A Tale of A Table

‘Har ghar kuch kehta hai’ (loosely translated ‘Every home has a story to tell’) was the tag line of an ad of “Asian Paints”, a very popular paint company in India. It was one of those ads, growing up, that I liked as something about this line resonated with me even at that young age (talk about a good ad!).

And yes, every home does have its own story to tell. It’s the seat of love, hardship and patience; of surprises that take our breath away and of moments that stop time; of failure and success; of burnt toasts and scribbled walls; of broken pasts and healed presents. When we share our home with friends and family, when we laugh out loud and share meals it adds warmth.

Recently we put our twelve year old dining table away, as we had made a new purchase, and when we sat down to have our dinner for one last time at the old table, there was a strange sadness. I never knew that I could feel that way about a table. I also did not expect my five year old to get emotional and share his own favorite stories about that table.

I have been since thinking about all the moments that the table has been a part of. It is the table I had my first meal at in this country more than a decade back. It is the table my husband and I wrote our dissertations on as grad students. It is the table my best friend, who I have known since elementary school, and I shared a lovely home cooked meal when she came to Minneapolis all the way from Florida. The table has been the seat of many stimulating conversations among friends and has proudly showed off wine stains and coffee marks from moments that stretched from dusk till dawn. Here in New Jersey, it has shared with us the most important moments of our lives till now and we never realized how the table had secured a place in our hearts in an almost unassuming way.

Our closest friends have shared meals with us on this and so has our family. Our son was, for some reason, given his first bath in his baby tub, on this table surrounded by doting grandparents and a very nervous first time mom. My husband was having his breakfast at this table, wearing a cobalt blue shirt and black trousers, ready to leave for work, when I told him we were going to be parents for the first time. Bengali’s have something called the ‘Shaad’ (more here), their equivalence of a baby shower that consists of cooking for the mom-to-be all the food that her heart desires (shaad in Bengali means wish/desire) and I have had that twice, surrounded by family and friends as I devoured on the most delicious food cooked by my mother. This was the table. From a couple to a family of three and then four, this table has been part of our celebrations- birthdays, anniversaries, Durga Pujo, Diwali, Thanksgiving, Christmas- this has been the center. Our son is starting kindergarten in a couple of weeks and his journey from barely legible letters to short sentences today also started at this table. I had never given any thought to the part this table has played in our the little big things of our lives till before the day we took it apart and stored it away. Much like when a house turns into a home, maybe some pieces of furniture, otherwise mundane and taken for granted, also become a part of who we become as we grow older. Don’t you think?

Someone was leaving town and giving away this table for free. My husband and his roommate had picked it up. And while initially we had not meant to keep it for this long, after a while the thought of getting a new one never crossed our mind. Till recently. The needs of the family have grown as have the kids and their crazy ideas that the old, somewhat now wobbly table may not be able to sustain. And so, while we are enjoying our new table a lot, the old table is missed . My son’s favorite story about the table is how his grandparents used to sit with us here and have their meals and how we all played board games and alphabet games. He also mentioned how he loved our homemade cakes and pizzas, stuff for which we would pour and mix and pat on the table before putting in the oven.

As the kitchen has come to become the heart of every home where friends and family huddle together and share a laugh or two, our dining table was the center of activities that we all happily participated in. It has been the center of arts and crafts, cookies and cakes, mojitos and margaritas, hellos and goodbyes- a humble table, that I never thought could make me so emotional.

We all have things that make our home a home, from a piece of furniture to keepsakes to greeting cards, that are a tad bit special because of the stories that we weave around them and with them. Our dear old table is a crucial component of our stories. What are some of yours?

Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe.

‘Tom’ Fish or Some Other Fish..Who Knows!

I am a Bengali, genetically engineered to like fish. Many of you may not know this but fish is not merely another food item in a Bengali household…it is symbolic of the Bengali culture, an almost compelling, if somewhat misleading, part of their identity. It is an intrinsic part of our festivals and celebrations and a traditional Bengali Hindu wedding is incomplete without a plump and decorated fish, that typically signifies prosperity and good luck (more on this can be found here).

