So these days the Scientist and I are watching the re-run of a Marathi soap on YouTube. Currently it is chronicling how the new daughter-in-law who had never entered the kitchen before marriage, has to cook for the whole joint family, as ordered by the matriarch. A pretty usual scenario these days, for many girls do not enter the kitchen until after marriage (Something I really not agree with or approve of (think of me what you will), for I think, cooking is such a basic, life saving skill..but that rant is perhaps food for another post ;)). It got me thinking..for it was not so in my case. I started learning to cook a really long time back.
I must have been barely 6-7. Being a strict Brahmin household meant women did not enter the kitchen during those three days. So all others had to pitch in and do all the housework and cooking. No shirking.
So on one such occasion, I found myself standing in the kitchen. I did not even come up to the platform length. And I was supposed to cook. It seemed a very daunting task. But mom, was right behind me at the door. She instructed, and I followed. Dragging a stool from the hall, I climbed up. I had learned to use the lighter. So I carefully measured the amount of dal, and rice into different pots, washed them two-three times and with the right amount of water in each, put up the pressure cooker. And that’s how simple it was.
Mom would always be at the kitchen door, telling me what to do next, how to measure, how much water to add, which spices go into which dish, what to do if things went wrong. It was practical hands-on training. Soon I was able to make simple subjis, rice, dal, khichadi…But we always had to substitute Wibs or Modern bread for poli.
Then came the next stage. Making polis was no easy task. Not when we had to roll the dough, apply some oil to center, fold in half, two times to make a triangle. And then roll out the triangle to a perfect circle. But like a good teacher, mom started with the simple phulka. No folding was required for this one. You simply rolled out a circular shape (I remember my brother could never get that right, so his technique was to use big stainless steel dabba as a cookie cutter). I would be asked to make the last poli or phulka on the days I felt up to it, and had wandered into the kitchen (mostly during summer holidays). No rush, and never any pressure. Same with the bhakri, or the puran poli. That way you could mess up with as many doughs, and it would be still be okay. Mom would take care of it. After learning to roll out doughs for rotis, phulkas or bhakris, came the next level – how to ensure that they were evenly rolled (tip: you started at the edges) or that they puffed up nicely, trapping the steam inside to make the layers distinct. That was the hallmark of the perfect poli – soft, lushlushit and with distinctly separate layers.
And when she was confident that I could tackle making poli, she taught me how to knead the dough. How to add just enough water, to make it firm (it’s necessary to have a firm dough if you are a beginner – that makes rolling it out easier). How to keep it soaked and covered for sometime before kneading it some more and rolling out rotis…
These forays into the kitchen meant I learnt, early on, how to identify the ingredients, spices, pulses, lentils. I learned the way to store these. In fact, after we had brought the month’s supplies, I was tasked with putting it away in the proper containers, as I grew older. And identify how and when the foods would start to go bad. And if it was possible to rescue them. Like sun-drying.
Mom would also take me vegetables and fruit shopping. Mostly it would be after school in the evenings. A Monginis slice cake ensured there were no complaints. That also meant I learnt quickly what to buy from whom. The chickoos would be bought from the vendor sitting next to the West-East crossing. But watermelons from the guy on the corner near the bus stop. And leafy green vegetables from the Vasai che mamas only. And mangoes from Ashok, the first fruit seller at Topiwala Market. It also meant how to select, wash and store these perishables in the fridge. And what to buy in which season. (By then we were beginning to get non-seasonal watermelons and the like in winters!) So watermelon and grapes were bought in the early summer, before mangoes made their presence felt. Or leafy vegetables were avoided in the rainy season. The added bonus that came with these simple kitchen chores was a reward in itself, many a peas have been popped into the mouth instead of the bowl while shelling them, and baby tomatoes and carrots and cucumbers were rewards reaped at the end of the chore.
