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3 secrets to creative cooking

india Updated: Feb 28, 2010 13:27 IST
Samar Halarnkar

CookingAm really quite reticent about my cooking. No, really. I am.my wife, friends and parents believe I’m more than a decent cook.



When I demur, my father-in-law always insists, in the admiring manner that an Indian father-in-law reserves for his favourite son-in-law (made easier by the fact that I am his only son-in-law), "No, no, Samar, you’re a gourmet!"



It’s quite embarrassing and startling because I know what I am not – a great cook. My cooking is much like a roadside mechanic’s fiddling and tinkering. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. A twist here, a turn there. Throw it together and hope the engine fires.What I am is a jhatka or jugaad cook, that indefinable Indian quality of somehow making things work, using whatever’s available.



I know most married men don’t cook, but I do, because (a) I like to eat (b) I like it that my family and friends like it (c) I like it that my wife gets (very, umm) excited when I cook and (d) I like it that my cooking has made me – not wealthy, but – happy, healthy and wise.



Blame it on my upbringing. I grew up eating paya (a spicy soup of goat’s trotters, or hooves) for breakfast in the Deccan, that steamy, arid heart of the Indian peninsula, which to this day remains a land of black soil, backwardness and bhanamati, the local dark art of black magic.



It was the 1970s, a slow, dreamy time when tomorrow was much like yesterday, and counting your marbles or walking your sheep down the dusty backstreets passed off as the day’s highlights.I did have a sheep; my brother and I unimaginatively called him Curly. We had a cook who turned out the most delicious biryanis (I suspect Curly ended up in one after we tearfully bade him goodbye); Goan curries made with, horrors, river fish; and, oh yes, a palak (spinach) that we swallowed with water.



As you can tell, I come from a family that has always struggled with vegetables. My father claims to like a few, but my mother, brother and I have always stayed with the ways of the flesh. Anything that has lived, we’re willing to try for dinner. I’m often asked: Isn’t cooking hard? It isn’t, really. The trick is to adapt, innovate, stumble and triumph.



Secret no. 1

Learn to use what you have, focus on the party I have one of those Patiala-made cooking ranges – if the grill or oven is fired up, you touch its surfaces or knobs with bare hands at your peril.



First, you need to get it started, a task fraught with tension: You get on your knees and open the grill or oven door, peering into the darkness (why can’t the Patiala gas engineer figure out how to put in a bulb?).



You turn on the knob, race to light a match and hope it doesn’t go out while you hastily and vaguely wave it near a series of perforations through which gas is noisily escaping. Of course, the match always flickers, the flame struggles for life and soon all that’s left is a wisp of smoke from the extinguished tip.



The only sound now is the hiss of the gas. No reason to panic."The gas is escaping!" yells the wife, an otherwise wonderful woman who is not given to staying calm. You shut off the gas, though the instruction booklet cheerily tells you there’s no danger of an explosion within the minute (that’s how much time it will take to light it twice). I have to admit it’s a little hard to stay calm while you are on your knees, fumbling repeatedly with a matchbox with the hiss of gas near your ear.



In the 18 months that we’ve had this cooking range, I’ve used the grill and oven once each. One autumn evening, I had the oven and four burners on. We had invited 12 people over for dinner, and then I realised the dinner actually had to be cooked. I become a little hazy about these details on a pleasant evening with a pleasant dose of Old Monk rum.



Two-dozen people showing up for dinner unannounced doesn’t faze me, but as you might imagine, there was a lot of hand wringing, hopping around and cursing going on as I kept fiddling with super-hot gas knobs. Damn those Patiala gas engineers.



Usually, everyone will say, "great food." Even when it isn’t, you’ll be surprised how forgiving friends and family are, simply because you cooked it.



At a restaurant, my wife can be a terror, calling for the manager when a bit of broccoli is under-done. At home, she smiles sweetly and says, "Oh, I love it. It’s so crunchy." It isn’t an act; food actually tastes better when a loved one makes it.



In the early 1990s, I began serious cooking with a single hot-plate on the floor when my home was just one room and a bathroom on a terrace. The tomatoes and onions nestled among my T-shirts, and for two years I couldn’t handle anything beyond eggs (every kind of omelette conceivable), sausages and kebabs.



Every Sunday, my friends flocked there, happy to be experimented on. Even today, when I’m far more proficient, the roast chicken sometimes blackens around the edges, the fish emerges a raw-looking pink, a leg of lamb dries out.



That’s because when you’re buzzed, it’s hard to kneel time and again to keep tabs on the oven. If the Patiala (or Italian) gas stove scares you, stick to the stove-top. All you need is a humble OTG (oven-toaster-grill; mine is 15 years old, and it rocks), or a simple, heavy pan. Don’t ever blame your tools.



