Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘Food’

253. Food, Bremen-style

In 2010s, Food, places, Stories, travel on April 7, 2014 at 6:32 pm

FI’m so full that I can hardly bear to sit down and write an entry on food, but I have no choice: today’s letter demands it. I totter over to a low divan and recline against a pile of pillows like a denizen of ancient Rome, sipping herbal “detox” tea, with my laptop on my outstretched legs.

German food, as eaten in this North German city of Bremen, is my subject for today, a story I will tell through pictures with a minimum of accompanying text, sapped as my energy is following a blow-out meal, with all the blood rushing to my stomach.

We haven’t necessarily been eating typical German food, at least, not all the time, because for one thing my friend and host is on a diet and avoiding bread and sweets and for another, we both love fresh fruit and vegetables. Nevertheless, she knows that it’s my first time in Germany and wants to make sure that I have the full experience. The bounty overflows from the shelves and baskets of every local supermarket, fruit and vegetable stand, and delicatessen. So much of it, and in so much variety, that it can be overwhelming just to look at. But I have a strong stomach and take pride in being a good trencherwoman, so I am trying my best to do justice to the task. Forgive me if I don’t have the energy for cross/trans-cultural commentary today, but I have to conserve my energy so as to be equal to the next meal. Depicted below are just a few of the foods and dishes that seem to be specialties, some of Germany at large, others of this particular region.

Note to vegetarians: I will try not to offend your sensibilities with too many pictures of meat, but please be forewarned that meat is a staple of German diet—and especially here in the North, so is fish.

Bread and Beer

0,,16472415_404,00German bread, even the white bread, is dense and substantial—a real staple—not the fluff that the Wonderbread generation got used to in the United States. This is a loaf topped with pumpkin seeds that we picked up at the local supermarket. It goes down well with cheese, accompanied by that other German speciality, beer. My host was shocked to see that I hadn’t chosen to photograph a local brand, especially when the globally-known Beck’s beer is brewed right here in Bremen, so I am inserting another photograph to make up for my lapse.


I have never seen so many varieties of cheese before. This bewildering array was photographed in a supermarket, never mind a delicatessen or cheese shop. (Bio, by the way, means organic.)


Meat (especially salami)


I am no expert in this department, so I’ll just let a couple of photos do the talking.



Here I’ll mention a few regional specialties that I have tasted: Heringsalat (shown at top right made with beets), and Nordseekrabben, described as a kind of brown shrimp, but which my friend insists is not shrimp. Whatever it is, it’s delicious. And then there are tasty little sprotten, or sprats, one of which I had for lunch today. (Remember the “kegs of salted sprats” in The Pied Piper of Hamelin?)




Milk, buttermilk, and yoghurt

Leaving the meats with a sigh of relief, we return to the dairy products. The shelves are laden with a staggering variety of milks, buttermilks, yogurts, kefirs, and more.


White asparagus (spargel) and new potatoes



There was a stand outside the supermarket, selling new potatoes and a strange-looking vegetable I couldn’t identify. My friend told me that the short spargel season was just beginning and that I had a treat in store. Apparently spargel or carefully cultivated white asparagus, served with lavishly buttered new potatoes, among other things, is eaten ceremonially each year to herald Spring.


Germans are coffee drinkers, although decent tea can be found here, particularly in Bremen, which is home to Tee-Handels-Kontor,  the oldest tea importers in Germany. Here’s a photo of our after-lunch espressos, served in my friend’s mother’s beautiful espresso cups.



There are two important chocolatiers in Bremen, one of which is Hachez. The chocolate displays in this city go on for aisles and aisles, especially at Eastertime, so here is a stack of Kinder eggs, world-famous for the ingenious little toys that children find inside and assemble for themselves, and a Hachez chocolate bearing an illustration of The Bremen Town Musicians, a Grimm’s fairytale beloved in this city for obvious reasons.  Milka is another German chocolate I’ve fallen in love with, particularly because in the U.S. these days everyone seems to think that dark chocolate is superior, and I’ve always secretly preferred milk.



