Anyone for a take-away?: Aravind Adiga’s ‘The White Tiger’

Pizza mix

My favourite bookshop in England is Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland (http://www.barterbooks.co.uk/). It is a magical emporium of second hand books, which are stashed in every nook and cranny of a converted railway station. My love for this shop may have something to do with the copy of Louis MacNeice’s poem, ‘Posterity’, emblazoned on one of the walls (!!!) and the lines from T.S. Eliot which snake their way around the tops of the wooden bookcases. Amongst the more typical titles found in any second hand book shop (including The Da Vinci Code, which I recently heard that certain charity shops are asking people not to donate) the dedicated bibliophile can find untold literary gems.

On a whim, this particular bibliophile (having sent her husband to the train-carriage-themed coffee shop for an hour or two) purchased a copy of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. Born in India, journalist and novelist Adiga migrated to Australia and studied in the USA and in England. The White Tiger was his first novel and won the Man Booker Prize in 2008.

It’s a risky thing to give away the ending of a novel at its beginning, but Adiga takes this plunge – and so I’m not worried about any spoilers here! Written in the form of letters from a Bangalore-based entrepreneur to the Chinese Premier, this novel tells a narrative of modern India moving from ‘the darkness into the light’. The (probably unreliable) narrator – Balram – doesn’t balk at describing the seediness and deception he experiences and participates in as he makes his way from a life as the son of a rickshaw-puller to that of an international businessman. ‘I am tomorrow’, Balram declares in the opening pages (p.6).

Pizza

And tomorrow, according to this novel, has a lot to do with America. In food terms, pizza replaces curry in Balram’s culinary preferences. For most of the novel, Balram describes his life as a chauffeur to a rich Indian businessman, who has lived in America and has recently returned to Delhi with his American wife. Both of them love pizza. But the first mention of pizza in the novel caught me unawares. Balram explains how he had to serve his employers ‘some of that stinking stuff that comes in cardboard boxes’. It was only later in the chapter when Ashok and Pinky Madam tease their servant for his pronunciation of ‘pizza’ (‘It’s not piJJa. It’s pizza. Say it properly.’) that I realised what they were eating (p.155). To become the international entrepreneur he wants to be, Balram has to embrace this imported foodstuff, as well as the new language that comes with it. Adiga shows us that, having once been colonised by Britain, this suburb of Delhi is now being culturally colonised by the USA.

Although he never quite gets the hang of pronouncing ‘pizza’ with a double ‘z’, Balram tells us of his adopted son’s success in this – ‘He can say “pizza” the way Mr Ashok said it. And doesn’t he love eating pizza – that nasty stuff?’ (p.316).  The next generation completes the transition from ‘a nice hot curry with juicy chunks of dark meat’ (p.158) to pizza; from ‘darkness to light’; from independent India to Americanised India. There is a mixture of pride and repulsion in Balram’s tone as he describes his adopted son, a product of his own desires and manipulation.

Today’s recipe is, of course, for pizza. This recipe is not for the take-away style meal Balram both desires and hates – but it was taught to me by an American! Enjoy!

Recipe

Ingredients: makes 2 medium pizzas
500g strong white bread flour (or 250g strong white bread flour and 250g strong wholemeal bread flour)
1 tsp yeast
300 ml water
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp oil
Tomato puree
4 tomatoes
1 onion
Choose your own toppings – I used a yellow pepper and mushrooms
Grated cheese – again, use your favourite. I used cheddar.
Herbs and seasoning to taste – I used oregano, chives, pepper, salt
Method
1.       Mix the ingredients for the base in a large bowl until they come together into a claggy dough.
2.       Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5-10 minutes. Or pop the dough in a mixer with a dough hook for 5 minutes.
3.       Return the dough to the bowl and cover with a damp teatowel. Leave to rise in a warm place for 1 hour or until doubled in size.
4.       Knead the dough for 5 minutes and then shape on 2 greased metal trays. Cover and leave in a warm place for 30 minutes – 1 hour.
5.       In the meantime, prepare the topping. Fry the onion and then add the rest of the veg and tomato puree.
6.       Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C.
7.       When the dough is risen, add the topping to the pizza and scatter with grated cheese.
8.       Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes.

