Online shopping! A notion that was still in an infant stage when I first arrived in India, and is still by far a disregarded one in Switzerland, but is now booming in the subcontinent.
Switzerland has never been high on the whole dot com thing, I remember having friends look at me odd when I said I ordered my region 1 DVDs from Amazon.com and that they cost me less than buying then in region 2 in Geneva. Or that you could shorten your order delivery by a few days from one of the many catalogues issued in the country by placing the order on their online portal, their reply was “you are insane to trust a stranger you never seen with your credit card details”. A fear that is understandable, but when I once told my mom that it was equally insane to just slip your card into a restaurant’s bill folder at the end of the meal for the waiter to take behind in the billing section was equally insane and yet no one gave it a second thought, my mom even said “These are real persons, the risk is minimal”, the irony had it that a few months later she paid for our meal in a restaurant by card, and for some reason managed to leave the place without it, and noticed 2 days later that someone had made some big phone calls from a phone booth with it, probably the waiter, since she forgot the card in the bill folder…so much for real people being honest huh? I don’t think she questioned my quirky behaviour after that, but still found it ridiculous for me to not send the order slip of mail in catalogues even though it was free of postage, and preferred placing my order online or on the phone, or place orders for CD and DVDs across the Atlantic and wait 2 weeks simply because the Dollar/Swiss Franc conversion rate was working in my favour.
And yet Switzerland wasn’t and still isn’t a country totally foreign to the concept of sales by correspondence, as long as I remember, big 600 pages seasonal catalogues of several correspondence retail giants are still coming bi-annually to homes that request them: Spring-Summer and Autumn-Winter, full of glossy pictures, sizes charts, and the fashion of the season page after page, to dress you from head to toe, down to the underwear, and dress your home in bed linen and curtains, to home appliances and electronics, with one inevitable page just for vibrators which were displayed being used as facial massagers though even all high of my 10 years of age I wondered why a lady was rubbing a rubber penis on her shape and the summary said it was a relaxing a pleasurable massager.
I saw my parents order our bed sheets and quite a few clothes every 6 months, and when I moved out on my own I carried on with the institution, sticking to more modern and trendy fashion catalogue, the concept of shopping from the comfort of my bed after a long day at work was bliss, but I saw quickly the advantage of just placing the order online over filling the slip by hand and dropping it in the mailbox. First the online portal offered additional discounts on some items, then the order was reaching them much faster than by regular post, and contrary to what people thought it was safe as no credit card number was asked, they kept following the good old Swiss way of sending you a “pay by post” bill with your purchase, a bill you had 30 days to pay, or by going to your post office with the slip, or mail to your bank, or pay via online banking at your convenience (which I did, which again elicited quite a few snort from family and friend as Internet was seen as the purest evil in people’s lives then).
Till date my family and friends back home haven’t really told me about major changes in retail patterns back home, my generation shops online, but the choice is limited, and my mom’s and grand mother’s generation finds it or stupid, or simply don’t know how or why it would even be remotely convenient because they never really been in front of a computer and have been let to know that computers where a young person’s thing, not something that the old ones can dab into.
Now in India, mass retail in its whole is still a very new concept, and yes it benefits only a small percentage of the population, as only big cities have things such as a big shopping mall, big supermarket and possibly hypermarket. But that percentage in a billion souls country still mean you get a significantly big number of people shopping in these places for them to be profitable. but non metro cities while still big, might not necessarily have a huge book store, or access to much of the now prized designer goodies. And that issue has been solved with online shopping, as many more middle class people living outside big metros, have now access to a computer or even have an internet connection in the convenience of their home, which wasn’t such an easy thing in 2003 when I first arrived, I lived only in metros, and I just remember the headache it was in each city, including Mumbai to get an internet connection that wasn’t stripping your bank account and had unlimited usage, or at the most a decent package per month, and let’s not talk about speed!
In the past 4-5 years Internet become more accessible, and with it a new possibility in the retail world, but first they had to gain the trust of people, because what was already there in matter of online shopping wasn’t really encouraging people to just try it more, back in the days the main players were Rediff Shopping, Fab Mall and Home Shopping 18…all of them plagued by delivery issue, lack of quality in goods, lack of consistency and absolutely pathetic customer service. I remember DH ordering a book from FabMall and having to wait over a month to finally get it delivered, he did it once, not twice. Then ebay came, but didn't gain the trust of people, and frankly in the beginning Indian sellers weren’t selling stuff that people would really see an advantage in buying online over going to your local store. This all changed in 2009 when ebay had a serie of TV commercials explaining how safe it was, and somehow the whole thing took off, and yes I used them and we had good experiences with them, reputable sellers get good reviews, and are a good indicator of trust, though can always fall on a rotten apple, just like you can fall on a despicable dishonest store owner in your own neighbourhood.
Just in the past 2 years the online shopping trend has really kicked in, I mentionned my good experience with First Cry, and with Landmark on the net, but Flikart is another one I should have mentioned more than in passing as this one is the closest to what Amazon is in other countries selling books, CDs, DVDs, electronics and home appliances, with a fast delivery and a very easily track able order as they internalized even the delivery having their own courier service. I know people who had excellent experience with Baby Oye, and Hushbabies which are two other company selling baby gear, then there is Shopper’s stop which I never tried but has an apparently very reliable online shopping portal, and because I spend a lot of time browsing online shopping stores, my Facebook ads let me know about more of such in India, you have websites to order gourmet food, cosmetics, and even one I just recently personally used where you just sign up to request free samples of whatever good the website company has to offer : Sample and try, I already got a lip balm from them to try, totally free of cost, and i am waiting for the delivery of a perfume sample from them, the only thing the site ask its subscriber to do is write a brief review of the product after receiving it and using it, it is a great way to discover new products, or start using one you would not have bought otherwise, and that has me all set in the lip balm department for the season and maybe even the next winter. First Cry also just launched a sister site selling cosmetics I’m thinking of using to save money on my shampoo needs with the extra convenience of not being harassed by sales representative in supermarkets which I admit have discouraged me from stopping more than 5 seconds in the aisle to even consider trying another brand that the very easily identifiable Dove as I have zero patience for their aggressiveness when I’m grocery shopping (a chore I hate doing and has me neurotic in no time).
