Sreenath Sreenivasan

Thriving Mindfully

Category: Cooking

What I learnt about brotherhood after having a Nepali Thali

It was my maiden visit to Kathmandu, Nepal.
My country India and Nepal share a common history, ancestry, culture and religion with each other,
ties that can be traced back to many millennia.

So, I wasn’t much surprised when I found as much a sense of familiarity as a deep sense of novelty with Nepal at first glance. The people dressed the same as Indians did, the vehicles on the road were the same as back home and so was the nonchalant acceptance of chaos on the streets.
Even the shops had much of their stock imported from India.
Much to my surprise, I could even use Indian currency to shop in Nepal.
In many senses, Nepal felt like a younger brother to India.

To me, the most lasting cultural experience in a new country is the culinary delights it has to offer. Walking unsuspectingly along a backpackers’ ghetto, I looked around for signs of authentic Nepali cuisine.
I spotted a restaurant where locals were having their afternoon meal. Its warm and inviting energy beckoned me in.

The first dish on the menu was Nepali Khana Set Thali. Without another thought, I placed an order for one.

Within minutes, I had Thali (Plate) on my table.
The Thali was made of a copper alloy, with a couple of small bowls arranged on the side.
The contents looked quite similar to a Thali back in India.
A dollop of steaming hot rice, a bowlful of Dal (Lentil soup), a curry of potatoes and peas, a green spinach stir fry, a dried leafy fermented vegetable preparation, three different pickles and a token salad of one slice each of carrot, radish and cucumber.

By the looks of it, I was expecting a much similar taste as that of a regular Indian meal.
But boy was I wrong !
Each subsequent bite only took me by delightful surprise.

The rice was pearly and mildly sticky, cooked to perfection, tasty even just by itself. The dal was a perfect masquerade, looking every bit like the India dal but having a teasingly peculiar flavor, spiced delicately but by no means spicy.
The potatoes and peas, blended easily with whatever else you chose to eat it with.
The greens were cooked just right, minimally, with the right amount of water retained to keep it succulent. It was the perfect example of how to cook greens, right to the sweet spot.

I was particularly surprised by the fermented mustard leaf preparation called ‘Gundruk’, a flavor reminiscent of Punjabi Sarson da saag but tasting nothing like it.
Then, came the deal breaker trio of pickles. A spiced radish slice fermented just right and nuggets of soybean peppered with chilli and coriander.
As surprisingly flavorful as they were, the icing on the cake was the red achaar on the Thali.
At first I could not even tell what it was made of. Each time I tasted it, it whispered one of the ingredients to my tantalised toungue.
With a base of Nepali tomatoes, it had undertones of local chilli (khursani) , coriander , salt and the soul of Nepal in some way. It had a tangy yet citrus aftertaste, a heavenly blend of ingredients.

Each morsel of the meal had such personality, it felt as if I was having an intimate meeting Nepal with each bite.
Ofcourse, I asked for second portions of each dish and ate as avidly as the first time.

Satiated with this surprise of an experience, with a loosened belt, I sat back wondering..

It is likely that many of the ingredients in this Thaali were imported from India. Yet, each and every dish, can stand on its own,
working together to create an experience even better than the sum of its parts.

In a way, my preconceived notion about Nepal was proven to be wrong within the first few hours.

It was quite akin to the experience of brotherhood.
An elder brother undoubtedly has a deep influence on his younger sibling. And sometimes it is taken for granted by the elder one how his younger brother would imitate much of what he does.
Being a younger brother in real life, I have been through this imitation game.
Hence, I could understand why I expected a Nepal Thali (Say younger brother) would be quite similar to the character of the Indian Thali (Elder sibling).

But it is a moment of great pride to realise how a younger brother has its own individual voice, despite the common background and upbringing.

Through this culinary experience, despite being the younger sibling in my family,
I could feel the elation of an elder sibling when he realises that his younger brother has always had such a distinct and pleasing character.
Much of it has also to do with my lack of exposure and awareness about the Nepali cuisine and culture.

But now,
My respect and admiration for Nepali culture has found firm ground in my heart.

I see the Thali in front of me at the moment. I finished everything on the plate but the salad.
Neatly arranged still,
There are three slices of Carrot, Radish and Cucumber,
Shades of orange, white and green,
Reminding me of the Indian flag, feebly hinting at our common culture despite our distinct geopolitical reality.

I smile.
And deep in my heart,
I know I will have many more Nepali Thalis to relish this unique experience,
Of the perfect blend of
familiarity and novelty.