 

‘Neither East nor West’: Chicken Tikka in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)

As it often happens, it is not quite the best lines of poetry that are remembered in popular culture: rather, I sometimes think, the most awkward-sounding. Kipling’s phrases ‘East is East’ and ‘West is West’ (from ‘The Ballad of East and West’, 1899) have been heavily exploited over the years. Interestingly, the former phrase seems to have inspired a lot of restaurant owners across the globe, and both are also referred to in the tragicomic adventures of the Anglo-Pakistani Khan family in the film East is East and its sequel West is West. However, the ballad continues (and ends) on quite a different note: while ‘East is East’ and ‘West is West’ and they shall never meet (at least geographically), Kipling continues saying that when two equals meet, ‘there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth’ (l. 3, l. 95). Differences are intriguing, valuable, and ultimately enrich us. This blog post, in fact, would not have been possible without an ‘East meets West’ kind of collaboration (or ‘West meets East’, if you like):

  • Long ago, Franzi, from Germany, indicated Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a book she would like to see us make recipes from.
  • Much later (sorry!) I, Nico, originally from Italy, read it and much much later (very sorry!) made a recipe from this book.
  • Natasha, originally from India, gave me a beautiful box full of REAL Indian spices and ingredients (as opposed to what you get in the UK, or in Europe, for that matter), which have made my adventuring into further culinary fields possible.
  • Anum, originally from Pakistan, shared with me the recipe for her chicken tikka (which is the recipe I selected from The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and is also a reader of Mohsin Hamid’s books (as well as a follower of our blog, like all the other characters of this story).

 

It is not just serendipity that both East and West should be involved in the reviewing of the bestseller The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The story told by Mohsin Hamid is one of an Eastern man’s failed dream of the West, and perhaps can also be one of the Western reader’s failed expectations of the East, too. As the reader subconsciously becomes the ‘you’, who the protagonist Changez is constantly referring to (an ‘American sir’), we are lured to listen to the story of Changez’s life in the United States, much like Odysseus’ mermaids, or the ancient mariner of Coleridge’s ballad. Changez’s tale is as unavoidable as it is compelling, as charming as it is sinister, and as carefully crafter as it strives to appear casual. Changez takes us through the ups and downs of his life in America as a muslim at the dawn of 9/11: his prestigious education, his dangerous beard, his failed, sick American lover, and his morally ambiguous job. As dusk comes down on Lahore and on Changez and the reader having tea, a meal is ordered, which is seen to cause immediate suspicion in our Western self as the silent listener of Changez’s eloquent yet extravagant talking. As opposed to Americans perhaps, Changez says:

 

‘[W]e Pakistanis tend to take an inordinate pride in our food. Here in Old Anarkali [a neighbourhood in Lahore] that pride is visible in the purity of the fare on offer; not one of these worthy restaurateurs would consider placing a western dish on his menu. No, we are surrounded instead by the kebab of mutton, the tikka of chicken, the stewed foot of goat, the spiced brain of sheep! These, sir, are predatory delicacies, delicacies imbued with a hint of luxury, of wanton abandon. Not for us the vegetarian recipes one finds across the border to the east, nor the sanitized, sterilized, processed meats so common in your homeland! Here we are not squeamish when it comes to facing the consequences of our desire.’ (p. 115)

 

In another occasion in the novel, the narrator half-ironically warns his companion against the local food, as he thinks the Westerner will fear it as ‘poisonous’. According to Changez, the “predatory” and “non-squeamish” nature of Pakistani cuisine is what distinguishes it from that of bordering India and of the familiar United States; and to fit all stereotypes, I had to select ‘the tikka of chicken’ as the dish to prepare for this blog post, indeed perhaps the least adventurous of all these, and the most common to the Westerner!

Enjoy our chicken tikka, and no reason to be squeamish about it!

chicken-and-spices-2

Recipe (from our blog friend Anum, tried by Nico)

Ingredients (for 2 people):

2 chicken pieces (I used chicken breast, but even better would be chicken leg or thigh)

4tbsp plain (or Greek-style) yogurt

1/2 tsp garlic paste

1/2 tsp ginger paste

3 tbsp lemon juice

1/2 tsp crushed black pepper

2tbsp single cream

1 tsp red chilli powder

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1/2 tsp garam masala powder

1 tsp dried coriander leaves

1 tbsp sunflower/vegetable oil

 

Directions:

  1. Place a few small cuts on the chicken.
  2. Whip the yogurt and cream together in a large bowl and add the chicken.
  3. Then add all the other ingredients together and marinate for up to 2 hours.
  4. Once the chicken is marinated, cook in the oven at a temperature of 200 degrees for about 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked (this may vary according to your oven). It may be that the chicken gives off water whilst cooking; if so, drain the water and continue baking in the oven.
  5. After the chicken is cooked, to give it the smoky flavour traditionally associated with chicken tikka, you can take a piece of charcoal and place it on the stove until it glows red. Then place it on the chicken and cover it with a lid or plate to infuse the smoke. I haven’t tried this as I didn’t have any charcoal, but it sounds exciting and it gives the chicken the smoky, barbecue flavour otherwise missed when using the oven to cook it.
  6. Anum recommends a mint or tamarind chutney to go with it if you like!

