Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Confounded Kitchen

Saturday night four of us were out on the balcony enjoying the breeze and playing a few rounds of rummy when Lalita and Vijaya, two of our cooks, called for me from in the kitchen. I went to see what they wanted and found them holding a box of walnuts.

"Suzanne cooking walnut curry, yes?"
"I'm cooking?"
"Yes? Oh, okay. When am I cooking? Tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow? Ah, no. Monday."
"Lunch or dinner?"
"Your choice."
"Ah, no. Your choice."
"Dinner? Okay. What time should I come?"
"Ask Durga [the head cook]."

Any one picking up on the fact that no one really knows what's going on? Yeah, for all of my anthropological intuition I didn't see that one coming. I assumed that for whatever lucky reason I had been picked to be taught how to cook - maybe because I cook for myself more often than the others. Later I found Durga who told me to come around 5:30 or six Monday evening.

Monday evening rolls around and I come freshly scrubbed and beaming, ready to learn the secrets of Indian cooking only to find Vijaya in the kitchen cleaning up after finishing cooking the fish we were to eat that night. I pull down the box of walnuts and ask her what to do first.

"Oh, I do not know." Ah, this must be some specialty of Durga's.
"Where is Durga?"
"I don't know." Hmmm, things are going down hill fast.
"Walnut curry?" I'm grasping at straws.
"Yes, you making for dinner." Do they really thing I know how to make walnut curry? We're in trouble.
"Ah, ah, yes. I make for dinner." They have left a hole in the meal reserved for my curry. My curry? I've never made curry in my life. This is supposed to be for everyone - students, servants, everybody. Shoot.

So, being the calm, collected chef of the 21st century that I am and knowing that I am working in a kitchen that, while primitive, is fully stalked with spices, I googled "walnut curry". Walnut curry as far as the vast reaches of cyberspace are concerned does not exist. I found a peanut curry and a walnut curry-esque stuffing for pork chops and decided to improvise.

Chopping. Yes, chopping would be a good idea. Chopping walnuts is always a good start. Think while chopping. Aware that the clock was fast ticking towards dinner time, I hastily grapped a plate, a knife, poured out the nuts and began cutting. Just then, Durga walks in. Thank heavens! Saved! She will know what to do.

"Durga! Hello! Walnut curry?"
"Aaahhh, yes," giving the nuts a glance and me one of those ambivalent head shakes that means yes, acceptance, or anything you want it to in India. Her eyebrows and voice were raised, enthusiastic but concerned.
This, I though, this was the voice of experience.
"You need mixie?" Was that a question?
"Yes? Yes, I need the mixie." Sure, why not? And Durga pulls out and sets up the food processor for me. After an expectant pause on both sides, I galantly scooped up half of my chopped almonds and dumped them in the mixie, looking to her for affirmation. Durga closed the lid and flipped the switch, grinding my nuts into dust.
"Ah, powder."
"Yes, powder."
"Other half, too?"
"Ah, yes?" I realized at this point that I was the one giving directions. The panic returned.
"Oh! paste. Sorry, sister." We had let the walnuts grind for a little too long and they became more paste than powder.
"Oh, that is no problem. It is fine. No problem." I sincerely hoped so. I apparently sounded expert enough that soon Durga left me to return to her room. Durga is pregnant for the first time and is having to deal with the heat, her full-time job, and morning sickness. Funnily enough, she finds it hard to have energy sometimes.

Alone once more, I let the panic show as I feverishly reopened the web pages. Cumin, coriander, garlic, chili powder, salt, pepper, curry powder, curry leaves: they were all listed between the various recipes I looked through. Right. I turned to John, the other self-styled chef in residence, for help. He had never made curry either. He just laughed and wished me good luck. Right.

I heated oil in a pan and put the walnut powder and chopped garlic to toast. Powder doesn't toast very well, but I had reduced my entire stock to dust when I thought Durga was in charge. Toasting. Add chili powder. Add salt and pepper and cumin. Add coriander. We don't have coriander. Add more cumin. Durga came in at this point to have a look around. It smelled pretty nice at this point.

"Ah, nice. Your mother teach you?" Oh gosh, they really do think I am a walnut curry expert. Wanting to keep my mother's repution clear away from whatever this mess might turn into, I replied in the negative.
"Um, no. I, ah, I found it myself." She then saw the computer screen open on the counter and laughed.
"It is there?" Durga doesn't use recipes. Durga just knows how to make delicious curries.
"Yes, yes, it is there." Maybe I was a little defensive.
"I need to help?"
"No, no, it is very simple. I will be fine." I didn't want her to see the very apparent improvisation that was going on.
"Okay, I go to my room."

Add milk. Make it a thick liquid - please, please make it look like curry. That seemed to work pretty well. Add more milk.

John came in to see how I was doing, and I made him taste it. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't good - it had no direction or distinction. It was brown mush. He suggested more salt, more chili powder, and tumeric. Tumeric? Sure, why not.

It all went into the pot. And so did a chopped onion. Which should have gone in at the very beginning with the garlic. Oh well. Add a little more milk. Add a little water. Oh, quick, keep it from burning. More chili powder. More pepper. Just call it done. It looks like poop. It's done.

