The Spanish word ‘Vida’ refers to ‘life’, and this blog-page is to celebrate food, travels and life!
Profiteroles and Croquembouche
Croquembouche is a French dessert which is made by stacking cream puffs in a cone, cementing them together with a toffee. It is often used at French weddings, christenings and other celebrations.
The croquembouche has a long history. It appears to have been invented by French pastry chef Antoine Careme. Many of the individual components such as the cream puffs date to the 1500s, illustrating the long history of fine pastries in France.
This pastry concoction is one of a family of desserts known as pièces montées, or “mounted pieces.”
A pièce montée is a dessert which is carefully constructed from an assortment of components, and designed to look as ornate as possible. The dessert is quite crunchy, which explains the name: “croquembouche” meaning “bite in the mouth.”
Constructing a croquembouche takes a fair few steps. First, profiteroles (a French dessert choux pastry ball filled with whipped cream, pastry cream, custard, and/or ice cream) must be made, before a toffee glaze is prepared. The profiteroles are the building blocks for the croquembouche. These cream puffs are stacked using toffee to stick them together, and then the outside of the croquembouche is decorated.
A croquembouche is traditionally decorated by dusting it with candied almonds. The base and the top decoration support can be made of Nougatine (mixture of caramel and slices almonds) or sweet pastry disc. Some bakers drizzle chocolate over the croquembouche. The top of the croquembouche may be adorned with ribbons and other ornaments.
A celebrity chef, his was a style of cooking that was opulent if not outright excessive. He is seen as the founder of “La Grande Cuisine Française” – the High/Grand Art of French Cuisine. He was a modernizer in the field of cooking. He is the one who classified French sauces into the four groups that they remain in today, besides being the one to codify the art of “cold food” that aimed to preserve as much taste as it had when cooked. Carême is often considered as one of the first internationally renowned celebrity chefs.
Not to forget, Careme invented Caramel! Around 1850, it was discovered that adding milk and fat products to a cooked sugar mixture made a sweet chewy confection, which was christened ‘Caramel’.
Sienna and Ebony
On 2, February 2015, while walking back I came across a beautiful sight on the River Cam: a huge, brown swan, gently gliding over the calm waters of the river, all alone and at peace with its environs. This was just as surreal a sight as seeing the black swan in St. James’s Park was during the Christmas vacation. Stately and least concerned about the tourists plonking up the steep bridge or taking photos in every conceivable manner. It was while wandering through St. James’s Park with Babu Da that I had come across some magnificent specimina of black swans. I am not sure if you find black swans in India, but given that Babu Da has stayed fairly close to nature both in Delhi and Guwahati in the past, and he is fairly knowledgeable about flora and fauna, his being equally intrigued by this bird made it all the more mysterious and appealing.
Swans have for long been part of literature and folklore. In the United Kingdom, Druids were often associated with swans, as these were taken as symbols in the composition of Celtic astrology. Julius Caesar once said, “The Druids were possessed of “… much knowledge of the stars and their motion, of the size of the world and of the earth, of natural philosophy…”. The Druids were Celtic priests who inhabited much of Western Europe, Britain and Ireland until they were supplanted by the Roman government and, later, by the arrival of Christianity. Interestingly, some people have found parallels between Vedic and Celtic traditions! But that’s probably for a later post. Now, back to swans.
In Celtic tradition, the swan or the Eala represents the soul, love and beauty. In Celtic mythology the pagan Goddess Brighid is associated with swans. Brighid is a triple aspect Goddess, revered as Maiden, Mother and Crone, who as a Maiden rules over writing, inspiration and music; as a Mother over healing, midwifery and herbalism; and as a Crone over fire and the working arts of the smithy. Each of these symbolizes both a separate stage in the female life cycle and a phase of the moon, and often rules one of the realms of earth, underworld, and the heavens, as per the traditional description of these aspects.
