Interview with Anita Tikoo

Have you heard the story about the bread & butterflies? The story starts this way. Wait. Why don’t we host A Mad Tea Party at our Adda and narrate this story with everyone? Excellent! The guest of honour for this party is none other than the founder of ‘A Mad Tea Party’, Anita Tikoo who is here exclusively at your Adda. Presenting an interview which talks about anything & everything from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Let the party begin.

Q: When and why did you start blogging?

I have been blogging since 2006.

One summer afternoon, I decided to put my broadband connection to good use and search for a new recipe to cook, and stumbled upon the world of food blogging. I always wanted to write and here was an avenue where I could be one without worrying about an editor or a publisher!

Q: What topics do you generally blog about?

The stories start around food. But, food is inseparable from culture, the landscape, ethics, and sustainability. There is a lot of banter (and some nonsense) too. What can you expect with a name like β€œA Mad Tea Party!”

Q: Do you ever get stuck when writing an entry? What do you do then?

I won’t say I get stuck when writing, but I take time to write. It takes me an average of ten hours to complete a post; the quickest post took me five hours. I tend to write in long stretches, which means that I cannot put aside an hour each day to write and have a post at the end of the week. It is not easy to make that kind of time if, like me, you have a regular work-week. If I am too busy at work or home, I let the blog be and not pressure myself.

Q: By reading your blog, one thing that comes out effectively is that you have a great knowledge about the history of cuisines, ingredients and its traditional significance in its respective regions. We are curious to know from where did you imbibe this knowledge within you? Did it come by traveling to those places; was it passed down to you by any of your family member; or do you intentionally research on this cuisine knowledge?

I wish that were true! If anything, I am curious; I want to know. It would be nice to have good public libraries but, we do have the Internet, a wonderful resource at the click of a mouse! I make full use of it. Actually, I’ve learned a lot since I started the blog. I also ask questions of people around me; I am surrounded by very knowledgeable folks!

Q: Tell us something about your family. You married a Maharashtrian, so how has the Marathi foodie experience been for you. πŸ™‚ Surely you must have relished it! Share the stories with our readers. Tell us something about your son and husband, and what are their views on your blog/love for cooking?

Kashmiri and Maharashtrian cuisines are like, well, the North and the South – poles apart! There are humorous glimpses of that aspect in many posts on my blog. I think you need to have a sense of humour if you marry cross-culture!

Traditionally, Kashmiris don’t care much for the dessert, as long as the meal is sumptuous. One time my cousin dropped in unannounced for lunch. He ate whatever we were having for lunch. Through the grapevine the news travelled that even though I was not informed in advance, I had managed to serve dessert. [A Kashmiri is always curious about what was served at any meal, so the meal was bound to become public knowledge.] I wondered if this was the Chinese-whisper-phenomenon (unlikely, since no one was whispering) till I remembered that I had served banana koshimbir, a standard Maharashtrian side-dish (always served on the left side of the thali)!

My husband always reads my freshly minted posts and will point out any oversights or mistakes. My son who, naturally, loves his mother’s cooking, has never read my blog. They are both happy that I love to cook (why wouldn’t they be!).

Neither of them will willingly step into the kitchen. Despite it all, and much to my surprise I found that my son knows his way around the kitchen after all. Last semester he decided to move into an apartment with two of his classmates. We visited them there last month and it warmed my heart to see him do the groceries, supervise the cook, do the dishes, and keep a clean kitchen — I saw him scrubbing the counter! It turns out, he is as finicky about that spot on a glass as I am!

Q: Why did you name your blog as A Mad Tea Party? Did you start your blog with an intention of posting about a specific kind of food, like snack items, tea companions, quick meals, etc.?

I love Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland! As soon as I knew I wanted to write a blog, I knew the name would have to come from that book. There is much food and drink in that book: treacle and tarts, cakes and sandwiches, and potions and, of course, tea… A Mad Tea Party is what it was going to be!

I did get the name right – it can be quite a mad place when two of my really witty friends, whom I got to know through my blog, are in a good mood. ‘A Mad Tea Party’ is also the most used search term to come to the blog. Marketing people will tell you that the name has an easy recall. Not that I thought that much before picking the name!

So, to answer the last part of your question, no, I had no idea where I would go with the blog. I just jumped in.

Q: You work and teach in the design field. Elaborate more on the kind of work that you do. What are your opinions of the design industry in India? Do you follow Indian Art and Interior blogs?

We have miles to go. I have a small practice with my husband who is an Architect-Urban Designer. I work primarily in the fields of Landscape Architecture and Ecological Planning and these are just beginning to establish themselves in the country.

