Of Marriageable Age, by Sharon Maas

There is something about the experience of reading a good book; that like a well-brewed cup of coffee, stays with you long after it is finished.

A little over a month ago, I had the opportunity to read Of Marriageable Age by Sharon Maas, in exchange for an honest review on a popular reading and book review website.

I don’t know what I was expecting, when I began–but it certainly wasn’t to find myself in the middle of the night staring entranced at the laptop, feverishly swishing at virtual pages; blatantly ignoring the loud, throbbing sleep signals pulsing in my forehead.

The next morning my husband woke up a little alarmed at what must have been my demented, unblinking expression; and suggested, a little gently, that it might be healthy for me to stop reading after midnight.

But good books, often by definition, tend to command your attention; and though I spent the next 24 hours walking around like a catatonic zombie, it was worth it.

*

“That is the only reason I did not speak up sooner, because I knew you could offer more [You, of all people! An Oxford man!] — the West, a good education, but not this! If you had taken him to England, let him grow up there and be a doctor worthy of the name and with all the privileges he deserves I would not have interfered, but this…’

“Privileges! I remember a day when there was no talk of privileges but only of shame.”  –Nataraj’s father, p 106-7

The story begins in an orphanage in 1947, Tamil Nadu, India—from the perspective of a little boy called Paul— on the day that he is adopted by a kind, gray-blue eyed man he refers to as “sahib” (a term which I have only known to mean “sir” in Hindi, but which at the time, was–and apparently still is in Tamil–a race distinction meaning “white”.)

Paul notes that instead of wearing trousers like other sahibs, his soon-to-be father was wearing a lungi like “any other man”, and instead of shaking hands, the way that sahibs and memsahibs do; upon greeting the nun, Mother Immaculata, at the orphanage, the man makes a pranam to her.

After a very grateful Paul is chosen, desperately clinging to his new father’s finger, the sahib props him up on his motorcycle and tells him that from now on, Paul will be called “Nataraj”.

Nataraj grows up in a remote little impoverished village in Tamil Nadu, serving as his father’s assistant. His father is the village doctor (called “daktah sahib” by locals), and is highly respected in the community—serving anyone and everyone who travels to see him.

*

“’Ma,’ Saroj began, tugging at the skirt of Ma’s sari.

Ma looked down and smiled. Her hands were white with flour up to the elbows.

‘Yes, sweetheart?’

‘Why’s negro bad?’

Ma’s brow creased but her smile remained. Her hands went on working as she

spoke.

‘Don’t believe that, dear. Don’t ever believe that.’” — Saroj’s mother, p 23

Stabroek Market, Guyana

The second chapter hops across a decade and a continent to 1956, in Georgetown, British Guiana to introduce a little girl named Saroj, accompanying her mother on a curious shopping trip in which they buy a Rajasthani sword.

Saroj pleasantly wonders who her gentle, soft-spoken mother is planning to kill with it, as the two of them walk through Stabroek market; the little girl bouncing about admiring the wonderful, bustling city of Georgetown, which could ‘reach out and fold you into soft wide arms and let you snuggle in.’

The sordid reality of a divided, racist Georgetown opens up to little Saroj not too long after however, when “Baba”, her father, discovers she has been playing with a black neighbor, whips her, and forces her to write “I must never play with negroes” on every line of her schoolbook.

Burning with anger, Saroj decides that one day she will get her revenge.

*

‘They’re looking for a husband for me,’ [six year old Savitri] said, ‘and that’s why I can’t play with you any more.’

‘But that’s so silly,’ said David.  ‘Because I’m going to marry you myself !’ ”  – Savitri and David, p 34

The final protagonist, Savitri, is introduced in the third chapter—as a little girl growing up in 1921, Madras, India– the daughter of a cook called “Iyer”, who works as a servant for a British family on their estate.

Savitri is a bit of a wild child. Much to the chagrin of her parents, unlike the other girls, she is always hiking up her skirt and petticoat to play cricket or climb trees. But her mother’s biggest concern is that she is in love with David, the master’s son.

David’s parents allow for the children’s friendship, seeing it as harmless, and Savitri innocently flutters and skips around the estates lining the streets Atkinson Avenue, and plays with David on the beaches of the Indian Ocean, knowing even then, in the back of her very young mind, that it is not meant to last.

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Each chapter weaves the three stories of Nataraj, Saroj and Savitri together as they grow up– amidst the backdrop of racial tension, changing societies, and oppressive governments or families–across different parts of the globe; providing shades and touches to the other two story lines, until they come together in book’s resolution.

Rich, vivid and beautifully painted—the imagery sucks you in from the first few words. The author doesn’t just write about tropical Georgetown, or freezing London, or a flood in Tamil Nadu; she makes you feel as though the scenes are unfolding around you.

Reading this book is a sensory experience–characters pop alive vividly, warmly inviting you into their vibrant, colorful world. Sharon Maas has lived in all the places described in the book, and this is apparent in every line.

“Betty Auntie was really nice. She would offer them soursop juice and pine tarts and tamarind balls, guava-jelly sandwiches and ice cold Milo.” — Saroj, p 20

When I asked her how she was able to recreate all these places for us, and get the rhythm just right, she said “I think it is just that wherever I am, I tend to “absorb” a country’s spirit more than I take in the facts.

“I might by shaky, for instance, on India’s history, politics, statistics and so on, but I can actually feel India’s soul, its essence. So when I write about India – as an example – I tune into that memory of India’s essence, which is still somehow within me, and it let it flow into the writing. The other things, the facts, I can always check up on Google or by reading books. But it’s the spirit that interests me more, and that I would like to transmit to readers.”

