Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home   | Volume 7, Issue 03, Tuesday, January 17, 2012




One for the tome

I am not a bibliophile. I judge books by the cover and I am not the sort that would read a Stephen King work in one seating. Nor am I astute enough to understand William Faulkner or laugh at the humour of Jerome K Jerome.

I, however, often find myself walking through the aisles of the old book sellers at Nilkhet, or browse the Bengali titles at Shagor Publishers in Bailey Road.

“Why?” you may ask. The answer is simple it's the 'feel' of books. Both old and new.

The musty smell of old books totally work for me. They entice, attract and draw me towards them. Bringing out an old purchase from the study room shelf brings back cherished memories as does finding a coveted title at the dealer's in Nilkhet.

I remember buying Tolkien's saga from a stall at a considerable bargain. The fungus infected book, its pungent smell irritated my breathing pathway but ended up grabbing me by the collar; it spoke to me in a fantasy lingo, befitting of the saga of the ring.

As I browsed through the pages, the first bearing the name of the previous owner, and “14/12/69”, the date of purchase, I assumed. Buying this “piece of childhood” was easy; I haggled a lot and after 15 minutes of sheer effort, which at one point involved walking away from the seller, the book was eventually bought and it now has a resting place in my library.

“Resting place?” you might ponder. For the time being, at least, is my answer; until a time when time is aplenty. Maybe on a raining afternoon, with a mug of piping hot tea on the bedside, I will be thrilled by the chivalry of Aragorn and amazed at the perseverance of Frodo Baggins.

New books also give off an odour but one that teases the olfactory senses rather than take it by storm, as do old titles. If old titles smell of age; new ones smell of freshness. I can candy the feel of a new book, the fragrance of the pages, the freshness of the illustration conjuring mental images not devoid of olfactory perceptions and finally the ink, and keep it in a jar.

I remember buying Archie comics from Shagor, as a child, drawn more by the smell of newsprint paper than anything else. Reading was fun, but owning it was simply something more.

True many of you will disagree; some will favour new titles rather than old copies simply because they don't put you in a sneezing frenzy. And of course there is the new breed of readers who prefer to read their books online; go through seven different newspapers on the worldwide web in a leisurely moment at work and then there is the Amazon Kindle.

Call it technological impairment or simple reservation to upgrade myself, I find e-books a hassle, an eyesore that does little for the romance of reading.

I can't read on a bus because the tremor hampers my eyesight. I can't read while stuck in a jam because I want my reading sessions to be prolonged. I read on weekends and when I do, it is an elaborate affair.

Printed books revolutionised our thought process. It brought knowledge to the common man. Gutenberg probably would have hailed the coming of e-book readers simply because it's an even friendlier tool of spreading information to the mass.

But as long as printed books are available; as long as the process of bringing out e-books do not dominate the market; as long as printing presses are functional and operating, I for one will stick to books, the old-fashioned way.

I know my children will call me old-fashioned; the friends will chide (at least the ones who have gone for an upgrade to the digital age) but I shall remain loyal to my devotion to printed words.

I would rather romance the idea of going on an adventure with hobbits on paper, rather than on pixels.

By Mannan Mashhur Zarif

An electric read

A common lament among the generations that grew up before the information technology boom happened is the general lack of a reading habit in the generations that grew up with computer screens as their best friends. After all, the diversions since the explosion of technology have been mind-boggling in their quantity with films, TV series, high-res games and music making their way from our desktops into our pockets.

But therein lies the key to the revival of the reading habit -- the e-book and the e-reader. Granted, reading books might never again enjoy the kind of mainstream popularity it once did, but ironically, the very phenomenon that threatened its existence -- the advance of technology -- has once again made it relevant. Reading for pleasure is an enriching habit, and a great novel has the potential to affect us in a way very few movies ever can, so it won't take much for the habit to take hold again.

In the modern context, the problem with books is that they are so outdated. It's not the content that is so, but their physical form. In a world where everything is becoming integrated, where a phone is also a camera, a music player, an Internet station and a portable video player, it just does not make sense to lug a 2kg, 400-page hardback anymore. Downloading electronic versions and uploading them on smartphones or the increasingly popular e-readers is the way to go.

But here too the old-timers quibble. They talk about the romance of picking a book out from a shelf, leafing through the pages to find where one left off last, the sense of responsibility that goes with taking care of an age-old volume, the old-book smell, etc. E-books are nowhere near the joy provided by the real thing, they say.

