Minkey Business

"Over the cage floor the horizons come."

When desert winds blow

You’ve no doubt seen the news about the terrible fires in Southern California, some of them still burning. The Thomas fire is on its way to destroying 300,000 acres. As you may have read, they have been fuelled by a bad bout of the Santa Ana winds, a Southern California weather phenomenon that isn’t talked about much in the rafts of popular culture set in Los Angeles.

An author famous for alluding to these winds is Raymond Chandler, considered the founder of “hard-boiled” detective fiction. Forgive me if you’re a reader from Los Angeles where it is quite the cliché to remember Chandler when the desert winds blow. If you’re not, look up the opening lines of his story “Red Wind”. They sum up the dusty edginess of those evenings when the gusts over the mountains suddenly raise the temperature of cold evenings, and drop the humidity to the low teens, and even single digits. My favourite part is: “Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”

I’ve noticed that I often feel feverish when the winds are blowing, and read recently they are known to carry a spore that causes flu-like symptoms in about 40 per cent of the population. Even if you don’t feel ill, humidity that low is exceedingly uncomfortable. It’s hard to breathe, hard to sleep, and your skin turns ashy. The other evening, I rode my bike to the grocery store during a Santa Ana event. I usually wear gloves, but didn’t that day. After an hour of riding, my knuckles and the tops of my hands got so dry, the skin became rough and itchy for several days after.

It’s because of the Santa Anas, the gusts of which can exceed 120 km/h, that people spend a lot of money trimming their trees every couple of years, opening up dense canopies to let the wind pass through easily. A few days after spending a small fortune on trimming our largest trees, I found a large yellow mushroom on the trunk of an old eucalyptus tree on the edge of our property. It was both the size and shape of a human brain. Apparently it was a sign of wood rot, and the tree had to come down. A few weeks later, I found another large mushroom (the size and shape of a large hand fan) at the base of a eucalyptus that towered over our house. To our dismay, we needed to cut down this century old giant, one that would smash our house and land right on our bed, should it fall over.

The tree trimmer was about 80 feet up the tree the first day of the three-day process of removal, and was figuring out how to loop a rope around a large branch, when the Santa Anas hit. The evening went nearly instantly from not a leaf moving to the wind hissing violently through the nearby palm trees. He had to literally hold on for dear life, and then descend quickly between gusts, as the winds picked up again for the evening. “I feared for my life,” he said in Spanish after he was finally off the tree.

The Santa Anas don’t blow through very often in the year, but when they do, their effects are often terrifying. Considering that everything about LA is dramatised and iconified—from its roads and freeways to its palm trees to its proximity to an earthquake fault—I’m amazed there isn’t a TV drama or movie set during a Santa Ana event, especially as they’re colloquially known as the Devil Winds.

First published in Gulf News, December 19, 2017

Hydraulically raising low art to high art

One recent morning, as we drove past the local tyre shop here in Azusa, California, we saw the entire road outside taken up with immaculate chrome, bright paint, and vintage and classic car body shapes.

It was a “lowrider” festival, and we stopped to marvel at some of the most beautiful 1950s, 60s, and 70s cars we’ve ever seen. Some were visually stripped down to a liquid one-colour paint, but many were ornate beyond wildest dreams—whether with detailed bonnet paintings or silken upholstery or hub caps that would work on a chariot in Ben Hur.

Without context, a lowrider is a puzzling invention. Why would a grown man or woman want a car with tiny wheels that lifts and bounces on hydraulic suspension?

Lowriding was born in East Los Angeles, in the heavily Latino, or specifically, Chicano section of the city. (A Latino could be from any of the Latin American countries, but a Chicano is an American of specifically Mexican descent.)

As car enthusiasts in the 1950s focussed on speed, the lowriders picked a “low and slow” approach. Early automobiles sat high, so lowering or “slamming” cars has long been an enthusiast staple, both for looks, and improved aerodynamics and handling. Lowriders take that to such an extreme that they are intentionally good only for cruising slowly down boulevards.

Cars dropped that low are illegal, and can’t get over large irregularities, so that’s when hydraulic suspensions came in, to allow the cars to be raised on the go for both police inspections and speed bumps. But why go from there to independent hydraulics for each wheel, and bouncing car competitions?

