Tuesday, 7 March 2023

Book Review: Once Upon A Plate – The Recipes and Memories of an Unhurried Cook, by Radhika Ramachandran

Do you know how Chicken 65 originated? Radhika Ramchandran’s cookbook Once Upon A Plate tells me that in 1965, when hostilities between India and Pakistan were on, Chennai’s famous chef A. M. Buhari came up with this delicious non-vegetarian dish that could be prepared instantly and served to soldiers. The resulting dish draws its name from the year in which it was invented. Or is it called Chicken 65 because it is made by cutting chicken into 65 pieces? Or did its name come about because a 65 day old chicken was used to prepare it? Once Upon A Plate is not conclusive on this point, but it doesn’t really matter. The eye-watering photo of a plate of chicken 65 and the accompanying recipe ensure that one is focused more on preparing a plate of Chicken 65 than resolve the mystery behind its name.

A cookbook they say, is made not just of paper, but carries with it the author’s sweat, grime from her kitchen, fragrant aromas wafting from her oven, the burnt smell of experiments that went wrong and sounds of grateful lips smacking in appreciation.

In the case of Radhika Ramachandran, Once Upon A Plate – The Recipes and Memories of an Unhurried Cook also has buried in it generations of inherited kitchen wisdom and culinary dust gathered from across the world. Ramachandran, a lawyer cum cook, has poured her heart and soul into this coffee table cookbook, which has been many years in the baking. Once Upon A Plate is more than just a collection of recipes. Rather, ‘it stands conveniently at the beautiful intersection of a cookbook and a food memoir’. It lovingly describes how Ramachandran inherited a passion for cooking, how the time spent with her grandmother laid the seeds for her motivation to write Once Upon A Plate for which she spent years accumulating recipes in meticulous detail. Ramachandran’s English is simple and unadorned and her instructions straightforward.

Ramachandran has her roots in Andhra, spent her childhood in various cantonments across India, went to law school in Bengaluru, married a Bengali man who too has a military background and much later moved to Nigeria where she lives even now. Once Upon A Plate draws on the culinary traditions of all these places.

There are recipes for chutneys, pickles, dips, sauces, salads, dozens of south Indian vegetarian dishes, many chicken, fish, mutton dishes from across the world, including Iran, Pakistan and Nigeria, breads and biriyanis and other rice dishes and more than enough desserts to satisfy any sweet tooth anywhere in the world.

One of the best bits about Once Upon A Plate is that it is almost autobiographical and Ramachandran’s background is truly fascinating. Ramachandran’s maternal grandfather BDP Rao was a military doctor in the British Indian army who was awarded an MBE for his exemplary service in World War II. Her maternal grandmother Anasuya Rao hailed from a Zamindari family. All four of their children became doctors.  Ramachandran received from her ammamma lessons in mythology, cookery, proper demeanour and Sai Bhajans. Ramachandran’s mother and her two sisters, all doctors at one time, formed a close-knit group of strong opinionated women and there is little doubt that Ramachandran is cut from the same cloth.

As the daughter of two army officers and granddaughter of an army general, Ramachandran who grew up in ‘magical cantonments’ where many evenings were spent at the Officer’s Mess and Army Clubs such as the Defence Services Officers’ Institute and various Rajendra Sinji Institutes.

 Isn’t the proof of the pudding in the eating? Well, I made Bhuna Gosht using the recipe from Once Upon A Plate and it’s lip smacking good, though I ended up deviating a bit from Ramachandran's toolkit - mainly in that the mutton I used was chopped into small pieces. Here’s a photo:

Once Upon A Plate is beautiful coffee table book which can adorn any drawing room. It runs to over 550 odd pages, has hundreds of photographs of the finished dishes and a painstakingly prepared index at the end which will be very useful to any reader.

I do encourage all my readers to acquire a copy of this beautiful book which will not only be useful in cooking tasty dishes, but can be passed on lovingly to future generations.

Once upon A Plate is available on Amazon and at Notion Press.

