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Wednesday, 23 July 2014

NRI Tamarind-Coconut Paneer

So the mother in law arrived last week armed with chapatis and a copy of Tarangini.
About time they learn a little about our culture she said good-naturedly.
With just the tiniest hint of a rebuke.
Rightly so, I have to admit. We totally deserve it. 
I say "we" because I'm hardly going to singularly shoulder the responsibility of being a failed NRI parent.
Oh no. I'm only one half of a failed NRI parent.
The better half, may I add
Prettier and more virtuous.
Cleverer.
And everything.

Anyway, so Sid and I have moaned about this topic all too often. We realise this is a problem. But it's not for lack of an effort, I promise you, it's not. It's just that all past attempts to impart pearls of wisdom and knowledge about the rights and rituals of the subcontinent are met largely with a blank face and a "pardon?"
(because he's been told by godknowswho that one must say "pardon" and not "what")

That's the 4-year old of course.
The 8-month old only giggles uncontrollably.
The 8-month old you see is in this binary phase, where he finds life either hysterically funny or hysterically tragic.
This, clearly, is hysterically funny territory.

Just to clarify, it's not that Ranbir is not interested. When it comes to India, Ranbir is highly interested in what he is interested in.
For example, when Sid or I are flicking through TV channels and a Hindi movie is on, especially one that involves random crowds of people bashing each other up in the middle of a street, we are required to stop and watch. That, he's thoroughly fascinated by.
Also, to be fair, he knows the major festivals and will don his colourful kurta-pajama and sit and pray and sing the songs and light the sparklers or sprinkle the colours (whatever the occasion necessitates) and have himself a wonderful time.
But getting the substantive stuff across is a losing battle. What's frustrating is that it's met not by a lack of interest, but by amusement.
He - like his brother - thinks it's funny.
Which drives me mad.

I mean people wax eloquent about their kids been tri and quadri lingual. We are barely making bi!
How does a kid who can string together - "Don't panic, mum, I have a brilliant idea to save the world" not get that "idhar aao" accompanied by exaggerated hand gestures, means "come here?"

"If you don't learn Hindi," I say to him, "how will you visit Dadi and Dadaji and Nanu and Didima in India?" These are  his favourite people, by the way, grandparents all, who spoil him rotten, ignoring with reckless abandon any and all rules I have audaciously set in place.

"oooooh In-dia!!"
Then. 
"I want to go to In-dia, Mama. Can we go to In-dia in an eearoplane?"
"Yes we can," I say, "but you need to learn Hindi first."
The second half of my sentence has been glazed over. Completely.
"I want to go in an eearoplane."
"Can I watch videos on the eearoplane?"
Sigh.

So, while the in laws are away in Germany on holiday, I devise a plan.
See, it's like this: I read to the boys every morning while they have their milk. It's a quiet half-hour we spend together, the three of us, and we cherish this time. 
Ranbir gets to pick the book-of-the-day. Yesterday he got "The Highway Rat" by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Today I tell him to get "Tarangini" by Swami Chinmayananda and Swamini Saradapriyananda.

My plan: I will read him a story from Tarangini every day the in laws are away so by the time they're back, he'll have known at least five or six of them.
Which fact, he will promptly inform them of, because that's what children do.
And then I'll get to gloat a little.
It's my "brilliant idea to save the world."
Ha.

Tarangini is a collection of eighteen short stories. We decide to start at the very beginning - which as Maria tells us - is a very good place to start.
The first story is titled Lord Ganesha.
I'm genuinely excited about this. I bring a statue of Lord Ganesh I have in my bedroom, and I tell Ranbir that the story we're about to read is all about him - the Elephant God.
Ranbir's excited too.
And the baby seems excited. Well, at least he's not gone all red in the face and bawling like he's got chilli powder in his Huggies. Which, in a binary world, means, he's excited.
So basically - we're all excited.
Three pages later when I come to the bit where "In a fit of rage, Shiva chopped off the boy's head..." my excitement wanes a little and I decide that perhaps this story is best told in a different medium.
I close the book.