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Sharon Maas in India

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It’s perhaps this spirit that is captured not just in the various parts of the globe where the author has lived or traveled, but also in the characters who are born to those cities (and those distinctive decades). Dripping with symbolism, the book comes alive as each character has to transform—managing, slowly, in his or her own way, to emerge out of the darker aspects of the humanity surrounding them and making the challenging choice to live in the liberating light.

Each character’s voice is unique, and presented authentically—even the less-sympathetic characters are depicted with honesty.

In each situation, the story presents both sides—for Nataraj, this means discovering a balance between the lure of first world England versus the rural, third world village from where he came. For Saroj, this means fighting her way through an oppressive Hindu family life, but slowly understanding the truth behind her religion. For Savitri, it is in the complex and endearing form of unconditionally loving the British, who ruled her people, and unconditionally loving her family, who rebelled against them.

The story never idealizes one side over the other, but rather paints the world as it appeared from both sides of the battle lines. Perplexed by what they felt were extraordinarily repressive customs, women with power–who in a less skilled author’s hand could easily be depicted as villains–in this story try earnestly (albeit condescendingly) to help those whom they view to be the repressed, voiceless girls of Indian families–forced to acquiesce their own destinies to the will of their family and broader society–the moment they grow to become ‘of marriageable age’.

The author has drawn on her own experiences to describe the struggle of women growing up in the last century.

“I grew up in the 20th century and I had a first-hand experience of the changes women as a whole went through. My mother was one of the first feminists in my country [Guyana] and raised me with feminist ideals; but I was critical of some of these ideals and as a young girl coming of age I was very eager to explore, to examine for myself, to see what works for women and what doesn’t, and what kind of woman I myself wanted to become.

“I have lived with women in traditional set-ups in India and Guyana, and with liberal, modern women in developed Western countries; I see failings on both sides, pain and heartache in all models, so in the end I think that each woman must find out for herself what it means to live in this day and age. There are more opportunities for us than ever before, but we have to be careful not lose the essence of what makes us women. Not just to become men with boobs, copying what men do and reproducing all the mistakes they made, but to be unique and whole and free. It’s not as easy as it seems!”

 *

“Saroj chased the butterflies all through the back garden. ‘Don’t chase them,’ Ma said. ‘Just stand still, and if you’re lucky one might alight on your shoulder. See…’

Saroj stood stock still so the butterfly would land on her but it didn’t.

‘You want it too much,’ Ma said smiling. ‘You have to be still inside as well as outside.’” Saroj’s mother, p 14-15.

Nataraj, Saroj and Savitri’s stories are written in a time when countries all over the world were shedding their colonial-era cocoons—and illustrates how people had to transform themselves as individuals to begin the slow process of creating a better world.

At its heart, the novel’s philosophy emerges through the character of Savitri—who is able to turn her ego inwards and listen to the sense and hearts of all the sentient beings around her.

But Sharon Maas did not set out to promote any philosophy; rather, her ideals came through her characters, when they had to deal with the things life threw at them. In the end, her philosophy rang through in the novel: “I believe that the human species is at its core good, and that our life on earth is about learning to find that goodness and to live it. I believe that love is the highest good, and that to live is to learn to love – completely and unconditionally.”

Sharon Maas

*

After telling her that I connected with the book personally, I asked how she was able to create this dynamic between the story and her readers.

“My way is to absorb more through the heart, rather than through the brain. Perhaps this allows readers to connect in a more intimate way than through the intellect. Through the spaces between the words rather than through the words themselves.”

When asked what she would like readers to take from her story, she said “I would like them to just come along with me for the journey and afterwards, when they close the last page, say it was a wonderful, unforgettable one.”

Since my husband can attest for the “unforgettable” expression on my face while I guzzled down a pot full of coffee after a night of no sleep thanks to Of Marriageable Age, I can say that for my part, this hope was fulfilled.

Photo Credits:

Stabroek Market, Guyana: guyanatimes.international.com

Sharon Maas in India: Sharon Maas, personal photographs

Sharon Maas: authorscoop.com

Granadilla Tarts in Mozambique and Sisterly Bonding in Supermarkets

Granadillas. Wrinkly and yellowish on the outside. Gooey, sweet and tangy eye-things on the inside.

Granadillas (Passion Fruit): Wrinkly and yellowish on the outside. Gooey, sweet and tangy eye-things on the inside.

I remember it being really rare, while growing up in Florida, to come across litchis, guavas or any other “exotic” fruits in the local grocery stores that my parents would remember from their childhoods in India–outside of maybe the occasional crate of mangoes during the summer time.

But as we had a mango tree in our own backyard, I did not consider this to be very “exotic”; and always felt that our grocery stores were missing something.

Life has a funny way of being ironic.

These days, I come across so many new and exotic things that I find myself sometimes clinging on to the rare, battered box of chips ahoy in the grocery store in Mozambique, and turning to my loved ones to say, “Look—SNIFF IT—you can still smell America.”

For some reason, people don’t like to shop with me.

Supermarkets in Maputo, the capital city, are much like those I grew up with in the US, (except decidedly less organized); and the open air markets here most closely resemble flea markets back home. But when you begin to drive to the outer skirts of town along the coastline and start to approach the farming villages–the markets on the side of the road begin to take on a distinctly rural, African vibe.