I announced to the waiting cooks that it was finished - I felt finished - and I left the house to go run to an appointment with a lady in our branch. She had invited me over on Sunday, and I didn't feel like I could break the engagement. I never did find her house, but that is another story. I never did taste how the chutney-esque creation was with rice. Everyone claimed it was good. Lova said, "Your curry, super." I think she was being nice. Meghan had some on toast later - "See, see - voluntary consumption!"

Even now, I am completely baffled by the chain of events that led up to me being abandoned in the kitchen holding a box of nuts. Where did they get the idea I wanted to make dinner? Where did they get the idea that I knew how to make walnut curry? That such a thing as walnut curry existed? And where did that box of nuts come from? The world may never know.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I forgot something

So in all of my writings on my life in India, I somehow left out the whole reason why I am here - what exactly I spend my time and energy doing. I would like to introduce you, Gentle Reader, to my Jalaripeta widows.

The two women in the front are Enkamma and Pidamma. They're sisters-in-law (maybe sisters, too - things are vague on this point) and both widows with young children. Pidamma's husband died 3 months ago and it is socially unacceptable to go outside her house or work for another two months. The other women live nearby. Jalaris tend to jump into whatever picture is being taken.

This is where all of the widows were gathered when I first met them. I believe it is used as a sort of cooking hut. It is on the corner by Pantiya's house and near to where all of the widows live. I've done several interviews here.

This is Desuma coming home from the fish market. She eloped with her husband when she was 20 - a late marriage, but she had turned down all of the other men that asked for her hand. Her parents were furious and came and yelled at her husband, but she refused to go home.

Other women of the Jalaripeta. The women here are the ones that sell the fish that their husbands catch. You can tell which are widows by whether they are wearing a bindi and glass bangles or not. Several days after her husband's death, a woman will be blindfolded and taken down to the coast where her marriage thread will be burned, her bangles smashed, and bindi removed. They never wear these markers again.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Why is it that...

I think my next anthropological research project will be on the mystical connection between Indians, computers, and paperwork. India has the largest telecommunications customer service-employed population in the history of the world. So why does it take 3 days, 2 documents signed in triplicate, 20 phone calls, 6 emails, 1 trip by motorcycle to the airport, and way too many rupees in order to get my flight changed? Why is it impossible for the Air India desk at the local airport to change, or even check on, my ticket? Why is that possible only in Hyderabad? And why did no else know this or tell me this in my lengthy association with airplane personnel?

As you can see, all of these are fascinating questions which I am sure will yeild vast amounts of scholarly work to the inquisitive researcher.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Speak softly and carry loud speakers

Indians love noise. They are a very sensual people - very aware of the senses. Food is spicy, colors are bright, and music is played very, very loudly. Which is ironic since most Indians I've met speak quite softly. Too softly.

For example, most cars here have backup music. When they are put into reverse, a lively, electronic tune starts playing. This is no beep, beep of the construction vehicles of yore, the music ranges anywhere from classical symphonies to the latest Bollywood soundtrack.

Everyone has a cell phone. And no cell phone is ever put on silent. Sacrament meeting is usually no exception despite the repeated entreaties from the pulpit to turn them off. One time Tiffany and I swore we heard one ringing with I'm Bringing Home a Baby Bumblebee. The phone belonged to a stately older gentleman. Giggles ensued.

Our Godavari River trip further highlighted this when two huge speakers were lifted out of the boat's windows and on to the roof as we pulled away from shore. Telugu music blared out of them from for the next 12 hours. Around mid-day when everyone was taking a little siesta (Indians are also great nappers), I swear the captain turned the speakers on even louder - perhaps thinking it was getting too quiet onboard. Not one of the recumbent Indians seemed to mind at all. They continued to slumber peacefully. Our cooks regularly fall asleep to Telugu music at night. Loud Telugu music. John has to sneak in and turn it down later if he hopes to get any rest.

Diwali is no exception to this trend. On Saturday we celebrated the Festival of Lights by joining with the local Muslim community that John is studying for dinner, games, and fire crackers. Now, Indian fire crackers are not like American fireworks. Ours look positively wimpy compared to their pyrotechnics. Indians have two different categories: ones valued for their retina-searing lights, others for their ear-shattering noise. By far the local favorite is the bombs. That is what they call them because that is what they are. Minus the fire and shrapnel. For days now it's sounded like London being shelled by the Germans. And I mean days. India's loose conception of time is also applied to celebrating festivals: they begin when they want, and if they don't want to be done by the end of festival day or week, well, then they just keep letting off bombs.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My dear, you're truly scrumptious

And now for an exclusive, never-before-seen sneak-peak at how Rajamundry kaja and all of your other favorite Indian sweets are made. This man has mad skill with a knife.

Living, Rajamundry style

Last Thursday we traveled to Rajamundry, Krishnayya's home town and river-side ancient wonder of the East Godavari District. We had a ball being fed by Krishnayya's brother, and listening to Krishnayya say, "Hey, man, this is my place." Years of associating with American college students have certainly left their mark. He took us to see shop-owner friends who gave us great deals on coral, silver, and cloth. We also got to experience the most amazing fried street food and Artos - the first soda brand in Andhra Pradesh, only found in East Godavari, and Krishnayya's personal favorite.

