Belladonna Bess

An edible garden in Wellington, NZ

Traditional ways December 4, 2014

Filed under: Cooking,India — belladonnabess @ 2:19 pm

On the surface, things are familiar. I’m staying in a large, modern, four bedroom home. The style may be different, from New Zealand, but the layout and furnishings are similar enough. I have a bedroom with air conditioning and an attached bathroom. The broadband internet access is at least as fast as mine at home, and as reliable as New Zealand. Modems and repairmen are also as reliable as they are in New Zealand; unfortunately, this is a low standard to aspire to. And so I’ve been without internet access for three days.


By choice, some modern appliances and conveniences are here – TV, fridge, blender, microwave, chapati maker, western toilets, cellphone. By choice, others are not, including a washing machine and hot water. Many things are still done in the time-honoured way. I won’t forget that I’m in rural India.


For those who haven’t heard the explanation of what I’m doing – I’m staying for a couple of weeks with the parents of some friends. I decided that I would like to spend some time pottering around and experiencing local life, rather than racing around being a tourist.


I arrived, grubby and tired, with a suitcase full of dirty clothes that I’d had neither time nor facilities to wash in the Maldives. So washing was a priority. I quickly discovered that a washing machine was not one of the appliances in the house – nor would it have been particularly practical for my brightly coloured cotton clothes which would leak dye. So I learned to wash the semi-traditional way. Traditional would have been in the river, something I saw yesterday at Kumarakhom. The next most traditional way would be to hand-draw water from the well, like my neighbours do, but I’m spared that by an electric pump which delivers well water to a roof tank.


I’ve seen, but never used, the traditional scrubbing boards that pre-dated washing machines in New Zealand. Here, a rough stone performs the same function. For convenience, the stone is embedded in a sloping concrete slab, at a height which means you can scrub without bending. There’s a tap beside it and a shelf below the slab for soap. In all honesty, it’s easier than hand-washing in a tub in New Zealand. What’s not so easy is drying the clothes in this humid climate. There’s been barely a glimpse of the sun, nor breath of wind. I found myself missing the drying breezes of Wellington. Here, clothes are dried flat on the gravel around the house, which works fine when there’s some sun, but takes a while in this misty weather.


While the kitchen is equipped with a fridge, gas stove and microwave, rice is still cooked the traditional way, outside, in a clay pot over a fire made from dried husks and old stalks of coconut. I’m told that the clay pot gives the rice a better flavour, and it does seem to taste better than the hotel rice, which was probably cooked in a pressure cooker. It would be demanding work to keep a large family fed, especially in the rainy season, but since I’m on holiday and rice only needs to be cooked every few days, it’s quite a pleasant activity to tend the small fire.


I’ve been told that every Kerala house outside the town centres has a suite of essential plants in the garden – coconut, mango, jackfruit, banana, pepper, chilli. I’m reminded of the essential plants the way that my mother and her relatives all had fruit – figs, grapes, plums, feijoas, peaches, citrus, apples – when I was a child. The culture of home gardening may have experienced a small revival in New Zealand, but it is still relatively weak. Here, it’s considered essential. Where I’m staying, some of these plants are not obvious, as some trees were removed when the house was built. However there are small trees planted around and in a few years the garden will have mango, jackfruit, guava, rambutan and sapota. It already has abundant mature coconut and nutmeg, banana and papaya just beginning to fruit and a selection of vegetables. Surrounding houses have mature trees, and it feels like we are in the forest here.


Over the back wall is an abandoned paddy field, where a neighbour’s three cows graze during the day. Morning and evening they are led by the house, one with a calf following behind. Milk from these cows also comes morning and evening, delivered by the neighbour in a reused 330ml soft-drink bottle. For those wondering whether this is hygienic – of course it isn’t! Both milk and water are always boiled before drinking.


I once drank at a roadside tea stall and was a little alarmed to watch the tea-seller wash the glasses with his hands in a basin of cold water. But then he filled the glasses with boiling water and left them to sit before tipping out the water and filling with boiled tea. I came to no harm. Despite India’s fearsome reputation for sickening tourists, most people here do understand food safety.


