Monday, November 28, 2016

Being a food blogger helped me win the Write India contest

Last year the Times of India , under the able leadership of Vinita Dawra Nangia, took the world of writing as well as reading by storm. Never before had such a large publishing house, decided to rope in 11 best selling authors from around India, to woo Indians to write.

The idea was simple; every month on the seventh of the month a passage was put up by one of the best selling authors, along with a set of rules on what they wanted the story to be about. The passage had to be used in it’s entirety, anywhere in our story of 2500 words. The writing competition lasted 3 weeks every month, for 11 consecutive months, leading to many sleepless nights for budding writers around the country.

“Write ”they said,”because this opportunity of a lifetime can do you no good, till you take advantage of the lifetime of this opportunity”.and boy, did India write!

 25000 entries in a year, and God alone knows how many people started writing for a particular passage or writing prompt, but then gave it up because of dearth of time, or a feeling that the story was just not good enough. I am sure many , more, infact even I had started out to write for every single author but gave it up many a time because I just didn’t think I was good enough.

25000 entries were whittled down to 3 or 4 of the top stories of each month, and finally a book with 36 stories has been published called write india Stories”.a quick calculation, and that means 0.01 of the stories were selected to be part of the anthology.  Out of the 36 stories in the book, 2 stories are written by me, and even without a calculator I knew that the achievement was pretty special.
I am not one to ideally bask in the glory. I needed to find out why?

 My analytic mind wanted to know how were my winning entries, different from my non-winning entries.
 And not just me, for every 1% of the winning entries, the 99% of the others are wondering, ‘what was the secret to being an fantastic story teller’.
 And I am going to tell you my secret.

Writing about culinary travels, or food and travel stories helped me become a better story teller.

A good story must connect with it’s readers at a visceral level, and food does just that. A good story must reignite smouldering emotions, must rekindle memories, must reach out and touch the readers in the very recesses in their mind, and food does just that. The fragrance of melting butter, caramelizing and burning at the edges, always reminds me of butter garlic fish. The crackling of mustard seeds and curry leaves means tempering for dal. Apart from the food it triggers memories of family gatherings, of home cooked meals, of comfort and being part of a whole.
Ok, yes, so as a food blogger and a food writer, I may have a deeper understanding of the bond I share with food, but that bond is there for every single person.
Culinary travel is a very special niche, which I like to believe, I am especially good at, I like to travel a place through the food, that the people of the land, cook, eat and serve. That’s the tag line for my facebook page.

But how does that make me win a national story writing contest, twice?

Both my winning entries are based in different regions, and to highlight the places I have used their food either as instruments to carry forward my story , or as metaphors of the place itself.

My story for Tuhin Sinha, called ‘The Alibi’. The passage given to us by Tuhin, was about a boy and two girls travelling to Goa, with the hints of a love triangle brewing between them. Tuhin’s passage came in 5 months into the contest,  mid-way in the contest. I had already written for 3 of the previous authors and written but dare not submit such drivel for 2 of the other authors.

But I read Goa, and I knew I had to write for Tuhin. I live in Goa, I know this place, and these are my people. And with these thoughts I wrote the story. Unlike most who would consider going to Goa for a vacation, I wrote of the protagonist going to her home, in Goa.

 When I had moved to Goa a few years back, one of the first homes I visited was my friend’s house in Quepem, her mom is a wonderful lady and a brilliant cook. I remember carting home smelly Goan sausages, in my bag back to Pune . Considering it meant 8 hours in a closed bus, and not many of my fellow passengers would have appreciated pork being carried on board the bus that was a daring feat.
But this story was not about Goan Chorizos, nor was it about the complex flavours of Xacuti ; It was about her mum’s home-made wines. In a catholic Goan home, a wine is not considered alcohol. In fact even the limit to carrying back port wine from Goa is higher than carrying back any other form of liquor. While the port wine may not be as famous as the Goan feni, it is my favoured drink between the two.

I guess the acceptance of wine is much higher in Goa, because bread and wine is traditionally part of the communion that they receive in church, signifying the Christ’s body and blood respectively, and symbolically the sacrifice he made for the sins of man. Wine is also served and savoured at wedding receptions, and at other family gatherings.
I was delighted to have won for my story ‘the alibi’ and was determined to recreate the magic once more.

 Mind you , though back then I had not figured out the ‘why’ of my winning. My other entries may or may not have had food or a place at the center of their story, but it was only after my second win, and when I compared my two winning entries that the realization came that food makes me a better writer.
They always say write about what you know, and I always thought that it meant I was only going to be writing medical thrillers, or stories related to medicine. Considering I have spent years , decades even training, and then specializing, and then super specializing, in ophthalmology and then paediatric ophthalmology.

And yet, I did not win for Durjoy Dutta’s story about a girl with two hearts. I got bogged down by the science of it all, the hemodynamic overload someone with two hearts would have , the multiple phlebotomies she would need through her life, the risk to the mother carrying such a baby, after all increased circulation meant in utero the baby would have been nothing short of a ticking time bomb, haemorraging away the mothers reserves!