Women and young children, some dressed in traditional capulanas–swarm you, the moment you get out of the car–to get you to buy their cashews, or fresh honey, or a gigantic pile of seasonal fruits and vegetables. Ladies who, a moment ago, were enjoying the shade of nearby trees rush to get up in the scorching Mozambique sun, as you express even the slightest interest in their baskets of assorted piri-piri peppers, or neat rows of sugar-apples (“Seethaphal” in India) lined up on a thin sheet on the dirt road–some dark shades of green, others spotted and crusty. They break off chunks of the sweet potato roots–which look as though they have just been plucked out of the earth, caked as they are with dirt–with their teeth, to show you their quality.

Sampling Seethapal

Sampling Seethaphal, (August 2012)

I’ve had to ask the locals, many times, while pointing to a particular product I’ve never seen “Que é isso?” to be answered with free samples of fruits and vegetables; some varieties of which I doubt exist outside of this little bubble of society–as they form on little vines, or taste too leathery, but have just a tiny little bit of sweetness at the end–(not likely marketable to a wide audience, perhaps; but as fascinating as they are untouched by the ever-present branches of the industrial revolution).

It’s at the same time humbling—a glaring example of disparity in global wealth distribution—as it is remarkable: an organic farmer’s dream come true.

And it was with this bustling image in my mind that I went back home to the US this last holiday, and experienced a bit of reverse-culture-shock while admiring the pristine, gleaming rows of identically shelved boxes in every aisle of the Publix grocery store–and gawked in surprise at the polite, efficient and non-invasive customer service.

“Why are all the employees smiling and so happy to see us?” I whispered to my sister suspiciously, “…and how come everyone shopping here politely says ‘excuse me’ from three feet away, when they haven’t even bumped us with their carts?”

Several times, my sister had to smile apologetically at other patrons, as I startled them by jumping excitedly, sporadically shouting “Look at how CLEAN everything is! Look at how orderly!” and then grabbing items from the shelves to show her, “LOOK! No sugar is spilling from the packets!”

But after an especially sharp whisper from her telling me to “get a grip” when I burst into applause at the Publix bakery aisle and tearfully hugged a box of chocolate chip cookies while singing an impromptu rendition of “America the Beautiful” — I had to stop abruptly, not at her reprimand, but at the sight of the produce section.

I stared, but this time not in awe—something in my brain registering a familiar sight, but with a different lens; like a familiar family picture, but with an odd new lighting—the same problem, but the other side of it—

A meticulously arranged pyramid of circular apples–blindingly bright red, each the same size, each the same shape.

Rows of gigantic bananas stacked on one another aesthetically–blindingly bright yellow, each the same size, each the same shape.

A neat bunch of symmetrical, cylindrical clean carrots–blindingly bright orange, each the same size, each the same shape.

I blinked several times.

My left eye started to twitch.

Standing there, for several moments, gaping uselessly—I next remember being dragged out of the store slowly; still clinging, of course, to the box of cookies, but now suddenly unable to produce speech– pointing in blank shock–while my sister tugged at my arm, muttering things (in what I would like to think was a tone of irritated affection) that sounded like ‘gimme the cookies so we can pay, weirdo’.

But I didn’t hear her.

Everywhere; all around us–there had been a group of fruits that were all exactly the same in color, all exactly the same in shape–and when we went home to try them, all exactly the same in taste.

Fretfully, and to the growing bewilderment of my family, I ate one sickly sweet grape after another, becoming progressively more annoyed with every bite. My sister was regaling my parents with the day’s events. “Never taking her shopping again—”

“Why are they ALL sweet?!” I interrupted, finally finding my voice as my parents raised their eyebrows; concerned– “Why are they ALL so large? And ALL the same color? This is NOT normal! Some grapes are supposed to be tart! Some are supposed to be sweet! Some are supposed to be large–some are supposed to be small!”

My parents examined the grapes curiously. “Oh yeah…” they said, peering at them more closely.

“Are you a Dr. Seuss character?” My sister demanded, while popping a steady stream of grapes into her mouth and maintaining an eerie level of eye-contact; like a freedom fighter glaring at a poster of his dictator. “What’s wrong with that?”

“Wha–what’s wrong with that?”  I spluttered, a little unhinged, “This does not occur in nature!” I picked up three abnormal grapes to demonstrate. “Look at them–they all look like they’ve had some kind of grape-plastic-surgery! There is no nutritional point in eating this! We’re artificially increasing the amount of sugar we’re getting out of each fruit…why don’t we just  be honest with ourselves and eat plain sugar that just contains ‘essence of grape’ ?!”

Her eyes narrowed spitefully, as though I had said something unpatriotic.

After all, over the course of the last three years, my sister had been used to having the upper hand. “Oh, we can’t load the video you sent,” I would say over the phone, “–because we’re almost out of gigs this month. GIGS–as in, GIGABYTES.” or “No, we can’t watch TV and have the internet on at the same time; but now I want to watch this TV show, so I have to unplug the coffee pot.” or, “The Mindy Project? No, what documentary was that?” and so on.

So when the time came for frustration, it was normally the other way around.

But here I finally had my chance.

Here is where Mozambique wins.

Bilene Beach (August 2012)

Bilene Beach, Mozambique (August 2012)

“Because you see,” I began, in the kind, loving voice in which I give my sister life lessons–(which I say sounds slightly like Morgan Freeman; and she says sounds slightly like “Miss Piggy”)– “…the world was meant to be filled with variety.” I gestured towards the kitchen to indicate “the world”. My parents nodded, politely. My sister looked as though time had started to move very slowly.

