I’ve too much on my plate…

New York Assemblyman Felix Ortiz has introduced a bill to ban New York restaurants from using salt in their cooking.  The New York Daily News claims, “If State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz has his way, the only salt added to your meal will come from the chef’s tears.”

“It’s time for us to take a giant step,” Ortiz said on March 10, 2010. “We need to talk about two ingredients of salt: health care costs and deaths.”
It is Ortiz’s intention to increase awareness of the harmful effects of excess salt in our foods.  The campaign’s goal is to reduce the intake of salt by 50% in the next ten years.

If this bill is passed, a fine of upto $1,000 could be imposed on violators.

Chefs are not happy.  Tom Colicchio of the show Top Chef, says, “Anybody who wants to taste food with no salt, go to a hospital and taste that.”

It is exactly what Assemblyman Ortiz fears might happen if they did eat salt.

On the other hand, practically speaking, salt plays a specific role in cooking.

Shirley O. Corriher, a food scientist, writes in “CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking,” that even the minimum amount of salt plays four important roles in the development of dough: “It enhances flavor, controls bacteria, slows yeast activity and strengthens dough by tightening gluten.”
Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason.com, a free-market themed blog, says:

Pasta water must be salted, for instance, to flavor the noodles themselves. Salting onions at the right moment is key to successfully caramelizing them. Salting eggplant before cooking reduces bitterness in the final dish. And then there’s brining and pickling, not to mention the vital importance of salt in the science of baking.

New York is no stranger to such bans.  A ban on the use of trans-fat was imposed in 2008. 
A tax on soda is in the works.  Ortiz will take care of his people, whether they like it or not. 
Well, salt or no salt?

Hypertensive that I am, I must selfishly agree with Ortiz, but I do feel the pain of those for whom cooking is an art form.

 Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/2010/03/11/2010-03-11_assault_on_salt_an_insult_chefs.html#ixzz0j8iTlcd


Egypt’s Pride: Doctor Peseshet

The first woman doctor ever belonged to Egypt. Her name was  Peseshet; she was not only a swnwt (woman doctor) but also a imyt-r hm(wt)-ka (woman director of the soul-priestesses) and lived around 2500 B.C.  Nothing much is known about her except that she was the mother of Akhethetep in whose tomb her stela (carved or inscribed stone slab) was found.
Women of Ancient Egypt could enter any profession they liked, unlike in modern times.
The picture on the left shows some of the instruments she may have used.  Most of these tools were used for embalming as well.


Grilled Eggplant Egyptian Recipe


picture courtesy of: TheBon
In Egypt, eggplant is roasted over hot coals until the skin is charred. One can char the eggplant directly over the gas flame, turning frequently with tongs until the juices begin to ooze out or bake it in a 425°F oven for 30 minutes.
  • 2 large eggplants
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

Char eggplants over gas flames until soft, then allow them to cool. Peel the eggplants and let them drain in a sieve. Purée the eggplant in a food processor with the lemon juice, ground cumin, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve with tahini (sesame) cream.


  • 1/2 cup tahini (sesame) paste.
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin.
  • 1/2 cup yogurt.
  • Juice of 2 1/2 lemons, or more to taste.
  • Chopped parsley for garnish
  • Salt to taste.

Mix tahini paste, cumin and salt. Add the yogurt and lemon juice gradually, beating vigorously to make a smooth thick cream. This can all be done in a blender, which makes a smooth tahini cream. Garnish with parsley, and serve with babaghanoug.

Recipes modified from the Egyptian Daily News


Ugadi is the first day of a new Hindu lunar calendar. It is believed that Lord Brahma started the Creation of the Universe on this day, the first day of the month of Chaitra. It is spring time, time of new beginnings, fresh life, new hope and gladness in our hearts.  Who can say it better than Robert Browning in “Pippa’s Song”?

The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven
The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven—
All’s right with the world!

People wash and clean their houses for Ugadi, decorate them with mango leaf streamers and “muggu” which are geometric patterns drawn on stoeps (Dutch spelling) with rice flour paste. They wear new clothes and visit temples for the “panchangasravanam” or the reading of the annual calendar. They make Ugadi pachchadi, a concoction that consists of six flavors (sweet, salty, sour, spicy, tangy and bitter) symbolizing the ups and downs of life.

The lunar calendar follows a sixty year cycle, divided into three groups of twenty each. The first twenty are attributed to Brahma (srishti or creation), the next twenty to Vishnu (sthiti or continuation) and the last twenty to Shiva (laya or dissolution). We are now in the 24th year of this cycle and are moving from Virodhi to Vikruti samvatsara.

