Monday, July 26, 2010

Grow, Cook, Eat-The Mango Pizza Edition

The point of this blog is to demonstrate how people the world over are working together to grow, cook and eat their own food. Also known as food sovereignty movements, the idea is to disengage from the capitalist world economy of food to the greatest degree possible and to produce and distribute food as community effort.

Thus far, I have featured some growing, some cooking and lots and lots of eating. (Dear reader, in case you are wondering, I don't weight 300 pounds. Yet.) In every case, no one cooking the food actually grew it, and in most cases the people eating it didn't have much to do with growing it OR cooking it. This is how our food system works.

I understand the reasons for this of course. It's hard work to grow food. And it takes a long time to learn how to cook properly. Everyone eats of course, and this is the reason we should take a bigger role in where food comes from. We know precious little about the food we put in our bodies, and in so doing, we unwittingly consume toxins of all kinds-unfair labor practices, extortion of profit from farmers to multi-nationals and poisons of all kinds peddled in the name of efficiency.

Even here at Navdanya the roles of cooking and growing are segregated. The cooks, Satya, Kamal and Ramji never do field work. The field workers, Sunil, Jai Singh and Jeet don't really help much in the kitchen. Few of the volunteers are really here long enough to see food from seed to table, and even those are not really involved in cooking. Satya is a formdible force to reckon with in the kitchen. Small, soft-spoken and sweet he might be, and try as I might to win him, he doesn't suffer fools messing with his cooking.

In any case, Navdanya does function as a collective, and much of the food we eat has been produced here on the farm. Just today I saw a huge pile of bhindi (okra) sitting on the kitchen counter. My guess is that we'll have some kind of bhindi subji for supper. Every day for lunch and dinner we eat pulses (lentils) that are all produced here on the farm, grown from seeds saved in the seed bank and collected for generations by farmers. We also eat rice every day-and a large part of the farm is dedicated to growing rice and wheat, both for our consumption and for seeds for the seed bank. Jai Singh brings jack fruit fresh from the tree on occasion, and although I'm not a fan of it much, I do like it deep fried with salt and chili powder. What's not to love? One day when I asked for a lemon, Jai Singh waved his hand in the direction of the mango orchard. When I didn't understand, he harumphed and took me out to the lemon trees. Duh. And every day now, after much wheedling, we have mangoes from the orchard for breakfast.

Roles reversed a bit last Friday because Massi, a traveler from Italy, had whipped us all into a frenzy talking about pizza. Pizza. Pizza. Pizza. It was enough to drive us all mad. So, it was Sarayu's last day at Navdanya, and since she and Massi love a good party, we splurged and bought vegetables from the Friday night market in the local village, cheese and olives from the imported food store in Dehradun and picked mangoes from the orchard on the farm.

Massi took over the kitchen and poor Satya was left to wonder what happened. Kamal, master chapati maker, rolled out superb pizza crusts with atta (whole wheat) flour. Dozens of pizzas emerged from the kitchen, three at a time and were greedily consumed by us foreigners, and skeptically sampled and enjoyed with increasing enthusiasm by the kitchen and field workers. All that was missing was beer.

My favorite pizza of all--and Massi's masterpiece--was the mango pizza. The onions, garlic, basil, wheat and mangoes were all from the farm, and the tomatoes came from local farms. Without cheese, it was superb, made even better by the joy and mystery of sharing the magic of food and fellowship.

Together, we grew, cooked and ate.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Great big beautiful day

Hannah, one of the interns here, and I asked for something not so sweet for breakfast before we went to bed last night. We've been eating porridge and pancakes, which are pre-sweetened by our sugar loving cooks. So, now Sunil, Kamal and the other kitchen boys don’t know what to do with us. Half of us “angrese” like savory breakfast, half of us like sweet breakfast. So today, we had spicy peanut chutney for breakfast with paratha. Which some of us took with spicy peanut chutney (YUM) and some of us took with honey. Some of us also took it with peanut chutney and honey. Some of us took it with Nutella.

After several cups of steamy spicy sweet tea, Hannah took a few of us on a tour of the farm. Navdanya grows crops on its 54 acres for consumption on the farm, for the seedbank, and for the network of several thousand organic farmers who grow and sell organic food in India. Today we saw fields of millet, rice, taro and corn intercropped with beans, okra and peanuts. We paused for a moment in our walk right before we got to the seed bank and an eagle flew over our heads.

Navdanya is dedicated to food sovereignty through returning the control of farming to farmers through seeds. Farmers are free to take any seed from the bank, as long as the return what they took with an additional fifty percent more. They are encouraged to save their own seeds and start their own seed banks for exchange amongst themselves. There are 42 such seed banks throughout India and countless more in homes and small villages. Navdanya keeps more than 400 varieties of rice alone, and several hundred varieties of other kinds of crops. In case you don’t know, the Green Revolution in the 1960s brought hybrid seeds to India, which can’t be saved. In a few decades the indigenous varieties of crops had disappeared and farmers were dependent on buying seed from multinational companies. Navdanya returns seeds to farmers as a way to return autonomy to producers and sustainability to agriculture.

The seed bank is managed by a woman named Bija, whose name also happens to be the Hindi word for seed. Bija wasn’t working today, and we stood in the hush of the mud and brick building, in silent wonder at all the ancient wisdom accumulated in this one place. The seed bank does not appear to have a catalog in English, and upon hearing this, I knew what I would be doing for the rest of my time here. Cataloging thousands of different seeds may not be your cup of tea, but I got chills of pleasure and wonder at the thought of intimately knowing all these ancient races of grains and vegetables that came to life long before my own people even existed and which will live on past my little lifetime in the farms and fields of this amazing land.

