Sunday, 24 February 2013

A Potato Post

Early this month, I harvested these baby potatoes. And though they were tiny, they weren't lacking in taste. They were probably the freshest, tastiest potatoes I've tasted.... just melted in my mouth. After three previous attempts that failed, I was beginning to believe that potatoes can't grow in Chennai's warm and humid climate, that too in containers. Which is why, I was so eager to harvest these even before they were ready, just two months after they'd been planted. Had I waited a month or two longer, we'd probably have had larger ones. I also should have been careful to hill them at the right time. Not hillling them on time,  caused a couple of potatoes to pop out and turn green. 
But despite the size and number of potatoes, I'm quite content. Imagine planting a single budding potato in clayey soil that drained poorly, and getting this in return. (Potatoes need well drained, loose soil.) Now that I know potatoes can indeed grow in Chennai, I'll be more focused next time.

PS: This post has come after several months of inactivity. But from now on, I'm looking to post shorter posts, but more often.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Coffee in Coorg

The Flame Tree or GulMohur.
Coffee Blooms
While for some, Friday the 13th, may seem unlucky, here in Tamil Nadu it was celebration time. The  Tamil New Year was on Friday the 13th, this April. That meant, we had a long weekend. So we packed up our bags and headed off to Coorg, the Scotland of India. We found out that the best way to experience the place would be to stay at a homestay. With umpteen  homestays in Coorg, picking one  was really  hard. But I believe we finally chose the best - Spice Garden. It is a 125 year old, traditional house set in a coffee estate. Our hosts, Naveen and Raina were extremely warm and charming.  While Naveen is a wildlife expert, who educated us on the flora and fauna, Raina is an excellent cook. Both of them gave us a taste of the wonderful hospitality that Coorgis are well known for. 

A very Coorgi key-holder
Wild Flowers Sprout at Unexpected Spots
Hibiscus Profusion: A Very Common Sight
If you are a foodie, then Coorg is an amazing place to be.  For me, the breakfasts there, were the most memorable. On day one, we had Paputtu, which is a soft rice cake with lots of coconut in it. And the next morning we had Sannaas, which is  a kind of idli, only fluffier and tastier. Sannaas is made of rice, coconut and a little toddy. While my husband and I rounded off breakfast with wonderful strong Coorg coffee, my son had fresh, sweet milk from cows that grazed on pastures all day long. Even the eggs were from hens that roamed all over the place, pecking on worms and insects. Yet, the milk and eggs didn't have the  designer "organic, free-range" label that we see in cities. All the food - the vegetables and grain came from within the estate. To urban food activists, that would mean zero food miles. Here, however, eating local didn't seem anything out of the ordinary. "Organic", "Free range", "Local" may not be a part of the regular Coorgi vocabulary. But we realized that they are a way of life here.
This cow has all the grass to herself. City cows would really envy her.
"Free-range, organic, local" hens
Besides the food, the natural beauty of the place is magical. Just sitting in the verandah, I could spot so many new species of birds that I'd never seen before. The biggest surprise for me was the Malabar Whistling Thrush. I mistook its call for a man's whistle. By the end of my stay, I lost count of all the new birds I'd seen. Coorg is a bird lover's dream.
Swallows on the Lines
Spotted Dove in its Nest in the Verandah
A Delicate Rose: Notice the Leaves have been Chomped on
Some of the Many Varieties of Hibiscus at Spice Garden
The hills, the never ending stretches of coffee plantations, the fragrant air, the waterfalls, the endless variety of hibsicus flowers, the exotic spices, the vanilla, the wild roses, the forests, the fruit trees all made Coorg seem like paradise. Did Coorgis have any problems, I wondered. Of course they have problems. And they have REAL problems I soon discovered. Traffic jams and crowded buses don't count. Here, it is the danger of coming face to face with a tiger. The cab driver who drove us around told us, he had spotted tigers at least six times in the past year. The old tigers come to steal their cattle. The elephants destroy their fields. The solar fencing doesn't really deter them. Leopards eat up their pets. Poisonous Cobras and Vipers bite them in paddy fields. But as a brave warrior race, the Coorgis seem to take all these dangers in their stride.
Asafoetida (Hing): The resin is dried in the sun for use.
AllSpice: The all-in-one garam masala spice
A Typical Plantation, with solar fencing to ward off elephants: Here there's Coffee, Areca Nut and Cocoa (right in front)
Before I end this post, I must apologize to all my regular blog readers. It's been more than a month and I've not been able to visit any of your blogs. My own posts are now less frequent. It was only last year, I discovered the joys of blogging. And I hoped it would go on forever. But with my long hours at work, my blog time is severely restricted.  I don't mean to quit blogdom altogether, but I will be here less often. I hope my blog can make up for the lack in quantity with quality. Do keep visiting.
Giant Jackfruit Tree: Elephants love the fruit.
Singapore Cherries: Attracts birds and little boys. Even we couldn't resist eating all the ripe ones.
Small Green Mangoes: Kaddu Manga
A Wild Elephant with her Calf, at Naagarhole Reserve Forest