After each meal I am certain that I will never be able to eat another morsel ever again;
until I am tempted by just one more piece of chocolate.


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121. The Taste of Home

In Family, Food, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on August 23, 2011 at 10:59 am

Living as we do outside both the countries where we and our parents were born and which most of our extended family still call home, we miss out on most of the rites of passage that punctuate and solemnize the important stages of life, especially births, marriages, anniversaries, and deaths. In all the forty-plus years that we have lived in the United States, I have been able to attend only two family weddings in England and one in India. Particularly in India, these are the occasions that bring the entire family together, even those who don’t see each from one year to the next.  Of course we have celebrated joyous occasions right here in the States, notably my son’s name ceremony, my sister’s wedding, and my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. I was never much for ritual anyway, having got married in a registry office, in the tradition of my parents before me. But when a close family member dies thousands of miles across the world, we feel the loss all the more keenly because we cannot participate with the family in the rites that mark the dear one’s passing.

Each in his or her own way, my parents had to learn to live with that separation from their families. Both of them received the news of the deaths of parents and siblings in a distant country, after they were already gone. In large part it was the pain of this separation that spurred me to make regular travel to India and England a priority in my adult life. This is much more of a possibility for me than it was for my parents before international travel was easy or affordable for the middle classes. With inexpensive calling plans, e-mail, and social media like Facebook, I can also keep in touch on a daily basis in a way that was impossible for them in earlier years. But still, when death strikes and we are oceans and continents away, there is a feeling of desolation that cannot be reached by virtual communication. At such times, I find, words do not help. Only coming together in person can possibly offer any comfort.

courtesy of Jyotsna Shahane at

courtesy of Jyotsna Shahane at

It is here that besan laddus come in, those golden, golf-ball-sized, melt-in-your-mouth Indian sweets, made of toasted chickpea flour, confectioner’s sugar, shredded coconut, and pure butter. My father has never been a fan of sweets, but besan laddus are different: they are the taste of home. Some years ago, after we had received the news of a death in his family,  I found myself making a batch and taking it over to my parents’ house. I offered them silently, with a hug, and we sat with them over a cup of tea and reminisced about the dear departed one.  Since then I have started making them about once a year at Christmas, and on sad occasions when nothing else will suffice.

A few days ago I received the terrible news of the death of my cousin Raja. Raja-dada was my eldest cousin on my father’s side, the first-born son of Dad’s eldest sister, my Tai-atya. Like all his siblings, he was born in our recently-sold family home in Ratnagiri, his mother traveling home to be with her own mother for the birth. At that time my father’s youngest sister Manda was only ten years old, so Raja, at ten years older than me, was a kind of bridge between the generations. His daughter Pooja—now a mother herself—was born in the same year as Nikhil.

My father has always held a very soft spot in his heart for his sister, Raja dada’s mother who also passed away too soon, and for all four of her children. I knew that the news would be very sad for him, and dreaded having to be the one to break it to him. So I made a batch of besan laddus and took it over to my parents’ house, where we sat quietly over tea and remembered dear Raja-dada. I showed my father the photographs from our most recent visit with Raja-dada in 2008 and gave him the blessed news of Pooja’s first-born son. And as I pushed the heavy stainless-steel container toward him, my heart leapt as he opened it and said, “besan laddus—my favorite.”

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114. Food for People, Not for Profit

In 1970s, 1980s, Food, Politics, Stories, United States, Work on June 28, 2011 at 11:25 pm

artwork by Jim Turner

After the turbulent decade of the 1960’s in the United States, political activism moved from the streets into the kitchens of the generation then entering their twenties and thirties. In the 1970s consumer food cooperatives sprouted up in communities all across America, both weekly pre-order co-ops, where foods bought in bulk were broken down and picked up in different members’ homes in turn, and storefront co-ops, where members who worked in the store a certain number of hours received their food at cheaper prices than did people who walked in off the street.