In Greek mythology, swans are associated with Apollo, the God of the Sun, and with Zeus who took on the shape of a swan to get close to Leda with whom he had fallen in love. Greek Goddesses associated with swans include Artemis and Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love who travelled in a swan-drawn chariot. In Germanic myths the Valkyries had the power to transform into swans. They were the 12 maiden attendants of Odin, who presided over wars allowing victory to one side and defeat to the other. After a war was over they would select the most valiant of warriors to die in battle and escorted them to an afterlife of feasting in the halls of Valhalla. In another myth they would sometimes take off their swan-plumage and appear to men in human form, but if a man then stole their plumage they would be bound to do his bidding until it was returned. Fairly interesting!
In Norse mythology, as the story goes, two swans drank from the sacred Well of Urd situated in the realm of Asgard, home of the Gods. According to the Prose Edda, the water of this well was so pure and holy that all things that touch it turn white, including the original pair of swans and all others descended from them. Hence, one has the origin of the white color of the swans explained in Norse mythology.
In modern times, the perhaps one of the most enduring tales about swans is that of “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen. The story revolves around a young cygnet that gets lost from his mother. While swimming around a lake frantically searching for her, he joins a group of other young birds and ducks. Sadly however, because of his grey-brownish colour they consider him ugly and refuse to play with him. Being rejected and then seeing his own reflection on the water’s surface, he can’t but help to agree with them and feel ashamed of his appearance. Eventually his mother finds him and reassures him, making him realize that he is still young and this is merely a transitional phase; he will later grow into the most beautiful of all birds – a beautiful snow white swan like herself. A tale probably many of us have heard as children.
The Black Swan is widely referenced in Australian culture. The Black Swan is of spiritual significance in the traditional histories of many Aboriginal peoples across southern Australia. Metaphoric references to black swans have appeared in European culture since long before the actual discovery of the black swan in Australia in the 18th century.
The Black Swan is the official state emblem of Western Australia and is depicted on the flag of Western Australia (the one above). It is also depicted on the Western Australian coat-of-arms, besides being used in other emblems, coins, logos, mascots and even in the names of sports teams!
The first reference to the black swan in European myth, literature and folklore was probably by the Roman satirist Juvenal, who wrote in 82 AD of rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno, translated as “a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan”, signifying the rarity of the black swan. This phrase passed into various European languages as a popular proverb. For around a sesqui-millenium, the black swan existed in the European imagination as a metaphor for that which could not exist.
The Dutch explorer de Vlamingh made the first European record of sighting a Black Swan in 1697, when he sailed into what he named as the Swan River on the western coast of New Holland. The sighting was significant in Europe, where “all swans are white” had long been used as a standard example of a well-known truth, and shook the very basis of the popular proverbs associated with the apparent non-existence of a black swan. In 1726, two birds were captured near Dirk Hartog Island and taken to Jakarta (Indonesia) as proof of their existence!
When black swans were taken to Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries, they were soon associated with another aspect of European mythology: the attribution of ‘sinister relationships’ between the devil and black-coloured animals! Black Swans were considered to be diabolic and often chased away or killed by superstitious folk. This may be one of the reasons why the black swans have never established a significant presence as feral beings in Europe and North America. It again raises the question of perception and the oft-flawed rationale of humans, which makes man associate the darker shade with the sinister and the abhorrent. Apartheid and racism are prime examples of how this rationale applies in our society. Ironically, the black swan is associated with some qualities which are worth emulating.
Just as the white swan symbolizes pure beauty, its black counterpart stands for mysteries within us that are longing to be set free to express themselves creatively – perhaps just as the Goddess Bridgid would have us do, in poetry or music. The black swan is the harbinger of ‘things’ and/or events that will have monumental ‘culture changing’ potential! It’s the answer to the notion that ‘something’s got to give’. Or, ‘that something big is bound to happen.’ The black swan theory is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the event has occurred with the benefit of hindsight.
Black swan events were introduced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2001 book Fooled By Randomness, which concerned financial events. Taleb says
What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes.
First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme ‘impact’, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.
Fascinating creatures! Black swans also represent the healing powers of love, as per certain traditions. In popular culture, the movie Black Swan has a dark and sensual ‘Black Swan’ in Mila Kunis. Personally, I find this nervous, pioneering spirit in a black swan, which is kind of unstable and yet powerful and elegant.
