This Indian life by Shoba Narayan: Recipe for a relationship
I am cooking at home these days, which is a disaster because I am not a good cook. My mother tried her best to teach me techniques. It is just that I get bored halfway through making the dish, and decide – on the spot – to add what is at hand – say, raisins to a rasam (sacrilege) or cumin to a risotto – just to see what happens. Usually, what happens is that the dishes go untouched and we order in.
In my house, my husband cooks. He says it is to help out, but I know it is self-preservation. That, and the fact that he hates the kitchen looking like Cyclone Fani has made landfall.
So today, I decided to make lunch. Nothing too ambitious. Just one dish called keerai molagoottal, which sounds like something the baby spit up, but is actually very good. The dish is made with a dubious green, quite literally – its Latin name is Amaranthus dubious or viridis, I cannot decide which based on the photos. In Tamil, we call it arai keerai.
In preparation, I called my aunt in Kerala. I had to force myself to do this, rather than look online for the recipe. The problem with calling my relatives – all amazing cooks – is that they give you the recipe along with a half-portion of guilt (“Why haven’t you called before and must you only call when you want something?”) and a side-serving of sarcasm (“Even a child can make this simple dish – haven’t you made it before?”)
Most Indian women are terrible with recipes anyway, since it is all andaaz or guesstimation with us. A pinch of this, a handful of that, add chilies according to taste and so too with spices. No wonder Indian recipe blogs are thriving. They give precise instructions without any of the snarky comments. But we are in a lockdown and telephone conversations are great because they are distancing but social.
Radha Mami was in fine fettle in Alappuzha. Finally, she said, the world had come around to her point of view. Cook two meals a day, eat, pray and sleep.
We got talking about food. She gave me some recipes and I quizzed her about the mistakes I had made that usually turn my dream-dishes into dirt (quite literally for we throw them into the soil).
You know how you can tell the quality of a speaker during the Q&A with the audience? The same thing applies here. When you ask an aunt a recipe, she answers live questions and helps you improvise. She solves sticky situations on the spot.
Take the greens recipe that I was going to make.
In theory, it is very simple. Cook some tuvar dal in the pressure cooker till soft. Steam the greens. Make a dry roast of urad dal, red chillies, pepper (which gives it a distinctive flavour), and cumin. Cut or grate some coconut. Grind it all together. Add the greens in the end. Mix with the dal. Garnish with a tadka of black mustard seeds, curry leaves and one red chili. That’s it.
Well, what if you added too much water and the dish is too runny? “Just fry a little raw rice, grind it and add,” said my coach. It will coagulate and give the dish some girth.
What if I added too much salt? “Boil a potato, chop and add. It will absorb the excess salt.”
It is this sort of customised instantaneous adjustments that is the pleasure of learning from a live person rather than a master chef on television.
Alongside you get recipes for things you didn’t know you wanted. When I told my aunt that I was worried about Covid, she said to drink dry-ginger kashayam or decoction. How was I going to get chukku or dry ginger, I asked. She said to slice ginger into thin strips and dry in the sun for three days. Voila, there you have it. I have dry ginger at home now. And I am making this drink with jaggery, dry ginger and lemon juice, called panagam. It is heavenly in the heat and apparently, very good for improving immunity.
So the next time you want to cook something, take a chance and call an aunt or uncle. Yes, those ones in your ancestral villages, the ones who you think are weird. At a time when we all long for human company, a phone call is the next best thing. You may be calling to ask for a recipe, but you will get a relationship, with some surprising twists along the way.
As for me, I told Radha Mami that I was craving some Chinese food. She had never tasted a gobi manchurian in her life. When I explained the taste to her, she suggested that I make the fried manchurian balls with millet flour instead of maida. It was healthier, she said.
Who knew? I bet I could not have got a millet manchurian recipe online. I wouldn’t have even known to search for it.
(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)
This Indian Life appears every fortnight
From HT Brunch, April 26, 2020
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