. By the time we had ascended the first couple of cobblestone inclines and were tackling the first set of steps, Maria was already out of breath, her gravelly voice wheezing and panting between sentences. A few more turns and steps later, we had stopped outside a tall terraced house. Maria reached her hand through an open panel in the door to release the lock, assuring us that this was the only way to enter the building. A rather steep and narrow wooden staircase led to our room on the top floor, and it took another good fifteen to twenty minutes of Maria nattering before we were finally alone.

It was, by then, after 10 o’clock in the evening, and we needed to find something to eat. So we set off into the streets of our new neighbourhood and settled for an al fresco dinner at the first open restaurant that we came across, situated on a cobblestone side street. A fado performance went on in a small square behind us as we picked on pastéis de bacalhau and olives, awaiting our meals. We had ordered a jug of wine and, when our food finally arrived, my friend began to wax lyrical about his grilled sardines and boiled potatoes. I had initially found my own dish of bacalhau à bras to be quite bland, almost like a fish khichri of sorts. It was made up of shredded salted codfish cooked with sliced onions and strips of fried potato. But I soon began to appreciate the subtle flavours and textures, almost as much as conversing with the Nepalese waiters, speaking both in Hindi and in broken Nepali.

The next morning was, for me, unbearably hot; during our stay the temperature refused to dip below 28°C. I had stupidly forgotten to pack my Kolhapuri slippers, and did not bring anything in the way of summer clothing. Desperate to get some airflow going, I was suddenly captivated at the east-facing window. The view was like a scene from a postcard. The terracotta tiles of Alfama’s rooftops blazed red before me, only to be offset by the brilliant white of the buildings they enveloped. To the left stood the serene Igreja de Santo Estêvão, and ahead a vast stretch of sea blue, almost like facing the edge of the earth: the celebrated Tagus river. 

View of Alfama from the Miradouro das Portas do Sol 

I stood there for a moment, the sun’s rays hitting my chest, breathing in Lisbon’s sweet air, taking in the beauty. After we had showered and got dressed, we set off for a pastry shop nearby that Maria had recommended in order to sample the famous Portuguese pastéis de nata for breakfast. Something about the narrow streets and the heat of the day reminded me of India, of Old Delhi and my walks around Jamnagar during the afternoon siesta. Of course, Alfama was nowhere near as busy and crowded as any Indian locality, but the clothes hanging to dry outside people’s front doors, the small square windows looking into quaint home kitchens, and the camaraderie between its residents; these little things caught my attention, reminding me of neighbourhoods in India.

A fruit stall in Alfama on the left, and a fruit seller in Rajkot, Gujarat, on the right

Front doors in Portugal and in Gujarat
Neighbours socialising in the streets

Many of the houses and buildings throughout the city itself were tiled with striking ceramic tile work known as Azulejos, an influence bestowed by the earlier Muslim inhabitants of Iberia. This too corresponded to what I had seen in Northern India, similar geometric shapes and floral motives adorning the grand buildings of the Mughal elite and the old towns. The many churches too were, quite naturally, of a similar design to the churches I saw in Diu, a former Portuguese colony until only 1961, just south of the Saurashtra region of Gujarat. In fact, the Igreja de Santo António de Lisboa, which stood close by at the bottom of our street in Alfama, made me think back to my visit to the Church of St. Paul in Diu.

The Church of St. Anthony in Alfama on the left, and the magnificent Church of St. Paul in Diu on the right

We decided to walk to the Castelo de São Jorge, not too far from our apartment. Trundling up the steep steps of Beco de Santa Helena, we found that we had come face to face with the Cerca Velha, or the medieval Old Wall, and a bustling street bearing an imposing statue of São Vicente stood opposite the Museum of Decorative Arts. Following the tram tracks, we explored the town on our way to the castle, getting lost many a time along the way, discovering local life, walls decorated with bold graffiti, and more tiled buildings. The castle itself and the surrounding grounds also reminded me of Diu and its fort, while its structure and impressive size has similarities to the forts of Jaipur, albeit on a much less intricate and aesthetically refined scale. The amount of walking and the heat of the day saw us finally retiring at our starting point, the Miradouro das Portas do Sol. With a spectacular view of Alfama before us, we sat at a table on a vast balcony, the largest balloon glass of gin and tonic I had ever encountered, and a bottle of ice-cold champagne between us.

