Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Good News From My Garden

There’s some good news! A crow couple, which lives adjacent to my building, is expecting triplets.  They have a nest atop a coconut tree, which I can peek into from the stair case landing of the third floor. The would-be parents are guarding the eggs round the clock. But on this rare occasion, the parents were away and I managed to take two good photos of the pale green eggs in their nest.

Three Crow's Eggs
Nearly Hidden From View
Despite the scorching heat in the afternoon, the evenings are often cool and pleasant. Occasionally we even have a spell of rain. Early in the week, when it was about to rain, this Kingfisher seemed rapturous. It went about shrieking “Kee Kee Kee Keeeee”, almost begging me to take a picture of it. So I obliged.
White Breasted Kingfisher
In my earlier post, Birds from My Window, I’d mentioned the rare sighting of the Lesser Golden-backed Woodpecker. Well, I recently spotted it for the second time. It was right above me, but I didn’t have my camera handy. By the time I went up and down three floors for my camera, the bird had moved away, thanks to the crows. But here is a zoomed in, long shot of the beauty.

Lesser Golden-Backed Woodpecker
Coming to the flora in my garden. The suspense with regard to my brinjal is over.  And it is…. it is the small, round, purple variety. It was delicious, almost melting, as I had it in my sambar yesterday.
Purple Brinjal Drenched in the Rain
Let me sign off with pictures from the balcony garden and the garden downstairs.

Pomegranate Blooms
Bunches of Pink Ixora flowers
Spotted Leaves and Floor: Caladium Plant

Friday, 24 June 2011

Say "Chillieees"

I was born and mostly raised in the land of Chillies – Andhra Pradesh. The typical Andhraite loves his food searingly hot and spicy. Often, after a traditional Andhra meal, my mouth and fingers would burn for long time. My gut would be on fire and I would have to douse it with a large cup of curd or butter milk.  Yet in my own home, chillies were sparingly used.  So I never quite honed my taste buds to savour these peppers. That was until I grew my own. Growing vegetables has made me deeply appreciative of the food I eat. I’ve become more aware of their freshness and taste. As for chillies, they’ve regained their rightful place in the kitchen.
Freshly Harvested Green Chillies
When my neighbour was growing chillies, she offered me a young seedling, which I readily accepted. The seedling has grown into a large bushy plant now and is quite prolific. When young, the chilly is light green, has a wrinkled appearance and is rather long, often with a twisted end. Later, it turns a beautiful bright red. It could very well be the Indian Jwala (volcano) variety but I’m not sure. I’m hoping that a reader will help me identify it correctly. Googling hasn’t quite helped; instead I’ve come across this great link on some chilly FAQs, which I’d like to share with you. It has some useful tips on how to preserve chillies for a longer time, how to reduce the burning sensation when handling them, etc.
Tiny, White Chilly Bloom
Chilli Plant with Chillies
For my small family, which consumes few chillies, this single plant is all we need. One advantage of having your own chilly plant is that you can harvest chillies as per your tolerance levels. Most chillies turn hotter as they mature. Having my own plant now makes it’s very easy for me to choose a tender young chilly that’s just the degree of hotness that will suit my three-year-old. If my green chillies are left longer on the plant, they turn a fiery red with a hotness that’s mind numbing. When I bit into a fresh red chilly from my plant, for a few minutes, I didn’t know what hit me. It seemed like a volcano had erupted in my mouth.
Tender, Young Chillies: Less Hot
Red Chilly on the Plant
Colour Contrasts: Red Chilly Drying and Yellow Spotted Insect
Though fresh red chillies can be ground and used in Thai red curry pastes and similarly spicy hot preparations, I prefer to use them whole, after drying. They seem a lot tamer that way. The standard South Indian seasoning I frequently use, calls for whole dry red chillies, mustard seeds and curry leaves fried for just a few seconds in hot oil. If done right, the aroma of this seasoning is heavenly. There are so many more exciting ways to use chillies: a hint of green chillies in jam or fruit juice, spicy hot chutneys, finger licking stuffed red chilly pickles, green chilly ice cream, chilly Bajjis on a rainy day, Mexican chocolate and chilly sauce and I’ve even heard of chilly beer.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Brinjal and Other Blooms

My Brinjal plant has bloomed for the first time this season and I'm really excited. Not knowing what variety of brinjal I've planted, I've been waiting for the fruit for a while. I'll soon get my answer.
Brinjal Flower
Brinjal Bud
Here are my ladies finger blooms wishing me "Good Morning!". It's the second season. And though the earlier ant infestation has diminished on its own, the fruits are markedly smaller this time.
Ladies Finger Flowers
A Beetle on this Flower
The papaya tree in our shared garden is blooming.
Papaya flower

It's been planted too close to the wall and I was afraid that it wouldn't survive. Yet here it is, and it's fruiting.
Papaya Tree
 I'll sign off with a picture of my purple heart flowers in the balcony garden.

