Indian Cottage Cheese (Paneer) In Spicy Arrabiata Sauce


Arrabiata Sauce is one of my favorite sauces and I use it for pasta especially Penne  and for many other dishes. It is healthy, full of texture and color and easy to prepare.  The one thing that makes it distinctly different from other tomato based red sauces is the chili factor.  The crushed red chili flakes or the fresh ones that are added whole or chopped give life to the classic marinara sauce that is the base sauce for Arrabiata.

Also a good amount of olive oil works best for the sauce. Cooked or heat processed tomatoes contain more lycopene, because cooking helps to release lycopene from the tomato cells. Lycopene is fat soluble, so it helps to cook it in oil, such as olive oil. Presence of peperoncino (chili flakes) gives it a defining characteristic (and a lively kick). I add basil and coriander to enhance the taste.

The main ingredients for Arrabiata are tomatoes and garlic. Those  who love garlic like I do can use it as a main flavor in this recipe.  I use fresh ripe plum tomatoes to make the Concasse for this sauce. Canned tomatoes aren’t something I use at home.

Arrabiata sauce goes very well with Indian cottage cheese or Paneer and we all love it. I am not a big fan of paneer but I do love a few dishes made with it. This is one of them. I also make the same dish in classic marinara or just the concasse with lots of fresh green chilies added with an Indian twist to the seasoning.

The basic ingredients for the Arrabiata sauce  I make for this particular dish are :

Tomato Concasse – 400 gm approx

Garlic-  medium size 8-10 pods ( peeled and finely chopped)

Red Onions – 2 medium, finely chopped

Fresh coriander greens (with tender stems) –  5 table-spoon ( finely chopped)

Crushed red pepper flakes – 1 teaspoon or fresh red pepper -2-3

Olive oil –  2-3 table-spoon

Black Pepper – freshly crushed 1 tea-spoon

Cumin Seeds – 1 teaspoon

Salt – to taste

Tomato sauce – 6 tablespoons

Dried Bay Leaves – 2

Fresh Basil Leaves – 3-4

Salt – to taste

Indian Cottage Cheese/ Farmer cheese / (Paneer) –  400 gm ( preferably home made but you can use market  bought too.) Chopped in cubes and placed in warm saline water

Method :

Warm the olive oil or any other vegetable oil / butter in a thick bottom pan.

Add the cumin seeds and bay leaves. Once the cumin begins to crackle, add garlic and roast a little till it changes color slightly. Add whole / chopped red pepper or chili flakes to perfume the oil. Keep the flame low so as not to burn anything.

Add the chopped onion and stir. Cook until onion softens.

Add the tomato concasse ( canned tomatoes/ store bought concasse) and give it a nice stir. Let it simmer on low medium heat as you stir occasionally with a wooden spatula or spoon. Let it cook on  low heat for 30 minutes or till it reaches your desired consistency.  I keep it thick gravy like. Add basil leaves and fresh chopped coriander. Give it a stir.

Add salt, tomato sauce and freshly crushed black pepper. ( Be careful of the heat threshold )

Taste the sauce and add anything you feel is lacking.

Once the Arrabiata sauce is ready add the cubes of paneer ( Indian Cottage Cheese) in it and stir gently to cover the cubes uniformly in sauce. Let it cook for ten more minutes. Add warm water if the sauce is too thick. If it looks thin simmer a bit more.

Serve hot with sourdough breads, garlic breads, phulka or paratha. I sometimes just eat a bowlful of it on its own.

(I had posted an earlier version of this dish in 2010 that I have removed)

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Short Story – The Cottage


Note – This short story was first published in the fantastic Weirdo Magnet anthology ‘Silence is White’ dedicated to the works of well known French poet and author Seb Doubinsky. It was an honor for me to share space with some of the best internationally acclaimed authors, poet and artists. 

Do buy Silence is White for it contains some of the best writings of recent times.

“Unlike many from the city I am no stranger to the whims of nature, but that day’s sudden change of weather caught me unprepared. What started as a hike on a fair-weather day had suddenly been reduced to an ordeal. Winter totally changes perceptions of the land and no amount of off-season hiking could prepare me for the unexpected.

“Three unforeseen things happened that day. First, the weather suddenly turned nasty. Visibility rapidly decreased and the drop in temperature was rather sudden. Darkness shrouded the hills much earlier than usual and the crisp November air turned damp and cold. Second, I was forced to abandon my plan to return to the hotel because I twisted my ankle when my foot got caught in a thick root hidden by overgrown grass. Third, to my surprise, the cottage that I had discovered during one of my previous hikes, and where I was headed for shelter, was occupied.

“From previous visits I knew that the mist would have snaked through the network of paths crisscrossing the landscape, through the valleys and across the creeks until it curled around the cliff tops and canyons that were the mountains.”

My class had been listening with rapt attention until one of the younger students gathered around the campfire broke the silence.

“I imagine it’s great to explore somewhere that’s not over familiar, so your twisted ankle and the worsening weather must have been very frustrating.” He said.

“It was, the pain was excruciating and made it difficult for me to keep up my usual pace. I was on a steep path and I was breathless. I considered trying to find a vantage point from which to get my bearings, but realized that with the weather worsening, and with my throbbing foot, this wasn’t going to be possible. Mist and darkness together can be terrifying especially when you’re not prepared for it, but cold, wet, and with no other choice I had to go on.

“Even though I had visited the area before, my painful foot and the dense mist were disorientating, I’d strayed onto a nondescript trail that or might not take me towards the cottage. Dazed, confused and uncontrollably shivering I continued slowly through the mist, hoping that the path would eventually lead me to the cottage.

