Wednesday, 6 May 2020

My Discovery Of Whole Wheat Yoghurt Bread

The covid – 19 pandemic and the lock down have made all of us take up activities we normally wouldn’t do. I always “knew” I could bake bread, but the pandemic has made a baker out of me!

There are so many bread recipes out there on the internet that one is spoilt for choice. I’ve done a lot of cooking in the past, mainly for my own consumption, during phases of my life when I’ve lived on my own. When I was young, I used to routinely help my mother bake cakes, my contribution mainly in kneading the cake mix and licking off the remains of the batter afterwards.

I should confess that I’ve never been one for using precise measurements when cooking, mainly because (i) it takes away the joy of cooking, (ii) I could afford to make mistakes since most of my cooking has been for myself and there wasn’t been anyone else around to complain and (iii) of plain laziness.

After surfing the net, my gut feel about baking bread was confirmed to be correct. All one had to do was to mix flour with water, with a bit of yeast or baking power thrown in, along with salt.

I always try to avoid all purpose flour (maida) to the extent possible. Though all the recipes that I read mentioned either maida or a mix of wheat flour and maida, I doggedly went ahead with just whole wheat flour. Yeast in warm water, with salt and a pinch of sugar. Once the yeast rose by all bubbly, I added it to the flour and started to mix it with water. Once the dough attained chapatti dough consistency, I kneaded it for a few minutes, patted it down to the shape of a flat bread, rubbed some oil all over (so that it wouldn’t stick to the foil) and put it in the oven. After 20 minutes I checked, it wasn’t done. Another twenty minutes, and it still wasn’t done. A third set of twenty minutes and I took it out, determined to eat the fruit of my toil. It tasted like a chapatti, a chapatti that’s two inches thick and semi-cooked inside. Actually, it tasted okay (and I did eat it in instalments), but no one would call it bread.

It was obvious that the flour hadn’t risen. Was there something wrong with the yeast? Had to be. I wasn’t sure how old it was and it wasn’t easy to get some fresh stock, what with a lock down on. And so, I tried again, this time, using baking powder and ended up with the same result.

I did some detailed googling and got to understand that if bread is being made entirely with whole wheat flour, it needs to ferment for much longer. One website mentioned thirty six hours! Also, the dough needs more water than required for dough made out of maida. However, if the yeast and baking powder I had was no good, there was no point in keeping the dough mix to ferment for longer. I looked for alternatives to yeast and baking powder and found that if yogurt or whey is mixed with baking soda, one gets the same effect as baking powder. I didn’t have any baking soda and so I decided to mix some yoghurt with my baking powder, in the hope that the baking powder, even if old and not so effective, would trigger the yoghurt to cause fermentation in the dough.

So, I tried again for the third time. I mixed the dough with just yoghurt (no water at all), after adding a couple of teaspoons of baking powder. I made sure the dough was soggier than earlier. I allowed the dough to ferment for over 24 hours. Boy, did the dough rise up! It almost doubled in size. I baked it for 60 minutes, in three sets of twenty minutes each. When I ate it, it tasted like nothing I had eaten before!

It wasn’t bread. It wasn’t cake. It had a texture and consistency that was more cake than bread. Though I had added no sugar, there was a tangy sweetness, on account of the yoghurt. I really liked the outcome and finished it off in a day.

I slowly came to the conclusion that there was possibly nothing wrong with my yeast or baking powder. So, I tried once again, this time with yeast and did not add any yoghurt. I allowed the soggy dough to ferment for more than 24 hours and saw that it rose up well, just as in my previous attempt. I baked it and got bread!

I think I had added a tad more yeast than I should have and the bread suffered a little bit on that count. However, it was good, tasty, whole wheat bread, which was very different from the “brown bread” that comes from the bakery. I suspect the brown bread one buys from stores has a fair amount of maida and colouring.

Today morning I baked bread for the fifth time, this time using yoghurt once again, because I had liked the product of my third attempt so much. I used three full cups of whole wheat flour and this is the outcome. Whole Wheat Yoghurt Bread! It tasted yummy and I immediately gobbled up a fourth of it without any sides!

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Should India Speak Up for the European Romani?