 

References

Mohsin Hamid. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. London: Penguin Books, 2007.

Perfecting Pfannkuchen with Lauren Owen (The Quick, 2014)

Recipe

When Nico and I decided to make pfannkuchen, I felt more than a little trepidation. Lauren’s characters eat tasty baked potatoes, dripping with melted butter, or they tuck into hearty winter soups. Although I could have produced a recipe for either of these with ease, Nico felt that was a little boring. So we choose pfannkuchen instead. There are two types of this German sweet – one which resembles crepes (again, I could probably have made this easily) and one which is like a doughnut. Lauren told us she imagined the characters eating the latter.

So I found a recipe online and attempted to make pfannkuchen. It wasn’t exactly a success (although my husband still ate the resultant sweet dough concoction). So I changed the recipe and made them again. It went perfectly. The pfannkuchen I made might not be exactly authentic, but they are not difficult to make and they taste delicious.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ingredients

Note: you also need a pan with about 1 inch of oil. A sugar thermometer is really helpful.

150g plain flour
150g strong white bread flour
2 egg yolks
1 tsp dried active yeast
120ml warm milk + 1 tbsp oil
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp caster sugar (for coating)
6 tbsp jam – optional, for filling

Directions

Mix the dried ingredients together in a large bowl. Add the salt to the opposite side of the bowl to the yeast.
Add the wet ingredients and mix into a rough dough.
Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5-10 minutes (or do this for about 5 minutes in a mixer).
Return to the bowl and cover with cling film or a damp tea-towel.
Leave until doubled in size (this takes about an hour).
For unfilled pfannkuchen, divide the dough into 12 and shape into balls. I then put these on a silicon/baking paper/Teflon sheet and left them to rise for another 20 minutes.
For filled pfannkuchen, divide the dough into 24 balls. Make each one into a disc. Spoon some jam into the middle of 12 of the discs. Then brush some egg white around the edge of the disc and put the lid on top. Press round the edges to seal. Put them on a baking paper sheet and leave to rise for 20 minutes.
Heat the oil to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t let it go above 325 degrees. Fry each pfannkuchen for 3-5 minutes. If the oil is too hot, the pfannkuchen will brown quickly but remain raw inside (something I found out!). Don’t panic – you can microwave the ones that go wrong.
Put the cooked pfannkuchen on a cooling rack for a minute, then roll in sugar.
Eat warm!

LitKit on the road: first stop, St Andrews


In 1988 Gill Fyffe gave birth to a daughter. Following complications, she was transfused with 4 units of blood. Although this was at the height of media frenzy about the dangers of contracting HIV, she was assured that the procedure would be safe.

In 1995 the Blood Transfusion Service contacted her to inform her that the blood may have been contaminated. Gill was then diagnosed with Hepatitis C. In the years which followed, Gill and her family struggled to cope with treatment for the infection (and subsequent debilitating side-effects), her loss of a promising teaching career, and a legal battle for justice or an acknowledgement of the government’s culpability. The family had to leave their beautiful Scottish cottage and move to London.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Earlier this year Gill published a memoir of her family’s courageous fight to recover from this devastating event. In the same month, Lord Penrose announced the findings of the Scottish inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, apologised for the mistakes which led to the use of unfit blood supplies. I (Amy) stole a few minutes’ conversation with Gill at her book launch on 24th March. In the recording below, Gill introduces her memoir and talks about apple crumble, apple cake and the ‘inevitable sponge’.

Apple Cake Recipe

Ingredients

175g butter
175g caster sugar
3 eggs
200g self-raising flour, sieved
50g ground almonds
80ml apple juice
400g diced apples
1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp ginger

A greased 20cm cake tin

Directions

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C.
2. Cream together the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl.
3. Beat the eggs and add to the mixing bowl. Add a spoonful of the self-raising flour to prevent the eggs from curdling
4. Add the rest of the flour, the ground almonds, and the spices. Mix.
5. Fold in the apple juice and diced apples.
6. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 30 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.

Apple Crumble

This recipe was given to me by a friend of Gill and is the one which features in her memoir.