There is a lot of talent even though when we look around, all we see is ordinariness. Building great cities is challenging and the answers cannot come from outside. Designers have to realise that educating the client is also part of our job. We cannot keep saying that this-first-world-imitation is what people want.

The rate at which India is urbanising has made city planning even more challenging. We have to be open to experimentation. There will be mistakes, and we will learn from them. We cannot hand over all prestigious projects to foreign architects because we are afraid our own designers might make mistakes, because they don’t have the experience. Indian engineers had never built anything like the Delhi Metro before; now we are looked upon as experts! Extend the same confidence to the architects and planners; don’t hold our inexperience against us.

The BRT Corridor in Delhi is another example of one step forward, two steps back. The first phase was an experiment; parts of it worked well, some bits not as much. But you cannot throw the baby out with the bath water. If you want to have sustainable, liveable cities, you have to change your thinking. Radically. Cities all over the world are trying to ditch the car and here we are arguing why we must give priority to sustainable modes of transport on the road!

Without political will, the best laid plans, literally, come to nought. We need to understand that we need beautiful cities to live, work, and play in. It has to be on the electoral agenda. It has to reflect in the policies in a consistent manner. If clean air is our agenda then we cannot have fuel policies that encourage people to buy diesel vehicles over CNG.

Am I digressing? It is something that happens in the conversation (in the comments section) of my blog all the time. Did I tell you that I also teach? πŸ™‚ Don’t worry, I am not a full-time teacher. And, henceforth, I shall stick closely to the question at hand.

Yes, there are a couple of Interior Design blogs I follow. Unfortunately, many are just a rehash of material available elsewhere on the Web.

Q: Hailing from Kashmir, you introduce us to a variety of Kashmiri dishes through your blog. πŸ™‚ Apart from Kashmiri, you have had the chance to come across Maharashtrian, Bengali, Rajasthani, Gujarati, South Indian and such cuisines, from different parts of India. Share with us one thing that you like from each of the cuisines that you have tried. How can the essence of these foods be incorporated in our daily cooking, to have a good blend of routine and regional dishes?

The main reason that I have tried all these different cuisines is that come summer, I want to be able to cook ghia and tinda in ways that will make my palate wake up. Share lunch and exchange recipes with your officemates and neighbours and you are bound to come across delicious ways with everyday food while still keeping it simple.

In Maharashtrian cuisine, I am familiar primarily with my MIL’s cooking (she grew up in Jodhpur though) which was influenced by her elder sister’s cooking, which in turn reflected a strong Gujarati bias. I like the attention to texture in Maharashtrian cuisine: the chana dal that still retains its bite in a cabbage-chana dal stir fry. The use of crunchy bits of crushed peanuts in a koshimbir, or to finish the gwar-kale vatane bhaji, is utter sophistication.

Bengali food is a relatively recent discovery for me. I am simply amazed at how they present the ordinary mustard in so many ways: as oil – smoking hot or raw, as a versatile paste – shorshe, in tempering on its own, or combined with other spices in panch phoron. The elementary shukto, a mixed vegetable curry, is amongst my faves.

I love the spicy punch of Rajasthani food that perks up any appetite flagging on account of the sweltering weather. I love a good gatte ka saag, one with lots of garlic, such as my MIL used to make. Dal with baati roasted on cow-patties, is another favourite.

One of the things I find most fascinating about Gujarati food is the variety that they can serve “on the left side!” This is really impressive to a Kashmiri since we have practically no concept of serving anything on any side except on the top of the mound of rice! They have a mind-boggling array of farsan, each one better than the next: methi muthia, khandvi, thepla, khakra, dhokla; just recalling them here makes me salivate! They present besan like no one else!

South India covers too many states and subregions that it will need more than this lifetime to even acquaint myself with the major ones. I have explored a bit of Kannada, Tamil, Kerala, and Andhra food. Bisibelehulianna wins my top vote for Kannada food, and once you’ve prepared the spice mix, putting it together is quite quick. I am partial to the Tamil vathral kuzhambu – love its intense tartness from tamarind, and the heat kick from chillies; again a great one to get the juices flowing! Kerala poriyals, simple stir fries with a tempering of mustard seeds, whole red chillies, and curry leaves, with a good helping of grated coconut (beans, or a mix of carrot and cabbage), and pachadi, tempered raita, are routine at our table. The whole family swears by the toor dal with greens served at the Andhra Bhavan in Delhi.

