Thursday, May 25, 2006


One day, our back fence neighbor, Mr. Vibur Kohli called.

Mr. Kohli lives in a three and a half story mustard monstrosity of a house with undulant decks circling each floor. The top half story is shaped like the bridge of a tugboat, giving the overall impression of Noah's Ark plopped into the neighborhood. The reason I mention Mr. Kohli's architectural gaffe is because the back yard gardening strategy at our rented house has been to hide as much of Mr. Kohli's house as possible. We share a wall. His half is studded with broken bottles, ours is draped with jasmine.

Mr. Kohli called to tell me snakes were making their way via our jasmine to his back yard, threatening his peace of mind, and possibly his children's lives. He wasn't sure, but suspected cobras. His distress was alarming, and I promised to check into the situation.

The next morning while Reggie and I were on the verandah having our tea, Mr. Kohli's gardener appeared atop the wall and started hacking away at our vegetation. It felt like an act of war, so I rallied my single troop, and dispatched my gardener, Surender, to demand a halt to hostilities. Mr. Kohli appeared on his lower deck and accused me of reneging on our deal. I told him he was acting precipitously, that I had no intention of viewing his collection of broken glass, and that the jasmine was not to be touched. He then informed me that one of our trees was shadowing his yard and also needed a trim-back. At this point I suggested we leave it to the gardeners to reach an equitable and esthetic solution. He agreed. The entire conversation was held at a distance of about 100 feet, and though it seemed hostile, it was really just loud – two Captains shouting o’er the waves.

After I got to work I told the story to my friend Aravind, who suggested I hire a snake catcher to investigate both yards and bag up any offenders. I thought that was a great idea, and had visions of a snake-charmer in dhoti and turban, playing a beena and charming the snakes into burlap bags that would be carted to some wooded haven, or anywhere out of the neighborhood.

Aravind dispatched one of his lieutenants, Sanjay, into Delhi to find a snake catcher.

Sanjay returned a day later, begged our pardon, and relayed there were no snake-catchers to be found. Aravind, with a wink to me, sent him off to look again complaining he had let us down, and was obviously looking in the wrong places. For some reason Aravind suggested he look on the banks of the Jamuna River which flows through Old Delhi.

Sanjay returned two days later, sans snake-catcher, but with a bag of snake poison he thought we could sprinkle around the property. Snake poison? We decided against it because of the possible collateral damage to the cows and pigs foraging through the adjacent lot.

Aravind dismissed Sanjay with a disdainful flick of the wrist – and enjoyed every minute of the poor guy’s discomfort. Aravind admitted that snake catchers may be a thing of the past, or possibly of village life, but we were left without a solution to the problem.

When I got home I instructed Surender to accept no calls from Mr. Kohli. I hoped that whatever snakes there were would migrate.

Days passed and neither the snakes nor Mr. Kholi’s gardener made another appearance.

One of the things I like about India is that unattended problems tend to fade away with barely a ripple in the cosmic fabric while life takes care of itself.

When I next saw Mr. Kholi he was contentedly sailing his house into the sunset.

We waved cheerfully, and life went on.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


Every day, at about four o’clock, my workmate Hugo, with an Englishman’s care, prepares a pot of tea. These days he’s been using Taj Tea, a gift from Rakesh, with just a pinch of Lapsong Souchong. He drinks it with milk, not cream, which would be an abomination, smacks his lips after the first sip, and proclaims, “Ah, the best fucking drink of the day.” I join him on occasion, and try to beat him to the mantra, but my heart’s not really in it. It is a good drink, but once you’ve tasted chai, the Indian version of tea time, nothing else quite makes it.

Chai is much more than a cup of tea, either the brewed, or the justifiably maligned dip-dip of hot water and a tea bag. It’s a little like what a latte is to a cup of drip, but it has a certain crudity that makes it like what cowboy coffee is to coffee.

The best versions of chai are not to be confused with the westernized version served by Starbucks, or any other high-end purveyors. To take it back to a coffee comparison, an up-scale version of chai, is like one of those soda-fountain coffees the person in front of me always seems to be ordering - you know the one’s I mean: double caramel amatiadoes – whatever they are.

In India, chai is a road-side attraction, and the quality of the chai may be in inverse proportion to the condition of the chai stand. It’s hard to tell, because chai stands tend to be ramshackle at best and downright primitive at worst. Granted, I write from a Western sensibility, and the stretch from working class (even white-collar) to primitive may only be from a permanent to a semi-permanent structure. Be that as it may, I’ve sampled chai at 5-star hotels where it’s been sanitary but totally lacking in character, to shacks equipped with little more than Bunsen burners and tin pots where the chai has been ambrosial, though the sanitation has been iffy, if existent.

My favorite chai stand sits on a concrete platform under a tree in Electronic City, in Gurgaon. It’s built of weathered lumber with a hinged flap of a door that opens up, and the cooking and service counter rolls out onto the platform. It’s barely larger than two office cubicles, but does such a knock-up Monday through Friday business the operator, Ram, closes on weekends.

Ram collects the money, deals individual cigarettes, and fries up the egg sandwiches, and has a 12 year old apprentice of sorts who is the chai-wallah and a young master of the craft. His equipment is basic: a propane burner, a battered tin pot with a lid, a ladle, and a tea strainer. Business is done with about a dozen juice glasses that are rinsed in a bucket of cold water.