Monday, 20 February 2023

Maintaining My Streak On Duolingo


I have been using Duolingo since March 2019 and find that Duolingo is the best resource available to me to learn French, considering the various constrains I am under. However, I have learned to not use Duolingo mindlessly. Duolingo is designed like a gaming app and it makes one addicted to gaining various types of rewards or credits, which reduces its effectiveness. One of the most well-known features of Duolingo is the 'Streak'. There are folks who proudly claim to have a Streak of over a year, implying that they have used Duolingo regularly everyday to maintain that Streak. However, Duolingo makes it rather easy to maintain the Streak. There are refills and other gimmicks which keeps one's Streak going even if one has not been regular. I have become so annoyed with the Duolingo Streak that I don't use Duoling on weekends and once in a while on weekdays too, but my current Streak has stayed with me for over 58 days. This is the story of my current Streak on Duolingo.  

Duolingo offered refills to maintain my Streak, whenever I was on the verge of losing mine.

Look at my calendar. There have been many days when I did not use Duolingo.

I dropped down the league table many times!

I kept dropping

However, I manage to keep my streak

Streak is just one of the incentives offered. There are others too!

There are daily quests.

Once I was inducted into the Streak Society, not sure what that means though.

Look at how my calendar looked around 10 days ago

Sunday, 5 February 2023

Book Review: Zainab The Precious Quest, by Shayan

When a butterfly flaps its wings in Delhi, it causes snowfall in Switzerland. When Indira Gandhi abolishes the privy purses of the former rulers of erstwhile Indian princely states, Magnus Montgomery, a Swiss banker focusing on South-East Asia at the Banque Wedderburn Privee, sees a huge uptick in his business.

We live in dystopian times and Zainab The Precious Quest reflects this with muddled precision. Vikas. Magnus, Zainab, Rishika, Varun, Sejal, they get on with lives, as they move across continents, meet new people and lose contact with old friends and then sometimes there is a reunion. Throughout the novel, Vikas, Zainab and Sejal manage to steal moments of happiness. We don’t know if Prakhar did the same. Most probably he did not, since he was always precise and methodical and his entire live was a managed project that did not require any external injection of joy. When the reader reaches the end, s/he is none the wiser (regarding the magic elixir that leads to human joy) than s/he was in the beginning.

Vikas Kumar ran a small travel agency in West Punjabi Bagh. When Magnus Montgomery landed at this doorstep after having lost his briefcase, which had his Swiss passport and expired Indian visa, Vikas was ever so helpful, even going to the extent of suggesting that the word "Banque" in "Banque Wedderburn Privee" was misspelt. Shouldn’t it be “bank”?, Vikas queried. Soon Vikas ended up working for Mangus, which took him to Moradabad, 'the armpit of India,' where he made his way to Rishika Pradhan’s father’s shop. Love blossomed between Vikas and Rishika, even as Vikas enabled, for Magnus, the collection and transfer of literally truckloads of cash from various parts of India through Tyagiji’s hawala parlour in West Punjabi Bagh. In parallel with Magnus using Vikas’s services, Banque Wedderburn Privee decideed to outsource back office operations to cut costs and retains New Horizon Infotech Limited in Noida for this purpose. Vikas managed to get Rishika to work for New Horizon. Fast forward and Vikas becomes a private banker in Zurich, working for Banque Wedderburn Privee. Rishika plays the role of the bored housewife amidst the mountains and snows of Switzerland. How does Vikas become a private banker in Zurich? Do please read this novel to find out for yourself.

Prakhar Solanki, a boring data analyst, and his clever wife Sejal, take-off from India for Zurich so that Prakhar can work on-site on an integration project for his MNC employer. In Zurich, Prakhar continues to be ever efficient and precise, while Sejal becomes a marketing assistant at the Uto Kulm Hotel, where she meet Vikas, who is a total contrast to Prakhar. On weekdays, Sejal swirls her prosecco and meets Vikas often. On weekends, the best she can hope for is an Antakshri with Prakhar’s office-mates and their families. Vikas wishes Rishika could be as much fun as Sejal, but he wishes in vain and so he continues to meet with Sejal whenever he can.

