May 29, 2017

Over the river and through the woods...

Well, we didn't go to grandmother's house but we did go over some rivers and through some woods! Yes, we went to Kathmandu again. Above you see a mural of the Pokhara valley painted across the back of a truck we waited behind for about an hour. The mural is replete with para-gliders, Lake Fewa, and Mt Machaapuchre looming in the distance. The large bird is Nepal's national bird which is called a danphe, Himalayan monal, or Impeyan pheasant.

Look at that early morning traffic! Absolute gridlock! Sheesh!

Finally a tiny goatherdess cleared the road and bade us farewell.

Bibi's LOTD was a travel smart abaya, palazzos, and hijab in dreamily comfortable modal and viscose. A pair of golden bejeweled sandals with matching handbag added a touch of bling to this Arabesque ensemble. 

Here's the first horrific crash of the day. The 174 kilometer/108 mile long Prithvi Highway we drove to Kathmandu on is one of the most dangerous roadways in the world. 

And there were landslides. With the start of the rainy season this is always a hazard. It gets worse when the Monsoon starts.

We decided to stop for a snack in Mugling and check on road conditions ahead. The veg momos were yummy and we learned the highway was going to be closed until 2 pm due to another landslide. 

So we did a little shopping and met some beautiful people. The black dot on the baby's forehead is to ward off the evil eye in case you're wondering.

Smoked fish are a local specialty in the villages along the river. We passed on the fish but picked up some fresh locallly grown ginger and dal. 

Here's horrific crash number two on our trip. Yes, it is a large (18 meter long) truck flipped over on it's side. No, there weren't any tow trucks there. In fact this truck's cargo was being unloaded by hand onto another truck. 

And finally the road was reopened and we were on our way! There was the usual traffic jam over the grade into Kathmandu. While the Sheikh did business in Kathmandu Bibi was lazy and luxuriated at the spa and lounged by the pool in her burkini sipping virgin mojitos.

Then we came home. The kitties jumped in our dusty and dirty duffel bag and refused to leave. I think they missed us. So anywho, I took lots of photos for future posts on our little trip. We did a side trip to a little village that was so pretty. Ramadan has begun and so I'll be busy cooking up all sorts of goodies for iftar and suhoor.

Calmly currying on,

May 22, 2017

All is fair in love and elections...

And so the historic local level elections took place on May 14th, 2017 in the newly-fledged democracy of Nepal. These were the first local elections in 20 years and the first to be held since the promulgation of the 2015 constitution. The second phase of local elections is due to take place on June 14th of this year. This first phase of election was largely peaceful but there were some unfortunate instances of violence. 

Security was heightened across the nation in the days previous to the elections as well as the day of the elections. Local police were on guard at every polling station. The army was on stand-by in case of emergency. Army helicopters were buzzing in and out of our local airport continuously. The Nepali Army did some exercises in our district with live ammo. (I suppose that was to let everybody know they're ready for business if need be.)  I really wasn't too thrilled listening to gunfire and helicopters every morning. Russian-made helicopters are NOISY!

Here's a list from a local newspaper of all the known groups and individuals threatening to destabilize the elections. These are the usual folks who believe the end justifies the means here in Nepal. And threaten they did. Taunts of strikes, boycotts, arson, bombings, abductions, mob attacks, and even murder or assassination were heard throughout the land. After the decade long Maoist uprising most Nepalis are fairly jaded about this sort of animosity. 

Some of those folks made good on those threats. A number of improvised explosive devices were found in various places across the nation on the days leading up to and on the day of the election. Above you see the Nepalese Army’s bomb disposal team detonating two explosive devices on election day. They were planted across from a candidate’s house in Bhaktapur. A Maoist cadre planted a pressure cooker bomb and several other suspicious devices along the main East-West Prithvi highway the day before the elections. Citizens who were heading to their home districts from Kathmandu to cast their votes via the highway were stranded for three hours until the devices were removed. One person was killed while 20 others were injured in the Powati Polling Centre in Dolakha district when police opened fire to control a mob that tried to disrupt the election. In Kalikot, activists of the Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal seized a ballot box and set it on fire at Naraharinath Village Council on the evening of election day. The National Human Rights Commission stated that ward chairman candidate of the CPN (Maoist Centre) Prem Bahadur Rimal was abducted by an unidentified group. Minor clashes were reported also from eight other polling stations in Gairimudi, Marbu, Jhule, Jafe, Shahare, and Melung. 

