Saturday, March 27, 2010

Buttermilk Drink for the Thirsty Traveller

There was a time when walking was one of the most prevalent modes of travel in India. When train services were scarce, when cars were only for the super rich, when only a few could afford a bicycle, folks traveled by foot--whether visiting a relative across the town or a village away. Southern summers can be hot with daytime temperatures often as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Leaving an earthenware pot filled with water or better still, with a freshly made buttermilk drink, on the front verandah of the house or the street corner or at the village entrance is an old tradition in Southern India--a way of saying welcome and take a rest to the hot and tired traveler even if he was a stranger.

A lot has changed in India in the last two decades. Single family homes with front porches are increasingly replaced with multistoried gated condo communities. Long distance travel is now done via planes, trains, buses and cars and, public transportation, auto-rickshaws and two-wheel scooters are the modes of local travel. Yet, one thing still remains the same--the hot summer and the need for cold water to quench the thirst and to cool the body. And, the tradition of providing free buttermilk drink continues while adapting to the new realities of travel and condo living.

At the condo community where my sister and mother live, my sister has set up a spot under a large shady tree where a pot filled with fresh buttermilk awaits all who drop in during the day. These are mostly service personnel like the watchman, janitor, pushcart vendors, maids, the guy who comes on the weekend to iron the clothes and others. To these folks who commute by bus or bike to work and then toil in the hot sun, the cool drink offers a refreshing relief. Every morning around 10 o'clock, the buttermilk drink is prepared in our kitchen and then poured into the pot and set up in the yard. By late afternoon, it is usually all finished.

Preparing the drink is extra work for our housekeeper and my sister spends about 45 rupees ($1) per day on the milk for the yogurt (not a small amount for India). Yet, it is a nice way of saying thank you to the men and women servicing her community.

  The pushcart waiting for presswala or isthri, who using hot coal irons the clothes

   Supplying fish to one of the ladies

    A hungry cat hoping to catch a morsel of fish

Recipe for Buttermilk drink


Fresh homemade yogurt (or store bought yogurt) half a cup
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Freshly ground cumin to taste
Salt to taste
Freshly ground red pepper flakes (optional)
Fresh coriander finely chopped

Using a whisk churn the yogurt and dilute it with water. For half a cup of yogurt, add approximately a quarter cup of water. The yogurt should be diluted to a water-like consistency but without losing the taste of yogurt.

Add all the ground spices and salt. The taste of the spices and the salt should not overwhelm the taste of yogurt.

Chill in the refrigerator.

Sprinkle the coriander on top before serving.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Scientist Celebrates 92nd Birthday

What do you give to a scientist who has been more interested in pushing the frontier of science than the material gains accruing from it? A pioneer in essential oils research, Prof. S.C. Bhattacharyya, celebrates his 92nd birthday today at his daughter's home in California. When my husband, who did his Ph.D under him, wanted to buy one of my boxes as a token gift for Prof. Bhattacharyya, I kind of laughed and told him that the boxes were too feminine and not very appropriate for a scientist and that I would make special one.

I met Prof. Bhattacharyya only ten years ago. I found him a wonderful human being. His impact on me, as it has been for all those who had worked under him, was as a brilliant chemist. So, I decided to highlight that aspect of his life in this collage box . He is a Bengali and like all Bengalis very proud of his cultural heritage. So, I started with a Bengali poem printed on the background paper. He graduated first in his M.Sc class from Dhaka University, back when it was part of undivided India. He completed his doctoral work at the premier Indian Institute of Science at Bengaluru. It was here that Prof. Bhattacharyya did his breakthrough work in the sandalwood oil chemistry.. Soon after, he went to Cambridge, England to get his second doctoral degree.

Upon his return to India which by then had become independent, Prof. Bhattacharya began his long and illustrious career at the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune where a division of Essential Oils was created just for him. The research group under his leadership gained international recognition for pioneering work in natural product chemistry and on macrocyclic musk compounds. One of the biggest discoveries was the isolation and the structural elucidation of constituents of sandalwood oil, which is one of the major essential oils today. (No, he did not patent or profit from it.) From NCL, he moved to IIT Bombay which was where my husband did his doctoral work. He finished the final years of his career at the Bose Institute, Kolkata.

It was this arc of his career that I captured on the cover of the box. When my husband saw that, he asked me if he could add something more. I said yes and he came up with what you see on the inside of the lid--the chemical structures of three of Prof. Bhattcaharyya's major discoveries! Immediately, I knew that it made the idea behind the collage whole and completed the picture. An artist and a scientist coming together, truly an inter-disciplinary project!

Of course, no amount of images can capture the deep humanity of Prof. Bhattacharyya--what made him an incomparable acharya. In Sanskrit, acharya refers to a teacher, but, in the true meaning of the term, an acharya is a guide, mentor, advocate, parent, minister, counselor and a teacher. It endows the bearer of the term with responsibilities beyond the mere transmission of knowledge to the students. My husband would agree that he was an acharya in the truest sense.