A Tablescape with Red Apples

Hello, all !    If you are like me, you get tired of thinking of what you might want to eat for your meals every single day. Daal and sabzi is fine when I don’t want to think but every once in a while when I get the urge to eat Chinese food I end up cooking it myself with, among other ingredients, my stock of chilli bean paste, dried shitake mushrooms and black fungus and it ends up quite different from the fare offered in standard Chinese restaurants in India. So some time ago I promised my daughter’s friends or rather, my daughter promised her friends that I would cook them some of this Beijing-style food.

Red Simla apples in white tea cups for this tablescape

You see, way back in 1984,  when my husband was posted in Beijing, although Indian embassy officials were among the worst paid of embassy personnel, our officers were kindly given the option of employing local cooks and maids. Most did opt for them. My husband and I got lucky. We were sent a cook, Wang Xue Bin, who, until his present position, had been a waiter. Wang was an ambitious soul. He had a good knowledge of Chinese cooking and  he quickly got a grasp of Indian cooking from my own, then basic, knowledge of our cuisine. At home we cooked Indian food mainly when we invited non- Indians home. It was Chinese food that my husband and I were happy to eat almost every day. And Wang would plate up dishes that his family of three would eat at home or the spicier Hunan and Sichuan dishes that he had recently learnt and was eager to practice.

Little red berries from a bush in our garden to break the simple lines of the apple and tea cup

So Wang would happily go shopping , accepting even more happily the Foreign Exchange Certificates (currency)that foreigners in Beijing used. The locals used the Renmin B. Of course, there was a black market for the certificates as this was the currency that could be used in the sole ‘Friendship Store’ meant for foreigners which was stocked with food, drink and anything under the sun. The local markets were short of supplies so locals would give anything to get access to this store which allowed them entry , if I remember correctly, after 7 pm until closing time at 9.

Wrought iron candle stands with white candles to add another colour to the red and white

Armed with our certificates, Wang would shop in the local markets for our food, bringing back whatever produce was available in the local markets, using his own Renmin B and pocketing our FECs. Whether he used them at the Friendship Store or sold them at a premium we never asked because we always got back the balance. Back in the house, Wang cooked and I observed and noted carefully in a diary.

Alternating blue and green ‘Fabindia’ napkins on the blue and white dinner plates

Then when we got posted back to India we decided to buy some Chinese crockery because our own set was a small one and we needed to supplement it. Out of the four patterns then available at a local shop, we opted for the  ‘rice pattern’ blue and white crockery. To me, it beautifully represented China-the colours of blue and white and the motif of the dragon- all used in China since ancient times. To me, the pretty,translucent little rice grain shaped elements scattered across the plate represented the staple food of China and that we ourselves ate almost every day. Most local restaurants, too,offered food on plates of this very pattern.

Our black and red lacquer chopsticks on little porcelain chopstck holders-the tiny bit of red on the chopsticks picking up the red from the apples.

A hundred years later, back in Lucknow, in a spurt of energy, the day before I invited my daughter’s friends over,I had this carton brought down from a store upstairs and extracted these plates from the reams of now yellowing white paper they were wrapped in.  If I had them, I better not be lazy and might as well use them !  So finally, here they were on our table and, from what I had available in our refrigerator and garden, this simple, easily done tablescape followed.

Sprigs of money plant, also for variety, to break the monotony

I did not really want to have red that is commonly associated with China. So I chose a clean, off -white for the central spread. These were my mats from ‘Anokhi.’  Apples in our fridge could be that ‘China’ red in the centre of the table. I added sprigs of pretty red berries that grow in a bush in our garden and some money plant. Simple white tea cups became the holders of this little arrangement and, to add another colour and height, wrought iron candle holders in different forms.

Here is the table- green and blue napkins on the plates

And another view

The blue and white plates with blue and green napkins surrounded the apple arrangement, and I was happy !

