Traditionally, it’s the women who do it. Mothers, aunts, grandmothers, wives, sisters, daughters, pouring their love and their frustrations into what they put on the plate; the extra sandesh, the meal that took six hours to cook and a week to plan.
Then we grew up, and moved out, and there were no more Mashimas or Nanis to supervise our kitchens, our tables. We learned to fend for ourselves, to pick out our own clothes, professions, sexual preferences and politics. Many of us worked very hard to escape the iron tyrannies of our respective family backgrounds, grown-ups in a constant state of teenage rebellion. Some left, to have their passports stamped with an independence that was among the many foreign luxuries that didn’t make their way to India. Some stayed and carved out a schizophrenic freedom, leading ghare-baire lives: one role for the home, one for the world.
But as we graduated from cheese-tomato-sauce sandwiches to seven-course catered or flamboyantly home-cooked meals, this one thing didn’t change; in times of trouble, we fed our friends, were fed by them.
Chicken in black pepper:
What you need for this one-pot meal is lots of roughly ground black pepper and lots of boneless chicken, also salt. Not too much oil; just make sure that the one big cooking pot you have is at the right heat, which is to say very hot. Let the black pepper sizzle, releasing its aromas. Add the chicken. Saute. Add water, add more black pepper and salt; simmer till done; serve on unmatched plates with newspaper for a tablecloth. This was what you cooked when you’d outgrown Maggi noodles, couldn’t afford real cooking, but could afford real friends, good conversation. One pot, thinned with enough water, thickened with enough banter and laughter, would stretch well into the long nights and tide you over the barsati power-cuts, the water shortages, the credit card debt and the thankless gruntwork of the jobs on the first rungs of a very long ladder.
In Calcutta, mixed with flattened rice (cheera, poha) that had been soaked but not cooked and allowed to steep in plain yogurt or leftover mishti doi. Cheere-doi was what you ate when khichdi was unaffordable; the next stage would be cups of tea and cigarettes because you couldn’t afford real food, not till the tuition payments or the anorexic salary cheque came in next month. The mangoes—you need pulpy, sweet-tart ones for this dish—were what transformed humble cheere-doi from the quintessential poor-man’s-fodder to something that hinted at future sumptuousness, untold wealth. Even half a mango, or the scrapings off the stone, added to cheere-doi, would make you feel rich; to have that sweetness added to the daily struggle.
In Delhi, one Alfonso could stretch to milkshake for four, in the not-rich, not-poor days. Or it could be what a friend, just back from making a difficult decision, hollowed out inside, accepted when she couldn’t accept the invitations to talk: mango, sliced, on a plate, and quietness, and the company of a few friends was needed more than sympathy and verbal sharing. In later years we could buy them by the case. But that one mango you bought to share with three other friends, that first mango of the season, it tasted so good.
Soba noodles with prawns, buckwheat noodles with beef, cucumber and chili, miso soup:
In a time of some slight sadness and personal trouble, one of those dark winters that all of us go through at some time or the other and eventually emerge from, blinking into the light, my palate craved clean flavours, and my hands needed to keep busy.
This is what I cooked, for friends and office colleagues, over and over again, quiet, unspectacular meals that promised nourishment and lightness rather than gourmet entertainment.
Miso soup, with tiny cubes of tofu, seaweed stirring in the cloudy broth and rising to the surface. Cold soba noodles, in homemade stock with a sharp cleansing lemongrass tang, lightly steamed prawns. Buckwheat noodles or green tea noodles, heaped with thinly sliced meat or shiitake mushrooms, basil, mint and cilantro adding their freshness, red bird’s-eye chillis tamed between slices of vinegary-sweet cucumber.
There was nothing original about these meals, but they served their purpose; to ferry one across a bad time, into a better time. The satisfaction in making them was not the satisfaction of skill; it was of getting the timing right, the balance of ingredients right, and now it comes to me that cooking these very easy, very ordinary dishes were just a promise of future serenity, the possibility of balance.
Pasta, three ways:
Pasta has almost replaced khichdi or sambhar-rice as our version of comfort food. Years ago, a friend newly struggling with domesticity, adjusting to her first kitchen, made gigantic bowls of pasta with Kissan’s tomato ketchup and bits of paneer. Sensing that this might not be enough, she stirred in two packets of Haldiram’s dalmoth. It was the first time she’d ever cooked and it was the first-ever adult housewarming she’d had. In later years, she’d serve the usual staples, our decade’s version of aspic and Caesar salads: clever pasta salads with avocado and shrimp, perfect linguine in homemade marinara sauce, farfalle with pine nuts and chorizo.
For now, there was this: undercooked pasta, raw to the tongue and dangerous to the tooth, the metallic tang of bottled ketchup, the dalmoth miserably mixing with the paneer. We watched her beaming as she set this out on a tablecloth crocheted for her by an aunt. We dug in, and asked for second helpings. It was as horrible as we’d feared, but she was so pleased, to be a hostess in her own home for the very first time.
Men who’ve been on their own do pasta really, really well. It’s not just their “girlfriend” dish; it’s what they pull out for old, good friends when there hasn’t been enough time to do the fancy bachelor dinner or to pick up cheese-salami-Kalamata olives. And perhaps they do know this, but they never entirely understand how relaxing it feels to be treated like a guest, to lean against the kitchen counter and watch someone else chop the onions and sauté red peppers and mushrooms for a change. To be cooked for, rather than cooking for: it’s a gift. We love it when they make the effort with the Moroccan-chicken tagine or the extra-special dal-gosht their mother taught them, but we love this too: pasta, cooked al dente, the sauce simmering alongside, ready and plated in half an hour, with or without a salad and good bread alongside.
You grow up, and you get to know chefs. And some of them become friends, and some of those friends will call you over because—why? They want to cook that night. Or their kitchen’s trying out new dishes. Or they want to introduce you to someone they think you’ll enjoy meeting. And you find yourself loving the tomato-mozzarella appetizers, the scallops and the Gorgonzola-cheese tenderloin, but slowing down for the pumpkin-stuffed ravioli.
You don’t do restaurant reviews any more, but that ravioli reminds you of a time when your city was just beginning to discover its palate, and when diners faced with ravioli stared at it in blank dismay and asked for macaroni-cheese, not this flattened momo stuff. It reminds you of the reactions to Indian nouvelle cuisine—where did the butter chicken go? Or the reactions to delicate Cantonese Chinese or the introduction of lethal Sichuan peppers: this was so not the chopsuey we knew and loved. Or sashimi, even, where people shuddered at the thought of eating raw fish. And what you love about your chef friends is that so many years later, some of them famous, some of them TV superstars, this is still what it comes down to for them. The love of feeding people, of making them taste something once new, now familiar, and feel replete.
Whether it’s Madhu Menon making braised pork for a crowd, or Ritu Dalmia—on this occasion—leaning her elbow on the table, watching our expressions, our reactions as we settle into the kind of openness and comfort that only good food can bring about among strangers, this compulsion to make people happy at the table is a chef thing. I’ve had stunningly inventive meals and spectacularly memorable ones. But there’s nothing like settling down to a meal where the chef’s goal isn’t to impress you—it’s to make you happy.
The ravioli is handmade, plump, buttery, the walnuts flash-fried to crispness, an elegant restaurant dish. And yet it comes from the same family as the store pasta I’ve eaten in so many friend’s kitchens: food intended to restore and comfort, cooked with simplicity and love.