Bob Frost in The History Channel Magazine, 2002, wrote that lowriders with hydraulics were intended to be both cool and playful, and a good example of rasquachismo, a Chicano make-do sensibility that’s often “witty, irreverent, and impertinent”.

As Los Angeles and the rest of America fell in love with the car, and the magic of driving cross-country at high speeds, the Chicanos of East LA subverted that. Cars became mobile hang-out spaces for friends and family. Lowriders offered journeys out of ghettoised neighbourhoods without invisibility. If the journey from A to B is made slowly and in style, then the lowrider’s occupants own all the points between A and B. Lowrider give you reason to be anywhere, because it’s a reason in itself.

You can see why this would be favored by gangs, and most of LA’s lowriders have to fight the assumption that they are gang members or otherwise violent. Lowriding is about community and family, and you could see this at the festival. I watched one of the many fascinated little boys hold his phone high over an open bonnet so he could get a picture to let him see the engine inside.

My wife and I were clearly outsiders, and we got a sense of guardedness from the participants. It was never hostile, we simply felt invisible after the first appraising, often challenging, glance. The joke inherent in lowriding is clearly meant only for insiders. But not for long.

Cars were first physically depersonalised by design that favoured aerodynamics and safety. Now, and in the near future, they will be conceptually depersonalised by ride-sharing and autonomous driving. Cars are turning more and more into infrastructure, to be no more different from each other than the streetlamp poles from one city to another. Imagine in this robot-car world, an elaborately painted and chromed 1950s American automobile with hydraulic suspension that lets it drive heavily canted on three wheels down a street. That’s soon going to be high art.

First published in Gulf News, December 5, 2017

Spreading joy on the streets

If you want to spread joy on the streets of India, here’s a quick tip: carry lots of change. When I lived there a couple of years ago, I had a bowl of coins saved over many months, and would sometimes carry a pile of them to pay for little things on my day’s travels. Surly bus conductors would break into beaming smiles as I produced stacks of coins to pay for the fare, and practically hugged me when I offered to exchange extra for notes. Shopkeepers who’d been distantly transactional for years were suddenly full of conversation and gratitude when I took out that jingly plastic pouch.

Anywhere else, it would be a pointed insult or at least cause for an eye-rolling sigh to hold up a line as you count out small change. In India, the lack of change can be real cause of stress to both customers and small business owners. The onus to find change is on the customer, and many shoppers in India have not-so-fond memories of walking from store to store, autorickshaw driver to autorickshaw driver, coconut stall to “kaka shop” (imagine a supermarket scaled down to the size of telephone booth), looking for someone who will break a 100 or 500 rupee note.

Breaking notes is generally not a problem in the US, unless you’re walking around with a $100 note, at which point you might as well not have money if you’re wanting to make small purchases. Yes, the same thing can apply, although for a different reason. Safety.

And so I’ve found a very different way to spread happiness, and it goes by the name of Larry vs Harry Bullitt. It works best when combined with a large dog. The Bullitt is a cargo bicycle based on the Long John or bakfiet design, which has the cargo compartment in the front of the bike. It’s designed to carry loads up to 130 kg, and I’ve really got it to take our dog with me on bike rides. I pretended to myself of course that I would go car-free in the neighbourhood, and use it to go shopping, but that doesn’t happen very often.

As you can imagine, Gunther loves going out on the bike. He sits up in the front compartment, and leans a little to the right, sometimes even propping up a front leg on the side, like a lolling gangster. The sight of him in this bright orange contraption (the colour that Larry vs Harry calls Clockwork Orange), get a range of joyous reactions in the street, from broad smiles, to points and waves and ooh’s and aah’s, and even outright happy laughter. Cyclists circle round to start conversations, car drivers stop ahead to film us approaching, and there are a lot of photo requests. Passing road cyclists often joke: “Can I trade places with him?”

