One fine evening, our friendly neighbour showed up at the door with something she had just baked. She offered me the tray, accompanied by a bright smile.

“Wheat brownies? I just baked them."

Now, you know, dear reader, that I do not like desserts—along with tea, coffee and beer—so sweet as this gesture was, the brownies would be wasted. I told her so, thanking her profusely.

I closed the door and turned to see the wife staring at me.

“What did you do that for?" she asked.

“What? I don’t eat them, and you try to stay away, so what’s the point of all those wheat brownies?"

“Wheat brownies?" She looked incredulously at me. “Those were weed brownies!"

Unfortunately, we were never offered those brownies again. But food from the neighbours is a fine feature of life in Richards Town, Bengaluru. There’s Ishrat aunty one floor below, sending up a plate of some of her finest home-made biryani for the nine-year old, who will not share it.

Until she left for Sweden, there was Astrid, who did not cook much since she was a working woman, but when she did, she always shared her beef or pork with us, um, me. There’s Anaheeta, editor of our fine neighbourhood newspaper, from a few buildings down, who first took me to the neighbourhood slaughterhouse to shop for fresh brain. My mother, who lives in the same building, sends her bombil—Bombay duck. There’s Gayatri, a professor, who sent me a shredded beef pickle—we have a food exchange running.

You get the idea. We are a diverse lot, united by an abiding love for food and fraternity.

Many in the neighbourhood have realized this love for eating has commercial potential. So, WhatsApp groups of home chefs flourish, charging whatever they think is right and fair. Nothing is exorbitant. For 100, you can get six of the best shammi kebabs—no one could tell they were chicken—or five chicken samosas from Fathima Riyaz, the lady behind “Lady and Ladle". The advice is free. “You must dip the kebabs in egg and shallow-fry them," she told me, cheerfully accepting that I would likely bake them. Her special is a Bhatkali biryani, from her home town in Bhatkal along the sunny coast of northern Karnataka. For this column, she has shared a Bhatkali dish I had never heard of before: a prawn-rice bake.

A little further away is Lisa Govias, proprietor of home business Pepper That, from whom I buy Thai chicken meatballs, tomato kasundi and beef cutlets (there’s much more—from pork pickle to chicken liver pate to East Indian pork sorpotel). She “Dunzos"—in Bengaluru, the Dunzo pick-up-and-delivery service is now a verb—my requirements and I do a bank transfer, even if it is for 400. Sometimes, I forget, and Lisa will gently remind me, laughing off my profuse apologies.

The other Lisa—her daughter and ours grew up together—always has us over for the Fernandes family Christmas party. Apart from the spectacular, smoky pork roast laid down by her sister Susie, the other attraction is that the party is accompanied by ceaseless singing. Everyone sings in the Fernandes family and close harmonies of the sisters—there are two more of them—are things of beauty and joy. They clearly get some of their talent from their aunt, a nun in a local convent.

So, life goes on under the rain trees of Richards Town. More traffic is routed through the once-quiet neighbourhood, once so quiet that cricket was played on the streets. More homes go down every month, to be replaced by ugly apartment buildings that violate every municipal law on setbacks and space. Every time this happens, a tree or two is lost, and something dies within us.

Some things don’t change though. At our little fairs—sometimes to raise funds to maintain a park, sometimes just because—held twice or thrice a year, there may be local bands or choirs, but the focal point is always food. It’s cooked by all the good folks around us. There is Kodava and Mangalurean pork; Anglo-Indian beef roast; biryani and kebabs from our diverse Muslim communities; varieties of baked snacks and cakes; and my roast chicken. Oh yes, beef and pork are sold together, and the thought of anyone objecting—I need to say this given the increasing fractiousness of our nation—does not enter anyone’s mind.

May it ever be so.

FATHIMA RIYAZ’S SHEWSA POLI (PRAWN-RICE CAKE)

Ingredients

For the coconut mix

1 cup boiled rice

1/2 cup dosa rice

1/2 a coconut, grated

1/2 kg prawns

For the prawn masala

1 tbsp vegetable oil

2 onions

1 large tomato

6-7 green chillies, finely chopped

1 cardamom

7-8 peppercorns

2 cloves

1 bay leaf

1/4 tsp coriander powder

1/4 tsp cumin powder

1/4 tsp turmeric powder

1/4 tsp garam masala powder

1/4 tsp tandoori masala

2 tsp ginger-garlic paste

Salt to taste

Method

Wash and soak the rice overnight for 6-7 hours. Add the coconut to the rice mixture and grind. Remove shells from the prawns, devein and wash. Add juice of 1 lime and set aside.

Heat the oil in a non-stick wok. Add cardamom, peppercorns, bay leaf and cloves. Sauté for a minute. Add sliced onions and cook till soft or it starts to brown. Add ginger-garlic paste and sauté well. Add diced tomato, green chillies and cook till it softens. Add powdered spices and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the prawns and cook till done. Take care not to overcook.

Let the masala cool. Then mix in the coconut-rice. Check salt. Pour batter into a greased baking cupcake tray. Pre-heat oven for 5 minutes. Bake for about 40 minutes, grilling for the last 3 minutes if you want the top crisp.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.

Twitter - @samar11

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