I am a Volunteer for Life

I’ve been riding my bicycle in India for ten days now. And it is the first time I rented a place to stay at night. On all other nights I would either sleep at a Gurudwara or a temple or at a friend’s place.
Today is my first paid stay so to say. I feel such a huge difference between the experiences of being hosted and paying to stay.
The place where I am staying looks like a chawl in Mumbai suburbs of the 90s. There is no fan, shower, Wifi, clean linen or even a doormat. There is a 50 watt bulb that infuses gloom in disptempered walls.
Frankly, it is quite a sad place.

But that is not what bothers me the most. I’ve stayed at places where I’ve had to sleep on the floor, in under construction houses and on one occasion I even spent the night on a bench at a bus stop.
I’ve spent most of my nights at a Gurudwara or a temple in India.
And I was totally okay with the utmost basic facilities I had at these places.

Why?

Because I was invited with open arms without any expectation of a transaction.
I had the freedom to move around and look for opportunities to help in the best manner I could.
I have volunteered in community kitchens, served food at the langars, swept floors, helped wash dishes for hours and on one occasion I even volunteered to clean up a disgusting community toilet out of my own desire to make things better.
I’ve slept in community halls on the floor after the long day filled with 6 hours of cycling and volunteering thereafter.
Yet, I have always slept like a baby and woken up with enthusiasm and purpose with the first light of the sun.

But today, in this enclosed space in the guest house, I feel sleepy, drained and devoid of energy.

I realised, maybe a transactional reality is not the context that brings out the best in me.
Here, at the guest house, I pay money and get a place to stay.
A transaction.
It doesn’t serve my spirit.

I would rather wish to engineer a context where I am free to contribute in whatever way I am capable of, at a place where I can engage with people and hopefully make friends and leave behind the place in a better condition.

It is not even about being a stingy traveller, who is always careful with money. I contributed monetatily at most places I was hosted for free, because I wish these places to exist and multiply, so that we have another context to experience. Because I want places that foster brotherhood to thrive.

While I know, the people running this guest house need money for sustenance and I’m happy to give them business, I realised this is not the best context for me to stay at.

In the interest of feeling more energised , enthused and eager to contribute I would choose to stay at a temple or a gurudwara or a kind host’s place.

This experience also made me understand why people choose to volunteer even on weekends despite a busy work week.
Volunteering is such an energising experience!
It will only fill you up with love and hope.

Maybe this weekend, instead of choosing to sleep over till late in the morning and going out for a brunch at a restaurant, I would like to suggest an alternative.

Go to a Gurudwara and volunteer at the community kitchen. They accept help form anyone who is willing to volunteer.
Instead of spending money at the restaurant, eat at the Langar in the Gurudwara for free.
I assure you, the experience will only leave you happy and energised.
And you will wish to donate a fraction of the money you would have spent at the restaurant to the Gurudwara donation box.

It is a much better investment of time and money.

Tomorrow, I am going to leave my bicycle behind and trek with a couple of friends to Kheerganga, Himachal Pradesh.
It is likely that I will pitch up a tent for the first time in India.
Since I would be hosted by mother nature in the valley, I am wondering how to be of help to her.
I have a huge garbage bag folded up in my backpack.
Maybe, I will just pickup all the trash that doesn’t belong in mother nature’s lap.

I can’t help being helpful.

I choose to be a volunteer for life.

I hope you have a fulfiling weekend my dear friend !

 

 

Finding Home

The sun shone brightly, hovering in the clear sky. It was just 9 am but the heat made it feel as if it was noon. Determined to ride for another half an hour I pedaled on. I was riding from Phuket to a town called Phang Nga.
I had taken this route a few days ago to reach Phuket. That ride was made special by this woman who made the most lovingly prepared meal I had eaten in Thailand.
Today, as I was on the same road, I wished to stop to see her again and eat her food.
However, it is tricky to spot a little shop that you only vaguely remember. My inability to read Thai made it even more difficult to find her shop.
I moved on slowly, battling the sun’s ire.

At one moment, I just had a feeling that she was close by. I looked around and saw a little shop that could be hers.
I took a U-Turn and approached the shop.

And I found her, sitting on a chair with her cheeks resting on her palm.

She smiled with inexplicable delight.
It seemed as if she was already expecting me. Maybe she had seen me pass by across the road and knew I would make a U-turn and come to her.

I gestured to the eggs, rice and mortar and pestle to remind her of what she had made for me a few days ago.

‘Ok Ok’ she said smilingly.

I was brought a cold glass of water by her daughter. The table-fan was turned towards me. I eased myself as if I had reached home. Nonchalantly I plugged in
my phone to charge.

