It is a question I must frequently answer.
“So, what do you miss most about California?”
If I say “nothing”, people think I am some kind of ultra-nationalist who is lying or is clearly delusional.
So, here are my semi-truthful answers. I miss the ability to walk and run long distances on America’s wonderfully constructed sidewalks, and I miss the bright and beautiful food, vegetables triple-washed and sprayed with fine mist to keep them looking like they were plucked an hour ago.
I say semi-truthful because, really, I only miss those long walks through our neighbourhood, draped across the lush hills of Berkeley, where I taught for a semester. Oh, all right, I also miss the ability to saunter down to the weekly farmers’ market and buy fresh-cut boar.
As for running, I do that well enough in Bangalore, thank you. If I get up early, I have entire roads to myself. If I had exquisitely preserved early 20th century houses and wild flowers accompanying me as I trotted through Berkeley, I have 19th century churches and rain trees and, more significantly, little street dramas in Bangalore: wobbly scooters careening up the one-way; a man hopping down the same street as part of some religious rite; and posters of the impressively hirsute star of the latest Kannada movie, Katariveera Surasundarangi. Their message, “Super hit! 32 days!”
I admit the new Bangalore of gated apartment complexes, stupidly driven SUVs and jam-packed malls is quite a nightmare, but the streets of the old city—shaded by the remaining rain trees and cooled by a light wind we call the Bangalore breeze—are still around, should you seek them.
When it comes to food, of course I miss Berkeley’s stunning diversity from across the world. But when I restart my kitchen in Bangalore—after trapping three rats and getting my dead fridge repaired—I realize what I left behind. In a country as yet unmarked by aisles and signs, there is so much to discover and explore in markets, on streets, in people’s minds and in the deep recesses of my kitchen.
I find Karnataka’s famed maddur vada has acquired a sleek, new pre-packaged baked avatar. I see Albert Bakery is still open from only 3pm to 8pm and quickly runs out of its bite-sized keema samosas. I eat crab in an onion-tomato and cashew paste, a prawn-and-drumstick curry and micro-dosa stuffed with prawn and presented in a shot glass. I meet Harish, a sous chef at the Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers in Chennai, who presented all these at a buffet and inspired me to cook what I have this week. I hear for the first time, at the city’s annual mango festival, of a mango varietal called “sugar baby”. I read of rogues, rowdies and an Air India plane that lands safely after a nose wheel falls off.
I often battled boredom in Berkeley. After all, how many types of garlic can you admire at those cavernous supermarkets? How many perfect streets can you walk down? How often can you marvel at the efficiency of public facilities? I acknowledge these American realities, but they are not my realities—excuse me while I try to get my BSNL phone fixed, dead for eight days now since I returned.
There is a second question that sometimes follows the first: “You didn’t think of finding something permanent and settling there?”
I tell them, if they will believe me, that (a) there is the small matter of visa and work permit and (b) the US is too sanitized and too perfect for me. It does not excite my mind, refresh my soul or keep me entertained. As the writer Ruskin Bond said in Bangalore last week, “You can die of a hundred different things, but you can’t die of boredom in India.”
Mint, coriander and curry leaf chicken
2 handfuls of coriander, cleaned
1 handful of mint, cleaned
4 green chillies
1-2 tbsp vinegar (red- or white-wine or plain)
2 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
3 tsp ginger-garlic paste
2 tsp mustard seeds
15-20 curry leaves
Salt to taste
Make a paste of the coriander, mint, chillies, vinegar and some salt. You might need to add some water. Gently heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a non-stick pan. Drop in mustard seeds until they pop. Add onions and sauté till golden brown. Reduce heat, add ginger-garlic and sauté for a minute. Add the green paste and fry for about 5 minutes. Add chicken and salt and turn up heat. When the masala starts to boil, reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes or until the chicken is semi-dry. Stir in curry leaves 5 minutes before switching off the stove.
Pepper broccoli with curry leaf
Broccoli, one small head, cut into small florets and cleaned
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 tsp peanut or sesame oil
3-4 large cloves garlic, smashed
1 tsp mustard seeds
10-15 curry leaves
Salt to taste
Heat peanut or sesame oil. Do the tempering: Add mustard seeds until they pop, then add curry leaves. Add garlic and sauté till lightly brown. Add broccoli and stir-fry on heat. Just before the broccoli becomes crunchy, add pepper, salt and toss. Top with a sprinkling of fresh herbs, if you wish.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is consulting editor, Mint and Hindustan Times.
Write to Samar at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Samar’s previous columns