Friday, December 4, 2009

Deliciousness & "Zena" in India

So I like to come up with themes for my blog entries when possible, just to mix things up and keep you interested. One night when I was feeling really down I decided to try and find something positive to write about, and I came up with--Delicious Foods I Have Discovered I Love:

Coriander paratha - when I stayed with my host family on my last trip to Jaipur, my host mom let me try making parathas. The dough used is the same as for chappatis/rotis; you just roll them out in stages and put oil in folds of them. Mine never turned out quite right; they were squares instead of triangles. But it was good because normally my host brother refuses to eat bajra (pearl millet) chappatis or parathas (they kind of taste more whole grain and are coarser), but he wanted to eat the ones I made, so all the funny-shaped ones (even ones I didn't make) were given to him and consumed without complaint, haha. Anyway, one night during the mid-internship seminar I helped de-stem a bunch of coriander, and it ended up going into parathas. They were green speckled and super delicious.

Kaju ki katli - diamond-shaped sweets made from cashews and topped with silver foil. Actual silver foil. When Rachel and I first had it at our host family's, one of us asked if it was good for one to eat silver like that, and our host father raised his eyebrows and went "Yeeees!" in his emphatic way, as though it were so obvious. Anyway. It is super delicious. There is another version made from almonds, so it's essentially silver-topped marzipan. Vogue India cites the fact that these have been topped with silver for centuries as an example of how "India practically invented luxe" =P.

Laddoo - spherical sweet made from gram flour, the first food my host mom showed me how to make. (Except not really, because she called me into the kitchen after all the ingredients had been put in the pan so I don't know what-all goes into hers.) It's funny because I'd really built these up before trying them, as they are Ganesha's favorite food, but when I first had one I thought "Huh. Tasty I guess, but not something I'd ever crave or miss." They can be kind of dry and grainy. But then of course once I was in Jodhpur I started to crave them! There are always pyramids of laddoos in like 60% of the shop fronts around my host family's apartment since we live right by a temple to Ganeshji, and people buy them to offer to him. I've never bought any since our host mom would make them once in a while and I was always wary about how long the ones sold on the street had been sitting outside, but I'm getting to the point where I would want to have some no matter where they came from.

Makhania lassi - saffron flavored lassi, a Jodhpur specialty. Basanti and I always get it from Shri Mishrilal Hotel (not really a hotel as far as I can tell) in Sardar Bazaar. It's right on the corner and has the most creamy, delicately flavored, wonderful lassi evar. It isn't really what I'm used to thinking of lassi as; it always comes with a spoon to eat it with as it is more custard-like in consistency. The first couple times we just got it to go, as the dining area was really crowded and strange (all booth-style seating along the walls, so that everyone is just facing one another), but the third time we wanted to sit down and waited until some space opened up. If you stay in the dining area you get a lot more, it turns out; their takeaway cups are quite small. There's always this awesome glob of I-don't-know-what garnishing the top of the lassi; kind of like whipped sweet cream cheese or something.

Pakora - Like laddoos, one of those foods I've always heard about but not had a clear idea of what they actually are like. These are to Indian cuisine what tempura is to Japanese cuisine. Any kind of chopped veggie deep fried in a particular type of dough. Where tempura tends to be a pale cream color, pakoras are a deep brown, tend to use different vegetables obviously (typically onion, potato, cauliflower, chili) and the sauce they are served with varies. I've had them with tamarind chutney and ketchup. Also I guess the dough is a much more prominent component of the dish, adding a good deal of weight and flavor to each piece of vegetable (so the spices used really play a role in how good they are), whereas good tempura dough tends to almost melt away in your mouth, just adding some texture to the vegetables. The best pakoras I've had were a) at the Sufi artist's home I visited b) at some classmates' host family's home. We dropped by for about 5 minutes on Diwali and in that time were offered pakoras about 3 times, it was great. They were spicy and wonderful.

Pink chutney - I have no better name for this, and not for lack of asking. It looks like strawberry applesauce, but is actually is a puree made of tomato, garlic, onion, and chili. A very intense flavor, needless to say, but really good with parathas. My host dad explained it as "prevention cure" for swine flu.

Puri - Fried puff ball of AMAZINGNESS. That is all.

Well okay, I'll give you a little more than that. They are used like chappatis or parathas, to dip/scoop into other foods. They are translucent and beautiful. My host mom gave me the impression that they are served on festive occasions when a lot of people need to be fed because they are small and quick to make. They come full of air and when you bite/puncture them they whoosh out all this super hot air on your face or hand if you're not careful. I miss them! We don't have much deep-fried stuff here, I think because our supervisor has serious high blood pressure.

A conversation about me:

Swati [handing Basanti a postcard]: This is for Julian.

Praveen: Julian?

Basanti: Julian? [takes postcard, reads address] Oh, Zena.

Swati: Yes, Jena.

Praveen: We are calling her everything. Julian, Jena, Jesus...


LOL. It's funny though, I guess I haven't mentioned this before but no one in this household can say or remember my name. Generally they just say "Basanti" when they are trying to talk to both of us, lol. It's kind of like I don't exist, but that's okay. Apparently Basanti's host family would only ever call her roommate, so it's her turn to be the one who is spoken to. When people feel like putting in the effort to address me directly they just call me vague sounds that begin with the "J" sound. At one point Jaswant definitely called me Genie.

Speaking of namessss, I have spotted my name in Vogue India, so I know it exists in this country. (There was a photoshoot of a pair of twins, Zoya and Zina Singh, modeling day and night looks. Zina was night, of course.) I can't tell whether substituting J's for Z's is a regional thing or not. Once when I was making hotel reservations in Varanasi and the manager couldn't tell what I was saying (Tina, Dina, etc), I tried going, "Zena as in zindagi (life)" and he proceeded to go, "Ohhh! Jena as in jindagi! Very good name." Sigh. I guess it could have to do with the fact that the way Z is written is exactly like J but with a dot next to it, and often the dot is left unprinted as though it made little difference. My host family, interestingly, always called me [zeh-nah] as opposed to [zee-nah], making the e sound short, when I would have expected their issue to be the Z, since they tend to use only j sounds; e.g. bajaar for bazaar. Anyway. Yes. So my name is supposed to exist, but most people seem to react to it as though it were completely foreign to them and unpronounceable. Two people have informed me "That is a Muslim name." Strangely that happened twice in one day, and never since. (And no, neither of the people telling me that were Muslim.)

Actually I've gotten a couple theories on my name's meaning here; one woman told me it means "beautiful," Rekhaji and my host mom said it means "staircase" (sounds funny, but when Rachel and I laughed my host mom went and made it profound by saying it was a very good name, and implied "always going up...high thoughts, high spirits..." aww.), and Shravanji from the museum said it means "alive." I'm thinking he meant in the local language, or maybe he just misheard me.


  1. LAUGHING OUT LOUD!!! lol..... JULIAN..?!!! oh zen :) pleeeeeeeeeeeease write a book out of everything that's happened to you on this trip...!

  2. Zena! I clicked on a link to your blog from reconfigureasian and I love it! This post made me laugh, feel nostalgic, and very hungry all at once.
    Hope you're well! I hope you keep up your blog/start a new one after you come back??

  3. Haah..that's a funny one..well I saw your photoshoot in Vogue and the spelling was Zina...The confusion still exists.

  4. well it is actually zina thats my twin sister and we did the shoot. funny how i came across this but it really is pronounced ZINA with a Z not with a J.