All the dishes that I have mentioned here are as simple as the basic curries our mothers serve every day. A different tempering, or a new combination of vegetables, refreshes the palate, but as important, refreshes the cook! Who wants to cook or eat the same dal every day?!

Q: From the little information [compared to you :)] that we have about Kashmiri cuisine, we gather that Wazwan is a very important meal in Kashmiri-Muslim tradition, which is considered an art and treated with great respect. Can you shed more light on this multi-course meal? What does this meal include and why is it considered so important? On the whole, can you sum up the Kashmiri cuisine, its specialty, prominent delicacies, etc., in few lines, if that is possible at all? πŸ™‚

I grew up outside Kashmir, and never got a chance to attend one! Now I have no family remaining there, so the odds of attending such a feast are small. From what I have been told, the Kashmiri Pundits have much the same dishes but not that elaborate a wazwan.

Kashmiri Pundits, much like Bengali Brahmins, are a meat and fish eating community. Though we love goat meat, there is a lot of variety in our vegetarian cuisine. Our food relies on the gentle simmering of spices to obtain the fragrant curries. Even today, in traditional cooking, there is almost a total absence of onions or tomatoes. Fresh herbs are rarely used. Traditions, whether of culture or food, are eventually tied to the landscape and history – what the land could support, who conquered whom, or who migrated to where from whence. Kashmir has shared a close association with Persia that is reflected in her language, culture, and traditions; the cuisine is but a part of this.

Q: Life’s short – make sure you taste everything. This is what you said in 2007. So is there any food tasting wishlist that you have? πŸ™‚ Are there any dishes that you are dying to cook, or taste, and haven’t been able to do so? Please share them.

I want to taste a good mole, amongst many other things! A friend sent me most of the ingredients, there are a lot in it, and I made an attempt to cook it once. Still, there were substitutions and what I had in my pot was nothing to rave about. So, I continue to seek that mole – first, to taste it, and then see if I can come close to making a good one. Truffles are another ingredient that I want to cook with and see if it lives up to the hype.

Q: You have been at the receiving end of plagiarism, when some of your pictures were lifted by a leading newspaper, and your recipes were also directly lifted by other bloggers. With this post we also came to know about recipe copyright (US) that a person holds. Do Indian food writers and bloggers also have the same protection from the Indian Government? What steps, according to you, should a blogger take when one faces a plagiarism issue?

It is wrongly believed that just because the content on the Web is freely available and public that it is ‘free’! It enjoys the same protection as does any printed word. I don’t think it has as much to do with government as with respect for intellectual property.

We need to create awareness about this issue. Ignorance and a lack of respect for original work is at the bottom of the problem. The word ‘corruption’ is bandied about a lot these days. Plagiarism is a form of that. We need to look inwards to see the problem. How many of us have copy-pasted school/college assignments without a second thought? Well, there is your answer. That is where it starts.

As a blogger, first try to contact the person who has reproduced your work without permission and ask them to rectify the problem: remove a post or photograph, or attribute source. Usually, the problem will be resolved at this step. You may seek compensation if your work has been published in print. If this doesn’t work, try contacting the host of the Website – for example, Blogger and WordPress are very prompt about removing such offending blogs. But taking on big corporate-class plagiarisers is a whole different ballgame, one that as a blogger, you may not have the time for.

Q: You seem to have great interest in theatre and books. Infact, you even dreamed of owning a bookstore with a cafΓ©. πŸ™‚ What genre of books do you like, and what is your view on the new Indian writers that are cropping up? Do you feel theatre is taking a back seat with more and more Bollywood coming into the picture?

Anything is possible in a dream!

If you are an architect, then you are at the interface of the arts and science. Theatre, literature, movies, art, and architecture – they are all linked and it is only natural that I have an interest in all of these.

Remember what the Red Queen told Alice, “. . . it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast!” Therefore, most of my reading lately, has been limited to the scholarly side of ecology and planning; I hope I am managing to stick to my spot!

Amitav Ghosh’s writing charmed me into reading An Antique Land, a historical novel, a genre I thought I didn’t care for. He does present history as travelogue. His Sea of Poppies is on my nightstand now. I’m afraid, I haven’t read from the new crop of Indian writers.

I am in the middle of reading Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life. I usually read two or more book in tandem, so it takes me longer to finish a book! The book I am having a hard time with is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which has been on my bedside table for some time now. I started it with Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music which I finished and put away months back. Her A Room of One’s Own had resonated strongly with me when I read it some 15 years ago.

Theatre is pure drama. I think it is more in Delhi that it plays second fiddle. Cinema has its own space and should not be compared with theatre too much. Thankfully, Bombay cinema is beginning to regain lost ground with some trend-breaking new movies that are shaking the masala-formula.