Not everyone joined a food co-op for the same reasons. The lowest common denominator was the lower cost to the consumer achieved by cutting out the middleman. As long as people were willing or able to contribute a few hours of labor every so often they could receive high-quality foods for wholesale prices. For many, the most important reason for participation was the access to high-quality organic, or at least, minimally processed foods at affordable prices. The 1970’s saw a heightened awareness of the replacement of small, local farms by giant agribusinesses and the mass production of processed foods stuffed with artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. The 70’s were the era of vegan and macrobiotic diets, soy proteins, and Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet. Instead of the anti-war slogans of the 60’s, young people were plastering their car bumpers with stickers asking archly, Have You Washed Your Tofu Today?

Many people were becoming vegetarians and eating lower on the food chain, not only for health reasons but because they were aware that people in the U.S. were consuming many times more than their fair share of the world’s resources while others went hungry. They joined food cooperatives in order to live the change they wanted to bring about in the world. The popular food co-op slogan, “Food for People, Not for Profit,” expressed their values. They wanted to develop models of cooperation, not competition: collectively owned worker-controlled businesses and consumer food, energy, and housing cooperatives. They were aware that many of yesterday’s activists had become today’s health food fanatics, and were concerned the cooperative movement would soon lose its political edge. One poster that expressed this concern with humor read, “While you’re eating your organic raisins, remember: you still have to smash the state.” Food Not Bombs, founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1980, rejected yuppie complacency, delivering free food to people who couldn’t afford to buy it no matter how cheap it was.

I participated in my first food cooperative in 1975 as a member of a co-op house in college, where we saved considerable amounts of money on rent in the university-owned house by contributing our labor to house-cleaning and home improvements and on board by doing our own cooking and joining a food cooperative as a group. I didn’t participate in picking up the co-op’s food because I soon learned that if I volunteered to cook dinner for forty once a week,  I would never have to do the more unpleasant chores like cleaning the bathrooms. But life in that co-op house requires a story of its own.


My first experience as an active member of a pre-order food co-op was in the West Concord Food and Friendship Co-op. Every week we picked up our orders of whole grains, nuts, oils, dried fruits, seeds, tofu, yogurt, cheese, and peanut butter, bringing our own re-used quart and gallon jars and plastic containers. When it was our turn to place and break down the order we collated all the previous week’s orders, placed the order with NEFCO, the New England Federation of Cooperatives, and then divided up the bulk goods into boxes for each member. The food was first rate: gallon jars of organic yogurt with the cream on top, vats of tofu in pound blocks bought directly from Boston’s Chinatown, and 10-pound blocks of sharp cheddar cheese from the Cabot diary cooperative in Vermont—for we purchased from producer cooperatives whenever possible.

WCF&F Co-op lived up to its name: we looked forward to meeting our fellow co-opers at the pick-ups as much as we did to taking the food home with us. One member, a recently widowed mother of three small children, baked bread every week and brought the loaves to the pick-up, fresh from the oven and often still warm. We shared recipes, announced events, found new housemates, and forged lasting friendships, turning the weekly chore of food shopping into a pleasurable activity that fostered community.

I have been audited by the Internal Revenue Service only once in my life and, curiously, it was during the period of my life when I was making less money than I had ever made before or have since. When it came time for my appointment I dutifully hauled all my year’s receipts into the office and went over them with the auditor for more than an hour. What amazed him the most were how little we lived on. He asked suspiciously how our utility and food bills could be so low. I replied (smugly, I must admit) that we cooked and heated with wood which we split ourselves and that we bought our food wholesale from a pre-order food co-op. It was gratifying to see how impressed and chastened he was. In the end, he apologized to me for having audited me in error.

