People need to eat to live. But there are some people who live to eat. I have been one of them.
If you look at me, you will know I am not lying. All my best childhood memories are associated with food — be it picnics, birthdays, festivals, weddings, parties, get-togethers, other special occasions or even simple Sundays.
We lived in Jhumri Telaiya, a small town nestled in the picturesque Damodar valley. The sleepy town did not offer much for recreation or entertainment, but winters were incomplete without the picnics. The venue would invariably be near the Damodar Valley Corporation Dam and its catchment areas and the menu would be mandatorily pulao, mutton, salad, tomato chutney, papad and sweets, besides the all-important potato-cauliflower curry that exhibited the extent of our thoughtfulness and consideration towards the vegetarian folks. All the cooking used to be done by the men in the group as women chatted their time away or helped the husbands out by cutting vegetables for salad. There was no restriction on cooking in the woods. I salivate whenever I remember the garam masala-dominant divine smell of the pulao that filled the air when the lid would come off the huge tumbler. The mutton would be spicy and the chutney a little less sweet to my taste but nothing would dampen the spirit of eating together.
Invitation to weddings or other parties too meant food then. Well, it hasn’t changed much over the years in my case. And I like being a non-vegetarian. This gives me an opportunity to have the best of both worlds. I like the fact that while vegetarians cannot even taste our food, we can happily dig into their fares.
Mention of food invariably brings back memories of Durga Puja back home. Mahanavami meant the to-die-for pulao and mutton cooked by my mother. Tasting way different from the one we had at picnics, this pulao was cooked in ghee. My mother never used garlic in her mutton because garlic never entered our house for reasons unknown. People usually marinate the mutton in curd but she did not use curd either because it stole the rich red colour of the dish. The mutton curry Ma cooks has a special colour and it can come only from mustard oil, and a special ingredient used in a special way – sugar sprinkled in the hot mustard oil before anything else goes into it. I don’t use much spices in the food I cook, but I too use her technique if I want a dish to look rich. To ensure the sugar only caramelises and does not burn, put onions right after the granules turn red, and see the magic. It could be a tried and tested formula, but I call it my mother’s technique because I had learnt it from her. Another of her another specialty is fried rice but will talk about it later.
Navamis (also Ramnavamis) were also memorable for another food-related event. The Marwari family lived next door would organise ‘kumari puja’ and my sisters and I would be offered puris served with very tasty ‘kaale chane’ and a potato curry that was cooked without onions and garlic but tasted divine. Along with that they served a ghee-dripping halwa. After we had eaten, women of the family would touch our feet and give us a dakshina of Rs 2. The dakshina and feet-touching stopped once we attained the age of puberty, but the invitation did not for we were great friends with the children of the family and they knew we loved the food.
Five days after Vijayadashami comes Kojagori Lakshmi Pujo, celebrated by most Bengali families. The Goddess is offered an elaborate bhog on the day. While many households serve khichuri (khichri) as the main prasad, at our place the bhog consisted of luchi (puri), cauliflower curry, nabra (a dish made with lots of vegetables), brinjal fry and rabri among other things. And we could not wait for the invitees to leave after the puja so that we could dig into the yummy food cooked by my mother and grandmother.
My grandmother was a great cook. We hadn’t seen her cook on a daily basis, though. She would enter the kitchen only when there were guests at home or on other special occasions, which made her food special too. When it came to birthdays, the must on the menu would be the payesh (payasam/kheer) cooked by her. Spoilt by the taste, we never liked the payesh served at any other place. Sundays those days meant vegetable cutlets, potato chops, stuffed paranthas, cauliflower samosas, matar kachauris and any interesting recipe Thamma would read in Patrika, the Saturday supplement that came with Anandabazar Patrika.
When I was leaving Telaiya after I got through Indian Institute of Mass Communication, I was sure to miss the great food cooked at our home. Till then we did not eat out much unless we were on holidays. My days in Dhenkanal (Orissa) introduced me to the new phase of my foodie life when I started tasting various “outside foods”. The days were incomplete without Bhaina’s Dhenkanal vada, chhena (paneer/cottage cheese) poda and a weird chaat served by a roadside vendor outside our institute.
