“…once you can smell the garam masala…” “...once you can smell the aroma.” Simple instructions for simple meals.
Boria Majumdar, according to the blurb a “leading sports scholar and commentator”, has written a book to entice nervous non-cooks into the kitchen. It starts with, and repeats several times, his disclaimer, almost a waiver, stating his lack of credentials: he says he “will never garner the courage to cook for a leading chef or connoisseur. Experimenting with cooking or cooking a gourmet meal is simply not my field of expertise. Nor am I interested in acquiring this specialised skill.” It is, instead, in his words, “simply the average Indian man’s survival mechanism in times of need”.
I think the recipes in Cooking on the Run (Collins, 2012) are more than just that, because they’re not just for instant noodles and eggs-and-toast; but he’s right — it’s not about specialised cooking. He is Bengali, and much of his cooking is based on his own eating and family experience, but there is also a large influence of the onions-tomatoes-garlic school which living away from home, without benefit of the finer traditional influences, makes us resort to.
Majumdar explains time and again (where were the editors?) why it’s necessary to cook, how it’s therapeutic to cook, how cooking helps one survive, how cooking helps one have a social life. Sometimes work pressure is high, sometimes we’re tired, sometimes we can’t afford to eat out, sometimes we want to eat healthy, sometimes it’s wet and cold and blustery outside. All true, but readers would have understood with one paragraph.
Language needs care: “beneath its’ guise”, “you aren’t dependant any more”, “…is more spicier than…” as do some ingredients. What is jujube fruit? And what is a coconut leaf (in which you’re supposed to wrap and bake prawns)? Isn’t half a tablespoon of turmeric powder too much for a four-egg curry? The book could also have benefited from a table of contents: “Powerplay” and “Slog Overs” don’t tell me what food that chapter is about.
The book has a cricket metaphor running throughout. And there is a “story line”. Starting with his unease at cooking anything at all, a time when his omelette wouldn’t thicken and set because he had neglected to turn on the heat, he grows to cook regularly, entertain, and be recognised for his talent in the kitchen. The finale is about his return to Kolkata and the tour de force of his cooking in his mother’s kitchen. On the way he takes us from his student days at Oxford through his stay in Chicago and travels to Australia and Austria, almost cooking for his passage. The references to Kolkata are loving and familiar, and to Oxford affectionate without sentimentality. There are shopping guides that the sub-continental cook will probably find useful.
On the whole, the book is aimed at single men, to whom the whole world of cooking is scary, and who don’t have worries about cholesterol, nutrition, balanced meals, and a budget. Prawns, prawns and prawns, with the occasional nod to eating “healthy” (don’t use ghee, use butter). I think of readers like Arjun Nair, and I think it will work for them. They don’t have the time and the expertise to be inventive with green vegetables; meat, chicken and prawns fit the bill.
Full of veggies
There are vegetable recipes, but again, they’re full of ingredients, so Majumdar must assume that the young chef has access to a full larder. “Beans Alu Sabzi” for instance asks for whole dried red chillies, curry leaves, mustard seeds, onion, garlic, green chillies, coconut powder and parsley leaves. The recipe for bhindi, okra (in the book, okhra), is unusual in that it seems to be heading towards a wet, squishy vegetable: (after many ingredients and some cooking). “…Once the okhra has turned soft, add the chopped tomato and mix well. Close the lid for 3-4 minutes and allow the tomato to become soft before letting the dish cool. You can sprinkle coriander leaves and a touch of whipped cream on top as well.”
There is a recommendation for when and how to eat each dish, but what I loved was the frequent suggestion that many — prawns with spring onions, chicken boti kabab — were “perfect as a light afternoon snack”. I could do with a “delicious afternoon snack” of mangsher ghugni (curried chickpeas with mutton) but wonder how this harried gentleman had the time and leisure for afternoon snacks. Maybe he ate leftovers.
The recipes are interspersed with anecdotes of Majumdar’s stays abroad, and are, for the most part, simple. In fact they might be too simple. Payesh, gajar ka halwa and rasmalai in 35 minutes each? But he starts with rasgullas and steams the carrots. I guess what you lose on taste you gain on speed. But some recipes look very exciting. One that shall put me in the kitchen tonight is Dim Posto, eggs in poppy seed gravy. I’m not his target reader, being neither young, nor male, nor inexperienced, but eggs egg me on.
(Egg with poppy seed paste)
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Four hardboiled eggs
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
Four green chillies
1/2 tbsp poppy seeds
One large onion, finely chopped
1/2 tsp sugar
Fry eggs in two tbsp oil till they turn reddish-brown; cut into halves or quarters. Grind poppy seeds with water to a smooth paste. Grind two chillies to a paste and mix with poppy seed paste. In the same oil used for frying eggs, sauté onions till light brown. Add poppy seed paste and turmeric and cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes. Boil 1/2 cup water and add to pan with salt, a pinch of sugar, eggs and two green chillies. Simmer till gravy thickens. Sprinkle with chopped coriander leaves.