The next day was a long odyssey of a car trip filled with 12th century temples, goddess temples, the actual Artos factory, coconut harvests, our driver's home village, and a shrine to a modern-day saint who, starting at the age of nine, locked himself up in a room and did not eat or sleep, but meditated nonstop. He would unlock the door once a year and meet and greet his devotees. Apparently word gets out when you lock yourself up in a room, and devotees naturally follow. The trip out ended with the Bay of Bengal where we spent a few minutes wading around before getting back in the car for the bumpy, lumpy, tossy, turvy, looooong ride home.

That is Lalita and Lova, our hired help/friends pictured that came with us for the trip. They're standing on the first bridge/dam built on the Godavari by Sir Arthur Cotton during colonial days. He is revered as something of a demigod around this parts. There are statues everywhere. Apparently he foretold that it would last for 100 years and then it would fail. And it did. 112 years almost to the day. Big flood, big mayhem, and god-like status conferred.

Rajamundry kaja. Persians brought baklava over, it mixed with Indian culture, and this flaky, crunchy, drippy perfect pastry is the result.

Artos bottling factory. Their flagship flavor tastes a lot like cream soda.

Saturday we spent traipsing around Rajamundry proper looking at an archaeology museum, a stone-cutting shop that makes icons, and the cloth district. Yes, please.

Sunday we arrived at the river at 5:30 in the morning for our boat trip. All of the other passengers showed up at 6:30. We spent a lazy, cool morning watching the scenery float past and visiting several riverside temples. Breakfast and lunch were served onboard. Curious to see how they cooked on the ship, Viiraju wandered to the kitchen and discovered an innovative, if ill-advised, method of heating water. Namely, hauling up buckets of (brown) river water, running it through the engine to "sterilize" and heat it up, and then cooking with it. Hmmm...I wonder why I'm feeling a bit off color today....

The afternoon got a bit more exciting when we were asked by the captain to hide below deck until we passed a certain village. Apparently they have a new law out that says that any foreigner traveling through the area is charged Rs. 400. How that's legitimate I do not know. The police spotted two of us, but Rs. 800 is a sight better than the 3600 we should have been charged. The trip was very enjoyable over all, but loooong. And having to choose between sitting on uneven wooden plank benches on the main level or corregated metal on the top gets old after 13 hours on a boat.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

And then they all went bananas

Yesterday we took a little jaunt over to Vizianagaram for the Pidatalli festival call sirimanu, or prosperous tree. It's huge. 500,000 people huge. And yet the journalists still managed to find us.

History lesson:
Once upon a time, there was a war between the kingdoms of Vizianagaram (backed by the British) and Bobbili (backed - one could say egged on -by the French). It was all over a cock fight. Or a water dispute. Or two colonial powers using the local pawns to do their dirty work for them as they sought to out-maneuver each other in the global chess match that was 1700's international politics (at least, that's what I get out of it). V. completely routed B. and took a well-deserved break before heading back victorious. Well, 4 B. soldiers were a little miffed at the results of the day's work and took matters into their own hands. As V. sat well sauced by the victory wine that night (I'm extrapolating here), they snuck over to the V. king's tent, and while 2 kept watch, the other 2 went in and killed the poor devil.

Back at V, the king's teenage sister suddenly got a premonition that something terrible had happened to her brother. Sending for the Vizier, because that is what you do when these things happen, she had him investigate how the war was doing, not aware that her brother had just won it. He assured her that all was well, but she didn't believe him, as people who send for their viziers never do. She set out with her retinue to go find her brother and received word of his murder en route to Bobbili. Overcome with grief, she jumped into the local lake and drowned.

Some months later, after the local fishermen dregged the lake and brought up her body, she appeared to a relative saying she had been turned into a goddess and they should worship her. They would find a stone statue of her in the lake as proof. Well, find the statue they did, worship her they did, and today hundreds of thousands of people come out to celebrate her by means of a pole 60 feet tall.

The video is of the procession that goes from the temple to Vizianagaram fort 3 times. The technicolor net with the fish on top is being held up by Jalaris - the local fishing caste - to represent the people who pulled the princess's body out of the lake. The man perched on top of the sirimanu is a priest and descendent of the royal family. He is dressed as a king and sits possessed by the goddess. I think that possession is the only way to get anyone up there. Note the bananas being chucked at the priest. It is an age-old custom that some say represent fish of the lake. Others say that bananas and coconuts are offered to the gods during puja, and it's really not a good idea to throw coconuts at a man sitting on a pole 60 feet in the air. The bananas must hurt enough as is. Either way, all I know is that I sat on a roof for several hours and watched thousands of bananas being thrown by thousands of people at a priest dressed as a king possessed by a goddess who happens to be sitting on a pole being hauled through the streets by a local gang and the military.

India: there really is nothing like it.

Friday, October 2, 2009

In case you were wondering,

I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.

And I hate my futon.

That is all.