May we all have a happy new year.


and a song about King Tut

8.6 million people visited Egypt last year. All these people caused major scuffing of walls and wearing away of paintings. Try not to breathe or sweat while you are there, because the humidity and perspiration are ruining the buildings. Tourism brings in many many piastres, so it is imperative something be done to preserve these treasures.  Egypt is looking into rotational or limited opening of key sites. I am glad I am able to go before all these changes take place.

In an unrelated story, the boy King Tut, it is now believed, died of a broken leg. What an anticlimax…the leg wound became infected and that is what killed him. Stories of murder are just not true. He was not attacked for reverting to polytheism–all the theories about conspiracy, tunnels, asps, high priests with dangerous daggers are all figments of someone’s imagination.   A shard of bone was found in his skull but researchers now believe that was caused by the embalmers accidentally dropping the body. It is so hard to find good help!!

This video of Steve Martin in Saturday Night Live is a homage to the boy king…

If you are not able to view this, try this link:


A review of "Midaq Alley" by Naguib Mahfouz. My Egypt Tour begins.

I start my tour of Egypt with a study of its best writer, Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1988.  Midaq Alley was one of his early novels set during the Second World War.  The novel is about the residents in Midaq Alley, an impoverished part of Cairo city. The World War has wrought changes in the city: It  brought electricity (the new radio in Kirsha’s cafe), it brought money (mercenary soldiers) and it brought a collapse of the traditional value systems.  And no one in Midaq Alley escapes these influences. There is no single protagonist in this novel, but one dominant theme–self-indulgence at any cost. It is no wonder then that these people face the tragic consequences of their desire for money and sensual pleasures.  Critics claim that the novel is about the conflict between the past and the present and the ever changing value system.  But I disagree.  It is about human failings, and about overreach.

Midaq Alley is home to Kirsha’s cafe , Uncle Kamil who has a sweet shop,  Abbas the barber, the baker Jaada and his wife Husniya, Umm Hamida a marriage broker and her foster daughter Hamida, Zaita a beggar maker, a “dentist” Dr. Bushi, Salim Alwan a perfume merchant and Mrs.Saniya Afifi the landlady.
Of these, Hamida occupies quite a large role in the book. An adopted daughter, growing up in a lower middle class environment, she feels no particular attachment to her mother or to any of her neighbors.  She dreams of wealth and control over men.  She knows she is attractive and wants to ensnare the right kind of men–those that are rich and powerful.   Initially, she latches on to Abbas the barber, as a stop gap solution no doubt caught in his enthusiasm and his earnest promise to earn more money.  But visions of slaving over a hot stove, leading the dull life of a housewife with nothing but the next pregnancy to look forward to, quickly cures her of her love for Abbas.  While the naive Abbas is away in the army making an honest living, she transfers her attention to the rich Salim Alwan who is lusting for her anyway.  A freak heart attack forces Salim out of her life and into a life of an invalid.  However, that works in Hamida’s favor too because she now realizes that prostitution is her calling; she is a “whore by instinct”(205).  Seduced by the pimp Ibrahim Faraj she embarks on her new fulfilling career.  She will not be completely happy, though, till she has subjugated the pimp and given herself emotional power over him.  She appeals to Abbas,   Now a rejected, angry and jealous suitor, he agrees to defend her “honor” only to learn that her honor has been bought and sold several times to the British soldiers.  Totally out of control with rage and frustration, Abbas hurls a beer bottle at her face wounding her.  He is beaten to death by the  soldiers.

Umm Hamida is Hamida’s foster mother and has not really much role other than to emphasize Hamida’s lack of social status.  She is a marriage broker who helps Mrs. Afifi find a young husband.  Mrs. Afifi is 50 years old and is determined not to lose any more precious years without the companionship of a personable mate.  Her vanity forces her to appeal to the dentist for a new set of teeth which he does get her..only,  they belong to a new corpse in the graveyard!!

Salim Alwan the perfume merchant has enough money (courtesy the blackmarket) and power, a devoted wife, three sons and four happily married daughters.  But he is still dissatisfied with life.  He is constantly worried about the future of his successful company since his sons don’t want any part of it.  He has a craving for fame and needs to broadcast his name.  He considers buying the title of  a “Bey” or “Pasha”.  He indulges in aphrodisiacs but is not interested in his aging wife, “unable to find in her the pleasures he yearned
for”.(80)  He is attracted to Hamida but he takes forever making up his mind about marrying her.  “Why should he be consumed with longing for a body that could be his at merely a nod of his head?”(149), he reasons with himself.  Sadly, by the time he decides, it is too late. He has a heart attack.  Later, health becomes an obsession and the memory of his former virility becomes a source of bitterness.  Smoking or even cold water is now dangerous to his body.  Self-pity envelops him and regrets eat at him till he turns into a miserable, cantankerous old man almost overnight.