I’m sorry but cycles are just like that. They are happy, positive, affirming inventions, and cyclists are constantly up against a barrage of negativity at odds with my story on the street. America is at a point of reckoning with its relationship with the car, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the next ten years play out in terms of city design and friendliness. When I carry loose change, or ride with my dog, I suddenly have a sense of being a part of a positive human structure, rather than one where we’re constantly at odds with each other, and yelling at each other. One day, cities will actively encourage this, and I hope it’s not too late to bring every day happiness back.

First published in Gulf News, November 21, 2017

Honesty is the best police?

When I was in junior school, we’d be assigned “cursive writing” practice. The exercise books had short sentences printed in a flowing font, with sets of blank lines below, like a music staff. We’d have to trace the sentences out four or five times in our “neatest handwriting”. We’d sit on long afternoons, a room full of imprisoned medieval scribes, scratching at our books, and risking punishment by alleviating the boredom with furtive conversations.

I remember one of those sentences: “Honesty is the best policy”. I read it out to my neighbour Vijay, thinking it was pronounced “police-y”. As boys do at that age, he crowed at me as he corrected my pronunciation. Though I strongly suspected he was right, I insisted my version was correct. As boys do at that age.

Cut to a few years later in a high-school ethics class where I was introduced to white lies as a concept. “What would you do,” our teacher asked, “if you went to someone’s house for dinner, and you didn’t like the food. When they asked you if you liked it, what would you say?”

And so, as you grow older, you hunt for your landing spot on the emotional honesty spectrum. You probably test limits, investigating the shades between frankness and obnoxiousness on one end, and politeness and hypocrisy on the other. A huge part of where you eventually land probably depends on the environment in which you practice your personal honesty. Many of us are forced to a place on the spectrum we’re not comfortable.

We all tell socially sanctioned lies to spare other people’s feelings. Some of us tell too little, and are called difficult. Some of us tell too much, and are called insincere. Some of us naturally want to tell more truths than lies, but grow up in environments where such honesty is punished by people who get upset or angry when they are questioned or challenged. And so we learn to agree even when we disagree. To say, “I’m okay with anything” even though we have a preference. To say we like something even when we don’t, and even when saying we like it means we get more of it.

All those little white lies add up to a grevious dishonesty to oneself. All those feelings that were spared, are a thousand cuts to your own psyche. This is why people-pleasers are often thought to have unpredictable bad tempers. They build up resentment with no outside clues, and while you think they snapped for the tiniest little thing, they see a whole line of tiny things. Half or more of their anger is at themselves for not setting the boundary in the first place.

But here’s an interesting view of this situation. When you don’t stand up to people, and when you don’t hold them accountable for their views or behaviours, you diminish them. Imagine you love a restaurant for its food and gracious service and go there all the time. Then one day, the service is bad enough to ruin your evening. As a people pleaser, you might tell yourself, “Maybe it’s an off day. I won’t say anything.”

Fair enough. But what if the service is bad the next time, and the next? What would make you go back again and again, and not say anything?

We’re told from a very young age that honesty is a good and desirable trait. Then we learn that honesty is far more complex than “don’t steal and don’t lie”. And today, 35 years after that cursive-writing class, I still don’t understand the rules, and still don’t know where to land on that emotional honesty spectrum.

First published in Gulf News, November 7, 2017

Disaster protection that fits under your bed!

Let me tell you about a “2017 Holiday Catalog” that appeared in our mailbox one recent morning. Living as we do, about five hours from two recent disasters (the shooting in Vegas, and the wildfires in Santa Rosa), the timing of this delivery was even more weighted than it would have been in this, as they say, “current political climate”.

The catalogue is from a company called 4Patriots and its main product is Food4Patriots survival rations that last up to 25 years. “Disaster Protection That Fits Under Your Bed!” is one of the first headlines, for a 4-week supply of 140 servings of items such as Traditional Fettucine Alfredo and Blue Ribbon Creamy Chicken Rice, dehydrated and packed in Mylar pouches. “The same technology NASA uses to protect astronauts!” Not the dehydration, the Mylar.

Towards the back of catalogue are other survival items such as solar generators, water filters, and even a military-grade EMP bag to protect electronic equipment from an electromagnetic pulse attack. Both catalogue and website are tantalisingly non-committal about the politics behind this venture, but a video on the website confirms your educated guesses.