After this awe inspiring experience, we got down and dirty and helped weed the turmeric field. Weeding turmeric! I’m not sure why this thrills me so much, but weeding anything satisfies a little bit of the OCD in me, and getting my hands in the soil in which a powerful medicine, an essential flavoring of Indian food and a sacred element of many Hindu rituals, grows is just about a peak experience for me. All of us, angrese and Indian workers alike, crowded into the kitchen afterward to share a simple meal of dal, rice, potato curry, roti and peanut chutney while sitting on the floor, trading Hindi and English jokes and laughing the whole time. So so so beautiful.

More tea and an afternoon nap, after which Hannah, an Italian guy named Masi and I went to Ramgarh, the local village to buy some mangoes for breakfast. Another curve ball for the kitchen boys. And we want yogurt with them too! We stopped for a snack because my blood sugar has done a surprising nose dive here in spite of the relentless barrage of carbohydrates morning, noon and night. I think Swami Ramji, who promised to cure me, may be chanting some mantras that are working. We had aloo tikki—a fried potato pancake served with a sweet-spicy sauce, yogurt and raw onions. Delicious.

On our way back to the farm, we saw Sunil heading to the neighbor’s farm for fresh milk. We asked to come along, as part of our scheme to get some yogurt, and when we arrived, we were invited to stay for tea. We declined, to be polite, but of course, as is the custom, we were not really given an option. Cots were pulled out, neighbors stopped by and kids piled up for pictures, and more pictures. An hour or so passed, and the monsoon clouds loomed, and I wondered if we should go. Sunil shook his head, no. So we stayed. I took some more pictures of the kids and the beautiful women, and stopped worrying and loved the rain that actually never came.

It soon came out that it was Suwan’s 13th birthday today and there was going to be a party. We hadn’t put two and two together yet, and I think the surprise birthday party was on us! We were invited into the master bedroom of the house and candles were lit and blown out, balloons popped and sweets shared. We then were told to go back to our cots in the courtyard, and one of the beautiful daughters of the house came out, laughing, with beer glasses full of tea made with the milk fresh from the cow.

Gracious, funny and loving people, living a simple life in this beautiful place. I want to stay forever. Salud!

Monday, July 19, 2010

The kindness of strangers

At Navdanya at last. Some fantastic birds are working up a great whoop dee doo outside my little room at the farm as the monsoon rain comes again. I made it here just in time, thanks to the helpfulness of some kind people and my own resourcefulness and determination.

So, just in case you were wondering, Delhi blows. Rachel, an Israeli woman I talked to in the elevator at the Park Inn, described it as hell. I couldn’t agree more. H.E. Double Toothpicks. Hot, scary and rank. And according to Rachel, the crowning blow is that it’s expensive. I think that’s probably relative, and since I just read Raj Patel’s Value of Nothing, I don’t know what to think about the cost of things anymore. Much less the costs of things in hell.

But anyway, dodging heaps of garbage, clattering over rubble, stepping around beggars and shouting “nahin” –No!-- and “jaao” --Go Away!--at “porters” trying to extort money for my bags, I managed to reach the right platform at the right station in the right city at the right time (a half hour early, actually). I was sweating bullets in the heat at 6:30 am, but pretty damn proud of this little farm girl from the Northwoods who was surviving on her own in the 4th largest city in the world. Also known as hell.

Once the train came, I had a little trouble finding the car, since I decided to spring for the AC 1st class ($20) on my first trip alone in India. The website I consulted suggested I would be sharing the car with doctors and military types—who I figured are usually good in an emergency, and charged with helping people. And I am a doctor too. Sort of. My car was all the way at the end—or at the beginning—depending on where you are. I rolled my bags back and forth across the long platform a few times in the 110 degree heat. A little more sweating and nimble navigating through a literal sea of humans never hurt anyone. When I was in the right car--finally--a girl was in my seat, but she wanted to sit by her sister, so I took her seat and waited to see if a doctor or a soldier would sit next to me. Um, no.

Swami Ramji in a saffron robe with a dreadlock twice his height sat next to me. Of course he did. I shook with suppressed laughter (dare I say hysteria?) as he settled into his seat with a happy sigh, his crazy dreadlock snaking around our seats and in my lap. This is really and truly, my kind of luck. Apparently he’s famous and he flies First Class too when he visits his devotees in America. He helped me with my Hindi homework, asked personal questions and then accidentally whacked me in the face with his dreadlock after he piled it all up on his head to leave. He has an ashram very near here, and gave me his phone number and told me to come see the river Ganga in his backyard. OK. Sure. Why not?

Arriving in Dehradun, I got out of the train, and was dispatched immediately to an auto-rickshaw by a nice fellow named Vinay. Last name Kaka. He was super helpful and nice and pointed out the mango trees, rice paddies and the tea plantations and told me about the Hollywood movies he likes and gave me both his phone numbers and told me he would drive me anywhere, just give him two hours notice. No, one hour. For you.

I just smiled to myself and held my dupatta over my mouth to keep down the laughter. Part of the reason I was getting such a kick out of all this was because the little girl from the sticks was completely petrified about the prospect of navigating Delhi, Indian trains and auto-rickshaws to someplace in the vicinity of nowhere, south-central Asia. The fact that it wasn’t completely traumatizing and actually really fun made me a little giddy with relief.

Finally we arrived at Navdanya—Biodiversity Conservation Center—along a bumpy lane lined with gigantic mango trees. Fields of vegetables and neatly kept lawns, brightly painted bungalows, happy healthy dogs and my favorite sign of life—laundry.…aaaah. Away from the empty, sterile missions…out of the stinking hot city….this one feels just right.

