Breaking Bread With R.K. Narayan

R.K Narayan’s book of short stories.

R.K. Narayan’s books are a delight to read. There is an endearing simplicity and innocence about his writing. A sweetness and an earthiness. He managed to be innocent and yet an astute observer of people at the same time. The beauty of Natayan’s writing was that his humor was gentle and he rarely ever came across as nasty or mean, just like his younger brother R.K. Laxman, the eminent cartoonist. He also chose to write on many subjects other than the man woman relationship.

I’ve been reading Narayan’s autobiography, My Days. He was born in 1906. At the age of three or four he was sent to live with his maternal grandmother in Madras because his mother was too delicate to look after the entire brood. Here in his grandmother’s house he had a pet monkey and peacock. With such great flair does he begin his autobiography, writing about the antics of his two pets, that whatever your age may be you’ll be enchanted.

R.K. Narayan’s autobiography

As a child Narayan didn’t like going to school and hated drill and examinations. Poor Narayan, at one stage, after he had finished his studies, and with no luck on the job front, he was made to take up a teacher’s job….and teach drill and mathematics! and how he hated both. He walked away from the teaching assignment never to return. Thank God, for what a loss it would have been for readers all over the world had he not become a writer. He also went against the grain about the education system all his life. He said he learnt more from books outside than the ones he was forced to read in school and in college.

In his early days most people poked fun at him for wanting to be a writer and thought he was being irresponsible by not taking up a job and supporting his large family when his father had just retired.

But he did become a writer, and how stylish, magnificent and priceless is his writing. He won many accolades for his brilliance, among them The Sahitya Academy award for his book The Guide, and the A.C Benson Medal by the Royal Society Of Literature in 1980. He was made an Honorary Member of the American Academy And Institute Of Arts And Letters In 1982. He was honored with the Padma Bhushan in 1964 and the Padma Vibhushan In 2000. He died in May 2001 at the age of 94.

In her book Tiffin, which I loved reading, Rukmini Srinivas reveals that Narayan was vegetarian. He liked eating curd rice, ulundu vadai or deep fried, spicy, split black bean batter vadais which she often made for him. He also loved his filter coffee. And his packet of scented betel nut which he kept with him at all times.

One of Narayan’s favorite dishes on his visit to America, curd rice.
Spicy and tangy onion coconut chutney
Ulundu Vadai with onion and coconut chutney. An R.K. Narayan favorite.

Here is the recipe of ulundu vadai or deep fried, spicy, split black bean batter vadais, as I have adapted it from Rukmini Srinivas’s book.

Ulundu Vadai

These delicious deep fried vadais were among Narayan’s favorite food when he met Rukmini Srinivas and her husband in America.

  • 2 cups urad dal or split black beans, soaked for two hours and drained
  • 1 tspn salt, or to taste
  • 2 finely chopped green chillies
  • 6 coursely ground black peppercorns
  • 8 curry leaves, torn in pieces
  • 1/4 tspn asafoetida powder
  • 1/4 cup grated fresh coconut
  • 1 tspn grated fresh ginger
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 cups oil for frying
  1. Grind the split black beans in the food processor to a thick, creamy batter, adding approximately 1/4 cup water while grinding. Remove in a vessel and keep aside.

  2. Add the salt, green chillies, black peppercorns, curry leaves, asafoetida, coconut and ginger. Mix well.

  3. Heat the oil in a frying pan to medium heat, not smoking hot. With wet hands make balls out of the batter, flatten each slightly, then make a hole in the centre and drop them one at a time into the hot oil. You can fry approximately 5 or 6 vadais in one batch depending on the size of your pan.

  4. Initially the vadais will sink to the bottom and as they fry they will rise to the surface. Gently separate them if they stick to each other. Fry them on all sides to a golden brown color.

  5. Once done, remove them with a slotted spoon and drain on absorbent paper. A well done vadai will be crisp on the outside and soft and spongy on the inside.

  6. Serve hot with onion coconut chutney.

And finally this wonderful music from the title track of Malgudi Days which enthralled us when it appeared on television many years ago.