In the video, the political left comprises either a bunch of lawless rioters, or a drift of precious snowflakes. Obama was the worst thing to happen to America. Poor Trump is just misunderstood.

“There’s a perfect storm brewing,” says the voiceover. “And once all hell breaks loose, only the strong and self-reliant will survive.”

And the secretive too. The video frequently stresses that your survival-food stockpile must be covert. Once the mobs are rampaging through the streets, looting and burning, they mustn’t know that you have stocks of dehydrated Heartland’s Best Mashed Potatoes at home. Viewers are assured that the food will be shipped in anonymous boxes, with the pouches stored in gray plastic totes that can slip under your bed, or on top of a cupboard.

Throughout is a thread of racism, at once subtle and blatant. For example, while talking about Katrina, a short clip of a crying white, blonde woman is followed by shots of largely black crowds awaiting relief, and the voiceover warning of “anguished families left with no choice but to pour into the nearest crowded criminally infested FEMA camp”.

Images of black looters and rioters are repeated through the video, while all the customers or potential customers of Food4Patriots are white. There are references to the voiceover speaker’s Vietnam veteran status, and an emotional play on being there for your (white) family. There’s a list of fact citations below the video. This isn’t a chest-thumping, gun-waving anarchist’s cookbook. It’s carefully orchestrated, and designed to appeal to the more educated right-winger—at least ones who are prepared to pay $497 for a 3-month supply of nutrition in pouches.

The effect is one of an eating-disorder made external. If food-related pathology is all about the one thing you can control, the food hoarding offers the semblance of control over a world that many conservatives feel left out of. The end of the video asks you to imagine the peace of mind your covert food stock will offer, even as your local grocery store is being stripped bare, as if by “locusts”.

Baked into the video is a pandering to a white fear of being overrun by the lawless coloureds, and a promise that with a little money spent, this diversifying, global world can become cosy and safe again. It seems to almost welcome the apocalypse, so that, as the world falls to pieces, you can boil some water and make yourself and your family a pouch of Granny’s Home Style Potato Soup.

First published in Gulf News, October 24, 2017

A race experience

“Anyone want any Miami Dolphins merchandise? I have houseful of the stuff to give away.”

I know nothing about sports, so assumed our instructor’s favourite team had just lost a game. “Do you understand what happened? I don’t. I’m giving it all away—its going for free.”

Someone in the otherwise silent room laughed and said, “No way”.

“This would never happen in NASCAR,” said the instructor.

The one vocal person in the room made a “hear hear” type comment, and the realisation glinted. This wasn’t about game results, it was about “take a knee”; NFL athletes refusing to stand for the American national anthem.

“And this happened in England! We’re showing our weakness abroad.”

My wife was at a race experience that was a birthday gift from close friends. I was there as spectator, and we thanked our friends several times over the day, not just because she got to rocket an Indy-500-style car for several laps around an actual circuit, but because it pulled us out of the house on a Sunday, to do something we’d normally never have considered.

But class hadn’t begun well. As I realised what the instructor was referring to, I said to my wife, “Really? We’re talking about this here?” The stranger next to me gave me a sympathetic smile. I readied to shout out a suggestion that we stick to racing this morning, but either the instructor read the room (he was a long way from Texas), or had run out of fuel, and he moved on to the business at hand.

Showing weakness abroad? On the contrary, considering how jingoistic the US is, I think these players showed tremendous strength. It takes courage to do something that makes a stadium boo at you, something that may adversely affect your career, that exposes you to online and live harassment, and might even put you in physical danger.

A flag and anthem are symbols, and presumably immutable. What the symbol stands for, however, depends on the person viewing it. National symbols aim to represent big truths, universal ideals. It’s easy to belittle someone who doesn’t get to their feet for their national anthem, but what if they’re holding their country to a higher standard? What if, to them, their nation doesn’t match the glorious truths contained in flag and anthem, and are demanding that it should?

When you hold a country (or even a person) accountable for their actions and choices, you are giving them the chance to be everything they can be. In toxic systems, whether societies, offices, or families, we’re taught to not question, to abide by the code of shame. Don’t question institutional racism. Don’t tell the abusive boss to stop insulting employees. Don’t tell the tantrum-throwing family member that’s not how adults ask for compliance. Every system has its flags and anthems, the symbols you are not allowed to question without being called a traitor.

