28 May 2011


It's not often that I get to have a moment of absolute quiet. Ever since moving to New York all those years ago, it's been a constant state of something going on. Even when visiting my sister in what I /thought/ was far removed from major cities, there were still noises around. This night, however, is truly quiet.

I'm at the (beautiful) home of one of my friend's mother's. She lives up a mountain road, about 15 minutes away from paved roads, in a very small town in upstate New York. I never thought I'd be this far out into the country, but here I am. No cell reception, no subway access two feet away, and thunder and lightning rumbling off in the distance.

The last time I experienced this was when I was taking that trip off into the Galapagos Islands. In the middle of the water, you would have these moments of absolute peace and quiet. Nobody was awake, and the only noise going on was the sound of the waves lapping against the side of the boat.

That's what's going on here. Aside from the occasional cricket chirping, or the bullfrogs croaking, the entire place is quiet. I can hear the faint rumblings of thunder off in the distance, and it's kind of nice.

Mind you, I don't plan on making this a habit. Being too far from a subway makes me nervous. However, once in 10 years or so, It's nice to really get away from it all, and sit by the giant windows, and watch the storm roll in. It's going to be a beautiful night.

08 May 2011


Amma, in tamil, means mother. It’s what I call my mother, and because my friends didn’t realise that “amma” is just our word for mother (or, quite possibly, because they realised it), they ended up calling my mother by “Amma” as well. I think that it secretly pleased her, because she never bothered to correct it.

Amma tells me stories about how when I was young, I would constantly have her in my line of sight somewhere, and keep a peripheral ear out for what she was talking about. I actually know what she’s talking about, because there are multiple occasions when she thought I was playing with my friends, and I’d quote what one of her friends was saying. Whether it be because she spent the most time and effort on her pregnancy and childhood with me out of all her children (or so I like to think so; she would drink a large tumbler of grass juice every morning to ensure healthy milk for me, and that’s just one sliver of the things she would do to make sure I got only the best of the best of everything), or because of all her children, I think I have had a relationship with her as a peer as well as a son, I am truly her son. She never addressed me with things like “You’ll do so because I said so,” or “You wouldn’t understand.” She taught me from a very young age that if you ask, you’ll eventually find an answer. Maybe not immediately right at that moment, but to trust her that she’d come back to me with an answer that was considered and thought out.

It was like when I asked her why we’re vegetarian. She explained that it was because in our culture and family, that’s just what we did. I wasn’t satisfied with that answer, and she admitted that she had never really thought about it. Over time, however, she took me to vegetarian potlucks, and introduced me to various vegan and vegetarian activists, who did have a more cleanly articulated line of thinking for leaving the animals alone. Although she didn’t give me the answer as soon as I asked it, she lead me to find it on my own.

That’s the other thing. She never dismissed any of my questions as trivial. She somehow knew that I’m one of those people who considers, and reads, and looks for it on his own before having to ask her or anyone else. I remember one summer when I decided to read the as many of the Hindu scriptures as possible. We had multiple copies of multiple books around, and I had the spare time to do it. I stumbled across something discussing the four Yugas (divisions of Hindu mythological history). I knew we are living in the Kali yuga, but I didn’t know how far along we are, or how long each one is. She admitted that she didn’t know, but that she would find out if she could. A day or so later, she came back to me and explained that she had called a priest at the temple, and asked him. He gave her the exact breakdown in years, and she jotted them down for me. Most people would have left it at “I don’t know.”

She fostered my love for being in the kitchen. When you’re feeding a family of six, you’re going to end up spending a lot of time in the kitchen. Since that’s where she was, I’d go hang out with her there. She’d then assign me some small task, and the two of us would keep talking, while working on the meal. Over time, she grew to trust me enough to handle entire dishes, or in some cases, the whole dinner, for when guests came over. She would openly brag to her friends that her son is not only well read, can keep conversations with people much older than himself, and didn’t watch junky TV as much as he watched nature documentaries and the like, but he is also a talented cook, who is comfortable in the kitchen, and is happy to help her. The other mothers would turn green with envy, thinking of the hours they’d spend alone in the kitchen.

She values my opinion. When we get the chance to chat on the phone, the conversation often stretches from a few minutes, and a quick question, into a marathon session for a couple of hours at a stretch. Mind you, she’s the type of person who will take multiple viewpoints, and eventually come to her own decision, after thinking it over for a while, but I know that she gives what I have to say a lot of weight in the grand scheme of things. When she was skirting the edges of menopause, I went out and read every book, journal article and website I could get my hands on, and distill it down into a conversation about what’s going on and how to cope with it. She’s always been so proud of that ability of mine. I enjoy reading things that teach me something new, and I enjoy talking about what I’ve learned.