Fail.

So, I change tack.
And reach for the iPad. Yep, that brilliant invention, that saviour of all saviours, that commodity as indispensable as disposable nappies - the iPad!

Because, if there is one way to keep things interesting, it is this.

So I go to YouTube and put in "Children's Story Lord Ganesha."
And I get 12,700 hits.
I click on the first one - it's got an image of a cute little kid staring back at me.
And then we wait, the three of us, with bated breath.
The beginning is brilliant, all lovely animation and all, little boy complete with chubby cheeks and dimpled chin, calling out "Mother" in the sweetest little voice; Parvati, embracing him, beaming all around.
We are all as delighted as Parvati.

Minutes later - and really without any warning at all - Shiva chops off the little boy's head. As in, the severed head flies off on a little jolly into the sky. I mean, I know, I know, it's Lord Ganesha's story, of course there's no avoiding the chopped head and all. But I expected a children's version to tone it down a bit you know? Like Disney? No?
At least the book built up nicely to Shiva's fit of rage. Here in the children's video, we go from Shiva coming home to Shiva chopping off heads in like 3 seconds. Very bad. 

Now, blood splatters here, there and everywhere.
The baby is gurgling happily at the screen. He still finds the world funny.
But the 4-year old has turned white.
As if he's not Caucasian enough.

When Shiva ends up holding the boys head, duly descended from the sky, in his hands with the headless body of the boy running around him in circles, I lurch forward for the power button.
For a few minutes no one says anything.
Then I get, "Mama, why did that man cut off that little boy's head?
Sigh.
This is why we watch peppa pig.

I put away the iPad.

Fail.

"Let's go to the kitchen" I announce, faking sparkle. "Let's make paneer!"
I lead the way, the baby in my arms.
Reluctantly the 4-year old follows.
I'll be damned if I can't teach the boy Indian culture, I think to myself. One way or another, I shall NOT be outdone. And the best way I know of, is through food. Food is love, people. Food is love.

Here's what you need:

2 tbsp vegetable oil
400g Indian Paneer cheese cut into small cubes
1 pinch asafoetida (hing)
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
½ inch ginger, shredded thin
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
4 tbsp fresh grated or desiccated coconut 
2 tbsp tamarind sauce/paste
1 tbsp brown sugar


Here's how you do it:

Now, if you like, you can first fry the paneer lightly until its brown on all sides. This is definitely the purist way of doing things. But you don't have to. Just don't tell my mother in law :)

Now, heat a bit of oil in a pan and throw in the mustard and cumin seeds all at once. As soon they start to pop add the pinch of hing and the ginger-garlic and fry. Be careful - hing burns fast. 

Next, stir in the tomatoes and fry until cooked and soft. Finally, add in the tamarind, sugar and some salt to taste. You might need to add some water, but the desired constituency of the sauce in this dish is on the dry side, so keep it thick. Now, mix in the raw (or fried) paneer and cook till the paneer cubes are properly coated with the sauce. Add in the coconut and mix through.

This is a sublime dish guys - a wonderful example of true home-style Indian cooking - a bit of spice, a bit of sweet, a bit of sour, and a bit of heat. Notice how I haven't used any chills at all. Partly it's because I need my son to eat it, but also because you don't always need to douse Indian food with chilli powder to make it taste good. You get enough spice from the ginger in this dish, the brown sugar tempers it, the tamarind and tomatoes add tartness and the asafoetida harmonises the sweet-salty-sour elements wonderfully. After all, Indian cooking is all about getting that perfect balance of flavours, and this dish just hits home.

"Wah wah wah wah, kya baat hai" says a little voice.
I almost drop the frying pan on my toes.
"Whaaat?? Who taught you that?" I ask, in utter astonishment.
"Papa did."
I have to stop myself from laughing out loud.
Wouldn't have been that funny if I'd lost those toes.

I spoon out some of the Paneer on top of a bowl of steaming hot Basmati and watch, as it quickly disappears.
I hold my breath waiting to hear a "Can I just not have some pasta, mummy?"
But I don't.

Pass.

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