When an athlete is accused of disrespect, or anti-national behaviour, the underlying message is that it’s easy to do what they’re doing, and that cleaving to majority principles requires great depth of character. In truth, questioning and pushing back against a toxic system (or least a system a person believes is toxic) demands huge personal resources, not just to swim upstream, but to deal with the outcome if the system isn’t ready for change; to deal with being a villain for trying to do the right thing.

I would be proud to take that Miami Dolphins merchandise off that instuctor, and by not telling him that, I didn’t find the courage to #takeaknee in that room.

First published in Gulf News, October 10, 2017

A Rottweiler rescue

The kennels of the Rottweiler rescue are in an industrial section of a town in the northern valleys of the Greater Los Angeles Area. Peeping over the trees in the area where you meet the dogs, is a line of car seats sitting high up in the automobile junkyard next door. A couple of doors down is the boxer rescue, and then the Weimaraner rescue. Directly across the street is a kennel devoted to small dogs.

This breed specificity on a single street should give you an idea of the scale of canine abandonment in this region.

When my wife and I met B. the representative of the Rottie rescue, we recognised a fellow “people optional” soul. She seems to devote her life to these dogs, arriving at the kennels at 4am to get them cleaned out before her day begins. A week later, she was at the kennels at 2am to have them done before she met us at the trainer’s by 8.

B. has a long process of approval before you can adopt from her, and after you hear some of the stories, it’s easy to see why. I don’t think she’s forgiven herself for one placement that went very badly, and is clearly deeply attached to all of the dogs in her care.

Our own eventual adoptee is a lovely chap called Diego. The first two and a half years of his life were spent on a tiny patio with an owner who used to beat him a lot. The next three and half were at the rescue where he was rehabilitated from a dog too fearful to be even approached, to the person he is now–nervous and hyper-alert certainly, but ready to start trusting.

The stories of cruelty get, and deserve, attention, but the stories of kindness gone wrong are more pervasive, more insidious. I’ve touched upon this issue several times here, but our recent exposure to the underbelly of pet dog world has made me even more sensitive to it.

Here in the land where dogs are pampered beyond belief, is an inevitable underworld of the rejects, fallouts, abandonments, and simply misplaced. When you walk the humane societies and rescue organisations you pass kennel after kennel of healthy, beautiful dogs in every shape and size (but a lot of them pitbull shaped).

In a post-Cesar Milan world, there has been a move from his traditional alpha-dog pecking order training to the world of clicker training and positive reinforcement. The problem with subscribing to a philosophy wholesale is the assumption that it must apply to every situation. Not every dog is suited to the gentle encouragement of positive reinforcement, and it’s difficult to apply consistently.

A dog professional recently said to me, “We’re seeing a lot of dogs needing to be euthanised because of positive reinforcement done wrong.”

In my brief poll of professionals who are exposed to a wide range of dog personalities, such as at a shelter, or dog day care, they have all said the same thing. It depends. Every dog is different, so don’t subscribe to any one methodology.

You might think a nervous dog like Diego would do well with gentle positive reinforcement. But guess what, as he settles and gains confidence, he is turning out to be what I call a “cuddle bulldozer”, managing to combine a beguiling sweetness with a heavily muscled pushiness. He needs a firm hand.

And so, we welcome another damaged personality into a household filled with personalities damaged by intentions good and bad. Sometimes we subject each other to our messes, but in the end, we’re all there for each other, hand in paw.

First published in Gulf News, September 26, 2017

What has audio got to do with tea?

Freelance copywriting takes you to some strange places. I’ve written film scripts that teach bedside manner to newly employed nurses. Brochures for a commercial shrimp farm. The copy that was etched in glass at the entrance to a fancy restaurant. Today, I’m writing content for a B2B specialty tea company, and a high-end audio dealership.

I’m struck by the similarities. Both are specialised luxury markets with their own jargon, trade shows, and range of associated brands you’ve never heard of. Both are focussed on purity and quality, and have an appeal that’s at once robust and rarified.