I’ve also registered with 99labels and Fashion and You which are two websites offering flash sales and big discounts on designer wear and household items, I haven’t ordered from them yet because I never found anything worthy enough to buy there, but they have a very interesting selection, the only issue these two sites have is that most sales have a 3 weeks delivery period, so you shouldn’t be too much in a hurry to get your goods delivered, unless it is an “express” sale on fashion and you which promise a shipping within 24 hours of the order, but again I am yet to try these.
Another good thing is that most online shopping site in India offer several payment options as they recognize that not everybody has a credit card, or even know how to use online banking, so you have a cheque on delivery option and even a CASH on delivery option, the later being particularly good for expats who just settled in the country and don’t have a bank account in the country, the only thing you need to remember when placing a cash on delivery order is that some site will charge you an extra processing fee, and that in all case you must give a phone number at which you are reachable as they will not ship your item before calling you to get a confirmation that you indeed ordered this item.
And on a last note, online shopping made my Christmas shopping much easier when it came to Ishita’s presents as I could simply leave it unwrapped until she napped for me to gift wrap them, and not have her beg for them. Easy Peasy!
Winter is the season I love the most here in India, Bangalore was the best with the months right after the monsoon getting cooler, to have us pleasantly shiver in our sweater in the mornings and evenings in December.
In Mumbai winter is a bit milder, and this year, December was still warm but pleasant, just at the beginning of this week did a cold wave hit us having me happily sleep in my sweatpants under the blanket and snuggle in my hoodie jacket stepping out of my bed early in the morning.
Most of my family and friends back home smile or laugh when I say it is cold and specify temps are in their 20’s (Celsius) or even dropped below that during the night. Temperatures are all relative, and having 15-20 degrees in Switzerland in December, would be considered hot, not cold. But then Mumbai has temperatures way above 30 most of the year and a level of humidity that can be suffocating at times, so for us, this drop in temperature is indeed cold. But the first sign of Winter in Mumbai is not so much about the change in temperature, but the change in humidity, September and October are the two months right after the monsoon, and the heat and humidity are unbearable, and suddenly in November you start feeling the change on your skin. Once icky sticky five minutes after stepping out of the shower, the skin starts to pull a little feeling dry, and by the start of December we are all slathering ourselves in lotion to keep moist enough and comfy in our skin.
Back in Switzerland I actually used to hate winter, it meant days getting shorter with people waking up before the sunrise to go to work and coming home long after the sunset feeling their whole 8 hours have been wasted inside while the sun shone bright, trees loosing all their colours, the piercing northern wind sending people right back home from their day to office. and the only redeeming quality of the season being the festive season, and the holiday break to head to the mountains in hope to get more sun that inevitably find it hard to make its way to the cities in the plains under a gloomy almost constant layer of cloud.
Comfort food there means warming your heart when all is frozen outside: steaming soups, warm fragrant cakes and pies, mugs of tea, mulled wine and hot chocolate, gratin and rich stews, comforting pasta dishes…And of course life in slow motion. Comes Winter back home people just want to stay home, cuddle with a good book, and just wait the time away until spring, the holiday season generally takes us out of our shell in a mayhem of formal parties, family gathering and by boxing day we are all at home surviving on leftovers which in my home meant smoked salmon on toasts and fake caviar, possibly with some leftover champagne and some roast meat from the main course, topped it up by a generous serving of Christmas chocolates and candies gifted to us over the course of December by friends, colleagues and relatives. A short lived coma until December 31st where we all come back from the dead or almost to party one last time this year and celebrate the new the next morning by sleeping in late, and possibly not leaving our jammies for the day to come in good company with yet more leftovers, a hangover and the vague remembrance of a resolution we just took a few hours ago but already too distant for us to really care about following through with it. Most people take a few days off after New Years eve as many companies shut their door anyway matching the length of the school break to allow families to be together. The first week of January is generally spent in hibernation mode for most.
Here in Mumbai, people are the opposite, the minute the humidity drops and you will see more housewives and elderly people just venture out in the gardens and parks of their residential complexes to just enjoy the weather, come the evening and you have even more people out, active and happy, indulging in more jogging and walking than before.
But of course Winter is also a time to indulge in comfort food here too, pretty much like during the monsoon, fried stuff make a comeback, soups are becoming fashionable with certain stores declaring them a Winter essential at par with Vaseline lotion, Nivea cream and lip balms. The Christmas spirit is gripping India stronger with each passing years and with it the decoration, food and movies.
This year I spent the whole month of December enjoying dinners of cheese, soups, warm comforting bowl of pasta, chicken in gravies, and hot cup of tea, not because I needed the comfort inside to shield myself from the harsh cold outside, but because finally the temperature was cool enough to make me crave these and indulge, the comfort of the weather outside brought the comfort on my plate.
And for the first time this year I fell into leftover mode past Christmas, and the desire to just be home and enjoy the Winter’s cosiness. New year’s eve will come, and i don’t know what I’ll be doing, and frankly not sure I even care about it as much as the other years for I am in total bliss right now.
I know I’ll be at the airport on January 1st in the evening to pick up my mom who will be visiting for the first 2 weeks of the new year. I won’t be blogging much until the 15th. I’ll be taken out of my Winter slow mode then as I am sure Mumbai will get warm and then hot pretty soon.
I probably will make another post before the year, so I will hold my wishes for now.
A day after Christmas, this is this Tata Docomo commercial line that keeps going through my head and for a good reason, I SHOULD have kept it simple. Cooking wise that is. My menu was fairly simple: Potato gratin, grilled chicken breast in shiitake mushroom sauce and a nice homemade cake for desert.
The problem with that plan, is that first of all I should have started some preparation earlier, because I spent all Christmas day in the kitchen washing dishes, preparing one thing or another, and running after Ishita to get her out of trouble because DH’s jog had him tied to his stupid laptop in the living room on a public holiday, nothing less!