Zaita, the beggar maker is the poorest and filthiest of men in Midaq Alley. He lived in a small, smelly room at the back of the bakery in Midaq alley.  Nevertheless, he glories in the filth and he loves being poor.  Of all the characters in the novel, he is the only one who is happy with himself with no conscience to trouble him.   His appearance is as black as his soul. He too has a purpose in life.  He provides succor to the dregs of humanity; he cripples them so they can be professional beggars and pay him a regular commission on their earnings.  He revels in the power that this gives him. It shocked me that people did place themselves at his mercy; they were willing to be mutilated, deformed or blinded. And they regard him as if he, a morally decrepit individual, were God. His partner in crime is Dr. Bushi, who provides him with these beggars.  In return, Zaita accompanies him to graveyards to pull out gold teeth from corpses that the “dentist” could reuse. The nights Zaita would spend in his room, he would peep through a crack between the wall and the door frame and watch the baker’s wife beat her husband or love him. He is filthy within and without.  Not content with being the voyeur, he indulges in flirting with the outraged baker’s wife who attacks him with a coffee mug.

Dr. Bushi has no formal training as a dentist but just someone with a lot of experience as a dental assistant. He establishes his practice on these flimsy credentials and gains a loyal clientele by simply charging very low fees.  He throws in his lot with Zaita who helps him look for gold teeth in graveyards.  In return, Dr. Bushi brings potential beggars over to Zaita. Although their actions are evil,  the two are more or less caricatures.

Ibrahim, the pimp, is alarmingly like Zaita.  He calls himself a headmaster of a school, teaching the art of seduction.  The different ‘departments’ in this school include a dancing department and a language department that teaches the language of love-making–a travesty of schools that teach proper values to its students.  This “school” takes all that is beautiful, sacred and pure and turns it into a rust that corrodes human dignity.  He makes cripples too, just like Zaita.  The women he preys on are trapped in  gilded cages, misfits for life.

Uncle Kamil‘s physical appearance is in itself a proof of his self-indulgence.  Corpulent is describing him mildly.  “He is a hulk of a man, his cloak revealing legs like tree trunks and his behind large and rounded like the dome of a mosque, its central portion  resting on the chair and the remainder spilling over the sides.  He has a belly like a barrel, great projecting breasts, and he seems scarcely to have any neck at all.  Between his shoulders lies his rounded face, so puffed and blood-flecked that his breathing makes its furrows disappear.  Consequently, not a single line can be seen on the surface and he seems to have neither nose nor eyes.  His head topping all this is small, bald and no different in color from his pale yet florid skin….People are always telling him he will die suddenly because of the masses of fat pressing round his heart.  But how will death harm him when his life is merely a prolonged sleep?”(12)  Possibly, Kamil’s innocence is what is protecting him from the shroud he says he cannot afford.  The irony is that Abbas buys one for him but needs it before Kamil does. Kamil’s role in the novel is limited to being an obese caricature.

Kirsha the coffee shop owner, is the embodiment of dissoluteness and corruption. He indulges in hashish and homosexuality (the “other hashish”). The novel describes in detail Kirsha’s search for a target and the persuasion to seduction. “…Mr. Kirsha had always lived a most irregular life and he had rolled in its dirt so long that it appeared to him a perfectly normal one.”(55)  He never regrets nor repents these habits.  When Radwan Husaini condemns him for his homosexuality, he retorts,”Don’t you know who that boy is?  He is a poor boy whose poverty I am trying to alleviate by being charitable to him.” (106) To maintain his self-indulgence therefore, he needs a steady income. He is a hashish peddler and  his corruption extends to taking bribes from politicians in exchange for votes.  Initially, he keeps his quirks hidden, but later ceases to worry about his reputation and expresses relief when the wife blows his scandal out in the open by beating up his young paramour. 

Sheik Darwish, once a respected teacher in a religious foundation school becomes a disgruntled clerk in the Ministry of Education when changes take place in the government.  Pompous and lazy, filled with ideas of his own importance, he blatantly disobeys orders from his superiors.  When he is fired from his job, he deserts his family and friends, he wanders off “into the world of God”(23), ashamed and unhappy.  Even as he renounces the world, he is rid of all his worries and moves into ” a state of peace, contentment and beatitude as he had never known before.   Even though he had lost his house, the whole world had become his home.  Even though he had lost his salary, gone too was his dependence on money.  Though he had lost his family and friends, everyone he met became his family.”(23) Sheikh Darwish born again with the slate of his past offences (indulging in conceit) wiped clean adopts the role of the Greek chorus in the novel.  His silence is broken occasionally by timely utterances/commentaries on the characters and situations.  Commenting on Uncle Kamil’s new shroud, Darwish suddenly yells out, “…Shrouds are the veils of after-life. Enjoy your shroud before the shroud enjoys you…The  reptiles will feed off your tender flesh as though it were a sweet.  Why, the worms will grow so fat they will be like dafaadi.  The meaning of this word in English is ‘frogs’ and it is spelled F-R-O-G-S.”(20)