On my arrival (even though I was unexpected given the usual whisper-down-the-lane communication problems in India), I was promptly fed a delicious dal and a subji of potatoes grown on the farm and escorted to a lovely room with a view to the mango grove and told to take the day to rest. Disobedient addict to the internet that I am, I checked first to see if I could get wireless in my room. What luck!

While writing this, Julia and Sarau---interns here—came by and offered to share some Italian coffee with me and took me some other fine folks on a long hike in the forest and through small villages, which ended with eating fresh mangos in a mango grove…

Somebody pinch me please.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Food for the Soul

I was so eager to get on with the global part of this tour, that I--yes me--forgot about the local. The day of my departure from the Dirty South, best pal in all things life, love and henna related, Erin Mitchelson, took me to Flying Biscuit, a restaurant in Atlanta, GA specializing in southern comfort food. And how comfort was needed...

Erin, with hubs, Matt, moves on to greener pastures in New Hampshire before I return to Georgia at the end of this trip, and so this was a kind of big goodbye for us. Happily, we will reunite in the Dominican Republic later this year for a few weeks, but this day marked the end of the Mitchelson Era for me at UGA. No department has ever been graced with the likes of Matt and Erin, and I think I speak for many people when I say that any department on the receiving end of these two generous, big hearted people will be a lucky one indeed. They both will be missed deeply by us all, but especially by me, as they helped me more than anyone to find and make a home in Georgia.

So, it was with great saudede--a word I was to discover in Portugal that is sometimes described as the "the love that remains" after someone is gone--that Erin and I shared a last meal in Georgia together at the Flying Biscuit. We partook in huge mimosas; creamy dreamy grits; collard greens; tender, flaky biscuits and fried green tomatoes with goat cheese. Basically all the soul food hits...minus the pork and fried chicken, and a few little extras. Delicious and nourishing to a saudede soul.

So good in fact, that I forgot my debit card on the table--a terrifically bone-headed thing to do given that I was leaving the country for 6 months. But maybe I was just seeing if they would hold a place for me and Erin so we could come back. I guess I'll give all the money I've got to continue to enjoy the company of a fabulous woman who has made Georgia a terrific place to be.

The love remains.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Health, Taste, Joy Trifecta

The signature dish of Hyderabad is biryani, a dish of Muslim origin that combines some kind of meat (or vegetables if you're "vej"), lots of rice and and spices in one pot of yummy. We've had two radically different versions of biryani, both delicious in their own way. We ate a mutton based one heavy on cloves and cinnamon, at Irani Chai--a well recommended restaurant and hookah lounge. Our driver misunderstood what we wanted, and took us to a tea shop filled with Iranian men... Um, no. We ate our second biryani at Cafe Bahar, which was recommended to us by our driver (who, I am quite positive, questions our ability to find decent food for ourselves). Our meal was half a chicken roasted in rice with cumin and coriander, served with a thick gravy and yogurt.

At Cafe Bahar, and at a tea place in the Charminar market, we ate in the "family room". The street level and/or main part of the restaurant is exclusively for men. Women, with male family members, eat in the family areas of the restaurant. I'm not sure what would happen if we tried to go to the not-family side of things, but we weren't really given the option at either place. Interestingly, with the conference attendees last week, we ate as a mixed group (Indians and westerners, men and women) at the truck stop, which also had a "family room". No one stopped us from doing that, but no one stopped staring at us either. I am fairly confident that we were the first and possibly last western women to eat outside the family room at that particular place.

Being "brought up" North Indian in my tastes, however, I am still looking for spic-I-E-R curries, cilantro chutneys and wheat based flat breads. While we have been eating fabulously at this hotel--dosa, idly, sambar, uttapam to name a few dishes we've enjoyed a lot--I have been feeling a bit short on the fruits and vegetable end of things. But, happily, my search ended tonight. Our usual spot for dinner was closed for a private party so we went to the upscale place in the hotel--not my usual choice given that food is usually overpriced and under-good in these kinds of places. Not so here! Wow!

I saw palaak paneer (a north Indian spinach curry with cubes of cheese) on the menu and my greens-deprived immune system cried out, Yes! Yes! Yes! I want that! But, give me a side of garlic naan, and I could be back in the US at the ubiquitous "Indian restaurant" which serves the under-spiced, overcooked, Americanized, "north Indian" hits. It's a little bit like Tex-Mex--good enough if you're lucky, but not exactly the real thing. I was prepared for, well, spinach cooked to death, and decided to take one for the team--nourishing my body that is, over satisfying my taste buds. What I wasn't prepared for was eating one of the best meals of my life.

I realize this is high praise, cuz y'all know I've eaten a lot of good food, but I'm not kidding. The garlic naan (I couldn't resist) was crispy, thin and literally covered in roasted garlic. The paneer cubes were soft and soaked up the rich flavors infused from slivers of ginger and whole cayenne peppers (yowsas!) in the subji. The spinach puree was the greenest I have ever seen, and although I have no idea who grew, picked or cooked this food, it tasted as fresh as if it came from my own garden. Having made this dish myself, I know it takes several pounds of spinach to make one kadai (single serving bowl) of palaak, and I scooped up every last bit of rich deliciousness with a bit of yogurt, mango pickle and garlic naan in every bite. Finally, the flavor explosion, I have been seeking! And a yogurt, garlic and spinach health trifecta on top of that! Add to that, the privilege and joy of sharing this meal with a friend, whose presence in my life means more to me than words can say, and I feel blessed beyond imagination.