“Roosting birds in the woods had fallen silent and the sound-damping mist made the turbulent sound of the river down in the valley almost impossible to hear. It was obvious to me that, if ever I found my way to it, I would have to spend the night in the cottage no matter what, as my ankle continued to grow more painful with every step along the sloping and rock strewn trail. The forest was not very dense in this part of the hill, instead small and dense shrubs packed the landscape. The forest was not very dense on this part of the hill; instead small shrubs covered the ground.

“As I tripped over what I took to be a fallen branch, I yelled with pain but managed to get back onto my feet. Then I realized that this might be a blessing in disguise. I could use branch as a defence against snakes or other small animals I encountered. There were no big carnivores in this region, but even some small animals could inflict bad injuries. I hoped the cottage would not be too far away, as I was convinced I was heading in the right general direction, and despite the pain I tried to quicken my pace, as I was eager to reach my destination as quickly as possible.

“After walking for another ten or fifteen minutes, I finally saw the faint outline of the cottage not far ahead of me in the mist, and was glad that my choice of direction had been the right one. I remembered the area in front of the cottage with its overgrown bushes, which were now invisible. A rotten signboard dangled from a Pine tree close to the property. I recalled it used to have ‘Hunter’s Cottage’ painted on it, two more tall pine trees stood on either side of the cottage porch. Outwardly the building appeared to be in good condition, and I thought it should provide good shelter for the night. I was surprised to see the dim glow of a lantern, indicating that someone was already in the cottage, but as I listened, I heard only silence. Whoever it was, unless they owned the cottage, must have forced the lock to open the door. As I approached, I saw a hazy silhouette on the porch.”

 “I waved and called out to her, for now I was sure that the silhouette was a woman. She remained silent, and stood so still that she might have been part of the structure.

“I drew close to the porch steps, and in the light from the lantern, I could finally see a face. I was surprised to learn that the figure was a woman.

Several students who had been staring silently into the flames looked up at the mention of the woman. “I had seldom seen an unaccompanied woman on those remote forest trails, and wondered if she had a companion in the cottage. I’d heard reports that many solo women hikers had gone missing in the mountains in the last few years. Though not superstitious I usually followed the advice of a former trek companion. ‘Stay away from women while hiking. They’re bad news,’ he’d once said when we finally managed to part from a rather clingy and gabby girl during one of our hikes.”

“That’s not really true. Men have a habit of pointing fingers at women all the time. Not all women are clingy or gabby or bad news. Even men can be like that.” Shyama, one of my female students, interrupted me with her strong voice. “Of course. My friend was generalizing—just as you are now, Shyama.” The other students laughed and Shyama went quiet. Once the group had settled down again, I continued.

“I thought she was beautiful in an unconventional way. I hadn’t realized that I was staring until she snapped her fingers in front of my face. I had even forgotten about my twisted ankle for a moment or two.

“I paused to light a cigarette, and watched for a moment as the smoke from my lungs rose and mingled with the smoke from the campfire. Some of my students stood to stretch their legs, and then reseated themselves in the circle of expectant faces.

“Mountains and forests can be both challenging and intimidating; we all need to be aware of the dangers involved in confronting nature head on.

“It was bone chillingly cold and the wind was picking up, but at least the rain had stopped. By then I was desperate for the comfort of a floor and four walls. I leant the branch I’d used as a support against the wooden railings of the porch, and then, as the woman stood back and opened the cottage door, I slowly made my way up the four steps and inside. As I passed her, I noticed the glow of her skin in the lantern-light and caught a faint scent of musk rose. Passing through the doorway, I saw that the lock had been broken. Inside, I shrugged my daypack onto the floor, and feeling more tired than I could remember ever having felt before, I limped to one of the plain wooden chairs and sat down for the first time since I’d stopped for lunch.

“Though she looked physically strong, I would never have expected her, or anyone else, to deliberately stand out in that piercing cold, it was almost as if she was expecting me—or expecting someone at least. When I looked back at her, instead of following me inside, she was still standing there, peering into the night.

“She was wearing warm pants and a hooded jacket. Her feet were covered in thick socks and her gloveless hands were wrapped around a tin mug. Inside the cottage her hiking boots lay near her backpack, along with a camera, some maps and binoculars. A lightweight sleeping bag lay open on the floor.

“I looked round when I heard movement on the porch, and then I watched her as she removed the lantern from its hook, turned, walked in and closed the door behind her. What a strange woman, I thought. She was observing me closely, but her silence was making me uncomfortable.

 “I’m James Goddard,” I said. As I extended my hand, I saw a smile flicker at the corners of her mouth, but it quickly vanished.

“She nodded and placed her mug and the lantern on a small wooden counter, then pointed to a pan,

‘“There’s some soup there if you want. You can sleep in there, take the lantern,’” she said as she pointed to a door at the back of the room. I smiled at her, watched her drag a chair to the open front to keep it closed, and regretted that I wouldn’t be in her company for a while longer.  I carried my daypack and lantern into the room, and then returned for the pan of soup. Only when I was in the room, with the door closed, did I realise that she hadn’t told me her name. As I drank the cooled soup straight from the pan, it was filling but tasted of kerosene. I hadn’t seen a stove in the cottage, so I guess she must have made it at a camp site and had somehow carried it with her. “I heard her settling down for the night. So, as quietly as I could, I spread a small wrap on the cot, then sat on the edge, removed my socks and boots and used an anti inflammatory spray on my swollen ankle. A little later, my socks back on, I was stretched out on the rusted cot, trying to make myself comfortable for the night.”

“’Maybe someone advised her to stay clear of men. Bad news, you know.’” Shyama muttered loud enough for me to hear. I ignored her continued.

“During my hiking trips I’d heard a lot of weird tales around campfire, some true maybe, others folklore, but I’d never taken them seriously. Now, in the situation in which I found myself, thinking about the strange woman in the next room, those tales started to bother and amuse me at the same time.