“In the natural world, species that vary; prosper. They are more resistant to diseases, more resistant to change, and therefore, better equipped for survival…” I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, as my parents’ expressions glazed over, my sister began to stuff larger handfuls of grapes into her mouth like a panicked chipmunk; sensing a threat. I swatted the bag of grapes away from her. She scowled.

“…When all fruit trees produce identical fruits, like this; when there is too much homogeneity–” I enunciated the last word a little condescendingly–My sister lunged for the bag of grapes–I waved it out of her reach. “…that sameness makes a species weak.” I gestured suggestively in her direction. She had hunched over, a little, onto her knees, choking on the already excessive number of grapes in her mouth, and looked up at me; eyes brimming with rage. “–All fruit…” I continued, in a lilting voice heavy with emotion, “must not look the same…the way that all… humans…must not look the same–”

“I liked it better–” she said, clearly captivated; in between coughs, “–when you weren’t talking–”

“–Our world…” I went on, a little louder– “…thrives on our differences. When you try to make things look –and taste–and be the same, you are messing up the great balance of the universe.” I waved the bag around the kitchen again to indicate “the universe” and continued, eyes closed almost reverently now for discovering the great link between evolutionary biology and the human spirit– “Without knowing the tartness of a sour grape,” I paused for emphasis, concluding in a whisper, “–one will never…be able to value life’s sweetness.”

I opened my eyes to observe how the full effect of my profound observations had moved my family, when my vision obscured–

My sister lunged for the bag again—and this time was successful–managing to somehow tackle me to the ground and stuff her mouth with another twenty gigantic grapes—all the while releasing a manic, wild laugh of victory.

“SHKOO YOU!” she said, as I tried to get up, “WHO YOU CALLING WEAK NOW?”

I know I made a difference that day.

And so, last weekend, after carrying back bundles upon bundles of various fresh fruits from the farming village market, including an extra giant bag of granadillas–this conversation came to mind as I looked down to proudly see it contained a wide array of browns and yellows, often sweet and orange on the inside, but occasionally pale yellow and satisfyingly sour.

And as I admired their diversity, content in their bumps and flaws and differences; I knew the best thing to do would be to turn them into identical little yellow tarts.

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Crust: Recipe adapted from: http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/perfect_pie_crust/

Granadilla Tart

Granadilla Tart (March 2014)

1 and 1/4 cup AP flour (I use cake wheat flour)

1/2 cup Unsalted butter, cold.

1/2 tsp Salt

1/2 tsp Sugar

3-4 tbsp Ice cold water

Mix salt and sugar to flour in a large bowl. Measure out cold butter, and chop it into cubes in the flour mixture (I used two butter knives). Then mix with fork to get tiny pieces. If you feel butter is melting, just stick the bowl in the fridge for a while. Add cold water by the tablespoon and mix with fork. Dough will be crumbly, but will start to stick together. Roll into a ball, cover in cling wrap and stick in fridge for an hour.

 

Filling: Recipe adapted from: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/paula-deen/lemon-tarts-recipe.html

4 Eggs, Beaten

2/3 to 1 cup Granadilla Juice (from about 10 granadillas)

2 tbsp Full Cream Milk

1/2 cup Confectioner’s Sugar

Put the pulp of about 10-12 granadillas into a bowl, and strain out the liquid. (This part is a little time consuming, but worth it.) Save the seedy pulp.

Beat 4 eggs in a bowl. Add granadilla juice, milk, and sugar. Mix well. You might have to strain it once to make sure the sugar is dissolved. Stick bowl in fridge.

Preheat oven to 175C (350F). Roll out the pie dough over a floured surface, and cut into rectangles. Place in a buttered muffin pan, adjusting the uneven sides. Stick muffin pan in fridge until oven heats up.

Place dough in oven for about 10 minutes. Take out and spoon the granadilla mixture into each tart. Place back in oven for about 15 minutes.

When done, add pulp on top for decoration, and to add a bit more sour-sweet tartness.

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Granadilla (Passion Fruit) Tarts

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These tasted kind of like lemon tarts, but with a definite granadilla body. Next time, I would probably cook the custard before adding it in the oven, because the four eggs were a little overwhelming. I’d also thin out the dough to 1/8th of an inch rather than 1/4th. Adding the pulp on top brought out the granadilla flavor more. It is a little bit time consuming, with all the straining and draining–but you can always just use store-bought pulp or liquid.

Granadillas can last at room temperature for maybe a week, but in the fridge they last for a pretty long time.

Admittedly though, they taste best when in their purest form, just smashed open with your bare hands; revealing the gooey, sweet and sour seeds inside–freshly picked from a town that I would have once called  ‘exotic’ –in a little farming village 30 kilometers away from Bilene Beach, in Mozambique.

Happy Birthday, Purvi :-)

Happy Birthday, little sis :-)

Homemade Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookies

THINMINT2

Ding Dong!

“Would you like to buy a Girl Scout cookie?”

Thus began the sales pitch–we were told to smile sweetly as the door creaked open, revealing our next-door neighbors–taught to pay small compliments to the potential clients–as they looked at us, politely; questioningly–were trained to develop our budding skills of careful flattery–by saying things like, “Your daughter is so beautiful!” only to be informed the baby they were holding was a boy.

Casting blundering small talk aside, out would come the folder.

