Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Recipe: Rasam


Rasam is a staple in every South Indian home and is made nearly every day. It is made as an accompaniment to the main vegetable dishes, oftentimes eaten pre or post meal. This dish can also be eaten as a soup and the mixture of spices is very soothing on the throat, not to mention - great for digestion. The ingredients are so simple that you can make it with the items that are already staples in the Indian kitchen.

*Optional: You can add 1 scoop of Toor dal or leave it without. I often like to add the cooked dal because it adds protein to this dish, which is especially important for vegetarians.


Madh Mama's Rasam

Serves 3 people (and a baby!)


Ingredients:

- 3 Roma tomatoes
- 1 tbsp oil (either vegetable, sunflower or peanut oil works well)
- 1 cup cooked Toor dal (optional)
- 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
- 1/8 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp tamarind (pulp)
- 1 tsp Rasam powder (can be found at the Indian grocer)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 spring fresh coriander leaf

Ingredients for tempering:
- 1 tbsp oil (either vegetable, sunflower or peanut oil works well)
- 8 fresh curry leaves
- 2 dashes asefoetida
- 1/2 tsp cumin



Tools:
- small/medium saute pan
- extra small omelette pan (for tempering)


Directions:


Cut the end of the tomatoes off and chop it into quarters. Set aside.

Heat up the oil in the pan, on medium heat.


Add the tomatoes to the pan, toss, and cover with the lid for 5 minutes.


Toss the tomatoes again and add the salt. Cover for an additional 5 minutes.


While the tomatoes are cooking, soak the tamarind in 1/2 cup lukewarm water.


Then use your fingers to squeeze the tamarind juice out of the pulp, until only the pulp is left and the water is a nice brown. 


Take the lid off the Rasam - the tomatoes should be very soft, in a thick soup-like texture.


Add 1 scoop of cooked Toor dal (optional), tamarind water, 1 cup of water, Rasam powder, and turmeric.


Bring to a boil for 10-15 minutes, without the lid.

Check the consistency of the Rasam - you can add more water if you'd like. If you do, remember to bring it to a boil before the next step.

For the tempering, heat up the oil on the omelette pan while the Rasam is cooking.


Add the mustard seeds first.


As they begin to crackle, add the curry leaves, asefotida, and cumin. Stir for 15-20 seconds, until the cumin becomes a tad darker.


Then, pour the tempering into the Rasam and mix together.


Boil for an additional 5 minutes.


Turn it off, and add fresh coriander on top.


And Voila!!!




Monday, July 21, 2014

What to give as a gift for an Indian (Hindu) wedding

(Our Indian wedding)

A lot of foreigners venture to India for the first time to attend the weddings of their friends and/or family members. Besides tourism of a country that is so rich in it's heritage, the second biggest attraction to make the trek to India is to witness an Indian wedding (we are also going for one this Winter).

But the foreign dilemma comes into play when many are unsure what to purchase as a wedding gift for the newlywed couple. Many are unsure of the customs and of what is an appropriate item to gift.

You see, in North America, things are more anal organized. Many couples have already set up a wedding registry at various stores (like major department stores or homeware stores) and list the registry information at the bottom of the wedding invitation. When you go to these stores, you can look up the couple by name and it will give the registry with how many items that have already been purchased. Couples set up a registry in order to prevent receiving items that they do not want or need. It is certainly functional, but a little controlled. 

In India, people are way too busy planning a wedding for hundreds of people to be concerned about a gift registry. There are so many moving parts to deal with with all the family dynamics, the finicky astrologers and priests, not to mention the complicated multi-layered family dramas. Generally, the couple likes to be surprised by the gifts they are given. 

So many foreigners (in typical Indian fashion) find this incredibly confusing. Many wrack their brain for months trying to figure out what kind of gift they should give the couple. In the past couple of weeks, I have been asked by a handful of foreigners about what to purchase for a wedding gift.

The first point that you should know is that Indians tend to give gifts both as individuals or as groups. If there is a group of foreigners traveling together, then you can all work together to contribute to a larger gift. This is common. Many times Indian family members (such as a group of aunts, or office co-workers) do this as a combined gift. If you don't know anyone attending the wedding, then you of course can give a gift individually.

