Thursday, January 31, 2013

The power of Herbs

Last time we talked about spices and their historical importance. We saw how spices were one of the main finds of the Age of Discovery. We also saw how two great men of that time were joined by destiny through an unseen thread woven along continents they sailed across looking for spices.
Today, let us talk about herbs, which are a close cousin of spices. The array of herbs is as varied as that of spices, and both of them are added to enhance the flavour of the dish and induce medicinal properties.
A basic difference between herbs and spices is that spices, as you know, are derived from the roots, bark, stem, seed or fruit of a plant; whereas herbs are the leaves of a plant which are used fresh or dried.
Another contrast between herbs and spices lies in their flavour. Herbs are subtle whereas spices have a pronounced flavour. Fresh herbs are great for garnishing your dish whereas spices are hardly used in their fresh form. They are usually roasted and then used in cooking. Also herbs are not as expensive as the spices which often have to be imported and require to be kept in certain temperature conditions for their growth.

Many herbs are also known for their usage in many religions around the world. For example tulsi is a revered herb here in India. It is worshipped in Hinduism alongside many gods and goddesses. Tulsi is known to have a calming effect and according to Gandharva Tantra a lawn overgrown with tulsi is a pre-requisite for meditation and worship. The herb also finds use in ayurveda. The roots, seeds and leaves of the plant are used to treat various ailments. It has been found to be an effective antidote in cases of scorpion and snake bites. Diabetic patients are often advised to regularly chew on tulsi leaves as the phytonutrients in them help lower blood sugar. Tulsi has been known for its anti-spasmodic properties and since time immemorial has been given to young children who suffer from colic pain. It forms an important ingredient of  many ayurvedic cough syrups and expectorants. In days gone by tulsi was used to treat tuberclosis or TB. According to Indian mythology, goddess Tulsi is dear to Krishna and Vishnu. Married Indian women pray to Tulsi for longevity and happiness. Tulsi vivah — when the tulsi plant is married to Vishnu annually — this sets off the marriage season in India.
Polish folklore is full of uses of various herbs. Some have been praised for warding off the evil eye whereas others have been hailed for their medicinal value.
There are herbs like mint or pudina that are universally renowned. This healing herb is, and was, commonly used as an aid for digestion. The leaf, either used fresh or in its dried form, is widely used in beverages, jellies, candies and ice creams among other things. Menthol and the essential oils derived from mint are used in mouth freshners, rinses and tooth pastes. It has a cool, tingling taste which is known to be extremely refreshing. In a popular tea consumed in African and Arab countries, mint is an essential ingredient. It is also used to treat insect bites and at times as a decongestant.

Herbs have also been used in the Chinese medicinal system. A mythical figure, Shennong is the first recognised herbalist who it is said tasted innumerable herbs and imparted his knowledge of different medicinal and poisonous plants to farmers.
So you see, nature around us is bountiful. All that we may need is right here amongst us. We just need to recognise it and respect it.

(This post first appeared as a column in The New Indian Express on January 18, 2013.)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A chance at a new life- My entry for Get Published contest

This is Maya’s story. She is a bubbly young girl who comes from a middle class family background. She has vibrant dreams and is also ambitious to a certain extent. She carries strong ethos and has a very clear sense of duty, being the eldest of 5 siblings.

Situation/ Context
 Maya and Vibhor married for love. An unfortunate death in one of the families leads to a prolonged engagement period. Life, which was supposed to look better once they were together, has different plans for them. Vibhor gets transferred and a pregnant Maya decides to carry on with her job. She lives with her mother-in-law while her husband lives in a different city, managing to come home once in two months. Stress and various distances take a toll and Maya’s child is born with autism.

Now Vibhor has been transferred to a new city. Is this the opportunity that life is giving them to work some magic back in their lives? Will Maya be able to take care of her child and marriage in this new environment? Will she be able to give love another chance?

Why this?
This is a story that I have seen evolve. Though some of the elements are fictional yet I have seen a friend face situations and ordeals which we generally would think were a result of fertile imagination. This is a story that I find moving and inspiring at the same time.