 “Lying on the cot I surveyed the tiny room. The walls were empty except for two large hooks on one side. My bed directly faced a window, and through it I saw the skeletal forms of winter trees limned with light that contrasted starkly with the cold, darkness of the night. Their branches were spread like the hands of the dead, bare, gnarled and chilling. As I watched, the branches curled into giant talons and scratched demandingly at the window.

“What I had seen was irrational, frightening, but turning on my side to avoid looking directly at the window, I tried to convince myself that it was nothing more than a product of my tired mind. In the dark, with my eyes closed, I thought about the mysterious woman. I heard her stirring, perhaps tossing and turning as she too tried to sleep. I must have dozed for a while, not real sleep, but that state between being awake and being deeply asleep, then I was brought back to full wakefulness by a sound that’s difficult to describe, whether it was coming from the main room, or was in my room, I couldn’t tell. It wasn’t like the sound of a person moving about, that would have caused the floorboards to creak, there was none of that, just the noise of something brushing across the floor. In the cold night, I shivered even more.

“As my sleeplessness dragged on, I distracted myself from the unexpected events and strange sounds of the night. In a sense, I felt trapped by the things that had occurred, it was almost as if my reality had been manipulated to take me to that place at that time. I forced myself to think about something else, and thoughts of my new life in a new apartment, in another city, another country, came to me. I had wanted to leave my meaningless life in cold and dreary England, it was sucking the spirit out of me. My increasing dissatisfaction had led me to accept an invitation to join an educational institute here in India, your college in fact, as a visiting faculty member. I thought about the people and places that I’d come to know when I had travelled in India, and the endless possibilities that awaited me in your busy, vibrant and colourful country. The hike was a last gift to me before I started my new job.

“At some point I must have drifted into real sleep, because a loud banging noise brought me fully and unwillingly awake. I got up from the cot as quickly as my swollen ankle would allow, and did my best to hurry through to the main room. The chair I had seen the woman move to act as a door stop, was back where it had been when I sat on it, the front door itself was swaying to and fro, and occasionally, as the morning breeze gusted, it slammed noisily into its frame. Through the window, through the swaying door, the room was flooded with light as the sun climbed above the trees. There was no sign of the woman hiker, whose presence had puzzled and perturbed me through the night. I hadn’t heard her get up, pack and leave. I looked around, and apart from the mug still on the counter top and the scent of musk rose, there was no sign that she had been there at all. Where she had spread her sleeping bag on the floor, was a layer of fine dust that lifted and swirled a little in the draught from the door. The only footprints in the dust, I knew, were from my own hiking boots, and there was nothing to show that anything had softly trodden that floor, as I am still convinced I’d heard in the night.

“With a chill running up and down my spine, a feeling of dread, of not understanding, I went back to my room, dressed for a day on the trail, and packed my things. As I did this, the window flew suddenly open, filling the room with the cool, sweet, pine scented morning breeze. I looked up and saw the pine trees gently swaying. Feeling an urgent need to leave that place I lifted my daypack onto my shoulders, hurried from the cottage with a palpable sense of dread, collected the branch I had used as a support, and taking the same path by which I’d arrived, headed away as quickly as my sprained ankle would allow. Every rustling leaf, every animal sound, quickened my pulse as, with a palpable sense of dread, I moved away from the cottage. I wanted to be out of that forest as quickly as possible, and I hoped I would never have to return there.”

I stopped and glanced at the faces around me. The group had been listening to me in a breathless silence.

I stopped and glanced at the faces of my students, now lit only by the dying glow of our campfire. They had been listening to me in rapt silence.

“Oh my God, the woman was a ghost. The local tales weren’t crap after all.” One of the boys said quietly, as he huddled closer to his companions.

In the tiger reserve around us, I could hear animals moving, but there were no alarm calls announcing that a big cat was on the prowl.

“Is that what you think?” I asked rhetorically as I raked the dying embers with a stick. “Does anyone else have a theory?”

The group muttered quietly among themselves, as I smiled and wondered if even one of them would understand.

“No, not the woman. The trees.” A girl called out suddenly. Immediately the others demurred, so I let them argue for a while, until it was time to turn in for the night.

“Are you going to tell us?” Someone asked.

“Think about the story I told you, consider the evidence, then you’ll realise that only the trees could have been what was haunting that place.”

Spicy Tangy Kathirikai Gothsu | Brinjal Gothsu


There are some dishes which remain a favorite no matter what. They are soul food you can eat anytime, any day. Amti bhat, Varan bhat, Poori allu, ammras poori, Avial and Brinjal Gothsu to name a few.

I’ve never eaten kathirikai ghotsu with venn pongal sadly but I love it with idli, dosai and plain steamed rice with a dollop of warm ghee on top. A burst of spicy tangy flavor that is out of this world. It is a perfect side dish. I am anyway not so fond of sambar so this is my go to dish. Kathirikai gothsu/gotsu is a typical TamBram dish but other communities across South India also perhaps make it.

I love eggplants and I find that here the flavors are perfectly balanced. The jaggery and tamarind combination I use in khatte meethe baigan sabzi too. The recipe is quick and easy to make.

Usually I use sambar onions ( shallots) for this but here I have used the local red onions and instead of moong aal I have used te ink lentil or malka daal.  It is fun to experiment with food and I am a bit easy going in the kitchen so whatever is handy is used. So you can say it is my version of brinjal gothsu.