To tell you the truth, I was cooking some of Wang’s food  after quite some time and when it turned out well I was thrilled.  So took some pictures. Here are two –

Hong shao Yu- a 3 kg Rohu lent itself to this dish

Deep fried French beans with ginger and soya sauce

And finally, I’ll leave you with one more picture of the table-

Wonder if you liked it as much as I liked putting this together.

Hope you have a wonderful Sunday !  See you next time !

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A Neat Flat in Bandra, Mumbai

I look forward to visiting Mumbai. I have three good reasons to do so. My son has set up base there, my niece lives there with her husband and two adorable kids and a few dear friends live there, too. There is the fact that there are places in Mumbai that I grew up reading about or seeing in films, reared as I am like most Indians, on Hindi films and I get to see these. And there are some good cafes and restaurants that have nice food and nice people. So here I am !

My son and niece live in Navi or New Mumbai. So on a chosen day I took an Ola taxi that drove me one hour and twenty minutes later to Bandra, an old, leafy neighbourhood which still has some old bungalows and apartment blocks, thanks mainly to the community of Christians and Parsis. Oh ! And I got entertained on that journey by a small screen that played movies or TV serials or songs-they are providing these in Ola cars that run on whatever constitutes a ‘long journey.’ So what if I watched ‘Vicky Donor’ for the third time !

Gool, Nariman Khambatta with little Yasmin on the doorway to their old bungalow

Yasmin Khambatta is one of my above mentioned friends who lives in Bandra. She belongs to a community of Indians that I admire a lot. She is Parsi-a community that believe in Ahura Mazda, (the creator of the universe) and their Prophet  Zarathustra or Zoroaster and his teachings. Most of you probably know that the Parsis belonged originally to Persia but, fleeing persecution, landed on the western shores of India around the 8th century and by dint of hard work and enterprise became one of the most prominent communities here. Like Hindi films, most Indians of the 20th century grew up seeing Tata trucks(that said, ‘OK Tata’) careening down our potholed roads, locking their valuables in Godrej steel cupboards that occupied pride of place in the tiniest of homes and seeing in magazines an institution that gave us back our collective self-respect, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel of Mumbai built by the same Tata who gave us our trucks.  So you have the Tatas, Godrejs, Nariman, Shapoorji-Pallonji, Wadias, etc, etc, the list goes on.

The cousins in the garden of the Khambatta bungalow. The quiet street is visible outside.

‘My father, Nariman, Nari to his friends, was a very kind man,’ says Yasmin. ‘ We had a large extended family. One part of it lived in a bungalow that stood where the building I live in is and the other part lived in a bungalow across the road. When I was a child, he would pack all the kids into his black fiat and take us to the Juhu beach where we played, bathed in the sea and were treated to ice cream.’  Nariman Khambatta looked after the public relations of his friend’s company, Chika limited, that manufactured chemicals, fibres and built boats. His wife,Gool, Yasmin’s mother, was anglicised. She admired the Queen of England and subscribed to the Woman and Home magazine (as my mother did !), followed its recipes and put very nice pies and cakes on the table. ‘There was, of course, Parsi food cooked most days and there were visits to the Fire Temple (where Parsis worship)on Hill Road in Bandra on Parsi New Year and birthdays. But since we lived away from the Parsi- dominated areas like Mumbai Central and Grant Road- that was about my only exposure to Parsi tradition !’

Yasmin’s apartment block, Sea Shell, surrounded by old trees, is a 3 minute walk to the sea front.

The wall of Sachin Tendulkar’s house next door rises from the road

‘There were probably many kindnesses done by my parents,’ says Yasmin, ‘because recently I bumped into a lady in a bungalow in Alibaugh (a suburb where the affluent of Mumbai have their houses)who turned out to be a nephew’s wife who remembered stories about good turns done by my parents that I did not know about.’

The entrance corridor has the beige, white and brown living room on its right

The coffee table and sofas are inspired by popular Danish designs of the 50s and 60s. Ebony sculptures Yasmin brought back from Tanzania decorate the room.

