thula bharam is an offering to God. In a corner of the temple was a giant
scale (thula), behind which was a blackboard that listed various offerings:
bananas, jaggery (unprocessed raw sugar), gold, silver, coconuts, and
even water. Devotees could pick any one of the offerings, weigh themselves
against it, and pay by the kilo for their choice.
Corrupt politicians would sit on one scale, while the temple staff loaded
up the other with silver. When the scales were balanced, the politician
would pay for his weight in silver and hope to wash away his sins. Corpulent
gold merchants from Bombay-and they were almost always corpulent-would
sit placidly on one scale and pay for the equivalent weight of gold with
"black money" that didn't make it to their tax books. Poor people
who could afford little else would weigh themselves against water and
pay their pittance to God, who, we children were told, viewed every offering
with a benevolent eye. My father, a college professor just embarking on
his career, sensibly chose bananas, which were in the middle of the price
chart, above water, jaggery, and coconuts but much below gold and silver.
He weighed himself against a bunch of bananas and paid for his bharam
The choru-unnal ceremony was next. All these religious rites were conducted
in the outer sanctum, a vast space with cobblestone floors, granite walls,
and carved pillars. Women in pristine white saris and dripping wet hair
circled the temple muttering prayers; wandering mendicants with matted
hair and saffron robes hobbled around; schoolchildren smeared sandalwood
paste on their foreheads and chased one another from pillar to post. Against
this busy backdrop, my family adjourned to a corner where I was to be
fed for the first time. My grandmother held me in her lap while my parents
converged around and made faces at me. I know this because it is what
parents do when confronted with their newborn child.
A baby can do something as mundane as stick her tongue out and the proud
parents will read profound meaning into the action. "Look, she is
sucking her lips in anticipation of the food," they will say.
Grandparents go a step further; they view the baby's actions as a reflection
of their gene pool. "After all, she is my granddaughter," they
will say. "Of course she knows that food is coming."
The priest solemnly placed a sliver of ghee rice in my mouth. I promptly
spat. Everyone went still.
"Let me taste the food," my mother demanded. She did so and
pulled a face. "The ghee is burnt," she said. "No wonder
my daughter spit up."
The priest began to protest, but my family would have none of it. Their
first child wasn't going to eat burnt food for her first meal. The temple
would kindly make some fresh ghee for the infant's meal. They would be
happy to wait.
So we waited. My parents gazed adoringly at me as I blew bubbles with
my spit. The priest swatted flies. My grandparents tried to get their
brand-new camera, bought for the occasion, to work. Temple officials arrived
and informed my parents that they had tested the ghee and it wasn't burnt,
but they were going to make a fresh batch because my parents had insisted.
Of course it would cost them double.
Half an hour later, fresh ghee arrived. The priest mixed it with rice,
my mother tested it and slipped it into my mouth. This time I rolled it
around with my tongue. My parents watched anxiously.
Another idea that afflicts new parents is the notion that their newborn
is never wrong.
"See?" my mother remarked triumphantly when I eventually swallowed.
"It wasn't my daughter's fault. It was the food."
I rest my case.
I visited many temples as a child, mostly because my parents dragged me
to them. Like all children, I viewed religion as a chore, a necessary
hindrance that punctuated my beatific existence with its endless choices
and boundless confidence. It is only recently that I have turned to religion
for solace and sustenance. This, I suppose, is the process of growing
up, of pondering life's imponderables and acknowledging one's limitations.
As a child, after a long morning of prostrating myself before multiple
deities, I would stand in line for the prasadam-food that is presented
to God and then distributed to the devotees-which in my mind was the best
part of the visit. Each temple had a specialty. The Tirupati temple, where
devotees shaved their hair and offered it to God as a symbol of their
vanity, made excellent laddus (candied balls). The Guruvayur temple served
thick payasam, a gooey combination of rice, milk, and sugar stirred slowly
over an open fire by Brahmin priests until it turned light yellow. The
Muruga temple in Palani was known for its panchamritham (five nectars),
made with crystal sugar, honey, ghee, cardamom, and bananas. Some temples
distributed sweet pongal folded within banana leaves. Others, a mixture
of raisins, nuts, and coconut flakes. All of them used copious quantities
Ghee (clarified butter) is one of the most highly regarded foods in Indian
cuisine. While modern Indians dismiss it as being "fatty," the
ancients used to drink a teaspoon of warm ghee with every meal.