With this, the time management in kitchen lessons were also on. How to first knead the dough for rotis. Then put the cooker on for dal-chawal. While the dough is soaking, and rice and dal are cooking, washing the vegetables and making a bhaji (vegetable curry). And how to use the same sabji pan (after transferring the bhaji to another pot) for the dal tadka or phodnicha varan or amti, so you minimised the oil used, and it made for less cleaning post the meal. And how to make the koshimbir or raita last, just before sitting down to food, so that no vitamins are lost, and the salad tastes fresh and crisp. With this time management, I have managed to feed many unexpected guests in record time with poli-bhaji-varan-bhat-koshimbir-chutney-sheera (Sheera is the easiest dessert, and you can never go wrong with it).
Mom was an avid reader, and researcher. When I started falling sick seasonally, she started to read up on the nutrition and balanced food. She sought out nutritionist appointments, bought books, and put them into action. That meant no dalda (hydrogenated trans fat) ever entered the household, and only the best ghee was used. It meant that every meal had to have a taak/curd to up the pro-biotic intake. And full fat raw milk, that ensured thick curd, cream, butter (not the one that came in packets, and was supposedly more hygienic!). Added to the weekly mix was fermented idli–dosas, and sprouted lentils made it to every dinner.
She would impart these nutrition tidbits and more, every time I cooked, or she cooked and I watched. Like adding methi (fenugreek) seeds to idly/dosa batters. Or why we eat raw garlic chutney in winters. And raw white onions in summers to beat the heat. And that beets, pumpkin and carrots are rich Vitamin A sources. Or lemon, mosambi, oranges are for Vitamin C. So much so that I never had to memorise this for any school exam, and these remain deeply ingrained even today.
Then, there were this small quizzes. She would whip out some new dish, and ask me to recognize how it was made, and with what ingredients.
One important aspect of her cooking was how to cook with andaz (Marathi word meaning “guessing” or guesstimate). She never taught me in the take-1/3-cup-of-this-and-add 11/2-tbsp-of-that way. It would always be proportionate – either to the vegetables or the lentils taken, or the number of people for whom the food was being cooked. A little here and there was more than ok. Her proportions were rather typical – limba-evdhi-chinch (a lemon sized ball of tamarind) or kinchitsa (almost a pinch) meeth (salt), or davya-hatane-sakhar (meaning if you are right handed then to use the left hand and pick up some sugar with the left hand – since you don’t use the hand that often, you will never pick up much of the ingredient, and add just that much to the dish). This meant you had to figure out how to add more or less to any dish to make it perfect for you, rather than go by the book. (I am so ingrained in this method of cooking, that I cannot for the life of me write out a recipe in a typical blog or cookbook style). Along with this method, also came the instructions to touch, see and smell the recipe, to figure out if it has been perfectly made. I remember the early cooking days when mom would instruct me to add a bit more jaggery or salt to the boiling amti, just by the smell. (This sniffing gets me some weird looks from the Scientist, but hey! I am honing my craft to perfection here!!) This meant you brought all your senses to the table (or in this case the kitchen platform) and devoted your full attention to the cooking.
Another important aspect (or maybe the most important one) was, mom allowed me to carry out cooking experiments. She was an experimenter herself. If something went wrong, she would quickly turn it around make it into something else. I remember one Diwali, when all her chaklis turned soft. Was she disheartened? No, she put all the chaklis in a mixer, added some wheat flour and chopped coriander leaves to it, and made the most amazing thalepeeths.
So I was never scolded if I made a mess in the kitchen. And I have done my fair share of breaking, spilling and the like. I had to clean up, of course, after my emotional outbursts were done away with. That made me fearless in my adventures in the kitchen. Mom would taste everything, and we would discuss what went wrong, and how it could be righted. And I would return to kitchen with renewed hope and enthusiasm.
So today, when I am complimented on my cooking skills, I look back to all those times, happily spent in the kitchen. It took years to develop, with her loving guidance, under her watchful eyes. And it is to her that all the credit goes. Of course, now the guidance continues, over Skype or What’s app. Like how to make dinakache ladoos (which I just made), or more complicated ones (like what are the ratios for puran poli). Now, funnily enough, the roles are somewhat reversed. Mom calls and asks how to make the rice-semiya upma, or what to do with the nachni I had bought, and is lying untouched since. Life has come a full circle.