Friday, 9 March 2012

Rajnigandha and Some Veggies

Rajnigandha/ Tube Rose
In my last post, nearly four weeks ago, I'd shown you my Rajnigandha buds. And I've been meaning to write about the flowers, but my new job keeps me busy and the flowers have been slow to come. From the the first bud to the withering of the last flower, it has taken at least two months. They've been really slow but it's been well  worth the wait.
Flowers Bloom One at a Time
The cluster of buds, open one at a time, from the outside. And I think it took nearly a month for the first bud to bloom. The flowers aren't spectacular to look at. It's the fragrance that is absolutely irresistible. The scent is so heady, so intense, yet not cloying. I wish Blogger would allow me to post its scent for you. Let me at least post the link to a song about it, one of my favourite Hindi film songs - "Rajnigandha Phool Tumhare".
Night Bloomers
For those who don't know, "Rajnigandha" loosely translates to "night-fragrant". The flowers open at night. It's a good choice for a moon garden. Rajnigandha or Tube Rose are bulbs that are suppose to bloom in summer, but I've been lucky. Of course, I've fed them quite a bit as I was told they need lots of nutrition. 
Withered and Gone

Every day as I reach home, I pass a flower bazaar fully stocked with Rajnigandha garlands. These garlands are very popular in India, especially at weddings. I think the flowers are known to have aphrodisiac properties. I read somewhere that they're also used in therapies,  as they are amazing de-stressers. One long sniff of the flower filled me with calm and goodness. 
Small Haul of Pink Mooli
Apart from Rajnigandha, the recent highlights of my garden have been pink mooli and capsicum. While I thought pink mooli would be more attractive than the white ones, the white ones actually yielded much better. Perhaps it was because the pink mooli seeds were 100% organic and traditional. These pink mooli were really tiny, about half the size of the white one, which was not too large either.
Pink Mooli Leaves: More Sharply Lobed than White Mooli Leaves
My capsicum have actually flowered and fruited. I let the leaf curl be. And still they've managed to produce a few fruit. I expected them to be yellow-red, but they're plain old green :( Think I mixed up the seeds. At last I know what a homegrown capsicum is all about: really crunchy.
Capsicum/Bell Pepper/Sweet Pepper Flower (You can't miss the leaf curl)
My First Tiny Capsicum. Next to a Teaspoon for Scale
More Capsicum

