Recipe Remembrances

EYE - June 3 - 2012

Finding Light at the End of the Culinary Tunnel

In the TV serial Kuch Tho Log Kahenge, Dr Nidhi is cooking her first meal in her sasuraal. She has arranged the cooking implements precisely, as if in an operation theatre and has definitively dismissed Ramu kaka, the elderly family retainer's offers to assist. Suddenly she has a doubt. What should the exact temperature of the oil be for bhajiyas? Ramu kaka looks bewildered and says "bitiya, taapmaan to hum ne kabhi nahin dekha" (My dear, I've never checked the temperature). Of course the bhajiyas were a disaster. It was reassuring to know that times haven't changed all that much and new brides, even if otherwise capable, still can't cook; but it was heartening to note that they now guiltlessly find smart solutions and escape the annoying lifelong jokes about their early attempts at cooking. Dr Nidhi quietly ordered food in, from her father's house.

When I got married, I had an MBA but was cooking illiterate. My mother panicked and put together a notebook, with a step-by-step survival guide to cooking. The first page had an article titled, "How to make a perfect cup of tea", cut from Femina. Subsequent pages had more complex recipes, carefully graded so that the learning curve would be gradual. There were handwritten recipes of her everyday home food and magazine cuttings with what she hoped I would graduate to. She made comments in the margin like the no-nonsense "since you have eaten this so often, you can surely get the taste right", or the know-your-place "if you graduate to this stage then you can grind fresh sambar powder, till then use mine", or even the hopeful "if you ever are cooking for a party, try this", with a picture of a very artistic salad of cucumbers and tomatoes that I have never tried. The end of the book had a big glossary of cooking terms like colander, blanche and sauté.

Soon I became a good enough cook to start creating my own recipe books. Mine had Hindi translations of recipes tailored to IQ levels of whichever maid I had at that time, and because I sometimes couldn't understand my own Hindi had to cross reference each with the original English version. Clearly I suffered from a lot of super womanitis.

But reading through the books in chronological order reveals far more than a record of the capability variations of my maids. It is also a record of my daughter's growing up. There was the cheese sauce phase, the tomato puree phase, the return-to-roots South Indian phase. Then the "I miss grandma's cooking" phase containing her favourite grandma's recipes, the phase when she thought all her friends ate better food than she did and so we had a lot of other mothers' recipes. Then there is her handwriting in mom's book when in her early teens she copied her aunt's chocolate cake and burrito recipes to nudge mom into doing more fussy complex stuff. Now, alas, my recipe collection has ended, and the books are only opened on rare occasions when she is eating at my dining table. And the word "yum" still makes all this effort worth it.

A few years after she left home, I made a recipe book for her titled "Smart Cooking for Intelligent Women". It featured Rice 101 (plain rice), Rice 201 (jeera rice), Value added rice (pulao), and some of her favourites from over the years. And lots of advice like "turn down the gas when boiling starts, remember latent heat?" and "grease the edges to prevent it from boiling over — it's all about surface tension". "I shudder whenever I open it", she says, having gratefully left her mom's physics tuition long behind; and she says she makes a mean pasta and stir fry and I am thinking jealously, "I never wrote that down, how come it's your favourite"?

But now I have earned my reprieve. At last, I don't have to prove like Dr Nidhi that despite education, I am kitchen competent; I don't have to compete with Rhea's mother or with grandma; I don't have to find my way to anyone's heart through his stomach. My neighbour, a gracious old world lady, once told me how she kept a book for 50 years in which she recorded who came to dinner and what they were served, so that they would never get the same food repeated. How do you manage, she asked me. Then, I hemmed and hawed. Today, I can tell her that we figure out what the maid of the day knows how to make really well, and insist that the same be made every single time we have guests for dinner. So there is light at the end of the housewife tunnel.