What they don’t seem so understand so well is diabetes. I’ve met so many people with type 2 diabetes here. There’s a reason the Indian diet isn’t promoted by weight-loss advisers and health enthusiasts. Even in the south, where curries are lighter and not laced with jaggery, cream and ghee, I’m strugging to manage my weight. The carbohydrate quantity in the diet is staggering. An average rice serving is about three times what I’d normally eat. Coffee and tea comes with cloying quantities of sugar, although my kind hosts have accomodated my Kiwi eccentricities and make it unsugared then offer a sugar bowl, which I quietly leave untouched.


Surprisingly, coconut appears less of a problem. It grows in every garden, and is used in every meal, but the quantities aren’t excessive. And there are a lot of calories used to get the flesh from a coconut.


The trees where I am staying are huge, and there’s no chance that any of us will be climbing them. So green coconut is off the menu, but ripe coconuts are gathered from the ground. First you need to remove the tough, fibrous husk, which is as difficult as it sounds. There’s a cunning device with two metal points together, and you need to impale the coconut in just the right spot. You then remove it, rotate it by a third, and impale it again. There is a lever, which moves the two points apart and splits the husk. If you are skilled, two or three goes at this will see your coconut mostly husked. If you are me, five or six will leave you with a mess of husk and fibre, with the nut still concealed inside. Cleaning that mess off is quite a job too.


Splitting the husked coconut requires no effort all, just tap it firmly in just the right spot with the back of a standard kitchen knife, which looks like a small machete to my eye. I haven’t bothered trying, as I can see it going very wrong. But I did drink the delicious milk from it to get my energy up for the next stage, grating. I’m a bit better at this one. A coconut grater is an alarming device, a flat piece of metal the size of a dessert spoon and bristling with teeth, embedded in a huge block of wood. You sit sidesaddle on the block, holding it still while you scrape the inside of the coconut against the teeth. The grated coconut is collected in a pan below. My grating skills are improving with practice, but it’s not the easiest task in thirty-plus degree heat.


The air here is so warm and humid, it feels like I’m smothers in a heavy blanket, including my face. I’m grateful for my nice cotton, and getting used to wearing long sleeves and trousers in the heat, but, whatever I do, I end up soaked in sweat unless I’m parked under a fan or in air conditioning. And so, dripping with sweat from the effort of producing a cup and a half of grated coconut, I need to retreat to a shady room with a fan for a rest.



Below the line birthday September 27, 2013

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 8:33 am

Breakfast: the same weird rice porridge mix I had yesterday, and of course budget instant coffee

Morning tea: stale chapati and budget instant coffee

Lunch: dal and rice

Afternoon tea: very stale chapati and budget instant coffee…

I know this is getting monotonous, I’ve keep typing in the same meals day after day. But that’s kind of the point. Life below the line is monotonous, and I’m not even scratching the surface of that here.

Dinner: I had planned to celebrate my birthday by not having any budget white rice with my dinner. But one of my friends dropped around and, looking at what I had left, I realised that I could feed two if I included the rice. And really, company is better for a birthday dinner anyway. So dinner was: leftover rice with tomato, the last of my dal, some silverbeet and kale from the garden served with tomato sauce saved from yesterday, and chapati. Unfortunately I was so hungry by the time it ws ready that I forgot to photograph it. However I did photograph my delicious semolina pudding.


I admit, it may not look like the best meal ever, but it was hot, filling, sweet and flavoured with dates, cardamom and coconut. I’ve been looking forward to it all week.

Living below the line this week has certainly enhanced my appreciation of small pleasures. I has also enhanced my appreciation of the abundance and variety of my everyday diet. And more than anything, it has made me miss the morning porridge I eat nearly every day. That’s a bit ironic really, as last year I actually managed to have porridge when I was below the line. This year I tried, but although the porridge was cheap enough, I couldn’t afford enough milk powder.

Still, it’s an interesting reminder that sometimes the cheap, simple, healthy foods are the best!


Day four below the line September 25, 2013

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 6:50 pm

Some interesting experiments today. I think I’m really starting to get the hang of this.

Breakfast: budget instant coffee and a rather odd sort of rice pudding made from cooked budget white rice, water, one date and very small amounts of sugar, milk, cardamom and semolina. It was a followup to yesterday’s experiment, but considerably tastier.