No disrespect to the dewy-eyed, but this is nothing but have-the-cake-and eat-it syndrome. You have to let some things go; you cannot mourn the death of the reading habit and knock the very tool of its possible revival.

E-readers have become increasingly popular of late. The best-known of its kind is the Amazon Kindle. The Kindle 3 has a battery life of a month after a four and a half hour charge, and here's the clincher, it can store up to 3,500 books. There are others like the Nook, but Kindle by far has enjoyed the lion's share of critical as well as popular acclaim.

And then of course, there is the ever-popular Ipad, which with its big screen and butter-smooth touch interface makes reading ebooks a veritable pleasure. Moreover, with its vast reserves of memory, you can store a lifetime of reading material.

Here is where the e-readers score much higher than the old-fashioned books.

In the age of instant gratification, people often will not have the patience to finish a 400-page novel, and may often feel like browsing through something else. With ordinary books, that point may mark the cessation of the willingness to read as we are often too lazy to go through our bookshelves, much less make a trip to the store to buy something we might like. With e-readers, thousands of books are already loaded into the device, and we do not have to lift much more than a finger to go to the next title we might enjoy.

Of course, in a third-world country like Bangladesh there are caveats. E-readers like Kindle and Nook are not for sale here, and more damagingly, we cannot buy e-books off the net because online credit card purchases are not supported, unless you are one of the few who have an international credit card. This may limit the choice of books at your disposal.

All is not lost, however. Even with these barriers Bangladeshis have been reading e-books. There are Kindles to be seen, bought by relatives from abroad with books loaded, but those are the exceptions. There are ways to get e-books free online, although unfortunately the methods cannot be described here. Perhaps you could search Google for tips.

And even if we do not have the Kindle, our smartphones suffice. Old-timers here again will scoff, saying the tiny screens will hurt the eyes. Well, I have news for them. The average paperback novel has its words printed on a four-inch expanse on the pages. Most good smartphones these days have four-inch screens, just tilt them into landscape mode, and you are good to go. This writer finished 'Love in the Time of Cholera,' on a 3.7-inch Samsung phone screen, after which he converted from e-book doubter to e-book believer.

The main objection understandably is the dearth of options because of our online credit card embargo. But then we are not showered with choices in the paper variety, are we? And think how much it would cost to buy 3,500 books. And last, and most importantly perhaps, think of the forests you would have to cut down to print that number of books. E-books for the win, then.



Winter indulgence

There was a time, a distant past as it now seems, when weddings -- extravagant or cosy -- were homely affairs with a touch of warmth. The planning was done way in advance by the close family but the actual execution involved even the distant relations.

The decorations were done by the friends of the bride and the groom and the tables set by neighbourhood decorators at the venue, a community hall of the vicinity. The wedding menu would consist of plain pilaf, oily chicken roast, greasier mutton rezala and everyone's favourite jarda with candied pumpkins.

We have time to thank for transporting us to the twenty-first century where wedding vows are made in million taka ceremonies. Wedding planners are hired to manage the entire show, where often a thousand or more guests are entertained.

Today's wedding banquet consists of steamy, delectable kachchi with tandoori chicken, mixed vegetables and borhani on the side. For old time's sake we still get to relish the jarda with candied pumpkin.

As Dhaka's ultra-rich have firmly placed the kachchi at the wedding dinner table, the middle class shies away from the familiar pilaf and maintains their “pride” serving what now seems ubiquitous -- the kachchi.

Growing up in a middle class family in Dhaka in the mid-1980s meant three families sharing one big house and for us, two cousins sharing one bed. Every Friday there used to be a special lunch which we would devour after Juma prayers. One and the same menu rotated over the seasons -- pilaf and beef.

On rare occasions, persistent pressure from the men of the house brought in delicacies like the morog polao. A dish I have learnt to love since. This was prepared under the supervision of my aunt, a seasoned cook who had mastered the skill.

In this ´pakki' form of biriyani the chicken and the rice are cooked separate and mixed with one another at a later point of cooking before they are finally taken away from the heat. The end result is succulent rice cooked in a broth and some tender chicken pieces.

