Of food that spells home and hope

Poha. I don’t have a count of how many times have I cooked Poha. I don’t even have a count of how many times someone has rolled their eyes over how often I cook Poha. That’s how often I cook it. As a kid, I never enjoyed Poha. Between my brother and me, he was the Poha person and I was the Maggi person. Sometime he would accommodate Maggi in a meal, some days I would accommodate Poha in a meal. After all, that is what siblings do.

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For the uninitiated, Poha is nothing but flattened rice. I grew up in Madhya Pradesh where no matter which city you are in, the streets are flocked with Poha Jalebi stalls. Poha is among the staple forms of breakfast in the state and definitely the healthiest, given that the other options are all deep fried- samosa, kachori, bhedai, to name a few. Not only that, it’s simple to make too, all you do is stir fry mildly soaked Poha in with salt, red chilli powder and turmeric, add onions and roasted peanuts and top it with namkeen, some extra masala and lemon to taste. However, it didn’t seem as simple when I first made them.

I was 12 and my parents weren’t home for a week, which left me, my brother and my grandmother at home. There was a Sunday when I proposed that we would eat Poha for lunch because I was sick of eating all those North Indian takeaways which basically are differently cut cottage cheese in cream gravy. My brother had his reservations because elder brothers always have reservations and because he found the idea- of his favored Poha being subjected to my experimental cooking- quite discomforting. An hour, an errand to the grocer and a couple of arguments later, I served him Poha which he told me was dry, needed a little salt and a lot of lemon. To me, it was Poha which did need salt but it didn’t need the green chilies, coriander, fried potatoes and that dash of lemon and sugar. I couldn’t understand why the recipe needed so many small ingredients and why did the recipe span across so many steps.

Over the years, I have learned to cook Poha. A lot of Sunday breakfasts at my home are made up of Poha. My brother who once eyed my Poha with contempt often favors mine over my mother’s. To him, what I make is the virgin Poha; I stick to the classic recipe without any deviations. And we do have a couple of deviations at our home, one recipe has fried onions over raw onions, one recipe includes peas and tomatoes, one recipe is Poha bordering on lines of Upma. But what I make is the classic Poha, the one that we have grown up eating.

I often joked that if I were to ever go in a Masterchef Audition, I would make Poha for the judges and spin an emotional story on how this stands for my childhood and my first serious step in cooking. My mother would then point out, how my chances of making into the Masterchef were so bleak, given that I didn’t cook at all. I knew how to make a few variations of sandwiches, instant noodles and pulao. Primarily, I was comfortable with a recipe that required salt, black pepper, red chilli powder and turmeric. But beyond that cooking seemed like a different ball game altogether. Why my mother had shelves full of medium to small jars of whole spices, ground spices, mixture of different spices, dried herbs, perplexed me. Every Indian household has a namakdani, a circular container with 9-10 small bowls to keep everyday spices and when I opened ours I couldn’t tell the garam masala and dhaniya powder apart. My mother who is not only a brilliant but a zealous cook occasionally encouraged me to learn a few recipes citing concerns over what will I eat once I move out of the house and what will I cook once I get married. But I never succumbed to her persuasions.

I moved to Bangalore in November last year. For a month, fascinating food made its way to my plate. Like the beetroot at lunch every Wednesday, the Greek salad which had more feta than vegetables to even qualify as salad, bland under cooked lady finger, lady finger cooked in a tomato gravy, pale green scrambled eggs with a hint of salt, under cooked chick peas and kidney beans, fried rice that contained a whole star anise in every second bite and lentils that had no gravy and no taste whatsoever. Thus, what my mother could not achieve in years, Bangalore achieved in a month. I made a call to my mother asking her for the recipe of Dry Urad Dal. That evening, I bought split urad from DMart and marched into the kitchen to make something that spelled ‘home cooked food’.

I put half a bowl of dal in one bowl of water. I added salt, turmeric and baking soda to it and let the water boil on the stove. As my mother had explained it to me, the trick here is to let the dal cook in the water till it is al dente. This prevents the dal from being a mushy mess once it’s finally done. The original recipe requires asafetida and cumin seeds, however I did not have any of them, so I stir fried garlic, onions, green chilli and tomato in that order. I added salt and red chilli powder to the vegetables and tossed the boiled dal in them. I let the dal simmer on the stove. Once it was cooked, I added garam masala and finally like a true Sanjeev Kapoor patron garnished it with coriander. Since one day calls for one experiment, I decided to do away with making dough and chapattis; instead I bought a pack of ready to cook chapattis from a nearby store. At the end of the meal, I felt satisfaction. My dinner reeked of simplicity, flavor and a little bit of home.

