Going à la carte
IF you watched people as they ate, you could make sense of who they are.” Play by that rule (one that The New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl opens her brilliant memoir Tender at the Bone with) and you realise that the Mohindras are not hard to figure out. They live to eat, enjoy their lives and are, basically, a bunch of happy Punjabi folks.
Their penchant for good food and good life, also extends to their work. Together, the couple — Manu and Sonia — design and conceptualise swish restaurants around the country.
That’s where similarities with a good-old traditional Punjabi family end. Their work-life schedule is anything but conventional: erratic hours, back-to-back food trials, hectic travelling and a dozen meetings. Consequently, the concept of a-family-that-eats-together-stays-together is more or less redundant, at least for them.
“For us, it’s more like a family that parties together, stays together,” says Manu Mohindra, the chef and resident foodie, with a laugh. “In our business, breakfast, lunch and dinner are mostly out. We end up eating out at least thrice a week,” he says. Dinner is not a sacrosanct ritual for Mohindra’s family of three; it’s rather the meal that everyone enjoys. Together or not.
The dinner ritual starts around 6.30 pm with Amar Mohindra, the youngest member of the family, and continues till about 9 pm, with a friend dropping in as well. The cook lays out the table — a large bowl of chicken stew, and Amar gets to pick between plain or egg appams, or malabari paranthas.
For a four-year-old, Amar’s culinary consciousness is pretty good. He loves his oatmeal chicken and prawn suimais. “We have taught him to enjoy different kinds of foods. The dal-roti business is only for lunch. Dinner is always special,” says Sonia.
Dinner also serves as a lesson for Amar, where he learns the values of tolerance and acceptance. “What if he gets a South Indian wife?” wonders Sonia. “And what if he wants home-cooked food when we are all travelling for work?” asks Manu.
Which explains the range at dinner — there is chilly chicken and noodles, biryani or pulao, pasta and bread. Unlike conventional wisdom in most Punjabi households, this family is not for the aloo-parantha routine. “Chapatis are the saddest bit of starch. Vegetables like bharta swim in ghee or oil and are over-cooked. What health are we talking about here?” asks Manu. Sonia’s chicken stew — meat, vegetables and a little coconut milk — is her own recipe. “As a homemaker, that’s where I cheat, replacing coconut milk with plain milk,” says Sonia, who’s completely dismissive of the parantha-makhan diet. So is she with modern-day fads like organic food. “I like to do well-cooked meals. That’s what I mean by healthy cooking,” she says, as she tries to juggle a few calls.
But then, beyond nutrition and health, food is also a way for preserving one’s identity. With Punjabi food, that’s where the tragedy starts: documentation is poor and the shahi paneer-naan nonsense has taken over popular consciousness as being ‘Punjabi’ food. “Passing down hasn’t happened in our culture. But I have re-discovered some recipes like palak meat, keema karela, mooli ke patton ka saag that we used to have as children,” says Manu, a Punjabi khatri married to a sardarni. Moreover, both share army backgrounds, where exposure to multiple cultures and cuisines is a way of life. “Back home, dinner still means a chicken-and-egg sandwich and salad. Or, barbecued meats that I cook myself during winters,” he says.
With the kind of constraints that modern-day living imposes, of space and time, that doesn’t happen much. Neither is the entire family able to get together for their daily meal.
“We have other ways of spending quality time. Just that dinner doesn’t figure in that anymore,” says Sonia.
In fact, for few weeks now, the dinner-time conversation between the couple has been about where their next vacation, their “quality time” will be.
That reminds Manu of their last vacation in Singapore, a place where the dinner culture is still sacrosanct. “They respect one another’s time. Here, you have no respect for time. In our line of work, our time is not our own. So it’s just impossible for us to make it at one particular time for dinner,” says Manu.
We take the cue, and leave the Mohindras to finish their daily routine. It’s also one of those few days when all of them get to be together, and at one table.