You could bring a gift from your home country - but ONLY if it is really special - because you'd have to get it past customs. Some examples of things you could bring from your home country would be specialty items which are easy to pack (like European olive oil, fine perfumes or bath products, printed pillow cushions)

Indians view a wedding gift as something that both the groom or the bride can use starting their new life together. The two most common types of gifts could be monetary or something for the home.

(Img via)

A monetary gift is a safe bet for a gift, and it is very common. Money is presented in an envelope and it is a great gift that the young couple can use in so many ways (honeymoon, savings, expenses, wedding debts). I would also suggest that foreigners give the money in rupees. That way the couple do not have to go to the trouble of going to the bank and converting it - they can use it right away, if need be. However, one should also know that the monetary amount needs to be auspicious. For example, the amount should end in an odd number (preferably ending in 1). You will see people giving monetary gifts like 101, 1001, 5001 rupees, for example. Or the ultimate lucky number - 1116 rupees (or half of that is also lucky - 558 rupees). The reason this is auspicious is that the number 16 is symbolic in Hinduism for the 16 Sanskaras

For someone who is traveling from abroad, an appropriate monetary amount would be anywhere from 3000-12000 rupees (which is roughly 50-200 USD). A safe, generous amount would be $100 USD (roughly 6000 Rs). If you are on a budget, you can even give half of that and it would be totally fine.

(Bed sheets - img via)

Another great gift to get is something for the home. In India, it is taboo for a couple to live together before marriage, so post-marriage would be the first time they would be living together openly. You can purchase these things in India as it would be more convenient.

For example:
- a cutlery set
- kitchen utensils or tools
- kitchen electronics (microwave, blender, coffee maker)
- household electronics (music player, cordless phone, camera)
- fine bed sheets or linens
- pillow cushions 
- photo frame set
- basket of fine bath products/scented candles
- silver items (diyas, candlesticks, serving plates)
- paintings or art pieces 
- jewelry box
- lamps/lanterns (Hindus are big on light)
- furniture (usually only given by immediate family due to the price)

You can also give the gift of clothing for the newlywed couple. If you are traveling to India and plan on wearing Indian attire for the wedding festivities, you can easily purchase a saree for the bride and a shirt for the groom.

(Pooja thaali - img via)

If the couple is more devout and conservative, then you can give them a religious item, like an idol or something to assist performing poojas with. A very devout couple would be performing poojas on a daily basis, so it would definitely be of use (a pooja thaali, fancy incense holders, aarti stands). An example of good idols to give would be Ganesh (new beginnings), Lakshmi (prosperity) or Radha/Krishna (divine lovers). You can also give them a religious painting.

(Radha/Krishna painting - img via)

An expensive wedding gift, which can be contributed by a bunch of people would be either gold, or a vacation. Gold is only usually given by immediate family members. Gold prices are extremely high right now, but it is always valued in Indian culture (a gold pendant is a nice gift). The other thing would be a vacation package to a resort or a cruise (hello romance and alone time!)

What NOT to gift: leather items (cows are sacred), lingerie, alcohol/liquor.

Before purchasing a gift, you would need to take into account as to whether the couple are living in India or abroad. Many Indians return to India for their marriage, so if they are living abroad, it is not useful to purchase any decorative items for the home. But really, money is the easiest gift and more useful!

-----

Dear readers, have you been to an Indian wedding? If so, what is a good gift to give the newlyweds, in your region?


Friday, July 18, 2014

My Indian Mother-in-law gets her first sunburn


During our trip to Venice last month, the whole of Northern Italy was hit with a BIG heatwave. My inlaws only came for a short time to see us and also "finish off" some sightseeing - so we were out and about - A LOT...

Don't get me wrong - it was really hot. Not only hot - but humid too. During our days sightseeing, my MIL, otherwise known as "Grumpy Cat" (affectionately, of course...!) was complaining that she simply could not tolerate the heat. 

"What the heck, Sandhya!" I said. Aren't you from India?? HELLOOO!!