Photo: Rishi Ram Baral
Despite all the ruckus most Nepalis seemed really excited, unafraid, and proud to vote. An amazing estimate of 71-73% voter turnout was witnessed during this election! Above you see citizens of our town at a poll station in a local secondary school. Everyone waited patiently and eagerly in line to vote. Army helicopters were used to carry ballot boxes from the country's remote northern regions to the nearest towns.

“The election was largely peaceful and people voted with enthusiasm,” the National Human Rights Commission said in a statement on Sunday evening. The NHRC had deployed 42 monitoring teams in the districts. -The Kathmandu Post

I'm not certain most Westerners would agree with the NHRC's assessment of a largely peaceful election. Nor would most Westerners dare to venture out into such potentially hostile environs to vote willingly. Western media would most likely be screeching and howling about this 24/7 for a month. Here in Nepal it's just business as usual.

The votes are still being counted as I write this. Vote counting stopped at Ward 32 in Kathmandu Metropolitan City due to dispute between election employees and representatives of political parties yesterday. Political parties at the vote counting center accused the employees of writing down different numbers than what was announced while counting. Ayodhee Prasad Yadav has given assurances that final results of the first phase of local level elections held on last Sunday will be published within one week. Mr Yadav went on to say-

“But why are not the people who stayed silent when the elections did not happen for 20 long years showing any patience for one more week now,” he questioned, “I am surprised.” -onlinekhabar

Us foreigners stayed locked within the compound for a few days. Most businesses were closed and strikes/bandhs were being called on and off repeatedly right up to election day. All our vehicles were locked up inside with us lest anyone decide to enforce a strike by torching. Nothing exciting happened in our neighborhood though. As you can see in the above photo our local Communist party headquarters was rather festively decorated yet sedate. In fact the streets were empty as most of our neighbors had returned to their villages to vote.

Lastly, a fearless fashion-loving ingenue looks out perplexedly upon her brave new democracy. That's right little one, it's all yours!

Some parting words of wisdom,

A fool and his money are soon elected
-Will Rogers
Calmly currying on,

May 15, 2017

Mexican Style Beans (Frijoles)

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Beans are a staple of Mexican cuisine and a favorite element in so many Mexican dishes. This classic recipe for frijoles is easy to make, versatile, vegan, and healthy. Enjoy these beans with warm tortillas, as a filling for burritos, or with rice and rotis as my Indian family does!

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Pinto beans are the most popular bean in the United States and northwestern Mexico. Pinto means speckled or spotted referring to the bean's mottled skin which becomes uniform when cooked. When properly prepared pinto beans have a deliciously creamy texture, mild flavor, and an ability to absorb flavors well. I'm using simi beans which are a local favorite here in Nepal. As you can see in the above photo simi beans are a bit rosier in hue than pinto beans, but their flavor and texture is quite similar.

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A Latina friend in my native California taught me to make these Mexican-style beans or frijoles. Each family has their own unique way of preparing beans with differences in bean variety, the type of pot used, specific seasonings, and method of cooking. Traditionally, an earthenware pot called an olla was used to cook beans. As you can see in the above photo an olla is shaped a lot like the handi used in Indian cooking and serves much the same purpose. I have never seen an olla in use to cook beans in any kitchen Mexican or otherwise. The most common vessel I've seen used to cook beans in both Spanish-speaking and Okie communities is a large heavy-duty aluminum stockpot begotten at the Kmart or the local ACE hardware store. I use my Indian-style pressure cooker to save time.

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I have often read that lard or manteca is the most authentic fat to use in Mexican cooking. In the town where I was raised the cooking fat of choice for Mexican-American families and most other ethnic groups was Crisco. The famed digestible vegetable shortening or manteca vegetal was used for tortillas and tamales as well as pie crusts and fried chicken. I'm not from Butcher Holler but as Loretta Lynn said in the commercial,
"Crisco will do you proud every time." 

