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Monday, 30 April 2018

Idli Seria Vanduda

"Idli seria vanduda?" (Has the idli turned out well?) is a question every thoroughbred Tamil mami will ask, irrespective of when, where or by whom 'The idli' is being made. It is not a casual question, mind you. Tried and tested techniques and years of hands-on field experience authorize the questioner to enquire thus. The grays on mami's head stand testimony to the years spent perfecting the art and science of idli-making.
Many households have mamis who are practically fanatical about their idlis. Any conversation with even the inkling of the syllable id...will perk up their antennae. In no time, they'll be monopolizing the conversation, discussing the dearth of good 'ulundu' or tut-tutting new-fangled idli-vandalism in the form of 'Chilly-Idli'.
When your insolent young one refuses to partake of those carefully nurtured fluffy white dumplings with the just the right restraint of salt and sourness, you may shrug and let it pass. But with mami around, it is unthinkable! She will have a few choice words to dish out on all the pains that went into making this most nutritious, filling, comforting, safe, easy on the stomach, blah, blah, blah tiffin for him. And when the young one is likely to respond to her with "Eww, I hate this tasteless white sponge," that he usually throws at you, you need to have the doctor on speed dial. In all likelihood mami may blow her top at this sacrilege.

World-over idli devouts, dieticians even, swear by this mild on the palate breakfast meal. Fastidious mamis and paatis of yore continue dishing out this breakfast staple to their beloved mamas, thathas, pillais, ponnus, mapillaisperans, pethis....encouraging them to partake more than their fill, with tempting helpings of vengaaya sambar, which for some weird reason reminds me of wingardium leviosa, probably something to do with the feeling of upliftment post tucking into this combo! 😜

From fast-food joints to humble street stalls, from five-star buffets to traditional wedding breakfasts served on plantain leaves, from Gujju bhais to Sardar puttars, everyone's a sucker for Mr Idli! 
Sadly, I have never been a fan of this frequent starrer of my snack-box at school. There they lay, staring up at me, smeared with a mixture of molaga-podi and til oil. I happily traded it with pals for something...anything other than that! Long train journeys meant large boxes filled with the same to be served at every alternate meal. Of course public travel ensured I could fraternize with folks traveling with us and generously distribute my share to all and sundry. 
Things changed when I got married and had kids. I realized what a savior a large stock of idli batter can be, when you have loads of chores and just want a quick-fix, no fuss, filling meal/snack or what a sumptuous breakfast it could be when teamed with complimenting accompaniments of sambar, chutney, vadai and rava kesari.
Not simply with a flick of the hand do you turn out this revered South Indian breakfast or tiffin
To make the lightest, roundest, fluffiest, snow white idlis - idlis which are accorded the highest accolade by discerning idli aficionados of, "idli poo madiri irrukku" (idli is flower-like in quality), you need to take the craft very seriously indeed, says mami solemnly.
If they were to hand out PhD's in Idli-making, mami would no doubt have accumulated half a dozen of these with her in-depth research in this culinary field.

With years of training, the mama of the house reposing on his easy chair, on getting a waft of the steaming idli will enquire, "Idli seria vanduda ma", only to be snubbed with a, "Of course, seria vandudu 'ena," (of course it turned out well) from mami who's hustling to set up breakfast. As mama expertly dunks the flower-light steamed preparation into aromatic drumstick sambar and contentedly tucks into the first repast of the day, mami is busy critically examining it, peering through her bifocals. Even the Masterchef jury trio would be put to shame if they knew the high standards of scrutiny the humble idli was being put through. 
With a sigh mami exhales, as the idli is of just the right consistency, bounce, porosity, texture, lightness, color, shape, taste...hmm, yes, idli seria vandurukku! (idli's turned out right!) I guess we could call her an idli-ist!
And I bet given a chance, mami would be able to master the supposedly complex art of souffle-making, what with her mastery at idli-ing.