Morning tea: chapati and budget instant coffee

Lunch: dal and rice, lemon balm tea

Afternoon tea: chapati

Dinner: fried goodness with tomato sauce. I tried to make fritters, but with little flour and nothing like eggs to bind, it was quite a challenge. I ended up with a mix of cooked rice, finely chopped silverbeet, a couple of spoons of the dal I cooked yesterday, a bit of chili powder and a couple of spoons of semolina mixed with hot water. I then dropped spoonfuls onto a pan that had quite a bit of oil in it. They didn’t really stay together, but the mix browned up nicely and with a bit of salt it was lovely. The tomato sauce was made from the last of my tinned tomatoes and a few herbs from the garden.

I’m quite full now. There was probably quite a bit of fat in that dinner.

fried goodness

Now that I’m feeling full and slightly smug for being able to prepare meals below the line that I actually enjoy, it’s time to remember what $2.25 really signifies. It’s not the New Zealand dollar daily food budget of those living in extreme poverty. It’s the $NZ total daily budget of those living in extreme poverty. Food, cooking fuel, housing, clothing – and anything beyond that like education and medical care is probably unimaginable luxury. And it’s not the daily cash budget of those living in extreme poverty. It accounts for the cost of scavenged items like firewood, free food etc.

It’s a poverty that I know I can’t possibly comprehend. What has felt like hardship to me resembles in no way the hardship of those living in extreme poverty. All I can hope to do by living on $2.25 of food a day is remind myself and others that these people exist, and encourage you all to support the charities that are working to end extreme poverty. I’m not sure I’m doing the best job of that. I’m pretty sure the idea is to make people feel sorry enough for me to to donate money. And here I am rambling on about the random delicious meals I’ve managed to make. I’m not going to win any sympathy donations with today’s culinary delights.

But that all changes tomorrow. It’s my birthday, and I’m still below the line. So go on. Feel sorry for me, and help support the great work of Volunteer Services Abroad.




Day three below the line

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 6:53 am

Breakfast: chapati and budget instant coffee

Morning tea: another chapati and more instant coffee

Lunch: dal and rice. Went for a walk at lunchtime and managed to stop myself buying books about food. Just.

Afternoon tea: lemon balm “tea”, then late in the day, a small amount of rice cooked in tomato

Dinner: first I attended a birthday party, where one of the hosts had spent three days cooking in preparation. I sat in the corner drinking a glass of water and attempted not to notice the abundant food and wine loading up the table. When I left, I took a small bag with some of the baking that will keep until Saturday. Every time I open the fridge it is staring at me.

One of the children had brought a pair of comedy glasses, so I entertained myself (and them) by having my eyes popping out looking at the food.

goggle eyes

Later I went home and started cooking dal, rice and chapati. I had a hard time waiting for the food to be cooked. I had a small amount of leftover cooked rice, so I cooked it up with some water, a tiny bit of milk, a little sugar and some crushed cardamom seeds. It was a bit odd, but it was warm, sweet and contained calories. After that, I had a couple of the chapati I made, then I felt full. Of possibly just bloated from eating little other than white rice and flatbread.

rice pudding




Day two below the line September 24, 2013

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 7:01 am

A much more successful day.

Breakfast: budget instant coffee and chapati. I decided to take my time and left a bit later for work. This gave me time to drink the coffee rather than trying to gulp it down. Pleasure is relative.

Morning tea: another chapati, with a smear of dal to make it a bit more substantial. Plus another cup of the budget instant coffee. I couldn’t take my eyes off the tim-tams that were on the table all through my team meeting.

Lunch: dal and rice. The dal is more satisfying than the rice with tomato, so I decided to have that at lunchtime. Plus I’m really pleased with the dal. It’s made with yellow split peas and tinned tomatoes. I scored an 800g tin of tomatoes for 88 cents, so I have plenty of tomato this year. I have enough for another batch of dal tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to it. My boss tells me that I’m obsessed with food.

Afternoon tea: fire drill. Normally when there is a fire drill everyone goes to buy a coffee. I didn’t. Later I made a cup of herbal teal with lemon balm from my garden. Given that this grows like a weed (I have about eight plants when I originally planted one), I count that within my vegetable budget. Once again, pleasure is relative.

Dinner: fried rava upma and rice with tomatoes.  Yay for frying! Dinner is satisfying. I spend the evening thinking about making another batch of delicious dal on Wednesday night, and the semolina pudding I’m planning to cook on Friday night.