A tiled building in downtown Alfama

The Lisbon Cathedral on the top row with its Romanesque entrance, and the Mahabat Maqbara of Judagadh, Gujarat, below with its Gothic French windows: both buildings showcase an amalgamation of various Eastern and Western architectural influences.

For many nights, we longed to observe a live fado performance. Earlier on in the week my friend and I resolved to have dinner at the Museo do Fado restaurant, opting for a table outside after being encouraged by the balmy weather and the throng of patrons enjoying drinks and conversation outside the restaurant. It was only after the chatty and beautiful waitress had brought us a basket of bread accompanied by garlic butter, olive tapenade, creamy farmer’s goats cheese with a home made fig conserve, and an octopus relish as appetisers, that we noticed everyone beginning to take their seats inside the building in anticipation of the performances. We made up for our dismay by getting absolutely slaughtered bar hopping across Bairro Alto later that night, and ending up at a live jazz bar where I was allowed to smoke indoors and where I had my first taste of luscious ginjinha.

Ginjinha (Source)
One night, after visiting the Sé Cathedral, sauntering around the vicinity of the striking lemon and white Praça do Comércio, and dining at a pizza restaurant for a change from seafood, we sat down at a fado restaurant for dessert and ginjinha just in time for their late night performances. We had stopped here earlier to refresh ourselves with lime juice, and had got chatting to one of the waitresses. She had enquired if we liked music, and that she and her husband were both singers, that we should come and watch them perform that evening. The maître d’, a pushy mature lady with a honey-blonde beehive, brought over my chocolate mousse and a tiny glass of ginjinha just as the first performance commenced. A trio of men started tuning their elegant and striking Portuguese guitars, like noblemen training oriental crested pheasants; they introduced the performance with a couple of songs. Then, a tall and graceful woman in a coral strapless silk dress and a black lace stole joined the guitarists. She was incredibly beautiful and refined in appearance, with her dark hair tied into a neat bun, a precise flick of eyeliner framing her sparkling green eyes, and alluring scarlet lips that seemed to be set in a placid smile.

I took a spoonful of the chocolate mousse and sipped on the ginjinha. The rich, dense mousse coated my mouth in a blanket of bittersweet bliss, followed by the intense sour cherry liqueur: deep and luxurious, syrupy, burning my throat and chest. The fadista began to sing. Her voice was crystal clear and slightly high pitched. She moved and sang perfectly, her actions and eyes matching the mood of the song; one slightly jovial, the next more melancholy. The restaurant was lit with candles, and a warm pink glow had settled on everything, the strapping guitarists, the doll-like singer, the glasses of alcohol, and the mesmerised faces of the seated diners. It may have been the ginjinha, but I was starting to feel very warm. The performance ended to wild applause, and I went to pay for our bill. Behind the bar, washing dishes in the kitchen, I spotted the waitress from earlier. She caught my eye and managed to wave. I told her that we had been waiting to hear her sing, that we had come especially for that reason at her own request. She appeared hesitant for a moment. Then she lifted her index finger and came to the bar. “Let me speak to my boss,” she told me. Perhaps she could organise something. I ordered another round of ginjinha and returned to my table. The guitarists looked as though they were set to head home, and I could see the waitress almost pleading with the maître d’. Finally, the guitarists returned to their places and began to play as one of the men sang to warm up. The waitress entered the performance space and began whispering with the guitarists nervously. With a song decided upon, the soul stirring strumming commenced. Out of nowhere, a powerful and slightly husky voice boomed across the room. As she found her feet, the waitress’ voice oozed from the depths of her very core out through her mouth. The honeyed words trickled like heavy but reluctant tears onto the audience, the words of sadness and longing, of love lost and better days. She looked as though she was breaking down, the microphone bearing her frustration, her feet stamping on the tiled floor. And then, once the performance was over the agony on her face disappeared, and the awkwardness and nerves returned in contemplation of the next song.