If Jean Anouilh was correct in saying ““Beauty is one of the rare things which does not lead to doubt of God”, then the Black Swan may surely be a symbol of the Cosmic Force!
The MCR did a great job in screening an Omar Sy classic recently – Les Intouchables. In France, the film is the second-highest-grossing domestically produced film of all time and Sy won the 2012 César award for best actor for his role as Driss.
François Cluzet plays the role of Philippe, an eccentric, rich Parisian quadriplegic. Tired of being surrounded by ‘be-cardiganed milquetoasts’, as The Telegraph put it, he advertises for a new live-in caretakes and hires Sy, a burly black youth from a broken home who apparently applied for the post only to keep the benefits log up and running.
Man and caretaker soon strike up a camaraderie. Driss is smitten by the grandeur of his new residence and life. Be it larking around the bath or taking pleasure in exotic massages, he seems to have attained the stability in life that he so desired. Philippe also seems to enjoy his new caretaker’s lust for life, and even likes the latter’s lack of pity, his brash way of conducting his social life, his flirtatious advances on Philippe’s secretary Magalie (Audrey Fleurot), his platonic relationship with Philippe’s aide Yvonne (Anne Le Ny) and even his ready access to Marijuana!
The tale is a simple tale of bonding and the characters are not great dramatic roles, but yet stand out for their charm. The tomfoolery between Sy and Cluzet is often funny. Regional jokes have been paraphrased to include US-friendly punchlines involving the Beiber and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Les Untouchable is not really a film about race, or disability, or anything other than just a pure bond of friendship. It is a tale of a man who when given a responsibility acts responsibly, setting aside the odd joint and speeding ticket.
A charming, stirring production!
Kedgeree is a dish consisting of cooked, flaked fish, some boiled rice, hard-boiled eggs, some parsley, curry powder, butter/cream and occasionally sultanas (pale green, oval seedless grape variety). Kedgeree can be served hot or cold. Fish such as Haddock, Tuna or Salmon can be used for the preparation of Kedgeree, although traditionally and usually the Haddock is most often used.
Today, I was drawn to it primarily because of its very evidently Indian leanings, in the Upper Hall (our mess, put plainly). The rice, the hue and the curry were all but driving home the Desi mix, as some would call it. Having had it and liked it (except the hint of coconut in the dish, probably in the gravy served alongside), here’s to sharing a little about the dish.
As per certain accounts, the concept of Kedgeree arose sometime around the 14th century, and was believed to have sprung out due to the liking of Khichdi by British Colonials who had postings in India. It became a breakfast dish in Victorian England and a fashionable Anglo-Indian cuisine. The best part is that, before artificial refrigeration was invented, the leftovers of a day could often be used to make an interesting breakfast dish.
The connection to Khichdi is conspicuous: even the kadhi (the spiced yogurt drink served alongside, in places like Gujarat) is used for servings of the Kedgeree. One may ask about the fish in Kedgeree. Whoever heard of fish being added to Khichdi?! Well, according to accounts, fish is sometimes eaten with khichdi in coastal villages. So, the ingenuity of, and experimentation with variants of the khichdi by, the Britishers put forth an appealing dish in the Kedgeree.
French Cheese: Camembert and Comté
Lucile and Bedanta Da have recently introduced me to some varieties of French Cheese, and I found them pretty fascinating.
Marie Harel created the original Camembert cheese from raw milk in Normandy in 1791. Fresh Camembert cheese is bland, hard and crumbly in texture. Young Camembert has a milky and sweet taste. As the cheese matures it forms a smooth, runny interior and a white bloomy rind that is typical to Camenbert cheese, as can be seen in the picture. It has a rich, buttery flavour. The rind is bloomy white caused by a white fungus, called penicillium candidum.The rind is meant to be eaten with the cheese, although the rind for the larger varieties are best left alone since the cheese rounds are rolled over cave-floors for transportation purposes and the rind can accumulate the dirt and other impurities. One can have Camembert with bread, for proper meals such as Cheese and Potato filled pancakes or even for baking.