Usually the grown-up would smile grimly at our gap-toothed, hopeful  expressions as they took it from us reluctantly–the folder which had a list of all the Girl Scout cookies on the margin, along with little squares for them to mark their orders–frowning in concentration as they thought of their waistlines, probably, or their bank balances (though, this was during the Clinton era, so maybe more the former than the latter)–and after a few moments of staring intently, they would sigh–the first sign of a withering willpower.

“Can I put you for a box of Thin Mints then?” We would ask innocently. Clench the deal.

You could see the battle on our clients’ features; the desire for cookies–the desire to have them, to eat them, in the near, yet distant future–slowly, visibly vanquishing the whispers of that irritating adult voice of rationality which says–you don’t really need this.

That would be our cue to smile and look up at them; eyes wide with little-girl wisdom.

And they would break.

“ARGHGH Fine. Yes. No! Make that THREE boxes of Thin Mints. And one of those Samoas. No, two! And the Peanut Butter ones as well!”

Who could blame them? There were cookies of all kinds at the supermarket, yes, but Girl Scout cookies are seasonal–after the season is over you have to wait a whole year to have them again–and anyway, they would convince themselves, which cold-hearted ogre could say ‘No’ to cookies–brought to their doorstep by people who themselves are made of ‘sugar, spice’ and all that other stuff?

The orders would come in, and we would deliver, our pigtails a-swinging, not knowing one day we would grow up to be on the other side of that door. Our clients’ eyes would grow large with happy anticipation–lighting up at the colorful, rectangular Girl Scout cookie boxes…and you could see the exact moment that the latent sleepy cookie monster (which lives in all of us) would wake abruptly–

Thin Mints.

The ring of euphoria would cloud their senses, as they would gaze down at the green box; opening it, ready to devour its contents.

The first crispy bite, the happy snap of the peppermint-chocolate cookie; with its smooth chocolate coating–would  dissolve their surroundings–and suddenly they would be reminded of a time when they were Girl Scouts, selling cookies door-to-door– and their Inner Cookie Monster would rejoice–his laughter echoing loudly through years of suppressed cookie-cravings…bursting open the doors of nostalgia.

But then, they would wake from their daydream, realize they live in Africa, and remember that no one here knows what on earth Girl Scout cookies are, and are much less likely to ring the bell selling them.

Sighing through memories of decades past, a solution would flash before them, rousing them to the present–their Inner Cookie Monster would sit up, blinking dramatically–the year is 2014, Inner Cookie Monster would prompt its owner to think–the age of information. The internet is filled, nay, seething with recipes! How many other people would have had the same daydream?

The Cookie Monster would twitch his head, as realization would dawn on them.

Yes.

A distant bell would ring. Ding Dong!

And they would have to answer its call.

*

Recipe adapted from: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/thin-mint-cookies/

Cookies:IMG-20140318-03464

1/2 cup butter

3/4 to 1 cup white sugar

1 egg

1/2 tsp peppermint extract

1 cup flour

1/2 cup cocoa powder

1/8 tsp salt

Coating:

1/2 bar Baking Chocolate

1 tsp Peppermint extract

1/4 cup Full cream milk (add bit by bit until correct consistency)

Cream butter and sugar. Add egg and peppermint. In a separate bowl, mix flour, cocoa powder and salt. Add dry ingredients slowly to wet ingredients. Batter will be sticky. Transfer onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a cylinder (dough will be soft, but will come together). Cut cylinder in half, transfer onto saran wrap and roll up snugly into a paper towel roll (if available). Keep each roll in fridge overnight. (Or for a few hours, and then in the freezer for 30 minutes before baking.)

Heat oven to 175C (350F), and slice each cylinder into thin cookies (1/4 inch thick, if possible), and place onto buttered cookie sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes.

Prepare coating: Melt baking chocolate in the microwave until consistency is less than solid, but not liquid (when it gets pliable). Add peppermint extract and full cream milk. Chocolate will solidify a little after adding peppermint extract. Keep stirring and heating until reaches the consistency of chocolate fondue.

Dip cookies into coating (I used my fingers) and let set in the fridge.

*

These cookies turned out really well, satiating my craving for Thin Mints, and though they weren’t exactly like the real thing, they were close enough for my liking.

I did have to leave them in the fridge the whole time for the coating to stay the right consistency; and this time I used 3/4 cup sugar but next time I would use a little bit more.

My husband, who had never tried Thin Mint cookies before, curiously looked at the carefully arranged platter of little brown round cookies and poked them, skeptically, before popping one into his mouth.

Within seconds I turned around–the plate was half-empty, my husband was patting his belly contentedly, and through his eyes–I could see it–the Inner Cookie Monster–purring with satisfaction, as he turned to me to ask, Why have you never made these before? These are the greatest things ever!

…and the Girl Scout franchise took another cookie monster for its own.

cOOKIE mONSTER

Spicy Vegan Chili & Secret Ingredient

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Last June, my mom called to ask me if I needed her to bring anything for me from America.

I looked in my pantry. I was running out of the special ingredient.

This recipe for vegan chili is delicious, healthy, super easy to make, and for this reason, is cooked almost every week in our home. A little over a year ago, I discovered that it is made even better with a special secret ingredient.

The secret ingredient is a unique, smoky hot sauce from a local Mexican restaurant chain in Florida called Tijuana Flats.

But I was in a conundrum, as I looked inside my pantry–did I need this sauce enough to make my mother have to say its name out loud in the restaurant?

I decided I did.

A little sheepishly, I explained to her what I needed, and my husband asked for his favorite sauce as well. We sent the names of the bottles and the quantities we wanted in an email, which she jotted down on an index card, a little skeptically.

