Black Stone Flower

Not long ago, may be a few months back, a recipe was found by chance that included a rather strange ingredient. This is all about that….

Black Stone Flower is one of the unusual spices in the Indian culinary repertoire. It is quite a rare dried flower and a dominant spice in Chettinad preparations.

Black Stone Flower or Dagad Phool (parmelia perlata) is a soft white, brown and black coloured lichen that gives the signature black color to various masalas like Goda Masala. Mildly leathery, it has a light musky, strong earthy aroma and a very dry, fluffy texture and feel to it. It is widely used in Chettinad cuisine and to some extent in Hyderabadi and Marathi cuisines. An edible lichen flora, which grows on trees, rocks and stones, when used in small quantities, it imparts a strong woody aroma and flavor to the preparation. For better results it must be roasted in a little oil to release its full aroma.

Ooty and Kodaikanal in the state of Tamil Nadu are places known to harbour this rare spice though no conclusions could be made on the place of domicile to this ‘spice’.

Daggad Phool (daggad = a rock or stone, phool = flower) is used in cooking traditional Chettinad food but for most, the spice is elusive and not regularly utilised. However, the blackish purple flower (lichen, to be precise) is often blended with other spices to make some indigenous masalas. In Maharashtra, it forms a part of the famous goda masala or the Andhra vaangi baath podi. It is also believed to be a part of the traditional garam masala but not many store bought ones does not include this rare find.

The resistance was not too strong on the suggestion to use this spice in our kitchen. But it was neither subtle. No one we knew ever mentioned the name “Daggad Phool” and it was unheard of back at home or the home of relatives.

Thus the experiment started.

Chicken Chettinad Curry, a dish of chicken in a spicy gravy of onion, ginger and garlic with black pepper corns and red chili powder. Plain rice or flat bread (Naan, a pita-type leavened flat bread, roti or chapati) were suggested to accompany the dish but since it was a Friday and the ‘chef’ had enough time in his hands, the choice went and stood at Vegetable Pulav. Both the dishes had daggad phool or kalpaasi as one of the ingredients.

The spice had become an instant favourite with the family when a neighbour phoned in to enquire about that “mysteriously delicious” aroma rising from our kitchen. The result of adding daggad phool to the chicken dish was beyond any expectation. Other than Chicken dishes, some Biriyanis are a good candidate for this spice. But in my opinion, when a biriyani is served with a chicken dish, either one may have the spice added. Some how this complements the combined flavour though I am not sure how this is made possible. May be more research is in the horizon.

Chicken is cut and marinated with salt, turmeric and lemon juice for 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile, the spices are dry roasted with no oil in the griddle over low medium flame. Each spice are roasted individually as the time required by them to reach the required level differ. Finally grated coconut is sautéed.
Tomatoes, ginger-garlic paste, onions, green chili, coriander and mint leaves are chopped.

The cooking is a 3 tiered process.

The spices are made into a paste with the coconut in a blender and kept aside. Then,

One: The marinated chicken is sautéed in oil and kept aside.
Two: Chicken is cooked with onions and tomatoes in a pressure cooker for two whistles.
Three: Chicken is transferred to a Kadai and further cooked with spice-coconut paste, initially with lid closed for 10 minutes and then open, to achieve the right consistency.

Garnished with fresh coriander leaves chopped prior to serving.

Vegetable Pulav calls for soaked and drained long-grained, fragrant Basmati rice.
Onion is sautéed along with spices. Hot water is added to which the rice is cooked.
Cooking times could not be generalised as it depends on many factors not limited to the type of kadai used and the temperature of the gas stove.

Rice must be cooked like a Pasta. Just enough to make feel the bite. Fluffing the cooked rice using a fork within the pan and outside, on a tray, is important to get that single-grained texture. Key is to keep the grains separate.

A different version using Kashmiri Chili is shown below. Being creative is often harmless but adventurous.

Aroma filling the home was enough proof that the chicken and rice turned out good. But when the faces that tasted the food lit up with a delighted brightness brought in by a spontaneous smile, the ‘chef’ ceased looking further for a more convincing proof.