Endnote: This is my entry for the HarperCollins–IndiBlogger Get Published contest, which is run with inputs from Yashodhara Lal and HarperCollins India.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Spices from across the globe

What is aromatic, has various properties and is most commonly used in the powder form? The colours may vary and so could the amount used or the time of addition but spices are one of the most prominently used ingredient to add and sometimes hide certain flavours in dishes across  various cuisines.
The mention of the word ‘spices’ might bring to mind the sweet fragrance of cardamom, fennel or the pungent taste of asafoetida or clove.
If you go back in time you will be surprised to know that the use of spices was associated with magic, religion, preservation and even medicine earlier on.
The story of spices is one fraught with adventure, exploration and the  discovery of new lands and their conquests. Through your history books you must have come to know about the spice trade and its importance in the evolution of cities like Alexandria. Spices found mention amongst the elite items on the list of any trader worth his name. This list generally included important and valuable stuff like Dhaka’s muslin cloth, silk, ivory and gold.
For example, early Egyptians knew the importance of spices in embalming mummies. Nutmeg was said to be a magic cure for the plague which killed more than 35,000 people in London in 1603. To gather an idea about how much spices mattered take a look at the fact that in fourteenth century Germany, one pound of nutmeg could fetch you seven healthy oxen. A serf in France could buy back his freedom with a pound of pepper or a pound of peppercorn would be somebody’s monthly rent. During the middle ages a pound of ginger could get you a sheep or three.

The search for spices in order to avoid paying heavy taxes to the merchants in Venice was the reason Vasco da Gama set sail from Portugal. He reached Calicut in 1498. It was his discovery of the route to India by sea, avoiding the Mediterranean, which helped the Portuguese economy to flourish. It also helped them set up a sort of commercial monopoly over the various spices available here in India. Vasco da Gama is celebrated as an explorer and his discovery was the most important one of the many made during what is now called the Age of discovery. You might also recall how the Portuguese were responsible for introducing us to newer things like the papaya and the sort-of-star-vegetable, the potato.
Around the same time as Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus returned from his discovery of the New World. This led to the introduction of new spices like vanilla, cocoa, bell and chilli pepper.

Spices are valued for their taste and appearance but more so for their medicinal value. No kitchen in an Indian home would be complete without an array of spices. Cultures have been known to develop food around the spices that are locally grown in those areas. Look at our own regional foods here in India. With different temperatures in different regions of the country favouring cultivation of different spices, India has a great variety to offer.
We even have a dedicated organisation in our country by the name of Spices Board under the Ministry of Commerce, Government of India, that looks after the development and promotion of Indian spices.
Be it in powdered form, chopped, ground or roasted, spices add texture and make a dish more flavourful enhancing its nutritional value at the same time. Do check your mother’s kitchen to know what spices are added to your everyday food and find out how they benefit your health.

(This was published first as a column in The New Indian Express on January 4, 2012. Read the link here

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Magic goodies from the market

Last time we talked about the goodness in some of the produce that is amply available during the winters. The list of such healthy foods available during winters does not just end here. Let us take another round of the vegetable market and see what else is available and what goodness do they hold.

Mustard: Though imprinted on our memories by the efforts of late Mr Yash Chopra, Mustard or sarson does more than providing beautiful background for film songs. Mustard leaves make for a wonderful vegetable in the months ranging from November to March. It is rich in phyto-nutrients which aid in prevention of many diseases. This leafy vegetable belongs to the Brassica family, the other members of which include cabbage and broccoli. The mustard leaves are rich source of anti oxidants boosting body’s immune system. It is also rich in Vitamins A, C, E and K aiding eyesight, healthy skin and mucous membrane. Mustard is low in fat and sodium content and is an excellent source of folic acid. The mustard seeds used as a spice are helpful in digestion and are a store house of calcium, selenium, magnesium and phosphorous among other essential minerals. Mustard also yields the mustard oil, which is an important part of kitchens in India. It has been known to aid not just digestion but has also been found to effective sinusitis to a certain extent. The oil is also known for its anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. The high content of vitamin E in the oil helps improve skin health as well.