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That night and on the nights that followed I sent pictures of my food to my mother. She was surprised at the transformation and so was I. But like they say that necessity is the mother of all inventions and my kitchen experiments were probably a result of my longing for home cooked food. On the night of lohri, I craved the achari aloo that my mother usually makes with the oil and the spices leftover after cooking stuffed karela. I called her for the recipe but maybe she was at the Lohri celebrations and hence did not take the call. Finally, I fried the potatoes and made the masala purely on instinct. I took a bite and felt that though it was close to what my mother cooks, there is something amiss with the taste and the color. My mother always warned me that if you add garam masala during the process of cooking, the final dish will be of a darker color; since I was aiming for dark color with the potatoes, so I added the garam masala and it elevated the color and the taste.

Then one day, I made chhole (chickpeas). Because no matter where I had eaten chhole in Bangalore, they were never cooked through; they always felt slightly undercooked as if they needed another whistle in the pressure cooker. My mother has two variations for chhole as well- the one that we call langar wale chhole because I first ate them in a langar and the one that she makes with bhature. Langar wale chhole are cooked in a gravy of tomatoes, onions, ginger garlic and turmeric. However I am biased towards the latter, because they are both spicy and sour and make for a comprehensive feast for the taste buds. So I made the latter sans the bhature because one experiment at a time. The most cumbersome vegetable that I made was ladyfinger perhaps. The amount of attention it demands in drying, cutting, cooking and keeping it from sticking to the pan is baffling. I mean, if lady fingers were human, their behavior would warrant therapy for being so attention seeking.

Not all days were triumphant in the kitchen. I made over cooked moong dhuli dal. I hate overcooked dal but how do you hate the product of your own hands. If you have made the mistake of keeping dal in the refrigerator and eating it the next day, you will know how lumpy it feels while gulping. That is how my fresh dal tasted. My cousin and I spent two hours trying to make besan ka chilla and we started at 10 in the night. Two hours of our lives were dedicated in getting one chilla whole out of the pan and when we did manage that feat, it tasted dry. We scraped off the scrambled bits from our plates, listing out all the other (read better and viable) things that we could have made for dinner.

I cannot identify the exact stimulus which sustained my interest in cooking over the last few months. Cooking at home is definitely simpler, cheaper, tastier and healthier (read less creamy and oily). I have always enjoyed eating what my mother cooked for us at home over restaurant food. Given a choice, I would never go to a North Indian restaurant because my mother’s food is a very difficult yardstick to match. So maybe I find comfort in the fact that there are a few modest recipes where I can come close to what I have grown up eating.

There was this day when I was making kadhi and I took out 7-8 jars of spices. My cousin laughed and remarked, “Didi ghar par jitney masale hote hain woh sare dalne hote hain kya?”. (Do we have to use all the spices that we have at home?) Remember how I felt about all those small ingredients and steps involved when I first made Poha. Between that day and this day, I have made a huge turnaround. I no longer find the expanse of the spices housed in my mother’s kitchen perplexing; in fact I have a 16 jar spice tower which houses a variation of ground, whole and dried spices. I have seen quite an eventful (read tumultuous) 2017 and if I can come up with even one thing to smile about, I take the time and appreciate it. My transition in the kitchen is undoubtedly one of them. Some things just require a little effort and commitment. Sometimes there are hidden possibilities in what we are inadequate at. I took a chance at trigonometry after 8 years and I understood that; the same topic that led me to believe I’d fail my class 11 final exam. But that is a story for another time. This was about my takeaways from kitchen- an open mind, an honest effort and a little confidence can yield happy surprises.

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What about you? What have been your lessons from cooking so far?


In case you are interested in reading more about food and hope, you should hop on to my previous two part post-

 

And today’s special is- ‘The dish not yet perfected’

Daily Prompt: You, the Sandwich.

