Pune: Food and science

On my last day in Bangalore, December 24, I visited the personal library of Pradeep Rawat, whose education was interrupted when he was jailed as an opponent of Indira Gandhi’s suspension of law during the 1975-1977 “Emergency.” He later served as a member of the Indian Parliament and is now retired to spend his time spreading knowledge of biology. A biological autodidact, Rawat has a tremendous love of evolution in particular and a strong desire to disseminate knowledge about the field throughout India. To that end he not only publishes books on evolution and biology (he’s translating WEIT into Marathi, the local language), but also gives many lectures to children in local secondary schools.

Pradeep has also created a 6,000-book library, mostly on evolution, which he’s turned into a non-profit facility giving free access to anybody who wants to go to the quiet facility and read. I met Pradeep about a year ago when he visited Chicago, where his daughter and son-in-law lived, and I gave him a big bag of books from the evolution library I’d inherited from Lynn Throckmorton and the ecologist A. E. Emerson. (He usually visits the U.S. with five suitcases, all of which he fills with evolution books purchased here.) Here’s his library in Pune with Pradeep (left) and I, along with his friend, also named Pradeep (Apte).

Here we are posing in front of a unique portrait of Darwin (see below); Pradeep has two copies of WEIT in the library.

As the artistic centerpiece of his library, Pradeep commissioned this portrait of Darwin—made entirely out of different colored wheatstraw! There is no pigment in this portrait, which took an artist six months to make. And he promised to have a smaller version made for me! I suspect there is no portrait of Darwin anything like this.

After the library visit, Pradeep’s large extended family, as well as my wonderful host L. S. Shashidhara of IISER Pune (known to all as “Shashi”) repaired to a famous Muslim restaurant for a feast of grilled meats. We ate on the lawn of the owner (a friend of Pradeep’s family), and they set up an outside grill to cook chicken, mutton, and lamb for us.

This is the restaurant, but the owner’s real love is catering. I asked him what was the largest party he ever catered, and he told me that, for a wedding, it was SIXTEEN THOUSAND PEOPLE. (Yes, Indian weddings can be that large!) For another gathering, he cooked for FORTY THOUSAND PEOPLE. His restaurant itself is rather small but locally famous.

I photographed the preparations for the Christmas feast the next day.

A man making the dough for tandoori roti.

Various organs bits which I couldn’t identify.

A man making carrot halvah (gajaar ka halva) in the back; a dish I once made and never will again, as it requires constantly stirring the carrot/sugar/spice mixture for hours. It is one of my favorite Indian desserts. If you ever see it, get it.

A group of women doing nothing but peeling garlic and separating the cloves from the chaff:

Kebabs waiting to be cooked. First there were appetizers (grilled meats and prawns) served for an hour with beer (I don’t drink much in India), and only then, when I was full, did the main courses come: tandoori chicken in gravy, and mutton in a special sauce, all served with grilled breads (no photos of the main courses):

A marinated leg of lamb about to be grilled for us:

The grill on the lawn:

The owner makes a special kulfi (Indian ice cream) for dessert, covered with sweet rose jam and noodles. Splendid!

And as my birthday was coming up, but I wouldn’t be in Pune, they even provided me with a special birthday cake. That was so sweet!:

Some of my friends on the lawn where we dined. Left to right: Pradeep Rawat, the restaurant owner (I forgot his name), me, and Sashi:

To those Pecksniffs who think I always eat this way, here’s the simple but delicious lunch I had at the Nehru Centre’s canteen (below) yesterday. It’s a South Indian vegetarian meal:

Two days ago I arrived in Bengaluru  (Bangalore), where I gave one talk yesterday (a research talk) and will give another later today on “Ways of knowing.” The campus where I spoke, The Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, is lovely with beautiful landscaping, and my hosts very nice (and the students, like most I’ve met, are smart and ambitious). More photos from Bangalore soon, including some great and unusual noms.

Last night, on our way to another restaurant whose documentation is in the offing, we heard thousands of mynah birds settling for the evening in the trees on campus. They made a gorgeous racket, but nobody is sure why mynahs (like starlings in winter) form these mass roosts.

Tomorrow I’m up early to fly to Trivandrum, the last leg of my trip before I return to Delhi to give one talk and to visit friends and do sightseeing.


  1. yazikus
    Posted December 27, 2017 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Lovely photos! I especially like the garlic peelers. When I was a child in India, I often found myself in the kitchen with the cook, or outside with the caterers, where they would feed me bits and scraps as they worked away. Those are some of my most fond memories.

    • Posted December 27, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      One of my fondest memories is of Indian food too, though I’ve never been to India (a bucket list item like all the rest that I will never get to).

      When I was in Gradual School my upstairs neighbors were an Indian couple, both of whom were students. Living with them along with their school aged children was one of the grandmothers.

      I was eating a grad school diet of ramen, pizza and beer. Food was whatever the cheapest fuel I could find. Every night, while I was boiling my noodles, I was tormented by the incredibly delicious smells coming from upstairs. It was pure agony to eat those noodles. Finally one day I couldn’t take it anymore and I knocked on their door. Their welcome astonished me as did the feast, which I soon learned was just every day eats for them. From then on I often found a hot dish outside my door prepared by dear granny upstairs. I ate like a king that year.

      • yazikus
        Posted December 27, 2017 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

        Well done, Granny! Feeding another generation is important work.

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 27, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    That was amazing. The celebrity in India.

  3. Jenny Haniver
    Posted December 27, 2017 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Since there’s no pigment responsible for the hues in the portrait of Darwin, am I correct in assuming that the colors are produced structurally? Last night I heard a report of a new species of manakin, that the lead researcher said arose through hybridization, and that the golden crown is a structural color, though the colors of the species it derived from are pigment-based. Here’s a written report http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/golden-crowned-manakin-1.4462762.