Her ilish polao was also legendary, made from a recipe handed down by her mother-in-law, my grandmother. Also a pakki preparation, the laborious dish had the element of mixing two forms into one, without breaking the fish fillets. The rice would absorb the oil and juice from the fish; and the fish had a steamed flavour to it. The concoction, totally out of this world.

But it was the kachchi biriyani where her cooking prowess came to a standstill. This was one feat beyond the simple cook, good or bad. Something even my aunt could not muster, probably because kachchi biriyani needs to be cooked in a sizable amount and cannot be cooked in small portions.

The term 'kachchi' can be literally translated to 'raw'. Cooking involves selection of fine spices and condiments, grinding some while keeping others intact and fresh. The dish is prepared from raw meat -- as opposed to other forms of biriyani where the meat is cooked separately -- marinated in yoghurt and put at the bottom of the cooking pot with a thick layer of rice above and the ingredients covered with a lid sealed on its sides with a layer of dough: a process of pressure-cooking known as 'dum'.

The rice and the meat cook in their own steam and gradually absorb all the flavours.

Potatoes are often added and cooked along with the meat. The whole affair poses a great challenge as it requires paying meticulous attention to time and temperature to avoid over- or under-cooking the meat.

So what do I do when I see kachchi biriyani being served at a city wedding? The glutton that I am, people often ask me later to comment on the food, a critique if you will. And I always give the honest opinion -- never too flattery; never too critical. And if it is honestly too good, I see that my compliments reach the chef.

Kachchi may not be rocket science but its no 'tehari' either. At least that is what my chachi would have said.

By Mannan Mashhur Zarif
Photo: Lifestyle Archive


Cooking oil 101

The crackling noise that surrounds you as soon as you let those strips of potato wedges slip from your fingers and slide into the oil, instantly making bubbles in the semi-viscous liquid, turns the wheels of your taste buds as you await the wedges to fry to a crisp.

Cooking oils are an integral part of our every day culinary endeavour, be it fried food, curry or sauté. While many cuisines make use of sparing amounts of oil, it is almost impossible for our deshi cuisines to do without it.

As is common knowledge, food high in oil content is not exactly the most ideal for maintaining good health. Since cooking oil is an indispensable part of our everyday lives, we have to use it in vast quantities and so completely removing it is not exactly an option.

What can be done is to spare the use of oil in as many situations as possible and along with it, using healthier cooking oils alongside the traditional soybean and mustard oil.

At the very basic level saturated fats are not very desirable for healthy living, although they are required by the body in very small quantities. Unsaturated fats are the ones that are health-friendly, followed by polyunsaturated fats. Thus, oils low on saturated fats and containing unsaturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats should dominate our kitchen shelves as well as our dishes.

Another important thing to keep in mind is the smoking point of the oil because if oil is heated beyond its smoking point, it starts producing toxic fumes and harmful free radicals. The more refined an oil, the higher the smoking point.

Soybean oil that we use everyday is not harmful and is good for health with low saturated fat content. However, it has a medium smoking point, which is ideal for light sautéing, making sauces and low-heat baking. What we tend to do is use soybean for all sorts of cooking including deep frying which, as mentioned, leads it to be heated beyond its smoking point.

For deep frying purposes sunflower oil with only 14 percent saturated fat and 79 percent monounsaturated fat may be used without risking your health.

Another option with a high smoking point is light/refined olive oil. Make sure not to confuse virgin olive oil with light olive oil. Extra virgin olive has a medium, high smoking point. The “light” refers to the colour. These high smoking point oils can be used for searing and browning as well.

For baking purposes, oven cooking or stir frying canola oil with only 7 percent saturated fat content may be used and the extra virgin oil belonging to this category is considered to be the best pick.

Extra virgin olive oil is also ideal for use as salad dressings, in dips and marinades.

As mentioned earlier, maintaining status quo in using soybean oil for light sautéing and low heat baking is not a bad choice since it is high in omega-6 and low in saturated fat. Although its polyunsaturated fat content is higher than the monounsaturated one. Sesame oil may also be used, which has a rich, nutty flavour for similar cooking purposes.

Although the use of coconut oil is extremely rare used in our kitchens, it is best to avoid it as it has one of the highest saturated fat contents at 92 percent higher than ghee (60 percent saturated fat), which we use occasionally.

Choose your cooking oil wisely and give yourself the gift of a prolonged and healthier life. Happy cooking!

By Karishma Ameen


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