Let me tell you a story. A story is essentially what one gets after cooking up words, and what better way to start talking about cooking than with a tall tale?
My father always tells me my mother never taught me to cook. Well, I still can’t cook as well as he can! He is 85 years old and still believes in cooking for the connoisseur, taking a lot of trouble and being very particular. I come from a family where most of the men know how to cook.
I remember festivals and gatherings at my grandparents’ house, when I was about five years old. I had a dozen uncles and aunts. Really, not literary! There was a rectangular space, a courtyard inside the L-shaped house. Opposite the larger arm of the house was a separate kitchen. We had to cross the courtyard to go and eat our meals, and if it was raining, dashing across was an adventure in itself!
The kitchen was the cook’s domain, the cook changed several times in a year and generally there were about 30 people eating in that kitchen, all relatives. Festival times were different. My uncles got down to do the cooking, and the cook turned into an assistant. There were several fires burning in the courtyard, several mud ovens, traditional, all of which took considerable skill to light. They got going after much huffing and puffing, but by the time I was ten, I had learnt how to light that kind of a traditional mud stove, also how to light a hookah which my grandfather puffed.
Most difficult was, of course, learning how to light a match stick, the way we Asians do. Lighting a lighter is child’s play compared to lighting a match and if you can do that — cooking is darn easy.
Why my Dad still says I wasn’t taught how to cook by my mother like all little girls are, is because my mother and my aunts never saw cooking as anything more than something that has to be done. One has to eat, so one has to cook.
I began life watching my uncles tie a ‘gaamcha’, a red piece of wiping cloth, around their waist and, often another around their heads, and stirring large aluminum pots over hot mud stoves. The smells of meat and spice that wafted out of those pots is a lifelong memory. And the fish, a meter long, its dead eye looking at all the going ons, waiting its turn to be addressed, sometimes, smaller ones, live and jumping. At the same time, arriving after long and very crowded train journey to a village where my aunt taught in a school. We reached home in a rickshaw, pulled by a rickshaw puller, after yet another of trundling through narrow mud tracks, ravenously hungry.
My aunt would have worked all day, and then cooked us a meal, that was better than anything I have ever tasted. boiled rice, lots of butter, boiled potatoes and eggs, all mashed and eaten with our hands. When I was a little older, we often ate what my father cooked at the end of a hard long day at office. My mother was bed-ridden for many long years, and could not get up from her bed. Those days it was my Dad, the finicky cook who produced quick meals that surpassed all that he made at leisure.
So, I claim to understand how dreadful it is if one has to cook at the end of a long hard day at work and is ravenously hungry. It seems easier to open ready-made packets, or go and get pickups, or go out to eat.
BUT IT ISN’T
This is perhaps why, I have chosen to write about how to rustle up a meal at the most disadvantageous moment. When you are tired, hungry, lonely, wishing your mom or girl friend or wife was around, a hot meal was ready on the table.