Noshtalgia Food

Dial D for dinner

From sandwich spreads to mixed atta, non-seasonal fruit juices to exotic vegetables, everything is available either around the corner or on the phone. Getty images/ iStock

From sandwich spreads to mixed atta, non-seasonal fruit juices to exotic vegetables, everything is available either around the corner or on the phone. Getty images/ iStock  

The family asked me how often my mother cooked pasta. Apart from mac and cheese, never. Now we not only get pasta in every shape, but every sauce from ragu to pesto

The sheer variety and convenience of food shopping today is mind-boggling. As Neelam says, “If you have a phone and money in your pocket, meals aren’t a problem.” True. One can order in or eat out. Home delivery, which started with pizza, expanded to Chinese cuisine, Thai, sushi. Even a single cup of tea.

That’s for the finished product. But for actually cooking in my own kitchen, provisioning has changed, gradually and radically, from the basics upwards. I’ve been going back to early memories. Fifty years ago, in my parents’ home, atta wasn’t bought as atta; ‘good quality’ wheat was bought, washed, dried in the shade, and collected in a vast galvanised iron drum kept on a sturdy stone shelf. There was a small window near its base with a cover that could be vertically slid off or back on. The month’s requirement was allowed to pour out, taken to the chakki, and ground coarsely.

Today, when we need atta, I phone the chap and order it. But first I have to negotiate the choices: MP wheat, with bran or without, and mixed with soya bean, chana ka atta, bajra or not. A branded mixed atta, neatly packed in a 10 kg carry bag, is delivered. Buying rice is similar. I have to choose between not just the basmati and sela of the past, but between brown, jasmine, sticky, Joha, Gobindbhog and several other varieties. The only rice I cannot get is real basmati — the market is full of pretty, long-grained white rice that costs as much as precious metals, but lacks flavour. I remember when Ashok used to bring us the basmati he grew, the moment he entered our house I could smell it, packed and as yet uncooked.

Milk in plastic pouches

Milk was in limited supply, probably linked to ration cards. At the crack of dawn someone had to queue up for a limited number of bottles, and the different colours of the shiny foil caps signified the fat content. Khoya was taken off the market in summer. Of course if you had a gwala, a buffalo owner who delivered milk to your doorstep, there was no limit — he could add as much water as necessary. Now with Mother Dairy, the mechanical cow, and the White Revolution, we get unlimited plastic pouches of any kind of milk.

We only ate seasonal fruit, and juice was a luxury. Now I see tetra-packs of every flavour, with and without sugar, in combinations we never made, like pear and nectarine, kiwi and grape. I know fruit comes from other countries and States, so we have oranges, guavas, watermelons and apples around the year. The cold chain has improved to such an extent that the apples are crisp, bursting with juice and flavour, even in summer. There was a time when only Golden Delicious and dark red apples from Kinnaur had these qualities; little plastic stickers appeared later, the badge of ‘imported’, implying quality and justifying the price.

Almost all varieties of vegetables, as I have long bemoaned, are available around the year, so from a family menu you can’t tell whether it’s summer or winter. Here, in the North, there used to be a clear demarcation of seasons. We started eating cauliflower only after Dussehra, and lauki and bhindi only in high summer. But the pleasant change is that we’re getting ‘exotic’ vegetables like lettuce, baby corn, coloured bell peppers and zucchini in the local shops. I remember the time when even mushrooms were so unusual that they were reserved for special meals.

Pasta in different shapes

We were talking about tonight’s menu — we’re doing spaghetti alla Gricia, with streaky bacon and Pecorino cheese — and the family asked me how often my mother cooked pasta. Apart from macaroni and cheese, never. Now I can not only buy dried pasta in different shapes and thickness, I can choose a readymade sauce to go with it. The store shelves are packed with tomato, ragu and pesto.