Within minutes, I had her signature fried rice in front of me. I prayed for her well being and ate to my heart’s content. Halfway through I asked her if she can make me another one to take with me.

She gladly agreed and got working.
I don’t recall seeing anyone cook with so much love for an absolute stranger.
Soon, I had the take away pack with me.
I quickly rose to get my Polaroid camera.

I asked her if I could take a picture of her and her daughter.
And that feminine blush that signals an affirmative surfaced on her face!

I clicked a picture and left it with them.
I felt so at home that I no longer felt there was a transaction involved.
As I got up to leave, I remembered that I hadn’t paid for the meal.
I paid them 60 Baht as they curiously stared at the photograph.

Just before I got on my bike, the daughter came running to me with a Thai orange. I accepted it happily and moved on.

I had seen Thai oranges in markets many times. They look a bit shriveled up as compared to Oranges back in India. I was never interested to try them. But today I had one with me.
I tasted it, only to be blown away by the flavour. It leans more to the sweeter side than citrus. It was a phenomenal experience.

I am sitting with the peel of orange in my hand, smiling.
I wonder how I could just sense that the lady’s shop was nearby.
How she knew I would take a U turn and come to eat at her place?
And why I felt so at home in her little shop?

I realized that a home is not just a physical location. It is a place where someone is waiting for you expectantly.
Today, I found a little home in a foreign land.
A home I might never come back to again,
But I’ve leased out a place in my heart for it.

When Ginger meets Galangal

It would be appropriate to say that it was my taste buds that led me to Thailand.
I remember the day when I first tasted Thai Red Curry in a restaurant in Delhi.
The chef inside me had a culinary awakening.
The mild, citrus and exotic flavour of the Thai red curry, the lilting fragrance of the blend of herbs and coconut milk made my knees go weak.
The feeling was akin to finding a treasure by accident.
But since I had no idea about what spices constitute this scintillating flavour, I assumed it was not possible to cook it at home.

When I reached Thailand, I was expecting to be greeted by this flavor. Much to my disappointment, I never got to see it mentioned anywhere on the menu at street shops. Over the course of biking around for two weeks in Thailand, I felt a bit dejected inside and wished for Indian food instead.
But where would I find Indian food in rural Thailand?

Two days ago, I went to a bicycle shop in Chiang Mai to tune up my bike.
In passing, the shop owner mentioned that there was an Indian restaurant close by. My nose pointed to the direction of the restaurant like a compass. Soon I found myself sitting with a plate of Vegetable Pulao, Dal Makhani and a buttery-soft Naan.
The first bite felt like homecoming.
Oh the perfect blend of spices from home!
Cumin spluttered at the perfect temperature, the hint of ginger julliennes and flakes of Kasoori Methi bringing the Basmati rice to life. A dollop of cream on dal simmered slowly overnight garnished with coriander.
I ate with a joy I didn’t expect to emanate from me. Funnily enough, I found myself to be patriotic in that moment!
Disillusioned by the prospect of finding the Thai red curry, I was ready to make peace with our own diverse cooking style back home.
But the chef in me still clung on to hope.

That night I got biking around Chiang Mai to discover the city. To my delight, I found a local roadside eatery labelled as Vegetarian-Vegan Friendly.
I walked in, hoping to find what led me to the country in the first place.
I looked at the menu and there it was :
Thai red curry with brown rice: 60 Baht

I ordered and waited patiently.
As the food was served, I could already smell the flavor I had experienced in Delhi.
The first spoonful felt like arrival!
The melange of coconut milk with the perfectly compatible combination of Lemongrass, Kaffir Lime leaf and Galangal spiced to perfection with obliquely slit red chillies.
That was the moment when I truly felt,
‘I’m in the Thailand that I always dreamt of’
I ate with a smile all throughout. The three lady chefs behind the counter knew what a difference they’d made to my day!
‘Aroy!'(Delicious in Thai) I complimented from my table.
They accepted it with giggles and grace.

Sitting back at the hostel after the meal, I wondered about the unsolicited culinary delight the day had turned out to be.

India and Thailand have had historical connections that can be traced back into many millennia. They’re long lost brothers belonging to the same family in a sense.
Much like Ginger and Galangal.
Ginger is a staple spice in the Indian household. Its earthy, strong and spicy flavour lends many Indian dishes a distinctive taste.
While Galangal, from the same family as ginger, looks similar but has a completely contrasting flavor. A much used ingredient in Northern Thai cuisine, it has an aromatic and citrus flavor with a signature aftertaste.

Today, through food,
I found myself in India while being far away from home
But I also found myself right in the heart of Thailand, courtesy the Thai Red Curry.

