My journey to the “other” side…
Crossing the virtual boundary to step inside the kitchen!
Its been an interesting journey scaling the wall that keeps, for the most part, girls inside and boys outside the kitchen. It all started many years ago, in a land far far away, India, when a small boy was drawn into the kitchen to lick the remnants of the cake mix from the mixing bowl.
I remember the warm-and-fuzzy; “Its ok for boys to be in the kitchen,” she said, “there’s nothing scary here that only girls can handle and boys cannot.” (My Mom did not actually “say” these words all in one sentence but her actions spoke loud and clear. Remember, this was male dominated Indian society. I was lucky to have her to help me walk the first steps.)
My first impressions from inside the kitchen were those of amazement. Amazement at seeing an upside-down-caramel cake perfectly plonk out of the baking mold; a souffle that magically forms in the oven. And, all this was happening in a round “thing” plugged into an electric socket with a glass window to look inside! 1970s, India, electric oven!
The next thing I remember is innovation to save-the-day! Back then (and even now in some parts of India), power cuts were routine. And the worst possible time for a power cut is when a cake is baking in the electric oven and its your birthday cake and a couple of friends are coming over! But my Mom did not miss a beat; she took the partially baked cake and put it into a steam pressure cooker with the “weight” off and steamed it to completely cook it. Then she made some custard. She cut the now-cooked-but-not-so-fluffy cake into squares, put the pieces into a large bowl, poured the custard over the pieces and put the bowl into the fridge. When my friends came over, they had the coolest cold cake with custard ever! This happened once, more than 30 years ago, and I still remember it!
In those days we did not have frozen-ready-to-heat-and-eat foods available in India. I remember the pre-party preparations that my Mom used to do in the kitchen. Her thing was that when guest arrive, she should be prepared to serve up the appetizers and finger food quickly. So, I remember, she used to partially fry things; like samosa or cutlet for example. Before the guests showed up, she would partially fry the samosa or cutlet till the outer coating just turned lightish-brown. Then when the guests arrived, she would heat the oil and complete the frying till golden brown. This took almost no time and hot finger food came out instantly! While this was going on, the main course would be warming up on a slow flame! As a kid, this was impressive to me! Now, as a trained Chemical Engineer, I realize it was simply her understanding of time-and-temperature is all it took. There I learned efficiency.
Over the years as growing up happened, friends, hostel life and studies (in that order) came in the way of kitchen dabbling. Though the curiosity did not diminish. I remember at IIT-B (Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay now Mumbai) we used to get Chole-Bhature one week night for dinner. I think it was in the 4th year of ChE that one night someone decided to actually measure how much oil was soaked up in a randomly chosen piece of Bhatura. So, this person (or persons, I can’t remember now) took the Bhatura to the Thermodynamics lab and ran it though an oil extraction process using supercritical CO2! It turned out that there was a LOT of oil!
After graduating from IIT-B I moved to Pune. By then my Mom had passed and we (my brother, Dad and I) had a cook who came daily for fixing our meals. This woman was a magician in the kitchen. She was all of four feet tall and needed a stepping bench to reach the cooking range on the counter top but that was no deterrent. If I thought my Mom was efficient, this woman had taken efficiency to a whole new level. And the food was Y.U.M.M.Y. She set our standards so high!
While in Pune I was working towards my PhD at the National Chemical Laboratory. It was what is called a “theoretical” thesis; this required some complicated FORTRAN programming and the code would take 16 hours to execute on a then-top-of-the-line 486 machine. I would write, debug and compile the program during the day and let it run from the afternoon through the night. As such, evenings were mostly “free”. Some evenings I ended up hanging out at my neighbors place. Maybe it had something to do with food? Of course! My neighbor (we call her Kaku, it means Aunty) introduced me to the art of frying a fish! She showed me how to remove the outer scales, how to carefully remove the inner skeleton, how to season it and the proper skillet to use to fry fish.
In those days I was scared of food sticking to the cooking vessel so I used the non-stick version of skillets and other cooking vessels. Kaku however, would fry fish on a thick iron skillet and that made all the difference. There I learned that using the proper cookware also matters.
(Today I have moved past my food-sticking phobia and have a cast iron skillet but I’ve given up eating fish and meat, and, as such I’ve never replicated what she taught me.)
My dabbling in the kitchen took a longish hiatus after I got married and Madhuri & I moved from India to France to Canada in the span of two years. In Canada however, the proverbial rubber hit the road! I was working at the National Research Council (NRC)of Canada and our apartment was on a direct bus route to the NRC. Madhuri’s job commute involved two bus changes (we did not have a car so public transport was it!). As such, she left home early and returned late. With the utmost confidence in my cooking “experience”, I stepped in as the default cook. It was a disaster!