It’s a different matter that I like to make my own — but I don’t really have to. Sandwich ‘spreads’ abound. I have no idea what they’re made of, but I imagine it must be flavoured, coloured vegetarian mayonnaise, whipped-up hydrogenated fat. Salad dressings used to be a squeeze of lime or a basic French vinaigrette. Now there’s ‘Ranch style’, chipotle, Caesar, blue cheese.... From hummus, plain or spiked, to pâté, duck or goose liver, to bread, walnut-raisin or sourdough, almost every food any Western supermarket sells is available at a price. Amul cheese was what we grew up with. Now my local grocery store stocks six brands of feta. Olive oil was just about heard of, but we thought bread had to be eaten with butter. Not this pretentious dribble of balsamic vinegar in extra virgin oil.

Ham and salami

There used to be, in the middle circle of Connaught Place, an outlet of the government owned Central Dairy Farms. It was then said to be the only place where pork was safe. So, once in a blue moon, we’d buy ham and salami. Entire Christmas hams were bought by fancier cooks, marinated, boiled overnight and glazed, and finally coated with mustard and pineapple rings, if that was what you desired. Now a visit or phone call to the neighbourhood shop with a refrigerator, and the bacon is brought home to you. Or chicken ham, the strangely popular reconstituted creation that I avoid. For an entire roast ham a little planning is needed, but it can be ordered from the better delicatessens.

The neighbourhood shops are particularly well stocked with vegetable and chicken patties. Obviously, homemade hamburgers are the flavour of the decade.

Shopping made easy

From the days when my mother drove weekly to INA market, hired a young lad to follow her from vegetable shop to eggs and poultry, carrying a basket on his head, to today, shopping is definitely much easier.

Most everything is available either around the corner or on the phone. I tried online grocery shopping once but they didn’t have the tea I wanted nor even the atta, so I gave up. And it’s not just the convenience that is amazing, it’s the variety. It’s as easy to produce a meal of smoked salmon, baked Camembert, a salad of mixed leaves with a dessert of cheesecake with frozen blueberry topping as of matar-paneer, dal bukhara and Kerala parotta: the ingredients of both meals are as easy to procure as for basic dal-sabzi-chawal.

Sunday recipe

CHILLED COTTAGE CHEESE PIE CAKE

Serves 8

Biscuit crust:

1 cup Marie (or Digestive biscuit or Graham-Cracker) crumbs

2 tbsp powdered sugar

1/4 cup butter, melted

Filling:

1/2 cup sugar

1 envelope (half tbsp) unflavoured gelatine

1/4 tsp salt

1 cup milk

2 eggs

1 tbsp grated lemon zest

2 cups creamed cottage cheese or soft home-made paneer made of whole fat milk

METHOD

1. Make biscuit crust by combining, in a small bowl, crumbs, sugar and butter. Stir well with a fork to mix well.

2. Reserve 1/4 cup of crumb mixture for sprinkling later on top. Spread the rest of the crumb mixture on the bottom and side of a 9-inch pie plate. Use the back of a metal spoon to press crumbs till the edges and on the sides. Refrigerate plate.

3. To make filling, combine milk, eggs, sugar, salt and gelatine in a small saucepan. Cook on medium heat, stirring continuously with a metal spoon.

In about five minutes the custard will thicken enough to coat the back of the spoon.

4. Remove from heat and stir in lemon peel. Transfer to a large bowl and refrigerate for about 40-50 minutes. It should become just solid enough to mound slightly when dropped from a spoon.

5. Add cheese. With electric hand mixer (or in large bowl of electric mixer) beat at high speed for three minutes, until light and fluffy. (If the mixture looks runny, refrigerate for 10 minutes.)

6. Pour onto biscuit crust in pie plate. Sprinkle reserved crumb mixture on top, around edge of pie. Refrigerate overnight or for at least 3 hours. Serve chilled.

(This recipe was devised by my mother back in the day when we had no access to Digestive biscuits, Graham Crackers, cottage cheese, or gelatine in envelopes. But it worked as well without.)

From the once-forbidden joy of eating eggs to the ingratitude of guests, the writer reflects on every association with food. vasundharachauhan9@gmail.com

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 12:19:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/dial-d-for-dinner/article28099924.ece

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