The owner of the tea company told me about how good tea has terrior, just like any other specialised beverage, and spoke with great passion about how a cup of tea is a journey to the plantation. You can taste the soil, the seasons, the drying process. He took me to the tasting room, where the tasters showed me how to slurp the tea off a spoon to properly taste it, though “slurp” doesn’t quite describe how little tea is ingested relative to air; “huff” might be a better verb.

Back to audio, take the story of W, the chief listener for a famous American audio brand. Like all truly high-end brands, every unit is listened to before it’s packaged to be sent out of the factory. Yes, every single one, and they’re all heard by W. Someone from the company described it as one of the worst jobs in the world, especially since he has to use the same track for months or years on end for consistency.

The company was bought by a large parent brand which provided its own solder. W listened to a production unit made using the new solder, and deemed the sound so bad that he threatened to leave if they were forced to adopt the stuff. Experienced staff screwed up their eyes and ears, and when they concentrated, could tell that yes, this new unit didn’t sound quite as good. It was barely noticeable to most people, but for W, it was almost painful.

Another time, I watched a speaker designer tweak a system. It sounded pretty good to me, but the designer obviously thought it needed work. While it was playing a track, he went over to a speaker on its stand, picking it up, holding his head right above it. He moved it about, listening to the changing sound as it went forwards, backwards, side-to-side, his movements getting smaller and smaller, until he plopped it down. He did the same with the other speaker and the sound of the system snapped into place, as if the band moved in from playing in the next room.

The owner of the tea company, knowing how much I fetishised high-end audio, worried that that I wouldn’t be interested in the intricacies of his market. But intricacies are fascinating in themselves. I’ve learned a lot, not just about tea, but shadow markets we’d never encounter as regular consumers. It’s like a playgoer being allowed to peep backstage. My most treasured find from the specialty tea industry, though, is this phrase: “the agony of the leaves”. It is used to describe the unfurling, dancing action of tea leaves when hot water is poured over them. It’s the phenomenon that’s used for blooming teas, those hand-tied balls that blossom as they steep.

The agony of the leaves. My delight with it is not just that it’s uncomfortably vivid, but that an effect I’ve barely even noticed is an event with a name; a thought as mind-blowing as knowing that solder has a sound.

First published in Gulf News, September 12, 2017

Stop apologising for your cuisine

I know too many Indians who apologise for Indian food. They apologise for it being too spicy, or too smelly, or too sweet, or too much eaten with the hands. Someone I know regularly pontificates about how we Indians “overcook” all our vegetables, turning them into mush. This is a notion I find offensive on a couple of levels.

The first is that a proper home-cooked Indian meal, North or South, East or West, features a range of textures and cooking levels. Plenty of vegetables are either raw or not heavily cooked, whether as the side salads kachumber or kosumbari (which even features raw lentils), or the vegetable dish poriyal.

But sure, let’s allow that since we live in the tropics, most dishes feature long-cooked ingredients. To suggest that these ingredients are “overcooked” is to suggest that there’s a global accepted level of cooking for all vegetables—and that the Western standard of lightly cooked, still crunchy vegetables is somehow “correct”, anything else is either over- or under-done.

I realise though, it’s unfair of me to suggest this is a “Western” standard. I just read that it is, in fact, specifically a classical French standard, in an article titled “When to Cook Your Vegetables Long Past ‘Done’” in The New York Times Magazine. It was written by the star chef du jour Samin Nosrat, whose book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat has rightly become an instant classic.

In the article she tells the story of lightly cooking some beans as an apprentice at a trattoria in Italy, only to discover they were actually to be cooked for over two hours, reducing to a delicious softness. Nosrat writes that the blanch-and-cool technique makes for great looking plates and, “Long-cooked foods, on the other hand, fall firmly into the ‘‘ugly but good’’ camp of the Tuscan cucina povera, where flavor far outshines looks.”