The next day, while my mom was running errands, I happened to call her, and overheard the following polite customer-client exchange.

“Hi, Welcome to Tijuana Flats!”  

“Hiiiiii, Thank you…[awkward pause]…Do you sell sauces?”

“Yes! Yes, we do.”

“Goooood. Uh… could I have three bottles of…[mumbling] Don’t be a…Chicken…uh [incoherent]”

“[a little flustered] A–a chicken…? OH–OH YES! Yes, we have that. [polite, uncomfortable laughter] Yes!”

“–And, and one more..this…Slap my…sweet…”

“[unnaturally high] what?!”

“Yeah, ok, you read this. It’s on the index card.”

*

Recipe adapted from: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/the-best-vegetarian-chili-in-the-world/

Ingredients:

1 cup red-speckled (sugar) beans

1 cup red kidney beans

1 cup black beans

1 red onion

1 green bell pepper

2 carrots

1 jalapeno pepper (or green chili pepper)

3-4 cloves garlic

4 tomatoes or 1 can diced tomatoes (I use the ones with garlic, basil, oregano seasoning in them.)

Enough water to cover beans

1 can corn

Seasoning: Bay leaves (6), Dried Basil (2 tablespoons), Dried Oregano (2 tablespoons), Ground and/or Whole Cumin (1-2 tablespoons), Salt, Black Pepper

Secret ingredient: Tijuana Flat’s Don’t Be a Chicken Shit hot sauce.

*

Method

Soak the beans in water for 3-4 hours until double in size.

Put about a teaspoon of oil into a pressure cooker. Chop up onion, green bell pepper, carrots, jalapeno pepper, and grated garlic cloves, and just throw them in the oil as you chop them, or you can put them in all together at the end, whatever’s easier for you. At the end, throw in the diced tomatoes. Cook for a few minutes.

Drain the soaked beans and rinse them a few times, and then add them into the pot, with enough water to cover the beans and vegetables completely.

Add the spices: bay leaves, basil, oregano, cumin, salt and pepper. You can also add taco seasoning, red pepper flakes, or red chili powder depending on how spicy you want it. Seasoning is always to taste, but I love to add as much basil and oregano as I possibly can.

Pressure cook for about 7-8 whistles, or about 45 minutes to an hour.

When cooked, let pressure cooker cool down and release the whistle. The chili should have thickened, but if it’s watery, mash some of the beans together. Add the can of corn, and taste for salt.

*

 IMG-20140307-03413

Normally, chili is of course served with cheese, but we like to eat ours with yogurt (but it’s good enough on its own). Then we drizzle the secret ingredient: Tijuana Flat’s Don’t be a Chicken Shit hot sauce on top. Sometimes, my husband likes to add Slap My Sweet Ass and Call Me Sally, which is a garlic infused, sweet-and-spicy sauce, but I prefer the smoky, tangy, cayenne flavor of Don’t be a Chicken Shit. (You can buy the sauces online here.) This dish would probably be enhanced by other Mexican spices or sauces as well, and is the kind of food where you enjoy the taste, but you feel good afterwards as well, because you are pretty much just eating proteins, vegetables, water, and spices.

And it’s the kind of taste for which you would go so far as to ask your poor mother to speak unspeakable words in public. But sometimes, it has to be done.

Thank God for the index card.

Jam or Fruit Filled Doughnuts and “a day of no internet”

We woke up this Sunday to no internet or television connection in our apartment.

Imagine our dismay–a young, married couple–having to communicate–without a laptop propped nearby, or a loud television program distracting us in the background.

This may have been an opportunity, we thought, to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors; perhaps occupy our time with a variety of primitive early-human recreational activities such as “talking to one another” and “going outside to admire the scenery.”

But then we laughed, and called the repair man.

He never showed up. We stared at each other, and then at the blank television screen; even poked our lifeless laptop monitors.

“It no work!”, we said, pointing; banging on the internet modem, shaking it. “Work, magical rock. Work!”

Nothing.

After some time spent in silent contemplation, a light-bulb thought bubble grew over my husband’s head, and he remembered that we owned a pair of badminton rackets–which we had brought over from South Africa with noble, naive intentions to “get exercise”.

On searching the bedroom, we found them, along with the birdie–sitting forgotten and unused in the bedroom closet.

What happened next was our only logical choice.

We called it: “Apartment Badminton”, and began to set up the court. The couch and chairs became the net. Ladies got the side with the AC unit; Gents had to maneuver around the dinner table. I wasn’t one to argue with the rules.

The volley began. There were many misses; many close saves. The birdie bounced back and forth across the couch-net; sometimes bouncing off of it; sometimes hitting a ceiling light and landing on a chair. The tension mounted as we kept score–in the hopes of winning the coveted Five-Liter-Empty-Water- Bottle Trophy and waving it victoriously over our heads in the face of the defeated opponent. The first game I won, 21-7 (or 21-6, or 21-2, or whatever his abysmally low score was); and the second he won, 17-21.

I was insultingly, though correctly accused of cheating. I denied these accusations vehemently.

We decided, while playing, that to mimic the effect of “conversation”, we should play our own version of “Would I Lie To You”, inspired by the BBC game show.

Here, one person had to rack their brain to come up with random stories about themselves which may have been too irrelevant to share over the course of a seven year relationship, and the other person had to ask questions about the story to guess whether it was the truth or a lie. And of course, they had to be asked in the best impression of David Mitchell’s voice as was possible.

