Saturday, October 18, 2008

Learning to make roti

As well as rice, roti is another staple in Indian cuisine. It's a bit like naan bread but much thinner and not as large. You get served 3 or 4 pieces with your meal instead of, or sometimes in addition to, your rice. Dillip asked if I would like his wife to teach me how to make them as I'd commented on how good hers were and also because you can't buy them in the shops – they're always made at home. So last night, after work, I popped upstairs to his house and had my first Indian cookery lesson. The basic recipe is flour mixed with salt and water to make a dryish dough – a bit like pastry but there's no butter in it. You then knead the dough as you would any other bread – in India this is done in the bowl rather than on the counter because it is considered unsavoury to touch food with your left hand and kneading with one hand is easier in a bowl. All that was quite easy – I think it will take a couple of times to get the consistency exactly right but not difficult in theory. You then divide the dough into fish-cake sized patties – again using one hand but in the privacy of my own home I imagine I'll probably use both – and you then roll the patties into rounds and this is where a lot of practice will be required. On a round roti-sized wooden board, the aim is create perfect circles out of the patties with a rolling pin – not only do they have to be perfect circles but they have to be of an even thickness – there's no cutting off the bits round the edges as you would with pastry. Somehow, you also have to majically turn the dough in the process of rolling it rather than manually shifting it round. There was much mirth at my square or otherwise irregularly shaped rotis and my need to manually turn the dough in between rolling. Having made your perfect circles – or not – you then dry fry them on the hob – squashing down any air bubbles that might appear. You use a special cast-iron pan for this – the name of which escapes me – but it's a bit like a frying pan without the sides. When it is cooked it looks a bit like a thick pancake and you then transfer it to a round griddle which you hold over the heat. At this point you find out whether your rolling skills are up to par – if the roti is round and even, the middle of it will separate and top half will fill with air for about 30 seconds; you then toss your roti – pancake style – and the other side rises and your creation ends up nice and light. However, if you haven't got it right it won't rise at all – it's too thick; will only produce a few disjointed bubbles – you haven't rolled it evenly enough; or split at one side – it's not round enough. Most Indian housewives can make dozens of perfect rotis in about 20 minutes – it took me about half an hour to make 5 none of which came anywhere near perfection. So I'm off down to the market tomorrow to buy the requisite pan, griddle and roti board as I think I'll need fair amount of practice before I can offer my creations to any of my neighbours. They will off course need curry to go with them but that's another lesson for another day.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Two months in

Although it doesn't feel like it, I've now been in Bhawanipatna for eight weeks. I still regularly ride side-saddle on the back of motorbikes but am now far less scared and this evening I barely flinched as the bike, driven by the 14-year old Drubo, squeezed between an on-coming tractor and the open drain with only millimetres to spare. It is also interesting to note that what I saw as exiting and different when I first arrived here is now almost every-day. On my 15-minute walk to work (along roads that have seen tarmac at some point but have now reverted to dirt tracks), I pass by people washing themselves, their clothes and their crockery at the local water pump without a second glance; and I amble un-seeing through traffic jams that comprise seven bullock-carts meeting a throng of children going to school – three or four to a bike. It's still quite beautiful – romantic even – but at the same time feels quite normal.
The work front has picked up a bit although there are still hours, sometimes whole days, of inactivity due to the power cuts. I have spent my time trying to learn a bit more Oriyan vocabulary and can now understand about 1 in 100 words spoken by the average 3-year old which is a start at least. I can also count to 100 - no mean feat in Oriya. Unlike European languages, where once you get to 20 you're kind of on the home straight, each number, if not unique, certainly doesn't' follow a consistent pattern so you have to learn each and every one. However, it comes in useful in the market when I can now look horrified when the vendor tries to charge me 26 rupees (chhabisi) for a kilo of tomatoes when I know they should only cost 16 (sohola) rather than blindly handing over some cash and then counting the change to see how much I've been charged.
Additions to my flat include a large wall painting/poster – my landlord had bought so many for his house he got one free and said I could choose a picture for my room. It's about seven feet wide and three feet high and features a group of women collecting water – the least chocolate-boxy one in the catalogue which I've grown to rather like. I've also bought a blender and am becoming and expert at making lassi (a yoghurt based drink) and concocting fruit-juice combinations – there's a glut of custard apples at the moment which go rather nicely with bananas. I'm still being fed by my neighbours - sometimes I eat in their homes (a small teaspoon is now provided probably to minimise the mess I create if left to eat with my hand alone) or sometimes a tiffin box is delivered to my door. I prefer the tiffin box - not because I'm unsociable but because the portions you get given at someone's house are so enormous my stomach seizes up at the thought of all that food going into it. At least when the food is delivered to me at home, I can eat it over two or three days and don't run the risk of offending my hosts because, having struggled through the first portion, I refuse seconds.
So, "Yes", I'm still really enjoying myself and have no desire to return to recession-hit Britain at the moment even for the opportunity to use a sit-down loo – probably the Western "luxury" I miss the most.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Christmas has come early

Well not exactly but it feels like it. The streets are festooned with avenues of lights (some of which look remarkably like Santa on his sleigh) and the town is emptying out as people take their families away on holiday. The reason for all this activity is that it's Dushera – one of India's main festivals that celebrates the three-eyed, ten-armed goddess of power who is known as Durga in Orissa. Several temporary temples have been erected (which are as large as the permanent ones) and for the past three days there have been queues of people – one for men and one women – lining up for the opportunity to pray in front of the fantastically decorated statues of the goddess. The statues are made of clay and are intricately painted and decorated with jewels – real ones. At the end of the festivities the jewels will be returned to the bank vaults and the statues floated in the local river.
At home and in the office, because Durga is the goddess of power, everything that relates to or uses power is blessed. There was a lovely little puja (service) at our office where all the motorcycles were lined up in a row and, as prayers were said, they were daubed in red paint, had incense waved in front of them and flowers and small pieces of coconut scattered over them. Everyone then came inside where the same service was carried out for the benefit of the computer and the photocopier. Not quite so nice is the fact that they still sacrifice animals in Bhawanipatna – a practice the authorities are trying to stamp out. Not being squeamish, I thought I might go and have a look but having seen a movie of the ritual on someone's mobile phone, I'm glad I didn't pursue the idea. Naively I had thought they would slit the goat's throat and effect a clean death but no, they went for an Anne Boleyn-style execution swinging the axe into the petrified animal several times before it's head was eventually severed. I only saw the one goat sacrificed but it was clear that others were also meeting their untimely deaths up and down the street. On a less gory note, Dushera is also a time when women traditionally go home to visit their mothers so whilst Baiyajant's wife, Gita, has gone to see hers, his two sisters and their respective children are visiting him and theirs. On the down-side the women have to fast for a day to ensure their fathers' and brothers' well-being; on the up-side they expect their brothers to buy them at least one, if not two or three, new saris.
I'm glad I stayed in Bhawanipatna for the festival rather than going to the larger towns where I gather the lights and entertainment are more spectacular. I got see and be part of the more intimate side of Dushera rather than just being a spectator and I'll know for next year not to venture down the street where the animals are sacrificed.