You may call out this bluff with,"The street corner Anna's stall churns out equally good idlis, dozens and dozens at a time...obviously he hasn't the time or perseverance for mami's intricate idli-making plots. And what about the branded Ready-To-Eat Idli mix or Idli-batter? What do you say to that mamihuh, huh?"

Mami just shakes her head, looks you in the eye and declares,

"There are, there will be idlis. They will be white, round and probably smell and taste palatable, but nowhere close to MY IDLIS...avalavu tan!"

Image courtesy: On a special request, Smt. Banumathy Ramachandran 💓💓💓

P.S: If you are still hanging in there, read further to know about Mami's Idli Magic. And yeah, there is glossary at the end to help you with the Tamil terms. Vanakkaam 😊


Mami's Idli Magic

No shortcuts here! And don't even talk about grinding all the ingredients together at one shot - that's just idli-blasphemy!

1) It begins with trial and error testing and selecting of the raw material, that is, boiled idli rice/puzhungal arisi and urad dal/split black gram/ulundu. Best bet is your neighboring South Indian Provision store. Go wrong with this and your idli shall turn out hard as cannon balls or fall flat as a pancake and sticky as well, warns mami

2) Next comes the equally crucial step: Measuring out the right proportions of rice and urad dal. Many swear by 3:1 or even 2:1 but mami politely rubbishes them and insists on a 4:1 ratio of boiled rice to urad dal  (and continues on a stealth mode to add an additional fistful of urad dal, stage whispering to explain how that extra handful makes her idlis extra soft and fluffy.)

3) This is followed by repeated washing and straining, firstly the rice (which requires longer soaking period) and an hour or two later the urad dal. Allow the rice to soak in sufficient water for about 6 hours and the dal for about 3 hours.

4) Now to grind the soaked ingredients. No mixie-shixie grinding, harumph!! Mami endorses the Ultra Wet Grinder - heavy duty grinder, but other brands are also permitted. "You kids have it so easy, we did all this on those massive attu-kal-urals (stone grinders)," sighs mami. I thought it wise not to comment that buying ready-made idli-batter at the local provision or superstore was even easier!
First grind the urad dal, reason being, the motor heats up after a while and urad dal responds to heat by fermenting more. Grind with constant addition of water (cold water during hot summers) till the dal is ground fine and has fluffed up considerably in volume and then extract this into a large container.
Next grind the rice. Now mami is very adamant that Idli batter needs to be ground separately and one must not use the same for preparation of Idli's cousin - Dosa. For the Idli batter - the rice needs to be ground to the consistency of rawa/suji - not too coarse, not too fine. 

5) That done, delicately transfer the rice batter into the large container having the ground urad dal batter. Add adequate sea-salt. How much? Mami indicates half a fistful of the salt crystals or you could add a teaspoonful of table-salt for every measure of boiled rice you add. Mix the two batters thoroughly with a light hand. Mami whispers that the hand that mixes the batter also influences the quality of the final product. Huh? She nods knowingly and says that when persons with higher body heat disposition mix the batter, the idli ferments more than necessary or turns rather sour...go figure! Alternatively, you could transfer the mixed batter into two separate smaller containers, again with enough space for fermentation.

6) Cover the vessel with a lid but don't make it airtight. The combined batter should not fill more than half of the container's capacity, to allow space for fermentation.
Allow to ferment for 6-7 hours. Mami usually grinds her stuff late evening and allows fermentation to happen overnight.
Mami discloses that she spends sleepless nights, waking up at intervals to assess the batter's condition. During summer she does this periodic checking to ensure the batter doesn't over-ferment due to the heat. If the batter has sufficiently risen, she gives it a brief whisk and pops it into the fridge.
During winters or during her stints overseas in cooler environs, she hovers protectively around the ground batter, swathing the container with old woolen sweaters and shawls, to keep the batter warm enough to achieve ambient temperature for fermentation.

7) Once the batter has fermented, give it a gentle whisk and either start making idlis directly or store it in the refrigerator.