So I started with the cake, taking the same sponge cake recipe I found last year and just applied it to a different cake mould, last year the result was fine enough, and this year it should have gone better because a) I found the self raising flour the recipe asked for and b) I had my hand help electric beater to do the job. How wrong was I! For some reason the batter never raised in the oven, and I’ll blame it on that freaking self raising flour that was total crap, then the amount of batter might not have been sufficient enough to begin with and the top cracked open in the cooking process, that would have been fine in a normal tin, but not in a funnel tin. So I took the cake out, went for a shower, and started cooking another one, this time with MY own trusted recipe that some will argue isn’t light enough for a sponge cake, but that has never ever ever EVER failed me, my good old 4 quarter ratio cake, the ultimate basic of baking 101, which basically has you pick up the quantity of eggs you need (I picked 4 because it was a big tin) weight these very same egg still in their shell and then weight the same amount in flour, sugar and flour, and add 2 teaspoon of baking powder and the flavouring. Since my cake was a vanilla base, all that went in extra was the vanilla.
I used that base recipe countless of time, to just do about any flavour, it never failed me, and true to its reputation my second cake was perfect, lesson learned, I will never ever trust one of these other recipe ever again. Baking twice got me tired and behind. But I still got to peel my kilo of potato and felt back on track and decided to take a nap.
The main issue of the day was the chicken, I specifically needed boneless chicken breast WITH skin, because I wanted to grill it and not end up with some dry meat. If I had a big conventional oven, I would have bought a whole chicken, and shoved it in the oven with the gratin and it would have been easy, but real big nice convection ovens or even gas ovens aren’t a norm in India, as I mentioned it in the past, so I have a microwave/convection one, the size is small and you can only bake one thing at a time in there, and since the gratin needs to be eaten straight from the oven, I didn’t want to have two baking item on the menu.
Simple enough huh? Well not so much, chicken with skin is apparently though to get in Mumbai, in Bangalore it was easy, in Mumbai most meat shops don’t keep it, and they told me I had to place an order the day before, which we did, only for DH to go in the afternoon of the 25th to pick it up and be told that no they could not do it…Thanks for not calling us guys. Apparently they didn’t get why it was such a big deal and that skinless breast is just the same!
DH called me to ask me if he should go ahead and buy the skinless one, and pissed I told him that yeah, but I was fuming inside wondering how to get my meal done now.
DH sensing my irritation, went to every meat stall in the neighbourhood and ended up in our maid’s village and she helped him find a good shop, the guy there told him that yes he could get us 3 chicken breast with skin, but we would have to buy the 3 chickens as he had to kill 3 to get it done just for us, my maid agreed to bring it to us as soon as it was ready and DH went back home to tell me all about it, while I assembled my gratin to shove it in the oven later.
The chicken came on time, but we decided to do present time before Ishita became too irritated as she forgot to nap, and we enjoyed some good time, away from the chicken madness, and kitchen. When I went to the kitchen, the breasts still had the bone and they were ENORMOUS, clearly the chicken shop he found had access to far bigger birds than all those shops selling prepped and packaged ones, since it was running late, I decided to wash the pieces, and use the leg pieces instead as they were huge and would spare me the deboning, all that while my gratin cooked. I wrapped the pieces I would not use to put in the freezer, and of course my mom who announced she would call called, but not sensing the tone of hurry in my voice kept blabbing about her Indian visa almost not getting done on time (she is coming next weekend), a huge long story she could have told me next week, but chose to give in detail while all I wanted was prep this legs to grill them before the gratin finished cooking. By the time she was done, my gratin was, so instead of grilling my legs, I put them in a baking tray, and seasoned them to roast in the oven having to wait another 40 minutes for them to cook while the gratin mushed, and seeing DH sleeping on the sofa and Ishi starting getting super whiny, when everything was finally ready, I was dead, DH was tired and hungry, and Ishita was tired, cranky and stubbornly refusing to go to sleep in bed by herself so I left the table let my gratin and chicken get cold telling DH to go ahead and eat without me, came back to the table to eat my now cold Christmas dinner, and we ten took my cake in front of TV to try to watch Inception until the end, but our brains were too fried for us to get the movie and we stopped midway.
The cake was a success, I filled with with jam and iced it with royal icing, where I even managed to get some red doodle in icing made over the white coat. But I can say frankly, I should have kept the rest of the meal simple, a roast chicken, pasta or rice and a green vegetable would just have done the trick in twice less hassle and time spent in the kitchen, or heck even just Chicken and French fries.
Lesson learned, next year I’ll do it better, I even already wrote on several December pages in my 2012 Day planner to just remember this year’s craziness and just keep it simple, because the best part of Christmas isn’t slaving in the kitchen to get out a fancy special meal, it’s about family.
Not that I didn’t grow up used to the idea that Christmas was about the food, my family is big on food, parties and fancy occasion meals that has you sit at a table for hours going through zillion courses, realistically I know I can’t do just that, I don’t have the stepford wives gene my grand mothers seem to have running in their blood, or rather not the patience for it, and in my immediate family my dad was the masterchef when it came to holiday meals, my mom is more of a cook by necessity like many wives of her time, but my dad just cooks for fun and enjoys it, so yes even Sunday evening meals were big so he could indulge in his passion.
I like cooking, I do, but I do recognise my quick temper, impulsive behaviour and lack of patience, that combined with a kitchen that is probably better equipped for daily continental and Indian fare, it makes trying to replicate a holiday feast just too exhausting for me to really get into the spirit of Christmas without any meltdown.
it’s that time of the year again, Christmas is coming with it’s glitz, lights, parties and food, and that is what has kept me busy.
I spent a solid amount of time baking cookies that seem to vanish from the cookie jar faster than the time it actually takes me to make refills, I’ve planned our festive menu (simple one though because it is just us, and I don’t want to be pooped out comes the evening), the gifts are wrapped.
As I am writing these lines my daughter is having her first Christmas party of the year in school, tomorrow we are heading to a friends place for another party, and on the 25th we are feasting at home.
My Christmas tree has been suffering a little abuse this year as it had to be on the ground and Ishita simply couldn’t get enough of the decorations, but it is still standing.
I found a beautiful poinsettia just yesterday to add some more festive cheer to my living room:
DH is worst than a kid desperately wanting to open his presents, and for some reasons I’ve been into doing totally un-Christmas craft projects with more lining up, I attribute it to the nice and mildly cool climate we are now living, Winter being the only season in Mumbai I can call pleasant.