Vegetable Pulav

Wash 1 1/2 c basmati rice.
Soak 15 mins.
Chop 1 1/2 c vegetables (potatoes, carrots, mint, 2 green chili, french beans, cauliflower… or a combo. Peas would be good to have).
Sauté dry spices (1 bay leaf, 1 star anise, 1 strand mace, 3/4 t shahi jeera, 3-4 green cardamoms, 6 cloves, 2″ cinnamon, 1/2 nutmeg, 3 daggad phool, 1/4 t fennel seeds)
Sauté 1 med onions.
Fry 1 1/2 t ginger garlic paste.
Add vegetables and handful chopped mint.
Sauté 2-3 mins.
Add 2 1/2 c hot water. Add sea salt. Mix. Bring to rolling boil.
Add drained rice. Stir gently.
Cook in medium heat until water evaporates.
Cover with lid.
Cook again in low heat 4-5 mins.
Switch off stove.
Fluff up rice.
(Note: We are not using the colander method to cook rice here).
Spread rice in a baking tray.
Carefully fluff up the rice again.
Serve with chicken and raita.

Chettinadu Chicken

Cut, cube, pat dry chicken.
Marinate 15-20 min in sea salt, 1 t turmeric powder, 2T lemon juice.
2 t vegetable oil. Heat pan.
Sauté chicken from pink to white.
Dry roast all spices (3T coriander seeds, 4-5 dry red chili round type, 2t fennel seeds, 1t cumin seeds, 2″ cinnamon stick, 3 daggad phool, 2t whole black pepper corns, 5 green cardamom, 1 star anise, 5 cloves)
Keep aside to cool.
Dry roast 1/4 c grated coconut.
Grind spices and coconut together to a smooth paste. Keep aside.
Heat 2 T oil in a pressure cooker.
Sauté 2 large thinly sliced onions.
Add a small handful of curry leaves, 2T ginger garlic paste.
Sauté 1 min.
Add chicken. Mix well.
Add 2 med tomatoes chopped. Mix well.
Cover cooker and cook for 2 whistles.
Switch heat off and let steam.
Transfer chicken from cooker to a kadai.
Add more water if required.
Add ground masala paste and mix.
Cover. Simmer 10 mins.
Add fresh coriander leaves.
Serve with vegetable pulav and raita.

Note: South Asian cuisine is mysterious and therefore quite adventurous, with plenty of opportunities to be creative. The lack of precise measurements is thought to be the reason. A perfect knowledge of the characteristics of the dynamics of various spices is a prerequisite. Consistency could be achieved over a period of time. But some oldtimers achieve that perfection without ever tasting the food they are cooking but by the highly trained olfactory perceptions alone. In the wide piquent culinary spectrum, with the humble salt and pepper seasoning at one extreme, Chettinadu Chicken may not move up towards the opposite end. But it sure comes closer. Daggad Phool would inconspicuously be absent from within that spectrum and that is where its true power lies. It could be compared to a zero in arithmetic; alone it has no value but with the right combination of spices, the synergic potency could never be undermined by any diner who is also a discerning connoisseur.

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Fishing Boats

Home town.
Arabian Sea to the West and
Western Ghats on the East.
The sandy beach was about 5 miles from home
as the crow flew.
On quite summer nights,
the sea could be heard
from the front yard.

Further down south of the beach
is the port and harbour of Vizhinjam.

Activities at the harbour
with the fishing boats approaching
filled with the previous night’s catch
were documented in the photographs below.

The fishermen looked neat
in their clean lunkies and shirts.
Most of them had access to foreign goods
either through their relatives working in the Gulf
or from local ‘duty-free’ shops.

All of them were wearing footwear
and they were quite aware of the
presence of the photographer.

On the kind invitation from the folks that had just returned from the sea, a few Mackerels were handpicked from one of the boats directly. Never before were such freshness seen.

Smile-maker

Ixora was never considered by anyone a great flower. It seem to come up from nowhere and carry-on without much demand unlike other flowering plants in the garden that needs nurturing and even a bit of pampering. One of the attractions in the home garden is Ixora. Bright orange, yellow and faded red, the clusters are always there challenging the concept of seasons. Occasional visit of the gardener makes no difference to the plant. The maid waters it as she waters other plants. Kids sometime pluck its flowers and drink the nectar. They play with the garlands made by adding each single flower in tandem. A humble flower that brings so much memories of the good times of childhood. It never fails to bring a smile, every time.