Dal recipe:
Fry crushed (but not ground) coriander seed and mustard seed in oil. When they start to sizzle, add half an onion, garlic flakes and grated fresh ginger. When the onion is soft, add 1/2 cup of tinned tomatoes (mostly juice) a teaspoon of ground coriander/cumin/ tumeric, salt and a pinch of chili powder. Cook about 5 minutes to make a spice paste. Add yellow split peas (about 3/4 cup I think) that have been soaked at least 8 hours and water. Simmer until the split peas are cooked. As it is cooking, add water as required and also check salt and add as needed.


Live below the line take two September 22, 2013

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 11:03 pm

After surviving the Live Below the Line challenge last year, for some reason it seemed like a good idea to do it again.

The problem is, the best bit of doing the challenge last year – being part of an awesome team – wasn’t going to happen this year. With my team unavailable, I’m doing the challenge solo. At least I had all my budget details from last year, so it wasn’t so hard to put together a budget and do the shopping. I had a few ideas on things I did or didn’t need from last year, so there are a few differences, but it is mainly the same.

Live below the line 2013

below the line pantry

The big difference is that I didn’t have anyone to split my oil and butter purchases with, so I ended up buying a whole bottle of oil. To save money and to try something different, I decided to do without porridge for breakfast this year. Instead, I decided to try some traditional Indian breakfasts. That made sense when I thought of the idea, since my strategy for surviving this challenge is to look beyond New Zealand, and copy what people eat in countries like India. Unfortunately, that didn’t work quite so well…

Breakfast: carrot rava upma, effectively a semolina porridge with grated carrot. While the flavour was good and I love semolina, somehow I couldn’t handle the combination. Nor could I quickly swallow a cup of budget instant coffee before leaving home at 6.40am. Not a great start.carrot rava upma edited

Morning tea: carrot rava upma and budget instant coffee. It tasted much better around 10am, when I was awake and hungry.

Lunch: rice cooked with onions and tomato. I ate this last year, and very tasty it was too.

Dinner: I had a brainwave about the breakfast I didn’t particularly like. I thickened it with flour and fried it in oil on the tava. Anything’s better fried! I also made chapati and a couple of paratha. I ate the paratha and have saved the chapati for breakfast and morning tea tomorrow. I also cooked some plain rice and what turned out to be a rather nice dal made with tinned tomatoes and yellow split peas.

fried rava upmadal and paratha


Weird and wonderful ingredients October 13, 2012

Filed under: Cooking — belladonnabess @ 6:31 pm
Tags: , ,

I made good use of yesterday’s less than lovely weather, and rummaged around the wonderful food shops of Petone in the company of five other members of the Fusions Food and Cooking Club. We were on a mission to find weird and wonderful ingredients – things we’d never used before to give us a bit of a challenge.

I think my intent was to buy one or two things, but I ended up with a bit more. Here’s my list:

  • ajawain or ajwain. A seed used as a spice in India and the near east. It’s in the Apiaceae, along with caraway, coriander, cumin, dill etc. For those who care about such things, it’s Trachyspermum ammi. The seeds taste rather like thyme. I’m looking forward to trying this one, since I often use thyme in my curries anyway (it’s a taste combination I picked up in Mauritius).
  • black cardamom. I tasted this at the curry workshop I attended, but have never used it. It’s a member of the ginger family (like green cardamom), in the genus Amomum. Unlike green cardamom, it isn’t used in sweet dishes, just savory.
  • kala jeera or black cumin. Another member of the Apiacea, this time Bunium persicum. I’m not sure how to describe the taste, apart from very bitter and rather weird. It appears in the cuisines of northern India through to Iran and seems to be quite specifically regional.
  • kokum or kokam. The dried skin of mangosteen (Garcinia indica). I bought it on the basis that it looked extremely strange but had a faint but pleasant smell. It seems to be used in quite specific regional cuisines in India and is supposed to be sour, sometimes used in place of tamarind. I tried it in dal last night and although it wasn’t one of my best efforts (I had some other ingredients out of balance) I think I could detect the influence of its flavour.
  • sumac. I’ve heard the name, but I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten it or tasted it. I haven’t been cooking any Middle Eastern food recently, but I’ll have a go at some stage. I find the idea of sumac a little disconcerting, as it is a species of Rhus. Until a taxonomic reclassification as the entirely appropriate Toxicodendron, Rhus was the genus that contained things like poison ivy and various other highly irritant plants. But the family Apicaeae also contains hemlock, and that doesn’t stop me enjoying carrots, celery, parsley and a good number of very tasty spices.
  • sago. My mother occasionally cooked this as a dessert, but I’ve never cooked it.
  • buckwheat seeds. I’m sure buckwheat is used in a range of places, but this particular packet came from Poland. I’m thinking that I might be able to cook up the seeds as a base for some kind of salad.
  • millet. This is cheating a bit, since I’ve eating puffed millet and millet flour, but not the whole grains. No idea what they are like or what to do with them, since the packet is entirely in Russian. The only way I worked out what it was is that there was a label in German that I managed to translate via Google.
  • Pandan flavouring. No idea what this is going to taste like. Pandan (the leaves of Pandanus plants) seem to be widely used in South-East Asian cuisine, but I’ve really got no idea what I’m going to do with this little jar of flavouring. But it was cheap so worth a try.
  • squid ink. Two tiny sachets of the stuff – I don’t know how keen on it I’ll be. But you never know, maybe someone will invite me to a Halloween party and I’ll be able to make black pasta!