Peas: It is surprising how much goodness the tiny peas in a pod pack in. The plant belongs to the legume family. Like all legumes, the peas are rich in iron and Vitamin C. Peas as a source of Iron is mainly important because the amount of iron found in peas is hardly matched by any other non-animal source. Peas also contain a carotenoid (that which has Vitamin A activity, responsible for good vision and act as anti-oxidants) called lutein which is known for its anti-aging properties and reduces the risk of cataract. The Vitamin C helps in developing resistance against infections in our bodies. Peas are also a rich source of essential B-complex vitamins.

Ginger: It has earned fame as a spice, a delicacy as well as for its medicinal properties.  Ginger is a rhizome of a plant to which others like turmeric and cardamom belong. In India no mention of a winter session is complete without the mention of the masala tea of which ginger is the main constituent. This is so because ginger is known for its immunity boosting powers. It is used for enhancing the flavour of curries and pulses. Dried ginger is also used in our country for various food preparations whereas pickled ginger is used in both the Chinese and Japanese cuisines. In Western cuisine ginger is used in preparing traditional sweet foods like the gingerbread, ginger biscuits and ginger ale. Besides being used for its flavour, ginger forms a basic ingredient of food in many cultures because ginger stimulates digestion by helping in absorption and assimilation of essential nutrients in our body. It also provides gastrointestinal relief, meaning thereby that as well as counters the effect of any kind of sickness. Ginger’s anti inflammatory properties have been known to be effective in countering chronic pains.

There are more vegetables, fruits and not to forget nuts like peanuts which are must haves in this cold season. You must also include all of them in your daily diet to ensure that you are able to get the maximum benefit and the result will reflect in healthy bones, glowing skin and lustrous hair.

(This post first appeared as a column in The New Indian Express on Jan 4, 2013. You can read the link here :

Monday, January 07, 2013


I am feeling inspired right now. Maybe it has to do with the fact that dinner or school are not on my mind. Anyway I have stolen an hour and besides many other things that I want to accomplish in this one hour, I also want to write down my goals for the year 2013. This is the first of its kind, me setting goals, so applause please. Without much ado here are goals  that I would like to achieve before the NYE.

1. Write: I had almost stopped writing. Writing for pleasure that is, so I am setting a goal of writing minimum of 500 words everyday. In addition to that I will look harder for opportunities for doing columns in newspapers, magazines, e-zines.

2. Read: As I summarised my year 2012, I realised that I had hardly read a thing. I won 5 books in various contests on twitter but I have not yet read them all. Also I have been at The Last Mughal for a very very long  time. I intend to finish it within this month. Also the fact that I want to make a place for myself as a story-teller I commit to reading more short stories, long stories, novels, novellas and authors and not just think about them. Hence I will also make a reading list and see what all I have crossed out before the year turns.

3. Blog: I am going to be more regular with the blog. I have neglected for too long and in that I have also neglected taking down notes on life, of life so instead of a scribble at twitter I will record my awesomeness alongside stories, observations and insights on the blog.

4. Fiction: By the grace of Almighty I will be a published author before the year ends. I am going to ensure that I have more than just that one book to my name and hence will read, write and record with a rekindled passion.

5. Walk: Walking has made a comeback and I will walk more. Walk. Walk. Walk.

6. Talk: I will make effort to seek people and hear their stories. I have met a few interesting people and would like to know them better so I commit to putting myself out there and making the effort to know them better and have conversations with them.

7. Listen:  I will listen to myself. I will not shut myself out or become hard to approach.

8. Travel: This one is more of a hope. I hope I get to travel a lot in this year and have new lessons to share and store.

9. Breathe: I have noticed that I often forget to breathe. I hold my breath for long without realising what I am doing. So I will re-learn to breathe as also try and take a deep breathe before losing my cool.

Have I forgotten something? What are your goals? Please share, I would love to listen.