Saturday, December 5, 2009

Easy Rice Kheer

Using Asian sweet rice for making kheer was a great discovery for me. Since I have a lot of unused 'sweet rice' (or sticky rice/glutinous rice) left over from a previous Thai recipe, I decided to find other uses for it. As it turns out, glutinous rice is perfect for making Indian Kheer. We make kheer in my family the traditional North Indian way: boil plain rice in heavy milk and add sugar. By using the glutinous rice I didn't have to use full-fat whole milk or add cream for thickness as the glutinous rice makes a perfect consistency kheer. Here's my recipe:

Easy Rice Kheer (Indian Rice Pudding)

1/2 cup uncooked sweet rice (glutinous rice, found in Asian food section)
7 cups low fat milk (1%)
1 1/4 cup sugar (or more/less according to taste)
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup sliced almonds or pistachios (toasted gently without oil, on a small pan)
seeds from 3 green cardamoms (crushed)
1/4 tsp saffron threads

Wash and drain rice.
Place rice in a large pot with milk, bring carefully to a boil, lower heat and simmer gently for 40-45 minutes. Watch carefully, stirring often so milk does not stick to bottom of pan or burn.
Add sugar, cardamoms, raisins, and most of almonds (saving 1/2 Tbs. for garnish).
Gently simmer until raisins are plump, and the consistency is a rich sauce (about 5-10 min.)
Pour into a glass serving dish, and while still hot add saffron threads and stir through.
Garnish with remaining toasted nuts and let it cool.
If kheer gets too thick upon cooling, you can add a bit of sweetened evaporated milk, or cream, or even milk. Some like the kheer cold from the fridge, others like to warm slightly before eating. The flavors really develop after kheer has cooled in the fridge overnight.

Monday, November 9, 2009

NurtureShock by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman

Could praising your child, and telling him he's smart, actually hurt his self-esteem in a challenging situation instead of giving him confidence? According to the new book NurtureShock, the answer is yes, if you offer the wrong kind of praise. In their new book, Bronson and Merryman have composed a collection of mind-opening and thought-provoking ideas regarding child rearing, and presented psychological studies behind the new discoveries, that are sure to grab your attention.

The authors present evidence to support the idea that over-praised kids could actually turn out to struggle with self-image when faced with difficult problems, and are more likely to consider cheating their way to maintain their 'smart' label. Another interesting study regarding praise showed how mothers in Illinois interacted with their kids after a failure and how they starkly contrasted with the way mothers in Hong Kong dealt with the same situation. The remarkable difference in the two sets of kids' performance after the interaction with their mothers was striking. The book offers advice on how and what to praise if you want a positive impact on your child.

The book provides research evidence on many other topics such as: how a difference of only one hour less sleep in a teenager can increase cases of depression, car accidents, obesity, and negatively impact their SAT scores. Other eye-opening ideas explored by the authors included: sibling rivalry, teaching kids about color and race, self-control, and how to play with others. All topics and research studies were very intriguing and make the reader think twice about inadvertently affecting children in a negative way without knowing it.

The authors show research suggesting that testing for 'gifted' programs in kindergarten selects the wrong kids in 73% of the cases. Intelligence tests have always sparked controversy, especially when it comes to testing children. According to research, testing kids at such an early age in order to grant them admission to elite schools, or into limited enrollment 'gifted and talented' programs, seems to be based on unreliable testing. The authors show that IQ testing in third grade or middle school produces a more accurate prediction regarding success in high school or beyond. It was a very interesting chapter and reflection on our current school programs and processes.

Another chapter dealt with research regarding babies and very young children who were exposed to 'educational' videos and TV shows in hopes of increasing their intelligence. The parental motivation to do so seemed harmless enough. The videos, backed by educational experts, claimed to enhance the child's experience, and therefore intellectual development, by including music, international languages, and colorful images. However, as indicated by the research conducted, reality seemed to contradict the claims of increase in language development, and in fact showed evidence of delaying development instead! The ideas behind this finding are fascinating, and full of surprising factual data.

One of the most compelling headlines in the book claimed that a teenager who argues with his parents is actually showing a sign of respect. Any parent of a teenager will surely want to read the studies behind this assertion! The topics challenge the obvious and traditional way of thinking. Parents generally try to do their best to navigate child rearing with what they know at the time. This book presents startling evidence to challenge many standard beliefs in our society. The topics presented and the supporting research studies are difficult to ignore, making this bestseller a very worthwhile read.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Moong Dal Halwa Recipe

Even though Diwali is technically over, I am still enjoying the sweets and treats from the festivities. A few weeks prior to Diwali, out of the blue, someone emailed me asking me for my recipe that I had shared years ago for a halwa dish that she had used on Diwali.

Yes, the recipe is that good, that someone would approach me years later for it. The halwa tastes great when warmed with a cup of tea for dessert, or just simply to make the feeling of Diwali last a little longer. I decided to make some moong dal halwa this year.
Here's the recipe and Happy Diwali!

Moong Dal Halwa

1 cup Moong dal soaked for 5-6 hours
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk
2 cups water
1/2 tsp saffron
3/4 cup mawa/khoya (optional)
3/4 cup butter or ghee
5 green cardamom pods (crushed)
1-2 tablespoons almonds (toasted, slivered or sliced) for garnish

Grind dal coarsly in food processor.
Make 1-thread syrup with sugar and water.
Soak saffron in milk.
Heat butter in non-stick pan and fry dal on low heat
until it is a deep rich golden brown.
Add sugar syrup and saffron milk.
Mix well and cook until it is dropping consistency.
Add crumbled mawa and cook until it melts.
Garnish with almonds and ground cardamom.

Did you try my recipe? Give me your opinion!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Lisa See is an author that can portray the sights, smells, and sounds of a story with such compelling detail that the reader is pulled instantly into the scenes she paints with her words. Her latest novel, Shanghai Girls, follows the story of two sisters from China whose lives take them on a journey from an upper-class, comfortable life prior to the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 China, to interrogations at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco, then to living in Chinatown in the Hollywood area.

See writes the historical novel through the eyes of Pearl, the college-educated, multilingual older sister. The story describes Chinese cultural values and customs from Pearl's perspective as the daughter of a seemingly wealthy businessman, and later as an immigrant to America. In Shanghai, the sisters live in a household complete with servants, a cook, a gardener, and a father with a tragic problem. The belief in Chinese astrology, herbal medicines, honoring ancestors, living as an extended family, and respecting the elders in the house were some of the cultural details that See utilized to show Chinese family life throughout the entire story, regardless of the continent on which Pearl lived. Pearl's world shatters when the Japanese attack Shanghai and she witnesses the atrocities of war first-hand. The brutality of war, its aftermath, and the events leading to their escape portray the depth of Pearl's pain in unforgettable detail, yet is without melodrama.

Throughout the story the relationship between the sisters and their lives after marriage in an extended family with their in-laws, is interesting to read and will be familiar to those from Eastern cultures, such as Indian, as both cultures share many similarities. The circumstances that lead them to America and the 'secrets' that the sisters share will keep the reader engaged until the end of the story. The sibling rivalry with concurrent intense loyalty and love that the sisters have towards each other is very moving, and adds layers to the depth of the story.

