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.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Camouflage - II

In one of my earlier posts, I'd described how I stumbled on a leaf insect. Well, it seems like leaf insects are dime a dozen. One just needs to look through their cunning camouflage.
The other day, I spotted this green leaf insect resting on my Sweet Basil plant. Its spindly legs were the exact hue and appearance of a thin woody basil stem, while other parts of its body bore the illusion of mottled basil leaves.
Spot Me If You Can
 Green Leaf Insect Wandering Violin Mantis
in Belly-up Position
The next morning I went to check on the insect, not quite expecting to still find it. I was in for a big surprise, when not only did I find my original green leaf insect, I also found two other brown leaf insects. All three insects were pressed against each other. My theory is that the two brown ones were males who were fighting for the lone green female. In the evening, I found one of the brown insects all by himself in a corner, while the other brown chap was sticking to the green one. Isn't that how it usually is in the animal kingdom.
There are 3 of Us Here: One Green and Two Brown
In a Tussle?
I now believe that I've probably brushed past many a leaf insect without a second glance, owing to its brilliant camouflage.

PS: I'm off on holiday, so you may not hear from me for a while. 

Update: I had incorrectly identified the above insects as Leaf Insects. I believe the insect is actually the Wandering Violin Mantis.

Monday, 28 November 2011

A Splash of Colour

The unrelenting rain has taken a toll on our garden. There are broken branches everywhere. The paths are slushy and slippery. The ground is waterlogged. And my potato experiment is most likely to fail, for the third time this year. 
Garden in Disarray
Waterlogged Potato Plant

But in this post, I'm choosing to focus only on the beauty that's still around us. Granting a respite from the dark, grey skies are a few bright and colourful blooms in the garden. Here is my first Zinnia flower. I'm grateful that it obliged to bloom in such wet weather. While in most regions, gardeners strictly follow a sowing and harvest season, in Chennai we do get away without following the calendar. With the exception of the monsoon months, throughout the year, the weather in Chennai is much the same: hot and humid. If the plants aren't weak and immature when the monsoons strike, most plants can tide over.
Another plant that's just begun blooming is my Butter Bean. When a small batch of fresh butter beans were forgotten and too old to be eaten, instead of throwing them away in the compost bin, I carelessly scattered them in a spare container. While the squirrels destroyed every other seedling that sprouted, this vine seems to have made it.
Butter Bean Bloom
Drenched Yellow Bells
The Yellow Bells and Morning Glories are in full bloom. Yellow Bells, with their delicate fragrance, are terrific bee magnets. But their fragrance doesn't carry very far. For fragrance that spreads further, there is the Rangoon Creeper. This creeper has climbed up our bare, leafless Gulmohur tree. Both these are hardy plants, which require little care, but reward you with plenty.
Yellow Bells / Yellow Trumpet Flowers in Profusion
Morning Glory: One of the 1000 Species
Rangoon Creeper
All the flowers I've mentioned here are sun lovers. So unless the sun is out soon, the flowers will all be gone. The thought makes me want to sing my son's nursery rhyme: Oh Mr. Sun, Sun, Mr. Golden Sun, please shine down on me.
Sun-loving Scarlet Cordia Tree

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Monsoon Skyscapes

Right now, the Northeast or winter monsoons are sweeping through Tamil Nadu. While we felt the first few thundershowers around Diwali last month, more squally weather is anticipated till the end of this year. The sky often changes colours swiftly from dark grey to clear blue. Here are a few pictures of the sky, taken in the past few days.

Looming Dark Thunderclouds
Next Morning: Clear Skies and A Rainbow
The term "Monsoon" is derived from the Arabic "Mausam", meaning season. While there are monsoons experienced in other parts of the world, the Indian Monsoons are the most spectacular, providing the country with most of its rain. Here's a layman's perspective of the workings of the monsoon. We have two monsoon seasons: the Southwest monsoon or the summer monsoon and the Northeast monsoon or the winter monsoon.

In summer, while the Asian continent is steadily getting heated, the surrounding giant ocean does not get similarly heated. Reason: land heats up and cools down much faster than water. The difference in heat between the land and water bodies is huge, since on the one hand we have the large Asian continent and on the other, we have an equally vast Indian ocean. As the hot air above the land rises, a low pressure is created. The cooler air from above the ocean rushes in to fill the void. Laden with moisture from the oceans, winds (blowing from the south west to the north east) hit the Indian coast by the end of summer. The date of arrival is around June 1st. This is the summer or Southwest monsoons.

Later in the year when the sun retreats, the land cools rapidly, while the ocean still holds its heat. The result is a high pressure zone over the land, which causes the wind from the Himalayas to sweep down towards the Indian Ocean. These winds pick up moisture from the Bay of Bengal and bring rain to Tamil Nadu and other parts; these are known as the Northeast monsoon or the retreating monsoon.

Southern Sky at 11 a.m.: Cloudy Turmoil

Western Sky at 11 a.m.: Azure Blue Skies
Above are pictures from yesterday, taken at exactly the same time. While parts of the sky seemed to be in turmoil, when I turned around, the scene was much calmer.