When we moved into the Boston area we first joined the Boston Food Co-op store and then a pre-order food co-op in Somerville. We became even more involved in co-ops when Andrew and his brother Dan started driving a truck for NEFCO and I was hired to edit and produce Food for Thought, the federation’s monthly newsletter. Editing FfT was itself a cooperative undertaking through which I came to rely on a team of friends and family to write, illustrate and lay out each issue, came to know more about all the member cooperatives in the New England region, both pre-orders and storefront, and learned the basic principles on which all cooperatives are founded.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s my Bangladeshi friend Hayat was a member of the Cambridge Food Cooperative in Central Square. As a young mother, Hayat made a large, batch of labor-intensive samosas every week, those mouth-watering deep-fried cones of wheat-flour pastry filled with spicy potatoes and peas, and sold them at the co-op. They were highly popular and went like hot cakes, though the other co-op members regularly confused them with the family whose hereditary dictatorship had just been overthrown by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Over the years, food co-op membership has been eroded by large natural food chains like Whole Foods that replaced low prices with convenience and replaced community-building with mere shopping. Nevertheless, storefront co-ops continue to thrive across the country, and pre-order co-ops may be making a comeback along with organic farming and community-supported agriculture, as energy costs skyrocket yet again and a new generation of green activists seeks to take back control from the food industry.

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110. The Party

In 1970s, Britain, Food, Music, Stories on May 15, 2011 at 1:28 am

London, early summer, 1974: It was the first party I had ever thrown. My parents had always thrown parties, lively, generous ones with music and dancing and lots of food and drink. At least, they danced in Greece; in the United States, where, to my mother’s disappointment, people their age didn’t dance at parties, they heaped the dining table with enough to feed the guests for a week, served tray upon tray of savory delicacies, and talked animatedly late into the night. When we were children my mother would organize birthday parties for us that our friends remembered for years afterwards, complete with treasure hunts and games like Squeak Piggy Squeak and jeweled jellies wobbling on the plate. Now I was nineteen and all winter and spring I had been living entirely by myself for the first time in a posh studio flat on Albert Street, in the gentrified part of Camden Town. I had promised friends and family alike that before I went back to America I would give a party, and so after my exams were over I set a date and started making preparations.

First I went down to the Friday street market off the Camden High Street, bought pounds of pink, glistening prawns off a man at one of the stalls, and brought them home wrapped in newspaper. Then I procured rice and peas, potatoes and tomatoes, onions, cashews, and raisins and made sure that I had a good stock of spices: cinnamon and cloves, cardamom and coriander, fresh ginger and garlic. Using the recipes for prawn curry and pullao rice that Mum had written out for me before I left for my year in England, I made a huge batch of each, following her instructions to the letter.

I had invited a diverse crowd, including my friend Barbara and her parents Bob and Ruby, our neighbors from the year I had attended high school in the suburbs of Hertfordshire; Cliff and Dot, some of our oldest and dearest family friends, through whom my parents had met; James and Anna, my avant-garde film-maker landlord and his lovely, extroverted wife—an intelligent woman with a certain dizzy, distracted air whom everyone fell in love with; and an assortment of aunts, uncles, and cousins, even those who weren’t normally on speaking terms with each other, since ours was a close-knit family who loved to feud. I was a little apprehensive about how they would all get on, England being a highly stratified society where people of different classes might live cheek by jowl but would never meet or mingle socially.  But because we were the only branch of my mother’s side of the family who lived out of the country we remained close with almost everyone (I say almost, because even my mother, the peacemaker of the family, was not altogether free of the feuding instinct). But I set my fears aside and instead concentrated on laying on enough food that there would be no risk of anyone going hungry and concocting a prawn curry that would make everybody forget their differences.