See focuses on the feelings and experiences of both of the sisters, and other Chinese immigrants, legal and illegal, that try to adjust into a very different America that existed prior to World War II, and immediately after. The sacrifices that were made by Pearl and others to survive in America by adapting and trying to find their place in society, while still not being able to deny the pull of wanting to return someday to settle in China, even after spending decades in another country are feelings to which many immigrants can relate. See uses historical events unfolding in China and America after World War II to illustrate the conflicts between the views of the first and second generation immigrants. These universal feelings of generational discord, rebellion, and the development of social causes will be familiar to many readers. Pearl and her family lived in an America that feared communism, and everyone was suspicious of anyone with Asian features because it was difficult to distinguish between Chinese allies and Japanese enemies. See details the unrest and fear in the Chinese community during the time that Japanese internment camps were set up and arsonists set fires to Chinese shops.

Within the historical events taking place, the story of Pearl, her sister May, and their extended family is a very absorbing read.
Readers and fans of See's previous novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, will not be disappointed. See delivered another beautifully written, epic story that begs to be continued in a sequel.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Have a Little Faith by Mitch Albom

Does the belief in a higher power fit into our modern world of technology, emails, and DNA mapping? Spirituality is a personal issue, rarely discussed among friends and co-workers, and a subject we are warned to avoid in order to keep the peace in mixed company. How ironic, that we avoid discussions regarding religion to keep the peace. Given all the controversy in the world today, I suppose we are afraid to approach this subject with those outside of our own religion, or to assume that a person has a spiritual belief at all

Mich Albom's Have a Little Faith story does not preach a particular way of life, he simply describes his own journey, from being raised in a traditional Jewish congregation, walking away to a very successful writing career, marrying outside his religion (a Christian Arab), and then coming back to reconnect with the rabbi he has known from childhood. The story itself is an easy to read true story of his renewed relationship with his rabbi and a new relationship with an African American pastor, with the events unfolding during the current chaotic economic conditions. It is a book that encourages looking at ourselves all as children of the world, and highlights the commonality of world religions, rather than the differences.

The book has Albom's bestseller style and wit. I really enjoyed all of Albom's previous books, especially the fictional bestseller For One More Day. Albom's touching true story of his professor's battle with Lou Gehrig's disease in
Tuesdays With Morrie was also a very gripping account of his own spiritual journey. Albom's books never preach one way and I did not believe that Have a Little Faith would be any different. It was a beautiful story, tenderly written, about Albom's discovery that while he, "thought he was being asked a favor, instead was being given one."

Albom is asked by his rabbi to deliver his eulogy, and Albom is stunned, however he accepts. The story starts with Albom's journey into learning more personal details about his rabbi, whom he's only known as a 'Man of God', a go-between to the higher power, and has somewhat been intimidated by his importance. Albom simultaneously describes a story of another clergy from New York, one with a very different past life and present in a crumbling church in Detroit. There are many moments in the book that make the reader pause, and reflect on the enormity of a simple sentence.

Albom has the gift of writing truly inspirational and moving words, in an easy to read real-life account, that does not feel like a typical spiritual read. For example, what is the purpose, especially in our modern world, for ancient religious rituals? Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and most other major religions all partake in rituals. Do these rituals make sense? Albom gets a simple, yet profoundly meaningful, answer from his rabbi that will speak to all of us. Also, is it easier not to believe in a higher power at all? Albom's writing does not claim to have the answer, yet describes one account of someone dealing with loss and not having faith to help them through their pain. Another gem of advice is the answer Albom receives when he asks his rabbi the secret to happiness. Again, a simple answer is given: be satisfied, be grateful. Wonderfully simple, yet many of us spend a lifetime without ever being satisfied or grateful.

The choice is ours, we can choose to live our lives the way we want. We may follow the path we were shown as children, or one that we discovered ourselves as adults, or are yet trying to find in our future. Albom's book affirms that whatever path we do choose, a little faith can't hurt. This was another quick read, and spiritually uplifting book by one of my favorite authors.

Monday, September 14, 2009

How to make Ginger Chai Latte

A perfect cup of hot chai can easily top my list as one of the food wonders of the world. Everyone has their preference of how they like their tea. An authentic Punjabi Ginger Chai is my favorite beverage in the world. You can become someone's instant best friend by offering a cup of this tea:

Ginger Chai
(serves two)

1 1/4 cup water
3/4 cup milk (2%)
2 1/2 teaspoons loose black tea leaves (I used Red Label, Tetley, in the past, but now I use Girnar brand of Assam tea, thanks to my neighbor who recommended it, it's the best in the world and I'm hooked!)
1-2 pods green cardamon, crushed
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, minced
1 tulsi (ie. holy basil) leaf (optional)
sugar to taste

Place everything except the milk into a pot and bring to a boil, I usually cover the pot to make it go quicker. Remove the lid, add milk (some people warm the milk in the microwave first) and bring the pot to a full boil over medium-high heat. Watch carefully as you don't want the chai to boil over the pot. When it reaches a full boil, reduce heat and simmer for a minute or so. Strain the chai with a fine sieve into two cups. Add sugar to your own level of sweetness.
Variations: in the winter sometimes I add 1 crushed clove, or a 1/4 inch small piece of cinnamon stick. These warming spices are really soothing when the weather is cold.
We always accompany tea with something salty, sweet, or both. My favorite accompaniments include tea rusk, biscotti, bakarwadi, poha, and of course samosas! Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Second Opinion by Michael Palmer

"The Second Opinion," by Michael Palmer is a thrilling, medical mystery-drama, written by a doctor who is obviously a gifted writer. I had not read any of Palmer's other novels and was not expecting the story to be as satisfying as it was. The story is about a famous internal medicine specialist, Petros Sperelakis, and his four highly intelligent children. Dimitri, the eldest, has an IQ of 180, yet is lost in his own world of computer games, and software hacking. The twins, Niko and Selene, are both Harvard educated doctors. Thea, the youngest, also an internal medicine specialist, works with "Doctors Without Borders" in underprivileged countries.

The story describes the events after an accident leaves Petros in a comatose condition in the Boston hospital that he founded. Thea returns from an assignment in Africa and finds the situation surrounding her father's condition a bit suspicious, and is determined to find out why. Events start to happen and the action filled story takes the reader on a ride filled with unexpected twists, suspense, medical explanations, neurological abnormalities, and family relationships.

Palmer describes Asperger's syndrome, a type of autism, and how Thea is able to live and function despite being diagnosed with it. The insight into the thoughts of a person who has Asperger's is expertly written and explored. The story contains a great deal of medical details and activities in and around a hospital. Every expert description was entirely believable and yet not tedious. I was reminded of a non-fiction book called "Complications" by Atul Gawande. Gawande's account of being a doctor and his very real human feelings among all the technicalities of hospital life was similarly engrossing without the thriller aspect. Palmer's fictional story progresses at action-film speed where you never know what to expect next. I enjoyed the switching back and forth between the different story lines and the way Palmer brings them neatly together.

The story pulls the reader in with issues of having a parent on life-support and each child's differing opinions on how to handle it, plus the suspense involved in solving the mystery. Issues of sibling rivalry, parent-child relationships, and unspoken feelings are common among all families, regardless of age or education level. Palmer intertwines these emotions in an engrossing thriller that is difficult to put down. Another thriller by Palmer, "The First Patient," received a great recommendation from President Bill Clinton himself! I can't wait to read it, and future novels by this very talented doctor.