It is one of the easiest things to cook, but also the easiest to mess
up. Making ghee is all about timing. The trick is to remove it from the
fire at the exact moment when it turns golden brown. A minute extra could
turn it black and imbue it with a burnt smell. Removing it from the fire
early gives it a raw, buttery flavor, instead of the distinct fragrance
of fresh ghee. Once the ghee is poured out, all that remains are its black
dregs at the bottom of the pan.
As children, we would mix hot rice with the black dregs and gobble it
down. This "black rice" had the flavor and taste of ghee and
was also an Indian method of not wasting even a single ounce of the precious
butter from which ghee is made.
A mixture of equal parts ghee, crushed fresh ginger, and brown sugar is
an age-old recipe believed to improve digestion.
Ghee is the vegetarian's caviar: slightly sinful, somewhat excessive,
but oh so delicious. For Indians, ghee offers the same rich-if guilty-pleasures
that chocolates do for the dieter. My sister-in-law Priya is known far
and wide as an exceptional cook. She says that just a teaspoon of ghee
makes all the difference in flavor-like ice cream versus fat-free sorbet.
While Indians may skimp on ghee in their daily life, they go overboard
when it comes to ghee sweets.
Bus travel through Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and most other North Indian
states affords the particular pleasure of eating hot rotis (flat breads)
made right before one's eyes at tiny roadside stalls and served on banyan
leaves with a dash of hot ghee on top. These rotis are made from different
grains-bajra, jowar, ragi-each with its own distinctive taste. But they
are all topped with ghee.
Ghee keeps at room temperature for about two months, longer in the winter.
It should be used like a condiment, in small quantities. Indians typically
brush ghee on their breads, spoon it into rice, or stir it into their
makes about 1/2 cup
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1.Bring butter to a boil in a small heavy saucepan over medium heat.
2.Once foam completely covers the butter, reduce the heat to very low.
Cook, stirring occasionally, until a thin crust begins to form on the
surface and milky white solids fall to bottom of pan, about 8 minutes.
3.Continue to cook, watching constantly and stirring occasionally to prevent
burning, until the solids turn light brown and the butter deepens to golden
and turns translucent and fragrant, about 3 minutes.
4.When the ghee stops bubbling, you can safely assume that it's done.
Remove it from the heat, let it cool, and pour it into a jar.
from Monsoon Diary by Shoba Narayan Copyright© 2003 by Shoba
Narayan. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House,
Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or
reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Monsoon Diary weaves a fascinating food narrative that combines
delectable Indian recipes with tales from her life, stories of her delightfully
eccentric family, and musings about Indian culture.
her childhood in South India, her college days in America, her arranged
marriage, and visits from her parents and in-laws to her home in New York
City. Monsoon Diary is populated with characters like Raju, the
milkman who named his cows after his wives; the iron-man who daily set
up shop in Narayans front yard, picking up red-hot coals with his
bare hands; her mercurial grandparents and inventive parents. Narayan
illumines Indian customs while commenting on American culture from the
vantage point of the sympathetic outsider. Her characters, like Narayan
herself, have a thing or two to say about cooking and about life.
In this creative
and intimate work, Narayans considerable vegetarian cooking talents
are matched by stories as varied as Indian spicesat times pungent,
mellow, piquant, and sweet. Tantalizing recipes for potato masala, dosa,
and coconut chutney, among others, emerge from Narayans absorbing
tales about food and the solemn and quirky customs that surround it.
has written about food, travel and her native India for many publications
including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Travel
& Leisure, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Saveur,
Newsweek, Beliefnet and House Beautiful, among others.
Her essays and commentaries have appeared on NPR's All Things Considered
2001, Shoba won the James Beard Foundation's MFK Fisher Award for Distinguished
Writing for her story, "The God of Small Feasts" which appeared
in Gourmet's January 2000 issue. This is widely considered the
most prestigious food writing award in the United States.
from the Columbia Journalism School with a Master of Science degree in
1995. The school awarded her a Pulitzer Travelling Fellowship given to
the top three graduating students in the class.
in Singapore with her husband and two daughters.