Friday, May 29, 2009

So that's why they couldn't find Bin Laden?

I will start by reproducing verbatim a short report that appears in today's Hindustan Times (29 May, Mumbai edition) on page 11, first column. Titled "Into a very far, very big black hole", the report says in its entirety:

"Astronomers have used new data from the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton spaceborne observatory, to probe closer than ever to a supermassive black hole deep inside the core of a distant active galaxy. The galaxy - 1H0707-495 - was observed during four 48-hr-long orbits of XMM-Newton around Earth, starting in January 2008. The scientists are confident their work will one day make it possible to help police track down international criminals."

You read it right -- international criminals could be hiding "deep inside the core of a distant active galaxy". No wonder poor George W., a man of limited imagination, couldn't find Osama Bin Laden using his stupid terrestrial searches!

Now most of us have a hard time just getting to the moon. It's a mere 250,000 km away and the last time I tried going there, I got stuck in a traffic jam near Andheri. Getting to the centre of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, would require traversing 8 kiloparsecs, or in more common language, 250000000000000000 km. My poor Maruti Alto simply isn't up to it. And even it were, the centre of our galaxy is NOT where these dastardly "international criminals" are hiding! As per the above article they are in a "distant active galaxy". I don't know the distance involved offhand, but, to use a technical term borrowed from astronomers, it's "really really far".

The only way Osama Bin Laden could possibly have got there is by sitting inside a rocket ship travelling at very close to the speed of light. Of course even then he would currently be on his way there, scheduled to arrive in a million years or so -- always assuming the airport at 1H0707-495 does not, like Mumbai's Santacruz, suffer from phenomena like "traffic congestion" or the more currently fashionable "dog on the runway". What's scary, though, is that after another million years on a return flight he could arrive just as (relatively) youthful and sprightly as when he left, thanks to Special Relativity. So people who are worried about a repeat of 9/11 should watch their step on or around September 11, 2,002,001.

As with so many other mysteries, the one associated to the above article is easily dispelled. The Hindustan Times copy editor was not hallucinating on the latest designer drug. He or she simply forgot a basic rule of word processing: "after you cut, and before you paste, don't lose concentration". For, the article that follows this one is titled "Hair samples could help nab terrorists" and contains the useful information that a new laser tool can "read off", from a sample of hair, just what you've been eating and where you've been travelling. If you move the last sentence above to the end of that article, where it presumably originated, things start to make sense again.

So today, my falling hair probably reveals traces of mango chicken, while strands from Mr O.B. Laden's beard reveal... what? I have no idea, but whatever it is, I doubt it will be the variety of "Peshawari Naan" served at dhabas all over

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Mango chicken

I used to eat out a lot, mostly around South Bombay where I live. But in recent years I've become very disappointed with the fare available. The Indian food in this area lacks authenticity as well as imagination -- one can't get a decent dosa in all of South Bombay, Maharashtrian food is scarce here and the few Bengali restaurants are mostly atrocious oil-factories. Gujarati food does make the cut and is typically very good, but I can only wade into ghee (which I adore) so many times a year without totally risking my life. The other kind of food that's usually excellent here is Mangalorean-style seafood (and there's the added benefit that short-haired women, minorities etc are welcome to sample the fare - and even drink a gin and tonic on the side - without being attacked by Hindutva hooligans as they might be back in Mangalore...). One limitation though is that there's very little variation: fried fish, gassi, aapams and neer dosa is pretty much it. And in case your stomach resents being fed a kilo of green chillies in a single evening, as mine does, you can't do this too often either.

As for what is called "fine dining", this usually translates into "imitative Western or far-Eastern fare at high prices and low freshness levels". Recently at "All Stir Fry" near Regal Cinema I was astonished to find that my Kaukswe (a Burmese coconut curry, divine when made properly) was made from canned coconut milk. I can understand chefs in London having recourse to this shortcut, but in a city where coconuts grow on trees, it makes absolutely no sense. I couldn't find any decent Italian restaurants in South Bombay, and the Middle-Eastern-inspired "Moshe's" has caved in to popular demand so they put chillies in everything (totally unlike what would be done in the Middle East). Seafood in any South Bombay restaurant other than Mangalorean is liable to be stale and arguing with the waiter about that just raises one's blood pressure: "no sir it's absolutely fresh, we have a very good freezer...". Moreover, dinner in any of the "fine-dining" places can easily set you back a thousand rupees per head without drinks.