Evening Sky at 6 p.m.: A Beautiful Sunset
By evening, the sky had cleared up a bit and was a brilliant crimson. There was little hint of the torrential rain that was to follow at night.
Soft Pink Glow
The monsoons are rather erratic and highly unpredictable.  In fact, I read here, in this rather informative article, how the only predictability about the monsoon is its unpredictability. Indian farmers are hugely dependent on the monsoons. Yet, our meteorologists give us little and sometimes misleading information about this annual mega weather event. The monsoons are poorly understood and need to be studied more. With more research and better technology in the future, I hope India will have improved weather forecasts. Until then, many Indians may be more content relying on astrological predictions rather than predictions from the met department.

Linked to Skywatch 

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Drumstick and Other Edible Flowers

View from the Roof: Drumstick Tree in Bloom
The Drumstick tree is an incredible tree. Nearly every part of the tree is edible: leaves, flowers, pods, seeds, roots and even bark. Right now, one of the five drumstick trees in our common garden is in bloom. The flowers I discovered only recently, are not just edible; they're delicious. If you're lucky to have a drumstick tree, it wont hurt to occasionally sample a bunch or two. But since the flowers go on to produce pods, it's inadvisable to amass all the flowers.
Drumstick (Moringa) Flowers
With input from my mother, here's a simple Drumstick Flower recipe that I devised.
Ingredients for My Drumstick Flower Recipe
Drumstick flowers - 2 cups
Freshly grated coconut - 1 cup
Green chillies - 2
Cumin seeds - 2 tsps
Oil for frying
Turmeric - 1/4 tsp or as per taste
Salt - As per taste
Grind the coconut, chillies and cumin to a coarse paste. In a pan, fry the paste in oil for a few minutes. Pick and thoroughly wash the drumstick flowers. Add the flowers and a little water to the pan. Add salt and turmeric. Cover and cook till done. The dish should be ready in about 10 minutes.
Cooked Drumstick Flowers
The flowers taste a bit like mushrooms or banana flowers. Banana flowers are however quite laborious to prepare and can be astringent, if not cooked right.
Fennel Basking in the Sun
Another 100% edible plant, from flower to bulb is Fennel or Saunf. My Fennel plant on the rooftop is currently in full bloom. The flowers along with the seeds are delightfully sweet, which are food not just for humans but a variety of insects. Mid morning, when the sun is shining brightly, there's a swarm of insects hovering over the fennel flowers.

In India, fennel is most popular as an after-meal mouth freshener and digestive aid. It also features in several Kashmiri and Gujarati cuisines. Surprisingly, the spice doesn't figure very much in south Indian cooking, despite the fact that it grows very easily here. Just sprinkle a few store-bought seeds in the soil and you'll be rewarded with plenty of fragrant fennel. If you plan to grow them in containers on the rooftop like me, you may want to water them twice a day on very sunny days, lest they wilt. Otherwise, fennel appears to be hardy and well suited to Chennai's hot climate.
Golden Fennel Flowers
There are a few other flowers in our garden that fall into the edible category.
Aparajita or Butterfly Pea: I recently planted Aparajita in one of my containers. It's another easy-to-grow plant, which will add colour to a garden, perennially. The flowers are deep blue and have a unique shell shape. While I am attracted to the flowers, so are the neighbourhood squirrels. Every morning, there may be several aparajitas that have bloomed. But the squirrels tramp around and by evening they are reduced to shreds. These flowers are edible and are used to colour food. At Auroville, you may be able to buy yourself a bottle of Aparajita syrup, which has a refreshing, rather unique flavour.
Hibiscus: Another source of food colour and syrups are hibiscus flowers. They're also used to flavour tea. But I doubt the hibiscus flowers from our common garden have ever found their way into a kitchen. We mostly use it for worship.
Hibiscus rosa sinensis
Jasmine: The queen of fragrances, this flower is used to scent tea. Recently, I received a tin of Taiwanese Jasmine tea from my neighbour. The delicate fragrance and flavour of the tea was heavenly, almost intoxicating. Jasmine Tea is a specialty tea from China that is supposed to have health benefits. Having savored Jasmine tea, I wonder why we don't have other Jasmine flavoured food and drink.
Arabian Jasmine. Other Names: Moghra, Malli, Mallika, Mulla, Sambac,Yasmeen, Sampaguita
While there are over 200 species — both shrubs and vines — belonging to the Jasmine genus, our garden has just two varieties. We have two Arabian Jasmine bushes, which sadly rarely ever bloom. (Recorded just two blooms this year.)
Star Jasmine Vine
And then we have a Star Jasmine vine, which has climbed all four stories of our building. These flowers aren't as fragrant as most jasmine, but they're always around, dangling like pretty white stars.

There are so many edible flowers around us. But how does one really go about using them in the kitchen? I'm on the look out for flower recipes. If you have a flower recipe to share, please drop your comments.