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HindustanTimes Wed,24 Sep 2014

Of Nameless Chicken and Star-Trek Brinjal

Antoine Lewis, Hindustan Times  New Delhi, February 15, 2014
First Published: 12:39 IST(15/2/2014) | Last Updated: 12:52 IST(15/2/2014)

The Married Man's Guide to Creative Cooking and Other Dubious Adventures
Samar Harlarnkar; Westland
Rs. 495 PP 248

Hermit D’costa is a rock star. He knows when to pick up fresh fish straight off the boats at Sassoon Dock in Mumbai and when it’s better to buy it from wholesalers at Crawford Market. His deep freezer is usually stocked up with a couple of kilos of meat; not only does he regularly cook for the family, but he’s completely comfortable cooking for a party of 40 or more. Sometimes, he follows recipes, but he’s equally likely to go completely on a tangent and come up with something innovative.

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Men like D’costa who cook, not as a treat for the wife and the family but almost daily, are a rarity. Samar Halarnkar, author of The Married Man’s Guide to Creative Cooking and Other Dubious Adventures, believes that this should change. More Indian men should get into the kitchen because contrary to what they think — cooking is not difficult, boss. Not only is it easy but it keeps his marriage exciting, helps him stay in touch with tradition, family and friends and, most importantly, makes him smile a lot. I can’t think of a more persuasive reason to take up cooking.

And Halarnkar cooks with wild abandon: he follows his grandmother’s and mother’s recipes with as much meticulousness as he creates recipes on the fly. Many of his recipes are born out of innovation and their names bear testimony to the circumstances of their creation: there’s The Chicken With No Name, Star-Trek Brinjal, Bandh Gobi and Welcome-Summer Fish curry. Most of his cooking is experimental; he adapts a new a spice here, a cooking technique there and adds Old Monk almost everywhere.

There’s a line in his chapter The New Spice routes that captures the essence of the book for me. He writes of his version of Tenga, the Assamese fish curry, “I suspect the recipe I am offering you is not entirely authentic, but it is quite delightful.” It’s a food book with plenty of recipes — some authentic, some traditional, many his own — that’s quite delightful to read.

And read it you should, because more than a cookbook, it’s simply wonderful food writing. Much of it has appeared previously in his blog The Daily Bread for Mint and Hindustan Times but it’s been neatly tied up into thematic chapters. Divinity and Dried Fish captures his passion for dried Bombay duck and prawns in the face of stiff opposition from his wife and most of his family. In 1964: A Letter From My Grandmother he segues from his grandmother’s idiosyncratic style of writing measurements based on Marathi mathematical tables to kokum and his grandmother’s curries and finally to the origins of the Halarnkars who came from the Gabit caste of warriors-turned-pirates. Few food writers are able to so effortlessly weave stories that encompass history, personal experiences and the challenges of fixing a brunch party while suffering from a hangover.

The proof of a recipe book is in the cooking and I decided to put Halarnkar’s audacious claim to be ‘the omelette king’ to the test. The reason I chose fluffy or ‘Posh’ omelettes as Halarnkar calls them and not another one of the 85 recipes is that fluffy omelettes are my Achilles heel. I’m confident enough to battle the fearsome Gordon Ramsay when it comes to creamy scrambled eggs, I make memorable Spanish omelettes but I’ve all but given up on fluffy omelettes. Halarnkar’s directions (not so much recipe) turned out to be spot on: my omelettes rise up with a soufflé-like precision. I raise my frying pans to the man, truly it is sang real and Old Monk that flows through Halarnkar’s veins

While I do hope more men start cooking after reading the book, I’m absolutely convinced that readers are going to feel pangs of hunger and want to go out and eat kheema, bheja, guchchi pulao and beef pickle after reading the book. I did.

Antoine Lewis, a food and wine columnist, has been editor of Savvy Cookbook


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