The solution, of course, is to cook at home. That is limited only by time available. However now the issue becomes, what to do when you've been eating the same or similar stuff for days and want a change?

This morning I had an epiphany of sorts and want to share it with my readers. The thing to do is make use of the freshest local ingredients, particularly whatever's in season. And what's in season in Bombay today is, unmistakably, mangoes. Luscious Alphonso (or "aphoos") mangoes, food of the gods. So I woke up today and said "I shall make mango chicken". Now this is not a completely original thought, I think I've once eaten something by that name many years ago. But I had no idea about a recipe, or even what the dish should look like, so I browsed the net and performed some variations on what I read, ignoring those recipes that called for more than a hundred ingredients and three days in the kitchen (why is it that those are the most common?). Luck was on my side and I've just enjoyed an incredibly delicious meal cooked in a jiffy.

So here comes the recipe.

Mango chicken

1 whole chicken, cut into about 12 pieces
Three tablespoons cornflour
Three tablespoons soy sauce, preferably a fragrant and not-extra-salty one like Kikkoman
About two tablespoons of freshly chopped garlic
Half a cube of chicken stock
Two tablespoons of wine (red or white, I used red today) or sherry or good vinegar.
One large and luscious food-of-the-gods Alphonso mango, ripe or nearly ripe

1. In a bowl, combine the cornflour with some salt and pepper (go easy on the salt as there will be salt in the stock and the soy sauce too). Put in all the chicken and shake till the pieces are coated well.
2. In a wide skillet heat a little vegetable oil, fry the chicken till well-browned on both sides. The chicken need not be cooked through but will have shrunk a bit by losing moisture and fat.
3. The melted fat will mix with the cooking oil forming a liquid called "arteriosclerosis". Invest in your future by pouring off all that oil and fat NOW. It will increase your life expectancy -- just think how many more mango chickens you can make by living longer! If you possess a turkey baster (basically a nose dropper expanded by a factor of 10) you can use that to drain off the fat.
4. Reduce heat, add the chopped garlic and stir. Once garlic has softened, add soy sauce and wine along with the chicken stock. Stir again.
5. Add chunks of luscious Alphonso mango. Chew the leftover skins. This divine mango is not to be wasted in ANY quantity!
6. Add half a cup of water to make a thin gravy. Mix well, cover and simmer gently till chicken is done. The mango will dissolve partially into the gravy but some lumps should remain.

If done right, the result should combine the sweetness of mango with the tart flavour of soy sauce and the totally irresistible flavour of fried chicken. Gorgeous. Eat with mushroom rice, here's a simple recipe:

1. Go to Koh Samui in Thailand, rent a motorbike, drive to Tesco Lotus supermarket and buy dried Shiitake mushrooms. Actually I'm sure they can be found in Crawford Market (in Marathi: "Kraaphoot Markit").
2. Warm a few mushrooms in water till they soften. Slice and mix with half-cooked, drained rice. Add the water in which the mushrooms were warmed, as well as a little vegetable stock. Cook till done.

OK, so let me know how it goes.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Time to gloat

I haven't blogged in a number of days. One reason (not the only one) is that I didn't want to write about the elections, fearing to add myself to the list of fools who apparently can't even predict tomorrow's date correctly...

But now that it's over, I'm savouring every moment. In a few days India will go back to being the mess that I love to complain about, but today it is a country where democracy has triumphed and stability is more or less assured. Moreover, some people have got what they richly deserved and I wish to gloat about their forthcoming political demise.

Let's start with Mr L.K. Advani. Apparently few people have a clear memory of his divisive and mean-spirited rath yatra in 1990 and the ensuing Babri Masjid campaign that led to the loss of 2000 lives for absolutely no gain to the nation, but a definite electoral gain to the BJP. Even though I assume he didn't kill any of the 2000 people himself, I've always felt that Mr Advani personally was responsible for their deaths. On numerous occasions Mr Advani has placed party and political interest before that of the nation, most notably during the Mumbai 26/11 attacks when he launched a typically vicious verbal attack on the Indian government even as the attacks were taking place instead of having the decency to show some solidarity for the country's sake. I commented about this on my blog at the time. Mr Advani's impending exit is a source of great joy to me, though unfortunately the evil he did will outlive him.

