Friday, September 8, 2017

Kitchen - playground, rules & discipline.

Like reading, cooking was something that I started doing only when I started work. Of course, this was also the same time I started to eat out a lot. Like many in the internet age, I would go on to "rate" the food at restaurants, judge the food at my cafeteria, give my 2 cents on what could have been done better, or why it was better. Sure, I was entitled to having an opinion - it was like a customer review. But, I've also come across many situations where I would have thought, "Well, let's see you try it."

Work got me to Baroda, then to Chandigarh and later to Nagpur. During these periods, I got to try out many restaurants with a mix of local and foreign cuisines on the tables. I instantly fell in love with pasta, and I found out it was ridiculously simple to make. I appetite was so deep into the tandoori cuisine, it was a culture shock when I moved out of Punjab. The food fare at Baroda is brilliant. Albeit costlier, Nagpur can keep your taste buds dancing. I had the privilege to be in and around such wonderful places to be exposed to such a variety of cuisines. And because I still had some time to spare, I wanted to try cooking them up myself.

Many don't include it, but cooking is an art. It is an art that feeds you and keeps you going whether or not you acknowledge it as art. It must be an art of science. You can explain all the cooking methods in terms of science. So, you can rave about it or nerd about it too.

For the first time, I picked up that pack of pasta shells and salsa that seemed invisible to me till then. Oh, there is a "red" sauce, a "white" sauce, a "green" sauce... What do I do? (Now, I've gone a little better than the colours to Arrabbiata (Also, Napoletana), Alfredo, Pesto, and the rest.) I loved the "red" one, and started to cook them almost once a week, adding in whatever vegetable I could find that could fit into a bowl of pasta. I tried out myriad types of pasta shells, different makes of ready-made sauces on the market shelves. I also had a sandwich maker which hosted a whole other line of experimenting. Sometimes, I would mix the two, wherein the pasta would go inside the sandwich. Ten points to Gryffindor.

Spaghetti Aglio e olio,
learnt on Laura In The Kitchen
My favourite pasta - Penne Arrabbiata

All this was done simply following instructions on the packs. Boil the pasta and strain them away; fry the vegetables; add the salsa; add the pasta, cheese, seasoning - your pasta is ready! I thought I could start from a level earlier - from the raw materials, cutting down on the processed food. This is when I started watching more of cooking shows on TV. Carnival Eats is one of my favourites. Carvinals are where you would find the wildest and most innovative things to eat. I picked up a few off the show to try them out. I remember watching an episode where a Greek sold fried tomato balls at a fair. "Yaya's Tomato balls". The next day, I walked a mile to the store to get all the ingredients from the store and sat all afternoon in the kitchen preparing the ingredients and hen frying it up and tasting it for myself. Though not an exact replica against what I saw on the show, the taste was very good, and as described! (I am unable to find a video of the episode or the clip online in India)

The levels keep getting tougher. I was in awe when I watched Gordon Ramsay cool-ly make gnocchi. When I tried to replicate, I had burnt one side of a whole batch. I have had a thousand pizzas, but I found making pizzas incredibly hard. There is a fine line between a pizza base and a paratha. I was spellbound when I read what seemed to be an oxymoron on the menu - "fried ice cream". It took 3 whole days to work and prepare the balls of ice cream before we could fry them.

They are all so tough, and that is why cooking, for me, is so much fun. When we made pizzas, I decided to make everything from scratch. We tried this and that and got the base right only the third time we baked it. But the salsa came out so beautifully right, I was happy for myself. The first fried ice cream ball started to leak in the pan and we literally had fried vanilla cream in the fry pan. But the second one was whole and round when it came out. It was beautiful to see a cold ball of ice cream waiting for you inside a crisp, hot cover of fried batter.
From our first batch of pizzas
The first good fried ice-cream

After all this, I came to terms with the fact that it takes a lot of dedication and concentration to get your output right. You have no idea what the food is going to taste like when you are cooking. I think the salt is enough, but the chole bhaat tastes bland and when I try to add a bit I end up over-compensating. When my mother makes sambar, she adds precise amounts of tumeric, masala (not ready-made!!), tamarind, salt, grams without measuring any of them. As long I can remember, it has always tasted wonderful.