 

Ingredients :

Brinjal/Eggplant/Baigan/Kathirikai – 1 large diced into cubes (approx 1 cup)

Sambar onions ( shallots) 8-10 quartered or Red onion – 1 -2 chopped (approx 1 cup)

Tomato – 1/2 cup chopped into cubes

Ginger – 1 inch grated or chopped fine

Curry leaves – 2 sprigs or 8-10 leaves

Green chili – 2 slit lengthwise

Jaggery – 1 tablespoon

Tamarind water – 1/2 cup

Mustard seeds – 1/2 tsp

Oil – 1 tbsp (traditionally Sesame oil is used)

Coriander leaves and tender stems – 2 tbsp chopped fine

Moong dhuli or malka daal (Soaked for half an hour) – 2 tbsp

Sambar Powder – 1 tsp ( you can make your own Gothsu Podi too but I don’t know how to so use sambar powder instead)

Turmeric Powder -1/2 tsp

Hing / Asafoetida – 1/4 tsp

Salt and Water – as needed

 

Method –

Cut the vegetables and soak the brinjals in water to which a little salt is added. Soak a lemon size ball of tamarind pulp in warm water to loosed it up. Keep aside.

Collect all the required ingredients and put pressure cooker on medium heat. Once the cooker is hot add some oil ( I used Saffola gold). Add mustard seeds to the hot oil and when they crackle, add curry leaves, hing, onions, ginger and green chili, stir rill the onions are translucent and light golden in color.

Now add the chopped tomatoes. Give them a stir and let them cook for a minute. Add chopped brinjal or Kathirikai and stir on medium high flame till the color of the brinjal skin changes a little,

Add the soaked moong or malka daal. I added it to provide a base to Gothsu. It tastes good too.

Squeeze the tamarind ball to extract all the pulp into the water and the tamarind water, turmeric powder, sambar powder, salt, jaggery to the vegetable. Mix properly.

Close the lid of the pressure cooker and cook the gothsu for 2-3 whistles.. Turn off the gas and let the pressure release naturally.

Open the lid carefully and give gothsu a gentle stir. Add chopped coriander greens and spoon it in a serving dish.

Serve hot with rice, idli, pongal, dosai or even phulka. Don’t forget to add a dollop of hot ghee on top of gothsu when serving.

Note –

You can char roast the brinjal on direct flame and mash it a bit or fry the chopped brinjal pieces and use for Gothsu too. You can also make the Gothsu in a pan instead of cooker.

You can make your own podi or Gothsu powder instead of using Sambar powder. I usually make the sambar powder at home but here I have used MTR one.

I sometime add chopped carrots, peas or french beans to it just coz I like the taste but mostly I keep it simple.

Do let me know if you make it.

You Are Still Here – A Response Poem


Kashmir Lit is a wonderful journal of Kashmiri and Diasporic writing. The journal is run by Ather Zia and Huzaifa Pundit. Sometime back they had given a call for ‘Response Poems’. The idea was to write a response to any poem by a well known poet that inspired or connected deeply with the writer.

Amrita Pritam is one one of my favorite writers and most of her poetry speaks to me at a personal level. I chose to write my response to one of her well known poems ‘Main Tenu Phir Milangi /I Will Meet You Yet Again’  You can read the original poem and its English translation by poet Akhil Katyal by clicking the link.  This particular love poem was Amritaji’s last and was written for her partner for half a century, Imroz Sahab. Her promise to him of eternal love transcending lifetimes.

This is the link to my response ‘ You Are Still Here‘ that got published in Kashmir Lit recently. I am posting the poem along with my Hindi Translation of it for you. Do let me know your views. My idea was to write a response as Imroz sahab would perhaps have written. Though one can never match the brilliance of either.

This is my tribute and love note to a woman I admire for what she is (always here. Never gone). I am a poet because of her.

You Are Still Here 

Seasons shift
The cycle continues
Delicate harshingar blossoms
Fall like fragrant stars
I gather them gently
As my heart fills with you
Your presence radiating
From the source of our love
Your heart opens up to me
The fiery center of a flower
I catch your familiar scent
As you draw near
It seems that you’re with me
The breeze murmurs
“I’ll meet you yet again,
When, how I don’t know.”
Your words touch my skin
Unforgotten words
Words that I remember well
I know you are here
I listen to your breathing
I see dust-motes dancing
Iridescent daydreams in the sun
The morning sky is a canvas
Words shimmer in the light
Whispering your promise
“I’ll meet you yet again,
When, how I don’t know.”
But dear Amrita
You were never gone
You never left this place
Your presence echoes all around
Fragile flesh perishes
But love is strong
It outlasts the brevity of life
It changes form… it endures
My life is a palimpsest
Layers of memory
Absent yet strangely there
Graffiti waiting for the ink to dry
Then existence shifts
In some other time and space
“I’ll meet you yet again,
When, how I don’t know.”

 

तुम यहीं हो, यहीं कहीं हो

 