Blade

A Blade of Grass

Metaphorical-
Philosophical-
Full of life.

Dew drop,
rested overnight,
silently melts away.

Sharp enough,
to split the rays,
into a million colours.

Danced
to the wings
of a dragonfly.

Day is done.
Shakes
and gone.

Metaphorical;
Philosophical;
Full of life.

Blue Crabs

Anticipation grows in the shores of Hidd fishing port, north-east of Bahrain.
But the air is kept light with smiles and laughs.
Amazing to see how the human spirits could soar so high on a long, hot summer day.
Weather-beaten faces perfectly blending with the day’s hard work.

And then someone sees the boat approaching from the seas.
Somehow they know it was a good catch indeed.
Blue Swimming Crabs are wild caught from seas around Bahrain by using traps.

A boat carries 6 to 8 crates of freshly netted Blue Crabs.
After a quick rinse, the crates are brought ashore.
Experienced eyes picks few bad ones and promptly removes them.
Dilip and his team effortlessly moves in sync as a well-rehearsed drill.

Rest are chilled with crushed iced, ready to be transported to the factory in refrigerated trucks.
The cluster portion of the crab with claw and legs untrimmed is the final product that carries a shelf-life of up to 2 years.

Farmers’ Market

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Highway leading to Budaiya, the venue of Farmers’ Market 2017, got slower from almost a mile away. Typical of any event. Almost all the vehicles carried families with children. After finding a parking nearby, the place was a short walk away. It was a sunny and pleasant Saturday in January. Mild breeze among the many date palms lining the tiled walkways carried smell of vegetables. The botanical gardens in Budaiya, maintained by the Agriculture Ministry, hosted the Farmers’ Market as it did for past several years. Photographs were shot randomly while walking around the market…

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A mild climate conducive of growing vegetables in Bahrain starts from October typically. However, the summer lingered on till late November in 2016 and the weather turned mild towards mid- to end-December. Christmas really felt like that in Brisbane; warm. Farmers’ Market in Bahrain usually started in early December and lasts till the first few months of the following year. All Saturdays of the month, from 8 AM till 12 noon, Budaiya gets some extra action.

Breakfast Corner (actually it is an open space) visit was top on the list. Not that we three were hungry. The idea of tasting some authentic Bahraini food always appealed to us. Fresh vegetables were so appealing that from the moment we saw the first stall, the shutter was relentlessly moving up and down (or was it sideways? Should have paid more attention during the many photography workshops attended.) Tomatoes, Cauliflowers, Pumpkins, Chillies, Zucchinis, Cucumbers, all those leafy vegetables – that the family doctor always reminded to consume more, Beetroots, Bell Peppers, to name more than a few. Mint led the list of herbs. Those on sale were so fresh and untouched so unlike what is sold by the regular stores that it seemed to have made just for decoration and not for cooking.

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Flowering plants were on sale. Hyacinths and Pansies were more popular. Geraniums were rare. Bougainvilleas scattered themselves among others. As we walked forward, the air began to smell of waffles. Waffles would have been a complete misfit in such an atmosphere. We followed the waffles that led us to a stall where several people – women and children mostly – patiently waited for their turn to collect their favourite snack: pan-baked bread. Thin, crunchy, mildly sweet made up of batter.

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The best part of the Farmers’ Market was not the display of the local produce. It is about the people and the smile on their face. Met several families that included expatriates and the local ones. Business was casual with occasional bargaining (well, no one ever bargained in a super market) and tasting of the fresh produces.

Stall owners found time to chat about their farms in different parts of Bahrain. 17 years of stay made it almost possible to locate many. Children played as the sun rose while other wide-eyed ones kept wondering about the many colours of vegetables. From red, green, yellow and purple that is grown in their own Bahrain.

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75b Rue d’Orchampt

The Man Who Walked Through Walls by the French writer Marcel Ayme begins:

“In Montmartre, on the third floor of 75b Rue d’Orchampt, there lived an excellent gentleman called Dutilleul, who possessed the singular gift of passing through walls without any trouble at all. He wore pince-nez and a small black goatee, and was a lowly clerk in the Ministry of Records. In winter he would take the bus to work, and in fine weather he would make the journey on foot, in his bowler hat.