The preparation is equally basic: an equal proportion of water to milk is brought to a boil. For each serving a tablespoon of loose black tea and two teaspoons of sugar is added with about a 1/4 inch of ginger-root crushed with an available rock, and a cardamom seed or two. The mixture comes to a boil, simmers for a few minutes and is strained into juice glasses. That’s it. The choreography is simple, as befits the task, but performed with grace. Our young wallah (not pictured)goes about his business with the style of a sleight of hand artist, or a maitre d’ preparing at table side, but, what separates him from either is his lack of self-consciousness. He’s not performing, he’s doing, and I think his dance of gestures is protection against the boredom of brewing a hundred glasses of chai a day. When he ladles the milk into the boiling water he does it from a height; he tosses the tea with a snap of the wrist; and he pours with the pot moving up and down in space. He’s intent and lovely to watch.

Chai is very sweet, very hot, and best consumed quickly. The technique is to hold the glass at top and bottom between thumb and index and middle-fingers, or with thumb and index finger around the top of the glass with your other fingers outstretched. The heat is what makes chai a safe drink. There’s no chai without boiling the milk and water, just don’t think too much about how the glass is washed.

But what about that glass of chai in the USA?

Well, it will never taste the same because there are certain givens that will always be missing: the quality of Indian tap water and milk, the unrefined sugar, the strong loose tea, and the ambience. Mid-afternoon with the sun in declension, sitting on a wooden bench under a Nim tree watching the passing parade of burros, cows, pedestrians, bicyclists, and SUV’s; dust swirling, and the din of generators supplying back up electrical power to the corporations doing America’s business; its work-a-day to the general population, but a slice of heaven to me.

Minus the ambiance, you can come close, though. Here’s how:

Bring a half cup water and an equal amount of whole milk to a near boil. Add a three fingered “pinch” of black tea – get it at an Indian shop if you’re lucky enough to have one near you, or use Earl Gray, the bergamot adds a nice touch. Add two teaspoons of Demerara sugar, a quarter inch slice of fresh ginger – crushed, and two cardamom seeds. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer until a film forms at the top. Strain into a glass, never a cup, and if you can, drink it outside.

Thick, rich, sweet, and a real kick in the pants first thing in the morning or four o’clock in the afternoon, and it is the “Best fucking drink of the day.”

Photos (except for the last) from and

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


In our family the ambrosia, the nectar, the meal of celebration, or ultimate comfort was czarnina – duck soup, but so removed from anything as prosaic as a duck boiled with vegetables as to be other-worldly; and my grandmother, “Busia,” was the doyen of czarnina.

Not to harass the culinarily squeamish but, without blood – duck’s blood - there is no czarnina. Cheapskates would try to get by with pork blood, but that wouldn’t do in our house.

Busia would bring the victim from market, and spirit it into the basement. She’d shut the door behind her, and the slaughter would begin. Her technique was to hold the duck firmly under her left arm, and with her left hand bend its beak and neck forward to its breast, exposing a vein. She’d cut the vein and drain the blood into a bowl seasoned with a few drops of vinegar while the duck drifted off to wherever a duck might drift – and for giving it’s life for czarnina, duck heaven would be the only fair reward. The vinegar kept the blood from coagulating. Then she’d dunk the carcass in boiling water to loosen the feathers, and Aunt Florence would be recruited to pluck it to its peculiar duck nakedness. Before my time, when czarnina was a weekly meal, so many ducks would get plucked that pillows were made out of their downy feathers. After Busia moved to keep Fr. Louie’s home in DuBois we’d get both dead duck and blood from Urbaniak’s – the Polish butcher – but until then it was an in-house sacrifice.

Plucking complete, Florence would rise from the basement, duck in hand, and the kitchen would move into production.

The least interesting parts of the duck – feet, neck, back, wings, assorted bones – were placed in a pot with a pork shoulder, onions, prunes, sugar, a bouquet garni of bay leaf, cinnamon, allspice, and peppercorns, and simmered until the pork was tender. The better parts of the duck were routed to the oven to become a beautiful mahogany roast. Just before the pork was ready to fall apart, the stock was drained and skimmed. The pork and whatever was left of the prunes were reserved. A rich roux of blended blood, cream, and flour, was then added to the pot with just enough vinegar to mellow the sugar without curdling the milk – a delicate balance. While all the components were roasting, simmering, or thickening, Busia made the kluski – egg noodles. I’ve always been amazed that eggs, flour, and a little oil could produce anything as sumptuous as home made kluski. If there were ever leftovers I’d eat them by the handful, right out of the refrigerator, though frying them up with butter could really get me going.

At service the meats were plattered, the soup put into a tureen, and the kluski into a side bowl. In a soup bowl the ivory kluski set off the dark and rich color of the czarnina. The kluski also added a wonderful chewiness to the soup. Steamy portions of pork were submerged into individual bowls, and the duck gleamed on side plates. I could never decide whether I liked the duck best in the soup or on the side, so I did both. I also got the duck’s heart – a little appetizer, tucked away, that the family would make a big deal of finding for me. The one and only, but continual disappointment of the meal was there was never enough duck for seconds. Why we didn’t roast a second duck, I don’t know. It must have been some old-country frugality.

The family rejoiced with czarnina, and it was rarely served to outsiders. It would have been a breach of etiquette to serve something so obviously ethnic and odd, but many years after it lost its position as a regular item I asked Aunts Florence and Theresa to make it for my wife. Reggie told me she’d never eat it again, but she gave it her best, and that definitely raised her status a few notches within the family. What’s sad is we’ll probably never get a chance to eat it again, unless I carry on the tradition. Truth be told, though, it sounds much too daunting.

Czarnina’s flavor was the preference of a particular family, some liked it sweet, some sour – we liked it just as Busia made it, both sweet and sour. It was as close as we could get to the old country, and it felt like the wealth of generations and the depth of our culture. I remember the family as being at its best when czarnina was on the table. It made us happy.

*pronounced char-nina