You can cut your cooking time by half, yet retain the flavour with some easy tips, suggests Aparna Karthikeyan

How long does it take you to rustle up a nice Sunday lunch? Say, a three course meal, and a little lip-smacking something on the side? It takes me an hour or two at the most. But a friend said it took her grand-mother, three decades ago, several hours. She plucked and cut the vegetables just before she cooked them; roasted and hand-ground all the spices; and used a kumutti (clay stove heated with coal or wood) to retain flavour. Her food, I was told, was heavenly; about mine, the lesser said, the better. Because, in my great hurry to get out of the kitchen, taste takes a hit.

But it does not have to, I discovered recently, when I mooched around a sweet-shop. For just behind the mouth-watering displays, powders, pastes and mixes stood in neat rows. And these, mind, were not the mix-a-teaspoonful-with-150ml-water-and-boil-for-two-minutes variety; they were shortcuts, sniping away at lengthy processes, cutting down cooking time by half, but retaining the flavour in full.

Mallika Badrinath, culinary expert says that shortcuts are, indeed, gaining popularity as people aren’t just getting busier, but like to spend time outside the kitchen as well. “Take ‘arachu vitta kozhambu’; the process becomes simple if people roast and grind the coconut-dhania base, store it as single-use portions in the freezer. Similarly, ginger-garlic paste is commercially available, but to make it at home, all you need is 60 per cent ginger and 40 per cent garlic ground together with a little salt and one or two teaspoons of vinegar. This can be stored in an air-tight container for later use.”

Dr. Suganya Prabakhar, a busy general practitioner living in the U.K, likes to cook traditional South Indian food for her twins. “Paruppusili is a family favourite, but it’s very time-consuming; so I grind and steam a large quantity of paruppu-mix in an idli steamer. I store this in three or four freezer-bags, and use it as and when required.” She banks on the microwave to steam vegetables in a hurry, and to set curd. (Heat one litre milk for three minutes in microwave and add little yogurt and leave it in microwave overnight). For the working woman, Mallika says the microwave is indeed a boon. “If you cut onions, spray a little oil and ‘brown’ it in the microwave for two or three minutes with an open lid, it cuts down gravy-cooking time by more than half.”

The greatest advantage of shortening or simplifying processes is that they help preserve recipes that, otherwise, might be lost in the mists of time, simply because nobody has the time and patience to make them. Mrinalini says she makes kempu chutney podi for her son-in-law who lives alone. “It’s a traditional Mangalore recipe and all he does is add grated or chopped coconut, warm water and grind it in a mixie.”

Uma Sundararaman, freelance artist talks about the simplified version of ‘thani kootu’, a speciality dish. “The traditional recipe is very tedious, you need to keep stirring it like an halwa, for a long time. But with the podi my grandmother made me, it just takes about 20 minutes.” Her grandmother, 82-year-old Kamalam Venkatraman, says that she started preparing simplified recipes at home, mainly to send to her grandchildren abroad. “Initially I made tamarind rice paste and vethakozhambu paste. But when there were restrictions about taking liquids on flights, I came up with roasting the tamarind too, and then grinding it together with the spices. Now, I pack them as podis, and my grandsons tell me that my recipes are very popular with their friends!”

Purists might argue that shortcuts will compromise nutrition; but Mallika allays our fears. “Proteins (for instance, toor dal cooked for the week ahead and frozen in air-tight containers) and carbohydrates retain all nutrients. You only need to take care of water soluble vitamins; then again, that’s found in vegetables and fruits, which we typically eat fresh,” she says, adding that cutting vegetables ahead of time however can result in a partial loss of vitamins and minerals.

“My grandfather will never touch anything that comes from a bottle or freezer!” laughs Sripriya Kumar. “But I just don’t have the patience to make every meal from the first principles. Tamarind paste, boiled chick-peas, tomato puree — they’re life-savers. Catch me cooking without them!”

Quick tips

Mustard can be spluttered and stored in air-tight containers for up to a week. Whenever you need to add spluttered-mustard seeds, say for a chutney or sambhar, simply add half-a-spoonful.

To make tamarind paste at home, pressure cook (one whistle) tamarind and a little water. Grind it in a mixie after it cools and store it in the fridge.

If you make chapattis often, prepare a large quantity of dough, divide it into single use portions, coat it with a little oil and store it in the refrigerator.