Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rooftop Bakery

A friend and I decided to explore the streets of Old Delhi with our cameras the other day. We'd both been there many times before, but this historic area is a place that always manages to offer the unexpected. The neighborhood is full of narrow alleyways, crowded market streets, and an odd assortment of shops, cafes and places of worship. If you know where you're going and are comfortable diving into the crowds, Old Delhi is best to explore on foot.
For some reason that morning we wound up on a rooftop five stories above the street level. We wanted a "bird's-eye" view and quickly found one above the spice market district in Chandni Chowk.
Our eyes first drifted to the horizon.
The massive Jama Masjid Mosque could be seen through the haze in the distance. It's very impressive and draws crowds of pilgrims from all across India (and the world) each day.
Our interest was next drawn below to the crowded market streets. These are almost always busy, each filled with sellers, buyers, shippers and shoppers. Scores of hand carts, day laborers and stockpiles of canvass-covered bales make the scene look like something from a much earlier era.
While observing the controlled chaos of the street below we heard an oddly repetitive sound. Not quite a banging, more of a repeated "bump, bump, bump - slap!"  We worked our way around the edge of the roof until we discovered the source of the noise. A young man was working, perhaps two stories below on a neighboring rooftop. He was hunched underneath an improvised bamboo shelter, pushing, rolling and slapping dough with his hands. We had discovered a bakery!
The baker was very strong, his back was glistening with sweat from the motion of his hard work. He moved in a constant rhythm and was surrounded by hundreds of dough-balls and scores of flat disks called papad. The results of his efforts were neatly laid out in many rows across large flats of bamboo where they baked in the midday sun.
Papad is a thin, crispy disk (roti) made of besan flour (chick pea), black pepper and other spices. Traditionally eaten with biryani, they are also served as an appetiser or snack (namkeen) before, during and even after meals.
I've eaten and enjoyed papad many times, but it never once occurred to me that these crispy treats were baked beneath the hot, Indian sun on a rooftop in the middle of Old Delhi.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Gardening in India

I've managed to kill every household plant. No amount of water, fertilizer, fresh soil, or TLC has helped. I've tried three times... changing plants, talking with local nursers.  The sun is too intense in summer, the monsoons are too wet. It's too dry in fall. I'd all but given up.

"If you want little garden, why don't you just hire a gardener?" a friend suggested. Did I really want someone else knocking at the door each week?  But our balcony was ugly and empty and the weather is slowly getting cooler. I knew it would be really nice to be surrounded by a little greenery while sipping a hot cup of chai on a cool, fall morning...

I relented. The "mali"charges me $4 a month. A mali is a local gardener and essentially a plant expert. He went with me to a nearby nursery. It was nestled in the shade down on the steamy banks of the Yamuna River. After selecting some hardy-sun tolerant plants and a little price-haggling, we bought six for about $12 (including a bag of mulch).  Lord knows what was actually in the mulch.  The nurser threw in a seventh plant (Tulsi) for good luck - supposedly because he liked me...  I figured he probably just a felt a little guilty because I'd already paid too much...

We returned to the apartment. My mali carried the plants up and immediately set himself up to work.  (I already had the pots from our previous flat in Noida, so didn't need to purchase any.)  First the mali poured the existing soil from my pots into a pile. Then he did the same with mulch from a burlap sack. Two neat piles were standing in the middle of the marble floor of our front balcony. He mixed these together using a flat, metal tool and wonderful circular motions with his hands.

Next the mali used bits of broken pots and small stones to create a layer for drainage in the base of my seven pots. A plant was gently set into the center of each. His soil mixture was then expertly tilled around the young plants. He swept up and told me not to water my new plants for two days. He would return in three to check on them. He would trim them after a week.

True to his word, in three days there was a soft knock at our door. It was my mali. He quietly entered, watered each plant and then re-tilled the soil in each pot. Four days later he returned again and did the same. He trimmed the ficus and my basil.

Finally, with a satisfied look on his face the mali told me I'd done a good job: "Hanjee, Acha, acha." (Yes. Good, good).

What he really meant was, "thank you for not over watering the plants..."