David Chang, the chef who lives up to the cliché of rock star status, regularly posts on Instagram under the “uglydelicious” hashtag, acknowledging that some of the best-tasting dishes are the least photogenic. Fine-dining hasn’t been left out of the general cultural movement towards becoming more inclusive, less snobbish, and far more informal, and its been fun watching offal, fat, “long-cooked” vegetables and many ugly things that ethnic or peasant cultures have long known to be delicious, become mainstream. Or at least, fashionable.

When eating is becoming more exciting every day, it’s painful to watch when people become entrenched in a perceived right or wrong way. There are few things more tiresome than a diner at your table delivering criticism, not because the dishes aren’t executed well, but because they aren’t cooked in a familiar way. It’s especially disheartening to cook for people like this, who complain and leave piles of uneaten food not because they genuinely dislike a certain flavour or texture, but simply because it’s different. I have had to repeatedly cook for someone who, with no knowledge of the cuisine behind a particular dish I’ve spent hours cooking, tells me I should have used a pressure cooker, or added spices, or seasoned with vinegar, even though none of these suggestions have a place in the history or culture of the dish. Can you imagine using a pressure cooker for American barbecue?

In that sense, pledging blind allegiance to your country’s food and cooking methods is as ridiculous as apologising for it. Nobody anywhere overcooks or undercooks anything, and everything is delicious. It’s only your dislikes that limit the world.

First published in Gulf News, August 29, 2017

The return of cooking over wood

I’m standing in the sun in a sweaty T-shirt and hiking hat, my hands are blackened, and charcoal smoke gets in my eyes as I lift a lid and stir a bubbling dish. The scene makes me remember my aunt in Dubai who is an amazing cook. One of her many signature dishes is “handi mutton”, a slow-cooked lamb or goat dish named after the round-bottomed vessel it’s made in. As integral to the recipe as the meat itself, is the fact that it’s cooked outdoors over wood. It doesn’t matter if it’s summer or if a sandy wind is blowing: handi mutton is not handi mutton if made indoors on the gas stove.

My aunt says there’s a special energy and magic when the dish is cooked over wood. It isn’t just that smoke gets into the pot and flavour the ingredients—there was something more that was imbued by this ancient cooking process.

I have long dreamed of heading out into the backyard to cook like this. Not barbecue or grilling, cooking methods understood to be over smoke and under sun, but regular cooking: a chicken curry maybe, perhaps even a long-cooked daal. Recently, with guests due for the weekend, I took a meat curry recipe outside the house to be cooked in a cast-iron wok over a charcoal fire.

I saw what my aunt was saying. Food seems to understand wood fire, and cooking over one feels less like a fight between food and flame, and more like a collaboration. Recipes cooked over wood inspire you to do everything right, such as toasting spices and hand grinding them. As you cook, the sun shines down into the pan, a breeze blows over it. The fire rises then ebbs, the smoke swirling in to check on every step. The cook’s rhythm too, slows and eases. My aunt would sit, sometimes in the blazing heat of a Dubai day, and spend a couple of hours just getting the base ingredients cooked down to that perfect caramelised unctuousness. She knew from the sounds alone when to adjust the flame or stir the ingredients. It took a good part of the day, but when ready, handi mutton was not just delicious, but somehow deeply “right”.

While I had minor changes for the next round with my wood-fired curries, they had the same rightness to them. I loved how they were held together by a deep charcoal flavour, giving eaters a sense of the flame that had cooked their food.

I’m sure you could quantify this magic, and identify how it’s a combination of the right kind of radiant heat delivery with no hot spots, an envelope of hot air, and of course that flavoring smoke. I’m sure you could find that a cook who takes the time to cook over wood has committed to a certain level of care and attention. That being outside makes it harder to be distracted by televisions and sofas. An utterly rational look at the “magic” of cooking over wood would probably attribute it to novelty, heat distribution, extra attention, and finally, some flavour from the smoke itself.

“We used to cook everything like this,” my wife’s mother observed. Not even a generation later, the economic and infrastructural necessity of cooking over wood is a fashionable, Instagrammable, conscious choice to slow down and live “analogue”. And for a few hours, even though I’m thinking about the right hashtag for my cooking photos, it works. Somewhere in between frying the onions and finishing the recipe with a traditional black vinegar, I was actually happy, and I think my dishes knew.

First published in Gulf News, August 15, 2017