Thursday, December 31, 2009

Time to Get Serious About Bengali Cooking

Aarti on the boti above - a traditional Indian knife used for cutting vegetables, fruits and fish. The user puts their foot on the wood plank and pushes the item into the knife. Aarti swears by it for its precision and won't use any other knife.

It is hard to believe that we have been in Kolkata for over 17 months now. The time has gone by so quickly. Sicily was 14 months when she arrived, so she has now been in India longer than she has lived in the U.S. During our time in India is when she really began to develop her palette for real food.

A couple of days ago I put a big bowl of rice and a bowl of dahl on the table with some small empanada-type pastries ("puffs" for English slang here). Sicily proceeded to put a huge amount of rice on her plate, make a hole in the middle and then start to spoon dahl into the hole. She then ate the entire plate. It was at that point that I realized, we really need to learn how to make the regular food we have been eating.

My current plan is to hang out with Krishna in the kitchen and write down what she is doing when she cooks a dish. She cooks everything from memory and is the kind of cook that - adds a little more of this or that - so it is going to be interesting. I also decided to get Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivalsas a primer and hopefully make a visit soon to College Street to see if there are any other English cookbooks around. More to come...

Sicily having lunch with her adopted Bengali family in the kitchen

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why We Love Our Car, the Ambassador

Soon after we arrived in Kolkata, I posted about how we decided to wait on buying a car before we arrived, in Waiting and Deciding on a Car. We are happy that we did wait, since we ended up buying a 1994 Ambassador from an outgoing officer.

We had our eye on an Ambassador, since they are all over Kolkata and remind me of images from the Beatles' trip to India in 1968 (archived photos of course).

Before we took ownership, we once rode in the car as guests and the clutch fell out. We all got out, pushed the car to the side and walked home (luckily we weren't that far from home). A couple days later the car was back in service. Most people in the U.S. would question the sanity of buying a car after that experience, but is showed us that 1. Ambassadors are very easy to get repaired in Kolkata and 2. they are very cheap to get repaired in Kolkata. They also ride like a tank.

Well, our back axle broke a couple of weeks ago, and we got a glimpse into why they are easy to maintain. (Only Peter was in the car and he was unharmed since you can rarely go over 20 miles per hour when driving here.)

Back axle removed

Where the axle should have been

The broken part on top, bottom part is in normal condition for comparison

Part went into this thingy

That went into this thingy

Along with this thingy

I apologize for being a bit technical in my descriptions, but I hope it is clear that a multi-million dollar computer was not needed for the repair. And the best part of all:

Time to service: about one week
Cost to tow: $16 USD
Cost of parts: $22 USD
Cost of labor: $44 USD

We will certainly miss our Ambassador.

Update: We had requests for a shot of the engine and our driver, so here they are:

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunday Afternoon on the Maidan

The Maidan in Kolkata is often compared to Central Park in New York City, it is a very large park in the city that provides respite from the concrete and crowds. It is also a popular Sunday hangout for cricket players and families, as well as an everyday spot for goats, their herders and vendors capturing visitors to the Victoria Memorial.

It was such a beautiful day in Kolkata, low 70s and sunny, that we decided to head out to the Maidan. Below are photos from our walk. Enjoy!

Walking down the street to the Maidan

Three common sights on the Maidan across from Victoria Memorial: goats, chat vendors and cricketers.

Families gravitate towards other areas to picnic and play games

The drivers of our chariot ride

A vendor takes a break

A small statue watches over the entrance to a home

Friday, December 25, 2009

Tracking Santa's Visit to Kolkata

Sicily fully grasped the concept of Santa this year, so we used NORAD's Santa Tracker to watch his progress until she went to bed. What a great tool to teach geography, although I am pretty sure she wasn't paying attention to my one minute lecture on how we live on a spherical planet called Earth. We were happy to see that he took a picture of his time in Kolkata.

Since we were in the U.S. for Thanksgiving, Sicily visited an American Santa while we were there. We stood in line, she had 15 seconds with him and then blanked out when he asked her what she wanted.

This is a sharp contrast to our visit with an Indian Santa a week ago. Santa was escorted by four body guards through a rowdy crowd of kids to take his place on stage. The crowd of kids then all rushed the stage to meet Santa. Santa gleefully shook hands, talked and danced on stage with the kids before he was escorted out.

Here is a picture of Santa I was able to take after the crowd moved on to a doughnut eating game. Looks like the Indian Santa had a much better time.

The multiple, different Santas confused Sicily a bit but she seems to grasp that Santa can have multiple incarnations in order to spread joy across the world. Much like the many different forms of Durga we experienced during Durga Puja.

Here is a picture of kids during the doughnut eating game. I need to find out where they got those great looking doughnuts!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

And the Puja Season Begins!

Today our maintenance and engineering staff celebrated Viswakarma, the God of engineering, with a puja, much like they did last year.

This year I took a video camera with me to record the priest in action.

The man in the lower left corner, was trying his hardest to blow the conch shell.

Here the priest is spreading ghee over sticks of wood and burning. Needless to say there was a lot of smoke in the room, but it was great!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sunday Night Iftar

After a hectic weekend of learning our next assignment, attending a wonderful iftar was a great way to end the weekend. An iftar is an evening meal in which Muslims break their fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan. This year Ramadan is from August 21 to on or around September 19.

It was a small, intimate gathering with fantastic food. The event started with a date, then fresh fruits, then lentils and yogurt, then tasty chaat, then haleem, then biryani, then we left before more came out.

I went a little crazy over the fried eggplant, a battered thin slice sprinkled with chat masala, my new favorite spice mix. While enjoying the eggplant, I learned that Jains do not eat eggplants, since eggplants have a large number of seeds and a seed is believed to be a carrier of a budding life.