Q: ‘The Tea Party’ has successfully completed 4 years of celebration! Very rarely such virtual parties are conducted in the food blogging scene. πŸ™‚ When is the fifth party expected and what could be the dish on the party menu?

Actually, we missed a party last year – it was a busy time at work leaving no time to organise a party. The sixth party is due in August! I have no idea what we will be cooking – it all decides itself.

Q: Have you ever thought of writing a cook book? Do you frequently refer cook books and recipes? How much of experiment is included, while following any recipe?

πŸ™‚ Name one food-blogger who hasn’t! But, books are serious work and need flesh-and-blood publishers, as opposed to WordPress. πŸ™‚

I love reading and collecting cookbooks though – bought my first one when I was fourteen, perhaps. In India we cook with intuition. Recipes are shared with just a basic list of ingredients and it is left to the cook to plan their dish. That style of cooking is so ingrained in me that I apply it to other cuisines as well, even those I might not be very familiar with. But, when I am trying something new, I try to follow the recipe very closely the first time.

Q: Do you promote your blog? What promotional techniques work best for you and why?

I do not promote my blog at all, save for announcing it to my small group of friends on Facebook.

Q: How important is it for the blogger to interact with their readers? Do you respond to all the comments that you receive?

It is in the interaction that a food-blog differs from a cookbook. It is an important aspect of my blog, a very fun space on A Mad Tea Party. There is also much informed discussion in the comments section that adds to the topic in the main post. I do try to respond to all the comments I receive.

Q: What do you find to be the most gratifying aspect of blogging?

I love the conversations it can start!

Q: How, in general, would you rate the quality of Indian blogs? Share your favourite five blogs.

I am constantly amazed at the quality of blogs out there. There is great writing and it is a challenge to keep my Google Reader list clipped. Indian blogs (written by those of us who live in the country) reflect the state of affairs in the different fields. Incidentally, many of the Indian blogs I read are by people with a background in journalism, so the Fourth Estate is doing well.

Research in the field of architecture and design is not as popular as its practice is. In India, self-critique is almost absent in the field. There are only a few Indian blogs that discuss architecture and city planning. I feel blogs offer a great platform to speak and be heard and could be an ideal space for researchers to engage with other designers as well as citizens – the users of the designed space.

On the other hand, if the mindboggling array of food bloggers is any sign, then we are a country of foodies and gourmands!

Here are a few opinionated people I read:

Q: What is your advice to someone who wants to start a blog?

What are you waiting for?!

But, really, know why you want to write. Is it to connect with like-minded folk, share something, make money? No matter what your blog will be about, you will be writing. So, practice your writing skills. Of course, you will get better at it as you go, but please, as a courtesy to your readers, do pay attention to basic rules of grammar and punctuation. You can only have so many “…” in a paragraph before it starts to seem that you cannot be bothered to finish every sentence.
Besides that, be yourself (it’s original, not plagiarised!), and you will be fine!

Q: Do you earn revenue through your blog? How does one go about it?

Nope, I earn nothing from the blog. But I didn’t have revenue in mind to begin with, so it’s alright.

Q: According to you, what is the future of Blogging?

As long as people will read, bloggers will write! I think blogs are here to stay. There are new blogs being added every day, and some old blogs die. But that is a positive thing about blogging – you set your goals, define your limits, decide your deadlines. If it ceases to be whatever it was you wanted from it, you can stop updating it, delete it if you like, create a new blog, or move on to something else altogether. It can be a practice arena, a showcase of your skill, or just a window to yourself. Many bloggers have gone on to get commissioned to write columns, and even books! Why, what started as a blog, became a book, and eventually a movie!

Q: Let’s conclude off with a few favorites.

Color: How do I pick one, I love them all! Ok, Lime Green.
Movie: Jane Bhi Do Yaaron
TV Show: Friends, and currently, White Collar
Book: I can read Bill Bryson‘s writing over and over.
Time of Day: Night
Your Zodiac Sign: Gemini

Wasn’t that A Mad Tea Party after all? We literally traversed from Kanyakumari to Kashmir and Rajastan to West Bengal. Thank you Anita for this wonderful interview. We are sure our readers would have enjoyed reading every bit of it. What say?Β 

Connect with Anita: Blog, BlogAdda

One Reply to “Interview with Anita Tikoo”

  1. One of my all time favorite blogs. The food as real as the person. A party that everyone loves to go to and the chatter that is always something. We have known Anita through her blog for years now. This interview is for those who haven’t visited her blog yet go rush now…

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