I digress.

As I was saying…I love to eat fish. Most Bengalis that I have met till now, and trust me that is a big number, love fish while outliers are also to be found (I have some in my family). Growing up fish was an everyday food item and while the Rui/Katla (belonging to the Carp family) were/are the most common for daily consumption, the variety that a good Bengali fish market offers is impressive, to say the least. And those also find their way into a Bengali household easily. The younger generation today has a tricky relationship with fish, I am beginning to think. While they love to eat it, they have neither the time to go to the fish market to buy fresh fish nor the time to cook. The necessary skill is also lacking. The passionate love affair is probably losing a bit of the steam.

In this land far away from the fresh Rui, Koi, Topshey, Pabda (the list can go on), we have to settle for the frozen few that make the trip to this other side of the world. So we alter our taste buds and develop a liking for the salmons, cods and tilapias (that is so different from its namesake found in India). And we also apply our recipes that involve mustard and chili paste, cumin and turmeric, ginger and tomato to these and try to get a taste of home. It’s a ‘far fetched’ taste. So we mostly stick to the grilled and baked versions. But we are often tempted to take out our mothers’ recipe note copy to find a recipe that could be altered to fit the fish in the freezer or try to make a recipe from memory, those that have stayed with us even after a good ten- fifteen years.

One such recipe is what I wanted to share with you today. I somehow remember many tiny details about the day I first had this, which was a good nineteen years ago, at my aunt’s place on the occasion of Bhaiphonta (a Bengali festival that celebrates the bond and love between brothers and sisters). I was twenty years old at that time and was just discovering my love for the saree. It was a special day, a day that we always celebrated with cousins and aunts on my Ma’s side and that day too, many moons ago we spent the day exactly like that, eating and being silly and making memories. Someone had gifted me a beautiful sea green saree that was hand painted and had Jamini Roy ( a celebrated Indian painter) prints all over. Of course I was wearing that.

My Ma’s elder sister had made something she called ‘Tom Fish” (a short for Tomato Fish which probably meant fish in tomato gravy). It was simple and yet so delicious that I still fondly remember it and cook it from time to time. Her sister-in-law had shared the recipe with her, having learnt it from a neighbor. And I share that with you today. Isn’t it somewhat fascinating how food from around the world, even the ones that are cooked by our mothers and aunts and grandmothers, that do not find place in the recipe books and websites, find a way to reach our kitchens…we have to be willing to look.

‘Tom Fish’ (As my aunt calls it. I wonder what other names this simple recipe may have garnered for itself !)

I usually use tilapia fillets for this…any white fish pieces would do probably.

I cut the fillets (about 4 in total) in about 2-3 inches (you can make cubes or rectangular pieces…doesn’t really matter). Pat them with some salt and turmeric and a gentle drizzle of mustard oil (or vegetable oil) and let rest for about 10-15 mins. Back home, most recipes call for the fish pieces to be sort of deep fried in oil and I do so here as well when in the mood. But I also shallow fry them and have even put them in the oven for baking while I have gotten started with the gravy. The latter also saves the apartment from smelling of fish…a big thing to think about when you are renting!

Heat a wok or a pan with a round-ish bottom and pour in about a teaspoon of mustard oil or vegetable oil. Once heated, temper the oil with some black mustard seeds (quarter teaspoon), one dried red chili and give it a quick stir. Add a handful of curry leaves… I am a huge fan of these and I always add about 8-10 at least. You can always take them out before serving…these are not eaten usually. Add some grated or very finely chopped ginger and once the kitchen is filled with the aroma of the curry leaves and that ginger, add about 2 tablespoons of crushed tomatoes (from the jar or use fresh ones, whichever you have handy!) Give the whole thing a good but gentle stir and once the tomato is cooked, add turmeric, salt and a bit of sugar. Cook for a few more minutes, adding little water to prevent the gravy from becoming too thick. Once the desired consistency is achieved, which should be neither too runny nor too thick, I add the baked /fried fish pieces to that and let it simmer for a couple of more minutes till the gravy seeps into the fish. If you want some more heat, slice a couple of green chilies (I do this) and add to the gravy, when it is simmering, towards the end. Steaming hot rice is what we gobble this up with.