The day of the party dawned and preparations went into full swing. My cousin Jacky, who was in medical school up in Liverpool, arrived first. My Uncle Ted, her father, had kept us apart as much as possible, afraid that I, living alone as an occasional student in the big, bad city, might be a bad influence on her, but she disengaged herself from her studies for a weekend and threw herself into cleaning and clearing, utterly disarming my usually taciturn landlord with her openness and charming naiveté.  I changed into my party dress,  a sea-green, clingy cotton-knit nightgown I had just bought from Biba, the fashion emporium on Kensington High Street that I thought the height of sophistication. (Biba was far too expensive for me, but fortunately  I was small enough to shop in the children’s department, which sold the same designs for a fraction of the price.) Finally the guests began arriving, dressed to the nines (especially Auntie Bette) and bearing food and drinks that soon crammed my small fridge and overflowed onto every surface in the small flat, turning my prawn curry and rice into a huge, multi-course feast.

I needn’t have worried about the guest list; soon everyone had shed their coats and their inhibitions, and were all talking at once, huddled on my single-bed-cum-divan having heart-to-hearts, swaying and singing and eating together, filling the kitchen and spilling out into the front hall. The older generation were tolerant and expansive, remembering fondly their Bohemian parties with my parents before my sister and I were born; my relatives flirted with my landlords and my landlords flirted right back. Mothers and daughters chatted and giggled, uncles refilled mugs of beer, and everybody lost count of their helpings of prawn curry, telling me that I had outdone myself and that this batch was every bit as good as my mother’s.

We had music, of course, though I can’t quite remember what we played or who provided the sound system. What we must have sung: surely (Wa-wa-wa-wa) Waterloo, the song by the new Swedish band ABBA that had just won the Eurovision Song Contest a few months before, and some of the older favorites, like Mary Hopkin’s nostalgic Those Were the Days and the Beatles’ mantra-like Hey Jude. I imagine that at a certain point in the festivities the older generation reverted to Cockney rhyming slang and old numbers like (Come, come, come and make eyes at me) Down at the Old Bull and Bush; and I’d like to think that Auntie Bette finally penetrated James’ reserve and showed him how to get up on a table and have a good old knees-up.

At some point the noise, the excitement and, eventually, the fatigue, must have overwhelmed me. I remember only vaguely the first of the guests calling out their goodbyes, and the next thing I knew I was waking up in broad daylight to an empty flat that looked as if a tornado had passed through it. I roused myself with an effort and surveyed the damage. The prawn curry had been completely polished off, but there was still a good quantity of pullao rice and peas left over in my biggest saucepan.  As I cleaned up, a few spoonfuls of it right out of the pot were a instant cure for my morning-after grogginess. (Ever since, a large pot of pullao rice has been a staple at all my parties.)

My tall, handsome cousin Billy came by a little while later that morning and took me out to a full English Sunday dinner at a local pub where, despite the feasting of the night before, my appetite was fully restored the moment I laid eyes on the crisp brown roast potatoes and the delectable Yorkshire pudding. The night before, Billy and his younger sister, my dear cousin Sue—who had been legendary dance partners as teenagers—had jived together, to perfection. My memory of the meal with him is bittersweet, though, because soon afterwards he had a falling-out with the rest of the family and I haven’t seen him since the weekend of that mythic party.

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92. Cookbooks, Immigrants, and Improvisation

In 1970s, 1980s, Books, Family, Food, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on January 21, 2011 at 5:05 pm

When we were new immigrants back in the 1970s, every time someone commented on my besan (chickpea flour) laddus, my father got a kick out of saying, with a mischievous grin, “the recipe is from the Hare Krsna Cookbook!” He knew that he was disappointing their expectation that it was a time-honored family recipe passed down through the generations,  suggesting instead that we Indians in America could actually learn something about Indian cookery from those bald-headed, saffron-robed, anemic, and thoroughly inauthentic-looking youths who danced ecstatically in Harvard Square. But after all, anyone can learn a national cuisine, just as anyone can lay claim to a religious tradition: it’s not restricted to people who inherited it genetically. Rather than regarding the devotees with bewilderment and derision as many Indians did at the time, Dad would look at them with indulgence and even delight.