The night at the restaurant with the waitress

That night I was blown away. The two performers had such different styles, personalities, and performance deliveries. Where the first singer stood with poise and cool confidence, her vocals precise with a restrained playfulness, the waitress displayed humility and a sweet charm, desperation to some minute extent, whilst her singing alluded to personal loss and suffering. It was like watching a film, one of those old Indian films set in a brothel or a royal palace, where you view the lives of two artistes of different social classes and levels of expertise, and their journeys through love and privilege. Being lucky enough to observe a few more fado performances throughout my stay, including one where a spirited and amiable group of elderly friends took turns on the stage, they made me think of the old mehfils and mujras of Mughal India, so lavishly portrayed in art and media. The old friends reminded me of my family around the time I was born, when my grandfather would invite his pals over and they would all sit on worn Persian rugs and fraying bolsters playing musical instruments and arguing over the melody and lyrics of film songs and ghazals. Each of my aunts would be roped into singing as the remaining guests and family members would sip on tea and graze on snacks, mothers cradling their sleeping children in their laps. Of course, the history and social practices of mehfils and fado are not comparable, but the passion in the performers, the sense of desolation present in the florid lyrics, and most importantly the emotions these performances stir up, the bringing together of souls through music, this is the common ground I found between the musical performances of Northern India and Lisbon.

There is so much more to share about my trip to Portugal, including visiting the fairytale castles of pastel-coloured Sintra, reminiscent of my idea of South India merging with an aristocratic colonial hill station, and the historical municipality of Belém. Visiting Lisbon made me feel strangely at home. Perhaps understanding the language helps in familiarising yourself with a place, adding to that my keen interest in the country, but it felt like I was simply revisiting a part of my past with new eyes. Alfama itself was magical, and we left its sweet old ladies and captivating fadistas, its crumbling brickwork and glazed azulejo tiles, and its magnificent churches and hole in the wall ginjinha bars in the early hours of the morning. That night was the night of the total lunar eclipse and the Super Blood Moon. As my friend caught a couple hours of kip in preparation for the early flight, I stood at the window admiring the reflection of the brilliant full moon on the Tagus River. As the hours passed, the moon began to disappear and surge higher into sky, making me stretch my body further through the window. Around 2.30am we pulled our suitcases as silently as we could across the cobblestones of Alfama. One or two astronomy types were out with their telescopes and cameras, a truly surreal sight in the old world surroundings of the town. I looked up as we approached Santa Apolónia railway station, and I saw the luminous garnet moon watching over me. It bid me farewell, following me all the way in the taxi to the airport. 

Friday, 2 October 2015

Breakfast: Azerbaijani Gozlemeh

I am quite fussy about breakfast. I need it in order to function upon waking, but I am also particular about what I will have. Growing up on Weetabix made with hot milk, cereal was the go to choice for many years, but living alone brought along with it a myriad of possibilities. Of course, as a child we did have the regular Full English on a Sunday, the unsavoury odour of bacon rising to my bedroom, The Chart Show booming 90s hits through the house. On some occasions, we would have Indian variations thrown in: tiny pooris with dry potato curry and rice pudding; chai, gaathiya and jalebi; crisp parathas and crunchy sambhaaro; and once or twice in my lifetime, fresh masala dosa with all the trimmings, made with the help of our neighbour Shashi Auntie.

