Saturday, January 24, 2015

Kitchen Part 1- Pantry

Typically Desi kitchens are the most crowded part of the house. Mine was no exception. I started out with one suitcase full of cookware and things and ended up filling shelves after shelves of things and food. This post is focusing on pantry and Ingredients.

Cooking Indian food from scratch is an elaborate affair. Typical recipes require upwards of 15 ingredients. My food blog is here. Initially when I began cooking regularly, predictably soon after my marriage, it was daunting to make grocery list, plan and shop. But it fell into place after a while. Then came the over drive.  Being a foodie, I wanted to try new cuisines experiment with my recipes therefore ended up shopping for new ingredients from all corners of the world. Initially I did not realize how problematic it was. For instance, getting carried away by Quinoa, I got a bag of Quinoa a couple of years ago. I am yet to finish it. In the United States, it is very difficult to find smaller bags of ingredients. Packages seemed to grow bigger and bigger. Had I got a small bag say a few Oz of Quinoa instead of the 2 lb bag that I always found in stores, I would not have been sitting on a pile for two years. My list of similar experience include Bonito flakes, Nori, Craisens (thankfully almost done with this one), Peanut butter, oats, cereal etc. Since I regularly shop at Costco, my little boy ends up liking one or the other eatable he gets to try there and a huge bag follows us home! After eating it twice, the novelty wears out and he refuses to finish the whole bag. And there I am left with something I do not want to eat, so does anyone else at home. Also I realized that I was mindlessly piling my cart at the Indian store to stock up on ingredients I might use only occasionally.This part of the problem was because of my sheer laziness. It was always easier to pile you shopping high than plan for each meal your family was going to have for the week or two. All I had to do to solve this portion of the problem was paying more attention to what was a priority in my kitchen. The non-priority ingredients could be brought occasionally when it is absolutely essential.
In an effort to make my kitchen more efficient while cutting down on non-essentials, I started  tracking my cooking pattern and my typical shopping cart. I decided to leave my canisters empty till I genuinely needed the ingredient a few times. At that point, I used to put it down the ingredient on my running list of grocery. Doing this for several months, I think finally I am happy with the status of my pantry. There still are a few of those things I mentioned earlier. Perhaps I will find a way to use them up soon.

Also my kitchen is rather on the smaller side and I do not have a butler's pantry or a store room. I just have one spare shelf  to pile my remaining part of a bag of say peanuts after filling the canister.Having a space constraint is in a way good because I am always aware of having to make room for stuff if I go way out of the way.

Here is a summary of my pantry. With these ingredients I have cooked meals from scratch for 40-50 people.  This is indeed a well stocked "Desi" kitchen. I also follow certain rules.

Rule 1. If I can 'derive' an ingredient from another ingredient I already have on hand, I am not buying that particular ingredient. For instance, if I have whole peanuts, I am not buying either roasted peanuts or peanut butter. The only exception to this rule is Tea and Coconut. I typically stock loose Tea leaf as well as Tea bags. Tea bags for my better half- 'Honey' and loose tea for times when we have people over and need to make a big batch of tea , which is quite often. Having loose tea every day drives Honey nuts and making a gallon of Tea with tea bags just does not cut it. Coconut is sheer convinience given that I hail from the coconut belt while living miles away from fresh coconut source.

The list of ingredients include:
Top Tier: Rice Flour and whole red chillies.
Middle Tier: Vermicelli, dry coconut, Coconut powder, Split Channa dal /Kadalebele, Sooji/Rave, AP flour/ Maida, Channa dal roasted, Gulkand (slurp), Empty canister (still figuring out the ingredient I need the most and don't have in my kitchen), Peanuts and Kasuri methi.

Bottom tier: Toor dal (our staple), Moong dal, Rajma, Chickpea, Horse gram, Urad Dal (washed, for Idlis and Dose), Alasande/chori, Whole Masoor dal and split washed Masoor dal.

Rule 2: If I do not use an ingredient for two months, most likely I will not need it. Rajma is falling into this category. I have not made Rajma in a while and no one is missing it. So Rajma is now on the chopping block.

Next come the more complicated part. Spices et al.
Top Tier: Ragi flour, Beaten Rice, Chickpea flour, millets( one of those impulsive buys at the grocery store the other week), Chutney pudi made by MIL, Saaru pudi, Huli Pudi

Middle Tier: Ghee, Tea bags, Tea bags(sigh! Sleepy Time tea, which my little Sunny boy insisted I buy after a sampling session at Costco, god knows when that will be done), loose leaf tea,Horlicks (taste of childhood!), Badam milk powder (will be eliminating this from my kitchen once this particular batch is done), Tamrind, Jaggery, Coffee powder, Rasam pudi, Organic cane sugar from Costco and salt.