For the other participants of the weird and wonderful ingredients day, feel free to list your purchases in the comments section. I’ll need to approve you the first time you post, so it won’t show up immediately sorry.

Here’s my haul. Rather smaller and a bit more expensive than my “live below the line” collection.


Day 5 below the line September 27, 2012

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 9:46 pm

Last day…

Breakfast: my 5th consecutive day of porridge and dates. And the last day of budget coffee. Yay!!!

Morning tea: only lemon balm tea. We ate all the crackers last night. The party was worth it, but it was a hard morning.

Lunch: tomato with rice again – only WARM! And half a leftover paratha.

Afternoon tea: half a paratha I saved from lunch.

Dinner: 2 leftover paratha and dal. It was quite liquid so I’ll call it a soup. It was the same as the one I cooked previously – fried onion, crushed coriander seed and the last of my curry leaves (in butter instead of oil since I had some left), added red lentils, water, the last of my ginger, salt and a tiny bit of chili.


Day 4 below the line

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 9:22 pm

So this was my birthday below the line. One of the more unusual birthdays I’ve ever had, although the trip in the Mauritian police helicopter in 2002 remains hard to top…

Breakfast: budget instant coffee and porridge with dates. You know, I actually like porridge with dates, even after 4 days. It really doesn’t need sugar.

Morning tea: same as the previous 2 days…only watching everyone else eat muffins and fruit.

Lunch: cold “risotto”. I had the same “rice with tomatoes” dish. But today of all days I was at a workshop. We ate at the hotel restaurant, which meant I was sitting at a table with everyone eating from the buffet, and I had my rice. Now for the rest of the week I have enjoyed the highly unrealistic luxury of heating my rice dishes in the office microwave. Since I wasn’t at the office, I didn’t have the microwave. I have to say that it tasted a lot better hot.

Afternoon tea: a few more crackers.

Dinner: this was my below the line birthday party. I pooled resources with 3 friends doing the challenge and we had a lovely meal.

Course 1: my homemade crackers and Barbara’s pea “guacamole”.

Course 2: a piece of Mona’s semolina cake. And a cup of tea with milk (powdered).

Course 3: Kim’s dal, Kim’s fried rice, Barbara’s “risotto-ish”.

Course 4: Mauritian greens, yams from my garden with ginger and a bit of honey from Mona’s budget and Mona’s paratha with my remaining flour.

Course 5: a date each and another cup of tea.

It wasn’t quite as excessive as it sounds. Each portion was rather small. We basically provided what we would have had for dinner. But it was really good and a lovely way to celebrate a birthday.


Day 3 below the line September 25, 2012

Filed under: Cooking,Living below the line — belladonnabess @ 9:32 pm

Breakfast: same as the last 2 days.

Morning tea: ditto

Lunch: “risotto” from the previous night.

Afternoon tea: ditto

Dinner: the remains of monday’s dal and rice, plus jowar chapati.

The monotony is kicking in. But I’m actually getting used to the lemon balm tea now.

The jowar (Sorghum) chapati was an interesting experiment. Even in New Zealand this is the cheapest flour available. It’s the staple for millions across Africa and Asia. It was challenging to work with – it’s got no gluten so doesn’t bind together, and the dough was made with boiling water – which meant it was rather like handling a dough made from porridge.

Overall it was edible, but far from being as nice as a wheat chapati. It didn’t help that I misjudged the salt, but with a bit more sprinkled on them, they were fine.