Secret no. 2

Identify a few favourite ingredients, and get to know them My family – like every other I know from the Konkan coast of Maharashtra and Goa – cannot conceive of a fish curry without kokum: a dried, tangy rind of a fruit found almost exclusively along the west coast.



I have never run a kitchen without a stock of kokum, even when I lived in the US for two years. Last December, I even took kokum to Copenhagen, persuading my landlord for a week to give me a discount of 1,000 Euros in exchange for some Goan fish curry. Nothing could be simpler and more delightful.

It tended to get a tad complex at home: My grandmother – she’s dead, bless her soul – always used fresh coconut milk, and now my mother does the same.



Goan fish curries can get quite intricate, with lots of grinding and pounding of spices, onions and vinegars. But I don’t know many people who have the time and patience to run through these complexities.



All the curry really needs is

kokum

, a can of coconut milk (yes, yes, I agree there really is nothing like freshly squeezed coconut milk, but do you have the time? I don’t) and fresh fish.



The result is that my version of the Goan fish curry is a universal hit, something my friends always demand, something I can produce at almost no notice. You can easily get fish delivered home in many parts of Delhi and Mumbai, so it’s very easy. But, if you haven’t before, try making a trip to the market.



I am normally a homebody in the mornings, but I’m happy sometimes to spring out of my bed and make an early trip to my fishwallah at INA market in Delhi.


I feel like a child in a candy store. I may not buy everything, but I love looking at all the fresh fish, peering at new arrivals and generally watching who buys what.



My

fishwallah

stocks a variety of seafood for his astonishingly diverse clientele: karimeen for Malyalis, ilish for Bengalis, calamari for Italians…our separate lives come together every weekend in that slushy, smelly little corner of paradise. So, get to know a few ingredients well. Smell them. Feel them. Pick a few spices and see what happens when you roast or fry them. The wife’s vegetarian, and after a nervy start, I won over her stomach (the heart, obviously, followed) thanks to this formula.



For this, I would like to thank my favourite spices (clove, chilli, sesame seeds and cardamom) and my wok. A stir-fry in a wok is perhaps the easiest, tastiest, crunchiest and most nutritious way to toss up vegetables. Most stir-fries last no more than 10 minutes, once the ingredients are assembled. I still can’t get myself to eat them, but, hey, the rewards are immense.




Secret no. 3

Keep a record of your kitchen triumphs and failures have you ever heard of Fighting Chicken, Star-Trek Brinjal or Mohammad’s Fish? Stay with me.



What do families do when they can’t leave home?


You know, when people are coming over; when you decide to lounge around and read or watch television; when you’re housebound because of a bandh, a riot, a flood, an election or anything similarly disruptive of Indian public order; or when it’s simply too hot or rainy.We cook.



When we have time on our hands, we inevitably gravitate towards the kitchen. Of course, we watch the occasional movie, we are avid park goers and walkers, but give us an extra hour or two at home and we whip out pots, pans and ladles. As you might imagine, we do a lot of impromptu cooking. And when you cook on the fly, you tend to innovate and invent. But if your kitchen inspiration is born on the spur of the moment and ends up being a dash of this and that, can you remember what you did last Friday?



It all started a rainy monsoon day in Mumbai in 2002. My wife, who was trying to get me to whip up something creative for dinner, realised with some dismay that I never remembered that roast-chicken-when-the-roof-leaked or that stir-fry-when-Tara-just-turned-two. So, she started the kitchen diary, which by now has become a compendium of wildly eclectic recipes, and an invaluable reference to fleeting, inspired – and forgotten – moments.



We’ve kept one since 2001. There are no grandmother’s recipes here. There’s nothing from the Coromandel or Croatia, from Tuscany or Tamil Nadu. Instead, you’ll find the oddly named entrees I mentioned at the start of this chapter.



I’ve been re-reading the kitchen diary recently and honestly I don’t remember many situations and many recipes. I look at them now and think: Did I actually cook this and like it? However, I do remember some, helped by the two-line notations that many entries have on the circumstances of their creation. Here’s one: “Bank Roast Chicken.”



This seems to have been made on January 17, 2004, as part of a meal I cooked for 33 people, bankers and their spouses, after my services were requisitioned in a brave moment by my cousin. I remember taking two days off from work, trawling markets for ingredients and working my tailbone off so these aforementioned bankers could get a good meal. And in all modesty it was good – many of them asked if I would cater to dinners.



Another on July 30, 2003, proclaims itself to be Bandh Gobhi, the poor pun explained by the entry: “The day there was a Bombay bandh (shutdown) in the city, the husband was high on inspiration.” I don’t remember the

bandh

. My favourite is the notation for Massacre Prawns: “The day our bowling was massacred 359/4 vs Aus.” Doubtless, cricket fans might remember this day of ignominy. I don’t.



