A chilly monsoon, local lore and minestrone
Winter comes early to Bangalore, slowing down evenings and giving us time to think of history and its culinary offspring
The mornings and evenings are chilly and windy. Once in a couple of days, if the afternoon warms a bit, it starts turning dark, and a sharp shower lowers the city’s thermostat again. We sleep with the windows closed, and during the day an occasional slow fan is enough.
I am not complaining. I was in Delhi recently, and it was similarly overcast, but the comparisons with Bengaluru’s glorious weather ended there: A morning run through the park and an afternoon walk back home from the Metro station left me drenched in sweat.
You see, we are spoilt. Here in the city of the traffic jam, the rain tree and the Bengaluru breeze, we cannot really complain about the weather (unless you suffer breathing problems, in which case it can be miserable). But the fact is I cannot recall a sunny day since the end of June. This bracing weather is particularly conducive to a stiff evening drink and hot, robust meals.
The thing I particularly like about living in heaving Bengaluru is that wherever you go, there is a quiet niche you can find for yourself that is suffused with charm and a storied past. This is a city of stories around each corner—you find keepers of these tales and you accumulate them until you become a tale-keeper.
One evening we found ourselves at our favourite neighbourhood pub, Watson’s on Assaye Road, Ulsoor. There is no air conditioning because this part of our crumbly but still lush city is naturally cool. The evening wind washes over the woodlands maintained by the army’s oldest engineering group, the Madras Engineer Group (MEG), and barrels into Watson’s through the large, open windows. Nearby is the Sindhi colony, a neighbourhood of former refugees that was once a single property. The last leopard to be seen in these parts was outside this place, sometime in the 1930s, and, it was apparently chased up a tree by some dogs and three Anglo-Indian brothers, if you believe the tale-keepers.
Then there’s the story of the road outside. Assaye was a bloody battle that saw the British defeat the famed cavalry of the Maratha confederacy in 1803. So, why does the name Assaye—in present-day Maharashtra—still lend itself to what should, in these nationalist times, be considered a nationalist humiliation? Ah, that’s because one of the British units that won battle honours was the Madras Pioneers, known today as the MEG.
Such are the tales that fuel a reflective round of drink and food during this monsoon. On long, dark evenings, there is always time to look to the future, but in old Bengaluru we tend to look back a lot.
Another evening, I recalled how our little neighbourhood of Richards Town was once a colonial bastion. A handful of high-ceilinged bungalows with their large, colourful gardens still survive, as do the old trees—Indian mahogany, African tulip, jacaranda, cannonball tree and so many more. This is hopeful and lovely, but my attention was particularly drawn to what those old Brits ate in wintery Bengaluru (in those days, when the city had about 90,000 more trees, it was probably a lot like the chilly monsoon of 2018). One of the things much favoured was soup, which we make very little of these days, perhaps because our thoughts about food are more in line with the Indian mainstream. How about, I thought, a one-pot soupy meal?
The wife was out of town, so that made it somewhat easier—before she reads this and takes offence, as is her wont, let me hastily say it is also more boring without her—because no separate vegetarian meals were required. The fat-cheeked eight-year-old likes her dead creatures, is relatively easy to please and will only say, “It’s quite good, okay good," if she doesn’t like anything I make. Mostly, she offers a thumbs-up, so cooking for her is a breeze.
I chose a minestrone inspired by colonial Richards Town and adapted from a slow-cooker recipe: It’s healthy, hearty and particularly susceptible to manipulation. It soaked in lots of vegetables and chicken, although I really should have thrown in some sausages. But it was a Monday, a holiday for our butchers at the Karnataka Ham Shop. So a leftover tandoori chicken stood in, a warm end to another windswept day.
Desi Minestrone with Pesto and Tandoori Chicken
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 tsp garlic, finely chopped
1/2tomato, roughly chopped
1 small potato, small cubes
1/2 cup cabbage, shredded
1/2 zucchini, thinly sliced
6-7 green beans, chopped into 3cm
2 cups penne pasta, cooked
3 cups vegetable stock
Salt to taste
Tandoori chicken, shredded (you can use any meat; sausages would go well)
Pesto: Pulse or hand-pound a handful of basil leaves with 1 tbsp walnuts, 1 tbsp olive oil, 3 pods garlic, 1 tbsp Parmesan cheese, salt to taste
In a non-stick pan or wok, heat olive oil gently and sauté garlic for a minute. Add finely chopped onion and carrot and sauté till somewhat soft, about 5 minutes or more. Add potatoes, salt and vegetable stock. Cover and cook till the potatoes are almost done. Add green beans till half done, then add zucchini. Cover and cook till both are almost done. Add cabbage, tomato and pasta, cover and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in chicken or sausage and cook for another 2 minutes. Serve in soup bowls with dollops of pesto. Mix and eat with bread.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
He tweets at @samar11