domingo, 13 de janeiro de 2013

Travelogue of a Life Scientist: How to Make Kefir

Today I made Kefir and it felt like a religious experience. I'm listening to Andrew Bird's The Water Jet Cilice and reading Dom's blog about Kefir-making. Apparently the people who first discovered and used Kefir grains told microbiologists the grains were a gift from Allah. For all the grains health benefits, I'd say that's not too far off.

A year ago I fell down the fermentation rabbit-hole, but really only for the past three weeks have I felt the benefits. Sugar, how I both love and loath you. My sugar obsession counter-acted the health benefits of the probiotics I made and ate. Maybe it's genetics. My YiaYia grew up in a candy shop her parents owned. My mom cannot resist a bowl of ice cream, or two, or three. Both YiaYia and my mom passed the sweet tooth along to me. Though I still eat some sugar, I now eat much less.

When it comes to sweets, I now try to
  1. not fall asleep with candy bars in my mouth
  2. avoid smitten kitchen's home-made oreos which I made for the holidays and are absolutely divine
  3. and keep a good walking-stick distance between myself and Rachel's ice cream maker.
So far, so good.

2 health benefits of my sugar divorce:
  1. clear skin (no zits for like over a month)
  2. improved digestion (seriously awesome poos)
2 future health goals, hopes and dreams:
  1. improved mental acuity (Did someone stay STATA?)
  2. Find a boyfriend
Kefir (pronounced Kuh-fear) supposedly derives from the Turkish word Keif, which loosely translates to good feeling. Kefir is a cultured milk beverage which originates from the Caucasus Mountains in modern-day Georgia. Some say the mountain tribes-folk discovered this process over 1,000 years ago. Kefir grains are not actually cereal grains but instead a symbiosis between lactic acid bacteria (LAB), acetic acid bacteria and yeast strains. Traditionally, the tribal people of the Caucasus mountains poured fresh goats milk into a leather bag and stirred in the Kefir grains with a wooden spoon. The grains cultured the milk, and the people drank this leather-y goat-y goodness 24 hours later. I don't have such a fine leather pouch nor my own goat (yet) but I do have the ridiculously named Pickl-it jars and raw cows milk.

So, here's how Brenda and I made the Kefir:

  1. Kefir grains (not processed)
  2. Milk (preferably raw)
  3. Pickl-it jar (1L size)
  1. Pour 2 cups raw milk into the Pickl-it
  2. Add Kefir grains (Brenda and I did not rinse them, it sounds like people go either way on this)
  3. Wait 12-48 hours.
Pickl-it Jar with Kefir
Why hello there, cupboard of fermenting things.

domingo, 15 de julho de 2012

Clothes and Sex in India

Clothing in India represents gender norms. It's inappropriate for a woman to display her shoulders, yet men wander about in tank tops or bare-chested, with a cotton-sheet like contraption called a lunghi that they wrap around their waist and dangles suggestively above their knees. This morning, as I walked to the bus station to inquire about tickets to Kerala, a middle-aged man swung his leg up and over the seat of his motorbike, completely exposing a freely dangling penis to oncoming traffic. Women modestly cover their breasts, chests, shoulders, arms and legs, yet bellies and low backs see quite a bit of sun. I've seen old grandmas hobbling through the market, carrying an unbelievable girth which swings too and fro like a pendulum. This does not seem to bother anyone, least of all the grannies who use their considerable size to sidle up to the front of the line.

I have never worn so much clothing in such oppressive heat. My butt and thighs are now covered in itchy heat rash. I keep myself covered in a vain attempt to reduce the obvious and uncomfortable stares from men. Though in South America I grew accustomed to the piropos, or cat calls, there is something more intense about the physical appraisals from some Indian men. Sex and sensuality are so taboo. Husbands and wives cannot walk hand in hand. Only men get cozy together, walking arm in arm or holding hands. I've seen 3 boys huddled together a top one bicycle, or two cyclists riding side by side, grasping at each others finger as they nonchalantly swerve through autorickshaws. The Hindi gods, however, are all explicitly sexual. Lord Shiva, one of the most well-loved gods, is very...virile. Sanjay, Anna's friend that I met through Raguji, told me that when Lord Shiva takes his consort, Parvati, to bed, he doesn't leave the room for a year. In fact, his devotees pray to him with a lingam, an extremely phallic stone that falls, perfectly erect, into a concave oval. It takes little stretch of the imagination to see the oval represents a woman's genitalia. So Lord Shiva is represented and praised through an obvious physical union of woman and man- why are small tokens of affection between couples so taboo?