Wishing you all a Merry Christmas, as I am not sure I’ll get blogging before Monday.
Now the traditional desi way of cooking it is to briefly stir the leaves in a hot kadai containing a little oil along with some onions and garlic and throw boiled potatoes to the mix to counteract the bitterness of the leaves. And personally I can eat it without any potato addition because what I love about it is the sour bitter taste. But, to get the right balance it needs not to be overcooked otherwise the bitterness become indeed overpowering. DH isn’t much of a fan, and he needs a lot of potato added to very little methi to enjoy it, my daughter still being in her green is evil boycott trip won’t touch it, and my maid doesn’t know how to cook it without the potato or without overcooking the leaves.
What I learned from one of the other kids mom in Ishita’s school is that apparently in traditional maharati cuisine it isn’t unusual for people to use methi leaves raw in salads, adding any choice of other salad veggies to the mix and lightly sprinkling it with lemon juice, and even use a little oil to bind the taste. The mother in question also told me she often just used olive oil and a little vinegar as they found out in her family that it tasted better…Now that was something I HAD to try.
So yesterday, I came up with this :
A potato salad with red onion and methi leaves, seasoned in paprika, cumin powder olive oil and rice vinegar.
The result was a yummy subtle flavoured dish, the uncooked leaves are actually much sweeter with only a hint of the bitter taste so many hate about it and it makes for a lighter side dish or salad lunch.
My daughter still refused to touch it because it has been contaminated by something green, but I ate almost the whole thing. DH will have to taste that the next time I make it, because it is something I am sure to fix again and again.
Here is my recipe for it:
2-3 medium to big potatoes, boiled, peeled , cooled and cut into chunks
1-2 handfuls of fresh fenugreek leaves
1 medium red onion, sliced
paprika, cumin powder to taste
2-3 table spoons olive oil (enough to coat the potato chunks)
A drizzle of rice vinegar
1) Put the potato chinks in a salad bowl, and pour olive oil on top of them and stir to coat the chunks so that they become non sticky, then sprinkle paprika and cumin seed powder on top and stir again
2) crumble the onion slice on top to separate the onion layers and sprinkle with the fenugreek leaves, drizzle with rice vinegar just before serving.
The potatoes need to be cool before tossing the leaves on top, otherwise the heat from the potatoes will cook the methi leaves and spoil the fresh taste, this is after all a salad.
Ishita’s school just issued a circular about the introduction of fixed monthly menus for parents to respect when it comes to stuffing their tiffin boxes (lunch boxes), even though her school is 2 hours a day and the tiffin time more a time to sit and adopt good table manners, they are now making sure the kids get to eat healthy as well, and this month set menu goes as such:
Tuesday: Brown Bread Sandwich
Thursday: Paratha/puri bhaji (vegetable and fried bread)
Friday: Kid’s choice menu
I for one salute the move, I tried pretty much to keep Ishita’s tiffin healthy, putting a brown bread sandwich and fruits, or a small handful of plain salted popcorn on a daily basis, but it is a known fact in India that a lot of kids of elementary school age are getting a lot of junk in theirs, many schools have in fact pulled the alarm bell on what goes into the tummy of kiddos nowadays, and I know my nephew’s school in Delhi simply won’t allow white bread, maggi noodles and even a chocolate cookie added as a treat into a lunchbox. Some schools in Mumbai organized a contest a while back praising the kid who had the healthiest tiffins in a month, some other schools like Ishita’s one issue fixed menus and suggestion for a healthy snack. In a country that is the world’s diabetes and heart disease capital, and seeing a staggering number of overweight to obese children, I say FINALLY!
And with the fixed menu system it also make my task very easy, I don;t have to think too hard about what to put in Ishi’s lunchbox, it’s set for me, and the menu for this month is fuss free, idli can be made from a ready made batter, or even bought frozen (and yes the frozen ones taste excellent), since DH takes a tiffin for lunch, the maid has in all likehood cooked some lentils the night before to put in Ishita’s box along with the idli, a brown bread sandwich isn’t time consuming to make either, fruits which in a traditional Indian diet are disregarded should be part of a healthy one, DH and I spare no expenses on having the fridge and fruit basket loaded with as many as we can, paratha in my opinion is the least healthy of the lot, most traditional families cook them with ghee, and even in oil it is still fried bread, but it is a food stuff that is easy to stuff with veggies your kiddo might not eat otherwise, and is made with whole wheat flour, so I see where that is a healthier option than throwing potato chips or kurkure (and yes some of Ishita’s classmates have these in their box, and some end up in her box when I open it back home). And giving freedom to kids to eat junk food or a food stuff no on the list on Friday is good too, because junk food while not the best for health is something people like, and as long as it is once in a while it can’t hurt.
The other thing I like with this menu, is that it is not only Indian, or only North/South Indian, it serves the purpose of educating a kid’s palate as well. I for myself can’t wait to see what they will be coming up in the following months. In the meantime I need to get Ishita another lunchbox, because the one she has is a Dora the Explorer Sandwich box that leaks should you attempt to even put melon cubes in it, and it needs to be one with more than just one compartment.
And to all those who think it is unfair to have a school dictate what should be in a kid’s lunchbox, remember that it is just ONE meal a day, you still have the freedom to give them whatever you want home, but a school’s duty is to take care of your kid, and teach them more than just academics, and what better age to start than right in toddlerhood?
Every couple had them, these moments of intense discussion in the middle of a furniture store deciding which table will look better, and inevitably what one likes, the other will dislike if not truly hate. This in turn ensure more trips to various stores, vetoes issued against one style or another, and more discussion, until you find the right compromise between the two pole opposite of what the perfect piece of furniture should look like.
No one in a relationship will ever escape it, and when the intercultural trump card comes in, the matter becomes even less avoidable, DH and I did have these moments quite often, from the time we got enough cash wedding gifts in 2006 to finally graduate to real furniture versus the plastic horrors we had, fault put on having different priorities and not enough money to really care much about style (though I must admit the interior decorator in me was cringing silently).
