The making of a fine vegetable korma

Excerpt from pamphlet ‘Guide for Island Newcomers’:

This is a tried and tested recipe, and the fresh coconut is worth the effort.

You will need:

1 fresh coconut

3 onions, finely chopped

3 carrots

3 potatoes

400g peas in their pods

250g fine beans

3 large, ripe tomatoes

2 small, green chillies, deseeded and chopped

½ tsp tomato puree

3 tbsp oil

½ tsp salt

¼ tsp turmeric

½ tsp clove and cinnamon powder

¼ tsp cumin and coriander powder

1 small cinnamon stick

2.5cm/ 1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and grated

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

bunch fresh coriander leaves, chopped

The fruit and vegetable market in the Old Town is the best place to obtain the fresh produce. There is no parking, so travel there and back is best on foot or via tuk-tuk. Matatus and buses also stop nearby. Be prepared to haggle, but be aware that the vendors must make a living from their sales, and most have now fixed their prices. Walk around the market once before deciding which vendors to approach. Usually, vendors will sell only one or two varieties of vegetable, fresh from the farm. The spices may be purchased from the many grocery shops which line the streets adjacent to the market. They are usually sold ready-ground, and can be weighed according to need.

coconut

Method:

1. Crack open the coconut: this is best done with a dull implement such as the blunt end of a machete or cleaver. Tap the coconut firmly over its equator while turning it, until it splits. Hold over a bowl and drain the coconut water. Hold each half of the coconut in turn and rotate, while using the serrated shredder to pare away the white, fresh coconut. Place the shredded coconut into the woven coconut cone, add hot water and twist gradually from the top, holding over a large bowl. The pressure will force coconut milk from the cone into the bowl.

2. Wash the fresh produce thoroughly, ensuring that all soil is removed; we would recommend soaking and rinsing several times. Scrub the potatoes, and peel the carrots and potatoes. Cut these into small cubes.

3. Shell the peas. Check carefully for small insects, mildew and scarred areas: discard if found. Run your thumb down the pod to release the peas.

4. Slice the fine beans lengthways, checking for discoloured or scarred areas, and chop into 2cm pieces.

5. Steam all of the vegetables until tender, approximately for 10 minutes.

6. Grind the chillies, garlic and grated ginger in a pestle and portar, making a thick paste.

7. Heat the oil in a pan and sauté the onions until they start browning at the edges.

8. Add the tomatoes and tomato puree and fry for 1 minute.

9. Add the ginger and chilli paste, together with all of the spices to the pan and stir well.

10. Add the steamed vegetables to the gravy and simmer for another 5 minutes.

11. Add all of the coconut milk and the cinnamon stick, and cover the pan. Simmer on the lowest possible heat for 5 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick.

12. Just before serving, season to taste and sprinkle with the fresh coriander. Serve with freshly steamed Basmati rice.

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You hit me mummy!

‘You hit me mummy!’ states the three year old, brazenly. ‘Er…no. I did not hit you.’ I quickly correct. ‘I did tell you to stop drawing on the fridge door, though.’ This subterfuge and diversion is new for my easygoing son, direct attack being one tactic he uses to deflect attention away from his own wayward behaviour. He has, in fact, turned into a threenager. He is suddenly full of strops and stomps, slamming doors and fearsome roars. And a very cute pout. He has developed a brand new habit of carrying a ‘souvenir’ back from any visit, anywhere: he leaves nursery clutching a small sticklebrick, a playmate carrying a pink belt, a wedding reception holding a tea light. The items are chosen randomly, and although woe betide anybody who tries to prise away the stolen good from his fingers at the time, my mini-kelptomanoac has no real intention of keeping them.

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It is a different matter in the heat and bustle of a teeming city in Africa, where education, business and relative wealth contrast with extreme poverty and the resulting struggle to survive. The government have ‘cleaned up’ the street hawkers, those raucous roadside squawkers, with their cries of ‘Ananas! Maaaaaango! Iko hapa!’. While the roads look less crowded and are undoubtedly easier to manoeuvre they have lost a lot of their colour and character. The government view is that the street hawkers are a nuisance, and of course, they don’t pay taxes. The simple clearing away of the offending parties with stiff fines to dissuade rebellion costs little to implement, and this country does not operate a system of benefits for the poor, so on paper it’s a win-win for the suited decision makers. Silly, of course. Surely those important officials realised that those thousands of hawkers previously eking out a living, once that meagre living was snatched away, would turn to crime? Surely they did.

For two months, Ba and the family had nobody to help them at home. The dust- that swirling, sandy dust- carried by the sea air, settles everywhere and needs to be swept up at least once a day; it hugs the creases in clothes, and the only way to dislodge it is to beat them hard when washing. The heat at this time of year means that the refrigerator acts as little more than  slightly cool storage space, and fresh produce must be bought at the market each day. The pendulous, jellyfish-like mosquito nets that hang over the beds must be tied up each morning, and released in the evening. Oh, the daily to-do list is endless, and the grandparents are in their nineties. Usually they have someone who comes in every morning to help, but their last help disappeared with their emergency electricity generator. Now, during the inevitable blackouts the darkness is broken only by candlelight, and the heat hangs heavy while the arms of the ceiling fans are still.