It is these latter sorts of breakfasts that I have found myself craving for as the years have mounted living away from home. They are hearty and substantial, yet light and full of flavour. Jalebi and gaathiya may sound too heavy and cloying for some to eat at breakfast, but this is surprisingly not the case. The ideal jalebi should be thin and crispy, with the finest coating of sticky, rose-perfumed syrup; gaathiya, deep-fried chickpea flour savoury snacks, are delicate and flaky, with coarsely ground black pepper running through them for gentle piquancy. In Gujarat, these are usually served alongside a carrot or papaya sambhaaro. This is a warm salad consisting of finely shredded carrot, cabbage, or raw papaya stir-fried in mustard seeds, green chillies, and turmeric. It is seasoned with salt and lime juice to give you fresh, crunchy, sour, and spicy all at once, and all of these different flavours are brought together with a warm mouthful of sweet masala chai.

Jalebi and gaathiya (Source)

Being able to obtain good quality gaathiya and jalebi is a bit of a mission, since most jalebi I have tasted across the capital have been disappointing, to say the least. I feel that I have perfected most breakfast dishes over the years: breakfast breads like stuffed and plain paratha, poori, and bhakri, and the aforementioned sambhaaro, which is especially quick and easy to rustle up. Since before I left home, I always made an effort to discover and understand Iranian culture, and this is how my taste for Persian and Central Asian cuisine developed. I regularly make Iranian quince moraba alongside Indian amla murabba when these fruits come in season during the winter months, relishing the quince for breakfast with Bulgarian white goats cheese, warm Turkish bread, and sweet black Iranian tea. From late spring, when robustly flavoured Greek basil and heavily fragrant rose petal moraba become available, I begin to enjoy these seasonal treasures as part of a sabzi khordan platter with cheese, bread, a host of fresh herbs and vegetables, and soft boiled eggs.

My quince moraba, served with white cheese, Tabrizi bread, and Iranian tea

Sabzi khordan

Always on the hunt for varied breakfast ideas, I came across Azerbaijani gozlemeh. This godsend of a recipe came from the Turmeric and Saffron food blog, a page that specialises in Persian recipes and stories. I must warn you that this recipe is far from Ayurvedic. It follows incorrect food combinations and is far too heating, with the inclusion of eggs, yoghurt, and raw garlic. I overindulged in this one summer and, being someone with a slight heat imbalance, developed nosebleeds and bleeding gums as a warning sign to curb my enthusiasm. Regardless, it is, without a doubt, one of the easiest and most satisfying breakfasts I have discovered in a while.

The blogger, Azita, explains having stumbled upon this recipe in an old Iranian cooking manual, and modifying it to current tastes and cooking methods. The original Farsi recipe serves six, and calls for 500ml of oil, twelve eggs, a kilo of strained yoghurt, and a single clove of garlic. Two of the eggs are required to be mixed well into the yoghurt and cooked over a gentle heat before adding the mashed garlic clove. This is the sauce of the recipe, and is served over flatbreads with fried eggs laid on top. It specifically states that a liberal use of oil makes for a tastier dish. My recipe turns the yoghurt sauce into a Turkish cacık of sorts, with salt, garlic, and dried mint, and layers the uncooked sauce and fried eggs over a thin, buttered roti. The garlic is very lightly cooked in ghee before being added to the yoghurt, in order to balance its heating potency. I did try the recipe with the ramazan pidesi bread that is always found in abundance at the Turkish shop nearby, but found it to be too thick. There are other types of flatbreads like lavash, and even thin Turkish pide, that would work just as well as roti.

I like to tell myself that the mint imparts a cooling quality to the dish, and the ample use of butter balances the yoghurt, but I could be clutching at straws. Nevertheless, this is a deeply satisfying breakfast to treat yourself to over the colder months.

Azerbaijani Gozlemeh (Fried eggs with yoghurt sauce)

(Serves 2)


50g strained yoghurt (Greek style yoghurt will suffice, but homemade works best)
½ tsp salt
½ tsp dried mint (optional extra: 1 tsp finely chopped parsley)
1 – 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
4 eggs
1 Tbl ghee / butter
2 rotis (frozen or fresh)
6 – 8 black olives, halved
Dried oregano
Slices of cucumber, radish, and tomato, to serve

  • First prepare the rotis. If using frozen rotis, allow to defrost before cooking on the stove. Fresh rotis can be prepared and kept warm.