No, science did not make me a better story teller, at least not in season one of TOI write India contest.

My entry for Jaishree Misra is titled “ Brooklyn, bagels and baba” the name said it all, it was about baba, who incidentally was a surgeon, Brooklyn was my travel destination, and bagels were my culinary muse.

 I had recently returned from my training in Newyork, and while I was taken up by the whole dynamic go-getter culture of the USA , it was their maximizing their meals which really captivated me. Do you want to upsize your medium fries for large? Or your large cup of coffee, to Grande? Extra mayo, extra cheese, extra whipped cream? More, more, more, people were pushed to want and crave more, until, that is what they believe is what life is about. How does that life compare to a village doctors? Well read the story to find out.

The only non fiction I buy is books on food, most of the  non fiction I write is about, food, and now even my fiction stories have food in them.
They say ,’write about what you know, but I would rephrase.

Write about what moves you, write about something you may not know technicalities about, and yet which captures your imagination, because only when it does, it will be able to capture someone else’s.

you can buy the write India book here

P.S. I am told Ruskin Bond will be one of the mentors of season 2, and the first thought that came to my mind, ‘there was a short story by Ruskin Bond with vivid description about street food, a whole paragraph or more dedicated to aloo tikki, I think in room on the roof.’

to read more from the winners of TOI Write India

Roshan Radhakrishnan

Ramya Vivek


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Travelling through movies and food to Korea @ IFFI 2016

The 47 th International film festival of Goa is being held in Goa, from the 20 to 28 of November, 2016. Every year, they have a 'country in focus' to showcase the movies, lifestyle as well as promote tourism to the country; this year it the Republic of Korea.
Korea in recent years has given us Gangnam style, as well as enjoys a cult following especially in the north east parts of India.
It got me thinking about Korean food, because lets face it, no country is explored , if it's food has not been explored. That is when I delved on the Kimchi.

whether you know it or not, almost every person who has eaten at a 'pan-asian' or even a 'chinese' restaurant would have had a bowl of spicy cabbage placed in small bowls , served at the beginning of the meal.

This is Kimchi. so, whatt is so special about pieces of cabbage in a sweet, sour and spicy dressing?
well, a lot!
here are 10 things you did not know about Kimchi
1.while the most common Kimchi is made of Napa cabbages, known as Baechu Goetjeori, there are 187 documented types of Kimchi!
2.Kimchi is Korea's national dish and no meal whether breakfast, lunch or dinner goes without a serving of Kimchi.
3. Kimchi has travelled to space! yes, after a multi million dollar study to reduce it's bacterial load, and smell.
4. Kimchi is a super food! rich in Lactobacillus it is a probiotic, made with fibrous vegetables, it is rich in fiber and vitamins. many believe it to be the reason why Koreans over all success.
5. in 2003 during the SARS outbreak while thousands of people died or were affected in the nearby countries, only two Koreans had the non fatal variety of SARS. this 'miracle' has been attributed to Kimchi.
6.An average Korean consumes 18 Kgs of Kimchi in a year!
7. China has banned the import of Korean Kimchi since 2012. The large amount of Lactobacillus in Kimchi, is beyond the regulations of chinese regulations.
8. the popularity of Kimchi has reached such hieghts across the globe, that we now have Kimchi pizza, kimchi naan bread, and even kimchi stuffed turkey for thanksgiving!
9.The evolution of Kimchi was out of necessity, because Korea suffered long winters, as well as many invations by foreign nations, thus there were months of shortage of food supplies. seasonal foods were brined and stored underground , to survive these months of hardship.
10. Not all Kimchi are fermented equally. Kimchi made in the spring when fresh vegetables are available in plenty, are less fermented, maybe even just for a few hours to a day, while winter Kimchi's may be fermented for longer periods.

There is more to Korean food than Kimchi ofcourse , but Imagine one food item which provides you 50 % of your daily Vitamin C, is good for overall digestion, pairs well with Indian cuisine(think of it as pickle), and is extremely easy to prepare at home, and you know why Kimchi is popular in India.

Most restaurants however do not ferment their Kimchi, neither do they use the traditional methods of preparing Kimchi, with no or minimal use of fish sauce or Korean spices, and most use our desi Cabbage instead of chinese cabbage.Chinese cabbage has thinner leaves, and are softer to eat after fermentation.. i find this nifty recipe by wikihow, extremely helpful as a base to prep Kimchi.