फिर मौसम ने करवट ली है

एक रुत आयी एक गयी

महकते तारों से झड़ते नाज़ुक़ हरसिंगार

जब आहिस्ता से दामन में जमा करता हूँ

तो मन तुमसे पुलकित हो उठता  है

एक तस्वीर सी उभर आती है तुम्हारी,

चटख नारंगी, अनुरागी

और वही पहचानी सी खुशबू

जैसे तुम यहीं हो, यहीं कहीं मेरे पास

और हवाओं की सरगोशियों में

तैरने लगते हैं तुम्हारे वो अल्फ़ाज़,

मैं तैनु फिर मिलांगी,

कित्थे ? किस तरह पता नई

छू जाते हैं मेरे रोम रोम को

वो भूलने वाले अल्फाज़

जो अब अभी मुझे याद हैं

मुझे पता है तुम यहीं हो

यहीं कहीं आस पास

ये तुम्हारी साँसों की आहट ही तो है

जब धुप में सुनहरी धूल के कण

थिरकते हैं जगमगाते सपनो की तरह

और सुबह का आसमां एक कैनवास में

बदल जाता है, रोशनी से झिलमिलाते शब्द

फिर तेरे उस वादे का इज़हार करते हैं,

मैं तैनु फिर मिलांगी,

कित्थे ? किस तरह पता नई

पर प्यारी अमृता, तुम तो कभी गयी ही नहीं

तुम्हारी मौजूदगी गूंजती हैं यहाँ के ज़र्रेज़र्रे में

जिस्म नश्वर  है पर  प्रेम शाश्वत

अडिग, अमिट हर पल नए रूप नए रंग में,

मेरा जीवन एक पुराना किस्सा है

परत दर परत तुम्हारी यादों का

अभी यहीं, अभी ओझल आँखों से

कुछ शब्द जो स्याही के सूखने का

इंतज़ार कर रहे हैं

फिर समां बदलता है, एक भीनी सी

सरसराहट छू के निकलती है,

मैं तैनु फिर मिलांगी,

कित्थे ? किस तरह पता नई

Short Fiction – The El Pino Ruins


“Do you believe in ghosts?” she asked.

They were sitting on the steps of an old church overlooking the cemetery.

“No, I don’t.” He replied. “Why? Do you?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I do, but not like those described in books. They don’t exist. It’s just fiction.”

“Are there any other kind of ghosts than those we read about in books, Pia?”

“Of course there are. Real ghosts, they’re everywhere. Just because you don’t see them it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Some people can’t see certain colours but that doesn’t mean those colours don’t exist.” She smiled. “Ghosts don’t haunt graveyards or deserted old buildings. They aren’t transparent and don’t evaporate into the mist. That’s all bullshit.”

Federico looked into her big, hazel eyes and forgot the conversation they were having. He wondered how anyone could be so beautiful that they were able to stop time at will. He remembered the day she’d breezed into his book café wearing a bright floral dress, her hair cascading in lazy spirals down her slim shoulders. She’d stopped near the vine of wild roses at the door and gazed at them for a moment before entering the shop and Federico was certain she carried the fragrance of the flowers with her. For twenty minutes she stayed in the shop, and Federico forgot what straight thinking was like. She seemed friendly and had bought a little basket of cookies and empanadas from the counter. He gave two complimentary slices of fruit cake, something he’d never done before. She thanked him for the gesture. The memory of her voice kept ringing in his ears for days afterwards. He knew she didn’t live there but he’d seen her around town sometimes, walking along the river bank where he went fishing. He’d even spotted her on Sundays among the church goers.

It was the last Sunday of the month in which she’d first visited his café and he was standing outside the church trying to spot her as the congregation emerged. He was watching the sea of people so intently that a tap on his shoulder made him jump.

“Dios mio! You scared the wits out of me.”

“Were you looking for someone?” Her gaze lingered on his face which had turned the colour of beetroot. She giggled like a little girl.

“Oh… no not really. I was just…”

“I’m Pia.” She extended her hand. For a moment Federico stood transfixed by her presence but then, somehow, he managed to speak.

“Federico, but friends call me Rico.” He shook her hand and wished he could hold it forever. Pia also seemed to enjoy the moment.

“Let’s go sit on those steps,” she said, pointing at the secluded stone steps at the side of the church.

Rico allowed himself to be led. He heard his heart beating loudly, and was sure Pia would hear it.

 

Captivated by the natural power of the sierras and the dark brooding woods they’d sat quietly on the stairs watching the sun melt on the hauntingly beautiful mountain peaks.

The loud ringing of the church bells and the musical sound of her voice then brought him out of his reverie. He realized that Pia was talking to him.

“Lo siento. I didn’t hear what you said?”

“I was saying we’re all haunted. Haunted by the things we see, feel and by those that we can’t. Do you know what ghosts are? They are our unmet desires, our fears and longings, unfinished businesses.”

“Unsaid words, deeds not done, our struggles in the intolerant world, they are the pangs of unrequited love, betrayals, unfulfilled dreams,” he added.

“Yes, and also the echoes of the ‘could haves’ and ‘should haves’ among other things. We arrive too late everywhere and we live with heartache. Then we die,” she said.

Rico watched one side of her face glow in the sun’s rays. “You seem to know a lot about these things, and if you are right, then we are all living dead carrying our ghosts on our backs,” he laughed.

“Yes, I do. We all do but seldom find courage to speak about them. Fear and guilt, two things that keep us from doing so,” she smiled even though he could sense a tinge of sadness and annoyance.

“I saw you at the cemetery the other day,” she turned to face him.

“Yes, I go there sometimes to visit my grandfather’s grave.”

“I don’t like these goddamn cemeteries. Fake people laying fake flowers every Sunday on coffins placed in straight lines six feet under. People make sure the dead don’t escape by placing heavy stones on the graves as if they would stop anything from escaping if it wished to.”

He saw the corner of her mouth twitch into a little smile that faded at once.

“But the dead need to be buried somewhere, Pia.” Rico said amused by the girl’s statement. He wasn’t a religious person but the discussion was stimulating and also he didn’t want to let her go… not just yet.

“Yes, in the graveyards. Those open places among the ruins.” She stood up and looked beyond the building. Her gaze stretching on the weathered cliff faces rising dramatically, red poppies, yellow mimosa and wild orchids tempered by the soothing green of ancient olive groves, an occasional splash of pale pink almond blossoms and remnants of  some old buildings that lay scattered on a distant hill. Rico also got up and put his arm around her. She didn’t object.

“Beautiful, isn’t it? I become calm in roaming among those ruins. I didn’t know you loved them too. I often visit the stream that runs beyond it. What a spectacular vintage point,” he said.

“It is surreal to be surrounded by death. I love the footpaths crisscrossing the mountains,” Pia said. Her eyes glinted with joy.

Rico lived for these moments.

“Have you been to the ruins and the old graveyard?” He asked.

“Yes, I have. It’s closer to my pueblo than yours.”

“Yes, I hear your pueblo is very picturesque. I haven’t been there.”

