Noshtalgia Food

Learning with dad

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I particularly remember his account of the spicy green chilli, ginger and garlic chutney he ate in Burma, with, I think, roast duck

Some 20 years ago, we went on a picnic with my father. Food being of equal importance as location, we packed a stack of soft parathas, a box of salad ingredients: whole cucumbers, lettuce leaves, tomatoes and a few limes and green chillies, and a large plastic box with a tight-fitting lid, filled to the brim with mutton shaami kababs. For my father, there was a bottle of gur cubes, for the mandatory munh meetha. There were Anita and her visiting cousin Michu, Attri, my preteen two, and me.

My father was driving his camper and so the picnic had to be held as far as possible, and we had to take full advantage of the amenities in the camper. So the salad wasn’t cut at home (“nothing like freshly cut tomatoes!”) and the kababs were shaped into patties but not yet fried. Because there was a gas burner in the little galley, and it must be utilised. Picnics should only be attempted in good weather. This was in the summer vacation, and we stopped as close as we could get to a pleasant altitude without having to drive all day: the Morni hills.

We found a corner around which to safely park the juggernaut, and had just started noticing the flora: no cedars, firs or even pines; it was mainly curry leaf trees. It was not unbearably hot, but cool only in the shade. While the rest of us got our bearings, hearing the calls of the occasional black partridge and the ticking of the engine cooling, my father was off, leaping up a rocky hill, my son naturally in tow.

They retuned, holding up branches of curry patta for chutney. Because my father wanted fresh chutney with his kababs. So, while Anita and I heated up a pan with oil and began to fry the kababs, Daddy found two stones, washed the “equipment”, and began to grind the curry leaves to a coarse paste. For tartness he smashed in a couple of tomatoes. Then. On the way back, he developed in detail a concept he thought would be a commercial success: curry patta paste in a tube, like toothpaste.

The reason I’ve gone to such detail is that this was my first exposure to my father’s culinary prowess. Till then it had been limited to detailed, evocative descriptions of foods he ate on his travels. He would tell us how it looked, smelt and tasted, with whatever detail he had observed of the process.

I particularly remember his account of the spicy green chilli, ginger and garlic chutney he ate in Burma, with, I think, roast duck. After he told us, my mother made it, replacing the duck fat in the chutney with oil, and he said it tasted just like the original. I don’t know whether his descriptions were bang on or her cooking very clever, but this was the flavour of my childhood.

Taste & smell

He would bring the destination to life and describe a street-side stall or restaurant and the food he ate there, so that we could almost smell the brazier on a Beirut street and taste the döner kabab with carrot greens and pickled turnips. And my mother would produce it.

She was an original, creative, efficient cook, whose shalgam gosht was as good as her Bavarian creams. While she had a scientific approach, open to the latest dietary recommendations, carefully considered new gadgets and new techniques, she was also the Annapurna and the Good Wife. I know that my father never entered the kitchen, and that he wouldn’t even know that a gas cylinder had a control lever switched off at night or where the tea leaves were kept.

And now he runs a home that has house guests and dinner guests more often than mine; anyone is welcome at any time: he and his Bhagwan Singh are Annapurna.

Every morning we chat on the phone and, among other things, he tells me what his menu plan for the day is. Sometimes it defies logic — or at least convention. The first time he mentioned his dislike for besan ka pakoda in besan ki kadhi, I didn’t react. Then he asked the cook to simmer qeema koftas in the kadhi instead. And reminded me that what I had thought of as commonplace all my life had actually been his innovation: whole or chopped spinach leaves cooked in kadhi. That’s quite a fine dish, and I think I prefer it to the pakoda programme too.

Yesterday he said he had harvested a small crop of a new variety of karela, longer, slimmer and less bitter. He had asked the cook to stew them in kadhi, but to “steam the karela first, otherwise they’d stay hard in the sour yoghurt”. I suggested that he fry them crisp with a sprinkling of besan and eat them as a side dish, but he wanted to experiment.

Fruit variations

Some of the variations really work. All seasonal fruit is bought in bulk, and fresh ways to serve them are devised. Stewed fruit is common, but a delightful addition is orange peel. When carrots are red and juicy, after the pale orange carrots of summer have gone, big fat chunks are stewed, sweetened, and slivers of finely cut orange peel mixed in. Vast bowls are refrigerated. But then my father loves his dessert. If nothing else, brown shakkar is stirred into smooth, beaten yoghurt, and purple and green grapes halved and mixed in.

I’m not much for sweets, and, in any case, there’s little room left after dining with full maika indulgence. The variations reflect his taste and the logic of easy-to-eat sizes. Chicken is always served as boneless wedges, in smooth orangey-yellow curries. Minced mutton koftas are fried and then cooked in aromatic, spicy, coarsely ground green spinach. The table always has a jar of scarlet home-grown cherry tomatoes pickled whole, juicy and tart, in cider vinegar. The veggies are sweet because they’re freshly plucked, and when I’m on my way to visit, I cover much of the highway anticipating my first lunch.

I visited him recently and carried some frozen qeema paste, spiced, boiled, ground and ready to be fried into kababs. The next week he called and asked for the recipe because mine had been so much softer than Bhagwan Singh’s. And then reported that the new shaami kababs had been absolutely the tenderest he had ever eaten, who would have known that egg wasn’t necessary for binding, and that my friend always gave me the best recipes!

I hope that I will still be learning, when I’m 97.

SUNDAY RECIPE

Shaami Kabab

From a friend, who wishes to remain anonymous

Makes about 25 2-inch kababs

Ingredients

500g mutton mince

2 medium onions, chopped

2 inch ginger, chopped

1/2 cup chana dal, washed

1 green cardamom

1 clove

2 black cardamom (optional)

2 dry red chillies

1 tsp peppercorns

1 tsp cumin seed

Salt

To be roasted separately on a dry tawa

2 tsp poppy seed

1 1/2 tsp grated coconut

Method

1. Assemble all the ingredients in a pressure cooker. Add a cup of water.

2. Cook till chana dal is tender, about 10 minutes after full pressure is reached. Dry off any remaining water.

3. Grind to a smooth paste on a sil batta (an electric mixer-grinder does the job, but changes the texture.) Shape into round patties.

4. Fry in a flat, shallow pan, like alu tikki, on low heat, with less oil.

5. Freeze remaining ground qeema paste.

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

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Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 1:23:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/learning-with-dad/article29983706.ece

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