That red color comes from the tomato, and hence the name!

An amazing tool that helps us reconnect with our roots, with forgotten tales, with people who have gradually disappeared from our focus, food is powerful as is our association with it. Culture speaks through food. It evokes memories and transports us in time while helping us bring a sliver of that culture to our future generation.

We cook food from around the world in our home and we also keep rediscovering food from our childhood. Through that my husband and I occasionally stumble upon anecdotes that revive our memories from growing up in India and it is leaves us with a bittersweet taste. Sometimes it also happens that we cannot put those memories into words, but we know that there is a ‘something’ that connects the dots. We visit places in our minds that we have not been in a while now and rediscover moments that have shaped not only us but the city that we still fondly love, from its iconic buildings to the narrow alleys, each with its own story to share and hear.

Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe.

Friendly Friday: Friendship

Sandy helps us revisit one of the most fundamental and pivotal relationships in our lives- the one that influences our childhood to a great extent and the one that continues to shape our growing up beyond and perhaps, always. Friendship provides refuge and a place to refuel. It is marked by everything from silly laughs and pinky promises to stimulating conversations and a trust deep enough to know that you are in a safe place. The unstoppable passage of time often meddles with regular meet ups and living in different corners of the world makes it harder. But friends find a way to be there- always have, always will. Don’t you agree?

I remember when we were in school, many of us did not have telephones in our homes and so summer vacations were always a bummer! A few of us wrote letters to each other and as I have written before, I still have letters that were written in the 90s by friends who are still just that precious and just that much thoughtful. We just don’t have as many pictures though! The memories are good enough.

This is a picture of me (right corner) and my three best friends taken on the last day of our high school. We were allowed to dress in traditional attire and that day was meant for fun and festivities, and lots of hugs and tears too. We have seen each other through times that have been anything but smooth and we have held each other and cried with each other and rolled on the floor laughing about the silliest of matters. Steeped in the affairs of our own little families and separated by oceans, today we hardly get the time for a daily catch up. Text messages and Google Hangout lets us share our current stories and take pointers on the kids that we are trying to raise. It makes me happy to think that for some of us our friendship began when we were as old as our little ones are now.

Friendship looks different today with social media playing such a huge part. Still, the basics of this relationship look the same and have the same beginning. My son often has his video calls with his friends where they play and share stories and read to each other, make puzzles and form their bonds, just in a different way more so now because of the current circumstances. But the seeds are being sown hopefully that will last for a long time.

Times sure are different and friends wear masks and stay apart but it’s still so much better to be with one:)

And then we have our toys and the ‘stuffy family’ and of course, as cliched as it may sound, books and music to keep us company and be our friends. Change of time hopefully will never mar this .

Andy sure had his own set of extra special friends:)

These friends stand guard

Night or day, light or dark, these truly never abandon us

For now, they seem to be each others best friends and while neither has any idea of what that means, they sure have their own little world- one that they are learning to share and get into mischief in! The brother understands what the little sister wants when she says things that I too am unable to comprehend. Their own little world has just started taking shape and I can’t wait to see what that evolves into!

Like the rain that smells just as good as it feels after the stifling heat, like the taste that our favorite dessert leaves us with in our hearts and like the groove that our favorite song unknowingly puts us into, friendship influences our essence. It does not require anything external to stay put. Thanks Sandy, this brought back so many memories:)

Thank you for stopping by. Stay safe.

Red

Growing up my favorite color used to be nothing. I always got very confused when friends asked about it as I actually liked all the colors with the exception of brown. And the fact that I did not have a favorite color was confusing for my friends in turn! I figured that I needed to choose a color and stick with that to lessen the eyebrow raising ‘what do you mean you don’t have a favorite color’…I chose black. What was yours?

Red came in much later. Rather, it found me recently and I can tell that it is here to stay. I was reading about this enigmatic color that symbolizes romance and passion while also being symbolic of rage and malice and it made for some interesting read for sure. I feel I am slowly falling in love with this color. I have been looking around for red things to photograph and while I do not have the perfect red photos yet, I have some that are helping me see the beauty and power of the color.