Rule 3: Never skimp on spices. Spices are at the heart of Indian cooking. My cooking is also very spice intensive. But I do apply rule 1 here. Since I buy whole red chillies, I do not buy chilli powder. I make my own. Same applies for Coriander, Cumin, Pepper.
Bottom tier top row: It is all about spices. These bottles are at the bottom tier because I typically use them very frequently. Mustard seeds, Cinamon, Cloves, big cardamon, Star Annise, Cumin, Ajwain, Marathi Moggu, Cumin powder(home made), Amchoor, Shahi Jeera, Garlic powder,Garam masala (home made)
Bottom Tier bottom row: Coriander powder (home made), Javitri, fennel seeds, dried mint, ginger powder, fenugreek seeds, Kalhoovu (a strange looking lichens of a spice), Chilli powder, bay leaf, sesame seeds, nutmeg,whole corinader seeds and Pepper corn in the mill.

My third rack is full of knickknacks. Typically I do not need this rack while I am cooking but have some snacks and other ingredients that I use a few times a week.
Top tier: Craisins (almost finished an entire big bag from Costco. will not be refilling because of rule 2), raisins, almonds, bonito flakes (perhaps I will never use it though it took me weeks to find one), Cashew nuts, Quinoa, Tutti-fuiti (seasonal item, baked a fruit cake this past holiday season)

Middle tier: Nutella (seasonal purchase), Vanilla, Rose and Kewra, Honey, local Honey, Chawanprash, Fish oil capsules,One a day women (nutritional supplements on the way out)and pumpkin seeds (harvested from a pumpkin a friend gifted and sun dried).

Bottin tier: Hot cocoa, thick Phoa (on the way out), gummy vitamins, biscuit, Pasta and some snacks.

I also have big vats of rice, wheat flour not seen in the photographs above. Apart from the produce in my refrigerator, this is all the ingredients I have in my kitchen.

Rule 4: Be fearless when using substitutes. For instance I easily substitute soy sauce for fish sauce, and I feel it is ok. . .

With these paints in my palette, hopefully I don't have to stop painting!

Why Minimalism summarised

A few reasons why I believe in minimalistic lifestyle.

1. Lower carbon foot print: the less we need, the less burdensome it is on Mother earth. Ex: fewer things we buy, lesser the demand and therefore lesser exploitation of earth during production/distribution/marketing. Also wasting resources on wants when a ten of the world worries about their next meal feels totally wrong.

2. The more things I own, the more things own me! The emotional attachment to things and more things, starts making life feel heavy. It reminds me of a story of domestication of a wondering monk. Once upon a time there was this monk who was working hard for enlightenment. One day he sat under a tree meditating. A mouse started to disturb him and he got frustrated. He decided that getting a cat was an appropriate solution and he did. Once he got the cat, another problem arose. The cat ate the mouse but was hungry soon after. He started to pur sitting at his master's feet. So the monk was as distracted as before, just that he had a cat to look after. So he decided to buy a cow so as to feed the cow's milk to the cat and he did. He got the cow. He milked her and fed the cat. Now the cat was happy and curled up at his master's feet. The monk was happy, unfortunately his happiness was short lived. The cow started mooing out of hunger. The monk disturbed once again thought about it and got a servant to look after the cow. But the servant turned out to be lazy and things were not running smooth. The monk was still unhappy because his was not getting enough time to meditate. Some one suggested he get married, so his wife could look after the house, the servant, the cow and cat and then the monk would be free from a lot of his problems. He did. Well then he never got time to meditate and that was his life!

3. It saves me a lot of time. Having a lot of things meant spending a lot of time maintaining / curating for those things.  The time thus saved can be used to indulge in a more enjoyable activity.

4.Simple living is most efficient way of life and I am always for efficiency.  So instead of having 10 knifes, 4 dozen bowls we have just 2 and 6 respectively.We still get to most things with just these.

5.Perhaps save money! Well this is an after thought but then who would not love money? I do. I was very thoughtful about buying clothes in 2014 and got just one piece of apparel the entire year. I did save money and did not miss anything in life this past year.

6.Helps me focus on the 'real' side of my life. Shopping and eating are the most wide spread instant fix for all our emotional lacunae. They are instant fixes but very temporal in nature. It always gave me a high when I got a beautiful piece of apparel but it wore our pretty quick and many a times made me full of regret for having got something that was somehow did not make me feel 'beautiful'.

Half a dozen reasons is good enough to embark on a life style. But then why a blog? Because I do not want people around me to think I am abnormal when I ask them not to give me gifts! To explain how strongly I believe in somethings, how strongly I feel about leading my life my way. This is just my way of elaborating on why perhaps I was uncomfortable when a friend gifted a toy to my Sunny boy , or why we often gift kids with money than toys. This also explains why we did not splurge on new furniture etc when we moved to our own house. This also explains why I carry my own shopping bags when ever I go out to shop. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Why minimalism?

