Monday, June 01, 2015
by Rishidev Chaudhuri
If there were a canonical essay topic for the Hindi classes that I struggled through as a child, "The arrival of the monsoon" would be a leading candidate. So typical a topic that it almost constituted its own form and mode of cultural practice, it was assigned to us several times a year. And we dutifully produced accounts of hot streets and families watching for storm clouds from verandahs and rushing winds and skies flickering with lightning and children playing in the streets and grateful farmers fornicating in suddenly-muddy fields while relieved trees looked on.
But of course this was an entirely fitting essay topic. Much as the coming of winter looms in the imagination of people in further latitudes, the coming of the rains is atavistically woven into the fabric of the subcontinental consciousness, stirring strange rain-fed yearnings in the blood, reflected back at us in art and in politics. The arrival of the monsoon is tracked for weeks, the subject of prayers and village ritual and newspaper op-eds and roadside chatter. Musical forms are dedicated to the first rains; governments fall because of late rains. And, fittingly, the first storms of the season are grand affairs, full of sound and fury, signifying life and fertility. Indeed, for years several friends of mine thought that one got pregnant by dancing around trees in the rain, based on their extensive watching of Hindi movies.
I worked on a farm for half a year after college, through the dry scorching heat of the summer (all fine dust and burnt skin and plants with insufficiently sublimated death drives) and into the coming of the monsoon. My most vivid memories from that year are the monsoon evenings spent sitting on the verandah after a day at work in the fields, drinking rum and watching the rain upon the rice fields and the lightning play through the sky, trees suddenly illuminated by flashes, slightly damp dogs curled up at my feet. And this is to say nothing of other memories of watching the rain fall in the courtyards of old Calcutta houses, which should justifiably be the subject of a novel-cycle about memory and decay (it probably is).
Perhaps because of this (or perhaps for no reason at all, but narratives need reasons) I've always loved the rain and thunderstorms and have gently but persistently missed the monsoon every year I've been away. Maybe this is why I've never owned an umbrella. Unexpectedly, of late the weather in Austin has felt oddly familiar. The last few weeks have been a parade of sky-splitting storms and rain rushing in in the evenings and staying for days, and unexpected visits from old Indo-European thunder gods whom I rarely see any more, and who shut down the city with their demands for tribute. And, inevitably, I've started thinking back to all my rain-drenched memories of monsoons and clouds and storms and especially of sitting and watching the rain. It's somehow easier for my mind to tolerate itself in the presence of rain.
One of the pleasures of moving to a new place is learning the way its environment and climate shapes its rhythms. And another of the pleasures of a wandering existence is putting habits and rhythms in conversation with each other across space, so that places illuminate each other and old practices reemerge in new places. And so in this rainy Texan weather I've been thinking more about monsoon food and about what's available during the rains and what one craves during thunderstorms.
In the places I grew up, rainy day comfort food is often khichri (or khichdi or khichuri): rice and lentils cooked together, often starting with a simple base of spices and onions, generally adding ghee (butter that's partly browned and then clarified) at various points, sometimes tossing vegetables into the pot to cook with everything else. I was always told that this is good rainy day food partly because it uses simple ingredients that always live in the pantry: particularly useful when it's raining too hard for anyone to go to the market (perhaps we should compare it to the pickled, fermented and dried foods of the northern winters). Recipes for khichri are easy to find all over the Internet, so I won't bother repeating one, and most regions have their own variants so there are plenty to choose from. Like most recipes, it's best understood as a template rather than a precise set of instructions. But in whatever iteration, it's warm, nourishing, gentle, comfort food, easy to cook in a single pot and endlessly adaptable to whatever you have lying around.
To add contrast, khichri is often served with fried things, like fried potatoes (slices or wedges) or fried fish. Eggplant can be thickly sliced, marinated in turmeric, chili and salt and then fried till golden; if you like you can toss the slices in flour or chickpea flour first. Another nice option is vegetable fritters: start by making a thick batter with chickpea flour, some salt and chili and a few pinches of baking powder, and let the batter sit for a half hour before tossing small pieces of vegetable in, coating them in the batter and then deep frying them (if the pieces are large you can par-cook the vegetables first, by boiling or steaming).
Another lovely rainy day accompaniment is the fried meat that we sometimes ate at the farm. Again, it's very easy to make. Brown some sliced onions and then add roughly chopped garlic, lots of chopped chilies and some curry leaves if you have them along with small pieces of meat or chicken and fry till the meat is done (don't forget salt). You aren't looking for subtlety here: you want nutty caramelized chunks of garlic, mouth-searing heat from the chilies and savory fat from the meat. A few bites of this and you'll be ready to soothe your mouth and your nose with soft spoonfuls of khichri, and then start the cycle again with some rum or a gin-and-tonic, while you sit and watch the rain.
Posted by Rishidev Chaudhuri at 01:00 AM | Permalink