It is not, by any means, the first time that this has happened: almost anything that isn’t fixed in place has been stolen, from bent steel spoons to perfume. There is now nothing of value in the apartment, but items of use- the hand mixer, steel bowls, metal sieves, candles, for example- must be locked away for fear that these might vanish too. I have much sympathy for those who resort to theft to enable survival, but I struggle to understand those who are in gainful employment who steal from their vulnerable, elderly employers (who have little themselves). I just don’t get it. The toy shop, too, has been targeted. Bapuji has always been conscious of security, aware that his hard-gained stock could walk out of the store without payment, and has put measures in place. It was an elderly beggar, with his constant watch on the neighbourhood, who proved more effective than any security measure. He called Sudhir over one day. One of the shop boys had been stealing, siphoning out toys under his clothes and in his bag as he came and went from the shop on errands, alleged the man. It had been going on for months, he said, perhaps years. ‘Watch him’, said the beggar, ‘and you will know that I am telling the truth’. And he was . Some people retain honour when they have lost everything else.

I am collecting up the small items strewn around the house which must be reunited with their rightful owners. The toddler assists, helpfully pointing out his purloined treasures with no trace of apology. In his world, ownership appears to be a fluid concept, but at least he accepts the return of these items with good grace.

'Borrowed' items
‘Borrowed’ items

** for those who are reading this and protesting that the stormy toddler described above is not the one you recognise, I admit use of a little hyperbole. He remains, despite his three years, a smiler who sees the sunshine in everything, but he has moments of rage and unreason. He does. Really.

Interesting times

‘May you live in interesting times’ states the well-known curse. Of those, we’ve had plenty during the last year. Not only has the world been in turmoil but personally, too, life spent the bulk of 2014 throwing the balls at us rather too quickly, and racing around trying to catch them all left us in a weary heap on the floor. Let me give you an example: In October I found out that we are expecting our third child- wonderful news- which explained why I had been feeling like my limbs were too heavy to move. In the preceding weeks, work had been intense and incessant, and we had been embroiled in an unnecessarily lengthy and complicated home move. The week following the clear blue line we left for a short break away, and no sooner had we dared to relax than Noah, our three year old son, sustained a not-so-short break of his own: a fracture of his femur. Five days in traction, flat on his back, and then a general anaesthetic for the application of a hip spica (a cast from waist down, covering at least part of both legs) were borne with little complaint: an amazing thing for an active little person. I gave thanks each day for my patient boy, and because the first trimester of pregnancy had been relatively kind to me. A balmy autumn turned chilly the week we returned home from hospital, and the central heating broke. A few more balls thrown and caught, and we were finally moving home, nine days after discharge from hospital. The grandparents came to the rescue: whizzing down the motorway to us each week, entertaining the immobile toddler as he lay propped up on his oversized beanbag, enabling me to return to work. Two weeks later I completed my annual appraisal, having submitted many hours of preparatory work beforehand. Interesting times.

Bear and hare
Bear and hare

Noah’s injury reminded me of the time that Bapuji fell off his stool, his usual perch in the toy shop, and fractured his hip. Surprisingly, we were given a choice: surgery or three months in traction. We consulted orthopaedic friends, but even ignoring the medical pros and cons, there was only one sensible option. Bapuji would never have been able to tolerate the time in traction: he is a man who rises before dawn each day; he is a man who goes to work six days out of seven. Late nineties or not, a hip replacement was absolutely necessary. The surgery was relatively uneventful, but soon afterwards Bapuji became increasingly confused and incoherent. He would attempt to leap out of his hospital bed, or to pull out his catheter. He needed to be watched 24 hours a day, and my brother, mum and Indira took turns camping out in his room. For a man of considerable age he proved to be surprisingly strong, and the restraint required to prevent him from unwittingly hurting himself was almost too much for the diminutive women in the family. “Get them to check for a urinary tract infection” we pleaded over the telephone. “Ask them to arrange some blood tests”. What was performed instead was a CT scan of his brain, which confirmed that Bapuji had not had a stroke. Several days and sleepless nights later his urine was finally tested, confirming an infection which responded rapidly to simple antibiotics. Perhaps this was an example of topsy turvy medicine in a country where money matters, and the more expensive investigations are prioritised over the sensible ones? Bapuji recuperated well and, despite the protestations of all, returned to his seat by the entrance of the toy shop not long after discharge.

I was thinking, too, of Anil, with his cerebral palsy, of the surgery he underwent on no fewer than nine occasions. Noah weathered his seven weeks of immobility with good humour and fortitude- helped significantly by the iPad- but this pales in comparison with the two years, on and off, that Anil spent with his legs in a cast. He was, by all accounts, accepting and patient, but the frustration must have bubbled to the surface periodically. And for Ba, the lifting and fetching, the stretches and massage, and always, always the worry. Noah’s situation was very different from Anil’s, of course: although the X-ray revealed a gruesome-looking displaced fracture he was expected to make a full recovery. Thank you, fabulous paramedics (especially Hannah, who came back the following day, just to visit Noah), nurses and doctors for your smiles, your efficient work and your care. We were so well taken care of: the NHS at it’s best.

This year will be different- the interesting times will be tempered with a little ‘pole-pole’ (slowly slowly: Swahili). Let us be clear: I am not hoping for a slow and steady life. I’m not ready for that yet, not until I am old and have done all the things I want to do, not until my bones creak, but we will take some time to breathe and enjoy the small things. This year will be full of good things. Exciting plans. Watch this space….

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