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

Have you read Palmer's work? Click on comments below and tell me!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

"The Marriage Bureau for Rich People,"
by Farahad Zama is an easy to read, interesting story about a retired teacher, Mr. Ali, who opens a matrimonial agency to keep himself busy. It takes place in the coastal Indian city of Visakhapatnam (the author's birth city), in the state of Andhra Pradesh. What struck me about this story was the way Zama portrayed a truly multicultural, harmonious co-existence among people of different religions. The author did not assume that the reader was familiar with local, or cultural norms and took care to explain or detail them whenever possible, such as the offering of water to guests, or the details of Muslim and Hindu wedding rituals.

It was apparent that the author drew upon his background in developing his characters as they were very believable, and the descriptions of local temples very realistic. At first, the idea of a marriage bureau might seem very 'old world', but the individual stories illustrated universal, timeless emotions. The wealthy doctor, salesman, and divorcee were each seeking to find a life partner, and sought out Mr. Ali's help. I enjoyed the different aspects and similarities of their stories. The idea of personal ads is not a new one, but some western readers may be surprised at the bluntness of matrimonial ads. In India, matchmaking for marriage is a huge business. There are very successful websites solely for this purpose. It was interesting to see Mr. Ali start his business without a list of clients, computer, or employees and turn it into a success.

Mrs. Ali is glad at first to finally have something that occupies Mr. Ali during the days, but then wishes there wasn't such a disruption to her day due to her husband's home-based operation. Mr. and Mrs. Ali's son Rehman is an unmarried engineer who leads protests against the government in support of villagers and farmers. Zama weaves in Rehman's story of social conscience and responsibility in the face of mass corporate growth in Indian cities. However, this is not a political book, and the story does not preach.

The story is also centered around Mr. Ali's assistant Aruna, an unmarried Hindu Brahmin girl from a very simple, modest upbringing, who needed to abandon her Master's degree in order to financially help her family. The story is simple, yet not overly sweet. Zama shows how communities of all faiths share the common values of love, duty, honor, and family. The most interesting, and refreshing aspect of this story is to read about regular neighbors of all different faiths, interacting and really co-existing together as a community while maintaining their culture. The story shows how caste, and religion while important when selecting suitable marriage partners, become only personal qualities when looked at in terms of a larger community. This is a good, clean, funny, and uplifting story to read. It was nice to read such a novel for a change!

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar

“The Weight of Heaven,” by Thrity Umrigar is a gripping story about Frank and Ellie, an American couple, trying to come to terms with the loss of their young son. The reader is immediately pulled into the couple’s pain of losing a child, but the story is not only about a family overcoming grief. The characters’ personal struggle, their relationship as a couple, and the impact on the community around them are the complex ideas that Umrigar weaves into a compelling story.

Frank and Ellie carry their grief to India when Frank accepts a job posting there, and hope that the change will help them heal. Frank is tortured by his loss, and blames his wife’s carelessness as contributing to their son’s death. After moving to India, Frank becomes obsessed with his servant’s young son Ramesh.
The story describes how Frank, desperate to fill a void, uses Ramesh as a replacement for his own son.

Meanwhile, his wife Ellie, allows this obsession to continue, thinking it will heal Frank somehow, and gives in to Frank’s ideas of always including Ramesh whenever possible in their own personal lives. I found this to be a bit unbelievable. Ellie is an educated therapist by profession and at some point would have stopped Frank’s unhealthy behavior and asked him to seek help!

Ramesh’s parents, Prakash and Edna, and their feelings towards their employer’s interest in their son were well explored. Prakash resented the intrusion of a strange American man taking such interest in his son, providing things he could only dream about, and slowly pulling him away. Edna welcomed the attention her son received, and saw this as a way to give Ramesh a bright future that she and Prakash could never provide. Prakash, Edna, and Ramesh were very believable characters, with very believable feelings. Just as Umrigar did in "The Space Between Us", she made the reader connect emotionally with characters of different socioeconomic classes on a human level.

Ellie becomes involved in charity work, helping the local women and children, and is well liked by all. She also seems to adjust to India and is much better at moving forward with her grief. Frank’s character seemed to be spiraling deeper into his obsession. It was also unusual when Frank and Ellie would take the boy with them during special occasions, especially holidays, leaving Prakash and Edna behind. Wouldn’t it have been easier to take Ramesh’s family together? Here again I thought that Ellie should have convinced her delusional husband Frank to do so, and found it a bit unsettling.

Frank’s inability to cope becomes a growing snowball, and the reader can feel the tension in the story increasing. The interactions between Frank, his workers, and his wife take a back seat to his obsession with Ramesh. This was very compelling, and I found it easy to become engrossed in the storyline, despite my disagreement with some parts.
The characters, their inner turmoil, and complexities were very eloquently developed. I didn’t mind that some choices didn't seem to fit because the story flowed well and kept me wanting to see what would happen next.

There were some unexpected twists in the plot when the couple deals with the locals, befriends a professional Indian couple, and Frank tries to run a business in India. Umrigar touched on topics of multinational corporations and their impact on the local people and environment, plus the corruption and abuse of power. The characters and their struggle stay with you long after you finish reading the book. This was a very well written story, a great book for a book club selection, and I recommend it highly.

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Serving Crazy with Curry by Amulya Malladi

"Serving Crazy with Curry," by Amulya Malladi was one of the most absorbing yet easy to read stories I have picked up lately. The main character, Devi, attempted suicide at the start of the novel, and the rest of the story explored her relationships with her family, the choices she made in her life, and the outcomes. The rather dark subject of suicide was very thoughtfully handled in the story, with very believable feelings and outcomes. It was obvious that Malladi did her research into this topic because of the care with which she described the thought process before the attempt and the aftermath. The characters' thoughts and actions were very touching, yet not melodramatic.

The story took place in the Bay Area, so places around Palo Alto, Redwood City, and the rest of Silicon Valley were mentioned throughout the book. Devi's father, a successful, semi-retired affluent founder of a technology company has two daughters who were very different from one another, yet shared many common family values. His eldest daughter Shobha was the perfect, well educated, successful executive of a technology company, and was married to a Stanford professor through a marriage arranged by her family. The contrast of following traditional ways, doing what was expected of her in terms of education and success, and yet living a very modern life, is something that many immigrants from all cultures can identify with. I found Shobha's outspoken and rather gutsy attitude mixed with self-doubt, insecurities, and need for acceptance to be very universal traits.

Devi, in contrast, seemed to be about total freedom, living life the way she wanted, and yet suffering because she could not handle the outcome of her choices. Devi's character's inner turmoil after being involved in another failed start-up company, poor choices in her personal life, feelings of inadequacy, and wanting to accomplish something in life amid the family's affluence will speak to many trying to find their way in life.

Their mother, Saroj, was a traditional immigrant stay-at-home mother who came to the Bay Area before the tech boom, raised two daughters among the newly-affluent Silicon Valley immigrants. Malladi used Saroj's character to describe the deep traditional Indian values, how parents deal with grown children raised in America, and to show that ultimately it is love and family that matters above all else. I liked that many of Saroj's lines were hilarious. Many will recognize the views expressed by Saroj's character!

Throughout the book, Devi's character experiments with cooking fusion food during her recovery. It was interesting to see how therapeutic cooking can be for many. The relationship between food and family is universal. The family's healing process was beautifully described around the gatherings for Devi's cooking.