Desi Style Pasta

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Pasta made with Indian masalas, and of course cheese, that delightful ingredient that we Indians just can’t do without. And tomato sauce too. This desi style pasta is mom’s recipe. You can make it spicy if you wish by adding more chilly powder or just keep it medium spicy, and that tastes great too.

It’s a great one dish meal with ice cream for dessert in these hot summer months. You can also eat it with toast, but please, please, do eat your pasta piping hot, because it’s no fun eating cold pasta.

Infact, now that the rains are here, you may wish to sit by the window or outdoors, with a delicious bowl of pasta and a fantastic book to read, or if you like to stay indoors, then you could eat it while watching your favourite television programme.

Here’s the recipe

Desi Style Pasta

Serves 3-4

Ingredients

250 gms shell pasta

3 tablespoons oil + 1 tablespoon oil

100 gms green beans chopped into small pieces

1 medium carrot chopped into small pieces

1 medium potato chopped into small pieces

2 medium tomatoes chopped into small pieces

1 medium capsicum cut into thin strips

1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon coriander powder

1/2 teaspoon garam masala

1/4 teaspoon chilly powder

salt to taste + a pinch of salt

1/2 cup tomato sauce

Garnish

3/4 cup grated cheese

Method

1 Put a large vessel filled with three quarters water to boil. Add a pinch of salt to the water. Put the pasta into the boiling water. Add a tablespoon of oil and let it cook till the pasta is soft. Drain the water and keep the pasta aside.

2 While the pasta is cooking in boiling water, heat the oil in a large pan. Into the hot oil, add the chopped green beans, carrots, potatoes and tomatoes. Fry for 1 minute. Now add the turmeric powder, coriander powder, garam masala, chilly powder and salt to taste into the vegetables and cook for 2 minutes.  Add 1 cup water, cover and let cook on a slow flame. Keep checking often to see if vegetables are cooked. When the vegetables are almost cooked add the capsicum pieces and cook for 2 more minutes.

3 To the cooked vegetables add the pasta and mix gently. Let cook for 3 minutes, then add tomato sauce and stir gently. Remove from heat, put in a serving bowl and garnish with cheese.

Serve hot.

Aloo Poha

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Aloo Poha or Flattened Rice With Potatoes And Spices is the breakfast dish for Indians. It is light and yet very tasty, and you’ll find carts selling this bright yellow dish sprinkled with coriander and grated fresh coconut and sometimes pomegranate seeds at every street corner.

This recipe here, is my mom, Rohini’s. And I promise you it turns out delicious.

Aloo Poha
Flattened rice with potatoes.

Serves 3 -4

Ingredients

10 fresh curry leaves

3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

3/4 teaspoon mustard seeds

4 medium sized onions

3 medium sized potatoes

A nice pinch asafoetida

1 level teaspoon turmeric powder plus 1/2 teaspoon

1 level teaspoon salt plus 1/2 teaspoon

6 tablespoons oil

300 gms poha or flattened rice

1 teaspoon sugar or sugar to taste

1 lemon cut into quarters

Garnish

Some chopped coriander

Some grated fresh coconut (optional)

Some pomegranate seeds (optional)

Method

1 Chop the onions and potatoes into small pieces. Keep half the chopped onions aside.

2 Take a kadhai or deep bottomed pan, put the oil to heat. Put the cumin and mustard seeds and fry them for a second. Add the fresh curry leaves. When they start to sputter, add half the chopped onions. Then add the chopped potatoes. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder, add 1 teaspoon of salt, give the pan a good stir, splash a little water into the pan and then cover and let cook. Add a little water on the lid of the pan while cooking the onion and potato spice mix.

3 Meanwhile, very lightly wash the poha in a colander. Add 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, 1/2 teaspoon salt to the poha and sprinkle the sugar onto it.

4 Check to see if the onion potato mix is cooked. When done, remove the pan from the fire, add the poha and stir gently to mix. Put it back on the fire, let it heat for 2 minutes.

Serve hot garnished with the remaining chopped onions, chopped coriander, grated fresh coconut, and lemon quarters.