In Hyderabad, it was 10 degrees warmer than it was in Venice, but my MIL still had a difficult time with the heat in Italy. I think this was because we were doing so much walking outdoors, with no cover from the sun. Whereas in India, you are going from one air-conditioned space to another and not walking outside for long distances. In Europe, because they have seasonal temperatures, there is no A/C even in many of the retail stores. 

On the second day of their visit, my MIL came down with this awful rash on her chest. Knowing how sensitive her skin is, we thought she was having some kind of allergic reaction. Maybe it was fabric or maybe it was the food, we thought.

"My skin is bright red and hot and itchy!" She cried. "I can't stand it! It hurts!"

We went to the neighborhood Pharmacia and got some antihistamine tablets and cream. Needless to say, it didn't work.

She dragged me into her room the next day. "Look Alexandra!" She said. "There is no improvement and it is burning hot! The cream isn't working!" She showed me her chest, where the skin was bright red and flaming hot. I inspected it closer, by moving her bra strap to see her normal brown skin underneath, which was unaffected by the redness. I could clearly see the tan lines.

"Oh my gosh, " I laughed. "Don't worry, Sandhya! It's just a sunburn! Haven't you ever had one before?"

"Never!" she said.


In all her 50+ years from living in South India - one of the hottest places on Earth - she ended up getting her first sunburn in Italy, of all places!

Of course, these are the types of situations where having a Western DIL comes in handy....I am all too familiar with treating sunburns, since I practically get them several times during the Summer months. My skin turns beet red, is hot and itchy, and then a few days later, the burn turns into darker skin. Having had so many sunburns over the course of my life, I'm used to the hot, itchy pain.

I was quite relieved for her that it was just a sunburn and that it wasn't something worse. My MIL (of course) was totally miffed about having it turn into darker skin, being a little sensitive about her "already dark" skin.

Many times people with darker skin tones think that they cannot get a sunburn and are ill-equipped in the knowledge of preventative treatments. People with darker skin tones (shades of olive, brown and black) have naturally higher levels of melanin which acts as a protection from the sun. So that means that people with darker skin tones are less likely to get sunburns, but it CAN still happen (which explains why husband-ji and FIL did not get one). Not to mention, the higher melanin levels does NOT protect against skin cancer. 

Maya - being a mixture of us both - has an olive/light brown skin tone. She absorbs the sun very easily, but she did get her first sunburn on her 2nd birthday, during the Italian heatwave. Since skin cancer runs in my family and I tend to burn easily, sunscreen has always been a staple in my house and in my purse during outings. If it is hot and I know that I'll be in the sun for more than 20 minutes, I always bring along my sunscreen, just in case. Nowadays they have great sunscreens which you can just spray on the go. I usually use SPF 30-50 depending on the heat. In the days post-sunburn, I made sure to slather her with my La Roche Posay sunscreen before leaving the house.

I am definitely a bad influence in many ways.... such as tattoos, my love of horror films and reality shows, rap music, and feminism (GASP!) But at least I can be a good influence in teaching my Indian family about sunscreen and treating sunburns!

-----

Dear readers, have your Indian family members ever experienced sunburns?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My mini-break from motherhood

Motherhood is an all-consuming experience...

Last week, I had a huge burnout. The fighting with my mum really stressed me out, I was feeling depleted from managing a tantrum-prone toddler 24/7, I was craving alone time with my spouse, and I was anxious and scared of looking into the option of having a babysitter to watch my little treasure.

Motherhood has taught me that I CAN'T do it all. I can't look after my daughter, be a good spouse, a good family member, coworker or friend, whilst ignoring my own needs as a human being.

In the midst of my burnout, I started to order books from the library like, "The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood: A guide to Coping with Stress, Depression and Burnout" and I started doing Google searches like "mommy burnout" and "things mothers can do to relax". I read a bunch of articles and made a big list of things that I could do for myself everyday to help cope with stress (for example - sleep, read a book, exercise, take some "me" time) But the patterns that I demanded on myself for the past 2 years were practically unbreakable. A week went by, I fell into my usual routine, my meltdowns continued, and I didn't do a single thing on my "feel good" list. Not a single thing.