Monday, 6 February 2012

New Beginnings

January is a good time of year to start plants in Chennai. The weather is as pleasant as can be. The sun shines brightly, but doesn't scorch the plants. This year, the temperatures touched a ten-year low in Jan, for which I'm very happy as I'd planted some carrots for the first time. Carrots here, are among the exotic "hill vegetables", (since we get all our carrots from the surrounding, cooler hills.) While the seeds sprouted in less than a week and have been growing steadily since, I'm keeping my fingers crossed. It's too early to say whether my carrots will actually grow in Chennai's "cold" weather.
Carrot Seedlings: To be Thinned
Now in Feb, many of the seeds sown last month have transformed into sturdy little seedlings. Here are some photos. My earlier basil bush was overgrown, so I decided to start it from seed once more. Basil is so easy to grow here that starting from seed is much easier than re-potting and pruning an old bush.
Sweet Basil Starting Out
Last year's spinach went to seed after several wonderful harvests. So this year, I intend to invest in some more spinach. While I had nearly 100% germination success with the seeds, many of the seedlings have been trampled upon by squirrels and crows. The crows come to peck at pieces of egg shells that are part of the compost.
Spinach: A Year Old
Spinach: Less than a Month Old
The bell pepper plants look like strange chilly plants. The leaves don't seem too well. Perhaps it's because I've done something that is strongly discouraged. The capsicum seeds weren't bought, but saved from a capsicum that I got from the market. The capsicum was yellow-red and probably hybrid. Since it seems near impossible to get yellow and red bell pepper seeds from anywhere near my place, I was left with no better option. But seeds from hybrid plants yield poorly. I am just hoping that they will at least yield a couple of capsicums.
The curry leaf tree and the lemon tree (both in pots) are showing a lot of promise. Many tender green leaves have sprouted all over.
Curry Leaf Tree with Plenty of New Growth
Lots of suspense at the Tube Rose (Rajnigandha) plant. Buds have been growing a little bigger each day, for nearly two weeks now, but it is yet to flower.
Tube Rose Buds
While my other zinnias are beginning to fade and produce smaller flowers every time, the peach coloured zinnias have just begun to show off. These get lovelier as they age and in fact are in their best colour when they're nearly all dried up.
Zinnias Basking in the Sunlight
And just like my garden is making a fresh start, so am I. I've landed a new job after a longish gap. And while I am very happy about the job, it may also mean less blogging. (During the week, I have only just enough time to water my plants). So if you find fewer posts and comments from me, you know the reason.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Green Gram or Moong

A while ago, I'd scattered some mung sprouts, which had gone slightly stale, into an empty container.  I had  expected the sprouts to quickly decay and nourish the soil. Instead, one of the sprouts chose to take root. Destined to bloom, it even survived the recent cyclone Thane, which had denuded some of my other sturdier plants.
Moong Pods on the Plant
Moong Bean Flower
While the couple of pods that have emerged aren't really worth a nibble, I'm still glad to see this unexpected shoot. It's always nice to know what our food looks like before it reaches the table.
Dried Green Gram in the Pod
Green gram or moong beans are extremely versatile. They can be had as fresh sprouts, as dal, as noodles and even as dessert. Moong dal is very easy to digest; in fact it was one of the first solid foods I fed my son. My favourite moong dal recipes include the Pesarattu (similar to a dosa) and Moong Dal Payasam (a lentil pudding). While Indian Payasams/Kheers are milk based, the moong dal payasam from Kerala is the only Indian vegan payasam that I know of. Here's my easy-to-make version of the dish.

Moong Dal Payasam / Parippu Pradhaman
Roasted Split Moong Dal
Yellow Split Moong Dal - 1/2 cup
Jaggery - 1/2 cup
Coconut Milk - 100 ml or the milk from 1 coconut  
Cardamom (Elaichi) - 3 pods
Water 2 1/3 cups

For the Garnish:
Halved Cashew nuts - a handful.
Raisins - a handful
Chopped coconut pieces - a handful
Enough ghee to fry the above. (Vegans can substitute the ghee with oil.)

My recipe is only mildly sweet, so those of you with a sweet tooth can increase the amount of jaggery.

1. Dry roast the dal in a heavy bottom pan. Once the dal gets a pink tinge and a lovely roasted aroma emanates, consider the roasting done. Wash the roasted dal. Add 2 cups of water and cook it until it is soft. (You could cook it in a pressure cooker for 2 minutes after the first whistle.) Once cooked, most of the lentils should hold their shape. Lightly mash the cooked dal with a spoon or masher.
2. In a separate vessel, melt the jaggery with 1/3 cup of water on a low flame. Be careful not to let the jaggery burn. Add the melted jaggery and crushed cardamom pods to the dal. (Only jaggery can lend the dish its characteristic flavour and dark colour, so try not to substitute jaggery with sugar.)
3. Slowly add the coconut milk to the dal mixture. The mixture should be gently heated over a low flame for 5 minutes, while stirring it all the time. The coconut milk can curdle if it is heated rapidly.
4. Fry the cashew nuts in ghee/oil till they are golden brown. In the same ghee, you could fry the raisins and coconut pieces. The raisins will plump up and the coconut pieces will dry out and turn brown. Add the cashew nuts, raisins and coconut pieces to the payasam.

