Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Men Are Better Cooks

Men are better cooks, they say. I have to agree they are better cooks, but women are better managers. Men can cook only if all the ingredients prescribed in the recipe are available in the right quantity. They can also cook only special dishes. They are not interested in cooking a routine dish. Ask any great cook, if he cooks for his family. He'll likely say, I like my wife's cooking best. It is because he can cook only special dishes with special ingredients. At the end of the day, when he feels like having some plain rasam and rice or vattalkuzhumbu and pappadam, he likes his wife to cook it for him. Men also cannot think of tomorrow when they are cooking today.

My husband can make some great dishes and my children enjoy it best when their dad makes it. I must admit I also enjoy it more than my own cooking. As I said, all ingredients must be available in plenty. He makes the best uppuma. Once he finishes his uppuma making there will be no ghee left in the jar. No low fat cooking for him. If the recipe calls for for 4 tbsps., ghee, he will have no problem adding 4 tbsp. If I were making the same recipe, I try to see if I could make it with 2 tbsp.

Similarly, when my sister-in-law is away, the children love the potato fry their dad makes. My niece says nobody makes potato fry as good as her dad makes. Only at the end of 1 week, he would have used up all the oil meant for one month.

Men can cook only if all vegetables prescribed for in the recipe is available. If the recipe calls for 4 different types of vegetables, they won't know how to make it if only three of them are available, whereas, women would make the recipe even if only 2 of them were available. Once, my friend had come home to teach me a special dish which called for refined flour. I did not have any refined flour and there was no time to go shopping at that hour. I suggested that we substitute it with whole wheat flour. She was quite apprehensive, but had to make do with whole wheat flour as there was no other go. She was very happy with the end result and to this day tells me that, she would not have thought of substituting with wheat flour. Though many recipes say, "do not substitute," I always substitute the ingredients, if I don't have the right one and they have always turned out very delicious. This is true for traditional cooking as well as modern day cooking. I often substitute, butter for ghee, brown sugar for sugar or vice versa, curds for tomato puree and so on. So the next time, you don't have one of the ingredients called for in a recipe, don't panic, try to substitute, you will come up with a new dish. HAPPY COOKING!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Happy Vishu

We celebrated "Vishu" on the 14th April. Vishu or Mesha Vishu as it known is the New Year's Day for Malayalis (this is the new year day as per the Solar calendar followed for all calculations pertaining to fixing dates of rituals, festivals, seasons and weather predictions as well as Panchanga preparations though 1st day of the Malayalam month Chingam is taken as the new year day for the Malayalam Era) and also for Tamilians. The southern most states and also the north-eastern states and north western states celebrate 14th April as their new year's day. In the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, New Year's Day is celebrated a few days prior to this. They observe Chandramana Ugadi (The day following the New Moon day) or lunar New Year. Mesha Vishu is Souramana Ugadi or solar New Year.

In the north eastern states also, it is called Bihu, where as in the other northern states, it is known as Baishakhi. April 14th is the day the sun enters the Aries (Mesha) sign beginning the movement towards northern hemisphere marking the beginning of hot days.

In Kerala, the day marks the beginning of the agricultural season. They would have had one or two pre monsoon showers and the land would prepared for sowing. Farmers start sowing on that day after Vishukani. It is the most auspicious day for commencing agricultural activities for the new season.

Vishukani is the most important ritual on "Vishu" day. Kani means the first sight you see in the morning. There is a popular belief that the first sight you see on any morning decides the happenings of that day. Accordingly, people always like to see a good kani everyday. So the kani on Vishu day becomes all the more important because, the kani you see on Vishu day is believed to be the indicator for the life during the year to follow. People make sure that the kani that they see on Vishu is one of prosperity and well being and packed with all good things in life. The colour yellow is considered auspicious and has a special place in all Hindu Rituals.