Purple Heart

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Tough Nut to Crack

My recent trip to Auroville was very fruitful, quite literally. With summer fruits abounding, people freely offered us many fruits. Freebie fruits earned were: Jackfruit, Papaya and Cashew nuts. But this post is mostly about cashew nuts.
Cashew Nuts
Auroville, is dotted with many organic farms that grow cashew nuts, among other things. With the recent media attention on the deadly endosulphan usage on cashew nut trees, I believe Auroville's cashews are prized nuts. But in Auroville, they do not seem to think so; cashew nuts strewn on the road, probably never to be picked, were a common sight.  With the realization that the fallen fruit would probably rot, I picked up a handful.
Cashew Fruit and Flowers

Now for some facts. There are two parts to the cashew fruit: the soft cashew apple and the hard cashew nut. The actual cashew kernel that we eat is the "seed " found inside a hard shell. In Goa, the cashew apple pulp is fermented to make a drink called "Feni". Though cashew nuts are relished all over the world, cashew apples are not so popular, in part because they aren't easily transportable. Vietnam, India and Brazil are the top cashew producers. 
Red Ripe Cashew Apple

I've never cracked open cashew nuts before so I called my mother. Having grown up in a house full of cashew trees, she knows how to extract them. She explained to me the traditional method of roasting them. All the fallen cashew nuts are picked up, usually by kids and placed in a pile of palm leaves. The pile is then lit and an adult turns the cashews around constantly with a long stick, to avoid scorching them. Strict adult supervision is needed as an oil is released; this oil is rather toxic and can easily catch fire. Cashew Nut Shell Liquid (CNSL) is a highly  allergenic oil that can cause severe, even life-threatening reactions.
Cashew Nuts
My Cashew Kernel Extraction Kit
Since I had only a handful of cashews I decided to crack them. Yet, even this exercise had to be performed outdoors with due care. With gloves and  glasses  I made sure I avoided any contact with the toxic CNSL. The fruits of my labour are crushed cashew nuts, which I will roast (to get rid of the toxic oil) and probably add to some Kheer. Perhaps, drying the nuts before I cracked them would have resulted in whole kernels. Still, I can console myself with the thought, that more experience doesn't necessarily yield whole cashews. The reason why we have different grades of cashews in our shops: full, half and broken, is that cashew kernels are not easy to extract, even by experts.
Tough Nuts to Crack: Crushed Cashew Nuts
There is another nut tree in our building complex: the Almond Tree. The almond, unlike cashew is safe to handle and far easier to extract. Here is a picture of a half-hearted attempt at cracking an almond. My little boy loves these nut extraction activities and wants to "grow big" to be able to do it himself.
Fresh Almonds
Here is another picture. Though it does look like a nut, it is the tangy Tamarind; another fruit I rescued from the ground.The tamarind shell breaks easily with just a little pressure. Even a kid can do this, which is nice because tart tamarind is a hit with children.
Tamarind from the Tree
Tamarind is derived from Arabic "Tamar-E-Hind" literally meaning Dates from India. Tamarind is used almost daily in South Indian cooking. In fact, India is both the largest producer and consumer of Tamarind in the world. 
Tamarind: Fruit, Seed and Shell

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Auroville: The City of Dawn

We’ve just got back from a short vacation in Auroville. For a nature lover, this town provides plenty to see and experience. Auroville, the international township, is a two hour ride from Chennai. Formed in 1968, this experimental township was built with the support of people from 124 nations. Even today, it draws like-minded people from all over the world. The community aspires towards "human unity" and a utopia as envisioned by "The Mother".
Commonly Found Flowers in Auroville -- From L to R: Pink Hibiscus, White Hibiscus, Blood Lily,
Crossandra, Unknown, Anthurium,
Unknown, Water Lily, Winka

