Dream the food you want to eat, so when you try cooking it, you can’t go wrong.
I got an email yesterday from Vinti, a reader who had made the effort to trace me, for which I want to thank her and who is responsible for this newspaper now publishing my email ID. Because, approval apart, a writer needs reactions. Am I being boring about the etymology of “soup” or the genus and specie of anise and fennel; does anyone care what my daughter said about eggs; is my opinion about the qualities of homemade versus bought-cake interesting to anyone except me? Does anyone out there want the recipe for old-fashioned French toast? Do I need to detail procedures as if for a learner, or can I assume a basic knowledge?
And her mail took me back to my first attempts at cooking. As a child whose only entertainment was playing in the park with neighbourhood kids, at this time of year, I picked mushrooms. There were broad thumb rules about which were edible, and, in any case, I’m alive to tell the tale. So I’d take a basket, always insisting on one with a handle, so that I could imagine I was an English girl picking berries in the glen. And trot home with a half-full basket and insist on cooking and feeding them to the family. This meant adding every spice in my mother’s kitchen and stirring relentlessly. Because otherwise it would be too easy and not “real” cooking. What finally appeared was black, with too much, too yellow oil, and too little mushrooms, because they’d shrink to a couple of tablespoonfuls. The family would kindly say that I should eat them all and I would, on toast. Quite delicious then, but I’m not sure I could stomach them now.
In the fray
Then, for more than 10 years, no cooking. Until the big change — I had a home to run and a kitchen to use. And myself — and a husband — to feed. So, in the couple of weeks before I was to set off on my culinary odyssey, I came home from the hostel and asked my mother to teach me how to cook. She said I should come down to the kitchen early in the morning, while she was doing her stuff. I, freshly returned from late nights in the uni hostel, couldn’t be roused until it was too late, and a few days later she snapped at me when I asked which dal was called what, how much water and how much time it needed to cook, and how to temper it. She was annoyed because I, who had eaten them all my life, now didn’t know the difference between moong and masoor. Then she softened and said I had a lifetime of cooking ahead so I might as well sleep while I could and that, when the time came, I would manage. When she did deign to instruct, her favourite — and my most feared — word was andaza. How much oil? Andaza. How long to heat it? Andaze se. How long to sauté the vegetable? Andaza. I know now that, in Indian cooking a spoonful or a minute here or there aren’t going to kill the dish, and tasting in medias res isn’t taboo, but I wish she had merely said about a tablespoon; or five to ten minutes. This andaza, this “guess-timation” only mystified.
So I started a kitchen knowing how to make eggs and to brew a pot of tea: breakfast. But not dal-sabzi-phulka. But somewhere her cooking and her table have gotten into my DNA. I’ve learnt the essentials from her. The meal should look good, be nutritionally balanced and vegetables should look like what nature intended, not an unrecognisable mash. Which translates into buying and eating local, seasonal produce and preserving looks and micronutrients by cutting simply, into regular shapes and cooking lightly so that green capsicum doesn’t look like pumpkin.
Also, there shouldn’t be similar raw materials on one menu: so no menu with both cauliflower and cabbage and never both spinach and fenugreek. She always had bright colour on the table: green, pale green, yellow, reddish brown, pale cream or white. And her spicing was simple. Fresh green vegetables were tempered with just ginger in winter and onions in summer, and sometimes not even that, just turmeric and salt. For years I heard her tell Gyan Chand NOT TO ADD WATER and to STOP STIRRING dry vegetables. She had a special gift and was an intuitive cook, but she didn’t explain. I’ve learnt some principles by trial-and-error: temper with one predominating flavour (so every vegetable smells and tastes different), sear the vegetable, cover and cook on low heat just until tender. For intensely green peas and spinach, blanch briefly and then cook – so that the cooking-until-tender doesn’t render the green khaki. The spread, however simple, was attractive and that, I think, was half the battle won.
Meat curries, though are another story. Spices should be freshly ground, and for the flavours to permeate, the meat should either be marinated for a few hours before cooking, or cooked a day before serving. Roti and phulka were, and remain to this day, my Waterloo. I wish I had, like Vinti, been taught by a strict disciplinarian. The first time I tried, each potential roti/phulka tore or got stuck irredeemably; in any case, not one puffed up into a phulka and, ever since, I’ve left it to better cooks.