Malladi is a great storyteller. The haunting scene when Devi is discovered was very touching and capable of moving you to tears. The book was full of priceless one-liners that had me laughing out loud, and a couple of unexpected turns to keep it interesting. There was the right amount of humor, the keen insight into the serious topic of suicide, and the very believable cast of characters. I really enjoyed this book, it was a pleasant surprise, and a very good read.

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Thai Sticky Rice and Mango Dessert recipe

Ever since I moved to North Carolina, I've been craving the Sticky Rice with Mango dessert from Salathai Restaurant on State Street in Fremont, California. We've tried a few Thai places around Cary but haven't found a satisfyting version of this wonderful dessert. Would you believe I found the ingredients for this dessert readily available at our local SuperWalmart store? I was eager to get home and try out a recipe that I had been saving for several years (but didn't need to actually use since so many terrific Thai restaurants were available in Fremont!) Although not as great as Salathai, this recipe did satisfy my craving. It will have to do until I find something better locally, or visit Fremont again! Here's the recipe:

Thai Sticky Rice with Mango Dessert Recipe

1 cup glutinous rice (or called sweet rice)
1 1/2 cup water
1 13 oz can coconut milk

1 1/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 tsp coconut flavoring

2 tsp corn starch dissolved in few drops of water

1 ripe sweet fresh mango

Wash and soak rice in 1 1/2 cups water for 1 hour, do not drain. Add 1/2 cup coconut milk, pinch of salt, and 1/4 cup sugar. Bring to a gentle boil, cover, cook on very low for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and rest for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile make the sauce:
Warm over medium low heat: remainder of the can of coconut milk, pinch of salt, 1 cup sugar, 1 tsp coconut flavor. Add dissolved cornstarch and thicken over medium heat, do not boil.

To serve: put a little of the sauce on a plate, ladle a scoop of the rice onto the sauce, pour a ladle of sauce over the rice. Arrange sliced mangoes on top and serve. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

"The White Tiger," by Aravind Adiga was a provocative novel about a downtrodden servant-class entrepreneur who comments about his own personal story within the current conditions in India.The story took place in Gaya District of Bihar, New Delhi, and Bangalore and was laced with plenty of 'black humor' for comic effect. This theme of disparity between the classes in this the story was very much in line with Umrigar's The Space Between Us and Swarup's Q & A among others. Frankly, I wasn't looking to read yet another story about the conditions of the slums in India and the painful struggles of the poor, but reading only the first few pages of the story caught my attention.

This book was written as a series of letters from Balram, our protagonist, to the Premier of China who is expected in town on a state visit. Adiga tries to capture the tone and language of someone of Balram's socioeconomic class and disposition. The humor, wit, and racist remarks are sharp and sure to spark heated conversations, and controversy. What kept me reading the story was Adiga's storytelling. There was just enough suspense that it made me want to keep reading, even though the subject was not pleasant. I was curious and was drawn into Balram's story. There were questions of morality, judgement, and humanity faced by our protagonist and I wanted to see where his choices would take him.

Adiga brought to the table many topics that are difficult to face regarding the downtrodden, corruption, and abuse of power in India. Some have even called the book unpatriotic, and have argued that Adiga has no authority to write about such a subject as he is from a wealthy, educated background. I think that regardless of his background, he has brought to the forefront a modern take on a very old topic of class disparity and corruption. He has thrown in the high-tech outsourcing boom in Bangalore, commercial development in Gurgaon, and Indians returning back from the U.S. as a backdrop to highlight the controversies that India deals with everyday. After all, this is a work of fiction, a story to entertain and perhaps to get people to think about these issues from a different viewpoint, and maybe lead to progress.

If you get past the fact that extreme poverty and social disparity exist in India (as in many countries in varying degrees) then you find Adiga's characters with their survival instincts and complex 'entrepreneurial' spirit rather intriguing. I thought this was quite an interesting novel, and would recommend it for sparking interesting debates.

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Red Carpet by Lavanya Sankaran

"The Red Carpet - Bangalore Stories,"

... a novel by Lavanya Sankaran

Bangalore, the "Silicon Valley" of India, was the setting for Sankaran's debut collection of stories. The author's New York investment banking background, U. S. education, and the return to her birthplace of Bangalore gives her a unique perspective to illustrate life in a "post hi-tech boom" Bangalore. Sankaran describes the contrast between the ultra-traditional, orthodox views and the younger, contemporary, upper-middle class, hi-tech crowd. She describes how the people juggle having one leg in each lifestyle, and try to discover who they really are amidst the money, freedoms, and cultural restrictions. Indeed, the city's changing environment, due to the influx of money and talent from a modern India and the technology sector, has a life of its own, and is almost another character by itself.

The eight stories were loosely related; one character linked in a minor way to the protagonist in another, and the entire book flowed well together. In "Bombay This", the story showed how a financially successful, American educated, modern man finally allowed his parents to 'arrange' introductions for prospective marriage partners. How he analyzed, considered, and reacted to the different choices before him was explored within the context of a modern Bangalore setting. I found the story very interesting and think Sankaran could expand this story easily into a full length novel.

In "The Red Carpet," Sankaran described the relationship between a private chauffeur and his employer. I could envision many of the people I knew in the Bay Area, who moved back to living in Bangalore, responding and reacting in a similar fashion as Mrs. Choudhary. The descriptions of Raju's reactions to his employer's non-traditional, modern lifestyle were very believable.

"Alphabet Soup" was a story that would resonate with many who left India several decades ago and have raised their now college-aged children in America. Graduate student Priyamvada, returned to a modern Bangalore for a visit and really discovered herself. The story showed how her young, unmarried cousin in India, despite being raised in a very traditional Brahmin-caste home, casually broke even the strictest traditions. I think this story illustrated beautifully the way immigrant households absorb the customs of their adopted homeland, retain the traditions of their own culture, and try to balance the two worlds. This story reminded me of many families who are very succussful at retaining their traditions, others who denounce the traditions totally, and the majority who find a comfortable balance. It showed me how lucky Priyamavada was to have been exposed to both cultures, and to have a choice of how to live her life freely.

"Mysore Coffee" was a very interesting story that could have easily taken place on Wall Street. The story described how a professional businesswoman working in investment banking in Bangalore interacted with her Indian and American co-workers, handled office politics, her own emotional baggage, and career. A well written story of a woman juggling serious issues in her life.

"Apple Pie, One by Two," was a very unique story about American educated, Indian born, high-tech start-up founders. Many will relate to the ups and down, the choices, and dilemmas that many successful workers faced when India's Silicon Valley and outsourcing boom occurred. A very interesting story that also could easily be made into a full length novel.

I think it's clear that I enjoyed Sankaran's short stories. She has a very keen perspective and accurate insight into contemporary Indian Americans, in the U. S. and those in India. I look forward to a full length novel from her in the near future.

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

Have you read this book? What was your opinion? Click on comment and tell me!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Eat, Taste, Heal by Dr. T. Yarema, Chef Brannigan, D. Rhoda

An Ayurvedic Cookbook for Modern Living

"Eat, Taste, Heal," by Dr. Thomas Yarema, M.D., Chef Johnny Brannigan, and Daniel Rhoda, is more that just a cookbook. It is an introduction and educational guide to Ayurveda (which means "Life Knowledge" in Sanskrit.) In the ancient Vedic texts, a balanced life was described in terms of the mind, body, senses, and soul. Naturally it follows that food is a vital part of that balance.