Sanjay seems to think it's an influence from Victorian England, that the Brits clamped the chastity belt on modern India. I'm sure it's more complicated than that, but I don't know what else could have moved a culture famous for their randy and half-naked gods into a subdued or even, at times, suppressed sexuality.

Quick Trip to Pondy

I thought Pondicherry would entice me more, but the truth is that I'm already set to leave. I have a bus ticket to Ernakulam that leaves in a few hours. Pondicherry, once a French colony, is less French than I anticipated. I think part of the draw of coming here was the desire to feel more at home in a more Western environment. I wanted to wear shorts and tank tops, I wanted to not feel the weight of Indian men staring at me. I wanted quiet. Alas, not the case.

quinta-feira, 12 de julho de 2012

Auroville: Things I will Never Forget...

First, Auroville needs some explanation. I first heard about it from Robert, a German whom Stephen, Anna, Tenzin and I met on the bus from Dharamsala to New Delhi. Robert has long blond hair and a long white body- he stands out even more than I do in India. He is funny, irreverent, totally at ease with himself, and only 19 years old. I told him my travel plans and how I was disappointed that none of the spice farms I contacted in Kerala (a Southern state in India), had any work during the monsoon season (duh). He recommended I look into Auroville. Even though it's the monsoon season, he explained, there still will be at least some work to do. He said that Auroville is an community created to support and maintain human unity and peace. It was founded by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, two well-known and well-regarded spiritual leaders, in 1968. The Mother is French and was a painter and musician. Sri Aurobindo was a political activist turned yogi and philosopher. Their images are found everywhere in Auroville and the surrounding area. The Mother beams. Her neck is so long and droopy that she looks like a retired kindergarten teacher who has spent her life craning to hear whispering children. Sri Aurobindo had an austere intensity in his youth that seems to have mellowed at as he aged and got a bit fatter. Currently there are around 1,600 people living there, though it was designed to hold 50,000. The majority of it's inhabitants are Indian and French, though there is a rich smattering of other nationalities. It's an UNESCO World Heritage site.

The way Auroville is run is a bit confusing to me. Everyone has an Auroville account into which they siphon money from their normal bank accounts. This way there are few actual monetary transactions, since Aurovillians access this account with a card. It was a bit tricky for me to eat out in Auroville (there are plenty of for-profit restaurants) unless I went with someone that had an account and I could just give them some cash for putting me on their bill. The Indian government owns and manages the Auroville Foundation but does not finance their budget. The budget is formed by contributions from Auroville's commercial units such as the guest houses, building construction, information technology, small businesses and restaurants. Many Indians from surrounding villages are employed in Auroville, too. They fix the streets, the plumbing, help with the harvest, and serve food. There is a complicated and at times contentious relationship between these people and the Aurovillians, one that Pablo remarked "could definitely be improved."

I've lived in intentional community settings in a variety of different places- as a farm worker in Michigan at Frog Holler Farm, as a farm volunteer in El Bolson, Argentina and in Chapada dos Veadeiros, Brasil. This experience in Auroville was very different and while I understand the draw I would never want to live there myself. The life style is certainly peaceful- Mustafa, a fellow farm worker, says his two years in Auroville have helped him "to no longer be afraid." Granted, he's Egyptian, and his world has seen much upheaval in the past few years (as well as barely contained political turmoil for the past 30), but this was a sentiment echoed by more than just a few. Auroville seems like a safe haven for those who are either too sensitive or too cynical for the outside world. They come to Auroville for a simpler life, to self-actualize in ways that the outside world won't let them, and maybe also to hide. I still admire them. At first I didn't get why it was so hard for me to dig the Aurovillian scene. Then, in a conversation with Jurgen, a German librarian who flew directly from Europe to Auroville and has not left since he arrived in over 2 years, I realized that I need to be a pollinator. I like this image very much. I don't mean it in any sort of grand sense. Bees are amazing creatures without which our world would collapse. But it isn't any one bee that's out doing all the work- it's the entire hive. I like the idea of being part of a group of people who is spreading ideas across the globe. Jurgen says he has seen enough in his travels to have gained the kind of perspective he needs to make the right choices in his life for himself. This reminded me of an old email from an Irish friend, Kojak, I met at a 2009 Permangola event in Brasil. Kojak was in his late thirties and writing a book on Capoeira. He has spent much of his adult life working as a guide for NOLS, but had recently returned to his home to start an organic farm with his family. We emailed for a while and he sent me this bit of sage advise:

Sounds like you still have something of the travel bug. I used to have a severe case of it myself, but then I realised that what interested me more was not so much the novelty of visiting different places, for in the end all I ended up seeing was the same - first impressions - but the novelty of deeper layers of things that you only get to know through being in one place for a sustained period of time.

Though now I am pollinating, I feel the urge to slow it down a bit. I guess that's part of what moving back to Ann Arbor has been, and part of why I travel so darn slowly. I have seen SO LITTLE of India, yet I don't really feel any anxiety over this. I like really feeling a place, even if it means seeing less. A German woman whom I met collecting sea shells in small fishing village was aghast at how many things I was going to miss in my short visit to India. She was on her fourth and, supposedly, final visit. She reminded me very much of YaYa and we spent the day together in Mamallapuram, the fishing village. At lunch she opened up her map of Southern India. She clucked her tongue and tried to urge me to move more quickly. I started laughing- her organization seemed so stereotypically German and my more free-wheeling approach very much so a product of an American youth. She started laughing, too, until our faces were streaked with tears. We spent lunch toasting each other and our different ways of being over prawn pasta.

This trip feels very different than any other I have ever taken. Maybe part of it is traveling in a country where I don't speak the language, and the other part I think is traveling in the East (where I have never been before). I have to be silent much more of the time, and rely even more greatly on the clarity of my miming skills. I am also spending a lot more time with myself. Even at the farm, surrounded by other farm workers, I spent a lot of time humming to myself, reading, practicing yoga, writing, drawing, cooking, and taking long bike rides. My Mom asked if I have ever been lonely and the truth is only very rarely. I really really enjoy hanging out with myself, and maybe juggling 4 jobs this past year has made it an even greater necessity that I get some quality alone time. My friend, Stephen, ever the inspiration, also mentioned that he wrote a list for himself of all the things he can do when he is alone (as a fellow world traveler, he understands what it's like to be lonely and then to learn to appreciate solitude). I have drawn portraits of cooks, child street vendors, and stone carvers. I have a really awesome back-bend and can actually sometimes do lotus pose. I have read 5 books in 5 weeks- more than I could have ever hoped to read back home. And I am writing a lot. Sometimes I worry that I am out of conversational practice. This has always been true for me, though. I'm a born introvert and while I am excellent at initial small talk, extending a conversation is cumbersome and draining for me, especially with strangers. It's much more easy and pleasant for me to retreat into myself and observe.

And then there's traveling in the East. I think that will have to be another blog entry because my fingers are getting tired, but nothing I have seen previously compares to the religion, the beautiful colors, the gender roles, the food, the social conservatism. It's challenged, surprised, and inspired me.

Anyway, here's my list:

Things I will Never Windaara Farm

- being the only female volunteer.
- practicing yoga at 5:30 AM with David, from Spain.
- climbing out of the deepest swimming hole, heart racing, with David and Pablo.
- sharing pizza and jokes with Javi at Tantos.
- drinking cheeku juice for the first time with Sammy, Moustafa and Khaled.
- Khaled's eyes OMG so beautiful.
- "Pili clean pana" (Literal translation: Weed clean doing, in Tamil) with Megala, Palema, Khumani and Indrani.
- How much I looked forward to chai breaks at 10 and 3 when weeding those peanuts.
- planting peanuts!
- sharing potato omelette, spinach dahl, rice and tangy fish sauce with Indra.
- Juan telling me to relax in his Thai massage class at Windaara.
- the blues concert at Sadhana where I met Anita, whom I knew instantly to be a kindred spirit, and riding three to one motorbike squished between David and Pablo on the way home in a light rain.
- reading Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl, which made me homesick for Margaret.
- my horribly sun burnt back.
- the lewd man on the bicycle.
- falling asleep to the inspiring and soothing sounds of a Sufi musician.
- taking a shower and hearing Smokestack Lightning coming from Fritz's house, marveling at the distance Howlin' Wolf has traveled (though apparently this version was the Grateful Dead).
- practicing yoga with Sammy after my first full day of work- he was so inflexible except for lotus pose, which he did beautifully.
- Indra making me drink clay powder to help my upset tummy.
- all the motor bikes!
- talking about Brazil to Anita, and realizing I want to return very much.
- watching the storm with Sammy from my balcony. POW horizontal lightning!
- eating Crumpy, a terrible Nutella knock-off with the name of a crumbly old curmudgeon.
Scary swimming hole.

Even scarier climb up. Those stone blocks are about 3 feet apart each. Spider man style. I fell on the top and scraped my shin but felt very proud I survived.

Blues concert at Sadhana, where they have the reforestation project in Auroville.

Delicious meal with Anita: Tofu salad, momos, dahl, toast, muffin and cappucino.

This is where I stayed- it was so hot and buggy at night!

Another view of where I stayed.

Kitchen and meeting area.


Sunset from my balcony.

Harvest day. L-R: Pablo, Sammy, Indra, Indrani.

Seated: Megala. She has jasmine flowers in her hair, like many women in the South wear. They smell lovely but take forever to sew into those very long braids.

Indrani, my dancing partner.

Delicious meal I cooked (finally have kitchen use after a month!): potato and tapioca hash browns with carmelized onions, red rice from the farm topped toasted almonds, lightly boiled eggplant, and shredded carrot salad with balsamic vinegar and pickled garlic. NOMS.

domingo, 8 de julho de 2012

Pranayama Sequence #1

1. Sama Vritti- 1st Chakra
Index and middle finger on forehead, thumb and pinkie with ring finger resting lightly on nasal passage so that the nostril is half-open in star trek bunny rabbit formation. Deep breath in, head will naturally rise toward the end of the breath. Hold the breath as long as possible. Smile. Alternate exhaling through both nostrils with pinkie and thumb.

2. Anuloma- 1st Chakra
Interrupted inhalation. "Jhana" mudra hands on thighs. Take in five separate, interrupted, inhalations. Hold breath as long as you can. Smile. Slowly exhale breath.

3. Vilom- 2nd Chakra
Interrupted exhalation. Deep inhale up. Hands in Jhana mudra on thighs. Exhale in halting pauses, 5 times if you can.

4. Adie Suddhi- 3rd Chakra
Alternating inhale/exhale. Hand in star trek bunny rabbit formation. Put pinkie with ring finger lightly over left nostril, blocking air from entering. Breathe in through right nostril. Hold breath as long as possible. Place thumb on right nostril. Exhale slowly through left nostril. Keep thumb on right nostril and inhale through left. Hold breath. Place pinkie and ring finger on left nostril and breath out through right. The breath kind of makes an upside-down "U" through your nose, as if it's climbing up and down a mountain, over and over again.

5. Hanuman (this means monkey in Sanskrit)
Fingers pressed together, Anna says like a praying mantis. Inhale with head down, elbows up, thumbs on the cartilage of the nose. Anna recommends trying to keep saliva around the base of the tongue. Kate enjoys spitting. Expand face with air, like a monkey (hence the name). Blow out air 3 times with chin raised.

6. Bhati- this helps with the thyroid and hormone regulation
Release stomach, let it hang. Compress your stomach, pulling the skin of your belly into your spine. This will expel the air in your belly out through your nostrils in raspy breaths. You never really inhale. Do this in sets of 20 or 30.