I am not the type to be associated with any 'ism's. They are too narrow for a free spirit like me. Why this 'ism' now? The other day I was stumbled into a program on one of the Indian new channels on home interiors. I just started watching the program out of sheer curiosity. Four interior designer or perhaps architects commented on how Minimalistic decors never work with Indian homes because Indian were collectors and hoarders. I found such comments amusing initially. Are we not born minimalists? We are from the land of Mahatma Gandhi. I cannot think of anyone who is more minimalist than Gandhi himself. But then it got me thinking. How can four or so professionals have a similar opinion? After it does not happen in my profession. The joke is put ten economists together, to end up with eleven opinions. So why did the interior designers have similar opinion? Perhaps some thing has changed since Gandhi? The more I see, the more I think how different India is today, for better and for worse

As a little girl growing up in a middle class family life was comfortable. Both my grandparents and their families were well positioned financially as well as socially. But they lived simple lives. They had few furniture, just enough beds for each of their family members. When ever there were guests, one of the family member would lend their bed to the guest and sleep on  a spare mattress elsewhere. For the large families both were, the families lived in houses with just two bedrooms. Then each family member had a few sets of clothing each, so much so that all the clothing items of such large families could probably be fit into two medium sized Closets. Every person in the family also owned only two pairs of footwear.  One the nice pair to wear to wedding etc and the other pair to wear to temples and on rainy day. I myself owned 2-3 pairs of footwear well into my college.
Perhaps the most crowded part of the house was the kitchen, rightfully so.  My grandmothers cooked a lot. They cooked from the scratch meals and also in huge quantities. They cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as snacks for the whole family. They were judicious in their use of everything. They grated coconut till the last of the flesh was removed. They saved scraps, vegetable peel etc and fed it to cattle. They conserved water, electricity and all other resources. A bedspread with a hole in the middle was converted into bags, patchwork quilts or other thing useful for the family. Basically nothing went waste.

Today when I see my own life and the life style of my peer, it is startlingly different. Most of us don't mind throwing a perfectly nice apple into the dustbin just because it was sitting on the counter for a while. We routinely discard food which has been past the 'best before', though the food is still safe to eat. We own dozens of pairs of foot wears and we  have walk-in closets for a family of four because there is just not enough spaces to store our clothes. Our kitchens are filled with ingredients from all over the world but ironically we do not cook much at home. Our kitchens are also 'well equipped'. We will have a dozen knifes of different sizes even though all we need is perhaps a small knife and a big knife! There will be dozens of pots and pan of various sizes and various finishes, and there will be dozen appliances starting with one to grind coffee, brew it,  one to cook rice, one to cook eggs, one to pressure cook, one to slow cook etc.  Despite all the fancy appliances there are fewer meals coming out of the kitchen than the closest take out restaurant. Then comes the curios.  Every corner of the house is filled with curios,stuff. Because we have so much stuff, we need more space. Therefore we need bigger house. Having lived in a two bedroom house all my life, I cannot stop wondering when people end up with huge four bedroom, one den, one family room etc home. 'Duplex' is the fancy word with the Indian middle class, broadly indicating a multi level house with a living and kitchen in the first floor and multiple bedrooms on the second floor. People who can afford more end up with three-four storied houses all for a family of 3-4.

Big houses, tonnes of clothes, dozens of footwear, dozens of pieces of electronic equipments, over stocked pantries and kitchen, furniture , curios and in general things and things and more things in our lives than ever before. What is the point of having so many things? The Economist in me tells me that having more things in life should be better than not having more things. After all that is roughly how we measure our GDP. But is that all? Are we really happy? Is life any better if I own a house with five bedroom filled with hundreds of things?

A few decades back, simplicity was a way of life. Standard of life was much lower and fortunately China had not yet joined WTO. Gandhi was then not just a face on a currency note.  Simple living and high thinking was most ideal way of life. People living austere lives by choice were revered. The quest for happiness took one away from material possessions. Now it is the exact opposite, we are searching for happiness thru material possessions.  Does improving the standard of living means enabling people to accumulate more and more 'Made in China' clutter? Is this rampant consumerism making life better? It reminds me of Gandhi again. He did say something about western style consumerism to support 300 million Indian stripping Mother Earth of her resources and vitality. He is so right all over again.   

I have kept questioning myself for a few years now. My education, upbringing, people around me helped me evolve into the person I am today. I have owned dozens of footwear and closet full of clothes. Been there, done that. But that was the distant me, the person who lost herself in the chaotic affluence that followed the liberalization of the early 1990s. But of late, everything is falling into place. My perspective is different. I am longing to go back to  a way of life my grandfather lead and my parents lead today. Now I feel anything that obstructs a clear line of slight inside my house, unless utilitarian is to my eye- clutter. Simple living and high thinking is back on its pedestal in scheme of things.

It is this change I intent to chronicle in this blog.  The change was not a drastic overnight 'Eureka' moment. It was over a period of time that I found something amiss in life. This is my quest to make amends to my life style to address the hollowness of my soul. Welcome to my journey and hope it is enjoyable.