Gourmet Files Vasundhara Chauhan

Following the scent

“We plan, we toil, we suffer — in the hope of what? A camel-load of idol’s eyes? The title deeds of Radio City? The empire of Asia? A trip to the moon? No, no, no, no. Simply to wake up just in time to smell coffee and bacon and eggs. And, again I cry, how rarely it happens! But when it does happen — then what a moment, what a morning, what a delight!”

J. B. Priestley, British author (1894-1984)

My neighbours live well, enviably well. I don’t know what they own, but I do know what they cook, and their dedication to eating well is admirable. Their kitchen windows face my table and every morning, when I’m sitting down to papaya and dry toast, an aroma wafts in. Frying potatoes and onions. Are they making hash browns? Rösti? Are alu tikkis being crisped? Or are they having alu parathas? Sometimes we get the whiff of an omelette and on others they seem to want a change, because I can smell fried eggs with crisp, frilly edges and believe I can hear them sizzling. Then there’s the fermented batter for dosas, the sharp smell of asafoetida and curry leaves simmering in sambar. On Sundays they do a special late breakfast because I can clearly smell parathas and kababs being browned. I imagine two burners, two skillets, simultaneously spluttering and dishing out a delicious, savoury brunch. While I chomp through my own Sunday Special: sprouts.

Vasundhara Chauhan
They obviously have a good cook because in winter the air is perfumed (yes, perfumed) with garlic being sautéed in sarson ka tel, mustard oil, and sometimes one can detect a chhaunk, tempering, of kalonji, nigella and methi, fenugreek seeds. And hear the sound of a metal spatula scraping an iron karahi.  Are they making kaddu, pumpkin, with pooris? Even more exciting is the fragrance of their mutton curry. Unlike most household curries in which the predominant flavour is that of onions, with a bit of garlic and ginger, from this one I get hints of cloves and cardamom, even nutmeg and mace. I have no proof, but I’m sure that he has no time for packaged masala mixes. He grinds spices fresh every day.

I’ve been trying to walk in the evenings and have found myself a park. It’s gated and fenced and has a paved walking track. The track is edged by flowerbeds and the park itself by a quiet, peaceful crescent of houses. The only disturbance is olfactory. The moment I walk in through the little cow gate, I meet the faint, delicate fragrance of spider lilies. A few yards and the stronger perfume of harsingar, night jasmine, assails my nostrils just before I see the fallen blooms and skip, trying to avoid crushing them. Around a bend I get a talcum powder scent that changes weekly. I suspect it’s agarbatti.

Although one might, like Heinrich Heine, believe that “perfumes are the feelings of flowers”, what I find more interesting than garden scents are the sounds and smells from people’s kitchens as dinnertime approaches. This must be a truism: other people’s cooking always smells better. From more than one home comes the unmistakable aroma of ground onions being fried. I can smell the turmeric and the coriander powder too. Are these great and rare spices? Strangely, they smell so good that when I get home I quickly change the dinner menu to alu matar, Punjabi style. There’s one particular kitchen from which I hear, in sequence, different sounds. On my first round, of stone on stone: grinding on a sil-batta. Then the jarring whirr of an electric mixer-grinder. Then comes the fragrance of fish frying, followed by mustard seeds and red chillies.

Next, the sound of wet spices spluttering as they’re thrown into hot oil and the aroma of garlic and onions being browned and caramelised. And finally, when they add coconut and tamarind, I want to invite myself over.

If, as Robert Louis Stevenson said, “It is a golden maxim to cultivate the garden for the nose, and the eyes will take care of themselves,” then one should cook for the nose and the taste will take care of itself. vasundharachauhan9@gmail.com

Vasundhara Chauhan is a food writer based in Delhi

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Printable version | Nov 25, 2021 10:40:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Vasundhara_Chauhan/vasundhara-chauhan-on-the-tantalising-aromas-of-homemade-food/article7923992.ece

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