Dutilleul had just entered his forty-third year when he discovered his power. One evening, a brief electricity cut caught him in the hallway of his small bachelor’s apartment. He groped for a while in the darkness and, when the lights came back on, found himself outside on the third-floor landing. Since his front door was locked from the inside,…”

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Set in Paris’s Montmartre district, the stories by Marcel have spawned a number of films, including Jean Boyer’s 1951 classic Garou Garou, le passe-muraille and Yvan Attal’s Les Sabines starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, as well as a musical, Amour, which won the Prix Molière in France before an English version conquered Broadway.

Today in Montmartre a sculpture of The Man Who Walked through Walls, created by the legendary actor Jean Marais, can be found in the Place Marcel Aymé, paying tribute to the great author and his work.

Nascent sky

Subtlest hues merging with the horizon.
A barely perceivable saline-breeze
skimming the surface of the calm sea
bearing the fading cry of a morning bird
from the nascent morning sky.

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“I will always remember you,
and you will remember me,
just as we will remember
the evening,
the rain on the windows,
and all the things
we’ll always have
because
we cannot possess them”.
-from the fictional work “Brida”

Thatched Houses

Thatching was popular in early days as the walls were not designed or made to take enormous roof weight. While wheat straw was common in south of England, reeds were in East Anglia. As transport facilities became available, cheap slate could be brought in from where it was abundant and cheap to any part in Britain. Mechanised farming resulted in making wheat straw unusable for thatching. These beautiful houses were seen while passing a small village near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.

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Hex nets can prevent some of the damages unknowingly brought in by animals and birds. But what about the natural effects? Repairing and maintaining a thatched house in a good state costs lot of money.

Lost in the morning

Alarm clock sounded at the time they are supposed to sound.
A tripod was readied the previous night.
Made coffee and some French Toast.
Coffee to the flask and toast to the lunch box.
Friday morning traffic?
There aint no such thing.
This is Bahrain.
Took the highway to Askar, a tiny fishing village in the east coast of Bahrain.

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Town of Annecy

From the parking lot at Musée de la Grandé Chartreuse, there is no return!
In other words, the way you enter is a one-way. One must drive around the museum and join the road to Saint-Laurent -du-Pont. Here D520 somehow meets D1006 leading to Chambéry. Driving further north in the A41 with a toll of less than Euro 5 would take us to Annecy.

Mid-April is beginning to bring in all the flowers of the season. Mostly tulips. Walked off to the car park. It is a long way to Mont Blanc.

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swanlake

Being weekend, the parking areas of near Palaise de l’Isle was packed to capacity. Driving down the road by the lake-side D1508, a parking was found. No parking fee. From the car park, it is a few minutes walk back to the medieval part of the city.

canal bank

The canal was lined with restaurants. Took up an empty table just outside the entrance to a cafe. Ordered an Oignon Pizza and an Espresso. The pizza needed a few gentle reminders every 20 minutes or so. But then, who is in a hurry?

Thiou canal

Crossing one of the many bridges across the Canal du Thiou takes us to the famous street Rue Saint Claire. The place was crowded and so were the shops.

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Annecy was a short break en route Chamonix. The place is so lovely that one needs a few days to imbibe all its beauty.

French Alps

The drive from Grenoble to Annecy was memorable for two reasons. Bright, sunny day made the visibility high and the 360 degrees view of brilliant scenery made driving the winding roads exciting. A short stop once in a while took away precious time-to-destination. Photos such as the one seen here made it worthwhile…

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Early April still saw some snow on the ground. Rain and more snow was on the forecast for the coming days in the higher regions en route Mont Blanc.

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Home grown

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I do not remember exactly who had given me the seed of this Gladiolus.
That was many many years ago.
The bulb resembled an onion.
When the seed was planted, I had no more hope than to see a Lily.
Any kind of Lily.
As the delicate flower bloomed one rainy day morning,
the sight became unforgettable.
Since then, I have seen several blossoms.
None more prettier than that home grown Gladiolus,
whose bulb was given to me
by someone I do not remember.
That was many many years ago.