My relationship with food started when I was very young. Even as a kid, I loved the warmth of the place, the aromas and the dishes my parents cooked up. I vaguely remember sitting on the kitchen floor (our kitchen was huge, you could put a double bed and sleep), my mom making hot chapatis and my bro and I would hog like anything on simple रोटी and भिंडी की सब्ज़ी. My dad also loved to cook, so when it was a question of specialty dishes, he would shoo mom out of the kitchen, turn his lungi into lambda/2, curse everyone around, and get going. Every couple of weeks, we would have family friends over, my parents would spend the day cooking and those coming would also bring some variety, and we would have a feast. I never knew how eating all that food never fattened me up (in contrast to even water being fattening these days).
So, was it surprising that I wanted to cook too? And my mom would not let me. See, in very early days, we had a kerosene stove, and she was not comfortable with me going close to it. When I was in about class VII, we got our first gas stove and suddenly I had access.. Still she would not let me. “You worry about your studies, you have your whole life ahead, ज़िन्दगी भर खाना तो बनाना ही है”. So what would a persistent brat like me do? I would wait for her to leave home and then I would do whatever the hell I wanted. The first vegetable I ever made was आलू की सब्ज़ी, when my parents were not at home. And it turned out to be somewhat edible, my parents ate it, with complaints, but finished it. And then there was no more stopping me.
Unlike a lot of educated girls in my generation, I knew the basic art and science of Indian cooking, all my spices and oils and what goes with what, several years before marriage. Yet, when I got married, my first kitchen experience with traditional “पापड़ सेकना आता है?”, was as tough as it goes. I passed, but barely. See, the papad turned out, not 100% flat, a little too much burnt in a few places, some pieces chipped off as I used a चिमटा and held it too tight. (I still do that, I can’t hold a papad with my bare fingers near the flames). Even after 20 odd years, I have only marginally improved. My bong food experience of yesteryear’s did not teach me “how to सेकोfy a papad perfectly and impress your mil”.
Cooking after a full work day was not something to look forward to, but early days, I had the enthusiasm. And with practice, the daily bread churned out in one hr flat, with one curry, daal, rice and chapatis, thanks to the great invention called the pressure cooker and its separators. And once in awhile, we had friends over and I figured out quite a few things to cook, that wasn’t time consuming and went well with folks, including reusing leftovers.
These days, the biggest bottleneck with cooking is, the fellow who eats it. He will not have anything to do with pastas, but he loves Pizza; any kind of noodles is completely no, no. So most non-indian cuisines are ruled out. And he has a hate hate relationship with the most coveted spices like cloves and cinnamon. Any whiff of that and.. You end up hearing remarks like “ दाल में आज कुछ problem है” ,“सब्ज़ी hostel वाली लग रही है”, “इसमें गरम मसाला डाला है”. Talk of paranoia. The spice is not there in the house, and he can smell it. So, working with such restrictions, it is best to let the maid handle it and pass on the comments to her. In my home, you eat what the maid cooks up, or starve. Maybe he will be happy the day he can download food.
The interesting fact about cooking, my cooking, is that when I put a lot of effort into this art, the dish is typically a flop and I have had the pleasure to throw away stone cakes (cakes as hard as the adjective) which even insects refused to touch, creating food that people could barely eat and I had to finish it across three days.
The day I know my maid is going to be missing in action for the next seven (unbelievable) days, my temper starts soaring higher at the thought of being made to cook by maid. It doesn’t matter that I love cooking and it hardly takes me an hour to cook up an interesting meal from scratch (or a story like this one). My husband is content with खिचड़ी also, but when I decide to get worked up, I really work at it.
So day 1 is really, oh well, just दाल चावल. Excuse me, it does qualify as meal. And I have excuses, several of them eg, coming home tired after a hard day’s work (can you hear the dripping पसीना), followed by multiple calls and a long 3 ½ km brisk walk. Day 2 is more normal (the undying guilt of feeding दाल चावल to hubby) with रोटी and my special culinary delight called पत्तागोभी मटर (ugh, even I could barely ingest it).
Third day I decide to go experimental with अचारी दही वाली भिण्डी and when I hopefully look at my dear husband for an encouraging feedback, all I get was “ये कड़वी क्यों है?” How do I know, ask Sanjeev Kapoor. Embittered but emboldened, relentless search on the internet for the next designer dish from my exclusive boutique results in पनीर पुदीने काली मिर्च the next day (except that I forget the kalimirch part of it), but it is still a hit. Again my hopeful look (why don’t husbands get it, you are supposed to say it is awesome, to get something edible next day), and this time I got “अच्छी है”. Mere 2 words for an hours work! Wonder what I’ll try the next day? With all the encouragement I get, I would probably stick to safe खिचडी.