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-

 

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My life is a Red Velvet Cake- II

Here’s what happened so far,

Last December, I had decided to make a Red Velvet Cake on a whim. After a day of recipe hunting, when I arrived in my kitchen to do the actual baking, a new difficulty materialized at every step. Finally, when the butter was posing to be too tough to mix, I gave up and walked out.

When in Masterchef Australia, things don’t go well, contestants conveniently discard the batch of under cooked food and start afresh. But life isn’t Masterchef Australia; there was no way that I could walk out abandoning the half done ingredients without a huge bout of guilt taking control of me. That was a good 200 gm of flour, butter and sugar bound for trash only because I did not have the sanity to melt the butter before using it. So, I took a spoon and slowly began folding the curd mixture into the butter and sugar. I would swirl the butter, then even it with the spoon and then repeat the swirl.

As soon as the butter and curd made peace in the bowl, I added a teaspoon of vanilla essence and beat it with the electric blender once. One monumental task done, it was time for another, I had to add flour to this mixture. The consistency of the mixture was thick already, so I decided to approach with the flour in small portions because I did not have the time to afford another almost walk out session. I split the flour into 4 portions and added it one after the other, moving to the next portion only when the first incorporated well and smoothing out any lumps that occurred. Fifteen minutes in the calling a truce of the thick skinned ingredients, the batter seemed done. For the next step I had to mix 1/2 a teaspoon of baking soda to 1/2 a tablespoon of vinegar and wait for the froth to rise before I add it to the batter. That is how the batter was done.

My brain still wasn’t convinced that I had come this far. So I continued to match the appearance of my batter with the pictures on Gayathri’s blog. Every time I looked at mine, it felt as it wasn’t destined for the oven to rise as a Red Velvet Cake but to solidify as bricks. There wasn’t anything wrong with my batter but that is how anxious I am as a person, I obsessively chase a catch in an entirely catchless situation. I lined the cake tin with copious amounts of oil and flour because now that I had inched so close to the victory I’d prefer it to be out of the tin. I emptied the batter into the tin, leveled it and placed it inside a pre heated oven.

Now that the cake was left to the mercy of thermal energy, I had nothing else to do but pray. Any prudent individual would begin working on the frosting however I decided to frantically walk between the bedroom and kitchen in the half hour that followed. Sometimes, it amazes me that despite of all those business studies lectures on aiming to be efficient – maximum utilization of time- my efficiency has only come to deplete over time. I checked on the cake once after it had been in the oven for 20 minutes. A gooey red line streaked the knife. I pushed the tin inside the oven again and then googled if opening the oven door during baking affects the process. Google cautioned me to keep calm and let it bake but given my impatient reflexes I checked on the cake again after ten minutes. The knife was slightly streaked this time. I shoved the tin inside, set the timer afresh for 7 minutes and turned away. The oven beeped as the timer hit zero but  I did not approach it as anything worthwhile in life demands standing time; if time is all it wants I will give it that.

I took the tin out of the oven, placed it on the platform and ran a knife through it which came out spotless.That, folks was nothing short of a miracle for me.

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That’s how it came out of the oven.

Now that I had a red cake all I needed was cream cheese frosting for it to be Red Velvet Cake. So I opened the tub of that packaged cream cheese, scooped half of it into a bowl. I added half a cup of white butter, half a cup of sugar and a tinge of vanilla essence to it and began whisking it. I accept that this was not an Amul Cream advertisement where I whisk it once and the it fluffs up but I most certainly did not expect it to dilute further every time I beat it. On a closer look, I realized that the packaged cream cheese had tiny bits of ice in it which were melting with the whisking and making my frosting runny. I tried improving the consistency with more cream cheese and more beating which helped slightly but I never achieved the thickness and lightness that defines frosting.

What was done was done and for the lack of any handy hacks, I proceeded with the same frosting. Once the cake had cooled down, I cut into half laterally and spread the icing on top of one layer. I then placed the second layer on top of the first and with a wooden spatula covered the cake with cream cheese as best as I could. I continued spreading the cream cheese icing generously because there was a possibility of the icing to run down. Once the icing was done, I placed it in the refrigerator over night for the icing to set.

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I made it to the finish line, (most importantly) with the cake 😉

I does not look very exquisite but it definitely tasted well and surprisingly so because cooking and I never go hand in hand.

Why I called my life Red Velvet Cake in the title was because presently my life is huge chunks of butter that I am trying to incorporate with flour and sugar and curd. On days, I feel like abandoning everything at hand. But I come back, make fresh attempts and even though the prospects don’t appear to be promising, I hope that their taste will not be any less heartening than my cake’s. So here’s to a shabby Red Velvet that holds the promise of a dainty future.


On a side note, my experiments in kitchen have made me realize that had I been in Hogwarts I would have failed horribly at potion making because of my lack of subtlety and my callousness with exact proportions.

What have your kitchen experiments taught you in life?