8) Till date, mami prefers to steam the idlis with her antique brass idli-steamer. 
This involves an outer heavy tall brass vessel, idli plates and a domed lid. Mami moistens a thin muslin/cotton cloth reserved especially for idlis (the thin cotton cloth absorbs any excess moisture from the batter that may otherwise affect the consistency of the final product). She spreads it over the idli plates and ladles out the batter into each of the scoops on the plates over the cloth. That done, the plates are placed into the outer tall vessel filled with a quarter volume of water that is already being heated up. Lid on, full heat on, the batter is steamed for 7-10 mins.

9) Lift the lid, take the plate off heat. Allow the steamed idlis to cool a bit, sprinkle with water and simply turn over a plate to transfer the now fluffy, steamed, light as flowers, idlis! 
Piping hot idlis ready to be devoured with some mind-blowing molaga-podi or gunpowder, coconut chutney and sambar


mami: Refers to a respectful address used for any Tamilian lady (typically TamBrahm) acquaintance, something like the ubiquitous Auntyji though it literally translates to mother's bro's (mama's) wife, mami.
paati: grandmother
thatha: grandfather
ponnu: daughter
pillai: son
mapillai: son-in-law
peran: grandson
pethi: grand-daughter
ulundu: split black gram
molaga podi: spicy chilly powder mix also referred to as gunpowder
vengaya sambar: small onion (shallot) sambar 
avalavu tan: that's all
vanakkam: a greeting like hello or namaste

This article has been published on WomensWeb as: The Delightful Tales of Aunty's Idli-ism A.K.A How to make the perfect Idli.
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Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Spreading Smiles #ShishuSarothi

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Isn't it a shame that people can be so indifferent and unfeeling towards differently-abled people? They are after all flowers from the same garden created by God, only with their own unique beauty. It is so unfair that these gentle, innocent children of God are deprived of their basic fundamental rights, rights that every human deserves!
Persons with disabilities suffer from lack of access to basic amenities like healthcare, education, livelihood, accessibility etc. that we take for granted. However for persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities, the situation is direr! Lack of basic awareness and information on how to take care of such fragile lives makes it all the more difficult.

The Disability scene in North-East India

A staggering 733,450 and growing number of People with Disabilities (PwDs) living in the eight North-East states according to 2011 national census are facing several challenges, including infrastructural barriers, stigma due to lack of awareness, geographical terrain making mobility difficult thereby difficulty in the accessibility of qualified rehabilitation professionals and assistive devices. Besides there are hardly any government schemes/services available for PwDs in this area.

Shishu Sarothi 

I came across this not-for-profit CSO (Civil Society Organization) - Shishu Sarothi and I was very impressed by the kind of work they do to help people with disabilities, especially children. Their focus is on the social development and economic empowerment of this section of society in the North-East of India.  Some of the salient objectives of this unique organization are:
  • Enable access to appropriate and innovative therapies and interventions that facilitate inclusion into mainstream society of children and persons with disabilities.
  • Create a cadre of trained human resources and undertake research studies to build knowledge on disability in general and Cerebral Palsy and developmental disabilities in particular.
  • Sensitize all stakeholders, ensure implementation of legislation, facilitate redressal of grievances thereof and influence policy change.
  • Habilitate/rehabilitate children and persons with disabilities to help them achieve their full potential in a barrier free environment.
Shishu Sarothi's warmth, concern, support and humanitarian approach has brought back smiles and happiness into the lives of several young lives and their families.
The institution’s services include a Center for Inclusive and Vocational education, an Early Intervention Unit, The Information and Communication Technology Lab etc. All their programs work in tandem with the parents and caregivers. The institution has received several awards including the National Award for Best Institution (Additional) from the President of India (2004).

Success Stories

One of Shishu Sarothi’s many success stories is, young Puja Das. She was assessed with Cerebral Palsy and athetoid and came to Shishu Sarothi with involuntary physical movement, muscle tone fluctuation, delayed mental development and speech impairment. 

