Thought for Food Food

Favourite dishes of noted cooks are often easy meals with simple ingredients

There’s a Hindi aphorism that has always intrigued me. It says that a halwai (sweetmeat-maker) doesn’t eat his own sweets. Why ever not, I have often asked myself. Surely, the halwai knows what works best?

It was this thought that had prompted me, several years ago, to ask a few chefs what they liked to cook and eat at home. I was surprised by their answers. Most stressed that they liked nothing more than a simple spread of rice, dal and papad.

This came back to me when I was reading Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal last week. He writes about something called the “last meal game” that he played with fellow chefs. If you were about to die, what would your last meal be, he’d ask.

Bourdain writes: “‘Braised short ribs,’ said one friend.

‘A single slab of seared foie gras,’ said another.

‘Linguine pomodoro, like my mother used to make me,’ said another.

‘Cold meat loaf sandwich,’ said another, shuddering with pleasure. ‘Don’t tell anyone.’

“No one I’ve ever played this game with came back with, ‘Tasting menu at Ducasse,’” he writes, referring to the Michelin-starred chain.

The taste of family

Indeed, as I find in a great many books written by noted cooks, there is nothing chefs treasure more than a simple dish. They may know their white truffles from black, but they keep going back to old memories, and often meals cooked with everyday ingredients, when they write about food. In Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Easy, she mentions various kinds of simple and exotic dishes, but goes mushy when she writes about egg curries.

She recalls how her friend, the film producer Ismail Merchant, would call her when he returned home from his travels abroad, and say, “Come over for dinner”. “The fact that his cupboard was completely bare and his refrigerator mostly empty from his week abroad did not faze him one bit. He bought some eggs and made an egg curry, which he served with rice, his mother’s mango pickle, and some salad. What more can one want?”

Almost every food book has a reference to a fond memory or a dish cooked by a mother or a grandmother. Food show hostess and writer Nigella Lawson writes about her mother’s roast chicken, a Saturday lunch ritual, and “the lemony and rich, yet calming, savoury scent that filled the air” as she cooked.

“This may be — indeed is — the smell, the taste, the dish that says ‘family’ to me and my siblings, and brings our long-absent mother back to the kitchen and table with us,” Lawson writes in Nigella Kitchen: Recipes from the Heart of the Home.

The strangest of ingredients can open up the floodgates of food memory. In Chef Mandaar Sukhtankar’s case, it is the smell of fresh milk.

Fresh days

“One Sunday driving around town, I found myself trailing a milkman on a scooter and my mind went back to when we were children. The doorbell would ring. The doodhwala with his milk can and indispensable ‘measure’ would be at the door. The aroma of fresh milk would make me giddy as he measured and poured it out,” he writes in Romancing the Chicks: Stories, Recipes and Thoughts. The road turned, as did the milkman — “and I drove on ahead wondering if I would ever find a milkman to tail again, just so I could relive those fresh days once more in this oh-so-tetra-packed-world.”

Since I started with the last meal concept, let me end with Roald Dahl’s version of it — a game he called the hangman’s supper. In Roald Dahl’s Cookbook, he recalls several memorable meals, including one from when he was 17. On that occasion, he fished rainbow trout from a lake in Newfoundland and cooked them simply on embers. Then there was the ptarmigan, a Norwegian grouse, cooked by his mother, and served with a creamy gravy and small round roast potatoes.

“These are the meals I remember and would like to have again, but, alas, nothing superlative can ever be repeated. We must live with our memories,” he writes. And memories are the best ingredients you can have in a kitchen — or a cookbook.

The author likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.


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