The most memorable moment of the night for me was when our very gracious host, in response to a conversation said (poorly paraphrased by me here): After you have been in Kolkata for a few months, you fall in love with the city and want to make changes; but when you try, you feel the pain of Kolkatans. Kolkata is a very unique place and I know we will miss it greatly.

Friday, September 11, 2009

And we are going to PRAGUE!

At about 11:30PM our time, 2:00PM EST we received THE email, and we are going to Prague!

Waiting and Waiting

On Tuesday morning we submitted our bid list to our CDO. It was due opening of business Tuesday EST. Now we sit back and wait, well not exactly sit back. Our waiting includes checking email every 5 minutes. There is a collective guess that we will find out sometime today. It is going to be hard to sleep tonight since close of business EST is 2:30 AM in Kolkata!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

New Market in Kolkata

I finally went to New Market with Krishna this week to watch her in action and see which specific vendors she buys from. I had been there many times before, but never with her. She has been going there for over 25 years, so she prefers it over the more modern stores. The New Market was originally built for the British in 1874. While we just went to food vendors, the New Market area has vendors that sell almost everything.

Since I was raised on a farm, it is only a little jarring to buy meat there. For those who haven't seen how a chicken gets to that nicely wrapped container in a grocery store, it can be an experience to remember. But you definitely know that your purchase is very fresh, since you can get it skin on or off in less than five minutes.

I didn't think beef would be available in India, but it is in Kolkata and on menus around town, mostly because of the large Muslim population here. You do not find this availability in all parts of India.

Here is Krishna buying a carton of eggs. I love how they check the eggs (and you can too!) with a small lamp. This was also how my family used to check our eggs on the farm.

Fish is selected, skinned and filleted right in front of you. No display counter in the way of communicating how you want the fish cut, and you can look at the quality as they do their work.

The vegetable vendor had tomatoes for about 20 cents a pound, potatoes for about 22 cents. Vegetables are very inexpensive in Kolkata although the prices have been rising recently because of demand and weather's influence on crop yields.

This is a picture of Anwar. He is one of the guys you can hire to carry your purchases as you roam around the market. After visiting just the vegetable vendor you can end of with 22 pounds, so Krishna usually hires him to help her out. She has been hiring him since he was 15 years old, so next time I can just find Anwar and have him take me around. Next time you are in Kolkata, ask for Anwar and you can too.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Tour of Kumartuli with Calcutta Walks

We had a wonderful tour with Calcutta Walks again this morning. We started out at the Hooghly River watching the wrestlers on the river bank and seeing people doing their morning rituals. The mighty Howrah bridge in the background is where millions of cars and people cross everyday. At 6:30 on a Saturday it was full of pedestrians, families in carts, men pushing carts with goods, cars, trucks and buses.

We then strolled through the flower market. This picture is of marigold sellers. We learned that the marigold holds a special place in Hinduism, since flowers represent a blessing from a god and the marigold is believed to be 10 flowers in one.

Here was a cow that was just moving along in the pedestrian flow, like she has done many times before.

We went to visit a crematorium (just the outside!) and this was one of the many stores catering to the grieving. It is a photo studio were one can have a picture of the deceased made.

A lot of the laborers in Kolkata come from a Bihar, one of the poorest states in India that is also close to Kolkata. This photo is of a food vendor that specializes in the food from Bihar. There are grilled chick pea balls stuffed with spices on the grill. I loved his set-up. It looks like he took the clay from the river and made himself a very modern-looking shop.

Kumartuli is a section of North Kolkata that is home to the many artisans that made idols, mostly for the very popular Durga Puja festival, which we attended last October. The idols are made from a foundation of straw, covered and sculpted with clay from the river, painted and then dressed with clothes and ornaments. Most of the idols we saw were ready for painting and dressing since Durga Puja is less than a month away.

This photo is of an artist's studio floor.

Ifte told us of the history of Durga Puja, how the celebration really became a major one during the nationalism movement, since leaders saw it and other popular festivals throughout India as a way to demonstrate national pride and rally people together. Today over 200,000 people come to Kolkata to join the 13 million locals in the celebration. Take a look at some of our posts from last October to get a feel for the finished idols: At the Height of the Puja Season, A Pandal of Generosity, More Puja Photos, Durga Drums and Closing the Puja Season.

On our walk we ran into this building being demolished, Kolkata style.

No better way to end the walk that we incredible Bengali sweets. If I hadn't eaten a bagel for breakfast I would have consumed so much more.

Thanks, Ifte. If you are in Kolkata look them up or check out the new walking tours of India portal they are leading at

Related Post: Saturday Morning with Calcutta Walks

Friday, August 28, 2009

Bagels for the Bid List

With so much energy spent the bid list, researching, talking, refining, reordering, I took on a project to distract myself for a few hours: making bagels.

We have yet to find a bagel in Kolkata. There are good bakeries - great chocolate cakes - but the closest bagel has been a package of frozen Lender's from the New Delhi commissary that cost about $8, after factoring in the shipping charges. So the challenge was to make bagels from scratch.

After reading a recipe from King Arthur Flour with the name "A Dozen Simple Bagels" and reading the bagel section in The Bread Baker's Apprentice,I got the courage to try.

The starter

The lumpy bagels after forming them by punching a hole in the middle of a dough ball with your finger and twirling it around.

The smoother ones using a circle cutter

The hot bagel bath

The baked lumpy bagels

The baked smoother ones

Now, back to the bid list. There have been several positions added, deleted and modified. Keeps you on your toes.