Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Off Vathakuzhambu and Veshtis and a Good Soup Story

I love a good story and I love people who are full of good stories. You know them, the friend who makes every little encounter into an anecdote worthy of retelling or an elderly relative with a life's worth of tales filed away for gradual disbursement every now and then. Srinivas Uncle was one of them - an excellent cook of all things Tamil and a great teller of stories. He was a family friend of B's - my friend, roommate and co-conspirator during our six month Mumbai sojourn. Uncle and his wife, Aunty were supposed to be our "local guardians" - thoughtfully appointed by our worried parents in a stroke of sheer brilliance. You see, as a pilot for the Indian flag bearing airline, Uncle was rarely in town. And when Uncle was busy zipping in and out of foreign capitals, Aunty was usually out of town too - visiting her son. Much to our relief no one was around to do any local guardianing and leaving us free to get in and out of shenanigans as we very well pleased.

Anyways, enough about my wayward ways and back to Uncle. So as I was saying, Uncle was rarely in town. But on the rare occasions when he was in town, did he throw the welcome rug out or what. It would begin with a phone call summoning us to Andheri. In those days, we lived in the far away land of Vashi and a trip to Andheri meant an hour long ordeal in the ladies compartment of the local train, hanging on for dear life with your nose lodged firmly in someone’s smelly armpit! On the other hand, after an hour or so of this torture, we knew we would walk into a cloud of sambhar vapors as soon as we entered Uncle's place in and be treated to a meal fit for a queen. Okay, make that a vegetarian queen. And then were the stories.

On this particular day, we entered to find Uncle in the kitchen, stirring a pot of vathakuzhambu in his veshti. Two bottles of his favorite, cold beer sat on dinner table, warming themselves. There was a certain constancy to this ritual. After getting the sweat and grime of our faces we would settle down around the dinner table and tell Uncle about our escapades in the City and he in turn would regale us with stories of "first class celebrity travelers” and their idiosyncrasies while sipping his beer. No beer for us, we just got some of his beer nuts.

After Uncle had finished his second beer and had just about finished with his description of the glorious vattakhuzambu and how one was supposed to mix it with rice and eat tiny little bits at a time, savoring each morsel, he proceeded to the kitchen. Usually we would stay put and nosh one some more nuts or set the table. But this time B followed him in, to help - apparently. I don't know what happened next, but it had something to do with that blasted pot of vathakuzhambu and Uncle's veshti. I heard a crash followed by intense giggling from B and then a chuckle from Uncle. The vathakuzhambu that was supposed to be the highlight of our dinner, that precious ambrosial mix of lentils and whatever else was now flooding the kitchen floor and Uncle and B were having a jolly good laugh about it. For lack of a better idea, I joined in.

In due time, we picked ourselves and the vattakuzhambu off the floor, Uncle tied his errant veshti a little more tightly and then we rummaged in the fridge for leftovers. That night we had some reheated rasam and rice and Uncle told us how malaga tanni (pepper water) became Mulligatawny - a bland rasam by way of Great Britain. And the world and I were richer by one more story.

Which now brings us to this week’s soup – Mulligatawny, the one which apparently has as many definitive recipes as there are cooks and with ingredients that teeter between optional and essential depending on who is in the kitchen. After a fair bit of online research and a good rummage through the pantry, we started ours off with the awesome foursome of onions, peppers, celery and carrots sweated in oil. To this we added a cup of soaked moong beans, a dash of curry and garam masala powder and a smidgen of chopped ginger. The whole concoction was then pressure cooked and mashed up with an immersion blender. In went a small can of coconut milk, some lemon zest and a cup or so of shredded chicken. By the time this was heated through and adjusted for taste, the table was set with soups plates and spoons. And no, there was no malfunctioning veshti in sight.

PS: Uncle did make us vattakhuzambu on another occasion and it turned out to be the only dish in Uncle's repertoire that left me cold. B loved it, so I understand it was a rather good rendition of the real thing but I just did not get what the whole fuss was about.

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