On to Mr Prakash Karat. It's clear to everyone except, perhaps the CPM Politburo (and Mr N. Ram?) that even if his disagreement with Dr Singh on the 1-2-3 deal was genuine, he overplayed it because of a medieval mindset and also personal reasons (i.e. a monstrous ego). He got the Left to pull out from the government hoping that this would destabilise it, and he attacked the deal and the US with all the fervour of an Iranian mullah denouncing the "great Satan". His fears that any deal with the US government would harm India were rooted in the belief that India would always be an inferior partner incapable of defending its own interests. This is a view that an unlikely collection of people, including George W. Bush, Manmohan Singh, Barack Obama and last but not least myself, would disagree with.

One of the many pleasing consequences of yesterday's elections was that former speaker of parliament Somnath Chatterjee, expelled by Karat for refusing to step down when the Left quit the government, has now called for Karat's expulsion. Let's hope it happens. Among other potential leaders of the CPM I think Sitaram Yechury - for all his faults - is a much better person and clearer thinker than Karat, and I hope he will now become more powerful in his party and steer it in a saner direction.

Finally, some minor journalists who in 2004 savaged Sonia Gandhi for having the cheek to lead the Congress will need to take a long vacation, preferably in the Swat valley. The racist and other abuse heaped on her at the time by those people, lapped up by an insecure upper-middle-class, shocked me at the time. I still remember Anil Thakraney reproducing a children's tale in Italian in his daily column to show his contempt for Sonia-ji, as well as Tavleen Singh's venomous personal attack. It led me to hope Sonia would somehow show them up and it's now clear that she's done just that. Of course, if you're one of the people who feels Thakraney or Tavleen should lead the nation, please feel free to contact them in Swat.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Left is left and right is right?

I rarely watch TV, but yesterday I ended up watching an NDTV programme about Rahul Gandhi's latest comments on keeping alliance options open. The programme seemed to have the sole purpose of stirring up excitement over this non-issue: fair enough perhaps, the media need something to occupy themselves with given that election results are still over a week away.

I found it amusing to compare the two veteran newspaper editors whom they interviewed on this programme: Shekhar Gupta of the Indian Express and N. Ram of The Hindu. Gupta is politically right-wing in the sense of being strongly pro-capitalist and anti-communist, while N. Ram is politically left-wing in the sense of exchanging pro and anti in the previous phrase. Remarkably they were in complete agreement on the present issue, both concluding that the Congress party is promiscuous and willing to ally with just about anyone except the BJP (of course you didn't need to be a veteran editor to realise this).

What struck me powerfully, though, was the difference in the way they made their point. N. Ram looked dour and sanctimonious and spoke in a venomous whisper -- as if he was the king cobra that a rabbit called Rahul Gandhi had stirred up from his sleep. Shekhar Gupta on the other hand came across as an affable, relaxed and humorous person who could examine politics dispassionately and make insightful observations about it. At the end both editors declared themselves pleasantly surprised that they were actually agreeing with each other, but N. Ram looked as if he had swallowed a bitter lemon while Gupta made his comment with a light-hearted chuckle.

Perhaps Mr Ram lightens up (and even chuckles) only when he goes to China to praise their excellent Tibet policy?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Holidays are for idiots

Once more, Mumbaikars gave a vivid demonstration of their sense of priorities. A holiday was declared on April 30 so we could vote in the General Elections, but more than half of us did not vote. Strangely, the non-voters did not show up at their offices demanding they be allowed to work instead! All in all, it was a wonderful exhibition of the core Mumbaikar philosophy "I don't give a flying f..." (in Marathi: आय डोंट गिव अ फ्लाईंग फ...).

Why do we need to declare a holiday on election day? Wouldn't it be enough to offer employees two hours off on that day on strict condition that they actually vote? This would need to be demonstrated by showing up the next day with the tell-tale ink line on their left middle finger. Employees who claim they were unable to vote as their name did not appear on the voter list could be required to provide a cell-phone video of themselves arguing with an election officer.

Actually some private companies did give just a couple of hours, or adjust shifts, so it was -- as usual -- the sarkari sector that generously awarded the holiday.

For residents of the South Bombay constituency, the number of "idiots" was more than 50 percent, closer to 60 percent in fact. The papers went on and on about how it was a four-day weekend and people would naturally want to go on vacation, as if to suggest that the ones who stayed behind to vote were the true idiots. And I love the way well-meaning social groups pleaded with people to vote in the early morning before leaving for their vacations, as if to acknowledge that vacationing was the main priority and voting a mere side-issue.

There is however one positive outcome from all this. The next time people from Malabar Hill go around lighting candles at the Gateway of India and saying "we will never forget" (and creating traffic jams by parking their Toyotas all over the place), we can perhaps slap a few of them, not very hard but just hard enough to jog their memories.