I was a total kitchen klutz. You see, actually cooking, every day, was a completely different game from frying a well seasoned fish or mixing cake batter and such. I had to actually learn to COOK. Right from the tadka (a basic step in Indian cooking where certain spices are added to hot oil in a proper order) to which spice goes well with which vegetable (garam masala or dhania-jeera or …) to actually making sure meals were nutritionally balanced! Gosh, it was hard work!
I asked all the aunties, the kitchen seasoned ladies visiting from India, for some easy to cook recipes. At first they were taken aback; this boy wants to actually cook?? After the initial shock wore off, they would share with me their experience and explain to me their recipes in excruciating detail making sure I understood every step and the half step in between! Later I realized how come I got their most prized recipes in so much detail: You see, I was no threat to them! I was a boy. They had no worries sharing recipes with me!
After a year in Canada we moved to the USA. I continued practicing my cooking skills as the default home cook; I was getting good at it. I had figured out that there is a reason to the order, a method to the madness: For example, in making tadka, the oil is heated first. The mustard seeds go in next and when they start popping, it means that the oil is now the proper temperature. Next hing (asefotida) is added which cools the oil a bit before haldi (turmeric) is added. If the haldi and hing order is reversed, the haldi will over heat and burn!
In the USA I also found pre-mixed vegetable seasoning and ready-to-use tamarind paste and corriander chutney and such. I was feeling good about having ready access to all these to ease my cooking; all this changed when I met Laki Yeleswaram.
I have to give some background for Laki. She HATES cooking. Yet, she is an incredibly talented cook! She is 100% commitment to getting the right “consistency” in her cooking. Everything has to be just-so with Laki. My first interaction with Laki was at a potluck event where she remarked, “This Lemon Rice is made by a bachelor!”. No ill intention mind you. Simple and direct feedback.
Laki put a stop to my use of tamarind paste! She motivated me to switch to soaking tamarind in hot water and squeezing to get fresh tamarind juice to use in the Rassam, Sambar, Amti etc. (Rassam & Sambar are South Indian soup like preparations; Amti is a soup like preparation from the region of Mumbai, India). As an incentive for me to make the switch, she also gave me her Amma’s proprietary Sambar Podi to use! I’ve not bought Sambar masala from the store ever again. She taught me the importance of using fresh ingredients in cooking which makes all the difference!
Even after switching to the use of fresh ingredients, I would restrict myself to recipes that called for not more than 2 or 3 steps. My interaction with Parul Raval changed this. Parul is a supremely talented artist and her cooking too is an art to behold. The ease with which she breaks down a complicated recipe into simple sequential steps is a gift. I’ve learned so much just by observing her in action as she served up authentic Gujarati food.
(I fondly remember an incident when both Laki & Parul assisted me as sous-chefs as I made Maharashtrian Amti for a visiting Art of Living Teacher! That story is for another day.)
Over the years I have become quite proficient in the kitchen. This proficiency I learned, the hard way I must add, from Madhuri; a task that would take me 20 minutes usually takes her not more than 10 minutes! It seemed to me that somehow the laws of physics worked differently for her! But no, watching her work in the kitchen I noticed how wasteful some of my actions were. Simply cutting down wasteful actions led to proficiency!
From her I also learned to substitute ingredients to step around her food allergies: substitute besan (chickpea flour) with moong dal (yellow lentil) flour in batata vada, pakoda and such; making ragda pattice with green peas instead of chana (white lentil). Such substitutions work!
My journey in the kitchen has taken a lot of hard work and solid support from Madhuri; after-all, it was she who had to endure the inconsistencies of my initial cooking days. The one thing she has introduced to me lately is the concept of the 6 primary tastes (Shatrasa — Shat is 6 & rasa is taste) as guided by the ancient science of Ayurveda. She is in the process of launching a website to demystify vegetarian cooking. It is currently on the back burner but one of these days it will see the light of day!
The kitchen has been my Karma-Bhoomi (physical space for life lessons). It has taught me thinking on my feet, responding to unexpected consequences of actions, creativity, innovation, focus, hand-eye-coordination, loosing fear of the unknown, breaking boundaries, exploration, replicating success, perseverance, … I can go on and on. These skills did not come overnight. It took me years of practice and not giving up after each disappointment; yes, disappointments there were many!
All it takes is the first small step. The journey is fun. There is nothing to loose. Plenty to gain. See you on the “other” side!