Zainab’s family hails from Hyderabad and her father Mr. Sidhiqui works for IDPL - Indian Drug and Pharmaceutical Limited where he is Senior Purchase Officer. When Mr. Sidhiqui is transferred to IDPL’s Vibhadra branch, he manages to get his wife a job as a Chemistry teacher at the IDPL Inter College. Zainab and her family are allotted a Type-III flat (though he is entitled to a Type-IV flat) and things would have been really dreary for Zainab if she hadn’t become very close friends with Varun Dixit whose father is entitled to a Type-V flat. Water Tank No. 5 of the Virbhadra township is where Varun and Zainab have their frequent rendezvous. Suddenly, Mr. Sidhiqui is transferred to a scientific laboratory in the US on behalf of IDPL and Varun and Zainab are torn asunder. Zainab chances upon some documents, addressed to Mr. Sidhiqui which contains another name. Further, at the US immigration counter, they are escorted by state agents via a special queue, sans the usual ESTA checks. Is it just a high profile posting, or something else? We are told that before the move to the US, Mr. Siddiqui had made several visits to the Office of the Technology Attache in the US Embassy on Shanti Path in Delhi. Do please read this excellent novel to find out more.

Vikas soon starts making frequent trips to Philadelphia where he runs into Zainab. They meet often in a seventh-floor luxury suite of the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Chestnut Street. Zainab has a boyfriend three doors down on the same street. Varun Dixit is a faint memory, though Zainab has been looking for Varun in every man she has had a relationship with until then. When her relationship with Vikas starts to threaten to become serious, Varun gets in touch with Zainab via Orkut and it turns out that Varun is actually in her vicinity. Are Varun and Zainab able to put the clock back and recreate the ambience of Vibhadra's Water Tank No. 5? Go on, please read and find out for yourself. 

Shayan (the author's pen name) writes well in precise prose that does not become a barrier to one’s enjoyment of the story. There is no unnecessarily lyrical prose that diverts your attention. The religious fundamentalists who pop in and out of the story occasionally add colour to the human kaleidoscope that rolls on at moderate speed. Shayan's main characters are all very much lovable - in fact, I didn't find a single character in this novel who is detestable, not even the boring Prakhar. I really enjoyed reading Zainab The Precious Quest and highly recommend it to Winnowed’s readers.

Zainab The Precious Quest is available on Pothi and Amazon.

Thursday, 29 December 2022

How Effective Is Duolingo?

I’ve been using Duolingo to improve my French language skills. As I have mentioned in my previous posts on Duolingo, I started learning French sometime in 1999 and have been learning it on and off. As for Duolingo, I started using it in March 2019, used it for three or four months, found it very addictive, but had misgivings about how effective it actually is and gave it up until November 2020, when I went back to Duolingo, more because of the absence of any other feasible option that would help me learn French during my work commute.

I still have mixed feelings about Duolingo. On the plus side, the grammar exercises in Duolingo are very good, and though they don’t cover all tenses, help improve one’s grammar. On the flip side, Duolingo has not improved my ability to converse in French. If at all, I find myself hesitating more, compared to the past, when  I used to rattle off with my limited French vocabulary, unconcerned about my grammatical mistakes. 

These days, I constantly feel that I am not learning as much on Duolingo as I should be, considering I spend around 30 minutes on Duolingo every weekday and sometimes on weekends too. I feel that when I learnt French in a classroom, I learned a lot more. My vocabulary is composed almost entirely of words I learnt in 1999-2001 and later in 2002-2003 in a classroom where the teacher used a textbook (with pictures in it) to teach. I can easily remember a number of phrases from that learning. What I learn on Duolingo is more like water off a duck’s back. The new words I learn on Duolingo, I remember them for a few seconds afterwards and then I forget them. Vocabulary building is one of the places where Duolingo falters though Duo claims to teach so many new words every day. I feel that in a classroom, one creates associations between the newly learnt  words and the surrounding environment (such as the joke cracked by a fellow student or a  rebuke from the teacher), which makes it easy to remember the newly learnt words. 