As you can see, a kitchen diary isn’t just useful, it can also be a historical record of your life and the times you’re living through. And if you’re wondering about the “Fighting Chicken,” it appears my wife and I had a raging argument. There’s no notation, and we don’t remember. Some things are best forgotten. (Samar Halarnkar writes Our Daily Bread, a blog on creative cooking from a male perspective. Log on to

htblogs.com

)



Recipe #1


Scarps & bits


Looking for leftover inspiration? When you’re back from a tiring day at work, or feeling lazy on a holiday, rummage through your fridge. Creating something out of nothing is most satisfying.



Twice-as-nice rice


Cook leftover rice in chicken or vegetable stock (use Maggi cubes) with 2 chopped carrots (I used a rice cooker) and salt. Set aside. In a non-stick pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil with 1 black cardamom, 2 tsp sesame seeds and 1 tsp black onion seeds.



When the seeds sputter, add 4 crushed garlic cloves and cook till light brown. Add ginger juliennes and chopped bulbs of 3 spring onions. Sauté till onion is translucent.



Add 1 tsp each of cumin power, crushed peppercorns and grated nutmeg. Sauté, adding vodka in sizzling dribbles, followed by 3 tbsp soy sauce. You can also sprinkle red wine vinegar.



Add 1 chopped tomato and stir for a minute. Add leftover kebabs and sausages and then 1 chopped red pepper. Add the rice and toss well. Taste to adjust salt. Serve hot, garnished with the spring onion stalks. Vegetarians, drop the meats.

Heart & works
Need to win her over? Before marriage, I never knew how to cook vegetarian food. Yet, today, I have my wife’s permission to say a vegetarian won’t feel uncomfortable in our home.

The big bang stir-fry
1 tsp sesame seeds, 1/2 tsp black-onion seeds (kalonji), 6-7 dried chillies, 8-9 large garlic pods, smashed or chopped fine, 1 tsp fresh, grated ginger or galangal, 1 flat tsp red chilli powder (or paprika), 1 medium broccoli, reduced to florets, 1 small zucchini, halved and sliced, 1 small red pepper and 1 small yellow pepper, deseeded and chopped long, 1 tsp fresh rosemary, 2 tbsp soy sauce, red-wine vinegar (or red wine) to sprinkle.

Season a medium-size wok with olive oil. Throw in sesame seeds, dried chillies (snapped in half) and kalonji. When seeds start to sputter, add garlic pods, smashed. Cook till lightly brown.

Add ginger or galangal. Stir quickly. Add chilli powder, broccoli florets, and zucchini. Sprinkle with vinegar (or wine) so it sizzles. Add soya sauce for next sizzle.

Toss on high heat until almost cooked. Add peppers and salt. Toss. Sprinkle with fresh rosemary or parsley and grind fresh pepper. Serve.

Flames and shots
Want to rock the party? You want your friend to go ‘wow!’? Try pouring booze on meat and setting it alight. Voila, a flambé. Always works. Just, er, keep the alcohol away from the flames.

Roast these spices: 2 green cardamoms, 8 cloves, 1/2-inch piece of cinnamon, 1 star anise, 1-1/2 tsp jeera seeds, dash of fresh, grated nutmeg. When they start to crackle, take off stove and pound to powder in mortar-pestle. Marinate 1/2 kg chicken with spices and 1 and 1/2 tsp each of red chilli powder, garlic paste and salt.

Keep aside for at least 2 hours. Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil in a non-stick pan. When medium-hot, fry chicken till brown (10 mins). Measure 6-7 tbsps of vodka (I used Smirnoff), reduce flame, pour over chicken and set alight with match stick. Shake pan vigorously. Cover and cook on low flame for an hour. Roughly tear 10-12 fresh basil leaves and scatter over chicken before serving.

Mix match
Western flavours, Indian influences: Yes, you can. Giving Indian twists to Western comfort food is really quite easy. Don’t be too radical, think a bit and give it your best shot.

Light basil baked fish
Put the following in a food processor: 2 handfuls of basil leaves (either plucked or with stalks; I do either, depending on how keen I am to pluck); half a handful of pine nuts (chilgoza) or/and a few walnuts or almonds; 3-4 large flakes of garlic (roast them first if you want a nutty flavour); 1-2 chillies; salt to taste; 2 tbsp olive oil (extra virgin is best); a dash of white wine (I was drinking Gewutztraminer when I made this particular pesto); grated parmesan (I prefer to grate the cheese directly over the pasta) or pecorina cheese.

You can hand pound this, but I use my old Sumeet mixie. Add extra basil or olive oil or wine to get a smooth, chutney consistency. Or if you prefer it coarse, cut back on the oil. Lather well over a firm, fresh pomfret, wrap in foil and bake in oven for 30-40 minutes at 200 deg C.