Side of a similar building as the previous one
Cherry Blossom- Some work was done in Lightroom

Cherries

I don’t know which red I like more, the one of cherries or that of the strawberries

Or that of the tomato

The quintessential red lipstick

Summer is here

Around the neighborhood

At the local store

Fake Flowers

The Red Car

Afternoon delight

Peek A Boo

Sets the mood for holidays for sure

Street Corner

A red leaf

A couple of summers ago

The flaming red

The Little Red Barn

A little boy

Somehow, these fell perfectly on the snow

A strange year

Fiery or sublime, red is beautiful. But it is so when it invokes power and passion; it is vicious when it is painted with anger and hatred. Let’s choose the red wisely.

Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe.

Summertime

If only there were a magical place we could send all our worries to from where they would never come back to haunt us, to take away our peace or to toy with our very existence! But such a place does not exist. What does exist is our resilience and humanity, hopefully. The latter being the factor that determines if we move forward not only as a civilization but as a species. This year has been a test for all and now that we are more than half way through and into the gorgeous days of summer , I can’t help but wonder if we have been able to look past the inconvenience that it has brought the ‘me and mine’ to feel for the ‘us’ that the me and mine are part of. The eternal optimist in me would like to think positively:)

Growing up, summer looked a little different from what it does today. School would be off for just about a month and there would always be a lot of ‘holiday homework’ that had to be done. Somehow, we could only get to that when the holiday was almost about to be over and what a scramble that would be! Visits from cousins , ice creams and the gorgeous mangoes were the staple of every summer. Some years we would take a trip to the mountains in the northern part of the country and those 2 weeks would have their own charm. There was something else that was special about summer vacation- story books and all the extra time that could be spent with them. And if sometimes the book happened to be new, I would spend a good number of days just smelling the pages, carefully turning those lest the smell went away. The crisp pages and that almost heady aroma had their own mesmerizing effect on me and it felt as if I could spend days cocooned in the comfort that books always wrap us in. For brief moments of time, they would take me beyond the sweltering summer days into an imaginary or real world that would engage the mind with the fleeting ‘what ifs’ .

I recently read somewhere that summertime is together time and I loved it. It so is together time since the kids are home and while it can sometimes feel crazy, it is also an amazing time to explore and add pages to the pocketbook of our memories This year however, this phase of summer where kids are home, started long back in early spring under dire circumstances and will likely continue well into the next summer months. Gorgeous days are passing us by and while many here in the US have flouted rules and crowded the beaches and pool sides we have stayed home, as have many, venturing out only in the neighborhood.

The simple joys of summer are indeed escaping us this year and it is particularly difficult for the little ones. Sand castles and picnics on the beach, play dates with friends, the animals at the zoo and at the farm, road trips, barbecue parties are all missing (as are hassle free trips to the grocery store but let’s not go there!) Near where we live, every summer there is a wonderful week long street food festival along with music by local bands and it’s an amazing time for all to come together as a community. Those were canceled, as were celebrations around July 4th. Everything is on hold and while this is a temporary pause, the future, at times, seems uncertain at this point.

While going through some of our summer pics from previous years amidst all that is not happening, I found peace and happiness in what has happened. What we have been able to do together as a family and in the memories that we have made. This year may have been different but I am hopeful that when the next summer comes, we would all have healed a little, and become a little wiser and a little more compassionate. The neighborhood parks would no longer have the yellow tapes around them anymore and going to the beach would be okay. As would kids running around in the sprinklers and playing tag. Families would be all together on their picnic mats and whatever they were bickering about would be forgotten as the sparkling fireworks would light up the warm summer night.

Flip flops and sunglasses have not been used that much, neither have hugs. An air of caution looms large and that dampens the spirit of summer. But flowers bloom and rainbows appear. We sing and have dance parties. We continue with the new patterns that have been woven to make the most of this quarantined life. But adventures await and we cannot lose hope. Stay well, you all.