We were surprised–and perhaps a little alarmed–at the information we discovered.

Entertaining though it may have been, I must caution any interested couples with a disclaimer: You may think you know your spouse, or long-term partner, but through playing this game, one might discover strange things: like for example, how your husband once knowingly sampled “chocolate-flavored” dog biscuits (a detail that was never mentioned before the wedding)…or that your wife’s first business venture was to pluck a wheat-like weed that commonly grew in everyone’s garden, and travel door-to-door with a friend selling them as “brooms” for five cents each, eventually making a grand total of fifteen cents.

And then, when you truly start to question the secret, shadowy past life that has been kept from you for all these years by the dangerous eccentric you appear to have married, you can end the game and make jam doughnuts.

*

Recipe adapted from: http://allrecipes.co.uk/recipe/4505/jam-doughnuts.aspx and http://emilycooksvegan.com/2013/12/28/jam-doughnuts/

Ingredients:IMG-20140304-03407

1 cup milk

5 tbsp water

1 egg, beaten

3 tbsp melted butter

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 tsp salt

1 tbsp instant yeast

2.5 cups cake wheat flour (and about 1 cup more for kneading)

Oil, for frying

Method

Mix all the ingredients except for flour, in a large bowl with a fork. Slowly add the flour and keep mixing with the fork until you get a sticky dough. Switch to kneading with your hand. Lift up the dough with your hand, spread some extra flour onto the bowl, and continue to knead until it forms some kind of ball shape and doesn’t feel so sticky. (Although it will still be sticky).

Cover with damp cloth and let rise for an hour.

After an hour, roll out the dough (which should have doubled) on a lightly- floured surface, kneading a little, and shape into a log. Cut 8-10 pieces, form them into balls; and place on covered baking tray. The dough should be much less sticky.

Let rise for about another hour.

Create piping bag: Ziploc bag + jam.

Put about 1-2 cups of oil in a deep pan, and heat to 180 degrees C. Roll the doughnuts, which would have expanded again, into a neat ball with some flour on your hands. You can put some mashed bananas (or apples) with sugar in the center before rolling if you like.

Place them carefully into the oil with a spatula. They should brown nicely on each side for 2-5 minutes.

Drain on paper towel, and sprinkle sugar on top, then patiently wait for it to completely cool before piping in jam. EAT THE FIRST FEW AS SOON AS YOU CAN AND JUST SPREAD JAM ON THEM OMG THEY ARE SO DELICIOUS.

If there any are left, stick them with a butter knife and pipe in the jam.

Then, maybe have dinner; if you insist on the formality.

*

IMG-20140304-03402

This guy didn’t make it to the “piping jam” phase.

These are delicious. I couldn’t stop eating them, and completely ignored the healthy dinner that was cooking away on the stove top. The dough, at times, is difficult to work with because it is so sticky, but you just have to keep adding more flour to the surface where you’re kneading, until it becomes easy to handle.

My husband, too, said that they were really good. But after what I learned, I might have to take his culinary verdicts with a pinch of salt.

Banana Bread and Cream Cheese Frosting (optional)

This is the story of ten small, ripe bananas.

They sat on the dinner table in the fruit bowl, next to four gigantic mangoes the size of my head. It’s summer here in the southern hemisphere, and it’s hot and humid–the perfect season for mangoes and summery fruit.

Though we bought them at the same time, and around the same level of ripeness, the mangoes are still hard, and will probably take another week to ripen. But the bananas, which were green when we got them, started to get yellow almost instantly, and within just two days of the mangoes’ company, boasted several brown spots, teetering precariously on the edge of ‘ripe’ and ‘overripe’.

I kept twitching every time I looked over at the dinner table.There were ten of them. And only two of us. We cannot eat ten bananas in one day.

Finally, this morning, I stood in front of them, deciding their fate.

“We are bananas.” They seemed to say.

“No,” I imagined answering them, in the wizened voice of Mr. Miyagi,  “No, you have all ripened much too quickly. Some of you will stay behind. But for most of you, the path forward is clear. We all think we are one thing. But we are actually waiting to be transformed into something else. You are not bananas. You are banana bread.”

“Ah” they seemed to respond. “Now it all makes sense. Please, sensai. Help us to fulfill our destiny.”

And so I looked online, and helped seven of the ripe bananas fulfill their destiny. They became banana bread, and lived happily ever after in my belly.

*

The following recipe was adapted from: http://sallysbakingaddiction.com/2013/05/29/best-ever-banana-bread-with-cream-cheese-frosting/

banana bread

Banana Bread

Set oven at 175C (350F). Mix the wet ingredients in a large bowl with a fork:

  • 1/2 cup room temperature unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup yogurt
  • A little over 2 cups of ripe, mashed bananas (I used 7 small ones)
  • 1.5 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp almond extract

Mix the dry ingredients in a smaller bowl.

  • 2 cups AP flour (or cake wheat flour)
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp of ground allspice

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, and keep stirring with the fork until the batter comes together.

Butter a loaf pan, and pour the batter into the loaf pan. Stick in oven for 65 minutes (but keep checking it by inserting a knife inside). I didn’t need to add aluminum foil at the halfway point. I don’t think this needs cream cheese frosting, because it’s really good on it’s own, but it will certainly enhance the flavor; though it might tip this from being ‘possible to call it breakfast’ to ‘most definitely dessert’.