    Are any of your talks recorded? “Ways of knowing” sounds intriguing, especially these days.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted December 27, 2017 at 2:58 pm | Permalink


      Thinner-walled straw is paler
      Longer time drying in the sun = greater bleaching
      I suppose how ‘green’ it is when cut must effect the final dried appearance too

      I’d be interested in knowing how Charles’ beard is done – I assume it is very thin-walled straw glued over the top of the diagonal straw ‘boarding’. Perhaps straw can be made to flake into v. thin white bits. I watched a straw artist on YouTube & it’s quite laborious – one has to cut the straw tube along its length, flatten & run a steel up the face of the flattened straw to make it stay flat.

      Binaya Rajopadhyaya is a Nepalese expert at wheat straw art & crafts. Here is HIS FACEBOOK ART

      He shows the process on his YouTube HERE

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted December 27, 2017 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. I didn’t know about Nepalese wheat straw art. Beautiful. I was engrossed watching him make one of his creations. Looks like fun. I’d like to try it.

        My question about the origin of the colors remains unanswered because PCC(E) specifically states “There is no pigment in this portrait.” Perhaps he means no added pigment, but given the statement in light (no pun intended) of the two different origins (pigment and structural) of perceptible color,I thought that the lack of pigment resided in the straw itself and the color perceived was structural.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted December 27, 2017 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

          I hear you – you may be right.

          I had taken “no pigment” to mean the straws were not dyed – that the Darwin artist used a variety of straws au naturel. I know one can get white wheat straw & golden wheat straw & smoking can darken it somewhat. No idea how the really dark browns are achieved, unless smoking can do that [or artist used other wheat/grass types too such as oats, barley, millet, rye & rice].

          • Posted December 28, 2017 at 2:09 am | Permalink

            Yes, that’s what I mean and what was my interpretation of what I was told: they are natural straw colors and have had no paint or pigment added to them.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted December 27, 2017 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

          Oh – meant to write that Mexico City has “popotillo” art using dyed straw laid into “cera de Campeche” a special type of beeswax. Also a small part of Serbia has their own system & the Chinese also going back a millennium or so. Prefer no dyes myself – the coloured stuff reminds me of naff Western velvet paintings [Dogs playing poker, Marilyn, Elvis] which began, I just found out, in Kashmir.

          • Jenny Haniver
            Posted December 27, 2017 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

            All this is fascinating. I’m going to check it out. Re straw art on the macro level, are you familiar with the students at the Musashino Art University in Tokyo, who go into the fields annually and create the most wonderful hay bale art? Some examples https://hedgehogsquill.com/2017/07/21/hay-bale-art/- apropos that the post begins with a giant straw cat. Also a magnificent wooly mammoth and triceratops. More of these Japanese marvels on other sites.

            • Michael Fisher
              Posted December 27, 2017 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

              Yes – the Wara Arts Festival of rice straw beasties. I like the Triceratops you mentioned best.

        • Mitali
          Posted January 3, 2018 at 5:32 am | Permalink

          Hi.. those shades are acheived by flame effect you can say wheat lids are roastes or burned on dofferent flame level to get different shades.

          This portrait is made by my dad… Mr.Ramesh Baheti.

          Thank you for ahowing interest in this .we are glad .

    • Posted December 28, 2017 at 2:06 am | Permalink

      I think the artist just found different colors of dried straw and combined them to make this portrait.

      I know about the manakin and will write about it after I return to America. Finally, I just now posted my “Ways of Knowing” talk but I refuse to listen to it.

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted December 28, 2017 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        Thank you for the clarification. I had not known about structural colors before I read the article about the manakins, so I hope you can understand why I wondered.

  4. Steve Pollard
    Posted December 27, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I second Jenny’s last question. I would also be interested to know how your talks went down with your Indian audiences, and the sort of questions they have asked. Seen from outside, the current political climate in (parts of) India does not always seem compatible with freedom of thought or speech.

    • Posted December 28, 2017 at 2:11 am | Permalink

      I think, as in America, Indian academics have many differences with their ruling party. While I face strong pushback from older people when I criticize religion, very few young people share that, but rather tell me in private conversations that they agree with me.

      But not all of them. I met a group of students in Pune who refused to admit that religion could ever be responsible for anything bad, and if in fact religion hadn’t existed, the violence in India (most prominent during Partition in 1947) would simply have been replaced by other forms of violence of exactly equal intensity. I found that bizarre and not credible.

  5. Posted December 27, 2017 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m extremely glad to hear that WEIT is being translated into Marathi!

  6. Jaggi Ayyangar
    Posted December 27, 2017 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Glad to see you visited Pradeep Rawat’s library (RNA – Rawat Nature Academy!) in Pune. I got my interest in evolutionary biology from his infectious enthusiasm. In a country where there are many temples for many gods, his is a true temple of learning.

  7. Bruce Lyon
    Posted December 27, 2017 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Love the food photos and descriptions. Vicarious travel through your postings.

  8. Stephen Barnard
    Posted December 27, 2017 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    The portrait is amazing.

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 28, 2017 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    That marinated mutton leg looks scrumptious, but not sure the presentation is gonna win the mustachioed chef and stars in the Guide Michelin.

    Those persimmons on your b-day cake? Or did a quartet of brass monkeys drop by the party?

  10. Mitali
    Posted January 3, 2018 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    hi… that portrait is made by my dad Mr ramesh baheti …i am posting on his behalf..colors to the sticks are not because of any pigment or colors used..those wheat sticks are roasted or you can say burned ob flame.. more roasted dark brown color less roasted faint color…

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