swat team

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Most electronically diffused mosquito repellents available in India tend to fill a room with cloying smells. One looks like a mouldy jalebi and scatters ash as it burns, making every eye within a ten metre radius water. Where I live the mosquitoes are particularly vicious. They’ve mutated into a large slow- flying species that makes its sting felt belatedly. By the time you feel the urge to swat they’ve settled on another limb and are gorging on seconds. Full length garments do not deter them. They exhibit an almost Victorian obsession with exposed slivers of skin- the delicate flesh of the wrist, the slender bump of the ankle, the soft bit of neck contained in your collar. Pain is being bitten between your fingers, and I would like to wish this- no worse fate- on an enemy.

I discovered Kama Ayurveda’s excellent insect deterrent spray several months ago. It comes in a handy 100 ml bottle and applies in a thin non-greasy film that holds and does its job for well over an hour. The strongly herbal smell is predominantly lemongrassy and takes a while to wear out, but I’m not complaining. The label suggests it’s safe to use on children and pregnant women, but it’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor before you douse a loved one with strange liquids. I’m thrilled with its efficacy, buy top-ups regularly and like to think of it as my personal trusty SWAT team. You can buy it at Kama Ayurveda’s stores, their online shop, or at Nykaa. I can’t vouch for it as a camping accessory, so if you’re heading for the great outdoors it’s safer to stick with your vile smelling cream of choice. For long hiking trips I prefer Odomos, which smells as terrible as it sounds but does its job fairly well and doesn’t need reapplication for several hours.

the essential internet/ 38

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Social media enabled confessional- style posts about daily struggles with mental health go hand in hand with the emergence of (what I like to call) therapy- lite, a constant stream of well meaning messages in pretty fonts. Most want us to ‘practice gratitude’ like it’s some hopelessly atrophied muscle. Does it work? Can actively practising gratitude get you to a calmer, happier place? I was both surprised and not surprised at the results of this examination

Still in love with this essay, even though I read it four years ago- Why Can’t A Smart Woman Love Fashion? 

Sometimes you think you’ve got it all figured out- life, goals, relationships, yourself. You’re so protective of your knowledge, your system, that you don’t leave any room for doubt or introspection. And then one day you wake up feeling, for no apparent reason, that everything’s wrong, that you never knew yourself that well after all. If you’re quietly going through a similar existential crisis, this account might help

If you loved Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette (Netflix), because how could you not and are hungry for more, she’s done a delightful, all-too-short series of art lectures called Renaissance Women (YouTube). Watch Venus On A Clam, Nativity Marshmallows and The Three Wise Men And Entourage. You’re welcome!

A beautiful song about the one that got away. Not clingily pining or self- pitying- just a detached, affectionate, grown- up wish for a former lover’s happiness. Nooran sisters Jyoti and Sultana are a force. I like to think of them as lady Nusrats, no- better Nusrats. Their grandmum Bibi Nooran was a singer too. Rooted in the sufi music traditions of Jalandhar, Punjab, the sisters sing in a sweeping, bellowing timbre that gathers all the air up into a room into a tight knot which then unspools slowly, only to go back and unspool, over and over again till you don’t remember when the song started, knowing only that you don’t want it to end

Image- Madhubala and Nargis in classic white shirts and trousers, one of my favorite looks for every season. It’s hard to tell from these grainy pictures if these are button- downs; did you know there’s two kinds, button- down and button -up? A button – up doesn’t have baby buttons at the collar to hold it down, a button- down does. There are two schools of thought on the best way to wear a white button-down. Some like it crisp and fitted, with overlarge collars. I prefer mine a smidge oversize and slouchy, in a relatively flexible material like cotton silk. Not too pressed, with a small soft collar. I own several in all shades of white- ivory, eggshell, stark- and light blue. I like to wear these tucked into dark trousers with paperbag waists (pleated at the front and short at the ankle), jeans ripped and shredded at the knee, black faux-leather pencil skirts or expansive floor-length cotton ghagras. I’ve shared this here before, but here’s my favorite video that teaches you how to cuff your shirtsleeves properly. (The relevant bit starts at 00:49) 

bhindi chips

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I first had these at my best friend Niharika’s lovely home. Her mum Khushnoor is the hostess with the mostest, a phenomenal woman who knows her way around everything that grows in a garden. Her lunch and dinner spreads are legendary. The food is always simple but powerfully nostalgia-inducing, the flavors fresh, authentic and clean. It’s the kind of simplicity that takes a lot of effort to achieve.

One day at a daal- and- rice lunch there was a small fragrant mountain of these sitting at the centre of the table, each crisp browned to perfection, all crackling texture and spicy deliciousness. I was too shy to ask for how she made them, but she mentioned the air fryer, and I immediately decided to buy one.

Reader, I haven’t regretted it. Not once.

I reverse-engineered the recipe a bit and Googled for snatches of wisdom; bhindi/ okra is notoriously difficult to tame. There are entire threads dedicated to eradicating its sliminess, and one darkly warns that nothing less than oil at flesh- melting temperatures will do. Luckily the air fryer’s heat settings enable efficient desiccation and the slime reduces to a pleasant umami that dissolves in your mouth with a puff of flavor.

Here’s how you make Bhindi Chips. I prefer mine with a garlicky dip.

What you need-

For the chips 

– An air fryer. I use a Philips analog. I’m thrilled with the performance and the possibilities

– A large paraat. It’s a flat-bottomed steel or copper vessel the size of a big gong, most often used to sift stones from industrial quantities of grain or lentils. If you don’t have one, a large aluminium kadhaai will do.

