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Winning hearts with food

It is said that the best way to reach the heart is via the stomach.  

My visits to Switzerland were always something I looked forward to, with the snow-peaked Swiss Alps, beautiful lakes, and tree-lined traffic-free roads to walk peacefully on. There was a park nearby, that I would walk to every evening. Since Geneva is a place where people from various countries and multiple nationalities come for work, in the UN and other international agencies, I would see many women from different countries during my stroll. We would just smile in greeting, as we walked past each other or sat on a bench. One day, a woman sitting next to me said, “You know, Indian food is full of chillies. So, one can’t really enjoy it.”

I turned my head to look at her. Her accent seemed English. ‘Excuse me,” I said. “What was the reason given by the Europeans to enter India and then stay on and rule it for centuries? Spice trade.”

“We are past masters in the knowledge and uses of spices. We know which spice to put in what kind of food. What brings out the flavour of the food best, what adds to it, which spices should be used together and which ones separately. Our food is spiced perfectly, but not with chillies, that’s just a part of the seasoning, not the main content.”

She was a bit taken aback at my reaction. After a while, she recovered from the response and said, “Will you teach us Indian cuisine?”

I was a bit taken aback too, but I just smiled and said, “Well, I wasn’t born on the day when I would turn down a challenge. So, yes, I will introduce you to it and teach you our cuisine.” As I have a home economics degree and have conducted some cooking courses, I felt well prepared for the challenge.

In no time, women of eight or nine different nationalities formed a group. To start it off, I invited them to my place and arranged the ingredients and menu for the introductory lesson. They all enjoyed themselves hugely and became even more enthusiastic.

The teaching, or should one say, cooking lesson, would take place in each one of their homes by turn. Every evening, I would send one of them the dishes we would be making, and the ingredients needed. So, after their children left for school, a couple of women would come and get me for the lesson. The hostess of the day would set a table in the garden where we could all sit to do the theoretical part. As I explained the cooking methods and how we will go about the preparation of the dishes of the day, I also told them about some of our rituals around food.

For example, I told them that traditionally we Indians would sit cross-legged on the kitchen floor where the food would be served in a metal plate for main thing like rice or chapatis with many small bowls for different vegetable and lentil preparations, curd and sweet dish. I also told them that Indians do not use implements like spoons, knives and forks. The real way to enjoy the food is, eating with one’s hands using all the fingers to put the food in the mouth and if tasty, even lick the fingers. That made them laugh.

No matter who they were and where they came from, they all did the tasks allotted to them during the lesson: chopping, grinding, roasting, frying, as required in the recipe for the day. I adapted to their

kitchen by using the oven grill to make ‘tandoori’ dishes. Once the dishes were in the grill or on simmer, we had a tea/coffee break. This is when they could ask all the questions in their minds and queries or clarifications they needed.

Once the dishes were ready, we all sat down on the table, they looked at me and some said, ‘Do we have to eat with our fingers?” “No! eat the way you enjoy the food most,” was my response.

The funny thing was that their husbands kept calling from work all morning asking their wives to save some ‘curry’ for them. So, the classes went on and we became good friends. Amazing how with a common interest there was no barrier of cast, creed, and nationality. They had asked me if they could pay a fee. I said, “Absolutely not. I am happy to introduce you to our specialised cuisine.”

As the saying goes, “All good things must come to an end!” I had to return to India, so it was time to say goodbye and put an end to the classes. My students invited me to a farewell dinner. The most pleasant surprise was that they made a full Indian meal and a really delicious one! A beautiful card with the sweetest thing written by each of them was presented to me.

It is said that the best way to reach the heart is via the stomach. It has been many years since those cooking lessons, but the connection formed via food remains. Some of them are still in touch and tell me how much their families enjoy the Indian food they cook.

ranidevasar@gmail.com

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Printable version | May 19, 2021 9:10:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/winning-hearts-with-food/article32649587.ece

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