  • Mix the salt, herbs, and garlic into the yoghurt, stirring well. A few drops of water can be added at this stage to loosen the sauce, depending on personal preference.

  • Heat the ghee or butter in a frying pan. Add the garlic and cook for a few seconds, or until the raw smell only just begins to soften. Tip into the yoghurt with half of the melted fat and whisk well. 

  •      Crack two of the eggs into the  remaining ghee in the pan, season with salt, and allow to fry until they are cooked with slightly runny yolks. I tend to finish my fried eggs off under the grill in order to cook the tops to perfection.

  •       Spread a spoonful of the yoghurt mixture onto a generously buttered roti, and top with two fried eggs. Garnish with the olives, a sprinkling of oregano, and serve with a salad of your choice.

Azerbaijani gozlemeh

Monday, 21 September 2015

The Food of the Gods: Yoghurt & Shrikhand

Cardamom and saffron-laced Shrikhand
Yoghurt: A Brief Overview

Yoghurt is one of the oldest foods in human history. Supposedly originating in Central Asia, it has been mentioned in ancient Ayurvedic and Persian texts, and written about by Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder and medieval Turkish intellectuals. Cultures from Greece and Central Asia through to the Indian Subcontinent incorporate yoghurt into their cuisines, be it cooked into dishes, prepared as a soup, or served alongside meals; many cultures still enjoy yoghurt-based drinks for their refreshing taste and digestive properties.

Back when we were children, I remember my mother making fresh yoghurt almost every night; she would place a stainless steel bowl of cultured milk to set in the boiler cupboard each night before bed. As the years went by she grew lazy, and fresh yoghurt was replaced with shop-bought fat-free natural yoghurt. This never bothered me because I cannot say that I was the biggest fan of yoghurt as a child, always preferring milk or ice cream. Yoghurt was too sour, regardless of what preparation it was being used for. My sister on the other hand loved yoghurt, and I would watch with distaste as she took second helpings of the warm yoghurt soup kadhi, and dropped large dollops of thick yoghurt onto her rice.

It was on my extended trip to India last year that I began to appreciate yoghurt. Having spent four months there in order to complete a clinical placement for my Ayurvedic studies, I was fortunate enough to travel up and down the country sampling the different gastronomic delights. Starting in the South, at a dusty town between Bangalore and Mangalore, I savoured the cool yet spicy tang of curd rice, and found surprising comfort in freshly prepared yoghurt that was rich and unctuous with a thick layer of cream on top. In Gujarat I discovered shrikhand, a dense strained yoghurt sweetened with rock candy and flavoured with saffron, cardamom, and pistachio. It was intensely addictive stuff, a kind that I had never tasted before, almost a cross between Italian gelato and mousse. Of the few that I had tried back home, all had this terribly sharp tang to them that did not agree with my palette. And then there was Delhi, my beloved Delhi… I could not get enough of the sweet lassi from Kamla Nagar. It was thick and creamy, but still thirst quenching and light, with electric crimson rose syrup at the bottom of the gigantic plastic cup and a generous layer of crunchy clotted cream on top. I always rewarded myself after channa masala and kulcha with two helpings.

I managed to spend a little time with relatives in Jamnagar and Mumbai before my departure, and observed an almost obsessive fastidiousness around the preparation of yoghurt and mealtime lassis. Each culture, indeed each individual, has their own taste preferences: Iranians prefer sour yoghurt, allowing it to set for at least 24 hours to achieve the desired level of sharpness. In contrast, most Indians prefer a milder, creamier yoghurt and allow between 4 to 12 hours for it to set, depending on the season. I remember my cousin in Mumbai shouting at her maid around lunchtime to enquire if the morning’s preparation of yoghurt had been placed in the refrigerator. I had not understood why at the time. My aunt, incidentally my cousin’s mother, in Jamnagar had been obsessive about hygiene surrounding her own yoghurt, and lassi had to be prepared in a very particular, rather rigorous way for the lunchtime meal.