Preparations for the Vishukani are started the previous evening. The place for Vishukani, usually the  pooja room, is readied by cleaning and decorating with a rangoli made of rice flour. The kani things are kept in a wide mouthed bronze utensil, known as Uruli. Raw rice is spread inside the uruli and on top of the rice is kept the all important vegetable of the kani, the golden kanivellarikka. (It is a type of gourd which turns golden yellow with streaks when ripe). On top of the Vellarikka comes another very important item of the Kani, the golden kanikonna flowers (Cassia Fistula). This is the season for the kanikonna flowers and the landscape is filled with trees bearing the drooping golden flowers. The very important Keralas's own coconut is cut into two equal halves and kept on either side of the kanivellarikka. Gold and silver coins are kept inside each half of the coconut. Betel leaves, betel nuts, a white dhothi, and all types of seasonal fruits and vegetables are kept in and around the uruli. Kumkum and turmeric pieces symbolising prosperity and auspiciousness and well being is also kept. This is the season when mangoes and jackfruits are aplenty in Kerala and all types of gourds like, ash gourd, pumpkin, and snake gourd are all available. A mirror is kept at the head side of the uruli so as to reflect all the kani things. A lamp with oil and wick is kept ready to be lighted in the morning. This done, the whole thing is covered with another bigger utensil or a white cloth.

On Vishu day, the head of the family, the oldest male member who is the "karanavar" and the lady of the house wake up early in the morning (when we were children our grandma used to wake up at 3 am). The lady lights the lamp and after seeing the kani, the karanavar sits near the kani ready with his bag of coins. Then the lady of the house wakes up each member of the family and leads them towards the kani with their eyes closed. They are to open their eyes only in front of the kani, so that the first thing they see on vishu morning would be one of prosperity and abundance. After prostrating to the Gods each member prostrates before the Karanavar and each one is gifted with a cash award, symbolising plentiful in the days to come. In Kerala, people crack firecrackers on Vishu morning. All visitors to the house on Vishu day are awarded with a cash prize. Normally every temple in Kerala will also keep Kani and people after the Kani in their home, take bath and go to the temple to see the Kani there and for prayers. Of course, the pujari will not be in a position to give cash gifts to all , but the God/Goddess will give them plenty during the days that follow throughout the year.

After all members of the family have seen the kani, the uruli with kanithings are taken to the manger for the cows to see the kani. Keralaites considered cow as their family member and wanted the year to be one of well being for the cows as well.

The Vishu day is as usual a feasting day with a sumptuous lunch.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

This day that year

The other day as I was surfing I saw a message, "What were you doing today, 10 years ago, blog it." I couldn't remember what I was doing 10 years ago, on that day. But I remember very well what I was doing 34 years ago, today.

I became a proud mother of our first child today, 34 years ago. As I had written earlier, there was no provision those days to plan time and star of the baby beforehand. And, hold your breath; we were not packing our bags to go to a sophisticated hospital to have the baby. I was going to have the baby in our ancestral home some 25 miles away from any hospital with some trained obstetricians. To this day, this first child of ours (who is a doctor today) shudders when I say, he and his younger brother were born in our ancestral home with the help of only a trained midwife. He says what all things could have gone wrong. He asks my mom, how could she take such bold decision. But, in those days, that was the normal practice in our village or in any village for that matter. All of my siblings, my cousins and my sister's two children were all born in that house. Believe me; most of the childbirths were normal without any problems. There were the village elders to help the midwife around and in very odd cases the doctor from 25 miles away was summoned.

By far, the children born were healthy, did not need any immediate medical assistance and grew up healthy. There were no antibiotic shots to be given immediately after birth. They did not catch any serious infections. The mother and child were taken care of very meticulously, given oil massages, given plenty of rest and healthy food to eat. Most importantly, the child was kept away from all outsiders for at least 11 days, only very near and dear were allowed after 11 days and others only after 28 days. Nobody except the mother and the help (there was one maid on duty to take care of the mother and baby) even touched the baby. That was the quarantine, they called it by another name, "valamai," i.e., the mother and baby were not to be touched for 11 days. The mother and baby stayed in a semi dark room away from the hustle and bustle of the house (there used to be a lot of it in a village house in those days). Even the other members of the house did not visit any social places, because of valamai. Thus, they ensured that no infection was brought in. Even after 11 days, only the baby was shown to the visitors, the mother was not to come out of her confinement except for her bath. Only after 21 days, was the mother allowed to come and eat in the kitchen (those days kitchen was the dining room). Only on the 28th day, the other members of the community were invited to see the baby. There was a ceremony of laying the baby in the cradle. All were invited and given sweets. The mother was just allowed to come and put the baby in the cradle. The mother was given 5 months adequate bed rest and nutritious food and ayurvedic massages and potions that at the end of the 5 months she was fully rejuvenated and was once again ready for the busy life. She never had any back aches nor did she have any protruding belly (no "ab" exercises those days). Plenty of rest and a healthy and nutritious diet. The children were also healthy and ate well.

