Chana masala – rain food


What’s this?

As I write this post it’s raining in Melbourne, so it seems appropriate to talk about this classic north Indian dish of chana (or chole) masala – spicy chickpeas.

I bought this snack from a little covered stall in the market place, already ankle-deep in water, whilst I was waiting for a down-pour of monsoonal rain to pass one afternoon in Rajasthan in August. Somebody told me that it’s ‘rain food’ which I think is a lovely expression – meaning food that’s particularly delicious to eat when it’s raining (although chana masala‘s available any time of year).

What’s in chana masala? Chickpeas are the main ingredient, of course, and they’re cooked in a gravy made from red onion, garlic, green chilli, ginger and tomato, as well as coriander, turmeric, cumin, garam masala (hot spices), red chilli powder, black pepper and salt. Like many dishes, exactly what’s in chana masala depends on who’s cooking it. At its most delicious, I think, is when chana masala is served with puri, a deep-fried bread. Yum!

Have you noticed the plate that my chana masala is served in? I think it’s a patravali, a plate made from the large leaves of the sal tree, a tree native to the Indian subcontinent. Tiny wooden sticks are used to hold the plate together when they’re made by hand, although they’re also made by machine. The plates are completely biodegradable! 

Where’s this?

Pushkar, Rajasthan


Remnants of bandhani – a tie-dye textile technique

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What’s this?

These tiny spirals of brightly dyed cotton thread lie on the ground outside many a bandhani fabric shop in India. Bandhani (derived from the Sanskrit word banda, meaning ‘to tie’) is a very old tie-dye textile technique used to produce patterned fabric in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Punjab in northern India and in Tamil Nadu in the south. In order to create bandhani fabric, tiny sections of the fabric are plucked up by the fingers and bound tightly with cotton thread. When the fabric is dyed, the portions of fabric bound by thread is left untouched and so a contrasting colour is left behind. The tying, often done by highly-skilled women, creates patterns of dots that is detailed and intricate. I just love it.

When you buy bandhani fabric, it’s presented to you still scrunched up from the tying and dying process, to show that it’s authentic bandhani and not a printed version. To remove the cotton thread, often many metres worth, pull the fabric apart. Many of the tiny cotton bundles will spring off by themselves while the others need to be picked off by hand. The fabric then needs to be ironed flat before being sewn into a garment.

Earlier this year I bought three pieces of bandhani fabric from Hathipole Market in Udaipur, ready (except for the previously mentioned thread removal process) to be made into a lovely salwar kameez (the beautiful trouser and tunic combination worn with a long scarf by so many people in the Indian subcontinent) by a tailor. The original fabric was white when it was tied and then dyed red with a portion of it dipped in black, so the resulting fabric is red and black with a pattern of white dots. I wore my new salwar kameez with its accompanying dupatta (long scarf) to a performance of Indian music in my city of Melbourne and two young Indian women told me that I looked beautiful! I was absolutely thrilled!  

Where’s this?

Hathipole Market, Udaipur, Rajasthan

Samosa – the ultimate snack


What’s this?

Ah, the samosa – it’s everywhere in India! This golden deep-fried pastry filled with deliciousness, and often served with a tamarind or green sauce (mint or coriander chutney) or a green chili at the very least, is eaten standing up at a roadside stall, from a highway dhaba, in a friend or relative’s house, or after being quickly shoved through the bars of a moving train’s window by a platform-side samosa vendor who’s jogging along side the train to collect his payment. I’m sure that not a second goes by in India when someone is not eating a samosa!

So what’s inside a samosa? The samosa is the kind of food item that can vary according to who’s making it and where it’s being made. I’m a vegetarian, so the ones I’ve eaten have generally contained a mixture of mashed potato, onion, green chili and spices. They can also contain meat, fish, cheese, dried fruit or nuts, and can even be dipped in sugar syrup! I’m yet to eat a cheesy-fruity-nutty-sugary samosa, but I want to!   

The samosa, under different guises, has been around since the 10th century, and is likely to have come from the Middle East. It was probably brought to India in the 13th or 14th century by traders from Central Asia, and is now eaten, in one form or another, in many countries all over the world. Yum!   

Where’s this?