Mahfouz’s alley is full of floundering men and women, dysfunctional families, and misguided energy.  It is tragic that the author could not find one shining, exemplary character in the multitudes.  He has created a world of flaws; he is suspicious of men, marriage and children. This world finds no solace in morality, which should be guiding the lives of men, but doesn’t. Homosexuality is a sin in Islam, but the society appears to accept it, just as it accepts corruption and wife-beating as ordinary. Only those who renounce the world seem to find peace. If anything meaningful is to be salvaged, mankind has to surrender to the will of God and look to Him for guidance and forgiveness. Radwan Husaini sees the excesses in the Alley’s reisdents as the work of the Devil and claims that by allowing them to be ruled by the Devil he deserves partial blame. “Had I not simply let the devil amuse himself with my neighbors while I remained lost in my own complacent joy? Cannot a good man unknowingly be an accomplice of the devil by keeping to himself?” (279)  Is Mahfouz saying that these  ills are too firmly embedded in society that only a higher power can save it? Is Midaq Alley a dead end street spiritually as well?

Mahfouz, Naguib. Midaq Alley/TheThief and the Dogs/Miramar. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1989.

Rating 4 out of 5

An interesting reading (an excerpt from google books: Pamela Allegretto-Diiulio’s “Naguib Mahfouz” A Western and Eastern Cage of Female Entrapment)    here

2 States — Chetan Bhagat

Chetan Bhagat’s “2 States” is about true love’s not-so-smooth course.  It’s about the problems Krish, a Punjabi, and Ananya a Tamilian Brahmin, face when they want to get married and the families are opposed to it.  However, the two seek their parents’ approval and choose not to elope. 

They meet in IIM Ahmedabad.   Krish is an  IIT graduate and Ananya is a graduate in economics. They live together for 2 yrs there. Story shifts from  IIM Ahmedabad to Chennai where Ananya parents are and then to Delhi, home to Krish’s parents.  Krish finds a job in Chennai and ingratiates himself with A’s family by doing the parents and her brother several favors.  Takes Ananya to meet his mother — father is discounted.  Father is a military man with an evil temper, beats his wife.  Some childhood trauma is described which accounts for the strained relationship between the father and the son.  (When Krish was a teenager, he struck his father.)  Mother is important  to him, so he won’t have her upset.  Ananya has quite a formidable task ahead of her when she visits Delhi with Krish.  They attend a wedding — last minute complications regarding dowry threaten to stop it.   Ananya rounds up the youth including the groom and gives them a talking to. Lo! the wedding is on again. It was a feel good novel, an Indian Mills and Boon.  I liked Chetan Bhagat’s easy flowing style.  There was no awkwardness in dialogue.  He even got a few chuckles out of me.
But it has a feeble story line.  It’s not a valid 21st-century theme. And even if the setting were in the late 1900s, this kind of inter-community marriage wasn’t unheard of.  The difference in costume, in the food and in the appearances of Punjabis and Tamilians are dealt with at some length. Again, seemed a little out of place in the age of computers and globalization. I suppose they had to meet on neutral ground (Ahmedabad) where their love could blossom. Problems occurred in the towns where there was no meeting of the minds. Seen through the eyes of Krish, Chennai is ultra-conservative, with its people consuming large amounts of idlis, where chicken, beer and sex are indulged in in secret. He doesn’t like its music, he doesn’t like the dark faces of the natives. Our hero is shallow.  There was no great conflict to give the novel some depth and the transformation of Krish into some kind of Devdas was unnecessary .  The visit to Aurobindo ashram and the conversation with the Guruji was the only enduring chapter of the novel.  Guruji imparts universal truths–beyond the 2 states.  Krish does not even absorb the message of forgiveness.  Seems to me the father learns that better.

Krish appeared quite immature and seemed as though he lived for chicken.  Chick, Chicken–he ran true to nature.  Ananya was a little too sassy for my liking and a little too sure of herself.  She definitely enjoyed needling Krish and dangling that Harish guy in his face. Harish was the local genius, “the poster boy of the perfect Tamilian groom”. I guess the author felt there should be a parallel to  Krish’s Dolly. Matters come to a head when the two families go on a trip to Goa and cannot reconcile differences.

I felt that Krish would have abandoned Ananya, if his father had not gone to mend the breach, a deus ex machina move I found unnecessary. The mama’s boy would have just pined and died. “I still had a day to go as the train traversed through this huge country,” he says, “cutting through the states I had battled for the last year.  These states make up our nation.  These states also divide our nation”.  At this point, Krish is consumed with self-pity and does not view himself as part of these states that divide the nation.  Krish is not the hero, the parents are.  They are the truly enlightened ones.

Rating 2 out of 5