Lard was probably the preferred fat before World War II. Possibly the only place to find lard in the 70's and 80's was at a carnicería or Mexican butcher. I've heard lard is making a comeback though. Choose your favorite cooking oil for this recipe. The preferred chilis for Mexican cooking in California are Serranos and their milder cousins, Jalapeños. Spanish-style yellow onions are used exclusively in Mexican cuisine. To soak the beans or not is another choice. Soaking the beans overnight will save you cooking time. I never saw beans soaked in my little community though so I don't soak either. I do use a pressure cooker which does cut down cooking time to about half. My Indian family loves these with rice but you could certainly enjoy them in a more traditional manner atop a tostada, alongside warm tortillas, or as a filling for burritos. Or try them topped with a little queso fresco, chopped tomatoes, and a sprinkle of cilantro as a hearty soup! Off to the recipe:

2 C dry pinto beans (or dry simi beans)
1-2 TBS cooking oil (scant amount to cover bottom of pot)
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 TBS garlic paste or 3 minced garlic cloves
1-3 Jalapeño or Serrano chilis or any green chili you prefer (omit for less heat)
1/2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
salt to taste

Here's what to do:
1) Sort through dried beans and remove pebbles. Rinse the beans in water in a colander and set aside. Heat oil in a large stock pot or pressure cooker and fry the onion until it softens.

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 2) When onion begins to turn translucent add garlic, chilis, and black pepper to frying onion. Fry for about 2 minutes or until chilis begin to blister and garlic loses it's raw smell. Do not brown the onions!

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3) Add the rinsed beans, 2 teaspoons salt, and enough water to cover the beans by about 3 inches to the pot or pressure cooker. If using stock pot: bring to a boil, and then reduce heat and simmer for about 2 hours. Check on the pot every 15 minutes to make sure there's enough water, add more water from time to time as necessary. Make sure to keep adding water so the pot does not dry out. If using pressure cooker: seal lid on pressure cooker and allow to steam until beans are tender. This takes about 40 to 50 minutes in my Indian-style pressure cooker.

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4) The beans are ready when cooked so soft you can press them through your fingers and skins slip off easily. (Cooking time depends on the age and quality of beans, drier ones will require a longer simmering time.) Traditionally the beans are left a bit soupy so you can dip your tortilla in them or mash them to make frijoles refritos. Salt to taste and retrieve chilis before serving. Serve with warm tortillas or rice and rotis like we eat them. Once cooled the beans will keep for up to one week refrigerator in an airtight container.

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Helpful Hints:
You could certainly use other sorts of beans in this recipe such as black beans, kidney beans, Peruano, Mayocoba, Santa Maria, or Flor de Mayo.

May 8, 2017

Of the People, By the People, For the People...

The Himalayan nation of Nepal will hold it's first local elections in 20 years on May 14th. This is quite the milestone in Nepal's long and difficult transition from monarchy to democracy! The local campaign trail came right to our door as you can see in the above photo. Trucks with huge loudspeakers spouting slogans, catchy jingles, joyous hymns of comradery, and numerous promises have been cruising every street and neighborhood here for the past week.

The banner on the truck with the portraits of candidates in the pending election is called a "hoarding" in South Asia. I had never heard that term before living here. But we don't see these sorts of group portraitures advertising political parties in the US. About eight trucks from different parties have been coming by our house daily. Those loudspeakers are LOUD. They do play traditional Nepali music for a few minutes between bouts of rhetoric though. That's a nice touch.

I thought at first these were just party supporters following the campaign truck. Upon closer inspection I noticed these were the candidates pictured in the hoarding! No wonder they were so thrilled to have their picture taken. These Communists don't have horns and aren't waving AK-47's like my dad said. They sort of look like upstanding, middle class, middle aged folks.

Most of the equipment for the elections is being supplied by China and India. Nepal bought the 30,000 ballot boxes you see in the above photo from China. China is also providing stationery, pens, markers, thumbtacks, clips, staplers, staples, scissors, glue sticks, calculators, ink pads, punchers, and stamp pads. Motorcycles and curtains for the polling booths are being brought in from India.