In the early 70s, the Khambattas sold their bungalow and when an apartment building was made in its place, bought a two bedroom flat for Rs. 60,000/-. Today, that sounds like a joke considering that Bandra is one of the most prime properties in India.

The large window with a honeycomb grill covers an entire wall. A broad window sill, also in terrazzo, is used to keep objects and also to sit upon.

The building has areas left all round giving it a feeling of space. There are some old trees that stand on it. As a contrast, next door, an old bungalow was pulled down and the trees on its grounds removed by none other than Sachin Tendulkar and, in today’s style, a huge block-like building has been constructed, rising almost from the road, using every inch of space.

The flat itself is neat and free from clutter. The floors are beautiful in terrazzo worked to a gloss. The woodwork is solid,  with lots of windows that overlook tree tops. The furniture in teak was made by a carpenter and copied from popular Danish styles of the 50s and 60s. The all-white kitchen is a study of good space utilisation and cleanliness, the latter attributed to Maria, Yasmin’s  long-time  help.

A single Worli Tree of Life painting adorns another wall

‘Maria looked after my daughter, Akeshya, after she was born. She jumps to her defence right or wrong. In fact, Akeshya listens to Maria more than she listens to me !’ says Yasmin. True to her words,  Yasmin requests Maria to ask Akeshya to put on some bangles and a particular pair of shoes(and not the ones she has on) for the birthday party she is going off to and Akeshya returns soon after with those pieces on !  Aryaan, her tall, teenage brother is walking her to her party on his way to a football game.

The small kitchen, across the corridor from the living room is a good study of space utilisation and is kept spotlessly clean

Yasmin, after a long hiatus, is back building a career out of photography and design.  She does both really well. She enjoys photographing kids and pets and has landed up shooting quite a few subjects. Right now she is busy designing diaries for a client where she will also use some of her portraits of women.

A beautiful, old apartment block from the 40s still stands proud until a builder claims it.

At the Bandra gymnkhana for dinner, the place packed with Bandra dwellers, some friends of Yasmin and I have just voiced the desire to have the Parsi Dhansak cooked by Yasmin in her mother’s style. Think we can reserve that treat for my next trip !

‘Bye for now. Hope you have a good week ahead !


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Podere Fontedi di Pera- a house in Tuscany

Podere Fontedi di Pera


It is hot here in Lucknow. I just returned from Mumbai after visiting my son and although Mumbaikars like to think it is hot there-I did not really mind that sticky heat. It was not  bad under a ceiling fan out in the open, as I discovered while having a fabulously decadent chocolate mud pie and bad ice cream in the open-air cafe at the iconic Prithvi theatre. Sitting under a fan out in an open verandah in Lucknow means you are suffering moving air at 43 degrees !

Some days back I logged into facebook and found a picture of my friend, Patricia’s house in Tuscany posted by someone who had visited them. It brought back a flood of memories of our visit to this beautiful place two years back- I had written the post but it was incomplete and languished in my computer. I dug it out and relived those memories:

‘Get off at Grosetto,’ my friend Patricia had instructed my daughter, Geetika and I on our trip to Tuscany. We had earlier got on to a train from Rome, found our seats next to a couple of generously proportioned women who spoke mainly Italian but communicated with us in sign language, and headed north-east to our destination. At the tiny station of Grosetto it was with both joy and relief that we greeted the waiting Patricia, looking as lovely as ever.

Flowing seamlessly into the Tuscan countryside , part of the garden of the Zannini house


35 kilometres and almost 45 minutes later we were driving in through the iron gates of an old stone house  called ‘Podere Fontedi di Pera’ in the middle of the countryside of Val d’Orchia, home of Patricia, her husband Maurizio Zanini and Paddy, their friendly Golden Retriever.