The payasam will thicken within an hour, and can be had warm or chilled.
Moong Dal Payasam: Not great food photography, but it's both healthy and tasty.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Coco Peat and Other Garden Experiments for 2012

My foray into vegetable gardening began only last year. And while I'm far from attaining any kind of self sufficiency in the garden, the experience has been very fruitful.

Prior to my little rooftop patch, I didn't know the taste of a tomato picked fresh off the vine. I didn't even know that at the end of their season, it would be harder to get red tomatoes. But that it was okay. Green tomatoes are perfectly edible. They just need to be used differently. It's not just the tomatoes that I understand better now. I know the taste of raw lady's fingers: they're sweet and crunchy when freshly picked and not all slimy like I expected them to be. I know that moolis don't have to be peeled when they're garden fresh, that growing fennel is as simple as growing weeds.... the list is long.
End-of-season Green Tomatoes and Other Garden Produce for a Chutney
Most of all, I'm glad to see that my son is learning about the food he eats. While most kids (including mine) can be picky about their vegetables, my son is very enthusiastic about the ones he's helped grow. Gardening (i.e. mucking around) is one of his favourite activities and what grows in the garden is treated with due reverence by him and indeed the whole family.
My Son Enjoys Messing Around in the Dirt
So this year, I've decided to expand my garden. My plans include growing plants I've not grown before: lemon, curry leaf, capsicum and onion. I also have ambitions of growing some cool-weather vegetables. Then there are the potting soil experiments I have to do. I've heard of so many formulas for the ideal potting soil that I've now come to believe I need to develop my own, for the kind of compost I use and the weather we have.
Curry Leaf Sapling
At a recent gardening workshop that I attended, the many benefits of coco peat were elucidated. But sourcing coco peat in Chennai is not that easy. It was only after some hunting that I found a supplier that sells the stuff  at a reasonable price. In case you're from Chennai and interested, it's the Prarthana Inn Drive Nursery on East Coast Road. Though Chennai is not lacking in coconut trees, it's unfortunate that coco peat isn't easily available in the market. It appears that TN suppliers find it more profitable to export this wonder material than stock it for the local market. For those of you who cannot source coco peat, an alternative would be to tear away the little coconut husk that is left on the coconuts that one gets in shops. Don't try to separate them too much and use them as little chunks itself. On separating the fibre, it seems to retain less water. Since this form of husk is not an exact substitute, use it much  more judiciously.

Coco Peat / Coir Fibre Pith / Coir
What's so great about Coco Peat?
Coco peat is a natural fibre derived from coconut husks. Since coconut trees grow in abundance in India, its use is environment friendly. It has tremendous water retention capacity and cannot be easily over-watered. It helps soil aeration and provides for a healthy root system. Because it is lightweight, it's a good option for rooftop gardens housed on roofs that haven't been treated to bear the extra weight. However, since coco peat doesn't provide any nutrients of its own -- it could in fact draw some of the nutrition away from the plant -- regular fertilizing is important.

