I’ve always been a ‘MasterChef’ kind of cook. I don’t mean to say I cook exceedingly well, just that I cook the fancy stuff they keep cooking up on reality TV. In short, I specialise in cooking what my mother doesn’t. On my culinary journey from crème brûlée to carbonara, and parmigiana to pork chops, I missed the stop at Desi-ville, and never learnt to make batatyachi bhaji and vaangyache bharit.
Not blowing my own trumpet here, but learning to cook my own masale-bhat was a bit like reinventing the wheel. My mum – the maker of the best masale-bhat, ukdiche modak and puran poli in the world – is ever ready to cook up her trademark dishes for me. So why try to best the best eh?
On the other hand, when the craving to have hot seared salmon strikes, I would have to go all the way to a fancy restaurant and shell out a handsome sum. Therefore, it was simply prudence that drove me to cooking my own global food!
But of course, life has a way of slipping in a spoon of vinegar just when you’ve brought the creamiest of milk to a rolling boil. Just when I was feeling like an accomplished little housewife whipping up my husband’s favourite restaurant-style menus, the coronavirus struck!
Bam! And there I was working from home, juggling my toddler’s demands, and cooking. The cook’s on holiday of course, so if I want my fix of khichdi, I can’t simply instruct, I got to make it myself. Social isolation means that I can’t drop by mum’s place and replenish my stock of thalipeethachi bhajni either. At a time like this, when I would have loved to have some global cuisine, I have barely any ingredients – no fancy vegetables, cheeses, herbs or meats. And having been stranded away from home, I don’t have a fully-stocked kitchen, or access to my little herb garden. Hell, I don’t even have butter and vanilla to bake myself a pity-cake. (Looking at you Instagram bakers – where you getting all those eggs from?)
Most days my refrigerator only has the humble tinda, cabbage and cauliflower. And suddenly I’m as bad as a bachelor cook cooking her first vegetable-wali Maggi.
The other day, tired of badly-made cauliflower bhaji, I called mum and got her recipe of dahi vada. It sounded so simple. Soak, grind, deep fry. A child could do it. But what my mum neglected to tell me was just how much Urad dal I needed to soak. I wildly miscalculated and I ended up with enough dahi vadas to feed a wedding party. Oh no, we didn’t waste any, we ate and ate till our waistlines became as plump as the vadas.
My latest culinary (mis)adventure has been the surnoli – a Konkani delicacy similar to a coconutty pancake. I made it thrice – not because it was so good that we had to eat it again and again, but because I just couldn’t bear to get it wrong. The last I made it was on Easter day. Jesus rose from the dead that day, my hackles rose with a mixture of fury and trepidation, but my surnoli batter absolutely refused to rise.
Now that we are many months into the lockdown, I am slowly learning to make the best of the ingredients I have.
These days I am reminded of a story my grandmother used to tell me – a story from her childhood, when she was but a little girl helping her mum run the house. This is a story from the 30s, a time when people were not used to the abundance of today.
One miserable rainy day, grandmother’s father brought home an unexpected guest – his boss. While there was some simple fare like dal, rice and chapati for lunch, that day there were no vegetables in the house! They lived on the very top of a small hill, and the closest shop was a good distance away. Now grandmother’s mum couldn’t serve such a mediocre lunch to a distinguished guest. She handed a basket to my grandmother and said– “Run along and get some taikilo from the bushes outside.” Taikilo is a bitter leafy plant that grows wild in Goa and Karnataka.
My grandmother unobtrusively returned after foraging for the taikilo. Her mum washed and chopped it, threw in some herbs and made a simple saute-style taikilya bhaji. The tenderest of the leaves, she mixed with besan and spices and crafted into crispy fritters. The earthy lunch was a success and the guest went home singing grandmother’s mum’s praises!
And that, as my grandmother would have said, is the ultimate test of a good cook. The ability to prepare simple, healthy, hearty food even when you are a couple of ingredients short. It’s the ability to take bitter taikilo and transform it into a treat! Isn’t that what life is about too? To take the lemons proffered by life and turn them into lemonade, and if there’s no sugar, to just sweeten them with jaggery? That’s what I hope to learn from the lockdown.