The book's first half describes the concepts of Ayurveda: the different constitutions of each person, tools & techniques, life cycle balances, Yoga, and the medicinal use of food and spices for common ailments.

The second half is a modern gourmet cookbook with uncomplicated recipes. The recipe's effect on each constitution and whether it will aggravate or decrease the condition is clearly indicated. They also show how to modify each recipe slightly to suit each person's condition. I enjoyed the mouth watering pictures of such recipes as: Soft Tacos with Spicy Black Beans & Mango Salsa, Biriyani with Mint Coconut Sauce, Ratatouille, and Trumpet Dosa.

I was surprised to see fish and chicken recipes as I thought Ayurvedic recipes would be strictly vegetarian. There were only a few non-veg items such as: Seared Sesame Trout with Coconut Curry Sauce, Charmoula Bass, and Broiled Salmon with Almond Dill Sauce.There were desserts and beverages too!

For as long as I can remember, my mother and I have enjoyed adding fennel, cardamom, and ginger in the water used for our regular cup of black tea. Many times we drink the water with only the spices, and no black tea, to soothe a stomach or sore throat. I learned from this book that this tea is a good "Vata Tea" for my constitution.

I grew up with family remedies such as turmeric for an inflamed throat, mint tea for sore stomach, and cloves for a cough. The book listed these, among many others, as a good way to use herbs and spices as home remedies for common ailments.

The book's simple food-based recipes for home remedies used in treating acidity, arthritis, PMS, insomnia, and headaches were really interesting and easy to follow. I will be keeping a note regarding those tips in my recipe book for sure!

This modern book based on ancient knowledge is aimed at a western palate. I know my family will enjoy many of the recipes in this book, and I will definitely be trying them out!

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click

Do you have any home remedies to share? Click on comment and tell me!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Unknown Errors of Our Lives by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

"The Unknown Errors of Our Lives,"

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

While some of my favorite books are "The Palace of Illusions" and "Arranged Marriage," by Divakaruni, I had not read "The Unknown Errors of Our Lives" until only recently. It is a collection of short stories about Indians, some living in the San Francisco Bay Area, some in India. Sometimes a short story is just what I'm looking for, something quick to read, entertaining, a glimpse of a vision, and a story that leaves the rest for the reader to imagine. Often, a well-written short story collection is a great conversation starter in a book club. Sure, you cannot discuss a complex story, but sometimes the intriguing quality of the piece, and its somewhat limited scope, is better than some mediocre full length novels.

I have always enjoyed Divakaruni's writing because she speaks in a very beautiful, elegant voice, describes the experiences from a deep perspective, and writes as if having first-hand knowledge. I especially enjoyed "Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," where the complex, heartbreaking feelings of a mother-in-law, daughter-in-law, and son's family dynamics are explored. The emotions of a mother, as she becomes a member of his immediate family, and lives in his home are very believable. The characteristics of the new immigrant, as she tries to navigate life in the Bay Area and fit in with her son's family, are so often felt by many friends' relatives I have met in the Bay Area. The descriptions of the grandchildren, and the son's wife's disconnect with their newest family member, whether generational or cultural or emotional, will hit a nerve in those that live in an extended family. An extended family is the norm in Indian culture, and often the subject of extraordinary, sensational TV serials, but this story puts the complexities in a realistic, touching short story.

In "The Intelligence of Wild Things," Divakaruni writes about the changing relationships of once close family members, who are separated by distance due to marriage, political unrest, and college studies. A sister in California, a younger brother in Vermont, and an ailing mother in India, are the subject of a family living with questions and losing their once close bond. Everyone can identify with how lives changes among siblings after one gets married, has children, or a career, and start getting caught up in day-to-day responsibilities. The story shows how easy it is to avoid talking about difficult subjects when you have such little face-to-face time with family.

"The Love of a Good Man," spoke about forgiveness, and left much of the why's and what's for the reader to figure out, but I enjoyed it anyway. "What the Body Knows," was a touching story of a woman and her post-partum health illness.

All of the stories explore the characters' choices that might be considered an 'error' if they could see the consequences of that choice. It is only human to make these 'unknown errors' and who among us is free of making mistakes? The emotional journey of each character, in the brief slice of life portrayed in the short story, is heartfelt, very moving, and evokes a multitude of feelings in the reader. This was another great book by Divakaruni. I look forward to another book by this author, I hope one is in the works!

To purchase this book at Barnes and Noble click

Have you read books by this author? Click on comment, and tell me!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How to Select Interior Paint Colors

How to Select Color for your Walls?

With all the hardships going on in the world today, a little distraction that isn't too costly seems like a good idea to help perk up my environment and lift the mood.

I've decided to pick paint colors for my house!
The interior of the whole house is a "builder's white" color. Not only did they paint my house all one color, but the trim, molding, baseboards, everything in every room is the same color. It feels very institutional. I'm sure for the right room and place, this color scheme might work, but for me it feels..well..sterile..anitbacterial...void of life of any kind.

I've brought home color chips from the paint store, magazines, paint company brochures, but still am really overwhelmed by all the choices. I know I need to decide on a color scheme, keeping in mind the whole flow from one room to the next. I also need to figure out what mood I want to create in each room (and for good measure, if it is Vastu and Feng Shui compliant!) Do I really care about the latest color trends, and updated colors? I decide that first I'll determine the color family for each room, then zero in on the exact shade, taking into account the trends, and what matches the items in that room. Sounds like a good plan...I think.


Here's what I recall from Vastu Shastra:

- Use red in areas used for socializing, dining, exercising, creating courage.
- Use orange in social areas, dining room, to stimulate happiness.
- Use yellow in restful areas, and areas that need concentration, and communication.
- Use green in areas used for good health, to create abundance, balance, harmony.
- Use Blue in areas to reduce pain, calm the nervous system.
- Use Violet in areas for meditation to soothe and calm the mind.
- Use White in any room for purifying and healing.

From this I take it that the stimulating colors are good in kitchen, dining, and living rooms. While the calming colors are good for bedrooms, study, and bathrooms. Vastu rules for color are not as strict as Feng Shui because the Vastu system believes colors work differently for each person. Colors are used as a remedy to bring the person's environment into balance. Bright, bold colors are used as accents, nothing that 'yells' at the occupants is recommended on the walls.

So where does my favourite color taupe fit in? I would say it is a neutral in the yellow family, and yellow/tan/taupe colors are the the ones suitable for most quadrants in Vastu (ie. NE, E, SE, S, SW)

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Here's what I recall from Feng Shui:

The Feng Shui system is much more strict based on which element is represented by the quadrant. Here's a summary:

1. NE : earth element: yellow, tan, earth colors, to make NE stronger, can add fire colors.
2. E: wood element: greens, browns
3. SE: wood element: greens, browns
4. S: fire element: red, yellow, orange
5. SW: earth: saffron color, yellowish orange, orange-brown, tans
6. W: metal element: white, silver, gold, metallic colors, can add earth colors
7. NW: metal element: silver, gold, metallic colors, do NOT add fire colors, can add earth colors
8. N: water element: blue, purple, black

So that gives me something to work with. I'll start looking in each room for color inspirations, and see how it goes with the above guidelines. If I get overwhelmed, I'll remember that you can't go wrong with all white in a house, it's not sterile, it's peaceful...

