Thursday, December 29, 2011

Cook it up Babe!

Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.
Harriet Van Horne
For many like me who cook three times a day and love it, cooking is an expression of our personalities. It somewhere defines us. It is part of a tradition, a culture and always a welcome topic of conversation. I can talk, preach and watch cooking without getting bored for hours. Even the thought of cooking is so happy and of course happier is the sound and aroma coming out of a busy active home kitchen. It’s heartening to see that cooking as an art is finally getting its due. It’s no longer what a housewife does or an act of bare necessity, a symbol of a woman slaving unpaid and un-praised - at least for many of us. Of course there are others who love to eat and hate to cook- both with same intensity. (I would consider this types suffering from a personality disorder) Then there is another variety, who hate to cook, hate to eat and for them all talk on food is trash (I do not dislike such folks; I pity them for being such uncultured fools).

But for those of us for whom good cooking is like a prayer- pious and selfless, a whole new world is unfolding. I was born in a house where food was an evergreen topic of conversation. Each season had its special dishes, pickles, sauces and sweets. My family would go to any extent to ensure we fulfill the gastronomic rituals of eating Kulfis and chaats in the summers, Pakoras and Ghevars in Rains and Carrot-Halwa, cakes and Gur sweets in the winters. Then there were family recipes of particular curries and koftas, rice pudding and stuffed parathas. No wonder when I think of seasons, I think of food associated with it. Even my memories of particular days are intertwined with memories of food cooked on those days. There was a typical menu for my birthday which falls in winters and another typical menu for holi day in the month of March and so on. Of course, festivals have little meaning without the food that comes with it. The food preferences and recipes differ greatly in different families but still we all crave for home-cooked food some day in our lives. In variably the definition of home-cooked is what we ate in our childhood days.

As I said earlier, cooking is finally getting recognition. It remained a neglected art for centuries. Many of us have heard of painters, singers and writers of various ages in History. Can anyone tell me names of some legendary cooks? Say who in Noorjahan’s kitchen came up with the divine recipe of Gulab Sherbet. Or who baked the first Bourbons in the Royal French Kitchen? Little was known or written on these topics before. But now in recent years a lot of research is going on to discover our culinary past. There is of course still a good scope to document and research our old recipes and their origin, the history and the art of cooking in various regions and how it defined the people who ate these dishes.

Talking of legendary cooks, I must acknowledge that one very admirable fact about Bengal is the respect given to the cooks in that province. Right or wrong- but they do know and recall which shop/ who invented Rasogulla? And one which day their popular sweet Ledikeni (named in honour of Lady Canning – the sweat was prepared for the first time by sweat shop owners of Burdwan in honour of Lady’s visit to the town)) was first made. Many years back the first cooking expert I heard about was Tarla Dalal. She came to my life through a cook book which accidently landed up in mail one day and stayed with us. Her vegetarian recipes came very handy for the bunch of us when Mom left for my eldest sister’s place and the cook fell ill. Those were my earliest memories of independent cooking. But even before that as kids, Mom allowed us to make one samosa or make one chapati as part of our play. I was in College when I met my cooking Guru- Kamie auntie. Our very generous neighbour who spent time and effort to my half baked (literally) attempts towards baking and more. It was she who made me fall in love with cooking as an art, to read about recipes, to compare them and to talk of cooking equipments.

Today I watch at least 6 cooking shows on TV and regularly glance through the recipe sections in magazines and newspapers. I also browse food blogs and have my favorites too. Recipes are a treasure trove to explore. Every family has them. Some comes to us naturally by watching our moms and Grand moms cooking, others are acquired on inquiry from aunts and sisters (in my case even uncles and brothers). Nowadays you can also download some more recipes from net and even share them with friends. For me Nigella Lawson and Nita Mehta are no less celebrity than Barak Obama or Shahrukh Khan. I watch the shows reverently and read the books as “pep-me-up” reading.

Interestingly the love for cooking no longer remains a “women’s only” trait. Though in my family and many others, the male side has been actively involved in cooking…. It was by and large a woman’s domain till recently. I was so pleasantly surprised to find a friend in my Italian class proudly declaring that both her dad and her sis are chefs. Even in popular culture, the image of woman cooking and men eating is changing.
Another very visible change is the globalization of cuisine. In India we no longer just eat Indian. We experiment with our own dishes and adopt the foreign ones too. Even in other parts of the world there is a lot of awareness and acceptance of various cuisine traditions. Even fusion cooking is getting popular which kind of mingles the best of all to create even better.

There is a lot I can write about cooking, about the changing face of our kitchens, the legendary cook books and favorite recipes. But for now, in this festive season, let me just ponder over the fact how a hearty meal can reconcile all differences and makes a man feel more charitable toward the world than any sermon. My cooking pals would vouch for me that a well raised soft cake made by you can fill you with so much happiness that can hardly be compared to most things and phenomenon of the human world. But recipe is just a tool to create the magic. As Madam Benoit noted in her famous cook show: A recipe is only a theme, which an intelligent cook can play each time with a variation. In my culinary journey, the variations have at times turned disastrous and on other times amazed me at my own fluke. They say that the magic lies in the hands. The same recipe will give different results with different cooks. Some even believe that even the cook’s emotions and feelings have an impact on the outcome. I do not know that for sure, but can certify the therapeutic side of cooking. It’s a great stress buster. It engages all your senses and is a very fulfilling experience.

Cooking traditions are an astute index of a family’s lineage in my eyes. Great families have always been proud of great family recipes and the family kitchen. As they say- you are what you eat.

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