I remember one night, she listened to me rambling on about some of the reading that I had done about language development in children, when she was nervous about my sister’s son’s speech. He didn’t start talking as soon as she’d seen other children talking. (For the record, this is no longer an issue; the trick is to get him to stop talking! He’s too cute for words, and speaks clearly and at length.) I don’t know how long I chattered on about it, but she patiently listened to it, with only the occasional diversion or question.

I can talk to her about nothing at all, or everything, and both of us enjoy it. We joke that whoever is responsible for wire tapping my phone must be ready to end it all, because we have the most boring, mundane conversations. Frequent (and I mean close to half the call) topics include the cost of rice, vegetables, and the sales we got at the various stroes we shop at. Then, we talk about what we made with the things we bought. I’m seriously not joking. Then, in between, there will be some philosophical discussion about human nature, or a quick story about what her grandson did that day, or how Steve did something else.

She taught me that the best seasoning for food is having people you enjoy being around to share it with. That food is at its most powerful when it’s shared with as many people as possible. That the value you give something is far more important than its cost. (Actually, come to think of it, the value of something is often increased exponentially with how little it cost. I made her this ugly, lumpy bowl in art class in 6th grade. She kept it for years to hold her pens. I think she still has it somewhere, still holding pens.)

She reinforced, time and again, that no problem is too big or scary to talk through. That the way to get around things is to talk it out. That literally /no/ trouble her children get themselves into is too great to get past, and move on from. Steve came into our lives five years ago. He came suddenly, and without discussion. “How was your summer, Dinu?” “It was great. I got married.” (This is after they got back from being in India for a year.) “Oh. That’s great. What’s her name.” “His name is Steve.”

A couple of weeks later, Steve moved in. All four of us lived together for a year. I’m not sure what acceptance means to others, but having your gay husband living with the family, and introducing the both of us to their friends looks quite accepting to me. No, she’s not marching in a parade, but that’s likely because it’s hotter than the nine hells in June, and her feet would start throbbing within the first mile or so. Yes, we had our problems, but living with someone else is always going to present problems. If I were to see Steve’s family on a daily basis for a year, I’m sure stuff would likely come up that would test the limits of all of our patience. The fact that we’re all still on good terms (good enough terms, that is, that Steve even made a trip or two up to Connecticut to visit with my sister, her husband, and my parents without me) is a lasting testament to that acceptance.

She’s very proud of all my talents, but won’t hesitate to call me on it when she thinks that I’m being an idiot. When Amma and Appa (Appa = father in Tamil) moved up to Connecticut to help my sister settle in, they left Steve and me back at the Florida house. Steve and I lasted about four or five months before giving up on the entire state, and heading for the hills. And by hills, I mean New York. The whole thing was decided and orchestrated in the space or a month. Amma was furious and hurt, not that I was moving, but that I hadn’t said anything until it was too late. Even then, she still kept a couple of her friends on standby, in case we needed a couple of days to land somewhere before finding an apartment. “If you had said something, I could have helped make this so much easier on you. Why did you think you couldn’t talk this over with me?” She always said that she had no illusions about anyone in her life. She saw, and accepted, the good and the bad. It’s why people trust her to give them honest feedback. She doesn’t give empty compliments. If she says something is good, it’s because it’s good. If she says something can use some work, you take that into account, and fix it for the next time.

She taught me, through her actions, that the only person who can stop you from success is yourself. Let everyone else say what they want to say. You just keep your head down, and keep at it. When I was about ten years old, Hurrican Andrew hit Florida, and ravaged Miami. All the apartments that were left over were now going for premium prices. If I’m not mistaken, our landlord wanted to bump up rent after the hurricane, and my mother didn’t think it was feasible for a family of six to live in a three bedroom apartment. She wanted a house.

At the time, my father was pulling in minimum wage. This meant that any house my mother would be looking at had to be, above all else, affordable. The bank wouldn’t approve a loan to someone who doesn’t have the physical money to pay for. Amma worked as a homemaker, and Appa worked at an office. Her requirements were that the house be larger than our apartment, have more than 3 bedrooms, have at least 2 bathrooms, have a decent sized kitchen, be in a decent school district, be in a decent neighbourhood, and be priced at less than $80,000, give or take. Bonus points for being near major highways, and near the Hindu temple. Mind you, this was 1992, but we’re still talking about a state, that in those days, was getting about 700 new people in it every day (stat I learned in summer school of 7th grade). To say that it’d be challenging to meet all her goals is an understatement.

