There was a time when our tables were groaning with food made by the khansamas. But even with our changing eating habits, there are homes where the cook reigns supreme.
M y father talks of childhood holidays spent at his maternal grandfather's in Jalandhar, where the cousins would run into the house between games of badminton or tennis or whatever, because they were feeling peckish. On the sideboard was a vast silver sarposh whose cover they managed to lift, struggling under the massive weight, to carve a slice of ham, stuff their faces and then run back out to continue the game.
There was a time when some homes had more than one kitchen, and I don't mean a split “joint family”, where a rebellious daughter-in-law opted to have a separate chulha under the same roof as the rest of the family. This, my great grandfather's home, was one of them.
It had two, one with a white dhoti-clad mishra, who cooked only vegetarian Indian food, mainly for the lady of the house. The kitchen was a few yards from the main house, across a courtyard. The master of the house would occasionally send for something pure and Hindu to be brought from the mishra's kitchen to his table and the grandchildren too, if there was a nice dessert or possibly poori alu.
But by and large they ate from the other kitchen, run by Muslim cooks, who dished out European and Indian meals. I doubt the ham on the sideboard was cured at home, given the sensitivities of both kitchens, so was probably brought from Lahore, where it was imported - but someone made sure that it was always there.
But what the khansamas did cook was good enough not just for the family, but dinner guests as well. In either case, white-gloved minions served course after course, without, apparently, any supervision. The dish my father remembers most clearly is roast duck.
Apparently three or four carloads would go off for a shoot and bring home, in winter, a large bag of murgabi. I don't know whether they had ovens, wood-fired or otherwise, but platters of whole roast duck steeped in fragrant Indian spices and masala were prepared and served elegantly. And this with zero guidance, because the lady of the house wasn't going to enter that sullied meat-cooking area.
The question of how they did it, then, and who trained them, needs research. I wish there was a record on You Tube. I know times are different, no normal home has two kitchens with who knows how many cooks manning each, and that in any case our eating habits are changing; we're not only eating food with fewer calories, but serving fewer dishes at a time.
Stuff of fantasies
And yet there are homes with regular “healthy” meals where the cook produces delectable food. I have a lawyer friend who organises dinner parties at about half an hour's notice. There's always a salad with multi-coloured raw vegetables and standard curries and dal and sabzi, unless her teenage daughter has cooked; but that's a different story. But Surinder's desserts are the stuff of fantasies.
Surinder is her chef de cuisine and if he's been given an afternoon's notice he can produce a cheesecake like no other I've eaten in Delhi. Cheesecake has become a must on every restaurant's dessert menu, but almost invariably what I've eaten — baked or otherwise — is a tough, egg-y, gelatinous thing. Of course it's always topped with blueberries, or, if more upmarket, fraises sauvages, wild strawberries; of course the blueberries (or fraises sauvages) have come out of a bottle or a caterer's freezer pack; and of course the custard itself is set into a block that, if I fling it across the restaurant, will hold its shape. Not a delicate confection of smooth, creamy custard that is barely set, nor a flavour of fresh, seasonal fruit, and never just lemon and its peel. The base is usually soggy and it's always too sweet.
Surinder's cheesecake base, though, is lightly sweetened and so buttery and so tender that I wonder how he's managed to make it hold together. I can barely manage to cut myself a wedge and transfer it to a plate without it crumbling all over the place. And I don't know which is better; the filling or the base, so I'm constrained to have several helpings to help myself decide.
Surinder also has the wit to vary the topping according to the season. I have had his cheesecake once topped with mango, once with strawberries, once with oranges, and once, when there was probably no fruit that took his fancy, with chocolate and coffee. In his case, too, the lady of the house gives him complete carte blanche and no advice.
Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi.
Surinder's Strawberry Cheesecake Ingredients 1kg yoghurt 170g digestive biscuits 3 tsp granulated sugar 50g butter 200g strawberries 200g cream 100g powdered sugar 200 ml orange juice 2 tsp gelatin Method: Hang yoghurt for 4-6 hours. Grind biscuits coarsely and mix with granulated sugar. Melt or soften butter and stir into biscuit-sugar mixture. In a nine inch pie plate, spread biscuit mixture, patting down to make a smooth, level base. Push mixture an inch up the inside edge of the plate, to create an edge of crust. Refrigerate entire dish. Purée strawberries until smooth. Mix together with hung yoghurt in a large bowl, adding cream, powdered sugar and orange juice. Dissolve gelatin in half cup warm water and, using an electric hand beater, combine well with yoghurt-fruit mixture. Pour into refrigerated biscuit crust in pie plate. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled and set. Before serving, arrange sliced strawberries or pour sweetened strawberry purée on top of chilled cheesecake