Thanks for stopping by.

Friendly Friday: Essential Tools and Tips

What a fun post from Sandy for the Friday photo challenge! I am always on the lookout for suggestions on anything and everything…what an amazing opportunity it provides to learn from one another on things that range from everyday cooking to traveling somewhere far. And there is often a better or easier or more efficient way of doing things that we stumble upon through such exchanges:)

Storing Fresh Coriander!

Just last week or one before that, a fellow blogger and I exchanged a few lines on the dilemma of storing fresh coriander. My husband and I love this incredible herb and it is a must buy on our now bi weekly grocery trips. But how to store it in a manner that will keep the leaves as fresh as possible for as long as possible has always been a bit of a challenge. We have tried putting the stems in water, keeping them covered with a plastic bag (like Ziploc), wrapping them gently in paper towel. Three to four days is the max that they have retained their freshness. It always made me a little mad that this should not be that difficult a task. Ultimately, we started making a paste or ‘chutney‘ of the leaves (after keeping aside some fresh ones)…that way they wouldn’t go to waste and while we could not use fresh coriander, we could always have the next best thing in the recipes that called for this herb. However…!!!!!! We stumbled upon this way of storing them (and most of you, if not all, probably already know this and are laughing at my naivete now!) After untying the bunch, we lay out the leaves for a bit to let the water dry out and then separated them in two equal portions- one portion had leaves/stems which looked less fresh while the other bunch had the freshest ones. In a plastic box, we put a small piece of paper towel at the bottom and then arranged one portion as loosely as possible (as opposed to a clump) and covered that with another small piece of paper towel. Closed the lid and did the same with the other portion. Marked the boxes 1 &2! It has been a week and our first bunch, with the less fresh leaves, looks like we got them yesterday!

Mayonnaise is Good!

A chicken ‘baking- changing’ tip came from a friend many years ago and I have, since then, never baked chicken without adding that ingredient …mayonnaise! Did you know that a little bit of mayonnaise when marinating the chicken makes them super moist and soft? It does not interfere with the other flavors that you may intend for your chicken. If you have not tried it, I suggest you do!

A pinch of black salt!

Who loves watermelon juice? I do, I do and I do!! The men in my house…not so much. The good man does not mind a watermelon margarita and the little boy prefers staying away from the fruit and the simple juice. Most of us add a dash of lime or lemon to the juice and sweeten it with some sugar is needed but have you ever tried adding a pinch of black salt? Don’t be repulsed by its almost pungent smell. A pinch of it does wonders to drinks like watermelon juice and sometimes even a simple lemonade…but just a pinch. You may have to throw out a couple of glasses of juice to figure out your preferred ‘pinch’ but once you figure that out, you might just be surprised!

A little list!

The last tip, again most of you already probably do this, that comes in very handy when traveling involves the suitcase and its contents. Before I proceed, I should say that I am a very ‘make -a-list-for -everything-that-you-do’ kind of a person and a lot of people find that odd and funny (though I am not sure why this would evoke either of these reactions!). Anyways, so I always have a list for everything. And when I pack suitcases, I always write down the things, in a piece of paper, that are going on inside of each and keep it in the outer pocket of the particular suitcases. This is extremely handy when we travel to India as there are usually 4-6 suitcases and carry-on luggage involved and after having traveled for a close to 20 hours, memory tends to skip important things ! And even when you know which suitcases you need to open first to take out what, trust me this little piece of paper can give your mind that much needed rest.

While trying to take a picture of a suitcase, I casually put my hand in the front pocket to see if I could find the piece of paper that might have traveled with us on our last trip to India…and see what I found!

Thanks for stopping by! Be safe.

Friendly Friday Photo Challenge: Nostalgia

The Nostalgia that I write about , that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection”. (Michel Chabon, The New Yorker)

One of the reasons I started this blog was to seek a way to reflect on the past, to be able to connect to it and channel that in the present. If you have followed even some of my posts, you must have noticed that most of what I try to write, including A thousand memories come rushing by, my very first post, has nostalgia tugging at the heartstrings. Nostalgia is a good thing, they say and I believe. Many still look at this amazingly powerful yet subtle emotion as a hindrance since it apparently prohibits one from moving ahead by dwelling on the past, but I vehemently disagree. Thankfully there is research to back me up!