“No? You must come visit us sometime.” She said gathering her packages. “I live with my little brother.”

“And your parents?” Federico asked.

“Let’s not talk about them please.” She shifted uncomfortably and almost stumbled as she climbed down the old broken steps. Rico caught hold of her arm.

“I’m fine.” She said, her voice almost a whisper.

Federico walked her up to the town square from where she boarded the bus to her pueblo. It wasn’t far and usually people walked through the fields during the day. She too did but the darkness had wrapped the mountainside in her shroud early today. He insisted that she take the bus.

The streets were nearly empty. Federico went to the cafe which still had a few customers. He decided to stay there for a while. There wasn’t anyone waiting for him at home and he loved the warm cheerfulness of the place. He made himself a strong brew of coffee and relaxed on his usual chair behind the counter.

Later at home, Rico’s thoughts wandered to Pia. Why hadn’t she wished to talk about her parents? There was a certain sadness, Rico had always felt, behind her gleeful self. He hardly knew anything about her. The few hours he got with her were usually spent talking about books, travels and other things. She was a well informed, intelligent and beautiful woman, someone Rico would have thought of marrying. He wondered how it would be to live with her under the same roof every day, make love to her, do things together. The thought excited him. He decided to go visit her the next day and meet the brother too.

Early in the morning, he left his apprentice in charge of the cafe, packed a basket of cookies, cakes and rolls and set off. It was a bright day so he decided to walk. On the way he plucked some wild flowers knowing how much Pia loved them.

 

It took him more than an hour to reach Pueblo Blanco which appeared to tumble haphazardly from the hillside. Swathes of orange and lemon trees, bougainvillea and jasmine spread cheer all around the farmsteads dotted over the hillsides. The pueblo consisted of a mosaic of old houses, a square, a market with a bar named Alfredo’s, numerous fuentes and a school building which stood out like an eyesore amidst a cubist’s dream. Rico walked down the mossy trail waving at children who waved back at him. Any outsider to them was a tourist visiting the ruins. They smiled and posed for photographs but Rico had no camera so he did not get much attention.

 

After a little search in the pueblo with its whitewashed flat roofed houses, characteristic chimney pots and narrow cobbled streets he spotted the stone cottage with slanted red roof and a cobbled path leading to the front door.  It was at the end of the street and stood out among the terraced clusters of other houses.

 

The tinao was strewn with colourful potted plants overflowing from the edges making a stark contrast. He scanned the place for some activity but the house was quiet. He knocked at the door then knocked again. This time he heard heavy footsteps inside and the door swung open. The young man who stood there could have been written off as Pia’s twin. Slightly confused Rico fumbled for the right words while he peered into the dimly lit interior of house.

 

“What do you want? I don’t have the time to stand here.”

 

“I am looking for Pia. I am a friend from El Pino.”

 

The man had the similar hazel eyes to Pia and they were fixed on him. Rico saw the man’s pupils dilate.

 

Suddenly he pushed Rico back and shouted angrily, “Pia is dead, you hear me?” He was about to shut the door when a female voice interrupted him.

 

“Don’t be rude, Eduardo. He is a friend. Let him in.” Rico heaved a sigh of relief on seeing Pia pull the man aside to make way for him to enter.

 

“What a pleasant surprise, Rico. Welcome to Casa Luna. I am sorry about Eduardo. He is always upset with the world.” Her eyes sparkled as she laughed. Federico felt relieved on seeing her and entered the house.

 

“I have brought this cookie basket and flowers for you.”

 

“They’re lovely. Thank you. Please make yourself comfortable. I’ll be right back.”

 

Rico nodded and settled on a sofa feeling slightly uncomfortable at the fixed gaze of Eduardo who was leaning against the fireplace and staring at him. He looked around the room; it was sparsely furnished and unkempt but certainly looked well lived in. There was a book case along one wall and a side table with a chair near the big window. The heavy curtains blocked the view and he could smell a musty smell coming from them, like wet leaves. A large portrait of two children in their pre-teens hung on one of the walls. He recognised Pia immediately and guessed that the boy must be the brother. “Yeah, that’s us,” Eduardo said in a bored voice. Rico looked at him. He certainly did not look like Pia’s “little brother”. She looked much younger than him.

 

He was about to ask Eduardo about this when Pia entered with a trolley of tea and cookies from the basket he had brought.

 

“We just had almuerzo, Rico. Wish we’d known you were coming. It gets a little boring to eat alone every day. No, Eduardo? “She smiled at him as she made the tea and handed him the cup.

 

“I don’t like strangers especially those who come unannounced.” He said in an angry voice as he walked towards the staircase. For a brief moment he stopped, turned and stared at them then began to climb the stairs which creaked from his weight.

 

“Please don’t mind him. He is unwell, I’m sorry about his behaviour.” Her face seemed to have suddenly aged, Rico thought as he looked into her vacant eyes. He hated to see her sad.

“No problema Pia. I understand. Is he your brother? I thought you said you had a little brother?” Rico asked as he sipped his tea. He noticed that Pia’s cup lay untouched.

“Yes, he’s my brother. He’s a grown up child. His mind is still that of a little boy. That’s the reason he is so flustered and unfriendly most of the time.” Her voice was a whisper as if she was afraid someone would hear. She seemed totally opposite to her useful cheerful self. He felt sorry for her. He shouldn’t have come unannounced and put her in a fix. He took Pia’s hand, pressed it in his. It was cold as ice.

 

“I understand.” He said in a reassuring tone. “Don’t feel bad. I will catch up with you some other time. Need to get back to the cafe. I just visited on a whim.”

 

She lowered her head and nodded.