After eating all this healthy goodness and sharing all the laughs with Jen in these crazy last two weeks, I think I might actually live forever. But if I had died at any moment during that meal, I would have died happy. But, then I might have missed dessert, which was a small chalice of exquisitely ripe papaya sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. In season here, fresh, whole and beautiful in simple, unaltered perfection, promising the eternal return of life.

Delivering (or not) in Hyderabad

Jen and I have come to Hyderabad in Andra Pradesh for a little bit of R-n-R before she heads home and I head to Navdanya's farm in Uttaranchal. Hyderabad is an interesting, cosmopolitan city, and home to the Telagu language Bollywood studios and high-tech central. It is littered with colorful temples, has an eclectic and bustling street life and sports luxury homes in the "hills". Hyderabad was once part of an independent Muslim state, established in 1347, and was held in various forms by Muslim rulers until India was created with independence from the British in 1948. The Muslim influence in the city is strong, although only about 8% of the population is now counted as Muslim. There are gigantic mosques, lots of women in abayas on the street and mughal architecture. The state legislative assembly is housed in a building constructed in 1905 to celebrate the 40th birthday of Mahbub Ali Khan, the 6th Nizam of Hyderabad, who, incidentally, was also famous for the size of his wardrobe.

Our first hotel here was in a gated, upper middle-class Hindu neighborhood. Staying there gave me an unusual peek into an everyday India that I don't know much about. Every block had a park and every home had a fleet of servants, including dark-skinned nannies of Dravidian ancestry, walking light-skinned babies in strollers (not unlike certain parts of Manhatten says Jen). Every home had a spacious walled garden and a water tank on the roof with a solar panel for hot water heating. The homeowners association was decorated with swastikas, a Hindu symbol for luck.

We left this hotel in a few short days, largely because of the relative inaccessibility of the city from this location (basically a suburb), and because internet access (to which we are both hopelessly addicted, and to which access might not be unreasonable in one of the hi-tech capitols of the world) was promised but not delivered.

Also not delivered was our (clean) laundry. We sent it out and waited two days for it to return, only to be told repeatedly that it was on it's way, etc, etc. On the day we checked out we were prepared to sit in the lobby and wait for it. Two minutes before checkout the clerk at the front desk called our room and said "Actually...your laundry is here.'s not washed." Great! We'll take it! I don't think I've ever been quite this happy to see my unwashed laundry, and likely never will again.

Almost not delivered was a bouquet of orchids from a certain admirer of mine in Belgium. There was some confusion, which required an immediate conference of all hotel staff, about to whom these flowers belonged, because my name wasn't actually on the room. My flowers were rescued from a terrible fate by Jen's heroic dash to the lobby, and they still sit in serene and silent beauty on the table in our new hotel in Secunderabad, giving me a little jolt of joy every time I see them.

Arrival at the Minerva Grand in Secunderabad with dirty laundry and orchids. Classy.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Rock Art and Truck Stop

Things have gone from bad to worse. We have been displaced again.

We have moved from our quiet little Catholic mission in Pachmarhi, a tourist area, to a Catholic mission in Bhopal, a major urban center. Given the academic and activist orientation of our "study circle" I find the whole concept of staying in a mission a bit peculiar, and in the case of our first rat-infested room at this new place, quite disturbing. We are in a walled, probably locked, compound, and our presence is thus viewed by the local people in a certain way—one in which I feel quite uncomfortable participating, since I am not here representing or working with the mission.

The local area is mostly middle class Hindus living in “colonies”-- the Indian word for developments or subdivisions. They live in semi-detached houses that look a bit like condos. Like our other mission, a temple is a stone’s throw away, as if to remind the mission that Hindus have been around for about 4000 years longer than Christians. Hinduism will likely outlast Christianity in this place, if the emptiness of this mission is any indication. In a city in which people live under tarps in nothing short of appalling conditions, this locked walled compound with dozens of empty rooms is sort of sickening.

On the way to Bhopal we stopped for breakfast in a town called Pepiriya and had really amazing aloo paratha (potato stuffed flatbreads) and dahi. We then stopped at a prehistoric rock art site that supposedly dates from the Neolithic. This stop only further convinced me that I am incurably interested in gardens. Show me a garden and I perk right up, but a world heritage site boasting one of the wonders of the world only makes me want to take a nap. It was a pretty place with a nice breeze that refreshed me, but all I could think of was what is must have been like to live here in these shelters of stone. An unanswerable question, surely, but one that occupied a few of my daydreams perched on a rock. It was also a welcome break from the jeep, in which 9 of us and all our luggage were wedged for the better part of the day.

Right around the corner from the rock art, (not quite—but it seemed like it) was an “all vej” truck stop. All vej means only vegetarian food is served, and as such caters to Jains, Sikhs and Hindus. We were all a bit skeptical of eating in such a place, but Sreedhara told us that the food was delicious. Truck stops in India are not all that different from truck stops in America. The place is almost exclusively populated by men, long on rich food and short on comfort and style. The seating is cots with a board across the middle. Men sit opposite each other and share the board “table”. There are toilets and showers (well, any tap with a bucket is a shower in India), a place to park an elaborately decorated truck for a long or short amount of time, and/or space for repairs, snacks and probably prostitution, although we didn’t see any visible sign of that.

We had a table and some surprisingly delicious food—the usual, dal and paneer curry with roti and a plate of raw vegetables referred to universally as salad. It usually consists of onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and carrots. I’m living on the edge a bit eating cucumbers and carrots, but I will risk it for some roughage. It all goes down with lots of lime, some spices and a little prayer to the stomach gods.