“Mmmm”, Nikhil utters relishing the Paneer Lahori (cottage cheese cooked in cream with assorted Indian spices and garlic zest) and helps himself to another serving. “Jaan, no one can concoct a North Indian meal as delightfully as you do. It’s absolute brilliance.” Nikhil tells her, mesmerized by her food as much that Sneha can actually see his mouth-watering.

Everyone, whom Sneha has known in her life, everyone who has tasted her food even something as little as a cheese popper, will be ready to endorse Nikhil’s sentiment. Her friends, her neighbors, her colleagues, her husband, her kids- there is not a single person who hasn’t been swayed with her culinary skills. Her friends call her to fix meals or supervise the caterers for a party. Her lunch/dinner parties are events people don’t even dream of missing because of the irresistible food. Her bhabhi often befuddled between kasuri methi and garam masala, calls her for recipes.

They tell her, “You should go participate in Masterchef, no one can beat you at food.”

“Why don’t you write a cookery book, it will be a bestseller.”

“At least try writing newspaper columns, will relieve us, horrid cooks, of so much misery.”

She has never been content with her cooking, it’s always a step behind perfection. Dal Makhni is never that creamy, the Bhaturas are never that fluffy, the balance of spices and tangy-ness in her Rajma is always amiss, the stuffing in her Paranthas is never evenly spread and so on. But simply, it is not what her mother cooked for her.

In her early forties, her mother often complained of abdominal pain; something that everyone including her mother thought to be because of indigestion. One day they even got her tested to rule out any suspicion, their family doctor  (who was simply trying to materialize, on the number of patients surging by the day) run a casual gaze over the reports, assured them there was nothing to worry about and wrote out a general prescription. A month later, her mother developed a high temperature and after a few hours succumbed to it. It was discovered the pain, that everybody including the MBBS, MD Doctor mistook to be indigestion, was actually because of a dysfunctional kidney. The memory of that day is fresh in her mind- a pain that has not once subdued in the past ten years.

Food was her mother’s biggest passion, it defined her mother. Her mother, an avid follower of Sanjeev Kapoor’s Khana Khazana, did not like constraints being placed up on her culinary skills. Indian food stoked to perfection, she would try her hands on Chinese, Italian or Mexican delicacies, often recreating the dishes she had tasted in a fancy restaurant or in a kitty party.

Two days after her death, Sneha entered the kitchen, scrambled the refrigerator, the shelves just to get hold of something cooked by her mother and once she saw the box of besan ki pinni she held it in a tight embrace, childishly hoping to keep the pinnis with her forever as a souvenir from her mother. For days she longed for her mother and then in one of her sleepless nights she resolved that she is going to bring her mother back to life by cooking exactly the way she did.

She would spend hours defining attributes of every dish her mother had cooked, then zeroing in, on the ingredients questioning herself whether the Tomato Shorba was sour because of lemon, tamarind, or vinegar and then cooking the dish, vaguely guessing the proportion of every ingredient. But she hasn’t been able to revive even a single dish not even the chutney or achar (sauce and pickle).

Her mother would often coax her to learn cooking and she would always glibly reply, “I have all the time in this world to learn cooking.” Time, what a misconstrued notion, it is. You don’t realize its worth until you have none left.

She remembers an episode of Grey’s Anatomy where Izzie struggled with the chocolate muffins that her mother used to bake and later in the episode her patient, who happened to be a psychic informed her that the missing ingredient was coconut extract. Since then, she had secretly wished for a psychic, a dream or a divine signal to help her in the agenda but her prayers still remain unanswered.

Nikhil who reaches out for another Tandoori Nan, realizes that Sneha is lost in intent thought, gives her a slight peck on the back and asks, “Jaan, why aren’t you eating? Eat it before, we gluttons (winking at their twin sons) swallow the Paneer down our gut.”

She meets his eye smiling, “Namak thoda zyada ho gaya hai paneer mein, nahi? Naan thoda kaccha hai.” (The paneer is slighly salty and the Naan is a little raw.) She gets up from her chair picking up the casserole and says, “Wait, I’ll get you a kadak (crisp and roasted) Naan.”

As she strolls into the kitchen, leaving behind an exasperated Nikhil, she mutters under her breath, “A skill not yet acquired.”