 

Federico got up and they walked out to the street where they stood facing each other for what seemed like ages. There was a moment of stillness between them. He wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her but the thought of her brother watching from somewhere in the house kept him away. He gave her a quick kiss and left.  When he looked back she was still standing under the cool shadowed Tinao. Rico blew her a kiss, waved and walked out. The door slowly closed behind him as if gently nudged by the wind. He stood looking at the old stone house. The tiles above the windows were chipped and the iron grills looked rusted. The mid day sun threw strange shadows on the walls. Rico stared at them wondering if he saw them move with the passing wind. It all seemed so out of place.

 

He hadn’t gone far on the narrow unpaved path surrounded by hundreds of flowering pots and pillars when a man lazily drinking the local Costa wine with a vendor selling hand woven baskets and Jarapas stopped him.

 

“Hola Señor! Interested in buying the casa. I can get you a good price.” He said chewing on a blade of grass that fluttered at the side of his mouth. The basket-seller didn’t seem to be interested and busied himself rummaging inside his shop.

 

“I am not here to buy the house. The lady who stays there is a friend. She never mentioned that they are selling the place.” Rico was surprised that Pia never told her they were looking for a buyer for the house.

 

The man looked at him for a moment and laughed, “Are you coming straight from Alfredo’s? You don’t look drunk.” He said scanning Rico from head to toe.

 

“The lady of the house is your friend? Hahaha…you got to be kidding. No one lives in that house. It has been vacant for many years maybe from even before we were born. People say the owner, a doctor, was a brute. His wife ran away and left their retarded son and his elder sister in his care. He took to drinking and constantly beat the children. The girl took most of the beating in order to protect the brother and one day the idiota smashed her head on the wall and killed her. The cops took him away and he never returned. The son, a loco, was left to his own devices and some years later they found him dead in the garden…You seem unwell… Are you alright, Señor? You don’t look good. Can I get you something?”

Rico could hear the man’s voice but was struggling to understand. It was a hot day and the sun was bright. A day when tourists and those from nearby cities came to picnic in those parts. The weekly market was abuzz with activity on the other side of pueblo. Without replying Rico rushed back towards the house. He knocked. Once. Twice. And then he started banging the door. And finally his eyes fell on the lock hanging on the door. Rico almost fell back but soon recovered. He got down with a sense of disbelief not really knowing where he was headed, resisting the urge to look back. Lost in the surreal world he dragged his way to the scattered fort ruins and stood there staring at the graves, stone columns and large piles of stones. The remains of a paved floor of a circular hut seemed like a site for prayer rituals for the dead. He felt an unmistakable and unbearable presence of Pia. He sank to the wet mossy ground that smelled of spring flowers and death.

 

*

I ordered another cup of coffee as I listened to Dr. Alejandro. We were sitting inside a small cafe across the city square where the old doctor had asked me to meet him. He’d seen my advertisement in the newspaper for renting a traditional home.

 

“Federico came to me a week after the incident. He was disturbed and needed help. After a few sessions of treatment and a visit to the Casa Luna he slowly began to recover and even started going to the cafe which was run by his apprentice at that time. We met a few times but then both of us became busy with life. A few days ago Rico called me to inform that he was moving to the city and needed my help to find a tenant for the old casa where he had lived after selling off the cafe to his apprentice. Memories of Pia had drawn him to Pueblo Blanco but he’d become very ill soon after moving in and needed to be admitted to a hospital for treatment. He wants someone trustworthy to look after the house in his absence. His house would be ideal for you.”

 

He handed me a slip of paper with a name and address and a frayed business card with his phone number. He added that I could call him at anytime.

 

“Thank you Doctor. I’ll talk to you soon.”

 

“Go safe.”

 

“I will.” With that I picked up my things and left him with his thoughts.

 

It was late in the noon when I reached El Pino. I parked the car near the church and went looking for Rico’s book cafe. No one could give me directions so I decided to walk to Pueblo Blanco to meet him.

 

It was an early winter day but the sun was still warm. There weren’t many people around, just the locals going about their daily business. The mountains, the air, and the wilderness filled me with such contentment I could live here, surely for the rest of my life.

I was in no hurry and reached the pueblo as the afternoon shadows began to lengthen with the onset of evening.

 

Pueblo Blanco was a tapestry of traditional houses and a dilapidated building which looked more modern than the rest of them. A white village as the doctor had said. I looked around for Eduardo’s house but couldn’t spot it. None of the buildings had a red roof. I checked the slip to see if I had lost my way but the dusty signboard near the solitary shop confirmed that I was in the right place.

 

I walked to the shop and looked around. An old man sat slumped on a chair smoking a cigarillo.

 

“We are out of stock.” He said before I could speak.

 

“I don’t need to buy anything. I am looking for Mr. Federico who stays at Casa Luna. It is an old stone building which was owned previously by Señor Eduardo if I am right.”

 

“You are wrong. There isn’t any house by that name nor do I know of any Federico or Eduardo living in this pueblo. You have got the wrong address. The only stone buildings the pueblo has are the ruins over there.” He said, pointing towards the distant hilltop.

 

“That’s strange. My doctor friend gave me this address. He is a friend of the owner and spoke to him a few days back about renting the property.” I handed the slip of paper to the man.

 

“You’ve come to the right place, Señor but I’ve never heard of anyone called Federico or Eduardo and I’ve lived here all my life. Did you say he moved here from El Pino? Maybe you should check with the priest there. He would certainly know. That’s the last bus over there. Don’t miss it.” With that he touched his cap, nodded and went behind the colourful curtain that separated the house from the shop, but he emerged again before I could turn and leave.

 

“I remember my abuelo telling me about an old decaying cottage at the other end of the pueblo. Children called it casa embrujada but that was years ago when I was a child. It is just a pile of stones now.”

 

I muttered a few words of thanks and ran towards the bus. Maybe the man was right about asking the priest. He would certainly know. When I reached the bus I stopped and glanced around the lazy streets of the pueblo. There was no one in sight.