In India, the Ayurvedic view of yoghurt has only somewhat prevailed amongst its people. Contrary to popular opinion, yoghurt is viewed as a heating food due to its sour taste and fermentation process of production. It is often considered heavy to digest, and should only be consumed in the colder months when digestion power is strong, never to be eaten at night or on a daily basis by way of its heavy qualities. It increases fat, and strengthens both the sperm and the body in general. Therapeutically, yoghurt has been prescribed for anorexia, irritable bowel syndrome, and urinary tract infections, whilst its improper consumption can lead to fever, skin diseases, and anaemia.  However, certain foods possess qualities that balance those of yoghurt, making it more agreeable to the body and the digestive system. These include mung bean soup, ghee, honey, unrefined sugar, and amla (Indian gooseberries).

Rediscovering Shrikhand

Shrikhand is mainly eaten as a dessert around the winter months in the Indian states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. At celebratory gatherings and social dinners it is served garnished with bright green ground pistachio, rose petals, and silver leaf. Unrefined sugar is used to lightly sweeten the yoghurt, and cooling, blood-purifying saffron is added alongside mucous-mitigating cardamom for an overall balanced sweet. The yoghurt is strained to remove all the liquid whey and to produce that luxurious texture. The name itself poses some interesting questions. Initially, because I was studying Farsi, I thought that the dish had its origins in Persia: shir is the Farsi word for milk, and qand is sugar. However, upon commencing my Ayurvedic studies, we had to take one module in Sanskrit, and there I learnt that kshīr was also the Sanskrit word for milk, with khānd meaning unrefined sugar. The prevalence of shrikhand centres on Gujarat, a northwestern state close to Rajasthan and Sindh, and where the Zoroastrians first settled centuries ago. Although strained yoghurt recipes abound throughout western, central, and southern Asia, it has been difficult locating any recipes similar to shrikhand outside of India.

I had forgotten about shrikhand upon my return to London, and satisfied my sweet tooth by frequenting the Turkish bakeries on Green Lanes, or making less complicated desserts like firni, shahi tukrey, and a cardamom and saffron-laced panna cotta. Then, a month or so back, a good friend that I had not seen for a while came round one Saturday evening for dinner and drinks. I served up a chicken and rosewater pulao, complete with a perfect Iranian tah dig crust and perfumed tea, and she rewarded my efforts with a delicious bottle of sauvignon blanc and a tub of home made shrikhand.

Having delighted in the tah dig crust with a little too much gusto, my friend declined dessert, and I only tried the shrikhand the next morning. Memories came flooding back. Delights to the senses in Gujarat: the biting chill of the morning shade, cows cleaning each other in the sun, the scents of freshly fried jalebis and gaathiya coming from the bottom of the street, and strong masala chai wafting from the kitchen. It was delicate, silky, and delicious! This one had been made with the addition of fresh mango pieces, adding bursts of tangy sweetness to each mouthful. Despite my attempts to savour the glory for as long as possible with only two spoonfulls a day, by the third day I caved in and polished off the whole lot in one sitting.

Cows in love in Jamnagar, Gujarat

Naturally, I set off to make my own. Strained yoghurt could not possibly be that difficult. So I purchased a tub of natural yoghurt from the local Turkish shop, poured it into a muslin-lined colander, tied it up into a bundle, and set it over a bowl for the liquid to drip away. A few hours later, I added some sugar, the required spices, and mixed well. Whilst the texture was acceptable, the taste was completely off. Just like the ones I had tasted in my youth, this shrikhand had that terrible sharpness that resulted in a mild smarting sensation on my tongue. Highly dissatisfied, I relayed the story to my friend and asked her advice. She informed me that her mother only used home made yoghurt to make shrikhand, and I was instructed to allow it to strain in the fridge overnight. I had kept mine on the kitchen table as I cooked dinner, so the surrounding heat must have contributed to the yoghurt becoming increasingly sour.