I'll reveal my color selections in future posts..stay tuned!

Do you have any suggestions? Click on comment and tell me!

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Way of Vastu by Michael & Robin Mastro

"The Way of Vastu," by M. & R. Mastro

Is Feng Shui based on the ancient Vastu Shastra?

According to the book "The Way of Vastu," by the Mastro's, the answer is yes!

The authors, Michael and Robin Mastro are both consultants, teachers, and speakers on the subject of Vastu Shastra (which means Building Science.) In fact, Microsoft's first office building was built using Michael's consultation advice in which he used all the principles of directions, shape, and placement according to Vastu Shastra. I guess it worked for Microsoft since their business boomed after their first building was built!

The book is small, well illustrated, and easy to read quickly. The ideas about directions, and their effects on our prosperity, and how to remedy any deficiencies can quickly absorb you. This book gently suggests people to purchase the different remedies for any deficiencies as the Mastro's are owners of a company called Vastu Creations.

At first I though the book had the additional motive of marketing their own products, but decided to keep reading. I found that there were simple ideas listed very clearly that anyone can follow. Some of the ideas are really pertinent to Hindu traditions, and perhaps not everyone would be comfortable using them.

After reading the book, I took away a few very simple ideas for my home:

  • Try to keep the energy that comes from the East unblocked. The East is the rising sun direction, and it is good to allow the sun's morning rays into the home unobstructed.

  • The North direction should not contain large trees, or obstructions since it brings magnetic energy for prosperity.

  • Try to keep the center of the home open, uncluttered, and clean.

  • Rectangular or square mirrors are good, round ones should be avoided.

  • Try not to have too many windows and doors in the South

  • The West should be the direction for higher elevation, fewer windows and doors, and less open space.

The authors go on to list suggestions for color, placement of altars, and list many products that can increase prosperity. This is where I decided that a basic idea of balance in my house is what makes me happy. If I want to keep one or two items that bring me feelings of peace and good luck, then there is nothing wrong with that. If I don't believe that a gadget will work, then it just becomes a gimmick to me.

Having a home or office that follows the rules of Vastu is impossible for most of us. I think, for me, I will try to make sure I follow a common sense approach, use a few of the principles where I can, and hope for the best!

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

Do you have any books to suggest on this topic, or something else? Click on comments to tell me!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Feng Shui by Lillian Too

"The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Feng Shui,"

by Lillian Too

Can the placement of furniture, wind chimes, and lighting change your life?

For those who don't believe that 'good' and 'bad' energies exist, that encouraging a positive 'flow' in your environment can impact your life, the concept of Feng Shui (or Vaastu Shastra in Hindu traditions) will not mean much. If you really don't know what to believe, then following a few simple suggestions from these ancient belief systems just might improve your environment, and what's the harm in that?

A friend gave me the book "Feng Shui for Gardens," by Lillian Too to read to help me plan my landscape design. I found the ideas and suggestions for trees, flowers, shrubs for each location of our yard a helpful guide, and fun too. I picked up Too's book for Feng Shui for the home in general and really enjoyed her simple and easy to follow suggestions.

The new ideas I learned (from both of Too's books) were regarding each family member and the quadrant that represents them. The simple ideas for remedying any deficiencies were not overwhelming. You need not tear down walls, or renovate the entire house to make it Feng Shui compliant. I liked her ideas of using little glass bowls of pebbles, marble statues, metal wind chimes, and crystals to seek a balance in the house for all family members.
The suggestions for placement of furniture so that guests feel welcome, and can easily mingle, really do make sense. The elimination of clutter, sharp lines, and harmful objects is logical (think childproofing your area) so how can you argue with that? Displaying objects that are associated with happiness, good luck, and prosperity can only invoke good feelings when you look at them. If you sift through the many ideas, numerical calculations, and compass directions what you are really left with is a guide to make the home peaceful.

I found that many Feng Shui suggestions were something I would do anyway. I like to display pictures of family members, making sure we are all smiling (who wants to put up a picture where one of us is frowning?) I like having fresh and silk flowers in the house. I don't like artwork depicting war, battles, or struggles. Who doesn't like beautiful candles, clean floors, and comfortable chairs?

Feng Shui can be very complex, or very simple, depending on what you choose to believe. I really enjoyed reading Lillian Too's books, and getting a few ideas for the home and garden.

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click

What do you think of Feng Shui? Leave a comment and tell me!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Family Tree by Barbara Delinsky

"Family Tree,"

a novel by Barbara Delinsky

What if your biological child resembled none of your ancestors, or your spouse's ancestors?
What if your biological child was of a different race?
What conclusion would you make, or your spouse make?

In this story, an African-American baby is born to a Caucasian couple and triggers many reactions in both the couple and everyone around them. They not only struggle to come to terms with finding out how this happened, genetically and physically, but how much they trust each other.

The mother, Dana Clark, loves her newborn unconditionally and accepts whatever unknown circumstances caused her daughter to have an African-American appearance. Dana is keen to find out where in her own family tree there may be African-American blood. Her husband Hugh, whose ancestors can be traced back to the Mayflower, also loves his daughter, however he initially hesitates to distribute her photograph until he can answer questions that will obviously be raised. Was his wife unfaithful? What do they really know about their own ancestors?

Barbara Delinsky writes an easy to read story with very complex issues that challenge the reader. She develops her characters thoughtfully and the reader is comfortable exploring the controversial feelings along with them. Questions and feelings regarding race, especially when it concerns one's children or grandchildren, are not often written about. The family interactions, among grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc. are written invoking many different points of view. This is a well written story that raises many issues that parents and families of mixed-race children might have had to deal with. The tension in this story was due to the fact that no one expected any African-American ancestors in the family's ancestral tree. With knowledge of their family tree the characters might have expected this, have had nothing to explain, and just simply enjoyed the birth of their daughter.

This story peaked my curiosity since I wondered where the story would go. This is a great book for a book club where you feel comfortable enough to share feelings about race and diversity. In some areas, they consider it a 'mixed' marriage if you marry someone from a different part of the same country but speak a different dialect, even though you are the same religion and race!

Many people embrace diversity, even fight for the cause, as long as it doesn't include their own offspring. Many people are fine with diversity, as long the socio-economic levels are a match!
Some embrace their mixed heritage simply as an enriched social environment. Parents who can expose their children to different cultures, and show them that feelings of love, respect, and family unity are common to all, are the ones who rise above any controversy. That, in my opinion, is how it should be.

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

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What has been your personal experience with this topic? Share your views in comments below:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How to Start a Book Club That's Fun and Interesting

How to Get a Social Group Together

for a Successful Book Club...

It is not difficult to get a book club started since many of us love to read books and talk about them with friends. The key to a successful club is to keep members actively involved, eager to participate, and looking forward to each meeting. Book clubs are a great social activity that can really enrich your life. Here's how you can start your own:

1. First, think of the kind of group you want to have (nearby neighbors, close friends group, or an open call for new members in your building, people at work, or charitable organisation, etc.)