After joining the activities for the Playgroup into which she was enrolled she slowly and steadily made swift progress with expert help and counseling in all aspects of her learning, be it General knowledge, Academic to basic physical skills like eating & drinking, managing her daily activities by herself, grooming skills, communication with others etc. Her emotional and social skills also improved remarkably.
She now regularly participates and enjoys all events and celebrations organized at the school. The feather on the cap is her winning several competitions in arts and sports conducted by the foundation as well as in the Special Olympics 2014 held at Guwahati.

Tanya Agarwal (name changed) came to the Early Intervention Unit (EIU) when she was just 6 months old. Detailed assessment indicated developmental delays with no head control and hypotonic muscle tone. The EIU team worked actively for over 2 years with her parents by giving head control exercises, deep joint pressure, muscle strenghtening and other appropriate exercises for improving her posture and positioning. Today Tanya is able to walk without any support; her cognition has improved and follows simple commands. Her confidence has grown vastly and she can now play with her peers.

You can help make a change

I am feeling so heartened to read the success stories of these little angels. What a change the love, dedication and concentrated efforts of the dedicated team at Shishu Sarothi has made to so many young lives! 

Dear friends, I request you all to visit this wonderful, life-uplifting institution - Shishu Sarothi - and see for yourself the tremendous work they are accomplishing.
I strongly urge you to support them and to donate generously to their wonderful mission here.

You can help make a change in the lives of children with disabilities who are unable to access support due to lack of resources. Every child deserves a shot at happiness. 
The lovely smile, the innocent laughter of a child with disability and the pride in the eyes of the parents at the positive progress, the chance to lead a life like any other child, are priceless! 

You can make a difference, you can help in spreading smiles!

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Monday, 2 April 2018

Making Happy Memories #SayYesToTheWorld

Holidays of yore meant packing everything from food, clothing, bedding, bathing stuff and what-nots because it involved traveling on the longest, slowest routes railways offered. Still, some of my happiest travel memories come from those interminably long train travels, covering 1500 km, countless small and big halts, two nights practically living, dining, sleeping, playing every imaginable indoor game, chatting up with total strangers, all in a princely area of roughly 7' x 6'. Of course you cannot forget those arghh-so-ghastly loo trips that you desperately tried to avoid!
Moving ahead with time, improved travel connectivity as well as standard of living, has made air travel the preferred means of travel, thank God for that!

Memorabilia of Happy Times

I have been pretty fortunate to travel quite a bit across the length and breadth of our vast country and a few countries outside India too. Every place I visit, I buy little trinkets, picture postcards, souvenirs of monuments of fame to carry home as gifts for loved ones. But I do something different for myself. I collect a pebble from every new place I visit as a souvenir. The look and feel of each of these little nuggets is a reminder of the happy times and smiles that the new place gave me.

Flavors of India

From my family's favorite holiday destination, Goa to my dream holiday to paradise on earth, Kashmir, then rangeelo Rajasthan, to exotic Coorg, to God's own country Kerala, I have several memories made in Incredible India. Every place we've traveled to has made its way into our hearts and minds through new relations with new people, new flavors, cultures and experiences besides the new sights and scenes. 
The helpful taxi driver in Coorg who helped us get back to our hotel safely when an unexpected strike brought the entire area to a standstill, the diligent local fisherman who warned us not to venture into a dubious street in Kochi in search of authentic experiences, the darling old woman in Lonavala selling piping hot corn cobs and raw mangoes insisting on making a fresh batch for free when the one we'd purchased from her fell down,....these are some moments that stay etched in my mind because they reinforce my faith in the inherent goodness of our fellow humans that makes them reach out to total strangers

International Trysts

I am pretty proud of the fact that I can call myself a world traveller! My first international trip saw me unraveling the beauty, colors and uniqueness of South East Asia with cultures and flavors so different from my own and yet that drew me inexorably towards it. I found unbelievable diversity in the beautiful city of Singapore, the perfect melting-pot of so many different cultures. Thailand blew me away with its fascinating food and myriad shopping avenues. 
Perceptions and prejudices you hold onto without knowing why, are fragmented into nothing when you see something incredibly beautiful. 