Equipped with plenty of coco peat and compost this year, I've begun planting my seeds in my new potting soil. If my soil recipe works well, I shall post it. Here is my homemade seed starter tray - a discarded egg carton. The seeds were from a coloured capsicum that I dried at home. The  >90% germination rate indicates that I'm on the right track. While I like to start all my plants from seed, the lemon and curry leaf trees are going to be exceptions. I've got saplings of the two as the right seeds are hard to find.
Capsicum Seedlings: 11/12 Sprouts in a Converted Egg Carton
More about them and other new plants in future posts. Till then, happy gardening!
A Sunny Zinnia

Friday, 30 December 2011

My Holiday in Vizag

This month, I've missed out on the many happenings in Blogosphere. My blogging hiatus was because of my three-week long holiday to Vizag, where my parents live. Three weeks is a long time and Vizag is a beautiful place. And so there's plenty I'd like to share in this post.
Picturesque Vizag
Vizag is a scenic city on the east coast of India. Bounded by the Bay of Bengal on the east  and dotted with many hills, this once fishing hamlet is now a major industrial hub. Although I've spent most of my growing-up years in Vizag, every year when I return, the city still throws surprises at me. And so it was this year too. This time, I happened to pay my first visit to INS Kurusura, India's only submarine museum. It was also the first time we visited Tenneti Park. This is a delightful park located high above sea level, but from where a couple of paths will lead you all the way to a quiet little beach. The spruced-up Jatara with its newly installed life-like statues had me dropping my jaw.
At Tenneti Park: My son had fun going down three long slides all the way to the sea.
(Only the steps are visible in this picture.)
These Bullocks Ain't Real
Here are more snapshots of our time in Vizag at the different parks and beaches.
Indian Christmas Tree at VUDA Park (The park I frequented as a child).

Father and Son at the Quiet Rishikonda Beach

Early Morning at the Ramakrishna Beach: My Mother with My Son
Vizagites take ample advantage of the city's many scenic spots, especially during Karthik Masam, which is after Diwali. Karthik Masam is the traditional picnic season, when hordes of families and groups can be seen to descend on every possible picnic spot.

One such picnic spot recently developed is Jatara, which attempts to showcase rural Andhra and promote folk arts.
Sculpture at Jatara: Village Belles at the Well
Sculpture at Jatara: Girls Playing Traditional Games on a Charpoy
Located amidst a reserve forest and flanked by tall green hills is the 625 acre Indira Gandhi Zoological Park. It is home to many exotic animals including lions, hippos and Himalayan bears.
Sirish, the White Tiger
Some Interesting Pictures of Vizag's Flora and Fauna

Custard Apple-shaped Dustbin at a Park
Jumbo Lemon Sourced from the Farmers' Market. One of these = 6 limes.
Birds and Beasts
Rooster at Jatara
Emus at the Zoo
Sambar Deer Against the Backdrop of a Banyan Tree
Terracotta Pony
Giant Grasshoppers

A trip to Vizag is incomplete without visiting the Kailash Giri hill. As the name indicates, Kailash Giri is a hill-top park that has a massive Siva-Parvati statue. What sets it apart from other hills are its gardens, a rope-way, a circular train, a non-conventional energy park and plenty of kid attractions. Overlooking the Bay of Bengal, it offers several panoramic views of the city. 
View from Kailash Giri
The Cable Car at Kailash Giri is Extremely Popular
The hills, the beaches and its affable inhabitants make Vizag an endearing place. Yet, behind the apparent beauty, the city harbours some ugly secrets. The air and water pollution in Vizag has been going from bad to worse over the years. During my visit this time, there were local newspaper reports of hundreds of fish dying near the Shipyard. To be precise, two tons of mackerel fish had died, presumably due to the unchecked release of industrial effluents into the sea.
Fog or Smog?
Most of the city's pollution can be attributed to the steel plant, the oil refinery, the port trust, and several other factories that border the city. People are finally waking up to the industrial damage and questioning unbridled growth. On the penultimate day of our holiday, the whole family had packed up for a trip to the Anantagiri hills, a two-hour drive from Vizag. Midway, we found ourselves stranded when a huge group of tribal farmers had blocked the road (the only one to the hills) as a mark of protest. They were protesting against the destructive mining activities in the region and were determined to send back a government delegation (and everyone else) who were visiting that day. While we were rather disappointed to turn back, I believe those farmers may in fact have been doing us a favour. Our trees, hills and beaches need to be protected and unfortunately road blocks and hartals seem to be an effective way.

My green wishlist for 2012: a greener rooftop garden and more importantly, a greener, cleaner planet.