I grew up in a country where a certain Swedish Democratic design mega store pretty much reign supreme with it’s affordable home solutions, clean minimalistic design, with of course a preference for the light wood version of each models due to the fact that Switzerland is a country that has mroe gloomy days than bright sunny ones and you definitely need light and warmth in your home.
DH grew up in a country where the houses of his parents generation were big, and big heavy dark wooden intricately carved pieces were looking stunning, and were to last a lifetime. A style that has prevailed in today’s India despite city dwellings being decisively tiny, rendering the style of yore bulky, what’s more because the cost of a hardwood cabinet is a significant expense, many cheap laminated MDF versions have sprouted on the market, be it your neighbourhood carpenter, to the wholesale furniture market, you will find no shortage of cheap, tacky and poor quality boxy looking sofas, armchairs and cabinets all mimicking the taste of yesteryear, with more or less success, far more less than more I might add.
When we first decided to buy ourselves furniture in 2006, we immediately where the disagreement would come: I wanted light and minimalistic, and DH wanted dark and ornate or at the most imposing enough. in a spirit of compromise, I agreed to do the bedroom in dark, but the living room in light, and DH agreed that considering our old flat was 600 sq ft going for compact minimalistic style was definitely better. We fell in the trap of buying cheap laminated and plastic bookshelves that fell apart 2 years later putting us back to square one as to what to get to replace them and because we never quite agreed on a specific design left the topic until I got pregnant and the study really needed to get it’s act together as I wrote about it here. The one thing we postponed for what it seems like forever is finding bedside tables, I recently wrote about bedrooms so you can see pictures of what our temporary solution looked like: old cane stools with a bedside table lamp perched on top of each. To be fair not much else would fit in our old Bangalore home, and each time we looked around we or could not agree on something, or it was too big, or it was expensive, then we shifted to Navi Mumbai, where we never got around to look and decide as we had other furniture priorities, then we had money issue, and finally a month back I got some Christmas gift money from my family to put to good use, so off we went tackling the bedside table issue, and things haven’t changed much, DH still like ornate and bulky and I still like minimalistic and light, but over the years spent in India I’ve been converted for good to dark wood, not just in the bedroom, but everywhere else. Lightwood isn’t practical in India, dust is a big issue in cities, and with a toddler, stains are less apparent on dark anyway, not to mention that on most days it is bright and sunny, and dark wood offer a nice contrast. But I’ll never get converted to ornate, unless by a miraculous twist of fate we end up being able to afford a giant penthouse or a huge villa with room to spare, ornate dwarfs a tiny space like nothing else.
After much deliberations and the fact we didn’t want to go the laminate anything route again, we found this:
A good compromise between imposing and minimalistic, with still enough storage space, and no dwarfing the room. We even upgraded the table lamp, which again are a compromise between what DH likes and what I like, DH is all for vintage looking frilly lamps, and I’m more of a masculine type.
Now if we could ever agree on a dinner service, that has been a contentious bone for as long as I can remember. DH thinks we should get a ornate bone china set with gold paint and vintage patterns that we use ONLY on special occasion using crappy melamine plates and glass everyday, I think we should get a nice clean minimalistic ceramic set in which broken plates can easily be replaced, or a corelle set in a modern pattern again in an effort to stick to a brand where you can get replacement of broken plates and use that daily, getting rid of the old melamine and glass sets we have around. Over the year the melamine set we got at our wedding got so damaged that the 2-3 loose ends we had we gave it to our maid during the great move of July 2010, and the maid in Mumbai finished decimating the glass set we had, we now have only 4 chipped regular plates left from it along with two quarter plates, 2 bowls and one salad bowl, it was a 6 person set initially. We make do with melamine plates I inherited from friends, but since 2009 two got cracked and trashed due to heat and old age (they don’t have a long life span and are actually quite breakable).
So the debate will probably loom to the horizon pretty soon again on what to get, I can see that DH might agree on a more everyday type of set, but then the question of the pattern is still to be discussed. Each time I think about plates in our relationship I am reminded of that particular Friends episode where Chandler insists they use the fancy wedding gift china for Thanksgiving only to realise the pattern he choose is not what is in the box as Monica found his taste too girly and changed the register behind his back. Now of course I would never do things behind DH’s back, but I indeed admit I find his tastes a bit too girly for me.
So much for the whole pink is for girls and blue is for boys thing huh?
So you are about to move to India, or just moved and you are just wondering what to wear, are shorts ok to wear if you are a woman? Should you stick to ultra conservative clothing and possibly ethnic wear? Are there fashion trends in ethnic wear? What do I pack to go there? Where do I start?
First you need to know where you are going, some smaller cities are more conservative than bigger ones like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, and eve teasing is a much much bigger problem in Delhi than in Bangalore and Mumbai, as a woman you want to play it safe so it pays out to know the key note of the place you are going to stay, also be mindful of the climate, a city like Delhi gets blistering hot in the Summer, and freezing cold in the winter a trend you’ll find in most of North India, so if you are bound for North India, pack up some comfy jeans and sweaters, you’ll need them and be glad to have them. the South has a milder winter but after hot months you’ll still be happy to have socks, light sweaters and jeans in the cooler month, December do get quite cold in Bangalore at night and homes don’t have central heating. I have a few of my friends back home and in the US who laugh when I start announcing it is getting cold, because my cold back in Bangalore was starting when the thermometer would hit about 20-22 degrees Celsius, but cold like many thing is all relative, when you had a whole Summer above 30 degrees you can imagine what 20 degrees do start to feel like.
In Mumbai the climate is hot and humid most of the year, winters are very mild, and last year I ended up wearing track pants and a long sleeved t-shirt in the morning for a 2-3 weeks starting in late December. The first thing you notice here with the coming winter is the air getting dryer and your skin pulling a little, in all truth I love that weather, I don’t soak a t-shirt or kurta in 5 minutes, and can go through the day without feeling iky-sticky 3 hours after a shower.