One such experience was the famed Alcazar cabaret show at Pattaya. As we came back to our travel coach after watching the scintillating music and dance extravaganza by mind-blowingly beautiful performers in ostentatious sets and costumes, our tour guide informed us that the show performance comprised entirely of lady-boys! I don't think I would have ventured for such a show had I known this fact earlier - call it rigid mental make-up or whatever, but after I'd seen the spectacular show, my old prejudiced views crumbled away into nothing
In Malaysia after our exhausting up-down climb to the amazing Batu caves we were pleasantly surprised to be indulged with piping hot filter coffee and crispy dosas at a tiny restaurant run by a Srilankan with Bangladeshi waiters. Perfect Harmony in Diversity! 

Group travel teaches you to be patient, remain polite and jovial with total strangers, even ones who hassle you to the point of boredom with their stories or make you grit your teeth in frustration with their perpetual delays! 

But best of all, you are grateful to the new connections and bonds you forge
Like I did when I had to leave my kids for practically half a day in the care of the group of folks we were traveling with to hunt for my lost bag in Singapore

Thinking of my Australian holiday makes me yearn for the beautiful, laid-back locales and the breezy fun-loving Ozzies! The two day Great Ocean Road Drive with our jolly guide-cum-driver-cum-chef, Stan, was an unforgettable experience! We were the only vegetarians and the only ones traveling with kids on the tour. Stan subtly ensured that the tour went at a speed the kids could cope up with. Once he realized we were vegetarians, he laid out mushrooms and other veggies for us on the barbecue rack before he tossed on the meat. A simple enough gesture made with his trademark cheerful grin, yet one that felt so personal and caring.
A dream vacation to Spain brought alive my love for the exotic and the historical. On our trip to enchanting Segoviawe had this no-nonsense tour guide Ms Julia who went about mechanically firing away histories and stories of various monuments alternating between a highly accented English and rapid Spanish, wherein you barely discerned which was which. But thankfully, we were fortunate to find ourselves in the company of an American couple who were on their second trip to the place. They chuckled at Ms Julia's explanations and our blank looks and went on to tell us all they knew of the local history. Now, isn't that the sweetest?

Traveling to me is synonymous with freedom 

Getting out of routine life, forgetting the pressures of work, it is a time for exploration, to soak up new sights, smells and experiences. 

The prospect of finding new friends and reaching out to total strangers

Travel makes me lose my inhibitions, making me more open-minded, less judgmental. 

It makes me want to seek out information, venture out of my comfort zone and embrace discomfort and sudden changes with equal alacrity simply because it is an experience I don't want to miss!

Travel is a time to delight in the anticipation of the expected and the thrill of the unexpected

Not all my travel stories have been positive though! Some sticky situations, some goof-ups, slips and falls have been a part of it too! Like falling sick in Rome after eating some strange new pasta, losing my camera in Kashmir, missing the tour bus in Florence…! But each of these instances taught me an important life lesson, expect the best of times but prepare for the worst too!
Travel makes you view the world in a different light. The frog in the well needs to come out and see that the real world is totally different from the constricted surroundings it lives in!

You realize that despite the cultural, social, economic, geographical differences, despite language barriers, people can reach out to each other on a human level. This great leveler is the big T – Travel!

When I see the man-made majesty in the form of mighty temples of south India, the history behind the Roman Coliseum, the intricacy of art at the Sistine chapel or natural awe-inspiring visages of the roaring Ganges, the impregnable Himalayas, the amazing Twelve Apostles…I realize how vast the world we live in is!

My holiday starts right from the time I start planning for it, running through the excitement and anticipation and after I am done with the travel, I tide over the times I am not traveling by dipping into the happy memories of past travels and planning for the next set of memorable times!

I firmly endorse the feeling the more you travel, the more you see the world, the more your perspective broadens, you have to #SayYesToTheWorld


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