I heard of the Romani for the first time over a dozen years ago when I was still in college. Term was about to get over and we were all preparing to go home. A friend of mine was packing his bags to leave for Prague where his father, a diplomat, was posted. While we would catch a train or bus to get to our destinations, this chap would fly to Prague. Naturally we were all very jealous and it came as a surprise when my friend told me that Prague is not the nicest places on earth, for an Indian that is.

‘Why is that?’ I asked him.

‘Because Indians tend to get mistaken for Gypsies.’


‘That’s right. There are Gypsies in Prague who look like us.’


‘Yeah! And the Czechs don’t like the Gypsies.’

Apparently my friend was advised carry a book and wear glasses to show that he was educated and not a gypsy.

I didn’t give that conversation further thought till I came to the UK. Gypsies or Travellers are news items in the UK and they routinely hit the front pages, usually for the wrong reasons. Most people in the UK hate Gypsies and Travellers, which terms are used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, Gypsies are people of South Asian origin and Travellers are people of Caucasian stock who follow nomadic ways. However, the pan-European term used for Gypsies of South Asian origin is Romani. In Central and Eastern Europe, they are called the Roma.

Not all modern day Romani look South Asian. Caucasian genes have definitely made a backdoor entry and many Romani have blue eyes and light skin.

Almost all experts agree that the Romani one finds in Europe originated from the Indian sub-continent. There are various theories as to how they got to Europe. One theory is that the Romani are descendants of Indian soldiers defeated by Islamic invaders and taken to Central Asia as slaves. These slaves later migrated to Europe. Another theory is that they are the descendants of nomadic Indian tribes like the Banjara who happened to migrate out of India across the Hindu-Kush. In any event, it is agreed that the Romani left India during the 11th century and slowly made their way through Turkey and Greece into the heartland of Europe. Currently one can find Romani populations in Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, Romania, Hungary, Germany, the UK etc.

The Romani are mostly Christian, except in Turkey where they follow Islam. Romani values and practices are still that of a pre-industrial era. Joint families and child marriages are common. The various Romani dialects clearly show their South Asian origin. For example, numerals in Romani are strikingly similar to Hindi. Ekh, Duj, Trin, Star, Pandz, Des and Biz are One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Ten and Twenty respectively. If you wanted to say “My name is …” in Romani, you would say “Miro nav si” The Romani did not receive a warm welcome in Europe.

In order to make things easier for themselves, they gave out that they were Egyptians exiled for having harboured infant Jesus. The word ‘Gypsy’ arises out of ‘Aigyptoi’, the Greek word for Egypt. Despite this subterfuge, they were persecuted almost everywhere in Europe. In places like Moldavia and Walachia, the Romani were made slaves. They were at times (wrongly) associated with the Ottoman Empire and treated as Turkish spies.

The Romani have in various European countries been prohibited from owning horses or wagons, something de rigueur for their nomadic lifestyles and forcibly drafted into the army. Use of Romani language and attire was prohibited in Spain in an attempt to forcibly assimilate them into mainstream society. Persecution of the Romani did not decrease in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1880, Argentina formally banned the migration of the Romani. The United States followed suit in 1885. Norway (may be with the best of intentions) forcibly took Romani children from their parents and placed them in state institutions so that Romani culture would be eradicated altogether.

Hitler paid special attention to the Romani. They definitely did not fit into his idea of a noble Aryan state and (possibly) a million Romani perished in Nazi concentration camps and gas chambers. I wonder if the Indians who still admire Hitler are aware that he killed over a million human beings on account of their South Asian appearance. Even after the second world, the Romani continued to face persecution, especially in Eastern Europe which tried to forcibly assimilate them into mainstream society. Romani language and music were banned in Bulgaria. In Czechoslovakia, many Romani were forcibly sterilised. I find it amazing that all this happened at a time when India was a Soviet ally. Surely the Indian government knew what was going on. Why didn’t someone at least protest?

After many Eastern European countries joined the EU, many Romani from Eastern European countries have tried to migrate to Western Europe along with other East Europeans. The welcome given to the Romani has been substantially chillier than the less-than-warm welcome given to East Europeans in general. Italy fingerprints all Romani migrants and Romani settlements have been set on fire.