This classic samosa-chai combination was my breakfast one day in Mandu, Madhya Pradesh

Toddy – Kerala’s palm wine


What’s this?

Once containing mineral water, these bottles now hold left-over palm wine, or toddy, a mildly alcoholic drink made from fermented palm sap. Sap from palmyra or date palms can also be used to make it, but I drank it in Kerala where the ubiquitous coconut is the palm of choice.

Palm wine is drunk in many places around the world in Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean, but it’s mostly consumed in India in the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, and is also referred to as kallu.

Toddy is made by cutting into the stem of the palm and collecting its sap.  When first collected, the sap is a very sweet and non-alcoholic liquid, to which a little lime juice can be added to stop it fermenting, which it otherwise does as soon as it’s exposed to air. This is served as a drink called neera. Within 2 hours the sap will have fermented to the point where it has an alcohol content of about 4 per cent, which increases during the day as fermentation continues. Toddy is usually drunk before evening, by which time the morning-harvested sap will have acquired a sour, acidic, vinegary taste. 

I drank toddy with some Keralan friends.  We drove from my friend’s home in Kozencherry, hired a motorised canoe with a driver and a sun-roof, and cruised up and down the canals near Alappuzha, whilst eating snacks, taking photos of each other and generally having a lot of fun. We pulled up to a canal-side toddy shop (a basic little shack with shaded tables for eating) and ordered regular toddy-accompanying Keralan food made up of curries of duck, fried fish and kakka (a small clam), served with tapioca, a potato-like root vegetable. We ordered something vegetarian for me too, but I had a few mouthfuls of the duck, the fish and the kakka curries, just to see what they were like. It’s very rare that I put my vegetarianism aside, and unfortunately I paid for it. In the car home I started to feel not quite right, but I put it down to the heat and car sickness. When we got back to Kozencherry it became very clear to me that the food I had eaten needed to leave my body! My friends held my hair and rubbed my back whilst I vomited in my friend’s front garden… Mrs Dharmajan gave her son quite a dressing-down for taking me to such a questionable and local eatery.

Do I like toddy? No, not really. I don’t really like coconut juice or water either, although I’d be happy to drink coconut cream out of a can with a straw. I got through a glass, but that’s enough for me!      

Where’s this?

Alappuzha, also known as Alleppey, in Kerala


The swastika – as it was intended


What’s this?

This familiar symbol is very well-known… for one reason or another.  Depending on where you’re from you might immediately think of fascism and Nazi Germany when looking at this photo, although recognise that the symbol pictured here isn’t quite the same as the similar black symbol, tilted to the right, that was adopted by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.  

The sacred symbol pictured above is the swastika (a Sanskrit word), an ancient sign of peace, well-being and good luck that originates from the Indian subcontinent and the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.  It dates back nearly 11,000 years.  

Of course, it wasn’t a symbol of good luck and well-being for Europe’s Jewish population during World War 2, of which 6 million were murdered under Hitler’s regime. Extremely ironically, given its peaceful origins, it then became a lasting symbol of repression, fear, horror and genocide. In his autobiographical book of 1925, Mein Kampf,  Hitler wrote “as National Socialists, we see our program in our flag. In red, we see the social idea of the movement; in white, the nationalistic idea; in the swastika, the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work.” Personally, I can’t understand how Hitler could think that a single race is more superior than others, and I can’t understand how he could possibly see the peaceful swastika as a symbol of that idea!

In 2005 and 2007, attempts were made in the European Union to have the swastika banned but they were stopped by Hindu groups in Europe. What a difficult issue! On one hand the symbol (or, I should say, it’s appropriation) is one of horror for millions of people, yet on the other hand, it’s a symbol of peace for millions of others.  Personally, I think the real symbol should be ‘reclaimed’ in the name of peace whilst looking ahead to the future, whilst acknowledging its awful appropriation and misuse in the past. 

Given the horrible post-World War 2 associations with the swastika, whilst researching for this post I was fascinated to see an image of a British wedding dress from 1910 that had the swastika embroidered on its lace for good luck. And look at this link for other examples of pre-World War 2 uses of the symbol: vintage swastikas – including Coca Cola!!

What are your thoughts on the swastika?

Where’s this?

Gwalior Fort, built in the 8th century in Gwalior, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh 


Art in Cochin – the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

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What’s this?