– A long wooden spoon

– 1 Kg bhindi. The longer and bigger the better, as with most things in life *cough*. This yields enough for 4. Even if some is left over, you can seal it off in a Tupperware; it’s even better cold and is best had with chai

– 2 lemons

– A fistful of besan (chickpea flour)

– Mustard oil, half a katori/ cup. I buy mine from FabIndia. It’s cold-pressed, has a great sharp taste and is safe to consume. Mustard oil is the most adulterated cooking medium in India. I regret this so much because I consume gallons, and buying pricey little bottles every few weeks feels wrong

– Spices- red chilli powder, dhaniya powder (coriander powder), aamchoor (powdered dried raw mango for a citrusy boost to everything), garam masala. Salt to taste

For the dip 

– A small skillet

– A mortar and pestle

– Yoghurt

– 1-2 cloves of garlic, peeled

– Half a beet, peeled

– 10-15 whole peppercorns. I keep mine in a mill so it’s easy to crack them into anything

Method

– Hang 2.5 katories/ 2.5 big cups of yoghurt in some muslin or thin cotton. I use an ancient swatch from what used to be a sari or dupatta. It’s best to suspend the knotted bundle in the kitchen sink, slung over a tap. Squeeze the top gently so most of the water drains out and let gravity do the rest while you prepare your chips.

– Grate the beet and pop it in the fridge.

– Wash and dry the bhindi. The drying is crucial. I pat mine with a paper towel and let it sit under our aggressive fan for 15 minutes. Then, lop the tops off and slit it length-wise.

– In the paraat throw in the mustard oil, besan and small level spoonfuls of every spice except the chilli powder. Careful with the chilli powder and the salt- adjust levels per gut.

– Mix with bare fingers till a lovely turmeric yellow paste happens. Obliterate all clumps. Loosen with a few splashes of water at room temperature.

– Throw the bhindi in and move it around roughly so the paste smears on the pieces. Don’t worry about coating everything evenly- the fun is in the imperfection. Let it sit in the spices for 15-20 minutes.

– Switch on your air fryer, dial the knob to 160 degrees and the timer to 10 minutes. Pre heating is essential.

– When you’re ready to pop your bhindi in, cut the lemons and squeeze them into the paraat and move everything around so the juice seeps into the crevices. Dial the knob up to 180, set the timer to 20 minutes, and pop 1/4th of the bhindi (estimate visually) into the fryer. Pull the tray out and shake it up every 5 minutes, or disturb with a long wooden spoon so everything gets crisped uniformly.

– Separately, dry-roast the grated beets in your skillet. Don’t let the smoke and the intense aroma frighten you. Turn off the flame when the beets are noticeably darker and reduced in volume.

– Check on your yoghurt. It should be bleeding water in a thin stream by now. Squeeze the top of the muslin bundle some more so any residual liquid drains off. Decant what should now ideally be a beautiful creamy ball into a bowl. Smash the garlic and the pepper in the mortar and pestle, scoop it out and put it in the bowl with the roasted beet. Mix to gorgeously pink, eminently Instagrammable results. Pop back in the fridge.

– Keep checking on your bhindi for doneness. It shouldn’t be blackened, but a dark deep green smeared here and there with the brown of the roasted besan. 

– Spoon gently into a plate and serve hot, all the better to scoop dollops of the chilled dip with.

 

 

in a soup

soup

 

It’s officially soup season in north India. FMCG companies have heckled duqaandaars into papering their shopfronts over with soup bowls and other autumnal imagery in one  coordinated seasonal push of inventory. Women hold steaming tureens aloft on backlit hoardings. They are flanked by little people in bad bowl haircuts, brandishing their cutlery in manic excitement. The ruse is so naked you feel sorry for them. When has soup ever sent a child into a frenzy of happiness? The women wear aprons and/ or jauntily angled toques and both their smiles and the copy have a vaguely desperate quality. Have you had our soup? Please buy some. It’s good. Promise. Just..buy all the flavours, okay? Soup is good for you. Please believe us. We like you. Do you like us? We hope you do. Be soup buddies? Are you listening? BUY OUR SOUP, NOW.

In truth, packaged soups are uniformly terrible. They are the essence of every airline meal you’ve ever had, distilled and desiccated to a damp powder that clumps unappealingly. Flecked with vegetable bits to mimic wholesomeness and loaded with sodium, nature-identical flavours and preservatives, packaged soup is the antithesis of what it means to eat well and eat responsibly. We can, and should do better than pretend soup.

For Indians, soup is not some end-of-year indulgence. It’s far more central to our food than we realise. What is dal if not a spicy lentil soup? Is kadhi not similarly life-affirming, fortified with what one friend calls ‘chickpea wontons’? Does kokum kadhi, pink and beautiful, not qualify? Does rasam not glide down one’s throat and pool in one’s insides, warming them long after it’s over? Culinary pedants will argue that stock is essential to soup, that the soup-ness of soup comes from the complex umami of good old stock. I humbly submit that the tadka is a pretty good stand- in, especially when the onions are done just right.

When I have a hankering for soup I raid the fridge for leftover daal, usually congealed from a night of standing still. I slop it into a kadhai and splash water in to loosen it a little. When it’s warm, I add more water till I have a bowl’s worth in quantity. If I’m feeling especially brave I throw in some shavings of Amul butter. Then I find a quiet corner, a good book, a big spoon and I go land myself in a soup.

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