Now, I wonder where am I,
At home or at the destination that I seeked far away from home?

Maybe,
I am at neither.
Maybe,
I am just,
at the right place!

Food, Love and Energy

Exhausted after a long bicycle ride, I stopped at a snack shop in a busy lane in Nakhon Sawan. I was hoping the lady cooking inside would understand English. I showed her my phone which had a translation of vegetarian in Thai written for her.
‘Mangsawirati? (Vegetarian in Thai)’ I asked
‘Ok Ok, yes!’ she said.

She quickly cooked up a vegetarian fried rice for me.
We exchanged words as I ate. It was a pleasant 15 minute conversation.
As I left, I felt more energised.
‘I wish you good luck, strong man!’ she said.
We shared a laugh as I pedalled on.

That morning, I had also gotten a bowl of rice and egg as breakfast from one of the monks. We shared a great conversation as I ate. I clicked him a Polaroid picture as a token of appreciation for his kindness.
As I left, I felt I had great energy.

At the moment I am in another temple, supposedly one of the more famous ones since it has a big pagoda on top of a hill in Nakhon Sawan. I have a place to set up my tent in a corner.
But I have absolutely no one around me.
I went out and ate the same meal as I had for lunch and breakfast, this time, all alone.
I had fried rice and eggs. It tasted much how like breakfast and lunch did.
But I don’t feel energized after the meal.

I realize that energy comes from the person who prepares and serves the food,
From the one who shares a conversation with you as you eat.

No wonder kids have such exuberant energy. They’re fed by the most pristine source, with the most heartfelt conversation that can ever exist.
One in the company of their mother!

What do you think ?

Beautiful Inside.

On my Bicycle ride from Auroville to Chennai I stopped at a coconut shop I used to frequent years ago. The shop looked a bit run down as compared to how it looked like earlier. I approached the unmanned coconut stand and called out the owner’s name.
‘Saviraj?’ I enquired.
Slowly, an elderly man made his way from his house.
‘Saviraj, do you remember me? I used to come to drink coconuts 5 years ago.’
He nodded smilingly.
In an adorable mix of Tamil and pidgin English he started talking to me.
‘Now enge(where)?’
‘I am cycling from Auroville to Chennai Saviraj’
Meanwhile his wife Sarada came out hearing her husband speak in English.
They both offered me a place to sit. I had a big coconut proffered to me instantly.
They saw my Bicycle loaded up with my luggage and gasped in surprise.
I asked them if I could rest for sometime in the temple across te street.
‘Sleeping here’ said Saviraj pointing to his house.
I laid out my Yoga mat and had a nice nap. In half an hour I awoke to the smell of homemade Dosas. Sarada brought me four thick dosas with the most unique coconut chutney I’ve tasted in my life.

I smiled and accepted the food. It was a delicious feast.
I felt humbled by their spirit of caring. As I was leaving I asked if I could click a Polaroid picture with her.
She blushed and said, ‘Shower no, not look good!’
‘But you’re beautiful. Sooper(Tamil-English slang for remarkable) I said.

Reluctantly she posed and we took a picture.
As the polaroid film developed we waited anxiously. The picture came out great.
‘ Sooper no?’ I asked.
‘Aama(yes)’ she blushed.
I left her with the picture and loaded up my Bicycle to head onward. I was bid goodbye lovingly.

On the way I wondered,
‘She took care of fact that I’d been cycling for 4 hours in the sun and did the best she could to support me. To have such compassion and empathy is the most beautiful asset. It shines through in her eyes. And even if she looked a bit disheveled in the picture because of her household chores, the camera captured the beauty in her spirit.
We often fail to cultivate and realize our own inner beauty. While we are born with the fate of a fixed physical appearance, we also have the opportunity to foster a thriving inner world full of love and compassion. And it is the latter that makes for our true identity.

I hope the picture I left Sarada with keeps reminding her what a caring heart she has. And she realizes the beauty in herself beyond the physical.

The chief ingredient

I had the opportunity to cook lunch today at my community. I was a bit drained out because of a bout of cold. Thankfully I had a great kitchen team that helped in the best possible way. We prepared a great meal and left a clean kitchen behind.
Once everyone started eating their meal I could sense that people enjoyed the food. I was happy. After finishing my meal , as I was heading out to wash the dishes , someone patted on my shoulder.

He smilingly told, ‘Thank you for bringing me close to my mother. I ate the food and thought my mother had cooked it.’ I was quite surprised by this compliment considering that he was from Israel and nothing we’d prepared was from the Israeli cuisine.

Then I realized that even though the spices were different the chief ingredient in the meal was the same.

Love.