The other day, I was talking to my good man about The Friendly Friday Photo Challenge and how I was looking forward to participating in it. Upon finding out the theme, he said “Are you sure you will not go overboard?” You see, Nostalgia is my thing and I am almost proud of it.

My parents and a one year old me. This is a photograph that reminds me of a time that I ‘visually’ remember very little of, but somehow know a lot about from all the stories I have heard. So, while my memory is unable to recollect images from this period in my life, it can narrate stories to my children from when I was a baby. And I am always reminded of the fact that irrespective of time and place, children continue to be delighted by similar things.

I keep reflecting on the past. Not to pine over what is not there but to draw from memories that remind me of my roots and also of the treasures that I have, unknowingly gathered, growing up. While a tingling of sadness is undoubtedly associated with nostalgia, it also refreshes our memories about the times spent with dear friends, or that one special trip, or some favorite food, songs that we danced to or could not stop humming, family vacations, childhood home, summers spent with cousins under the shade of the big mango tree, or that ‘tube well’ that fascinated the neighborhood kids.

This is a photograph taken back in 1987. My cousins (on my mother’s side) and I are sitting on the steps of a small room on the roof of my grandfather’s home. This is surprisingly the only photograph that we have till date of all the 9 of us together. Many photos have been taken since but for some reason or the other, one or two of us have always been missing. This was also my grandmother’s favorite photograph and she never failed to mention that we were her navratn (an allusion to Mughal Emperor Akbar’s nine extra ordinary talented group of people in his court)

Nostalgia teaches us to be to be kind and brave, no matter what. And it grounds us in humility and puts the faith back when hope seems to be drifting away in this crazy life. For people who have chosen to live in places far far away from where they grew up and where the way of life has little resemblance to the one left behind decades ago, nostalgia is almost a resource to help power through. Don’t you think?

These are paper clippings that my parents have ‘framed’! Back in 2006 I was honored to be part of the group of 23 teachers who were selected to be in the Japan Exchange Teaching Program (JET) and apart from being an incredible opportunity, little did I know that it was going to change the course of my life! I had an amazing best two years in Japan, fell in love with the place, the food and made some friends for life. My husband and I reconnected in Japan and here I am, raising two kids with him. This photograph, (which embarrasses me a lot!!) reminds me of a turning point in my adult life and an incredibly important one at that:)
This is our alma mater, a place we embraced with our hearts and minds, made friends who are like family and went through some very tough times that forged a stronger bond. The time spent in this city, that recently witnessed a horrific incident and eventually set in motion movements across continents, gave us moments that we will never cease learning from.

As we keep on adding to our pocketbook of memories where the past and the present keep merging, today’s photographs and road trips, family movie nights and celebrations, books read and meals cooked will all be there for us to look back on in the days ahead. And this topsy turvy world, that the indomitable spirit of powerful souls refuses to give up on, will heal one day and we will all look back on the role we played in healing this…let’s make sure that our future generations have something to look back on, where they know that we were not just silent observers.

One fine winter morning, we found ourselves waiting in a hospital, filling out paperwork and getting ready to be parents for the first time. Little did we know what the next 16 hours would bring that would ultimately lead to an emergency C section and end with a crying baby boy in my arms. I had realized when I was pregnant, like all moms do, that it was possible to fall in love with someone I had not even met. And when I did meet that person, I felt for the first time what it was to love someone more than anything or anybody in the whole wide world, a love that cannot be put into words, a love that transcends all other types. And a few years later, I had that feeling again when a little baby girl joined the family.

Life keeps giving us moments that turn into memories. Scattered across the memory are these vignettes and we treasure them, some knowingly and many unknowingly. Nostalgia lets us revisit these when we want to and at times, even creeps up on its own and leads us to them. Whichever way it happens, I hope, we keep cherishing the moments of past and present.

Thanks for stopping by. Be safe.