Many years ago, over a decade ago, in fact, we were on a holiday on Japan. To South Asians, being used to hear of India being spoken of as ‘exotic’ by every non-Asian we ever met, as we inwardly wondered what the heck that meant, Japan was truly an exotic country! The idea that one man’s every idli-sambar is another man’s exotic truly comes home only when we remove ourselves from our familiar confines and venture abroad.
To most Indians, accustomed to think of anyone with a non-brown skin a ‘foreigner’, to be the foreigner with the brown skin is a decidedly strange experience! Ever hear the one about the Indian software engineer in San Jose who is stopped by an American looking for directions to a Mr. Everyday Joe’s house? He scratches his head, looks at the address on the piece of paper being proffered and then offers, “No, Sir, I’m sorry . There are no foreigner’s around here!”
On a day trip to the temple town of Nara in Japan (Nara is rather like the Thanjavur of Japan dotted with ancient and beautiful Buddhist shrines), the friends with whom we were staying, the incredibly hospitable Krishna and Lakshmi, organized a really lovely outing starting with being dressed in kimonos and then visiting some of the temples. There were fourteen of us women and girls so the choosing of kimonos and sashes and being dressed in them – an art in itself – took almost two hours! We then put on those cute sandals with socks built into them that Japanese women wear with kimonos (finding shoes for the larger sizes quite a challenge) and then stepped out – a flock of pinks, oranges, greys and blues – for a kilometer –long walk to the main temple. Within minutes, we had collected a bunch of excited Japanese who trailed behind us, chattering, the little ones pointing and some of them trying to make conversation in English with us.
Traipsing along, feeling very pleased with ourselves – who doesn’t like getting dressed up?!! – one old man came up to me and in pretty passable Americanised English – learnt from watching gangsta movies (!) – paid us many compliments. Kept bemoaning the fact that Japanese women had almost completely given up wearing kimonos (well, if I had to spend forty-five minutes every morning on the exercise, I don’t think I’d last beyond a day!) and excited about all of us ‘foreign’ women who were so adventurous!
We finished with several temples and with feet killing us – well, for the sake of appearing completely Japanese, we had, several of us, squeezed our sizes six and eight feet into tiny Japanese slippers – the Japanese themselves don’t appear to grow feet beyond a size five – gigantic by their standards! Much appreciation for Gulliver in Lilliput developed in our hearts, not to mention in our aching toes!
Back at the kimono house, we were served tea and little sweetened rice paste rolls with sesame seeds by the two ladies who had dressed us. The serving and eating is quite a ceremony in itself, incredibly graceful as the Japanese are. As we kept trying to match bow for polite bow, not quite sure where to stop and having been warned about appearing bad-mannered, I sneaked a look at the rice paper rolls longingly! If someone hadn’t giggled and then the whole room erupted in laughter – I swear we’d still be bowing away, like the ostriches in perpetual motion – we really did look like the toy we used to buy in exhibitions where two ostriches face each other and keep bowing to each other because of the liquid that balances the two of them continuously shifting sides!
The rice rolls had gone cold but were still pretty ‘exotic’!
Reminded me rather of the kozhukottais that we make back home when we want a light dinner.
1. Raw rice rava/semolina – 2 cups. If this is not available, wash two cups of rice and spread out to dry on a dry cloth for 15-20 minutes. Pulse in the mixer to a not-too-fine rava / semolina consistency. This is raw rice rava.
2. Water – 5 cups
4. Sesame or coconut oil – 1 tbsp
5. Mustard seeds – 1 tsp
6. Chana dal – 2 tbsp
7. Urad dal– 1 tbsp
8. Asafoetida – 1 large pinch
9. Curry leaves – shredded – 2 tbsp
10. Red chilies – 2 – broken into bits
11. Chilies dried in buttermilk (majjiga mirapakaayalu / moru mizhaga) – 3 – fried and crumbled. (optional)
12. Grated coconut – fresh – ½ cup
Coconut chutney or mor kozhambu/majjiga pulusu – to serve with it (featured earlier in this blog)
Heat the oil in a thick bottomed, deep vessel – a pressure cooker is great. Add the mustard seeds. When they pop, add the chana dal and urad dal and let them turn golden. Add the curry leaves, red chilies, asafoetida and immediately pour in the water. Add the buttermilk-chili bits and salt. When the water comes to the boil, pour in the rice rava in a gentle stream stirring continuously. Add the coconut too. Within 3-4 minutes, the rice will swell up and form a ball around the ladle. Continue to stir for a few more minutes. Switch off and let cool a bit. With wet hands, shape the mass into balls – about the size of a lemon. Lay them out on a tray or an idli stand and steam them for 10- 12 minutes.
Take out and serve with coconut chutney or majjiga pulusu/mor kozhambu.
And if you do happen to wear a kimono, don’t try the small shoe stunt – just wear keds and be unfashionable! Like these kozhukottais – not very beautiful but very definitely soul food!