Commonly Found Fruit in Auroville.
From L to R: Cashew, Pineapple, Lime,
Papaya, Banana, Mango
For me, Auroville is where I reconnect with nature; a place where I can rejuvenate my  mind, body and soul. It’s where I invariably meet interesting people from around the world. It’s where I can have scrumptious croissants and satisfying organic meals. It’s where I discover a new flower or leaf, every time I take a walk.  It’s where my son and I could sing the Bare Necessities Song with true feeling.
My Son Calls These Red Cockroaches!
Pretty Leaves: Name Unknown
Though the guest house we lived in was basic and lacked modern comforts, it was enveloped in greenery and natural beauty. And despite the unhurried pace and rustic charm of the place, there are so many fresh ideas and innovations taking shape in Auroville. If ever, the best of the old world meets the best of the new, it will be here.
Outdoor Dining Area at the Guest House
Horseman at the Village Temple
Energising Water
Harnessing the Wind: One of the Many Wind Mills
Being used to living in an overcrowded city, even the everyday rural sights of Auroville, struck me as marvelous. Sights included: a goat casually giving birth by the roadside, a grown cow threatening to butt an annoying dog, a temple pond completely covered with several hundred pink lotuses and clusters of cashew nut trees tempting me with their low-hanging fruits. While I savoured these visuals, I wasn’t always prepared to capture them with my lens. However, here are a few good shots I did manage to take.
Golden Shower Tree

Modern Art: Wasp Nest
Low-hanging Fruit: Jackfruit Tree
Puppies at the Auroville Bakery
While we spent most of our time at Auroville, we also visited nearby Pichavaram, where the world’s second largest mangrove forests are located. Here’s a link of the virtual tour of the forest. (Click on the autorotate option for a 360 degree view.) Mangrove forest trees are unique in that they can tolerate the high salinity of the sea water that they are rooted in. Besides the captivating beauty of the forest, it has a protective role to play as well. The Pichavaram forest has earned the gratitude of locals as it protected their coast during the Killer Tsunami of 2004. It's hard to imagine the vastness and beauty of Pichavaram through these pictures, but here they are all the same.
Pichavaram Mangrove Forest
Rowing Through One of the Passages

Specially Adapted Root System
Note: I shall be happy if you can help me identify any of the unnamed flora and fauna or correct me if I've been wrong.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Beloved Basil

I’ve always felt that many Hindu rituals are simply good eco-conservation practices. In the old days, Hindus regarded snakes, mice and monkeys as God’s incarnation. So even today, despite the menace these creatures can be, we’ve learnt to love them or at the very least, tolerate them. The early morning practice of  rice flour kolams in front of our homes, which attracted sparrows and insects, was another such eco-sensitive tradition. Many of these traditions are fast going out of fashion. Yet, one of them is very much alive: the tradition of worshiping the Tulsi or Holy Basil plant. Though I am not a Tulsi worshiper myself, I still revere it for its amazing healing properties
Basil Seedlings
Here is my Tulsi plant. It is the Krishna Tulsi variety with dark, purplish leaves.
Krishna Tulsi: In the Sun
Here is another picture of the same species. Owing to its bright green leaves, you might assume it is the Rama Tulsi

Krishna Tulsi: In the Shade
Would you believe it, if I told you that in truth, both plants belong to exactly the same species and are exactly the same age. In fact, both plants are from the same batch of seeds that I germinated. The first plant sits in the sun. The second one, which I offered as a seedling to a neighbor, sits in the shade. This is a remarkable example of how the duration of sunshine can affect a plant’s appearance and growth so markedly. My neighbor, however, suspects that I’m treating my plant with some secret potion!
The Real "Rama Tulsi"
Ayurveda attributes so many curative properties to Tulsi. So I’m not surprised when Indians take it to ward off all kinds of ailments:  colds, swine flu, stress, headaches, stomach aches, skin infections, etc, etc.  But I was surprised to hear an Iranian restaurateur strongly recommending Tulsi seeds for health reasons. She revealed this as she offered us a most delightful drink of guava juice sprinkled with plenty of tulsi seeds soaked in barley water.
Tulsi Flowers and Seeds
Speaking of Basil, here is a picture of my Sweet Basil.  Eight out of Ten omelets in my house are made with sweet basil, so you can imagine how much I love this herb. As for homemade pizzas and pasta, I can't imagine them without this herb.
Sweet Basil
Chennai's climate is absolutely ideal for Basil. Other than having to pinch off its flowers (to encourage branching), there’s nothing I really need to do to keep my Basil happy and growing.