2. Approach two or three people and ask if they are interested to get the ball rolling, or if you have a great response from the number of people you want, then just get an email list started! Having the number of members under 12 is a manageable size. Anything larger may need a more formal structure, and members to rotate responsibilities. Don't be afraid to ask others to help you.
3. Come up with a book for your first selection just to get the club going and to schedule a meeting. Since you are initiating this, you can suggest a few titles and take a vote. Anything to get the process going quickly while everyone is still interested.
4. If at first you only have a few (or two!) members, don't be discouraged. The word of the club will spread, and it will grow quicker than you might imagine!

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5. At your first meeting, you can discuss the kind of books you'll read, how you'll select a book (random pick from a hat of titles, everyone take turns selecting, anyone can offer a suggestion, etc.), how often you'll meet (once a month, every 8 weeks, etc.), when you'll meet (on Friday nights, Sunday evenings, Thursday nights, etc.). It's important to schedule a day/time that suits all members. Be punctual and end on time. This keeps everyone happy. Encourage everyone to commit a few hours for this activity for themselves!
6. The host can send out a meeting reminder, provide snacks/drinks for everyone, and most of all, a comfortable place to sit and share your thoughts (this means no interruptions from spouses, children, phones, pagers, etc..) Meetings generally last between an hour or two.
7. You can decide to pick a new selection at every meeting, or publish a list of titles and assign the order in which you'll discuss them. Encourage everyone to keep a list of books (or authors) they're interested in reading. The variety of material you read with input from each member helps keeps members engaged in the club.

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8. Some publishers have Book Club reading guides, or Discussion Questions published online or at the end of the book, so make sure you take advantage of that to get a good discussion going. Encourage everyone to read the book and think of what they liked most, and what they didn't like. Encourage the discussion to flow freely, from the book to other events in your lives.
9. Snacks, drinks, music can be based on the theme of the book if applicable. Encourage simplicity, so no one feels pressure to 'put on a great show' when they host, but actually are enthusiastic about doing so!
10. Some meetings can be 'Field Trips' to a play, restaurant, movie, author's book reading, or other venue inspired by the book selection. Although not easy to accomplish very often, group outings are really fun and enrich your experience within the book club.
11. Invite guest speakers to your meetings that have something to say about the book or topic you are reading. You can even request a visit from the author if possible! Guest speakers add a whole new dimension to your club and keeps the discussions fresh.
12. Agree that you can all have very different opinions making group discussions interesting. Encourage everyone to set a non-judgemental tone to the club and provide an open minded forum (or you'll just get everyone simply nodding in agreement and not adding to the dialog.)
Above all, enjoy each others company, keep it light, and don't take it too seriously!
These are some key ideas to keep a club engaging, after all, the whole purpose is to encourage social interaction. With that in mind, your book club should go on year after year!


What did you think of this post? Click on comments below and leave me your thoughts!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tulsi - Sacred Basil Plant - Ocimum tenuiflorum

Growing a Holy Basil Plant

Ocimum tenuiflorum or
Ocimum sanctum

Eight years ago in California, a friend gave me a tiny, one-leaf seedling in a styrofoam cup full of soil and told me it was a Tulsi plant from a neighbor's yard. Apparently, her neighbor's tulsi plant had spread seedlings all over the flowerbed, so she was potting each one and giving them away. Since Tulsi (or Holy Basil) is highly regarded in Ayurvedic and Hindu traditions, there was a huge demand for her seedlings.

I happily adopted the tiny plant, and watched it grow into a 6 foot tall, multi-stemmed shrub over seven years. I used the leaves in tea and in yogurt raita dishes. I used the seeds from the its ripened flowers to grow more seedlings to give to others who wanted their own Tulsi plant.

When it came time to relocate across the country, I had the plant sent by overnight courier to our new location. It did well during the summer months, even thrived, but a harsh North Carolina winter draft finally put my Tulsi plant to sleep. I was very disheartened and sad at losing my treasured plant, and didn't have the heart to plant a new seedling from the bag of seeds I had saved.

Then, this past weekend, I went to the new Hindu temple in Cary. The beautiful new temple is breathtaking. We enjoyed the service, the sounds and smells, and most of all, the feeling of peace one gets when in a place of worship. On our way out of the temple, I noticed a crate of tiny seedlings off to one side. The sign read "Tulsi Plants" and a suggested donation amount was posted. I couldn't help but pick up a tiny seedling, in a styrofoam cup, and bring it home.

Maybe this one is meant for North Carolina!

How to Grow Holy Basil

Here's how I took the tiny seedling and grew it into a 6 foot tall shrub:

1. Replant the seedling first in a 6 inch pot (not bigger) with good indoor/outdoor potting soil so that the roots and plant both grow well.

2. Water frequently, do not let the soil get too dry, but also do not let it stay too soggy either.

3. Keep it in a sunny location. While the plant is small, (less than 2 feet tall) keep it indoors, away from cold drafts.

4. Transfer the plant to a larger pot when the plant is about 18 inches tall. You can keep the plant outdoors if the weather is not cold, and overnight temperatures are not cold. In California I kept the plant outdoors during the spring/summer months after the last frost, and indoors for fall and winter.

5. Watering and keeping the plant away from cold drafts is the key.

6. When the flowers dry up, you can gently remove flowers from the stem and save for future use. Inside each dried flower will be a tiny black seed, about the size of a dot on this page.

7. Certain varieties of Tulsi plants may only be annuals. However, you can try to make them perennial by bringing the plant indoors. If that doesn't work, save the ripened flowers/seeds from your annual and plant a seedling in spring to have a year-round supply of Tulsi.

8. Tulsi leaves are great added to chai, or cool yogurt dishes, or as a garnish.

Enjoy your Holy Basil for years!
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Easy Tamarind Rice Recipe

Easy Tamarind Rice (Puliogare)

For me, an easy to fix, tangy, spicy accompaniment to a cup of Chai is worth its weight in gold. I watched a South Indian friend make Tamarind Rice from scratch (she roasted and ground the spices etc.) and prepared a dish so mouthwatering that I needed to make it myself. Another friend told me the easy way: buy a packet of Puliogare powder or paste from the Indian grocery store and you can have quick Tamarind rice in a flash! I've used leftover rice, plain or with vegetables, anything you've got on hand.

Here's my quick recipe:

Easy Tamarind Rice
(Serves 4 as snack, 2 as side dish)

1 Tbs olive oil
6 Tbs Puliogare powder (I like MTR brand)
3-4 cups cooked rice (depending on how spicy you like it)

Heat oil in non-stick frying pan over medium-high heat. Add Puliogare powder and blend in. Add cold, cooked rice and gently fry on medium heat until heated. Serve and enjoy!

What did you think of this recipe? Click on comments below to tell me!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

"Garden Spells,"

a novel by Sarah Addison Allen

Herbal Remedies for Life's Ailments such as...
...Lemon Verbena to calm overly talkative visitors, Lavender to lift spirits and make good decisions, Rose petals to encourage love...

"Garden Spells" is the first book by an author from North Carolina that I have read. Sarah Addison Allen has beautifully written an imaginative, simply enchanting story about two sisters living in a historic house in a small college town in North Carolina.

I have been looking to find a story based in North Carolina written by a local author. Since I've been researching landscape plants lately, the title "Garden Spells" caught my eye, and peaked my curiosity.

This is more of a 'chick-lit' type of book, and I had not read one in a while. Some parts were predictable, but the romantic story was easy to read, and kept me engaged.