In Summer in most part of the country you’ll be submitted to various degrees of hot and humid, so it is important to have light clothes in which you feel comfortable, and no you don’t have to stick to ethnic if you don’t want to, most cities are getting more liberal about clothing, and women, yes even Indian women go through the day wearing western wear, or Indo-western. But all in all you need to know which dress codes applies to which outing. If you are going to a traditional place such as in a family, or you significant other’s family, dressing conservatively and possibly ethnic is best, no need to go all out and wear a saree, the new generation reserve it for weddings and special occasion, but a nice salwaar suit or a nicely cut kurta with churridars will be extremely appropriate. If you go to a pub, mall, the multiplex or go shopping in big places, western wear is the way to go, in fact try going into a pub wearing a cotton salwaar suit and you are guaranteed to get stared at even more than in a local market. Capris and shorts are starting to be worn more and more even by older women no longer being the attire of the rebellious college girl, and in fact the no-nonsense cargo pair of pants or denim shorts stopping at the knee paired with a t-shirt or a short kurta is slowly becoming the upper middle class urban desi-mom uniform judging by all the ones I’m hanging out with nowadays. That’s because ethnic wear need to be ironed, in some case starched and barely keeps neat through the day, when you are chasing kids around, and still want to look graceful and feminine comes 4pm you need something a bit less fussy, not to mention something that doesn't require you to or buy all your wardrobe in one colour or hand wash every pieces separately, we all have 24 hours in a day.
But wait, as an expat you might not even be familiar with ethnic wear…so let me go back to that and give you a crash course on it. Like any outfits the ethnic range speaks volume about your social status, and the occasion you plan to wear it. It might not seem obvious to the trained eye, but there is a casual, semi-form and formal wear category for both the saree and the salwaar suit.
The saree is more of a south Indian garment, and you are more likely to see even middle class ladies wearing one, though the new generation has moved to the salwaar suit, and western wear out of practicality. So much so that for you and I the saree is a fancy outfit to wear at a big party, a wedding or Diwali. And because you are more likely to wear it then, you can move to the formal category when picking one, in South India formal pretty much always mean silk, in the North while donning a Kancheepuram silk saree speaks of elegance, you will find a lot of ladies wearing synthetic chiffon saree heavily embroided with sequins and metallic thread, the North Indian party saree is generally more flamboyant in style than a South Indian one, I got to notice that first hand at a distant cousin’s wedding in Bangalore, he is like DH north Indian, and his bride was South Indian and it was very easy to know who was part of the bride’s family and who was not.
The working class in both North and South wears a cheap print synthetic chiffon saree, cotton and silk being noble materials, they keep it for fancy use.
A saree is tailored made, when you buy one you can’t just walk out of the shop wearing it, the choli (tight fitted blouse) has to be sewn to fit you and you only by a tailor, there are some places where you can get stretch choli and ready made blouses, but they aren’t the norm, the fabric destined to become the saree needs to be fitted with a “fall” a big piece of cotton fabric sewn to the bottom hem in order to make the part that will act as the “skirt” heavier at the bottom and protect the fabric from your kicking it while walking.
if you end up wearing ethnic, you are more likely to spend time in a salwaar suit, which is a generic name for a 3 piece set consisting in a tunic called kurta, a pair of matching cotton loose fitting drawstring pants and a matching dupatta (cotton shawl or scarf). This one of the most popular and versatile outfit India has to offer, you will find it in various style, material, and cut, ready made or in dress material for you to send to the tailor for a perfect fit, and yes there are fashion trends.
First the salwaar is actually the name of the pants, the loose fitting baggy type, but nowadays what is hugely popular among women is the churidar, a cotton drawstring pant that is fitted on the whole leg, making it look like a cotton slim cut pant or legging, they are always longer than your leg and the extra fabric creates a ruffle at the ankle. It gives a slimmer silhouette to the wearer than the salwaar, and is the prime chose of the young generation, the good old salwaar actually makes you look like an Aunty or a villager. And while we are at the churidar, the new IT thing is the stretch churidar, it’s exactly like a pair of leggings in the west except that to keep to the churidar look they have that extra length to give some pleats at the ankle. They are the new thing to have in your wardrobe, and while they are a bit too thick to wear in Summer they are perfect for the monsoon, they are fuss free when it comes to maintenance because they don’t need any ironing, rarely loose colour when you wash them, and it’s a straight from the drying line to the wardrobe piece of outfit, perfect for the modern day busy bee.
The Kurta is the most visible part of the outfit, the most comfortable ones are made of cotton, silk ones are for parties, synthetic ones are more of a working class outfit again. Be very mindful of the cut and style of your kurta, pretty much like the salwaar pants scream Aunty, busy old fashioned floral patterns will do the same, long ankle length tunic do it too, the new generation will prefer a more fitted shorter kurta in solid colours embellished with embroideries and mirror work, and they look better sleeveless, though when you buy a readymade kurta displayed without sleeves, you can bet you have two sleeve pieces
attached to the label inside for you to have them fit you should you want them, and all will do the fitting of the sleeves for free if you request them.
The dupatta is a very traditional piece, less and less worn in cities, and non-traditional environment, but still used to go to the temple, or in local popular markets, it’s a big long piece of fabric that looks like a long wide scarf or stole, it is draped on each shoulder with the ends dangling in the back.
Interestingly even in my in-law family when once upon a time my MIL wanted us to wear the dupatta at all time even inside the house, the concept has gone out of the window, and even my SIL who is of a conservative background has moved to not even like wearing it outside, at least not in the uber traditional way preferring to just toss it on one shoulder, so yes even in more traditional families and towns things do change.
You will find ethnic wear everywhere, in the beginning I would recommend sticking to big stores such as Lifestyle, Fabindia, Westside and Shoppers Stop, because they have fixed prices and you won’t get ripped off, and then because they cater to the social class you are going to be in, carrying trendy ones rather than shapeless sloppy ones that will make you look underdressed. You can or find them in “set” which is a matched outfit having the whole 3 pieces at one price, saving you the hassle of figuring what colour kurta matches what colour of pants. I say get a few of these as a starter kit, or in a more formal style, but don’t buy your whole wardrobe in a matchy matchy style. The other option which is getting far more popular nowadays then it used to be 8 years ago is to buy in the “mix & match” area of the store, you buy all pieces separately, so that if you like that cute orange and red kurta but absolutely want to pair it with black elastic churidar you can, and you aren’t stuck with a mountain of dupatta you’ll seldom wear since you don’t have to buy what you don’t need when you go the mix and match way.