Not to forget, the cheese variety is the subject of a famous cheese (rather cheesy) joke, which goes as follows:
Question: Whats the best cheese to coax a bear down a mountain?
Answer: Camembert (Come On Bear)
For more than ten centuries, villagers of Jura Massif in Eastern France have crafted a unique and delicious cheese: Comté. Comté is characterised and loved for its aromatic richness. Comté requires excellent milk, usually and exclusively from the Montbéliarde and French Simmental breeds of cows. One can make dishes like Quiche and Macaroni Gratin using Comté, besides various other starters and desserts. Comté is a cheese of concentrated flavour and wines such as Jura wine, Palo Cortado or the Spanish Amontillado sherry are a classic pairing for this variety of cheese.
A small attempt at describing two cheese varieties that are fairly good to taste and well-known the world over.
The Arquette Azaperone: Rethinking ‘Feminism’
Recently the following words, spoken by Patricia Arquette to conclude a fairly boring acceptance speech that she read from a piece of paper at the Oscars, have created quite a rumble in society
“To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s time to have wage equality once and for all. And equal rights for women in the United States of America.”
But what is highly problematic in this whole episode starts from what Arquette said thereafter in an interview:
“It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”
Not only did this create a problematic basis for the discourse and debate but hit at the whole idea of identities: who is colored or white, man or woman, gay or heterosexual or bisexual. The manner in which ‘feminism’ is introduced in the context of the ‘color’, for instance, astounds me. To negate this point with an illustration, one could consider an African-American woman: she is ‘colored’ and is a woman, could possibly a Texan or Belgian or Algerian, a devout Catholic or Protestant, homo- or heterosexual. ALL these identities are part of a person in question and defines her.
Critics argued that Arquette’s comments focused on white women while erasing other groups of people from the feminist movement. When one pits the issue of representing the fairer sex against or in the context of representing race or sexual orientation, it creates a problematic topic of discussion. I guess that is why they say that half-informed, not-properly-thought-out statements using ‘feminism’ as a buzzword by certain celebrities is surely a step backward for every step forward that their attempts may have tried to bring about. Arquette probably intended to communicate that everyone should contribute to the cause, which is not bad in itself. However, her statement probably did more damage than good (which is why I feel her statements are like the tranquilizer Azaperone: one that takes the steam out of the movement when looked at closely, and yet providing a calm to view the question in a new light, as I shall discuss).
Interestingly, possibly unintentionally, and thankfully Arquette did highlight the issue of the influence of gender and color that affects women in the United States today. The wage gap varies significantly by race. It is often cited that women make about 77% of what men make; that is true mainly for white women, while African-American women earn around 64% and Hispanic women earn only 54%! This just goes on to speak volumes about the fact that a person is defined and described by various identities and one cannot be spoken of in isolation or by pitting one identity against another, if one truly wants to talk of equality of women, or for that matter any under-represented community. The modern feminist movement, atleast in the States, is often criticized for exactly this point: the focus is mostly on the issues that white women face, forgetting the systematic discrimination that overlaps with this, for colored women. Theoretically, this is best described by Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality: oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. Chicana feminists would surely be alarmed by Arquette’s words!
If one were to talk of the LGBT community though, interestingly, while gay mean get a lesser pay than straight men (5% less), lesbians get a higher pay (8% more) than their straight counterparts in the United Kingdom. Thus, one cannot always relate the two issues and should not pit one against the other but rather inclusive of the other.
A Highly Relevant Issue
For those who go against feminism, let me kindly put forth some facts and figures to iron out those creases on your forehead before some of you could possibly begin a rant. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), over 1/3rd women globally have suffered violence from a partner or sexual violence from another man. The UN estimates that about 133 million girls and women have suffered female genital mutilation, and believes that nearly all of the 4.5 million people “forced into sexual exploitation” are girls and women. In Britain, about 1.2 million women suffer domestic violence a year, 400,000 are sexually assaulted, and 85,000 are raped! Women are concentrated in the lowest paid, most insecure and often most demeaning forms of work; they also do the vast majority of unpaid housework and childcare, in many places all around the world.