The gravel covered path, lined with tall cypress, a signature of the region of Tuscany, ended in the double- storeyed, stone house. It was only when we walked through the house and onto the rear terrace that the Tuscan countryside, in all its glory, unfolded before our eyes: undulating tree covered hills in the distance, a scattering of the iconic cypress,  a rolling valley and, meandering through its centre, the river Orchia glistening in parts where it caught the rays of the sun, hiding now and then behind ominous dark clouds.

The old stone house stands at the end of a gravelled driveway and yard.

‘Often, during leave when we came back to Italy, we would come to this region to visit the San Antimo abbey,’ the Zaninis tell us later. This beautiful abbey to which we are driven to later by Patricia, is located quite near the Zanini home  and lies about 9 km from the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim route to Rome. A former Benedictine abbey, it has been occupied, on and off, by small groups of monks of different orders, the latest being friends of the Zaninis.

A magnificent view of the house and countryside from the side of the river Orchia

‘ When we saw this property up for sale on the internet we were posted in Bolivia.’ Maurizio, now happily retired, was with the Italian Foreign Office and posted as Ambassador of Italy to that country. ‘We made a trip to Italy, and when shown the property, loved it and bought this house with its surrounding land. This was in 2004.’


‘Archives show this house was built in 1745 by a farmer on the lands of the landlord of

At the wedding of the Zaninis’ second daughter, Perla. The bride stands with the groom, Demetrio, dwarfed by the ancient San Antimo abbey

Sienna,’ the Zaninis tell me.What was originally the barn is now the living room with an interesting stone ceiling with large concave sections. No changes have been made to it.  ‘This ceiling is called ‘soffitto a vela’ meaning sail ceiling-built like sails of a moving ship. The  farmer must have been a very good mason !’ Maurizio says.’We simply had the ceiling sandblasted to clean it.’ At some point this building also served as an extension of the Montalcino hospital.

THe dining area of the living room that was originally a barn. The original, curved ceiling made of local stone

‘The house was simply built with blocks of stone without a foundation. So we had to insert an iron wall and build a terrace to hold the house in place,’ says Patricia. The renovations took about two years and were completed in 2010. This kind of barn was typical of this area- the open barn which housed cattle and an oven were downstairs. A stone staircase led to the living areas of the family. It consisted of 4 bedrooms with a kitchen in the middle and no bathroom at all. ‘We converted the 4 bedrooms into 2 large bedrooms with a bathroom, one master bedroom with a big bathroom and an ensuite dressing room,’Patricia says. The groundfloor has a large,open plan kitchen, a utility room and the living and dining areas.

A sitting area with a large fireplace added when the Zaninis bought this property. It is a copy of a typical Tuscan country fireplace with stone banks on either side

They have renovated a small cottage next to the house to include a cozy bedroom with a picture window that frames the Tuscan countryside and a bathroom.

The interior of the renovated guest cottage. My daughter, Geetika in the picture

Patricia has been a fabulous tour guide for us, driving us to picturesque vineyards that make Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s finest red wines and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, another highly regarded red wine. She drives us to the quaint hilltop village, Montalcino and to another pretty town, Pienza that also makes the Pecorino cheese. Knowing my interest in old homes she has taken us to visit two old houses of friends of hers in Tuscany. She had also booked all our train tickets for our onward journey to the Amalfi coast.

A swimming pool added to the rear of the house

After a long drive back, over a fabulous dinner of pressed octopus and a sea food pasta cooked by Maurizio, he tells us that Eastern Italy, where he comes from, they never really ate pasta. Their food consisted mainly of rissotto, soups, beans, vegetables. Very rarely did they eat meat.  Pasta, a more modern addition to their food, is, of course, cooked often now.