It would seem that the Hare-Krsna-ites made up for their self-denial in other areas of life with sugar: all their recipes contained what seemed to us excessive quantities of it. I regularly halved both the amount of sugar and of butter they called for, and the final product didn’t seem to suffer in the least.

There wasn’t the plethora of  Indian grocery stores, restaurants, and cookbooks that abounds today. I remember my delight when, at a book fair, I found Dharamjit Singh’s Indian Cookery, in the Penguin booth and bore it home like a trophy. It immediately became a family standby (Dad dubbing it “the Sardar-ji cookbook”), and I will forever be grateful to Mr. Singh for his chickpea curry (chhole) recipe, which has become my signature dish, and which I make in large quantities for every party, along with a huge pot of pullao rice.

In the early Seventies Andrew became a vegetarian and, inspired by his example, I did too. At first he simply got thinner and thinner, not having grown up in a vegetarian household and not yet knowing how to cook balanced vegetarian meals. I was no help because I hadn’t yet learned to cook at all, and when, as a college student, I started turning my back on non-veg (as they call it in India), the only options left to me in the dorm cafeteria were salad and cottage cheese. It was then that Anna Thomas came out with The Vegetarian Epicure. My parents presented it to Andrew for Christmas in 1974, and we seized upon it with zeal. The Veg-Ep, as we soon began calling it, was the first of that new era of cookbooks which were far more than just bare-bones recipes—they were also warm, engaging stories, vehicles for culture and family lore. We in turn made her recipes our own and over the years they have been woven into our family stories.

Or at least, versions of them have been. The Veg-Ep came out in the days before concerns about cholesterol and  heart disease, and its recipes are loaded with butter and eggs, which we have cut down drastically. I see that Thomas has now come out with The New Vegetarian Epicure, and I expect that she has brought it up to date in that department. But we are deeply attached to the old one, and treasure every one of its tattered, butter-soaked pages, many of which have fallen out and some of which lean permanently against the wall on our kitchen counter.

In 1981 the multi-talented Madhur Jaffrey produced World of the East Vegetarian Cooking, a narrative-style cookbook modeled on the Veg-Ep down to its square format, and one that met our twin needs for both Indian and vegetarian recipes. Better still, it did not even try to be authentic, but rather celebrated hybridity long before fusion was a culinary buzzword. I have nothing to support the claim, but it may have been the first Pan-Asian cookbook. It soon became another family favorite, and I can honestly say that not a single recipe I have tried from it has been a dud. Following the recipe to the letter, I was finally successful in making dosas, the only takeout food that we ever ate back in India.

Although we were comfortably middle-class and certainly never went hungry, food was rationed in India in the 1960s and many ingredients were simply unavailable; our mother always had to improvise. Wherever we moved she carried with her as her guides an old Penguin handbook, English Cookery, along with a British rationing cookbook published during the War that offered valuable advice on how to use substitutes in times of scarcity. With these books, the Siemens electric oven we had managed to carry back with us from Greece, our meagre ration of maida (white flour), and a lot of ingenuity, Mum produced billowing Yorkshire puddings, fluffy sponges, and currant-filled fairy cakes along with the daily staples of rice, dal, and mutton curry.

Having lived either abroad or on the other side of India for most of his adult life, Dad had never had the chance to learn his home cooking, until he returned to Maharashtra in 1976 for the first time since he had left India in the late Sixties.  While there, he made it a point to pick up a Marathi cookbook, and when he came home he made a systematic study of it, ordering everybody out of the kitchen while he worked (and, Mum complained, using up every pot and utensil in it as well), and producing all the characteristic tastes of home. Not to be outdone, I found an English Delights from Maharashtra (Aroona Reejsinghani, Jaico Books) at India Tea and Spices in Cushing Square, Belmont (one of the first Indian grocery stores in the Boston area), and set about making poha, pithale, and other regional specialties. I managed to whip up a fair approximation of the real thing, though Dad’s chapattis were always perfectly round while mine were invariably misshapen.