Not everyone is happy about the elections though. Nepal was declared a federal democratic republic in 2007, ending it's 240 year-old monarchy. The interim constitution of 2007 had provisions for 10 to 14 states to accommodate all the various ethnic, indigenous, and caste groups in the structure of power. But the new constitution passed in 2015 reduced the number of states to only seven. 

Madhesi protestors in Saptari
Under these new boundaries it is claimed the upper caste Khas Arya will have the majority in 6 out of the seven states. The Madhesis, the Tharu, and the Kiranti are ethnic groups from Nepal's southern plains region that have been protesting the new 2015 constitution. Since 2007 the Madhesis (who are more than one-third of the country's population) have been demanding political and economic representation in proportion to their population. Although Madhesis make up  more than one-third of the country's population they only hold 12 percent of government positions including the police and army. The Khas Arya question the loyalty of the Madhesis to Nepal, on account of their proximity to and close relations with India. The Madhesis and Tharu accuse the hill people of economic and political domination. According to Deependra Jha, a Supreme Court lawyer based in Kathmandu and a Madhesi, 

"The hill-dominated political class has gerrymandered on boundary issues to ensure that Khas Arya [the upper caste hill people] remain a majority in six out of seven federal states." (Al Jazeera)

(The Himalayan)
Madhesis have vowed to boycott and disrupt any election in their region unless their grievances are addressed. Above you see a Madhesi protest in the southern district of that took place last week on Monday, March 6th. On September 23rd, 2015 the Madhesis led a 2 month blockade of the Indian border that caused a huge shortage of fuel, cooking gas, cooking oil, medicines, and other supplies in landlocked Nepal. Prices still haven't come back down on cooking gas. 

 President Bandari of Nepal and PM Modi of India   via
Experts are hopeful that these local elections will create a government that is more accountable to the people. The new local governments will be responsible for administering schools, health posts, and basic infrastructure. The Nepal Election Commission was given under three months to prepare for this vote and is racing to prepare ballots and enforce rules. The NEC must also educate the people on which jurisdictions they live in as the boundary lines were redrawn by the new constitution.

The atmosphere in Nepal is charged these days! Politicians are making inane and inflammatory remarks, riling up the base constituency, and salaciously skirting election rules. I am proud to report that democracy is alive and well in Nepal!

And of course His Imperial Majesty the Baacha Khan and his mama Chinger aren't too concerned about anything. 

So it's sunny and steamy up here in the Himalayas. The weather forecast warns of stray thunderstorms which is certainly better than last month's continual barrage. Oh wait, it's pouring buckets again!

Anything you'd like me to write about in regards to Nepal? I was thinking of doing a few posts about the different ethnic groups here like the Tamang, the Gurung, the Sherpa, etc. Most people mistakenly believe Nepal is one single ethnicity. There are actually over 150 different languages spoken and several different cultures in this tiny nation.

Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
Sir Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965), Hansard, November 11, 1947

Calmly currying on,


May 5, 2017

Fresh Mex Fire Roasted Salsa

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Deliciously fresh and so simple to make, this fire roasted salsa is my favorite! Vibrant with summertime vegetables and bold smoky flavor this recipe is healthy and vegan too. This is the typical salsa you'll find served in Mexican-style restaurants across the US. It's not just a tasty dipping sauce for tortilla chips though, try it atop steaks, scrambled eggs, or even with rice and rotis!

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This recipe does resemble the salsa served at a famous Mexican-style American restaurant chain whose claim to fame is fresh ingredients. In fact, you could even call this recipe "Fresh Mex" as their slogan states. I had a friend who worked at the original location of that restaurant chain in Alameda, California the mid-80's. She learned how to make their famous salsa and taught me how too. She told me she used to make 10 gallons of this famed dipping sauce daily at the restaurant So we had to scale the recipe down a bit and here it is! Now if I could only find decent tortilla chips here I'd be deliriously happy! But seriously, I miss Mexican food and the Californicated version of it a lot. They have the American chain Chili's in Delhi but it is horrid. As in soggy tortilla chips out of a bag, jarred salsa, and mashed kidney beans for frijoles awful.

A certain restaurant that shall remain nameless.....

