Sunday, April 26, 2009

My kitchen knives

- By Deepa Krishnan
When I first set up my kitchen, I bought a set of five steel knives from an upscale lifestyle store. There was a lovely chunky wooden holder (you know, the light coloured wood that you see in Scandinavian furniture?). The knives sat snugly in it. The darn thing caught my fancy.
I brought the knives and the holder home, and set it up on the kitchen counter. When the sun streamed through the window, the knife handles gleamed satisfactorily. Ah, Deepa, I told myself - you have quite the modern kitchen!
Five years have gone by now - and guess what - the knives are still sitting in the holder. We don't use them at all! Instead, my maids prefer these - the 10 rupee handmade knives from Zaveri Bazaar.

These knives are made by hand. A blade is inserted into a wooden holder, and bound with thin wire. The blade is then sharpened on a grinding stone. The nicer, bigger ones cost twenty rupees.
It's not just my maids who love these knives - I do too. They are excellent for slicing vegetables; and even the trickiest tomato is no trouble at all. I think it's because the blade is really thin and flexible. T-chak! T-chick! In minutes the carrots and beans are all neatly sliced!
My food-writer friend Rushina is a big fan of these knives too. I remember a couple of years ago, I was walking in Bhuleshwar with her and she said, "Deepa, you know, these are really great for vegetable carving." That's when I bought these for the first time, and now I'm hooked.
The knives are incredibly sharp when you buy them. But they lose the sharpness in a couple of months, because they're really thin knives and I don't think the metal is high quality. When we've used them for a couple of months, we take them back to the knife guy, and have him sharpen them again.

In spite of the need for sharpening, they're really lovely to use, and we've switched over completely to these. Next time you're in Zaveri Bazaar, or at your local market, buy yourself one of these. Oh, and if you need to see how sharp the knife is, ask them to demonstrate that neat paper-slicing thing they do! It's fun to watch!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

This khus thing

- by Deepa Krishnan
Just opposite Mangaldas Market, under the shadow of the Jama Masjid, there's a little attar shop. My friend Shoba wanted to buy sandal extract, so I went along with her to have a look.

I have never bought attar in my life - actually, I've never bought any perfume at all, apart from the mandatory deo - so I was a complete novice. Shoba seemed to know what she was doing though, so I stood quietly watching while she talked to the shop owner.

He was young and good looking - and with the kind of acquiline face and glossy black hair that belonged in the movies. Once he figured we were really going to buy something, he warmed to us and gave me a tiny smile for my camera.
While Shoba tried different extracts and essences, I tried to read the labels on the crystal decanters. What interesting names they had - Jannatul Firdose, Kasturi, Estanbul Gulab, Black Musk, Tea Rose, Mogra, Majmua, Ajab...
The one that interested me was a dark coloured liquid on the back row - Ruh Khus, or Soul of Vetiver.

I know what khus is - have you seen it? It is a sort of long aromatic grass. We've got khus incense sticks at home - the smell is woody and smoky. For those who are not big fans of floral essences (like me!), Indian vetiver or khus is a good alternative.

Khus is widely used in India, and not just in perfumes. In the summer months, it is woven into mats, and hung on the doorways of houses to keep the sun away. Water is sprinkled on the mats, and when the breeze blows through it, it keeps the house cool and fragrant.

The most interesting thing I've read recently about khus is how the Konkan Railway has used it to safeguard the rail track against soil erosion and mudslides.

The Konkan Railway runs between Bombay and Goa, on the foothills of the Western Ghats. Of the 740 kms they cover, one-third of the route has been either tunnelled or cut through the hills. There's also heavy rainfall here in the monsoons, so keeping the tracks clear of mudslides is critical.

On the Konkan Railway website, they've actually written two pages of stuff explaining why they picked vetiver for their embankments:

1) It is easily available all over India.

2) It is cheap and easy to establish as a hedge.

3) It can be easily maintained at little cost.

4) It withstands wide range of climates – from 300 - 6000 mm rainfall and from 15 - 55 degrees temperature. Moreover, it can withstand long and sustained drought for more than six months.

5) It is totally free of pests and disease, and does not serve as an intermediate host for pests or disease of other plants.

6) Its strong fibrous root system penetrates and binds the soil upto 3m depth.

7) It is perennial and requires minimal maintenance.

8) Over a period of time it helps in changing the PH of the soil from about 2 to 8 i.e. from acidic to alkaline.

OK, I'm thoroughly impressed! Not just with khus itself, but also with the Konkan Railway (just when you think everything is going downhill with the government, you find out they're doing some very cool stuff).

Anyway - I'm off now - I'm going to get some vetiver for my home garden!