You see, when you are a mother and a wife, you naturally put every other demand before your own needs. What does "me" time even mean? I didn't know. I often catch a glance at myself in the mirror and not even recognize myself anymore. Who I was before I had my baby seems like a different person.

Then, I literally had a 7 day meltdown. By the end of the week, I locked myself in the bathroom and was crying pitifully on the bathroom floor, when I had an Aha! moment. The clouds opened up and I realized that what I really needed and craved was alone time, for myself. Not with husband-ji, but just me - all by myself.

All day long there is something demanded of me. I am the go-to person that everyone can rely on. My daughter, husband-ji, and when I go to work I have to deal with customers, my family and coworkers. I just wanted to go to some quiet place where I literally didn't have to speak to anyone to have some uninterrupted time to myself.

I spoke with husband-ji and I was so embarrassed and nervous to tell him my needs. He is going to think I'm some selfish Western wife who requires so much "me" time. And what will his parents think? OMG. I shuddered. Luckily, he was beyond supportive, as usual. Why don't you go on vacation for a week to see one of your friends or go have some quiet time in Hawaii? he suggested. It was a nice idea, but I was simply too tired to travel.

So, I did the next best thing. I decided to check into a fancy hotel downtown - you know, the ones with 5 star room service and pillowy beds as soft as clouds. It was exhilarating and nerve-wracking to leave my family for the night, just to pamper myself.


As soon as I got to the room, I collapsed onto the bed as if I had just completed a marathon. I rested in silence without even a thought passing through my mind. I was on the 19th floor overlooking the city in a cool air-conditioned suite, with floor to ceiling windows that were soundproof. I watched the busyness below in the city, seeing all the tired and sweaty mothers pushing their strollers in the hot sun. I was so thankful that I had a night "off".

I decided to take full advantage of my hotel experience by going to the hotel's Ayurvedic spa, where I had an authentic Ayurvedic massage. - it was such a treat. Apparently my Pitta Dosha was off and needed to be re-aligned.

I came back upstairs and spent the evening in bed in a luxuriously soft bathrobe. I sat in my king size bed and had a 3 course room service meal and watched a pay-per-view movie that I missed in the cinema. Since husband-ji was nowhere around, I decided to order a steak!!! I had not eaten beef in 4 years since husband-ji is "pure-pure-pure veg Brahmin"! I don't even like beef, but God...was it delicious! 

In the evening, I sat at the window and watched the sunset in silence, as the sun disappeared into the ocean and all the skyscrapers mirrored each other in different shades of orange. It was beautiful. 


I took a hot mineral bath, with those fancy imported travel size bath potions. I snuggled up with a good book that I had been meaning to read, and slept for 12 hours straight.

Conveniently, my mobile phone died and the hotel phone lines were down all night. I don't think this was a coincidence. I think the fates were giving me a wink, and letting me rest undisturbed. Take as much time as you need, they would have whispered.

The next morning, I had breakfast in bed (more non-veg!! so naughty!) while watching those crazy American bridal shows on TV - the ones where the bitchy bridesmaids are always arguing about the bride's dress. It was so silly, but it was really fun.

Meanwhile at home... husband-ji handled Maya's bedtime routine all by himself, which he had not done in 6 months. He did great and he didn't have any problems. However, the morning was a different story. He had a tough time dealing with the long procession of getting out the door, and Maya's morning tantrums. He had to make her breakfast, feed her breakfast, get her dressed, do her hair, pack the diaper bag, as well as get ready himself. By the time he picked me up, he was totally frazzled and complaining that he didn't get enough sleep, he didn't get a chance to eat or take a shower. Ha! Welcome to my world! I thought. I think now he understands why it takes me soooooo long to get out the door and why I'm always late.

It was such a treat to have a mini-break, being completely isolated in luxury-land and not having to speak to anyone. I really needed it and I'm so glad I did it. I left the hotel, completely recharged and ready to rejoin my family.

It is comforting to know that anytime I feel severely burnt out, there is a lovely hotel that I can check into, right downtown. My secret hideaway...

During my stay, I reflected on a lot of things. I realized that it IS possible to take care of myself and my family at the same time. And not only is it possible, but it is ESSENTIAL...


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