Most of the people we knew at the time thought that she’s completely nuts. It took a lot of searching. She spent hours with realtors, looking at ugly tiny house after ugly tiny house. Some would be fairly decent sized, and in OK repair, but be in horrible neighbourhoods. Others would be townhouses, or in developments, which would mean freakishly strict and intrusive rules (like no clothes lines, or no planting fruit trees in your own yard), along with hefty association fees, paid to a bunch of jerks who didn’t really do much of anything, except to enforce said arbitrary and intrusive rules. Others would be almost ideal, but situated in neighbourhoods that were one inch away from mob rule. You know all those bizarre news stories coming out of Florida? That’s because we have more than its share of crazies. Pair all of this with everyone she knew telling her to relax her standards, or her pocket book. She flatly refused, and kept at it.

The kicker? She didn’t drive. She had a learner’s permit, but didn’t actually drive herself until well after we moved into the house. Also, she couldn’t exactly afford a babysitter to watch after the kids, and my dad didn’t get home until fairly late anyway. Also, first Saturday of every month was a bhajan group that she attended for years, and wouldn’t think of missing. Also, every Sunday was temple day. She’d arrive (along with family in tow) well before everyone else got there, and leave well after the last stragglers left. This is also paired with random Saturdays being given up for religious events, weddings, birthdays, and all kinds of cultural and social events. Oh. While we’re mentioning things: she also would cook for pretty much every event/function we’d go to. She’d cook /every/ Sunday, in large quantity, to comfortably feed the 100 or so people that could show up to the temple.

I don’t even recall how she managed to find that house that she eventually bought, but she did. She got the house, and held a housewarming that had well over 120 people or so. (Life is funny though. Both my brothers moved out, leaving an extra bedroom. My sister and I both went to Magnet schools, so the local school district was moot. A short time after moving up, we stopped going to the Hindu temple, because 99% of the people there were [and still are] snobby, classist, small minded, back stabbing, gossiping, loathsome jerks.) Fifteen years later, she paid off the mortgage in full, and owned it outright.

Our relationship was never perfect. We’ve both managed to hurt the other. However, I don’t know of any relationship that I have with anyone, that doesn’t involve some level of challenge at some point. That’s just how people are. The important thing is that we do still seek each other out, however infrequently, because we both really do value the other person.

Thanks, Amma. I love you.

07 May 2011


Simplicity. It’s often difficult to achieve without considerable editing down. I’ve recently begun to take a serious look at my cooking, and wonder if sometimes I have the opportunity to improve myself by subtracting, rather than adding anything. I should certainly know better, having my pretty strong background in design. If you look at my website, or the website that I created for my work place, both share a couple of elements: few colours, few fonts, ease of use, and fairly stripped down looks.

It’s kind of how I like things to look. I want to see the most important thing, not all the sidebar stuff that can distract from the main point.

We had a photo shoot at the restaurant, so that I could get decent pictures of the food to either use on the website, or to use in various promotional materials, etc. The first round of photos was an unalloyed disaster. Everything had great masses of parsley on it, about 100 different elements on the plate, along with good, strong lighting. I went through to do some colour correction, light balancing, and the rest on the photos, so that I could bring up the most important colours, and mute the ones I’m not so interested in. The effect was a lurid mix of day glow neons, and just overall messy presentation.

I asked the photographer to try it all again. This time, each thing needed to be shot with /absolutely nothing/ extraneous. Take out the parsley chunks, take out the flotsam and jetsam, and give me something stripped down to its most bass level. The pictures were so gloriously beautiful that second time around. Mind you, the photographer was the same person. She used the same camera, same settings, same flash. The difference was the presentation.

This is kind of where I’m starting to lead myself in the pursuit of improving myself. Generally, a typical veg cooked in my kitchen at home involves all kinds of things. I start with oil, often mixing different kinds. I like a blend of peanut and sesame, because I really like the smell. Sometimes I’ll throw in a bit of coconut for that extra special smell. Then, in with the spices. Typical run for me is mustard seed, cumin seed, asafetida, and sesame seed. Sometimes I also throw in a bit of crushed coriander.

Then, in with the aromatics. I generally use garlic, onion, and ginger. Because I like to vary the taste of the garlic, I’ll add it at various stages of cooking, but I have recently fallen in love with frying the garlic first, then throwing in the onion. As of late, because I realized I don’t hate them anymore, I’ve also taken to throwing in some bell pepper. The smells by this point are intoxicating, and delicious. You can generally smell my cooking as you walk up the stairs that lead to my apartment.