Both my parents, especially Mum, had grown up with scarcity and habits of thrift, and they maintained those habits when they came to America. Coming to hang out at our house after school my friends, accustomed to raiding the kitchen for snack foods, were astonished to find the refrigerator and the cupboards bare (as they saw them)—no bags of potato chips, no packages of Hostess cupcakes, no jars of chocolate-chip cookies. At the time, we were apologetic, but from my parents’ perspective, we were well stocked, with the refrigerator full of fresh vegetables and half-gallon cartons of unadulterated milk and orange juice and the kitchen shelves loaded with five-pound bags of no-longer-rationed flour and sugar, glass jars filled with rice, lentils, and chick-pea flour from India Tea and Spices. It’s just that they had not yet learned the American habit of eating processed foods: they made everything from scratch. And though I may have been embarrassed at the time, I learned from them and, in our turn, Andrew and I grew our own food, joined food cooperatives to buy organic foods in bulk, and abhorred waste.

My parents may have been thrifty, but they certainly weren’t stingy. From them, I learned to throw parties where, in very unAmerican fashion, the tables groaned with generous quantities of home-cooked food that could have fed an army. No raw broccoli and sour-cream dip at my parents’ Christmas parties, but tray after steaming tray of Dad’s delectable samosas, crisp, spicy pakoras, huge pots of chicken curry served with fluffy white Basmati rice, coconut barfi (courtesy of The Hare Krsna Cookbook), and topped off with Mum’s annual pièce de résistance—two massive English trifles in deep glass dishes, layered with whipped cream, jam, custard, raspberries, and the lightest of light sponge cake, all steeped in sherry and the juices from the berries.

A typically immigrant anxiety about not having enough to go round always made both Mum and Dad take off two days from work before these parties and make twice the amount needed, so that Mum was inevitably exhausted before the party began and our guests counted on going home with large quantities of their favorite leftovers. For his part, Dad played the perfect host the whole time, pressing more food and drink on everyone without eating a crumb himself. When the last guest had left he would finally relax, make himself a large plate of food, and say, “Well, that went off well, didn’t it?” Forty years later, I would venture to say the same of our family’s move to the United States, with the help of a handful of cookbooks, a circle of friends, and a lot of improvisation.

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48. Jaggery Coconut, Nectar of the Gods

In 1960s, Childhood, Food, India, Stories on May 27, 2010 at 4:02 pm

It was not until my sister and I were grown and out of the house that our father took up cooking in a systematic way, following the recipes in a Maharashtrian cookbook that he picked up on his first trip back to India, seven years after we had emigrated. By all accounts he had improvised to great acclaim during his bachelor years in England, and when we were growing up in Kharagpur he conducted occasional but memorable experiments with the fruits and vegetables he grew in our big home garden.

One concoction was bhel juice, which Dad mixed up in a large jar and presented to us as if it were nectar of the gods. (Bhel, also known in English as Bengali quince, I have learned since, is valued for its medicinal properties, particularly in treating constipation.) The juice looked promising, deep orange in color like mango juice, but turned out to be sour, watery, and without much flavor. Since Dad insisted that it was extremely good for the health and was evidently very pleased with it, we drank the tumblers he filled for us and made polite noises; but we didn’t ask for seconds.

A outstandingly successful experiment, and one that Dad carried out only once, did indeed produce nectar of the gods, a creation so delicious that it has assumed a near-mythical status in my mind. He took a green coconut, at a stage when it is still chock-full of water and the inner flesh a creamy pulp, cut through the outer husk, and drilled a small hole in the top. Then he poured in jaggery or gur, unrefined sugar that he must have pounded and melted on a low flame, sealed up the hole, and hung it in our dark pantry, safely out of reach of the ants. I don’t know how long it hung there, but we had forgotten all about it by the time he deemed that it was ready, lowered it ceremoniously, and broke it open.