7. Bhramarie (means bee in Sanskrit, so called because of the sound one makes while doing the pranayama)
Place index and middle fingers lightly over your eyes, thumbs in your ears, ring finger on the cartilage of your nose, pinkie on the smile line of your face. Inhale head down, lift head up and hold inhalation, release inhalation while creating a deep hum in throat, kind of like a bee, while half closing nostrils.

8. Udgit Pranayama (Udgit means songs for high consciousness)
Put left hand on navel, right hand on crown. Start with head up for inhalation. Hold breath. On exhalation of breath, chant OM, 25% while mouth is open and 75% with mouth closed. Do 5 times.

quinta-feira, 28 de junho de 2012

Dead Bodies

It's not often I see dead bodies floating in rivers.

Life and death swirl coexist here. Anna and I have seen the same puppies, no more than 4 weeks old, playing in the street and greedily nuzzling their mama for more milk. Every day bodies wrapped in orange colored cloth are paraded through these very same streets to the Ganges, where they will be cremated in a public ceremony. Then they are tossed in the river. The environmentalist side of me thinks "Well, matter is never created nor destroyed. After all, it is just a body being returned to its' basic elements..." but the squeamish girl in me kinda freaks out.

Two days ago Anna and I took a boat ride on the Ganges. We left at 5 AM when it was cooler. People were already up and bathing in the river. We watched people wash their clothes, smacking sari's and pants against rocks, wringing them out then hanging them on long wire lines. We listened to prayers chanted. Our eyes followed candles flanked by marigolds tossed into the river on leaf boats. The Ganges swelled with the music, the colors, the sewage. The bodies. Not everyone is cremated. Children under 7 years old, pregnant women, anyone who died of a snake bite, lepers, and sadhu's (similar to priests) are not cremated. Their bodies are wrapped then tossed into the river with stones for weights. Sometimes the stones come loose and bodies float to the surface. This doesn't seem to phase anyone. Except the little girl inside of me who read waaay to many Fear Street and Goosebumps books.

That's the dead body, next to the white boat.

Other tourists rising early.

Another dead body. 

Laundry day in the Ganges River.

Candle flanked by marigolds.

Our boat-rower.

Our offering- candle and marigolds.

But there it is, death: fecal matter, dead bodies, dead cows. And life: puppies, yogurt lassi's, coconut trees.

sexta-feira, 22 de junho de 2012

Indian Pickles!

My love for fermented things has definitely followed me across continents. I recently discovered Indian pickles, which I have never eaten before in any Indian restaurant. Anna and I were walking through one of the windy streets of Varanasi's old town when I spotted some large glass jars filled with strange things and in a variety of different color liquids. My heart skipped a beat. I stopped at the shop and asked what they were. Through a series of finger twinkles to indicate sunlight and watch-pointing to indicate time, it was determined that yes, these were pickles.

Pickle shop, Varanasi

There were so many different kinds! Mango, garlic, ginger, and a gazillion other ones whose names couldn't be translated for me. I bought onion pickles and have been eating them both in the morning with my paratha and curd and in the evening with rice, raita, naan and whatever vegetable dish is next on the list (Anna and I are working our way down the menu at our hotel).

Indian pickles are made with mustard seed oil and many spices. I decided I wanted to learn how to make them. Since pretty much every amama in India knows how, it really was only a matter of time before I found someone who could show me. As luck would have it, when I was buying my MC Hammer pink parachute pants (totally ridiculous) the mother of the family-owned shop said she had a great recipe. Along with my pants she sent me home with a jar of pickled mangoes (!) that were a little salty for my taste but still absolutely amazing. The next day, I asked her to teach me.

Me with over-ripe mangoes

Samta (the mother), Adesolay (oldest son- 17?), Devy (8 year old son), the daughter, Manya (9 years old), and the grandmother's name that I think I will need written down for me, are an adorable family that should definitely have their own sitcom. Samta is very stern and pushy, Adesolay has the biggest smile, Devy is what my dad would call a zoozooni and the daughter told me she wants to grow up to be the prime minister. The grandmother is my favorite. Grandmothers tend to be my favorites. She has a great cackle and we laughed back and forth at each other as we tried to communicate how to cut the mangoes and how badly I had been ripped off at the spice shop.