The other advantage of mix and match is that you aren’t stuck with loose bits of a once full set, I found out over the years that the kurta tend to wear off faster, or that I gained weight and rendered the top unwearable, and got stuck with lots of bottoms with no tops, the option of buying just the top is a good one.
Short and mid-length kurti also look wonderful with jeans, cargo, and capris, and yes even shorts! So you get the option to go indo-western with these too.
One thing to be strongly aware of with ethnic wear though: they are a pain in the butt to wash, most are died in colours that will wash out as soon as they are dipped in water, you can do some damage control by washing them in vinegar and salt water first to slow the colour bleeding, but they will still fade fast, so always remember to hand wash for at least 5-6 washes, or machine wash with similar colour. This colour bleeding issue is one of the reason why most Indian ladies I know are moving away from traditional wear on a daily basis, it is high maintenance, and even with a maid, you still end up wearing it less time than it spends in the wash or being pressed (ironed) and the constant washing and pressing does shortens the life span of your outfit considerably, I don’t think I kept a favourite kurta look presentable more than a year them being in the wash every week and being worn once or twice at the max in the course of the said week.
Another thing to be mindful of when buying ready made, is that Indian sizes be it for ethnic or western wear are Asian size, and as a westerner you might need to wear one or two sizes bigger than back home, the XL available here is often a M or L back home, and you don’t always find anything beyond XL or XXL, it becomes a bigger problem with western wear than it does for ethnic wear though, so it pays up to pack your t-shirts and pants from home to take with you, and ask family to bring you clothes when they come visiting, or go shopping for clothes when you go back home, even big brands such as Levi’s do keep smaller sizes in India.
Saint Nicolas day falls on the 6th of December and while I’m from a protestant Christian family and this is supposed to be mainly a Catholic festival it could be considered odd that I am celebrating.
But St Nicolas has some deeper roots in Germany and Switzerland where it is speculated that St Nick actually replaced another festival dedicated to Odin in the pre-Christian pagan time. Switzerland having many traditions in common with Germany we celebrate it too.
Saint Nicolas as we know it there is an old man, sometimes portrayed as a bishop but not necessarily, he goes around with a donkey and kids are celebrating the day by first having a Saint Nicolas meal in the evening: nuts, gingerbread biscuits and oranges all this with a few candles around, then before bedtime they place a plate of carrots and a glass of water near their shoes for the donkey to eat and drink, and if they have been good, the morning of the 7th they will find sweets and candies in their shoes, if they were bad they will find a bundle of twigs. Supermarkets even sell special saint Nicolas treats at the time, as a kid I remember getting a red stocking with a bundle of twigs decorated with chocolate and candies to commemorate the festival, and yes like all kids I did believe in St Nick coming to put yummies into my shoes and always put my carrot and water on a nice tray for him and his donkey.
Those not familiar with the festival might wonder if I am not in fact talking about Santa, and guess what you wouldn’t be completely of of base, because the name Santa Claus is a short form for the name given to Saint Nicolas in German and Dutch, it eventually got merged with the myth of Father Christmas and other legends from the north to give the all inclusive character we have now. But as a kid Santa wasn’t putting presents in my shoes in the night leading to Christmas day, Saint Nicolas did, earlier in the month. We heard of father Christmas from Christmas songs from France, but back then it wasn’t a big holiday figure in my country.
Anyway now that Ishita is eating more and enjoying food more than last year, I decided to take the tradition out of my cultural closet and adapt it here, and that is one easy one to do, nuts are widely available in India, and so are oranges (though I forgot to buy some so no oranges this year), the ingredients to bake a gingerbread are very easy to find too which makes it perfect. Now of course the gingerbread we have in Switzerland is a though hard quite dry one that is filled with marzipan, since I’ve never been a huge fan of that one and I know for a fact that DH hates dry stuff I didn’t Google for the “bieberli” bread I grew up with, I instead looked for gingerbread and it all yielded results for a thicker, moist softer bread, all recipes asked for molasse, but I used honey instead, which gives a more subtle sweet taste to it.
And this is what the result looked like:
The recipe I used is this one, as I said I replaced the molasse with honey, and instead of pouring the water in the end I poured it right after the honey and threw the butter in to melt, I also didn’t pour the liquid into the dry ingredients, when I bake I always work the other way round mixing all my wet ingredients to a batter and then add the dry and pour milk last to achieve the desired consistency, and I use baking parchment to line my tin, not butter and flour, but it is just me.
The cake turned out awesome, most and flavourful, we have a lot left though, because even though it is lighter than the Swiss version, it is still one that fills you up nicely.
I would have put a slice in Ishita’s tiffin for school today, but the school asks for strictly vegetarian snacks with no eggs allowed as the kiddos share the food and in the chance that one of the strictly vegetarian kid eats it it is better to avoid, not that the kid or parent would know, but religious sensibilities have to be respected.
First, you need to get the basics taken care of. Your kitchen is likely to become completely bare: no fridge, no stove, nothing. So, this is a good place to start.
As I mentioned previously, stoves here are gas stove, and that too just the stove top. There are cooking range available but UNLESS your kitchen can accommodate one (and very few do, as you probably remember reading that often even the fridge doesn’t fit inside).
Indians use a basic 2 or 4 burner stove that you place on top of your kitchen counter and connect to a gas cylinder. In the west this type of stove would be called a camping stove. Here, it’s standard kitchen gear.
You will then need to get yourself a gas cylinder subscription. I won’t post all the links here but I wrote about it extensively in the past, it’s a PITA to get. Subsidised official agencies such as Indane and HP gas are taking forever to process your registration and deliver your cylinders. If you can get help from your landlord or an Indian friend do it! The paper proof you need to provide is crazy. If you can find an independent gas supplier, they will cost you more, and you might take the risk to get less gas in your cylinder, but they are much faster in the delivery. We had one in Bangalore that was quite reliable, we switched to independent dealer after far too many screaming matches with HP gas (and I mean screaming matches...the F bomb was dropped...often)
If you live in Mumbai in a newly constructed building the chances of you having piped gas is big, and that solve all the gas supply woes.