So when tomatoes get ridiculously cheap or all turn ripe in my garden at once I whip up some of this yummy salsa! I can eat this stuff straight up I love it so much. Charring the vegetables really adds complexity and depth of flavor to the salsa. I char the vegetables on the gas burners of my stove but you can use a cast iron skillet also. Choose tomatoes that are really ripe and a little bigger than a ping pong ball so they'll cook just about through. Jalapeno and serrano peppers are the commonest chilis used in the American southwest and northwestern Mexico. Serranos are the hotter chili and jalapenos are milder and fleshier. Serranos are also closest in flavor to the green chilis used in most Indian cuisines too. Of course this salsa tastes great atop traditional Mexican foods like tacos, tostadas, and burritos. But give this a try with your scrambled eggs at breakfast, with a grilled chicken breast or steak, or even as a zippy chutney alongside any rice or roti based meal! Off to the recipe:

8-10 medium sized tomatoes
5-6 green chilis (for less heat use half of a small bell pepper)
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 small onion, peeled and sliced in half
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 TBS oil (I use olive oil)
1 TBS white vinegar or the juice of 2 limes
2 TBS cilantro, chopped roughly
salt to taste

Here's what to do:
1) Using tongs char the chilis, tomatoes, garlic cloves, and onions thoroughly over a gas flame. Make sure vegetables are blistered and slightly softened. If you don't have a gas burner: heat a cast iron skillet until smoking hot. Drizzle tomatoes, chilis, garlic cloves, and onion with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Char all vegetables in hot skillet.

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 2) Set aside all charred vegetables and allow to cool for at least 20 minutes. Remove stems from chilis and butts from tomatoes.

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3) Place cooled tomatoes, chilis, garlic, onion, ground black pepper, oil, vinegar or lime juice, cilantro, and 2 teaspoons salt in a blender, mixie, or food processor. Do not peel the charred bits off. Pulse until smooth.

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4) Salt to taste and keep in an airtight container until ready to serve. Refrigerate for up to 3 days.

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Helpful Hint:
This recipe make a great salsa even if you don't char the vegetables! Just pop them in the blender and blitz and you're good to go!

The date is observed to commemorate the Mexican Army's unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza. In the United States, Cinco de Mayo has become associated with the celebration of Mexican-American culture. I am a native Californian and so I'm going to be celebrating Mexican-American culture on this blog by posting Mexican-style recipes I've learned over the years throughout May. Plus, I really love Mexican food ;)

Hasta la vista, baby!


May 3, 2017

And now for something completely different!

What's that you say? 
Bibi needs to get to a threading parlor SOON? 
Or perhaps an endocrinologist?
You're not impressed by my hipster 70's 'stache? Well, gawrsh. These silly glasses are Sun-Staches. I think I bought these at Spencer's or some cheapie mall place. They're kind of rinky-dink as far as quality goes but they're a great ice-breakers. In case you're wondering moustache is junga in Nepali and moonch in Hindi. (No, I am not advertising for Sun-Staches.) My paternal grandmother used to wear huge RayBans like this. (Un-mustachioed of course.) I'm amazed at how much I look like her.

Ganga, our neighbor lady had to try them on too. And of course the look wouldn't be complete without Bibi's garden hat. Take these with you on your next trip to South Asia and hilarity will surely ensue!

So, last week we were sweltering in the pre-monsoon sunshine at about 93F/34C and the Accuweather prediction was for more heat and a 4% chance of precipitation. Then out of nowhere gale force winds began whipping around our valley, the sky grew black, and the temp dropped to 87F/30C in an hour. According to the Kathmandu Times this is what happened:

"A low pressure system developed in the areas around Haryana of India due to the influence of the Westerly wind and a low pressure belt from Bihar to Odisha triggered rainfall in Nepal, the system that began Sunday is moving towards east and an improvement in the weather system is expected from Wednesday," meteorologist Samir Shrestha said."

I think that translates to: a hot and humid wind from the west was drawn into a low pressure belt in the north that careened into the cold air of the Himalayas and WHAM! THUNDERSTORM! I know we had a slew of derechos a week ago but this was the granddaddy of all thunderstorms. For 14 hours it sounded like we were under artillery siege and the sky was lit up like a disco. I am of the opinion that if a butterfly belches in South Asia they should issue a severe weather alert.