Compared to those days, these days children born in sophisticated hospitals get all sorts of infections and are in need of many medical procedures, sometimes from the day one. One may argue that the infant mortality today is very low but this is a point to be debated with a lot of other data.

Monday, April 03, 2006


The other night, as I was all concentrated in finishing the sweater I was knitting, which had long crossed my deadline, the phone rang. A little irritated by the interruption, I answered the call. It was a friend of mine, I hadn't heard from in a long time.

The first question he asked me was, "is your sister-in-law's son married"? I was a little taken aback from his abrupt enquiry, as we had never discussed my sister-in-law. However, he was more surprised when I answered in the affirmative. I would say, he was rather disappointed. He tried to make his question clear to me, in case I was sleepy. He said, I am asking about your sister-in-law's doctor son. I assured him that, I have only one sister-in-law and she has only one son, who happens to be a doctor and he got married last year. Out of curiosity, I asked him, whom was he groom-hunting for? He said, it is for my daughter, her birthstar is Moola. I exchanged a few niceties and that was that.

The day a daughter is born with the birth star, Moola, the father starts worrying about her marriage. As such, there are so many parameters to be matched in an Indian arranged marriage. Added to it, if the girl has a birthstar as Moola or Ayilyam, the father is doomed. It is believed that a girl with a birthstar as Moola or Ayilyam brings bad luck to the father-in-law. So, no family, where both parents are alive, agrees to take a girl having moola or Ayilya star as daughter-in-law. The father has to start looking grooms only from families where only one of the parents is alive. Thats how, my friend suddenly remembered about my sister-in-law's son.

I have often wondered how can it be that only in Kerala Brahmin community, the girl with Moola or Ayilya will bring bad luck to her father-in-law. I have heard that In the other communities in Kerala, a girl with Moola star is considered to be very auspicious. There are other communities where the girl's birth star is not considered during the time of marriage.

What happens to the fathers-in-law of such girls whose birth star may be Moola or Ayilya. Again, in our own community, there are families, who do not consider Moola or Ayilya as inauspicious and agree to marry a girl having Moola or Ayilya star and have lived happily with both the in-laws having long life. When I said this to a friend of ours, who was hunting for a groom for his only sister with Moola star,(finally this girl got married into a family where both father and mother were alive and they had a long life even after making a girl with Moola star as their daughter-in-law), he told me,"when you have a large variety to shop from, why would you want to buy a shop soiled item?"

My own aunt,whose birth star was Moola, married her own cousin with the consent of her uncle and aunt and there was no problem in the family.

All said and done, with all modern thinking, when it comes to marriage, we still want to cling on to the old sayings like, Moolathu mamiyar mukkile (the mother-in-law of moola girl will have to remain inside the house, meaning she will soon lose her husband), Ayilyathu mamiyar aasanthiyile (same as moolam), etc. The same moolam for a boy brings all luck to him. Aan moolam arasalum (a boy with moola star will rule the world). Such adages are attached to various other birthstars also, some bringing luck and someothers not so much luck. For example, Dhanishta (avittam)star is supposed to bring prosperity.

Avittam Tahvittu Panayile Panam ( a person with avittam birthstar will make money in any field he enters). Kettai kotta kettum (a person with birth star Jyeshta will make palaces), Makam poranda mangai (a girl born on maka star has all luck showered on her), Bharani dharani aalvan (a person with birth star Bharani will rule the world), Chithirayappan theruvile (a child with chitra star will bring illluck to its father), Athathappan arayolum (father of a child with Hastha star will live only until the child reaches the height of his father's waist) etc. We have living examples to prove all these as utter non-sense. In our own family, we have children with birthstars, chithirai, atham and the fathers have had a long and healthy life. Similarly, Mrigaseersha, Anusham, Swathi, Uthram are all supposed to bring loads of luck.

This has led to a very interesting phenomenon today. Today, in India, most of the children are delivered through ceasarian section (the doctors can plan for the surgery so as not to interefere with their other appointments) and hence the doctors ask the parents to decide on the date and time (and hence the birth star) they like their child to be born.