At places of work, we stay at hostels and the cooks there are the same. In the one off time something goes wrong, they know where and what went wrong and make sure they avoid the mistake. And when I am cooking, they stand by me and teach me how to do it right. Once, I tried to make aloo tikki and the tikki would stick to the fry pan. In five minutes, the cook taught me what I should have done to the potato mix to prevent this. They also helped solve all my burning onion problems. They also taught me how to cut vegetables, how hot the pans need to be, how much is too much, and what I could do to get a different result. But, you know what I loved the most? When they eat what I made - whatever I made - and tell me I did well. If this gave me something to smile one day in a week, why can't I make their life cheerful, 7 days a week? All I have to tell them is "Thanks, I loved the dinner tonight." with a smile.
Electric Oven made Tandoori vegetables,
because I had a weekend to kill
All this has taught me some discipline.
Cooking is not easy. Maybe, no trade is easy. It is hard work to do anything, let alone create a piece of art.
In retrospect, we know everything that could have been; but live life in the present.
You need help, and don't be afraid to ask - a wonderful chole bhaat tastes much better than one with deep fried roasted, toasted onions.
I need to be in time, else the kitchen wouldn't be available for my needs. If I'm late, the cook would pleasingly tell me, "kal" (tomorrow).
Don't assume others don't know anything, don't assume you know everything. I was making pasta for the first time, and the kitchen staff didn't know what "pasta" was. But, I show them the shells and they smile, "Macaroni!!", and instantly they told me how they used to make it.
When not everything fits in, learn to improvise. When we were short of ingredients, we would add whatever was available locally. Sometimes, potatoes are all that are available. Hola, Hasselback Potatoes! Olive oil? What olive oil?
Share, and spread the smile. I once asked a colleague to bring me a bottle of mayonnaise and he asked me what I was going to do with it, because I wasn't eating the bread that was locally available. I made and sent him half a bottle of Salsa Bravas. I got another bottle of mayo soon.

If I haven't stressed it enough already - cooking is fun! And it doesn't just stop with the food. I am drawn into learning more about it. I learnt to make cajun spice mix, and then I found out where it came from. Same with salsa bravas. The history of pizzas is mouth watering. Did you know Hasselback Potatoes are named so only because they were first made in a motel named Hasselbacken? You ask any foodie to talk about the food they know and you will want time to stop. I guess, I'm much more mature when I taste something at a restaurant and want to comment. I am more likely to know how it was prepared than me telling them how to. More things taste nice now.

I wouldn't have gotten into cooking had it not been for family and friends who got me doing this, encouraged me, showed me new places, exposed me to new cuisines, and mostly had fun during the process. Some have taught me, some gave me tips, some sent in ideas, and some would risk their appetite to taste what I had made for the first time! So, here is a big thank you for that, and more! There are so many of them who inspire me to go into the kitchen and cook something up!

Hasselback Potatoes
A friend nudged me into making
"chapati" Bombay sandwich. Much fun!

Monday, February 13, 2017

When I had coffee.

There are some people who appear out of nowhere, interrupt your way of life and change it for the better with their kindness, love and affection - not by intent, but by nature. They are indifferently kind to everybody, by way of life. The utter sense of calmness on their face is infectious. The conversations are relaxed, connecting and almost as if we have been friends for a long time. There is nothing but love and respect for them all.

I don't drink coffee. I can't put a finger on what puts me off, but I don't drink that beverage. My parents gulp filter coffee numerous times a day, and almost every other leaf in my family tree does so too. I have rocked people off their chair when they come to know that this (so called) South Indian fellow doesn't drink coffee. 

But, I've had coffee. Thrice, maybe four times. Why? Kindness. It is not about the coffee, but the people who have been able to make me have a cup of coffee.

The most recent one was two months ago. I met this gentleman at work, let's call him Mr. M. M was an old and wrinkled man. He took short, slow steps and scanned everything till the horizon in a calm but absorbing gaze. He would talk in a slow, low, kind voice - like a grandfather talking to his little grandchild. He had come the site on duty, and invited met to his office. The meeting might have lasted fifteen minutes. Or an hour. It was hard to tell. This gentleman, who had never spoken to me before, took me under his wing and shared work experience (he had more than 40 years of it, spread across almost all continents, and many fields), advice, and bucket loads of information that would come in handy for anybody. It wasn't all one way traffic either. He asked me for views, inputs and feedback. He could barely walk, through age and illness, but the childlike enthusiasm would win that battle.

When we were about to go out for an inspection, he offered me a cup of coffee. "Bharath, you must have coffee with me." I smiled, took the offer, and drank the coffee. He made such a kind offer, I wouldn't refuse.

We spoke twice since. In both those conversations, his humility and kindness were transparent in the way he punctuated his requests with "Sorry to have disturbed you." (he is more than twice as old as I am) and my replies with "Thank you so much!"

Mr. M passed away yesterday. He waged a long battle against cancer.

The world is one gentleman lesser today. He will be missed.