Beautifully preserved , old stone buildings in an old vineyard near the house


However, when their family of four children, two sons-in-law and two grand children get

From left to right top row our son Paolo Emilio, son in law Tommaso, Agata, Perla's daughter, Clelia, Maurizio, capo famiglia and Demetrio, Isabella's husband Lower row from left to right: Noe' , Perla's son our eldest grand child, Isabella, Perla, Patricia

From left to right, top row: The Zanini’s son, Paolo Emilio, son- in- law, Tommaso, little Agata,their daughter, Perla’s daughter, ypoungest daughter,Clelia, Maurizio(capo famiglia)and daughter, Isabella’s husband,Demetrio
Lower row from left to right:Perla’s son and the Zaninis’ eldest grand child,Noe’, daughters, Isabella and Perla and Patricia

together during Christmas, a whole pig is roasted by Maurizzio and the men. This is their very special occasion, after all.

What a fabulous job the Zaninis have done-restoring the old house-allowing it to blend with the beautiful landscape !  Thank you,Patricia, Maurizio for sharing this treasure !

Coming back to India and Lucknow and food, yesterday was Eid and we enjoyed excellent food including the sewain in a string of homes we visited. Lucknow is nothing if you cannot enjoy its food !

See you next time !

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Easter Table with painted Romanian Eggs

My husband was posted in Romania as India’s ambassador from 2007-2011.  Romanians tend to preserve some of their  traditions. They follow the Orthodox church so their Easter falls a little later than the other churches.  Good Friday, the day that marks the crucifixion of Jesus and his death, is not a holiday in Romania. However, the Monday after Easter Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, is.

I had the fabulous chance of participating in the Romanian tradition of Easter on Easter Sunday when some friends invited us to be part of the celebration. At midnight, we gathered at the local church, where the priest appeared with a lit candle saying,’ Hristos a inviat'(Christ has risen), and everyone chorused in reply, ‘Adevarat a inviat’ (He has truely risen). Then we lit our own candles from that of the priest’s and headed back home where we simply dived into a feast of roast lamb and excellent local wine. Diving is right, because having become vegan and giving up wine and spirits and generally observing self-denial for the 40 days of lent, it is time to eat and drink ! People also dye boiled eggs in different colours and the tradition is to crack your own egg with that of another’s while saying,’ Hristos a inviat’ and its reply. Enjoying the act, I think I must have cracked at least four eggs !

It seemed, and, as our friends reiterated, as so many festivals across many religions are, that Easter is basically about introspection and then the renewal of the spirit of faith and hope.

In monasteries dotted across Romania, nuns and other craftspeople paint emptied, intact egg shells in intricate patterns which are then sold.

I discovered pictures of a tablescape I had created  later, in Ireland, remembering the Romanian Easter.

Intricately painted eggs from Romania and burlap fleft over from some packaging

I love the texture of burlap and had put some away from a package. I felt it would work.

In  a storm, a few months back, one of the gigantic pine trees that line the boundary wall of the Indian ambassador’s residence,  had fallen, taking down electrical wiring and damaging some of the road. The embassy, in compliance with orders from Dublin municipality, had to cut down those trees–sometimes safety issues are more important than the environment . I got the gardeners to saw slices of the trunk and used some as stepping ‘stones’ in the garden while a few I happily reserved to be used as serving platters or, in this case, as place mats.

Transverse sections of our pine trees used as mats

To go with the feel of rough burlap and wood I tied cutlery in string.

Wood from an old, dismantled dhow(boat)fashioned as a tea-light holder used as a centre piece .Holder is fromTanzania.

Of course, some Khurja pottery kulhads seemed to blend in with the general, textured, rough pieces- and they were a similar purple-blue as some of the painted eggs. And then the blue Fabindia napkins fell into place. A few wooden hens I had purchased from a charity shop years ago in Canada fitted in with the Easter theme– I did not have chicks but I had their mothers !

The mothers of chicks !

The blue marker pen letters on the burlap -not really out of place !

Anthurium plants in reed baskets from Tanzania completed the picture–

—Just sharing, from Lucknow, India.  At home on Easter Sunday we did crack some boiled eggs in remembrance of the beautiful Romanian tradition.

Hope you like this !   See you next time !


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