Monsoon Wedding

We had a major uptick in excitement yesterday evening when we were invited to a wedding. The manager of the local hotel which has been providing our food got married, and we were honored guests. We appeared just as the groom was leaving for the temple to do the final rituals of the two-day process, and therefore, everyone’s attention was freed up for us. We were chatted up by the local boys, greeted cheerfully by the little girls and shook the hands of small scared children who had never seen “Anglaise” before.

I was asked by one handsome young man to meet his aunty and a plastic chair was pulled up for me in the aunty circle—the circle of matriarchal power in the family. I know this doesn’t sound like much, but it was a really huge honor. I was sort of trying to hang back, because it isn’t my style to be in the spotlight. I wasn’t even appropriately dressed—wearing jeans and a tunic. I’m not sure why I even went to the wedding, because I knew we would not go unnoticed. I had my speech all prepared to get out of going, but Sreedhara convinced me.

It wasn’t hard, because I really wanted to dance.

I hadn’t moved my body properly in an entire week because women’s movements in public space are somewhat circumscribed and/or subject to heckling by the local boys. But, I knew that the wedding would be a good place to move my body with some vigor, and that I could dance my ass off and everyone would love it. Sitting in the aunty circle felt good too. We sat in silence and one of them patted my knee to the music. It felt a bit like being home. I was handed a baby and pictures were taken and my handsome young friend told me that I was the "best guest".

The groom came back and met his bride, who, for many and various reasons was visibly devastated. Her life with her first family was over and her new life with her husband would mean the end of any freedom she might have ever enjoyed, depending, that is, on how open-minded he is. My heart ached for her, and I could only see these rituals as the celebration of her bondage. Threads were tied, turmeric applied, blessings given by the priest, and the deal was done. The whole party (a couple hundred probably) then picked up and moved down the road to a community hall for the reception.

The whole procession, headed up by a wall of speakers thumping out Bollywood music (with two oxcarts outfitted with generators) and a bunch of boys carrying, on their heads, electric flashing lights running on car batteries, proceeded slowly down the street in the ominous sprinkles of a oncoming monsoon shower. Our party arrived at the hall in a few minutes and we debated a bit about going back to the mission because we had an early morning start back to Bhopal.

But the food at Indian weddings is supposed to be really good…

By then our hesitation was noticed and we were swept by an enthusiastic crowd into the courtyard festooned with Christmas tree lights and set up like the state fair with food booths. Our host ushered us to the front of the line and we proceeded to smack our lips around the best food we’d eaten in India yet. Dal (lentil stew), carrot curry, paneer maater (cheese and pea curry) and two kinds of paratha (stuffed flatbreads). Just as we started to eat the sky opened and the rain came pouring down. We took refuge under an overhanging eave, and were soon joined by about 25 other soaking wet wedding goers. Most of whom were young men with wet cell phones and soaked wallets.

We finished our meal while watching everyone scatter for dry ground--most in the hall, which was packed. We also enjoyed watching the young men peel off their shirts—Bollywood style. I perched for awhile on my little ledge, holding my empty plate savoring all this awesomeness, and feeling the beat of the music start to make me move. First my head, then my shoulders, then my feet. The young man closest to me took my plate and threw it on the ground. I think it was breaking such a western taboo that started the little bit of mayhem that followed.

The rain slacked a bit and I jumped out from under the eave, bolted for the hall and found myself smack dab in the middle of a bunch of beautiful young women in gorgeous saris. They wasted no time pulling me into their circle for dancing. It was like a gift of pure joy. I danced and danced and danced. Danced in the rain and felt the dust and sweat and accumulated sadness like silt on a river bank, wash off me, carried down the street, into the river, into the ocean.

Open to the sky, falling rain. Gift of life.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Farmers Market

Last night we all went to the weekly farmers market in Pachmarhi. I am told that it is only a few years old, but given the size of it and the congregated crowd, it’s a hit! There were middle class tourists from cities and poor tribals from out of town and locals including Father Claude, the wait-boys from our restaurant and the Sikh man who sold us mosquito netting. The produce is grown in the valley (Pachmarhi is in the mountains) and brought to the edge of the city and sold to the vendors in the market.

My favorite vendor was a man selling garlic, ginger and chili--the three base ingredients of every Indian curry. My second favorite was the man selling dal (lentils) of every shape, size and color. I knelt down plunged my hand into the pile and ran the dal through my fingers. And then there was the spice man who had piles of fragrant powders and seeds arranged in colorful array around him. Sreedhara, a conference attendee and professor at a university in Bangalore nicked a piece of cinnamon bark and gave it to me to chew. Sweet and softly spiced, it was a perfect piece of candy.

I positively drooled over the fresh vegetables. My fingers itched to take home the pearly cauliflowers and purple mustards and shiny green eggplants. I haven’t been homesick once during the past two weeks, but in the moment of looking at all these beautiful vegetables, I positively wept for my kitchen. Any kitchen. Language to haggle. Shopping bag to put on my head and carry home. Sharp knives and cutting board. Gas stove and stainless steel pots. Spicy fragrance filling the house and floating out into the street. Come in and share.

Good Luck with Food

No luck on finding yogurt—well, not yogurt I could take away. Fresh curd is sold by the gram in the little shops in the town, and in theory a person could take it away. But there are electrical outages every morning and afternoon, so keeping things refrigerated is a bit of a trick, and furthermore, I don’t personally have access to a fridge. I am sure that I could use my wiles to accomplish this, but my Hindi is not that good yet.