Cream Cheese Frosting

  • Put half a tub (4oz) of cream cheese in a bowl.
  • Add about 4-5 heaped teaspoonfuls of powdered sugar.
  • Mix together with a fork and taste for sweetness. (If too sweet, add more cream cheese.)
  • Add a dash of vanilla extract.
  • Add food coloring if you want it to be fun. I sometimes draw pictures on the set frosting with melted chocolate and a ziploc bag doubled as a piping bag.
  • Spread onto this, (or literally any baked good you wish to make even better.)

*

The smell of this banana bread wafting through the apartment was so enticing, I shamelessly didn’t wait for my husband to get home before trying a slice. I shamelessly didn’t even wait to “let it cool” or finish this post to try a slice. I did, however, take a grainy cellphone picture.

The banana bread hit the spot–It was moist, sweet, light, and yet oddly filling. In the future, I would reduce the sugar by just a tiny bit. But most banana bread recipes call for a full 1 cup of sugar to 2 cups of flour, so this is just my personal taste; and maybe the fact that I added a few more mashed bananas than needed, and there were no pecans to contrast the sweetness.

I would definitely make this recipe again. The bananas are happy. I am happy.

Now I have to figure out the destiny of the other three.

bananas on mangoes

Vegetarian Beet Burgers

Attempt 1 (February, 2014) — Success!!

I wish I had taken a photo, because it was the most aesthetically appealing thing I’ve ever cooked. I froze the extra patties, so we might be able to capture the burger next time we eat, before they get gobbled down by ravenous beasts. To create this, I looked up several recipes online, and then just used the combination of ingredients I happened to have, and what I thought would taste the best.

Recipe

Ingredients for Patty:
  • 3 Beets
  • 3/4 cup cooked rice
  • 1/4 cup rolled oats
  • 1 Can Chickpeas
  • 1.5 Red Onion (should have used only 1)
  • 4 Garlic Cloves
  • 1 tsp Dried Basil
  • 3-4 tsp Cumin Powder
  • 1-2 tsp Coriander Powder
  • 0.5 tsp Black Pepper
  • 1-1.5 tsp Salt
  • 1 tsp Red Wine Vinegar
  • Oil or butter, for frying.

Ingredients for Burger:

  • Portuguese Bread (Fluffy and thick slices)
  • Feta Cheese
  • Avocado Slices
  • Mayonnaise
  • Butter, for toasting bread
Instructions:
  1. Pressure cook the beets (1-2 whistles)
  2. Cook 1/2 cup rice by boiling in double water. Rice will double in size and should be soft.
  3. Drain the chickpeas, and lay them out on a paper towel. Run another paper towel over them to dry, and then transfer them to a new paper towel–just for good measure.
  4. Put rolled oats in a mixer, until they are the fine consistency of bread crumbs.
  5. Chop or grate the onion and garlic.
  6. Add the onion, garlic, chickpeas, and cooked rice into a large bowl.
  7. When beets are cooked (they are cooked when you can cut them through with a butter knife easily), peel and shred them. I squeezed the water out of them by hand, but it would be easier probably if you have a strainer.
  8. Add spices
  9. Form into balls. They should hold together–if they don’t, stick them in the fridge underneath saran wrap for some time.
  10. Fry the patties.
  11. Add some butter to a pan and toast the bread. Once toasted, put a thin layer of mayonnaise on each toasted side, add patty, avocado slices, and feta cheese.
Serve with mashed potatoes (5 potatoes–microwaved, add: butter, milk, salt, pepper).
*
Beet burgers are normally made with black beans as well as chickpeas, but I didn’t have any black beans on me that day. The patty was nice and crisp on the outside, had the warm consistency of softened potatoes on the inside, and went really well with the cool avocado and creamy feta cheese. It also looks great–bright red patty contrasted with green avocados and crumbly white feta. I will definitely make these again.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom– The Movie

Image

Sometimes, reading about things like ‘Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison’, and his wife ‘spent 16 months in solitary confinement’ just doesn’t quite paint the picture, until you see it represented visually.

In the film, you see Mandela aging in prison, and getting to see his daughter only when she turns 13–when the last time he saw her was as a 2 year old. They show how he isn’t allowed to touch his own family; how he is only allowed to send his daughters TWO letters a YEAR; how letters coming from his wife are cut out in places where they think it is too political, and how he isn’t allowed to bury his son.

The movie shows how each of the young ANC members who are charged with “conspiracy” and “attempted sabotage” refuse an appeal, knowing that if they are found guilty, it would likely end in a death sentence.This is where Mandela gave his famous speech, looking at the judge straight in the eye:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” –Nelson Mandela, 1964

In many ways, whatever fruits their lives were able to bear afterward, the sentence that the men were given was worse than immediate death. The film shows how brutally they were all treated in jail, and how slowly, as racial attitudes changed in South Africa, the new jailers were progressively more civil to them, and gave them more amenities as the decades wore on.

But the point that was driven home for me while watching this movie was a visual image of how much they all really suffered; and how despite all this suffering, they still did what they thought was right for South Africa–which was to not act on their anger, and forgive.

It’s amazing, when you are lucky to grow up around peace; around peaceful people, in peaceful settings–to see what the people before us had to sacrifice in order to give us this gift.

I don’t think I’ll say ‘the movie is better than the book’, but I’m surprised, for the first time, to say that the movie shows this story in a way that a book is inherently limited. I know the history, for the most part, but it is one thing to know facts, and another thing to see them played out in front of you. The whole time I was watching it, I kept thinking: “I can’t believe this actually happened. I can’t believe these are real people.”

You should see it at least once.