Although I had put it off for a couple of weeks, I was determined to make the perfect shrikhand. I sent my cousin in Mumbai a message to enquire over her secrets for the best yoghurt. As standard, I was to boil the milk, allow it to cool, and then mix in a little amount of starter culture before placing it in a warm place to set. But here was the trick. For the mildest, creamiest yoghurt, it had to be carefully observed. As soon as the mixture came away from the sides of the bowl, and a thin liquid had developed over the top, your yoghurt had set, and it had to be put straight into the fridge to stop it from souring any further. So here is what I did:

Homemade Yoghurt 


1½  pints full fat organic, unhomogenised milk
1 Tbl Yoghurt

·        Preheat the oven to about 50°C.

·        Pour the milk into a large saucepan and bring to a rolling boil over a medium-low heat. Make sure to stir the bottom regularly to prevent any milk solids from sticking to the bottom of the pan. This process should take about 15 – 20 minutes.

·        Once boiled, take off the stove and allow to cool. At this point, the milk can be transferred to a container of your choice. When a finger can be immersed in the milk comfortably for 20 seconds, the milk has been sufficiently cooled. A thick layer of cream will have developed over the milk.

·        Add the yoghurt and whisk well to make sure it has been evenly dispersed.

·        Place the container in the oven and immediately turn it off. In about 3 – 5 hours, the set yoghurt will be coming away from the sides of its container, and a thin film of liquid will be visible over the top. Transfer the container to the fridge right away.

This method produces the most creamiest, sweetest yoghurt I have ever tasted outside of India, with the cream on top adding a layer of luxury. It is actually impossible to find anything even remotely similar in the shops, be it organic, fresh from the cow's udders, or made by devoted, golden hued farmers in Crete. Using this batch of yoghurt to produce your next will only enhance the quality of the yoghurt, so I am always careful to keep a couple of tablespoons back to use as starter culture.

My home made yoghurt, complete with the layer of cream on top, courtesy of unhomogenised milk 

With the yoghurt perfected, it was round two with the shrikhand. This time I made sure to allow the yoghurt to strain in the fridge overnight, keeping a heavy weight over it. Sure enough, by the morning I was left with strained yoghurt that had an almost solid consistency. To this I added saffron rock candy that I had found at an Iranian shop nearby (nabat), and cardamom. I mixed it well, trying to whip some air into it, and finally sprinkled ground almonds and pistachios on top. And then to taste…

Yes! I found myself back in Gujarat. 


(serves 2)


250g homemade yoghurt
2 – 4 Tbls icing sugar, or ground rock candy
3 – 5 cardamom pods, seeds removed and ground to a powder
Pinch of saffron
2 Tbls pistachios, ground to a powder
2 Tbls almonds, ground to a powder

·        Pour the yoghurt into a colander lined with muslin and pull up the sides of the cloth to tie into a tight bundle. Place the colander over a bowl. A plate can be placed on top with a weight, such as a pestle and mortar or a can of chopped tomatoes. Alternatively, the bundle can be hung and suspended over a bowl, as is the traditional method.

·        Allow the yoghurt to strain for a good few hours in the fridge, or overnight, until all the liquid has been drained. Squeeze tightly before use.

·        Put the strained yoghurt into a bowl and add the powdered sugar and spices. Mix well, whipping gently for a few minutes.

·        Taste and adjust the sugar if required.

·        Before serving, sprinkle with ground nuts and dried rose petals. Dried and fresh fruits can also be stirred into the shrikhand for flavour and texture.

NB: The drained liquid whey does not need to be thrown away, and can be used in soups, cooking, and especially in baking and bread making.

My own perfected Shrikhand