Cilantro chutney (a mixture of cilantro, lime, garlic, ginger, salt and spices used for dipping and adding flavor) also seems to be a foreign substance in these parts, which surprises me. But perhaps it has something to do with the way in which I butcher the pronunciation of “hara daniya chutney”.

It is harder than I thought to be without access to a kitchen, and I had hoped that the “communal” living promised as part of this conference would include cooking together. It’s hard for me psychologically because cooking is a way in which I generate joy—for myself and others. It’s also hard physically because my health is rather dependent on access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

The food we have been eating borders on terrible, as I have mentioned elsewhere. For the most part it’s the tasteless remnants of vegetables (tomatoes, eggplant, peas, potatoes) that have been simmered in boatloads of oil, served with plain rice, dal (lentil soup) and wheat flatbreads called rotis (which, when fresh, are pretty amazing). But, um, fat and carbohydrate overload. We occasionally get a tiny little “salad” of fresh tomatoes, onions and chilis, served with poppadoms which I gobble up like a crazy person. But, this is not sustainable.

So, first stop, yesterday—mango stand. Mangos are in season and I have been endeavoring to eat them every day. Father Claude brings us some from his garden in the morning on occasion—sliced in half, with the pit removed. The flesh is so tender and sweet that you scoop it out of the skin with a spoon. Yes. Eating mangos out of season and in the United States is something I never do, so the unbelievable taste experience of eating one fresh and a few feet away from the tree was incomparable. We bought some local varieties at a stand yesterday—smaller and sweeter (if that is possible), with a pleasant citrus taste.

Next stop was a South Indian restaurant where Jen and I ordered dosa. Dosa is a South Indian dish of a thin pancake-like roll made of fermented rice and lentils, served with a tomato based broth and a ginger-mustard-coconut chutney. Yum. Not exactly fresh vegetables, but lighter and actually really really tasty. Finally! I think the local cooks see Westerners (although we are the only ones here) and knock down the spices a bit or something, because until yesterday I haven’t had a decently spiced dish yet. Maybe the cooking of India I am used to is just spicier (ha…my own!) or there are regional variations in spice. Spicy pickles are on the table at every meal, so perhaps this is how spice is customarily added.

Later in the day I had aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower curry) and palaak paneer (spinach and cheese curry) at another restaurant with veg pakora (fried vegetables). It was all delicious although the palaak paneer didn’t have enough spice. (What is up with this?)This is as good as it gets for eating vegetables so far.

Paanchmari is not what one would call a culinary hotspot. I equate it with the little town I grew up in that caters to holiday makers and tourists. Not great food, not bad food, but lots of it and for cheap.

In a few days we move on to Bhopal, where I am told the food is different. I hope that means better.

Bland Food in India?

I am a bit unhappy about the food here. I think I have spoiled myself with my own cooking. It’s happened before.

In a classic Indian scenario, we were displaced from our hotel in Panchmarie at the request of a local minster because his cousin was getting married and they wanted the whole thing for themselves. Out we go. A Dominican Father who presides at a Catholic mission across the road from our hotel found out and offered us the dormitories as a place to stay.

The Hanuman temple is just a few steps away, and the morning and evening chanting can be heard in our spartan rooms. It’s an odd, and thoroughly Indian experience to hear the Hindu mantras while under the gaze of a very graphic crucifix. I say it’s thoroughly Indian because this kind of juxtaposition seems only possible here where everything is so mixed up . Cows are revered but eat garbage. Women are regarded as goddesses but are harassed in the street. Monkeys are protected for religious reasons but are serious and sometimes dangerous nuisances in every public place. Even our toilets are a paradox. We have western toilets for some reason that I can’t quite fathom. Monks who go without almost every luxury, including a decent mattress, for some reason have imported toilets from the West?

I digress.

We still eat our meals at the hotel, and on day two, I am done with it. We have had bland (yes, bland) curries every night and we have to ask for yogurt or chutneys if we want them. Most of the time they don’t bring them. And we can’t get any tea with our evening meal. I think they presume we are Westerners and aren’t expected to appreciate a proper meal (some of our group does appreciate it as is, so I know it’s partly my problem). Or the restaurant is just bad. Or we aren’t paying them enough. Probably all of it. Tonight was the last straw. One of my favorite dishes is baigan bharta—a smoked eggplant dish with spices and chiles and fresh daniya (cilantro). A very sad and bland facsimile of this dish appeared on my plate and I choked it down without chutney, yogurt or fresh cilantro. Well the cilantro did appear eventually, but it looked a little scary to me. Okay, so it’s food. But I’m paying for it, and I want every bite to be the flavor explosion it is SUPPOSED to be.

And furthermore, I can’t write home about tasteless food.

So tomorrow, I am going in search of my own yogurt and chutneys to bring to the table myself. Or, I am going to ask the kind Father if I could use his kitchen and cook with all the beautiful vegetables in the street stands. Or, I am going to go eat somewhere else. Stay tuned.
By the way, breaking all the food rules has so far not gotten me into trouble. I think it’s the yogurt.

Driving in India

It is best to visit India without fear. No. It is not possible to be here WITH fear. The functional anarchy that is Indian traffic can only be endured with the peace of the Buddha--which you learn to find very quickly. No need to go to an ashram. Just take a long, or even short, journey by car, preferably with a professional driver and you will find God instantly. Fortunately, I had already found God on the plane from Delhi to Bhopal. The monsoon is pushing huge thunderheads north and naturally, we flew THROUGH them, our big jet, shuddering and bucking the whole way.