Then, I add the vegetable, along with a bit of turmeric, and red chile flakes. Once the vegetable is cooked, I’ll finish it off with curry leaves, and a bit of salt.

By now, I’ve lost count of the amount of ingredients that have gone in there. If it’s beans, you’re also talking about the addition of a few tomatoes, possibly some tomato paste, and wine or vodka. If it’s a soup or stew, also add in some carrots, celery, potatoes, etc. Before too long, the dish is a teetering mass of ingredients. All of them are delicious, and the food is fantastic. It’s earthy, and homey, and you eat more than is decent, because it’s hitting all the good spots.

However, I have begun to wonder if I’m tasting the food, or the spices.

When I quit smoking, my sense of smell got a little sharper, and I was able to taste things more clearly. Things that I previously liked have become a chore to eat. I absolutely cannot bring myself to choke down a bowl of ramen soup. It’s awful. I’ve discovered that I love the smell of bell peppers cooking, along with onions and garlic. This has made it possible for me to eat, and enjoy them. I haven’t eaten bell peppers in so long that I can’t even count. My poor husband is so used to eating with me, and my piling his plate with various things I decided I don’t like.

What I am trying to get at is that of late, I’ve been experimenting with really stripped down food. It’s not something that I’m used to doing, but I decided to give it a try.

On Thursday, when I got home, there were two heads of cauliflower, six pounds of eggplant, and a large bunch of collard greens. Typically, the whole meal would have taken me about an hour to put together, all of which would have been spent with me stood over the cutting board or the stove. I would have gleefully moved around my tiny kitchen, making all four burners go at full tilt, while balancing all kinds of vessels on various surfaces. Tonight, I was going to dial it all back big time.

I cranked up the gas oven to 350 F. In went the eggplant, on baking sheets, unadorned. I didn’t cut them, rub on oil, or anything else. I just lay them on the baking sheet whole, and put them in the oven. Then, I made rough florets of the cauliflower. This took me less than a couple of minutes. I drizzled on a bit of vegetable oil, and threw that in the oven as well. I set the timer for 1 hour, and set a pot of water on the stove. I chopped up the collard greens roughly, and let them sit there. I made a small pouch of foil for two heads of garlic (which I doused in more oil). Into the oven they went. The water came to a boil. I turned off the heat, and plunged the collard greens into the water. I let it sit for about a minute. I drained off the water. Then, I tossed the greens in sesame oil, black sesame seeds, and salt.

That’s it.

I walked out of the kitchen, and got into my house clothes. I watched some TV for about 45 minutes or so, while the oven did my work for me. When the timer beeped, I came back to the kitchen to see the cauliflower perfectly roasted, the garlic tender and smelling great, and the eggplants collapsed from getting cooked so thoroughly.

I scooped out the flesh of the eggplant, and dumped in both heads of garlic, a bit of salt, and the roasting oil from the garlic foil pouch. I also threw in some red chile flakes. I stirred vigorously with a wooden spoon, until the eggplant were sort of shredded.

That’s it.

The cauliflower got some salt.

That meal was memorable. For the first time in a long time, I tasted the vegetables, as they were. Mind you, I didn’t touch the eggplant, because I don’t care for their texture. One thing at a time, right? I’ll get there when I get there.

What I’m getting at is that it was a lot of fun for me to try something that I haven’t done before. It wasn’t bland at all. The roasting gave the vegetables plenty of flavor and colour and texture. The oil and a bit of salt really brought out the natural taste. It was a revelation.

Next time though, I think I’ll add a bit of cumin to the eggplant.

And maybe tahini.

And lemon.

Just saying.

05 May 2011

Tummy clear up

I ate stuff that I really shouldn't eat (fatty, starchy, horrible, but tasty) last night before bed, and this morning, my brown rice and steamed broccoli loving tummy let me know in no uncertain terms, that he is unimpressed. He also let me know that if I try that again, he's going on strike. Ouch!

I wanted something to settle my stomach, and didn't feel like going to the drug store to get medication (which probably wouldn't have done that much for me anyway). I decided on a juice. I know that ginger is really good for settling upset stomachs, among a million other things it's good for. In went about two inches of ginger. I know that kale and other dark leafy greens are alkaline, and will counteract the strong stomach acids that are likely causing the upset in the first place, so I threw in a few leaves, along with the stems, of kale. I know I really dislike the taste of juiced greens, so in went a couple of apples, and five or six carrots too. I didn't care for the colour, so I threw in a small beet for good measure.

I could feel it work immediately. My stomach isn't completely settled yet, but I can smell things without feeling nauseous. Good to know for the future.