Read part one of this post here: My Life is a Red Velvet Cake-I

Pokemon Go is like Campus Placements

I was one of the earliest victims to have caught on the Pokemon Go bug. I had never watched Pokemon as a child. The only instance that Pokemon surfaced in my life was in class 6th, when I had to make a cartoon character on a chart paper as a part of holiday homework (don’t think of the rationale of that, holiday assignments are never meant to make sense). Being the artistically challenged soul that I am, I passed it on to my cousin who made a Pikachu and that is when I registered the existence of Pokemons.

Earlier this July, a friend told me about Pokemon Go, that how one can find Pokemons in real time as they move around in their city. And  from what I recall, I told him, ‘That is so cool’. I have read many articles on the game, talking about the rise and decline and the rise of Pokemon phenomenon, about how it affects our economy, about how the game is the fulfillment of every fan’s childhood dream- to become a Pokemon trainer. Everyone is trying to rationalize the breakneck success of the game, but if you’d ask me why I decided to play, the answer is simple, ‘that it’s a cool idea’.

The day I downloaded the game, I wanted to take a long stroll and familiarize myself with the ways of the game. But for two weeks I just could not materialize on that plan. I caught 3-4 Pokemons within my home but outside was quite a dismal story because I did not have time. The only way to accommodate it in  my day was to take a morning walk which I kept on avoiding for the risks involved. Yes there are lecherous men but at the same time there is a likelihood of bumping into many Aunties that I know. All it would take are a couple of namastes and halfhearted grins for my Pokemon Hunt to transform into a Main Milansar Hun Mission (I am Social Mission).

So last Sunday, my dad had a few errands to run; because I am jobless (or mostly deemed to be jobless) I accompanied him. While I was in the car I decided to try my luck at the game. Somehow, luck favored me- which is rare with games and me-because I continued to find Pokemons everywhere I went. That stroke of luck lasted the entire day. In between grocery shopping , catching a movie and dinner outside, I managed to find 40 Pokemons, right from the comfort of my car seat, which is ironic because the whole point of the game is to get people walking but hey I am lucky and lazy.

Yesterday was Sunday, the day when I am deemed to be most jobless in the week and there I was again, in the front seat of our car. I had opened the app and was watching the screen like a hawk. Yes, I know the phone vibrates when a Pokemon appears on the screen but I have spent a lifetime being wronged by games, I could not risk missing any Pokemon. In the 40-45 minutes drive, I could only spot Rattata, Pidgey and Spearrow, that is, the three most non exotic Pokemons out there. The oddity is that it was the same route as last week, where I had caught a Venonat, a Krabby, a Poliwag and an Eevee and today all that buzzed my screen was Rattata. On my way back I missed a Staryu because my screen froze (read, that last year’s update to Lollipop is a gift that never stops giving). The morning drive turned out to be a great disappointment.

Come evening and I was out again, this time with a definite goal- catch whatever that comes your way Palak. Before I initiate further, you should know that I am always running short on Poke Balls, owing to many injudicious throws in the beginning of the game and a general fault in my assembling when it comes to sports/games. So I had 10-12 when I left home and I continued catching Pidgey after Pidgey. With some 5 balls in my hand I took an aim at a Pidgey with Combat Power (CP) 57; it was a great throw  (this is a game terminology and not an attempt at gloating) but it broke free from the ball. I took another great throw but that wretched Pidgey escaped again. I had already seen a fair share of disappointments with the game since morning, so I was in no mood take a wound at my ego by the likes of a Pidgey. I took another aim, it dodged the ball. I took a deep breath, measured the throw and when I flicked the ball, the Pidgey was inside the ball. That is when satisfaction hit me, that I had a decent Pokemon to speak for the last 5 minutes and 4 lost Poke Balls. It was then that I could peacefully walk into the store my mom had taken me to.

I was helping my mother look for clothes when my screen buzzed. I was shocked to see that I was surrounded by 2 Zubats, a Pidgeotto of CP 146 and a Horsea of CP 76. Without waiting further I pressed on the Pidgeotto, took a aim at it and caught it. I kept my eyes closed for a second praying that it does not escape, is is likely for a Pokemon of high combat power. Unfortunately it did break free and when I moved finger to take another aim I realized that I had no Poke Balls. Being surrounded by 5 Pokemons and having no Poke Balls in hand, if that is not hard luck, I don’t know what is.

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While I was moaning over my loss on the way back home, I remembered college and placements. We had three tiers of companies for placement, the highest paying super blue, followed by blue and then light blue (because I don’t recall what that category was named). Any student could accept only two offers. Come to think of jobs like Pokemons, initially we save our efforts for exotic offers because who likes a Rattata right at the beginning. However when nothing good comes our way, in a desperate bid, we take a leap at the blue companies. Now picture yourself ecstatic at having earned two offers from blue companies and there comes a super blue Pidgeotto striking at your doorstep. But what can you do do now, there are no Poke Balls left.

What you have, is a curveball thrown at you maybe because life wants you to understand the virtues of patience or maybe because life is that insensitive friend who never misses a chance to take a dig at you. I don’t know what it is for certain, but I have decided to not squander away my Poke Balls in haste in Pokemon Go and otherwise in life.


This is my Pokemon Go story, maybe a tad dramatic but wholly authentic. Do tell me about yours in the comments.