Ingredients

1 lb cooking apples
3 oz brown sugar
1/2 tsp grated lemon rind
1 tbs water
2 oz butter
4 oz plain flour
2 oz caster sugar
1/4 tsp ground ginger

Directions

Peel and slice the apples. Put in a saucepan with the water, sugar and lemon rind. Cook over a medium heat until the apples are soft. Transfer into a greased oven-proof dish.

Rub the butter into the flour until it looks like fine breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and ginger. Mix well. Spread evenly over the apple and press down lightly.

Bake at 180 degrees C or 350 degrees F for 20 minutes.

Serve with custard or whipped cream.

 

How to eat a pomegranate: Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” (2003)

Pomegranate_013cr

A few weeks ago, I ate my first pomegranate. The first task was to open it. After watching quite a few YouTube videos about how best to consume this tricky but delectable fruit (there seems to be a range of hotly-contested viewpoints on this topic amongst home videographers) I decided to defy those who advocated a more complex method. I took a risk and just cut it open. I was amazed at the luscious crimson colour of the seeds and the drops of juice which slid down my knife. The taste was incredible.

This fruit is at the heart of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, which is perhaps one of the most popular novels published since the millennium. Its cover boasts that over 8 million people have read it and it is currently on the UK A level course in some schools.

I’m not one to argue with over 8 million people. This beautifully written and carefully crafted novel tells the recent history of Afghanistan through the eyes of Amir, who grows up in 1970s Kabul. He and his friend-servant, Hassan, spend the early years of the decade flying kites, reading, watching American films, and buying street food. Their favourite haunt is the top of a hill near Amir’s father’s luxury home. This is the site of an overgrown cemetery, with a pomegranate tree near the entrance. The boys claim the tree, carving their names and ‘sultans of Kabul’ into its bark, and eating its pomegranates.

As the boys eat the fruit, they read the story of Rostam and Sohrab from the Shahnameh. I am definitely not an expert in Persian literature, but I have found out that in this text, Rostam’s mother, Rudabah, is described as having a mouth and cheek as beautiful as a pomegranate. The fruit is therefore linked with the theme of lost mothers, which recurs throughout the novel.

In many cultures pomegranates conjure up ideas of abundance, fertility and happiness. In Judaism and Christianity, the pomegranate is said to decorate the robe of the High Priest after the Israelites left Egypt. Apparently pomegranates feature in Turkish and Persian wedding ceremonies. In the Qur’an, pomegranates are amongst the rewards given in paradise. If you visit http://www.pomwonderful.com/pomegranate-wellness/history/ you can find a long list of the religious and cultural uses of the pomegranate throughout history. These days, if you google ‘pomegranate’ you are more likely to find out about super-foods and diet plans than religious beliefs. But the idea is the same – the pomegranate is somehow associated with an abundance of life. Perhaps it is something to do with the overwhelming flavours and the dark beauty of the fruit’s skin. I can only imagine how much richer the fruit would be in the dry heat of Afghanistan rather than the damp cold of the north of England.

However, the pomegranate is also said to be the fruit on the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. That is, in some religions it is the fruit which led to death and the fall of mankind. In The Kite Runner the tree stands in a cemetery and so is reminiscent of death rather than life. And right from the beginning of the novel, the pomegranate symbolises the boys’ strained relationship and Amir’s petty jealousies. The fruit is described as ‘bloodred’, pointing forward to the violent events which are to come (don’t worry – I’m not going to spoil it for you here if you haven’t yet read it!). Later, Amir viciously pelts Hassan with overripe pomegranates.

Pomegranate_001cr

The early section of the novel draws to a close in a nightmare of political instability. Russia invades Afghanistan in 1979. The Taliban seize control in 1996. After this Hassan sits under the pomegranate tree in the cemetery and remembers his friendship with Amir. But the tree has grown barren, just as the vibrant street life of Kabul has been curtailed.

The contradictory history of the pomegranate – bringing both life and death – seems to sum up the main idea behind the novel. Amir and Hassan’s friendship is messy and far from ideal – like most of the relationships in The Kite Runner – but somehow it survives political upheaval and personal betrayal. And throughout the novel, even as relationships and cultures come to an end, new possibilities are opened up.

Because I was so overwhelmed by the absolutely fabulous taste of the pomegranate, there is no recipe this week. Just go and eat a pomegranate. I recommend just going for it. But, if you want to procrastinate, watch some YouTube videos about how best to cut them open.