It must be said that the Romani do not show the slightest inclination to give up their nomadic way of living and adopt a mainstream lifestyle. Like any other community, the Romani have their share of pickpockets, thieves, murderers and other criminals. However, unlike other communities, since the Romani do not follow any fixed trade or profession, the entire community is easily stereotyped as a bunch of criminals. The Romani tend to be treated with suspicion by the police and other members of public. Harsh treatment and arbitrary arrests of the Romani tend to be higher than average. When all members of a community are considered to be criminals and nothing good is expected of them, the propensity to turn to crime increases.

All of this raises a very interesting question. Unlike the aborigines of Australia or the Native Americans, the Romani are not natives of Europe. They are immigrants. Are they entitled to the same rights and protections which aborigines and Native Americans have been granted in recent times to carry on with their traditional lifestyles? In a generous and prosperous world where there is enough for everybody, the answer could be a Yes. After all, the Romani have been in Europe for many centuries now. However, in a recession hit world, the answer is most likely to be a sad shake of the head.”

So far the Romani have not (to my knowledge) sought to rekindle their ties to India or any other South Asian country. This is doubtless on account of India’s poverty and the perceived lack of opportunities for new arrivals, vis-à-vis Europe. However, if the Romani continue to face persecution in Europe and if India’s economy does well (relatively), the Romani may (rightly in my opinion) look to India for assistance. If it does, I wonder if Free Market India will lend a helping hand to these poor and long lost people.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Book Review: The Outraged – Times of Strife, by Aditya Sudarshan

I just finished reading Times of Strife, the second book in Aditya Sudarshan’s The Outraged series. The first volume, Times of Ferment, had come out a little over a year ago. My verdict? Another excellent, muted outburst by Sudarshan.

In Times of Strife, the liberals decide to strike back against the right-wing fanatics who have taken over the country. Ahishor Frances is the leader of the liberal pack, having proclaimed his Manifesto, which draws inspiration from the likes of John Dos Passos, Hans Andersen, John Stuart Mill, Tostoy and Martin Luther King Jr., and proposes a (liberal) way forward for the nation. Ahishor is supported by the liberal set which is now willing to shed sweat, blood and tears for their cause. The best thing about Ahishor is that he is squeaky clean, with no skeletons in his closet and his willingness to call a spade a spade, even when the spade happens to be a close friend or family member.

However, in Sudarshanland, things are never what they appear to be on the surface. To start with, liberals comes in various shades and hues. Are all liberals so very different from the right-wing fanatics from whom they wish to rescue the nation? Godman Narayanan, who squares off against Ahishor and his step-father Karim, is no pushover and holds his own. The beautiful Maithili Krishnan who has fallen into the clutches of Narayanan, seems to have gone into the Godman’s den voluntarily. Does Ahishor have a personal agenda when targeting Narayanan? Do the liberals need to be rescued from extreme liberalism?

What I liked most about Times of Strife, other than the subdued beauty of Sudarshan’s prose, are the sharp twists and turns in the story as one drives along on Sudarshanway. A young lady Ruhi Khanna accuses director Pankaj Pande of sexual harassment. Is Pankaj actually guilty of harassment or is it an affair gone wrong? As the story develops, one gets to know of more facts regarding this distressing case, which complicates the picture even further. Most importantly, until the end, Sudarshan keeps his reader guessing about the outcome of the left wing versus right wing war. A couple of times, I even wondered which side Sudarshan is on, he’s that even-handed and fair.

Sudarshan’s writing style reminded me a bit of classical writers like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. Even though the story does not pick up tempo until one crosses the half-line, one does not feel like putting down the book, mainly because Sudarshan has such an easy way with words, without any unnecessary frills. Do pick up a copy and read, your money won't be wasted, I assure you.

Not counting Times of Ferment, Sudarshan has published three other novels, namely A Nice Quiet Holiday, Show Me A Hero and The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Book Review: Days Of My China Dragon, by Chandrahas Choudhury

Chandrahas Choudhury, author of Arzee the Dwarf and Clouds, has come up with his third offering, Days Of My China Dragon. Narrated in the first person by Jigar Pala, a restaurateur based in Prabhadevi, Days Of My China Dragon is quite different from Choudhury’s previous two works, though the prose is just as sublime, unless it has possibly become a tad better.