Manya: yoga master, Bollywood dancer and future Prime Minister

When I was over on Thursday night with the spices and mangoes that I bought, they clucked sadly at me. I had paid three times as much as I should have for the mangoes! The mangoes are too ripe! This sauf (spice) is too skinny and sickly looking! I felt right at home. While we mixed the spices and drank mango milk shakes with the too-ripe mangoes, they sent Adesolay to buy new, unripe mangoes for the pickles. Then we pealed and shredded the mangoes in a large bowl and mixed some spices and salt in with them. We have to let this sit for one day, they said. Samta had me try a couple of other kinds of pickles they had in the house. I tried the most delicious pickle of my life which I thought was artichoke. I said, Actually, can we scratch the mango pickle idea, and make these instead? They laughed and said ok. I went home and promised to return the following day in the afternoon.
Jack fruit and mango pieces

Friday afternoon (June 22) I returned and we made two other kinds of pickles.When I discovered that the most delicious pickle ever was not artichoke but actually made from jack fruit I could hardly believe it. This is the first time I am sad we don't have jack fruit in Michigan. I remember eating lots of jack fruit in Brazil. It's enormous, green and spiny on the outside and on the inside are these beige colored pods with seeds the size of a finger bone. Basically, they are gross, and the only reason that Ronaldi and I ate them was because we were poor and they were free, falling from the trees in the jungle.
Mixing in the spices

We finished mixing all the spices and chopping all the fruits and we put the pickles in separate plastic jars that they instructed me to put in the sun (I am suspending reality and will just pretend that BPA doesn't exist). The grandmother vigorously moved her arms up and down as if she had a beach ball between them and said "Gaba!" I took this to mean "Shake!" I was right. I need to shake them every day to make sure the oil and spices completely coat everything.

Manya and the jar which now holds my pickles and once held laundry detergent. Pretending so hard not to be freaked out by BPA and other chemicals.

I will have delicious pickles in 2 days and the family also invited me to breakfast and tea this morning!


Ingredients: 1 kg unripe mangoes pealed and shredded, 1 kg jack fruit, boiled, 1 kg unripe mangoes cubed,1 kg mustard oil, 100 gm rai, 100 gm mangralla, 100 gm sauf, 50 gm heldi, 100 gm methi, 50 gm hing, 1 pkt. salt, 50 gm red chilli.

Shredded Mango Pickles:
Add 3 tablespoons salt, 1/2 tablespoon ping, fully crushed, 1/2 tablespoon heldi, 1/2 tablespoon red chilli. Put the mango mixture on top of about 2 cups of chenna (is this chickpea?) in a metal pot, and press it down into the bottom of the pot. Put a lid on it and let it sit over night.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons sauf, 4 tablespoons rai, 4 tablespoons mangralla on low heat. Add methi, crushed. Blend everything in blender. Set spice mixture aside- this will be added the next day.

The next day, add 1/2 of the spice mixture to the shredded mango. In a pot over the stove heat up 1/3 of the mustard seed oil. Add this to the mangoes when it has cooled enough. Mix thoroughly. Put mangoes in GLASS jar and let sit out for 2 hours during the heat of the day, for two days. Let some air enter- either put cheese cloth over the top or leave the top slightly ajar.

Jack Fruit and Mango Pickles:
After jack fruit has been boiled and mango cut appropriately, add 2-3 tablespoons of salt and red chilli to each.

Heat sauf til light brown. Set aside. Heat rai for one minute. Set aside. Heat mangralla a little bit and set aside. Heat fenegreek til light brown, around 2 minutes, and set aside. Add red chilli and heldhi, unheated. Add this mixture to the cut mango and jack fruit. We made two kinds- one jack fruit and mango mix and one of just mangoes. After the spices have been added, add also the crushed hing. Finally, add the remainder of the oil (1/3 kilo among the two different types of pickles). Mix thoroughly. Put into GLASS jars and let sit outside for 2 hours during the heat of the day, for two days. Let some air enter- either put cheese cloth over the top or leave the top slightly ajar.