Holes and histories: baguettes in Ciaran Carson’s ‘For All We Know’ (2008)

Belfast-born poet Ciaran Carson is one of the most accomplished wordsmiths to be found amongst the current generation of writers. Born in 1948, he has published over 29 volumes of poetry, prose and translations from Irish. Carson’s indefatigable flair for witty, convoluted, memorable story-telling is cemented in his 2008 volume, For All We Know. This is an absolutely beautiful and emotive novelistic sequence of not-quite-sonnets which retell the lives – and losses – of two lovers who meet just after a bomb goes off in 1970s Belfast. The sequence is narrated by one of the lovers, a Northern Irish writer who is recalling significant points in his relationship with the French woman (Nina).

Baguettes_004BWcr

The first poem is called ‘The Second Time Round’ and is a retelling of the lovers’ anniversary. Food is at the centre of their celebration. The poem’s opening lines describe the ‘stretch’ and ‘elasticity’ of baguettes and the crack as a baton is broken. The bread is described with a few, deftly-chosen and alliterative words which convey the sensory detail of the moment. When you eat or make a fresh baguette (the recipe is below), take a pause to crack it open so that you can indulge in the warm, freshly-baked scent of homemade bread. I absolutely love that moment.

With his usual attention to minute detail, Carson homes in on the air-holes within the baguette. Metaphorically, these are also the holes within the book’s disjointed storyline. These gaps and silences are as essential to the structure of the book as air-holes are to the structure of the perfect loaf of bread. At first, the reason for the elegiac undertone of ‘The Second Time Round’ is unclear. The identity of the lovers, the importance of the French words, and the significance of the patchwork quilt are equally inexplicable on a first reading of the sequence’s opening poem. These holes provide the narrative drive, as curiosity spurs the reader to piece together this splintered story and to find the most elusive of things – the truth which the narrator (and poet) is trying to communicate. For the protagonist, words are deceptive and truth resides only in what is known by the immediate experience of the senses. This is, perhaps, the reason for the intense description of the baguette at the very beginning of this story.

Baguettes_014cr

Half a century of violence lies behind the narrator’s inability to believe in anything beyond his own senses. The Second World War and the ‘Troubles’ (the euphemistic name for a period of sectarian violence in late twentieth-century Northern Ireland) loom large over the book. The breaking of the baguette in the opening poem delicately foreshadows the broken histories which unfold as the patchwork narrative progresses.

The appearance of a French baguette in a Northern Irish poem is indicative of a major theme in the work of Carson and many of his contemporary poets: the points of connection (or divergence) between cultures. Contemporary Irish poets have placed literary stepping stones across the world: one can travel to France with Derek Mahon, then to Russia with Tom Paulin, and on to China and Japan in the pages of Sinead Morrissey. These poets often seem to seek new and liberating perspectives by looking beyond the disputed borders of Ireland/Northern Ireland/Ulster/the UK and the tangled history of their own land. Such globe-trotting is indeed refreshing after decades of Irish and Northern Irish poems focussed mainly on home and the matter of Ireland.

To summarise: Carson is an amazing poet and this book comes with my (Amy’s) passionate recommendation. His narratives are compelling and his control of poetic form is consummate. And if you wish to recreate Carson’s emphasis on the senses in your own kitchen, have a go at making the recipe below. If you haven’t made bread before, it might take a few times to get it right. I certainly had a few disasters at the start! (And I still do.)

Baguettes_009cr

Recipe

Ingredients

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 350ml warm water
  • 1 tsp/7g instant dried yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • A couple of tablespoons oil OR about 25g butter

 

Directions

  1. Mix the flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl. Rub in the butter or stir in the oil.
  2. Add 300ml water and mix until the mixture starts to come together.
  3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. Add the remaining water as you knead the bread. It is quite a wet dough, so you may want to do this for 5 minutes if you have a dough hook and an electric mixer.
  4. Return the dough to the bowl and leave to rise for about an hour (or until doubled in size) in a warm place. Cover it with a wet teatowel or clingfilm. I sometimes turn the oven on for a few minutes (and then turn it off!!) and put the dough in there.
  5. Turn the dough out on your kneading surface and knock the air out. Knead for a few minutes.
  6. Shape the dough into 2-4 baguettes (depending on your desired size) and put them on a greased baking tray. Cover again and leave for a further hour, or until doubled in size.
  7. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade and put a dish full of water in the oven (the resultant steam will help the bread form a good crust).
  8. Uncover the baguettes and, using a pair of scissors or a sharp knife, carefully slash the top of each three times.
  9. Put in the oven for 25-30 minutes (depending on the size). They are best eaten immediately, but can be kept until the next day or frozen.