Inside, it was like a geode. The coconut water had absorbed the jaggery and had itself been absorbed into the flesh of the coconut as it hardened, creating an indescribably delicious natural fudge of jaggery-imbued coconut meat. Dad passed it around in pieces and this time, he didn’t have to ask if we wanted more: we couldn’t get enough of it, and it was soon gone, leaving only a hallowed memory.

I have never heard of this preparation before or since, but perhaps it was something my grandmother used to make, since there is a large and prolific coconut palm growing outside the kitchen in Ratnagiri, which Dad says he used to climb as a boy. In preparing and serving us that wondrous coconut confection, he gave us an ancestral memory that has become part of us forever.

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22. Mushrooming and Berry-Picking

In 1970s, Stories, United States on March 16, 2010 at 11:39 am
photo courtesy of Dan Melnechuk

photo courtesy of Dan Melnechuk

My mother-in-law Anna was a forager par excellence as well as a gourmet cook.  She fed a family of six in style, making a little go a long way. Taught well by her own mother Pauline, who had come to America at fifteen from the Old Country (Ukraine, on the border of Belarus), she passed on the principles of mushrooming and berry-picking to her four children and later, to me.

A cardinal rule of foraging is that one must pick and prepare or preserve the food when one finds it. If, for example, one comes across a stand of  perfectly-ripe wild blackberries, one has to drop everything else and marshall all available forces in order to pick, eat, can, or freeze them before they go by. Another rule, and one that inexperienced pickers would do well to follow,  is that one should pick every single ripe berry on a plant, and pick and throw away any rotten or damaged ones. The tendency of the inexperienced picker is to go for the biggest, most perfect, and most prominent berries, but the true berry-picker must pick one plant clean before moving on to the next.

One of my mother-in-law’s specialities was wild fruit or berry brandy. Her wild cherry brandy, made with the fruit fermented in sugar and then steeped in pure Russian vodka, was kept in a gallon-jar in the pantry and known to “cure what ails you.” But it had to be taken only in the smallest of quantities when one was seriously  in need, like the life-giving cordial Aslan gives to Lucy in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

Where mushrooming was concerned, Anna was wisely conservative. She picked and cooked only a small number and variety of mushrooms, the ones she could certify as edible with complete confidence. I will not list them here because it is critically important that mushroom lore be passed on directly, from person to person, but I will tell a story of the coveted chicken mushroom.

If one knows when and where to look, boletes and russulas are a dime a dozen, although beating the worms, mice, and squirrels to them is a challenge. But the chicken mushroom, the glorious polyporous sulphureus, is a rare treat, found only once or twice a year.  It grows on the trunks of dying oaks, and usually appears in late summer or early fall following a lightning storm. Once it finds a hospitable tree, it is likely to return there, so one should make a mental note of the spot for the following year.

I remember my first chicken-mushroom experience, one late summer in the early seventies at White Pond. Andrew had found it, returned to the tree with a sharp knife, and brought it home triumphantly in a large brown-paper bag, all three pounds of it. It was a magnificent specimen,  creamsicle-colored on top and smooth, velvety and bright sulphur-yellow underneath, with dense, milky-white flesh, the texture of chicken breast. Anna began cleaning and preparing it immediately, and made several different dishes from it, each more delicious than the last.

Now, my father-in-law Ted was a fussy eater, and didn’t care for mushrooms. Nonetheless, the forager’s imperative dictated that not a speck of the precious chicken mushroom be allowed to go to waste. So Anna got to work on a special dish for dinner, and served it with a flourish.  Everyone but Ted was in on the secret. We waited with bated breath while he took his first bite, and then his second, and then cleared his plate. Asked how he had enjoyed the chicken cacciatore, he pronounced it delicious, and we all breathed a sigh of relief and shared winks around the table.

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