For about 20 minutes we were pelted with walnut sized hail. I checked the Accuweather site and the forecast had miraculously changed to a 41% chance of precipitation and thunderstorms. So much for the "accu" in Accuweather, eh? It poured after that. Five people died yesterday and last night in Nepal from lightning strikes. A local 14 year-old boy just up the mountain here was struck by lightning and died returning home from collecting fodder for cattle. A 23 year-old man in Gadhi Rural Municipality died on the spot after he was struck by a bolt of lightning at around 11 pm while sleeping. A 46 year-old woman died while cooking with her daughter-in-law when lightning struck their house in Sindhupalchok. Two teenaged boys were killed by lightning strike while taking shelter under a tree in Parbat. At least 14 other Nepalis were injured by lightning and one house caught fire. On average about 60-70 persons die yearly in Nepal from lightning strikes. Mother Nature was cranky. 

Of course that didn't stop the neighbor kids from having fun! Rain, hail, and lightning strikes be darned. That cart with bicycle wheels was deserted in the neighborhood vacant lot. You know they say the safest place during a lightning storm is in a moving rubber wheeled vehicle, maybe these kids are on to something?

Famed Swiss climber Ueli Steck (aka the "Swiss Machine") fell to his death near Mt Everest last Sunday too. The 40-year-old veteran climber died when he slipped climbing a slope on Mt Nuptse and fell into a 6,600 meter crevasse. Amazingly his body was recovered and airlifted to Lukla. The mountain gods were not happy this weekend!

On a cheerier note a 21-year-old Taiwanese man was rescued last week after disappearing for 47 days in remote northwestern Nepal. Mr Liang Sheng-yueh, who just turned 21 went missing with girlfriend Liu Chen-chun, 19, in early March while they were trekking in the remote Ganesh Himal. The trekkers lost their trail after a snowstorm. They had no local guide or porter. Liang and Liu survived on snow, water, and the salt he was carrying. Unfortunately, Ms Chen-chun died from starvation just 3 days before the rescue. Mr Sheng-yueh was found riddled with lice, 30 kgs skinnier, and suffering a maggot-infested foot. I don't know about you, but Bibi would be eating those maggots and lice before they ate her. Just sayin'.

Seeds, glorious seeds! Before the storm we had houseguests all week. Both family and friends. That was a lot of cooking and laundry. Our relatives brought me spices and foodstuffs from Kashmir. Our friends brought me seeds. SWOON. All sorts of flower and vegetable seeds. Chilis, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, radish, marigolds, salvia, petunias, celosia, gomphrena, haak, and kohlrabi. I planted the eggplant seeds already. Most of the flowers will have to wait until September to be planted. 

These are kulchas from Kashmir.  My family brought these on their visit. Kulcha means 'fat one' and their shape is decidedly plump. They are simply ghee and wheat flour made into pastry which is topped with white poppy seeds and baked in a tandoori oven.

Kulchas are quite flaky and crumbly much like a well made savory pie crust. They are a little bit salty and not at all sweet. Kulchas are one of the traditional breads baked at local tandoori bakeries called a kandar or kandhur in Kashmir. These typically would be eaten fresh out of the oven with noon chai (salt tea) in the afternoon. Rice is the staple carbohydrate in Kashmir, these Persian-inspired wheat breads are generally only served for breakfast and afternoon tea time.

And lastly, this is the Sheikh's (my husband) gift to me. Eight glorious bags of cow manure. That's a lot of poop! The gardener and I have been kvetching at him for ages for fertilizer. I've made do with the chemical stuff and the compost heap won't be ready until the next 6 months. The Sheikh has really gotten to like having flowers year 'round in the garden and fresh veg too. He doesn't really participate in the gardening except to stroll about and admire though. ;)

And as I sit here typing on Tuesday evening it is pouring rain again. It started clear, sunny, and hot but with nightfall came more rain. (That ought to get those eggplant seeds sprouted.) As you can see above the kitties lounged on the patio table as usual. Tikka is the grey striped tabby using her mama the black cat (Chinger) as a mattress. The kitties look a bit green as the new patio umbrella they are sitting under is green - the old one blew away in the storm. We have been without power for 2 days and without internet for 4 days. I do have recipes ready to go though! Yippee!

Calmly currying on,

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