The story centered around the two Waverley sisters, Claire and Sydney. Claire remains in her ancestral home for most of her life and yet does not connect personally with locals there. Sydney leaves her hometown at the earliest opportunity, with the intention of never coming back. The two sisters, one who stayed and one who returns back home, are both trying to find out where they really belong, and with whom.
At the center of the story is the magical garden in the Waverley's backyard, with its enchanted apple tree. I enjoyed the descriptions of the uses for herbs and flowers from the magic garden. Allen painted vividly enticing pictures of gourmet menus that I could almost smell the marigold-petal rice, rose-hip soup, and anise hyssop honey butter on toast...

The story described the heartaches, misunderstandings, challenges, and ideas of what "home" really means for the Waverley family. As many of us have left our hometowns, countries, even the continents where we were born or raised, the notion of "home" takes on different meanings. Usually there is only one thought that comes to mind when you think "home." There is usually one place that gives you certain feelings of familiarity, triggers flashbacks, and evokes a sense of belonging. We may dread going home at times, or delay facing issues with family, or try to skirt responsibilities but it is impossible not to be drawn to a place called home and to the feelings of belonging. This was the case with the younger Waverley sister named Sydney.

For me, this book triggered strong feelings of wanting to reconnect with childhood friends, see the places I used to visit growing up, and taking a ride on the subway to stops I travelled everyday. I took for granted that those sights and sounds would always be there, never realizing the distance that jobs and responsibilities would take me.

This is a an easy to read love story, terrific beach-reading material, and a good 'chick-lit' book. Sometimes a fantasy story is just what you need!

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

Have you read books by this author? Click on comments below to tell me what you think.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Landscaping in Cary, North Carolina without Feeding the Deer

Selecting Trees, Shrubs, and Landscape Plants

...that are deer, insect, and disease resistant!

There are lots and lots of trees in North Carolina.

Trees are all I see when the airplane approaches RDU for a landing. Trees are everywhere along the two lane highways that curve and wind to the local shopping malls, schools, and Research Triangle Park. There is a "tree protected" thicket behind our house. Tons of yellow pollen covers everything outside during the start of spring...

So why do I need to purchase and plant even more trees?

Unfortunately, the builder from whom we purchased our house cleared all the trees on our land prior to building the houses. They planted some small trees and shrubs on our property for 'landscaping' and leave the rest to the homeowner to do depending on their own personal taste.

I've never needed to plant a tree in any of our prior homes (we've moved a dozen times and most of our homes had 'mature' landscapes.) I'm also not familiar with what thrives in this area since there are a million deer, some snakes, foxes, insects, heat, humidity, and freezing temperature issues.

The builder planted Leyland Cypress trees along the backyard property line. How pretty the rows of trees looked when we moved in. Then, when winter came and there was nothing growing in the thicket of protected trees behind our property, our 5 foot tall evergreen cypress trees looked even prettier. So good in fact that all the deer in this area thought we put out an all-you-can-eat buffet for them!

In the winter we enjoy seeing the deer in the backyard, especially a tiny, young, unsteady fawn. I'll see them in the morning when I'm making my breakfast tea, and then again at dusk when I'm getting dinner ready. Leyland Cypress are fast growing trees, so we'll just let nature take its course and fill them in. Meanwhile, our front yard is in need of help.
What We Want for Landscaping our Yard:

1. Two large evergreen trees planted beside the house on the left and right side. These 2 trees would replace the Arborvitae trees that look diseased.

2. One small 'specimen' tree in the front yard, to view while sitting on the front porch. This tree would give us some privacy, and hide our right-side neighbor's driveway from our view while we sit and have our smoothies or tea on the porch.

3. Two small to medium sized formal evergreen trees or shrubs on either side of the foot of the driveway. These trees/shrubs would anchor the entrance of our driveway and give a formal appearance to the yard.

4. Several small to medium shrubs to replace a small piece of grass between our left-side neighbor's property and our driveway. This patch of grass is very difficult to water, plus we want to soften the direct view we have of our neighbor's driveway/garage. The shrubs must give a formal appearance as this is at the entrance of our driveway as well.

5. One large tree to provide shade, and beauty, in our backyard's corner where there is a steep slope.

6. Several shrubs to control erosion on the steep slope in our backyard.

So that is really overwhelming to someone who hasn't done much landscaping.

How to Make a Landscape Plan
To make this an organized and enjoyable process, I will follow these steps to make a Landscape Plan:

1. Look at the area you are trying to landscape. Separate the area into manageable sections if possible, keeping in mind the entire picture. It helps to enlarge a copy of your lot survey for this purpose. You can make a scale drawing of each patch of area on grid paper. Ask the local utilities companies (gas, electric, cable) to mark the lot so you can plan accordingly. We found out the gas line runs right down the middle of my front yard!

2. Visit local nurseries to get an idea of what the local market trends are, and the availability of common varieties.

3. Drive around the mature areas of your town, including well manicured business locations. Take pictures of trees and shrubs that look interesting and that you might use.

4. Research the Internet for disease resistant, deer resistant, evergreen trees and shrubs. Keep notes on the botanical name as well as the height, width, sun, and soil descriptions for each. This is the most time-consuming part.

5. Read books from the library, home improvement stores, or gardening magazines. These usually show the plants in landscape pictures so you can get many ideas.

6. If you are interested Feng Shui, read "Feng Shui for Gardens," by Lillian Too. This book really gives a great deal of information but you can get really caught up in trying to follow every suggestion. If you can take even some simple ideas from this book, you'll add a very positive energy or 'Chi' flow in your garden. I took the idea of not having sharp, pointy plants in my front yard (cuts up the incoming positive energy.) Also, I decided to plant red, yellow plants in the South side of my yard, blue flowers in the North, and gold/silver color plants in the West. (I'll try anyway...)

7. Draw a rough sketch of each area you are landscaping (try to draw to scale) on grid paper. Now draw in the possible plants, in their mature height and width, in the proper locations.

8. Decide if you'll buy trees locally or order through the web. I decided I wanted to see the trees in person. There are many websites that ship trees all across the states, and for every zone. Ask friends and neighbors for suggestions.

9. If buying locally, you can go to the home improvement stores, nurseries, or tree farms. Through our neighborhood group we found out about several nurseries that are outside the city (1 hour drive or so) that sell trees and shrubs for low prices. This was perfect for our small budget!

10. Plan your purchase and prepare your yard. This is very important for a successful tree transplant. Make sure you select healthy specimens, water and fertilize as needed, and watch your garden grow!

Here are my plant selections for our yard:

1. Nellie Stevens Holly to replace the Arborvitae

2. Specimen tree choices: Osmanthus Fortunei, Southern Wax Myrtle, Japanese Maple, Crape Myrtle. I will select one choice when I actually purchase the trees in the fall. I'll base my choice on what is readily available, looks healthy, and the cost.

3. Dwarf Burford Hollies to anchor the driveway.

4. Lorapetalum, Logustrum, Ilex Cornuta, Curlyleaf Privet, or camellia as small shrubs in the front yard.

5. Lil' Gem Magnolia, or Heritage River Birch for the back yard. Again, I'll wait until fall to select.

6. Junipers, and lavender bushes for the steep slope in the backyard.

Stay tuned, I'll update the outcome of this landscape plan in coming months...

Happy Gardening!
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