Here I met Nandagopal Rajan, the great foodie. Any conversation with him and another of our friend, Barun Chakrabarty, was incomplete without food. That was the last year of the last millennium. On New Year, I received a greeting card from Nandu that had a packet of sugar stapled with it, explaining that he found me sweet. A year later, we were colleagues, along with a few other friends from IIMC, at a newspaper office in Chandigarh. From the bland hostel food, we were introduced to the rich, oily and spicy Punjabi food served at restaurants and the office canteen. Our perpetually upset stomach would not let us talk about anything else other than food. But we eventually got used to it, especially after we had set up our kitchens at home. Nandu soon got a chance to write a weekly column about food. He would be paid to review restaurant food. But eating out alone is no fun. Putting up with a vegetarian roommate, he did not have anybody who could share a meal of his choice. With forever free mornings, I happily rode pillion on his new Honda Dio as he embarked on his taste drives. I had the best time of my life with the office paying for my food without even asking me to return the favour in any way. Spending so much time together, this Malayali-Bengali duo realised they had so much in common. Away from our staple food of fish, which we did not get there easily, we would fantacise about the finned beauties and together reminisce our ‘fishy’ past. If not eating out, we would be cooking for each other, trying out biriyanis, chicken dishes, pastas, sub-sandwiches and so on. We became better friends soon and also found things other than food that could bind us.
Four years later, there was a day when both of us did not get to eat anything till past midnight even as all the people around us could not give their mouths and stomach any rest. Bengalis have this very annoying rule of starving the bride and the groom on their wedding day. And since Nandu had agreed to marry me the Bengali way, he had to endure the torture.
Seven years have since passed. From dhaba food to five-star fares, our gastronomical journey has only got better, fighting the rising food inflation and even after Nandu was diagnosed with diabetes and me with other lifestyle-related health problems. We practise restraint now, by eating non-spicy less oily food through the week and indulging on weekends. Bored of North Indian food after six years in Chandigarh, where rajma-chawal was the most popular dish even at Mexican joints, life has been better since we came to Delhi five years ago. Options galore here and no food is Greek to me any more. We are yet to visit It’s Greek to Me, though.
Food is so important in our lives that we cook to unwind. Even though on maternity leave, I find myself exhausted by the end of the week and find refuge in the kitchen on weekends as Nandu babysits our two-and-a-half-month-old. The kind of parents he has got, I hope our son won’t be a picky eater.
I think it has got a bit long as a blog post. Let me end it here and leave you with some food for thought: the recipe of my grandmother’s payesh – the birthday food to mark the first post by Gastronomically Yours.
Full-cream milk: 2 litres
Mishri: 200 grams (you can use a little more or less depending on your taste)
Rice (Gobindabhog): 2 fistsful (it might sound too little but it’s not so)
Raisins for garnish
Wash the rice and soak it in water. In a heavy bottom pan, heat the milk and bring it to boil, stirring continuously. When it reduces to almost half, add the rice. Add mishri once the rice is cooked. Mishri will dilute the consistency of payesh. Cook till it thickens further, stirring all the time. It should coat the back of a spoon and fall in dollops and not flow. Garnish with raisins soaked in water. Pour in dessert bowls and chill, though it tastes equally good if served hot.
Last words: The rice will not cook easily in sweetened milk. Hence, mishri should be added only after the rice has become soft. Using mishri instead of sugar ensures binding. Sugar makes it watery. Once refrigerated (not frozen), payesh cooked with mishri will not fall from a container kept upside down. And don’t put raisins when the milk is boiling. It can cause the milk to curdle and all your effort will go waste (my mother had to once pass it off as chhena payesh because of this). Making payesh is time consuming and needs a lot of patience as you cannot stop stirring it. Prepare it in the morning if serving at dinner time. It tastes even better if cooked a day before. Happy Birthday!