This is alarming to say the least! Even in today’s world, with around 5000 years of post-Vedic civilization, we have such a massive number of atrocities committed against women. And to top it off, we have the pseudo-feminists: those, especially among men, who find it ‘cool’ to support feminism without truly understanding the various nuances to the issue.
The Other Side
The other side of this debate is probably twofold: firstly, whether one needs such conspicuous modes of expression, often misinformed in their conception. Secondly, is it just the females who are repressed and harassed? Cases of sexual assault among men and false convictions of men for crimes against women are growing. At an alarming rate.
The one issue that is often raised is the idea of meritocracy. Whenever there is positive discrimination for the benefit of a certain community, one questions whether the members of that community often take that as a shield in a highly competitive world (like reservation for certain castes in India). What one so conveniently forgets is that feminism is a lot more than just positive discrimination for benefits and padded pay-day cheques. It is not necessarily a veiled veto against the ‘majority’, in terms of privileges. Probably not highlighting this aspect so often in the discourse for feminism could be a way forward. It has been seen in a number of studies that women fare better in educational pursuits, be it in academic course or entrances. Women are present in almost every field today: be it aviation, economics, politics, sciences or the army. Then, do we really need positive discrimination in a generic manner. Isn’t doing so a manner of fanning the whole meritocracy-debate?
Just like for reservation among castes, I think the way forward would be to actually study the impact of other identities of an individual as well. In India, for instance, economics would probably play the major role, and then social structures like caste and class. A kurmi woman today earns a lot less than many others purely because of an ages-old social system. At the same time, a well-educated girl in a metropolis is as good, if not better, in her status and condition, both financially and socially, as her male friends and colleagues. Does she require positive discrimination schemes? On these fronts, a different kind of approach and issues become relevant (such as oppression in the offices, work-places, etc.).
And then there is the extreme. Recently, a self-professed feminist decided to abort her pregnancy when she learned her baby was to be a boy, as per BBC. She said she “couldn’t bring another monster” – a man – “into the world.” The sources for the story are still to be conclusively verified by BBC. This kind of sickening practices can seriously eclipse the genuine concerns of feminists and lead to repulsion towards the whole idea of ‘feminism’.
I believe that the representation of sexual violence in movies have a lot to do with this. The recently released ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is a prime example. It has everything: from bondage to ‘discipline’, from dominance to submission, from sadism to masochism. And it has of course drawn a lot of interest and attention, though not from the feminists, which should not be surprising since modern feminism is fairly detached from the idea of morality. Call it fortunate or unfortunate, it does raise certain questions about whether we need to re-consider and re-formulate this premise, since certain fringe elements of society have and shall always use these ‘titillating’ sources of motivation for heinous crime on women. Where does one draw the line? Do we need any kind of social and moral policing, or do we need to include some of the ideas and concepts put forth by feminism (and not necessarily the modern school of feminism) into our education system? But the one point which I believe most of you would agree with is that torture sex should not be glorified, even if it is in a cinematic production.
Lean-in feminism is an interesting, new concept that has been argued upon lately. The basic idea is that feminism seeks women to lean-in to the movement to give it strength. It calls on women to gain rights, opportunities and respect unilaterally within a society that is often hostile to those objectives. The harm is done when one expects women to prioritize “feminism” and the struggle of all women over their own fulfillment and happiness. Each woman is an individual first and then part of a larger cause. The collective work of all women to restructure society in a way that is amenable to their success is vital but when a woman explicitly states she is unprepared and unwilling to do something, it is only proper to take her at her word and not question her choices or the motivations for them. A case in example would be that of Jessica Williams, who recently refused to consider replacing Jon Stewart as the host of ‘The Daily Show’, in a stream of tweets:
If the ‘feminists’ now go on a tirade about why Williams should take the job, or even start judging her decision, that’d go against the very foundation of feminism. Feminism is surely not about leaning-in, even if it is for the cause itself. And this is just one case. If a girl wants to be a housewife, who are we to judge or start making assumptions about why or how she is happy in that? If a girl takes up a ‘menial’ job (in inverted commas because no job is menial), of her own will, who are we to question that? Genuine cases of repression must be condemned. No doubt. But this new age brand of lean-in feminism could actually backfire and may end up being a tool of imposing a reverse psychology!