 

When I reached El Pino, the church bore a deserted look and the door to the priest’s home was locked. I decided not to wait and to drive back home. It was getting late and I had to return to the city that very night. While I drove down the winding road my thoughts kept going back to the old doctor, the picture perfect pueblo, the house that did not exist and Federico whom no one seemed to know even in his own town. I hadn’t even able to find the cafe.

It was late when I reached home, but I decided to call Dr. Alejandro- all I got was a busy tone.

 

I was tired so went straight to bed. The strange events of the day were spinning in my head and I wanted it to stop.

 

Next morning I got dressed and decided to call Alejandro again before leaving for work. The phone finally rang after a few tries.

 

“Hola! Alejandro Hospital, how can I help?”

 

“Hello! I am Jim Adams and I need to speak with Doctor Alejandro urgently. I got this number from him.”

 

“You need to speak to whom?”

 

“Doctor Alejandro. I met him yesterday and he told me to contact on this number.”

 

“Estás loco o qué? Doctor Alejandro died years and years ago.”

 

The line went dead.

-*-

Note – The El Pino Ruins first got published in the final edition of Le Zaporogue XVIII by various authors. The short fiction was well received by the readers so I thought of sharing it here too. Thank you for reading. Please leave your views in the comments.

 

                                                                                  ________________

Dahi Gujiya | Lentil Dumplings In Sweet Spiced Yogurt – A Festive Recipe


I have not been keeping too well and that is affecting  my writing and other projects badly. Made these traditional UP style dahi gujias for Holi but never got a chance to post the recipe. My apologies for this late post.

Dahi gujia can be called sibling of dahi vadey/dahi bhalle. Melt in the mouth, delicate lentil dumplings especially made in the shape of gujia during festive or auspicious occasions like weddings etc. It is also a Holi specialty in parts of Uttar Pradesh. A bit tricky to make,  it takes a bit of patience and practice to make these. The gujias have a little stuffing inside them unlike the usual dahi badey. Served with sweet tamarind sauce or sonth and ground spices this remains one of my favorite dishes in any season.

I remember my mother making them and arranging them gently in a large ceramic pan then pouring the chilled beaten curd over it and let them rest a while to soak up the curd. She would then decorate them with ground spices and sauces. The gujiyas were so tender hat they would break at the slightest touch. The trick to this softness lies n the making of Peethi or ground lentil paste.

One must keep in mind to soak the daal  for minimum 4-5 hours preferably overnight. Grind the daal with minimal water to make a whipped cream like paste. It should be airy and light. Check the lightness of the paste by dropping a little batter in the glass of water. If it floats then it is ready to use. Soaking the fried gujias in hot water for a minimum of 30 minutes is essential too. This will help them to fluff up to double the size and remove excess oil too. They can them be gently squeezed and used. One can refrigerate the fried gujias for at least and use them later too.

Ingredients :

For Gujia :

Urad daal (Dhuli) | Split skinned black lentil – 250 gm

Oil for Frying

For stuffing :

Ginger grated and julienne – 1 inch piece

Chironji – 1 tsp

Raisins – 10-15

Freshly Crushed black pepper – 2 tsp

You can add crushed cashews too. I do not.

Other ingredients :

Home cultured Yogurt /Curd /Dahi – 500 gm

Sugar – 1 tbsp

Salt – to taste

Sweet Tamarind Chutney  Sonth – as required

Green Coriander \ Mint Chutney – as required

Roasted cumin seed powder – as required

Salt – as per taste

red chili powder – as per taste

Asafoetida – 1/4 tsp

 

I just realized I forgot to add the process pic of frying the gujia. Sorry about that. 

Note to self and Tip – when planning to post on blog save pictures separately from Instagram. lol .. here is the pic from the story I rescued. You know where it should have gone in the collage.

Process : 

Wash and soak the skinned and split black gram daal overnight.  In the morning remove excess water and grind the daal into a fine paste ( it should look like whipped cream.) Add a little water to the daal while grinding if it is too thick but the batter should not become runny.

Take it out in a large bowl and whip it with fingers too to incorporate air into he batter. This will help the gujia to stay light and fluffy.

Now, add oil for frying in a kadhayi / wok and put it on medium high flame. Meanwhile in a shallow large bowl take water(not boiling) and add hing/asafoetida and salt to it. Mix well and keep aside.

Spread it into a round shape of 4-5 inch diameter with your fingers. Add a little of stuffing and gently fold the batter with the help of the sheet to make the crescent shape gujia. Join the edges by gently pressing with fingers.

Lift the gujia with the sheet n your left hand and flip the gujia gently in to your right hand. Gently slide it into the hot oil. Be careful while you do this step.

You can make these gujias on your palms too but that requires skill and practice.

Fry it till its color slight golden brown. Remove excess oil and drop it gently into the bowl of hot water.

Repeat the steps for frying all gujias and place them in salted hing water for 15-20 minutes to absorb the flavor. In another bowl beat the chilled yogurt . I prefer to use home cultured one but you can use the market bought one also.

Once it it nicely whisked, add sugar and mix well. The consistency should be flowing but not really thin and runny.

Take out one gujia at a time and gently press it between palms to squeeze out water. Place the gujias in a shallow dish and pour the beaten yogurt on top soaking them well.

Decorate with tamarind sauce and green chutney. Sprinkle roasted cumin seed powder, red chili powder and black salt over it and chill.

Serve when desired. You can also keep the curd separately and make individual servings by putting a little curd as base in a plate then adding 1-2 gujias and spooning some more curd on top. Garnish with ground spices and chutneys before serving.

I make the usual dahi bada with the same mixture many times in summer. It is a complete lunch for me at times and one of my favorites too.

Do give this a try and let me know your experience.