That experience was mildly pleasurable, however, in comparison to the car journey from Bhopal to Pachmarhi. We drove through traffic of all shapes and sizes--species even--all of which regards lanes as mere suggestions, turn signals as useless curios and speed limits as laughable oddities of modern life.

Driving in India is a non-stop game of chicken--sometimes with chickens--in which the horn is the only--and constant--source of communication. Our driver had an auxiliary horn with a button on the dashboard--his finger always at the ready when overtaking another car, cow, ox cart, truck, jeep, tractor, human... At times, there are four lanes of traffic going on what would be a single lane anywhere else. It's best not to look.

We stopped for tea at truck stops several times, which our driver took by himself on the cots that fill the makeshift hut that houses a cold beverage cooler and a kitchen with a tandoori over and several kinds of subji (curry) for sale. We got out and stretched our legs. I got out and blew my nose. Again.

Our last stop was in the last big city before our village--Pepiriya (sp?). Deepak brought us two samosas from a street vendor. At this point, I was about to break all the rules about eating and drinking in India. Don't drink the water. Don't eat fresh fruits. Don't eat street food. Well, you only live once, and I did eat that yogurt. Deepak warned us that it was very spicy, but to be kind, we took it and tried it. Very spicy was an understatement. It was so hot the cayenne pepper colored it red. These things almost blew our heads off. Which, in my case was great. My sinuses cleared instantly. I was a new woman! A woman who suddently needed all the tissues for sale in all of central India, but a new woman nevertheless.

Eventually, we arrived, sweaty, cramped and tired at Pachmarhi, a beautiful hill station in the middle of Satpura National Park. India is as shocking and gorgeous as I remembered it. As hot and mysterious and colorful and generous as I knew it would be. Which is to say I am thrilled to be here, and looking to find India different--and better--this time.

Welcome to India

So my adventures in Belgium left me with a fairly serious cold, that after 15 hours of flying from there to here (landing three times--owwwww), had left me completely deaf and totally miserable. Fortunately, I am traveling with my best girlfriend from grad school, Jen. We met up in Amsterdam and flew to Delhi together. After a "sleepette" in a hotel in the sweltering heat, we left early the next morning for Bhopal (via Indore...even the planes run like trains).

Once in Bhopal, we were picked up by Deepak, a human rights activists for Dalit and Muslims in Madhya Pradesh, and were whisked away by our driver to Pachmarhi (a tourist town in a national park where our study circle was to be held). Or so we thought. Packed tightly around our luggage in a tiny car and sweating in the heat with the AC on full blast, Jen and I dozed off. We woke each time we made a stop, hoping we had arrived. But no--an errand...another errand. Which, we found out was for the tea we would share with Deepak and his wife at their home.

Perking up a bit at this unexpected generosity, we shared dahi (yogurt) and aam (mango) various biscuits, Indian junk food (chickpea flour noodles deep fried with assorted spices and nuts and salt) and milky sweet tea. (I take mine bina chidi--without sugar). I slurped up three packets of yogurt in an effort to get my guts sorted before I ate anything else. It feels really rude to refuse water in India (and we were really thirsty), so we gingerly sipped some water.

At the end of our hasty meal, Deepak rearranged our luggage, and in response to our inquiring looks, he told us his wife and 11 month old son (who is adorable) were coming with us in the tiny car. The journey would take 5-6 hours...would we like to use the restroom?

Welcome to India.

P.S. In case you were wondering, it is in fact possible to arrange 6 people with all their luggage (even our ridiculous baggage) in a hatchback Hyundai and drive for 6 hours. Let's just say we stopped a lot.

To be continued...

Monday, July 5, 2010

Organic Market

On Saturday before I split for Amsterdam, Yve and Monica took me to the first organic farmers market in Lisbon, which was started by a local organic farming organization a few years ago. It was still early in the day so the market was small, but all the baskets were filled to overflowing with every fruit and vegetable imaginable. And wine. This market allows for the resale of produce from other places, as long as it’s organic.

Conventional produce markets have permanent housing in the “mercado” of each neighborhood. You can go get fish, bread, cheese and vegetables every day of the week within a few steps of the neighborhood center. These institutions are dying, however, as people everywhere spend less time cooking and supermarkets convince us that having everything all in one place is better than just about everything else, including taste, freshness, quality, relationships and service.

After we shopped and I took pictures and bought a fig, we went to have coffee and croissants for breakfast. I added my fig to my breakfast plate. It was huge, mildly sweet and juicy just like a fig is supposed to be.

The only thing I liked more than laundry in Lisbon was Monica’s social circle. I met a vibrant, whip-smart, funny and passionate woman every day of my stay. Not all of them are from Portugal, so I know it’s not something in the water, but there has to be something about this place—my guess is that it’s probably Monica—that makes it a great place to be.

Typical Lisbon

On Thursday we met up with Yve again, and after watching the sunset while drinking beers on the terrace of a 15th century palace with a bunch of permaculturalists, we headed, very late in the evening, to a restaurant that Yve said was “typical Lisbon". Good Lord, if this is "typical", then I want to live, die and be buried in Lisbon. At 9:30 on a Thursday, the place was buzzing and we found a spot on the end of a table right in the middle of the action. We started with some beer, but quickly switched to “vinho verde” so named because it is a “young” white wine. It was light, crisp and delicious.

It was the perfect complement to the shrimps and garlic that appeared, sizzling on our table. And then cold shrimp still in the peel, which are firm and sweet because they have been soaked in ice water, and we dipped them in mayonnaise mixed with hot sauce. Somewhere in there soft-shell crab also appeared. After that taste bud extravaganza, a plate of mussels in garlic broth appeared. Monica enjoyed my expression (of sublime joy) as I tried it the broth with a little piece of crispy buttered bread. You can see everything on your face—the pleasure you get out of just a little taste. A little taste of heaven is all a person really needs. A little sip of vinho verde, a little conversation about gardens, a little bit of love and laughter over food. A little taste of the perfect something that is Lisbon.