To conclude, I’d say that let’s not make ‘feminism’ the new f-word. It is more than a hush-hush buzzword, as repeatedly criticized by some, and thrown out by celebrities and a lot more than just the idea of positive discrimination.
Brethren, mankind can survive not without women.
Penne in Thai Spice
Staying in residence, with the Upper Hall shut for the vacation, I have had the opportunity to nurture my interest in cooking and experiment a little with preparations.
I have always liked Continental preparations, especially those involving Pasta, but have never made anything with, say, Penne or Fusili myself back in Delhi. So, the other day, given the high protein content of Penne, I went for a packet and thought of trying to prepare a dish in the evening. The first time was not that good because of the Penne being slightly undercooked.
The next time to offset the blandness (though white sauce would have been really good maybe) and to cook it well, I thought of trying this dish: Penne with Thai Seven Spice. A simple but tasty dish.
So what is Thai Seven Spice? For those who don’t know, it is just a mixture of the following ingredients: Salt, Chilli Powder (12%) (Chilli Pepper, Cumin, Salt, Oregano, Garlic), Dried Garlic, Ginger (6%), Ground Coriander (6%), Dried Lemon Peel (5%), Cumin, Ground Cinnamon (Cassia), Dried Chillies (4%), White Pepper, Sugar, Dried Onion, Star Anise, Ground Green Peppercorns, Dried Jalapeno Chillies, Cayenne Pepper (this is for Schwartz’ product; copied and pasted). Heating the Penne in water for around 7 minutes, and then putting the spice (including broth or coconut milk would not be bad), and reheating for around 5 gives a good aroma. Thereafter, one MAY add a little cream (by this time, the Penne and spice should be nicely cooked) and other add-ons (people say saffron is good) and cook for a few minutes. And it’s done.
Not a bad one to taste and an interesting combination. Desi-fication. Rather Thai-fication of an Italian staple.
Snippets: First Moments in Cambridge – Stranded at the City Centre!
After having taken my luggage at the Heathrow Airport, I ambled my way to the small cubicle of the National Express. The weather was nippy. A jovial woman and a (Punjabi) guy. The lady, probably looking at the urgency and availability of buses, took up the initiative and booked the ticket, and rushed me off with a “go quickly, darling” (had she not done so, I’d have to wait for a few hours maybe). It was a beautiful ride. I remember telling Mahasweta later that the country-side looked so much like Axomiya hinterlands! We had stoppages at ‘Stansted Airport’ and ‘Trumpington Park and Ride’. The bus was actually one for Norwich via Cambridge. I had written to Ankur (Barua) Da previously, but because my phone services had suddenly gone off, I could neither call nor message (emergency balance had reached nil after a fairly refreshing chat with Ma…ha ha) to tell him that I would arrive later than I had thought previously. It was around 6:30 pm that we reached City Center, Cambridge.
‘Impressions of Cambridge’ (09/10)
The City Center is not a big place. Just three bus stands, lying next to each other. And as luck would have it, it had started raining. So, basically, I was there in a new city with two huge suitcases and two hand bags, not quite knowing where to go next and how to contact Ankur Da. No means of communication, no idea of where to go next (since the bus-stop was a slight distance away from my College, and I thought it was not advisable to start walking off arbitrarily). Thank goodness I could keep my calm and not panic. I briefly spoke to this guy, who said he was Spanish and new to Cambridge himself, AND his phone had switched off. I remember staring into the rain, the pavements and the road, waiting and thinking. But as they say, there is always a way and a good Samaritan around the corner. This tall gentleman who stood near the bus-stop gave me his phone, upon briefly chatting with him, asking me not to worry. I gave Ankur Da a quick call and he was there in a short while. We then started our way towards College.