Friday, September 7, 2012

Food for thought / cook na kaho

In the May of 2008, my University acceptance letters came through. A few months later, I was in London to pursue my Master’s. I wasn’t worried about how I’d manage living all alone in a new country. My immediate area of concern was how I’d satisfy my hunger pangs and cravings for all the food I was used to.

Back home in Bombay food was (still is) an important part of my life, whether it was a home cooked meal or eating out. Bandra was / is home to some of the best bakeries and eating houses in Bombay. Ok, to be fair, I did say some. Most evenings I’d be at one or the other enjoying my favourite fare – from jalebi and paani puri to chicken puffs and burgers to aloo samosas. Not to forget the cheese-topped potato and cucumber sandwich – lightly toasted – at the neighbourhood sandwich guy.

At home, food was sensible Maharashtrian fare. Simple. Spicy. Oily. Healthy eating was an alien concept. I loved my spicy prawns curry floating in enough oil to use in another dish. The generous dollops of butter on aloo parathas made unfailingly most weekends. Not to mention the lamb curry made every Sunday in a rich cashew sauce or the pan fried fish through the week. Except Monday and Thursday. We didn’t do the fancy stuff. No Chinese. No Italian. No eggs Benedict. You get the picture.
But I digress. 
Back to London and my food issues. In a week or two, I’d more or less exhausted ready-to-eat meal packs I’d carried from back home. Yes, yes. I did it too. And then there were just so many curry takeaways you can have before being sick at the very sound of ‘curry’. I discovered doner kebabs, beer battered fish and chips and all those ‘Indian’ meals Bangladeshi run ‘balti’ restaurants sold. Supermarket food – from crispy snacks, breads and cakes, cookies and chocolates – became meals in themselves. Oh yes, it was a life of food excess.

Finally, I tried my hand at cooking. Like most other Indian students going abroad, I had carried some must use, definitely needed spices that added to the home cooked taste. I also had a book of simple recipes I was used to, hand written by my mother, of course. It helped that traditional everyday Maharashtrain fare I ate was rather simple to make. Some oil, a pinch of hing, ginger and garlic paste, cloves, cinnamon, etc. You get the picture. We also had what was called ghaati masala which was basically all the spices ground together to make our version of garam masala.

Replace potato with fish and you had a simple fish curry that required a preparation to cooking time of not more than 30 minutes. The spicy prawns in red curry – konbicha khadkhadla became a potato curry with the prawns replaced. Peas, carrots and other mixed vegetables cooked with onions and rice became a staple rice meal on cold winter nights. Not to forget the fresh halal meat I made by the potload most weekends. On campus, our floor in the student dorm even cooked a let’s-get-to-know-each-other potluck meal. My contribution – moong daal bhajiyas!

My experiments with cooking had their fare share of disasters too. The most disastrous among them would be the time when I left a pot of chicken cooking overnight. It was a miracle the flat didn’t burn down. Needless to say my flat mate – a Punjabi munda who doesn’t eat meat (the horror) – was not too happy though he did have a funny story to tell at work the next day.

Last New Year’s eve, I peeled, chopped, diced, poured and mixed, all with just the use of my left hand. Why? Bitten on my right hand – on the palm – a few days before! By the way, did I mention I’m right handed? Old neighbours, family, who have sampled some of my cooking exclaim in delight, “Just like your mum used to make!” I smile. I won’t say I’m a great cook but I’ll settle for good. I don’t do elaborate and I can’t bake, yet. I don’t often stick to the tried and tested. There’s always something new to come up with on one of those weekends when you’re alone at home.

I cook not because I need to but because I want to. It’s as close as it comes to maa ke haath ka khana for me. Cook na kaho. It’s that simple.

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