If you are thinking about electric stoves, wbe aware that most cities in India experience very frequent power cuts, scheduled or not. These cuts can last for hours, meaning you could go hungry at meal time. If you still wish to go for one, the latest rage in the hot plate department is the induction cooking plate. It is supposed to use less electricity, but you can cook only one thing at once, and you need to find flat bottomed induction cookware to use on these.
As for the fridge, you have all sizes and prices available in multi brand outlets such as Croma, e Zone, or regional chains. Before buying one, see where it will fit in your home, some kitchen as I said don’t have space for a fridge and then the question is how much space do you want to devote to your fridge in the living room.
When it comes to cookware, basic one can be bought in hypermarkets such as Spar, Hypercity, Star Bazaar and yup Big Bazaar. Smaller supermarket also have a few basic pots and pans. For better quality and specialised pans, head to the nearest mall and look for a big store like Lifestyle or Home Stop, they have a lot of variety not other shop will have.
Indian cuisine doesn’t require you to get much pots and pans. The two main ones are pressure cooker in which people cook lentils and rice, and a kadai which is the Indian name for what you know as a wok back home. You can find them in several price range, starting with cheap aluminium ones that will require you to use tons of oil and will get deformed quite fast to the now very popular non stick coating one available in many brands. From experience, the hard anodized ones are the best. They are a bit pricey, but I highly recommend simply because thanks to maids who just don’t know how to wash things gently I lost many non-stick pans to mad scrubbing. Most maids can strip the coating of your cookware using a standard scotch brite sponge!
You will need one or two medium steel pans to boil water and milk for your tea and maggi noodles. Be aware of the fact that most sauce pans don’t have handles though. You will need a special plier to pick them from the stove. The huge pro of these pans is that they are stackable and take way less space than conventional western style pans in your limited Indian kitchen storage space. Choose them with a rounded copper lined bottom as they conduct heat better and boil your water much faster on a gas stove.
If you plan to try making chapatti, you can start by getting yourself a chapatti board, a rolling pin and a concave tawa along with thongs to handle your chapatti on the flame. A tawa is the name given to a frying pan, the concave one is rounded and has no edges. The flat tawa also known as dosa tawa is flat bottomed and has a slight edge. It would be called a pancake pan back home.
All of the above is needed if you want to cook Indian food. And as an expat you are likely to get sick of it fast, or frustrated at not getting it right.
This means you need to get yourself a few continental basics as well. The main appliance you will need to continental proof your kitchen is the microwave/convection oven:
Why one that does both you ask? Simple, it saves you space and possibly money. The microwave/convection oven is likely to have a much bigger capacity than a simple OTG (oven toaster grill). Indian cuisine isn’t high on baking, so ovens aren’t part of daily life. There are big brands that do real size electric ovens, but they are the type you have mounted in a modular kitchen, a thing you are not gonna get in your Indian kitchen unless you own the property. I’ve been using my microwave/convection ovens for 5 years now, still running great, and baking goods well, you just need to bake your cookies in smaller batches. You’ll need to get yourself, oven proof dishes to cook gratins and casseroles. Pyrex is available in India in stores such as Lyfestyle and Homestop or the local brand Borosil in many hypermarkets as the microwave trend is catching in cities.
All cooking accessories such as whips, pizza cutters, baking trays, pie mould, muffin mould are getting more an more available in hypermarkets and Home stores such as mentioned above. For more details, read my blog entry about baking in India.
To spare your sanity also invest in a good food processor, and a sandwich maker. Be assured that the kitchen gizmos market is catching up in India, you can even find quite a lot online. Flipcart and Amazon are one of my favourites when it comes to home and grooming appliances. You can pay cash on delivery as well if you aren’t too sure about your credit card being accepted.
Now for the most important thing: plastic containers.
They are a MUST. I won’t repeat that enough. All lentils, cereals, and flour come in plastic pouches, you need something to store them efficiently home. The containers need to be airtight as the climate is generally humid in most of the country. Leave even a pack of crackers open for a couple of hours and it will be mush. So, to store food you need good containers.
The other problem in Indian kitchens are cockroaches and ants. You can call pest control if you want, but the climate is such that they come back quickly, way too quickly.
Plastic containers being such a big thing, you will find them in every shape, size colour, style and price range, in just about any supermarket or hypermart and even on the road side.
My advice is to buy a few 1-2 litre capacity containers to store your staples of rice, flour and lentils, and then each time you buy something else in the food section go buy the corresponding size of container in the household section.
Also get yourself a set of small boxes or a masala box to store spices as they don’t come all in glass jars like in the west (some do, but not all). Then, get a bigger plastic square box to store the opened pack of spices creating yourself a spice pantry. Over the years, you will find that jam and nutella jars can be used to store some food stuff too (though in Mumbai they are useless to keep the humidity out).
last but not least, you will need plates, glasses and cutlery. Indians mainly use stainless steel plates and tumblers to eat, along with tiny bowls to serve the veggies and lentils. A more recent trend is melamine cookware or for the most adventurous glassware such as the Corelle brand (which yes does exist here).
Be well aware however that a lot of maids do not take much care while washing the dishes, and your ceramic or glass dinning set might be decimated in a matter of weeks if you don’t take strict action from the first break. I’ve been there! So or you wash it yourself, or lecture you maid about the importance of handling them with care, and immediately deduct the broken plate or glass from her salary (they wont take you seriously if you just give them a warning)
Melamine plates can’t got in the microwave, and get distorted when hot food is placed in them after a year or two, and they eventually crack and break so while it is what I have right now, inherited from a friend returning home, they are not my favourite. My maid killed my glassware set in Navi Mumbai, set which was a cheap one we got as a wedding gift.So I am relying on whatever I have left until we find a ceramic set we like.
Tea mugs are easy to find everywhere, be it gift shop, supermarket, or even department stores such as Westside. A lot of Indians still drink tea from their steel water tumbler, but I hate burning my hands on these, a trend I’ll never get into…ever.
So here are some of the basics to get your kitchen running. If you come from the US, don’t be tempted to take your appliances from home, India runs on 220v not on 110.