Today is the last day of the 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, an international contemporary art exhibition (the first of its kind in India) in Fort Kochi, Kerala. It is the festival’s third edition, and opened on 12 December 2016. I took this photograph of a sign outside one of the venues, the beautiful Aspinwall House. The type-face used indicates the highly contemporary nature of the biennale. The language you see written below the English is Malayalam, the official language of the state of Kerala – it’s such a lovely script, I think, so soft and round and curly. 

I’d first visited the Fort Kochi area five years ago and described parts of it as the Indian version of my local area of Carlton, a genteel suburb of Melbourne with attractive tree and boutique-lined streets and expensive old houses. It’s a lovely place to wander around.

I was very happy that my second visit to Fort Kochi coincided with the Biennale, which I’d admired from Australia on Facebook. I spent the day wandering from design shops to exhibitions of both contemporary Indian and international artists, displayed in art galleries and beautiful old buildings with creaky wooden floors and white-washed walls.

In addition to the many Western tourists in the area, there were lots of very arty looking Indian tourists around too – women in expensive-looking hand-loom kurtas, elegantly dressed men carrying novels and groups of art students busy with sketch books and cameras.

Where’s this?

Fort Kochi, Kochi (also known as Cochin), Kerala.

Whilst Kochi is a major, modern-day port city of the state of Kerala, Muziris (as referred to in the Biennale’s title) was its historical counter-part, established somewhere in the Kochi area (its exact location isn’t known) during the 1st century BC. 

Perhaps it’s appropriate that such a contemporary international art exhibition be held in Kerala, India’s most progressive state in terms of social welfare and quality of life. It has an extremely high literacy rate, and also India’s lowest infant mortality and highest life expectancy rates, amongst many other admirable qualities – such as India’s first school for transgendered people and the provision of free wifi for everyone (coming soon!).

Holi moly! Repost with image

What’s this?

I’m sorry everyone – it seems that when I posted this entry yesterday I did so without an image. Here is my post again – this time in colour!

Today, March 13th, is Holi in India and by this time these coloured powders will have been thrown at anyone (or any animal) that was within throwing distance.

Holi is a festival to celebrate the beginning of spring and the triumph of good over evil. It’s a day to forgive and forget, to make amends, and to also have lots of fun with your friends and family!

Actually, at least in Rajasthan where I’ve experienced Holi several times, today is the second day of Holi, Rangwali (rang means colour in Hindi). Yesterday, on the full moon, was Holika Dahan or Chhoti Holi (little Holi). Holika Dahan refers to the burning of the evil witch Holika. On the eve of Holi, on Holika Dahan, people make bonfires outside their homes and in the street to celebrate the triumph of good over evil and to symbolically burn their own internal evils.

Today is the day that has become famous all over the world as the festival of colours. In the weeks leading up to Holi, vendors everywhere sell coloured powders, and others sell water guns to those people that would rather shoot coloured water than throw coloured powder. The morning is a free-for-all. If you step outside, you WILL be covered in colour, one way or another – there’s no escaping it!

In the afternoon an unspoken cease-fire is declared, and people visit their friends and family to eat, drink and relax… often in a fresh set of clothes.

Where’s this?

Pushkar, Rajasthan

The two times that I’ve experienced Holi in India have been in Pushkar, and to be honest I’ve haven’t enjoyed it, well not the morning at least. My eyes are sensitive and getting powder in them, which is unavoidable, irritates and hurts! And the music of choice is techno, which I really don’t like. Pushkar is well-known for Holi and a lot of Western tourists converge on the town for what seems to be a colour-powdered rave that I think perhaps is fueled by more than just bhang (an edible form of cannabis often mixed with yoghurt and sugar to make a greenish but surprisingly tasty lassi). It’s not for me.

Holi is a lot of fun for a lot of people but there are some downsides. Often the coloured powders sold are synthetic and toxic, causing not just irritated human eyes but also sickness in the animals who try to lick themselves clean after having been bombarded with it.

Unfortunately I’ve also heard many very unpleasant stories about the enormous degree to which Indian woman are subjected to having their breasts and buttocks grabbed by men in the name of a bit of Holi fun. Being touched (groped) like this can be extremely distressing and humiliating for women who are targeted.