some of the Movies from the Republic of Korea, being showcased at IFFI 2016 are, The world of Us, coin locker girl, dongju; the portrait of a poet, the kings of pig, the shameless, alone, horror stories III, office, the wailing, train to Busan. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

dining in the dark @ Alila Diwa ,Goa

As a child I used to hope that the lights would go just before dinner. ‘Load shedding’ is what it was called back then, when the electricity would go, mostly just for a few hours, but sometimes for the whole night. We groaned loudly just as the lghts went, you could hear the sound of groans from every house in the colony.
But it also meant, dinner would be a simple fare. Nothing which involved too much cutlery, nothing with bones and nothing too time consuming. Most of the times, that meant it was going to be a roll dinner. A roll was a chapatti, which was neatly rolled up , perfect to hold in a hand and involved the least bit effort on the part of the cook or the consumer. Sometimes the roll had an omelette rolled into it, on other occasions it was simply a smear of Ghee, clarified butter, and a generous sprinkling of sugar.
Load sheddings were most common during the rains, and with the soundlessness due to the absence of the ambient noise from the whirring of fans, and buzzing of refrigerators, the sound of the rain used to be heightened.
That was the first thing I noted as I entered the spice studio at Alila Diwa. The sound of the water. they have these ground level fountains, which were literally gushing with water. It felt like we were in the midst of a heavy monsoon downpour, and the lights had gone.
I grasped at my husbands arm, as he held on to the wait staffs, as we were escorted to our table. We were seated at atable, where we had previously dined, and to dine in the same ambience, albeit only by moonlight was surreal.
I knew there was a glass top on the table, which held within it Indian spices in little square boxes. But now all I could make out was a black table top.
We were here to experience the dine in the dark.
As a food blogger, let me be honest, this was one of the most relaxing meals I have had in a long while. Why? Because as a food blogger, I uphold my role as a food chronicler very seriously;  not one cup of coffee, or tossed sald, or even my sons weaning food is spared from being photographed. I do it compulsively. Unintentionally, even. But, not tonight. Just prior to leaving home I realised I only had 10 percent charge in my phone, I did not go back for my charging pack. I just let it be. I would not be needing my phone tonight. No phones are allowed to take picture of the meal, no flashes, and also no talking on mobile phones s allowed.
They called it an immersive experience. I was ready to dive right in.
We were served a thali with 6 main courses served in bowls, and an assortment of other nick nacks.
Having eaten plenty of thalis in our time, we decided to tackle this one in an anticlockwise direction, starting at 6 o clock, or from the food closest to us on our plate.
What followed was a delightful game of pick and tell. We tasted, and discussed what the said food item could possibly be. This game was great fun with the starters; we tasted a crispy fried, wanton type starter, which I was sure was chicken but turned out to be mashed banana or some such. Another stellar starter was the softest most moist shammi kebab. Now, traditionally shammi kebabs are made of Goat meat, or what we Indians call Mutton, but this one was made from Rajma!
The menu itself is unknown to us, and it is only after we exit the dine in the dark experience, that we receive a printed copy of the menu.
The meal after tthat was abit of a let down. A lack lustre boneless chicken gravy, an equally uninspired prawn dish. When I say uninspired, I don’t mean non tasty, it is just that I have had the pleasure of dining at Spice studio before, and their food, does every possible justice to the immenx=se scope and depth of Indian cuisine. With fluffy appams, and crumbly Malabaru porotas, and fiery chettinads, and buttery dal makhnis, there was so much they could have chosen from. But they stuck to the typical ‘wedding reception fare’ of a plain dal tadka, a tandoori roti, and aloo paratha. All very expected flavours, and familiar dishes. I call it ‘wedding reception fare’ because these kind of meals cater to the lowest common denominator; what dishes do most people know, and love, nothing out of the ordinary and therefore nothing extraordinary.
The desserts were a let down as well, gajar ka halwa and rajbhog. How I wish they had served us the celebrated and their award winning home made spice infused icecreams.
A dining in the dark experience needs to meet certain criteria, and many were met at the Alila Diwa, Goa. There should be no safety hazards, and thus all the chicken was boneless, and the sea food was prawns, with previous questioning of any allergies. No use of whole spices, and all the flavours were mild with no excessive use of chillies or spices. Dishes should be contrasting in texture so as to highten the sensorial value of the meal, and hear the starters worked wonderfully, we had creamy to crunchy, crip to pillowy. The textures were sorely lacking in their mains, why not a dal makhni with some granularity, a soft appam, or rumali roti. I understand all indian dishes are gravies, but more was expected, especially from spice studio.
The desserts needed contrast in flavours, or atleast temperature if not texture, hot gulab jamuns or jalebis with icecream, or use of dry fruits.
There are no ala carte orders, and no repeats of any of the dishes.
all in all it is a fun experience, well worth experiencing once maybe more. It is one of the top five romantic dinner options in Goa, according to me. No lights, no mobiles, you may not be able to gaze into each others eyes, but we could hear a newly wed couple giggling at a table close to ours, and well ,I leave the rest to your imagination.
It is a unique experience which honestly I wish more restaurants and especially resorts take to. The Alila Diwa property is fairly large, and theyhad dimmed the lights at the the corridors leading up to the restaurant and all lights were off at the main venue itself. It speaks to their commitment to keeping the diners in the dark, but also about conserving energy, atleast once a week. Reducing carbon imprint, encouraging people to disconnect from their phones, and connect with each other and their food; for these reasons, I would recommend the dine in the dark experience.