Days Of My China Dragon
is a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel, or possibly the other way around. Jigar Pala is a restaurateur pretending to be a philosopher or a maybe he is a philosopher trying to run a restaurant. Choudhury is a food critic and Michelin star awarder pretending to be a writer and a connoisseur of human nature or maybe the reverse is true. Do you get the drift? Never mind, do you know why human beings go to a restaurant? Never mind, especially if you are an Indian who was born in the 60s or 70s, since you most likely a miser who goes to a restaurant only if you are travelling and have exhausted the food you brought with you.

And so I thought Days Of My China Dragon was a collection of stories and anecdotes about the China Dragon restaurant, until Pintu Masurkar, one of the waiters at China Dragon decided to join a political party, one to the extreme right of the spectrum and Jigar Pala took offence. Ha! I have a political thriller on my hands, I thought. Yes, there was politics and even some bloodshed, but the tsunami didn’t last long and I was rowing on a placid stream once more. Until a real estate shark turned up, that is.

Usually a real estate shark gobbles up its victim and swims away in search of its next prey, but then, Jigar Pala is not your standard, soft and easy prey. A man whose father put him through boot camp before handing over the reins of his Udupi restaurant, a man who fights survival battles every day, I was sure that Jigar Pala would put up a good fight and I wasn’t wrong, though things didn’t go exactly as I had anticipated.

Choudhury writes exceedingly well, his limpid language underscoring the beauty of his prose, each word carefully chosen and placed in perfect position, not unlike the cups in a Japanese tea ceremony. Choudhury is not only an excellent writer, he is also a good story raconteur. Days Of My China Dragon doesn’t appear to have a plot or purpose, until you realise towards the end that it did have one all along.

I’m not going to say more and spoil it for the readers. Do order the book online or buy it from your nearest store and you’ll be giving yourself a treat!

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Book Review: House of Screams, by Andaleeb Wajid

Though I am not a big fan of ghost stories, I’ve read a number of them. Many of them fell flat and I can count on the fingers of my hand the number of good ghost stories that I’ve read. The best ghost story I’ve read till now is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009. Andaleeb Wajid’s House of Screams comes pretty close, though it is not set on the same scale as Waters’ The Little Stranger and is a slightly lighter read.

Muneera inherits a grand, old, dilapidated house in the heart of Bengaluru just at the right time, when her husband Zain’s business is in hot water and they are trying to save money. Muneera, Zain and three-year old Adnan move in. As may be expected, the house turns out to be haunted, thanks to its past occupants. The bungalow’s walls have unseen dimensions from which screams emerge and bloodied hands reach out to grab and spirit away. To add to the fun, a few of the local folks, Muneera's new neighbours, if you will, are from the haunted past and have deep, hidden secrets. I do not want to divulge more and spoil it for those who are yet to read the novel.

Wajid writes well, in simple, elegant English, spinning a yarn that keeps her reader engrossed, captivated and terrified, in a manner not unlike the walls of the bungalow on Myrtle Lane. The 230 odd page book is practically unputdownable, not just because Wajid keeps her reader frightened and at the seat’s edge.

Ghost stories come in various forms. In some, the ghost is witty and fun loving and in a few, it is more fearful than fear-inducing. However, usually the ghost is scary and Wajid’s ghosts run true to the norm and are truly terrfying. I highly recommend House of Screams, even if you are not a sucker for ghost stories.

Wajid is a writer based in Bengaluru, whose writing I discovered recently. I’ve read two more of her books (My Sisters Wedding and More Than Just Biriyani) and they are equally good, though they belong to totally different genres. In all the three Wajid books that I've read, just as Jumpa Lahiri’s characters are all Bengali immigrants in the USA, Wajid’s main characters are all Muslim and surprise, surprise, they are no different from human beings from other communities. They fight, love, suffer pain, show surprise and carry on with life. I can’t think of any other modern Indian writer who writes so well on a variety of topics, from cabbages to kings, cutting across genres and leaving many, many happy readers in the wake.