Ultimately, online learning cannot hold up a candle to classroom learning, I feel and Duolingo is a case in point.


Wednesday, 28 December 2022

Book Review: Elijah, by Susy Matthew

A few weeks ago, I had read Susy Matthew’s In A Bubble Of Time and really enjoyed it. So much so that I wanted to read Matthew’s second novel Elijah, but couldn’t find it on Amazon or any other store. So, I contacted Matthew who was kind enough to let me buy a copy from her.

Elijah revolves around Prophet Elijah who is believed to have lived in the territory that is now Israel/Palestine, in the 9th century BCE. At that time, Israel/Palestine consisted of the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. During the time of Elijah, the Kingdom of Israel was ruled by King Ahab. Ahab’s wife Jezebel was the Head Priestess and, according to the Bible, Jezebel, with her husband’s support, promoted the worship of Gods such as Baal and Asherah. Jezebel also suppressed Yahweh and Yahweh’s prophets. In the relatively smaller southern kingdom of Judah, Yahweh held sway, though Baal and Asherah were not unknown. Elijah fought against the promotion of Baal and Asherah and stood his ground against Ahab and Jezebel.

Just as she did In A Bubble Of Time, Matthew uses the historical setting to tell us the story of Elijah and his sister Ruth. Ruth, who later metamorphoses into Lilith, occupies as much space in Matthew’s book as the Prophet himself. Sold by her wastrel father to the royal household to be a Qedesha or a sacred prostitute, Lilith rises through the ranks of the Qedeshot after some initial hesitation and resistance. Lilith is taught to harness the powers of Baal and Asherah and go beyond the common man’s world, into supernatural realms, from where things and situations in the common man’s realm can be accessed and controlled. She then falls with love with Jehu, a common soldier and out of that love, conceives a child. It is not unheard of for a Qedesha to bear a child, but when Lilith conceived she had already made an enemy of Jezebel and someone betrayed her secret before she was ready to reveal it. Consequences follow.

Matthew writes well, using simple English that does not act as a barrier to the reader’s enjoyment of this spiritual thriller. From the time Eli and his mother struggle against Eli's father’s tyranny, to Lilith’s struggles as a Qedesha to her big fight against Jebebel and Elijah’s battles against Ahab and those who favour Baal and Asherah, Matthew has you at the edge of your seat as she takes you on a grand, pulsating and adrenalin-filled 370-odd page ride.

One of Matthew’s strengths is in her ability to describe situations, something she does with aplomb, whether it be Lilith’s duel with Jezebel (spanning across metaphysical realms) or Elijah’s demonstration of Yehweh’s prowess and superiority over Baal and Asherah. The best thing about Elijah is that it transports the reader to that particular epoch in time and one feels one is living in the semi-arid desert region of Israel and Judah. When Matthew describes a blood sacrifice for Baal, one can sense and smell the gore and fear and pain, just as much as the blind faith that called for the sacrifice. Some of the descriptions are quite gory, but Matthew never loses her artistic touch and her deft handling makes this book such a compelling and unputdownable read.


Ruth/Lilith is a complex character and is actually much more interesting than her brother Elijah. Unlike Elijah, Lilith has a dark side and Matthew brings out the contrast very subtly. Some of those close to Lilith, such as her first caretaker Rebecca and her closet friend Alissa, who possibly betrayed her, are at the receiving end of her experiments and wrath. Lilith refuses to give up her status as a Qedesha and runaway with her lover Jehu, something that seems to make sense, but actually doesn’t. When she catches King Ahab’s eye, Lilith does not give away the opportunity to get close to him, gain his confidence and try and get what she wants. Does she succeed? No, I’m not going to divulge more. 

Go on, get hold of a copy of Elijah and read it. I highly recommend this book. To contact the author for a copy, please refer to her website.