If all that wasn’t enough, we had a little bit of lemon sherbet for dessert, to which our generous and jovial waiters added a shot of vodka. I sailed out of there and home in the cab, absolutely euphoric, feeling so blessed, so lucky and so happy under a full moon.

Typical Lisbon.

Pasteis de Belem

As I mentioned elsewhere, Monica and I have been exploring the concept of “typical food”. We are foodies, after all, and intellectual foodies to boot. We spend a lot of time discussing social theory as it relates to food, which, in my humble opinion, is second to none in ways I want to spend my time. I enjoyed so much our conversations over little tiny coffees, especially at Pasteis le Belem. Belem is a neighborhood in Lisbon, which has a coffee shop specializing in a typical Lisbon treat of small custard tarts. We ate them all over the city, but here they were superb. Fresh from the oven, flaky, creamy, sweet, they are the perfect complement to a tiny shot of bitter coffee. It’s a great way to start the day. On our walk to the coffee shop, we passed a tantalizing garden high above the street. It was locked, but looked suspiciously like a community garden. There was just a tiny bit too much disorder for a private garden. I hope that I can find out more the next time I head to Pasteis de Belem.

Cod fish and beans with a beak

Monica has terrific friends in Lisbon. Monica and I met in Norway in 2004 at the European Society of Rural Sociologists Annual meeting. I’m not a rural sociologist, but this conference rocks, and that’s good enough reason for me to go. Lots of geographers moonlight as rural sociologists in Europe because rural geography is relatively undeveloped in the United States. The conference is structured around 4 days of meetings and presentations on a theme (such as organic agriculture) and one day of tours in between on Wednesday. Did I mention that the (interactive) tour almost always revolves around food or drink?

The Norwegian holiday included a tour of the mountains and maybe some other stuff, but all I remember was a traditional rural Norwegian feast. The table groaned with moose, reindeer, sausages of all kinds, fish, potatoes, fish, cream soups, klub, flatbreads, cheeses… No calories here. After the meal it looked like there had been a mass suicide of rural sociologists on the front lawn. All we could do was lay down and groan over our full stomachs in the long shadows of a high latitude afternoon. I don’t think Monica was on that tour, but I do remember she asked a great question in one of the sessions and I thought she was super smart.

We met again in Kesthezy, Hungary in 2005 at another one of these conferences. This time we spent the whole week together and even shared the same tour of some of Hungary’s thermal baths. Yes. If you have not been to Eastern Europe/Balkans, run don’t walk, to make a booking for a holiday there. There are hundreds of smartly outfitted resorts specializing in mineral springs, most of them hot. The springs, I mean. After enduring literally hours of government officials introducing themselves and explaining the relevance of thermal baths to rural development, we finally were free to take a sample ourselves. (BTW, the Hungarians specialize in anticipation—we waited for hours through speeches for the conference banquet as well. I think this also explains the high incidence of public making out in Budapest…lots of buildup to the main event seems to be quintessentially Hungarian). Anyway…the baths were incredibly rejuvenating and relaxing and Monica and I became friends.

We’ve kept up mostly be email in the intervening 4 years since her visit to the US during the last World Cup, and she has been insisting that I visit her now that she’s back in Portugal working for the Institute of Social Sciences (ICS). At ICS, she has some really amazing colleagues, one of whom is Joana, who is doing a PhD in climate change adaptation. She hosted a dinner party for her friends, including Monica, while I was in Lisbon, and so I tagged along. It was probably the most documented meal in the history of eating. Three of Joana’s guests work for a private company producing documentaries, and they put the camera on us while we ate. They were interested in generating some ideas about a documentary about ethical consumption, and they were interested in what a group of intellectuals (some of whom are foodies) might have to say about food. I also took pictures of everything, took notes about everything and generally conducted research during dinner.

Monica and I had been having a lot of conversations about “typical” Portuguese cuisine. It’s easy to assume that maybe there is some indigenous way of cooking that still exists in Europe, given it’s rich food culture. But, like everything, everywhere, global influences have taken hold. Joana served hummus and olives as appetizers, tabouli as a first course, meat loaf as a main course and chocolate lava cake for dessert. Most of this has roots in Middle-Eastern cuisines that Portugal has borrowed from, but it has also become a part of global cuisines as well. The only “typical” Portuguese dish (i.e., a dish not eaten outside of Portugal) was salt cod and chickpeas—also a first course. Cod is a very common food in Portugal, and I ate it twice during my four day stay in Lisbon. This dish is also heavily influenced by the Arabic culture in the region from the influence of the Islamic empire. Literally translated, chick peas in Portuguese means “beans with a beak”. The name chick peas also refers to the shape of the garbanzo bean which looks like the head of a chick. Cod fish and chickpeas also has onions, boiled eggs and olive oil. A simple, delicious dish.

We didn’t talk too much about food ethics, but we did spend a lot of time talking about carbon markets and mitigation vs adaptation to climate change. It was a stimulating evening with a lot of lovely warmth and affection (I’ll miss being in a place where people kiss each other upon greeting—even strangers. But namaste isn’t so bad). I felt really lucky to have been a part of this dinner party and to have met such smart people. Joana is a passionate, outspoken woman with a side-splitting sense of humor. I look forward to knowing her for a good long time.