‘Cooking is therapeutic.’ ‘I find peace and contentment in the kitchen.’ ‘There is nothing more creative than cooking up a dish.’ ‘My kitchen and I are best of buddies.’
Before you come to a hasty conclusion, let me tell you that those words are definitely not mine. They are lines uttered variedly by many smug-faced friends, colleagues, acquaintances, relatives… My head reels on hearing all this. The air around me is thick and heavy with the innumerable sighs that have escaped my lips in these many years, months, weeks and days of trials and tribulations in the kitchen. I begin each day with the very (un)encouraging thought, ‘Welcome to another day of cooking, cooking and… well… errr… cooking!’ My nerves and muscles tighten up into a taut ball that would finally loosen up only when I bid good-bye to the kitchen for the day. Don’t be alarmed if you catch me open-mouthed staring blankly at a well-stacked kitchen cabinet or an open refrigerator. At that point of time I am just trying to solve one of life’s major mysteries, ‘What do I cook today?’ Let me tell you such great mysteries require deep contemplation and thought, open-mouthed or otherwise. So, over these years, my tryst with cooking (successful or not, is anyone’s guess!Sigh!!) has part made me feel like a scientist trying to unravel history’s greatest secret. What do I feel in the other part? You sure want to know? Well, I think I’ll spill the beans anyway. I hate the feeling of ‘feel like a scientist’. So where does this leave me? Your guess is as good as mine!
Blame it on luck that I always end up in the company of people who can probably cook with their eyes closed. They whip out a lip-smacking dish with the same ease as a magician would a rabbit from his hat. Voila! My dear friends, colleagues and neighbours, how do you do it time and again, day after day? The right amount of salt and spice every time? The worst of the lot are neighbours who are great cooks. They can wreak havoc on your domestic life like no other. With so much of love, affection and, I suspect a hint of pride, they share their special dishes with me to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, auspicious days…
My latest neighbour, Mrs. Jain is a wonderful woman. She is middle-aged, but with a spring in her step. She is so full of life and manages to keep in contact with everyone around despite a hectic Mumbai life. As luck would have it, she is a terrific cook. I think she was born to be my neighbour. Or is it that God planned that she should be my neighbour and made her a skilled cook? And, she is a loud cook too. I wake up every morning to the clatter and clang of her pots and pans and chop, chop, chop of her chopping board. I don’t need to peep into her kitchen to give you a live commentary of the things happening in her kitchen. Yes, now she fries, now she roasts, oh, she is stirring now and now she is chopping, pouring, washing… I know it all even as I silently work in my kitchen. And soon the aroma of her food invades my home through closed doors and windows and every nook and crevice. There is no escaping it. Her food smell is like an obsessed army out to demolish, shatter, destroy any semblance of peace and calm in my early morning home. My husband wakes up to the divine smells of Mrs.Jain’s cooking and comes into my kitchen sniffing, hoping that my gas table would be the source of this gastronomic delight. Be it kheer, puran poli,pakoda, tadka dal, achaar or the very simple chivda, everything that has come out of her kitchen tastes out of this world. What is the secret ingredient she adds to her dishes, I wonder. She says she cooks very little these days as her children have grown up and moved out. Little does she realise the effect of this ‘very little’ that she cooks on this poor neighbour!
Last month, Mrs.Jain’s son got married. So not only was her son and daughter there but her extended family too. Then began the unimaginable onslaught. Mrs. Jain cooked and cooked like one possessed. Day and night. Bang bang, clang clang. More bang bang, more clang clang went her pots and pans. The cooking smells from her kitchen permeated every molecule of air that blew in the direction of my house. I went into a frenzy and sealed every window and door of my house. Finally, I threw up my hands in despair and accepted defeat. The divine smells came in, wave after wave and left me defenceless, defeated and salivating. It was like every waft of dribble inducing air that audaciously crept into my house screamed at the ineffective cook that I was. I decided not to cow down that easily. In response, I cooked up one dish after the other hoping that smells from my cook top would have at least have half the effect. My fingers and, I suspect, my head too went stiff and addlebrained in deciding the right amount of spice. One-fourth, half or three-fourth of a spoon? A teaspoon or a tablespoon? I stood there, open-mouthed with an open bottle of mixed spice in my hand! In the evening as my husband and son quietly downed all that was served on their plate, they barely managed a ‘nice’ between their chomps. They were just trying to be polite, as always.
Though my rendezvous with cooking has been far from encouraging, there is something related to cooking that I love to do. I will give you a hundred guesses and I bet you will get all of them wrong. I love watching cookery shows on TV. That’s my favourite pastime. ‘Amma, why do you waste time on such shows when you don’t even try out the simplest of their recipes?’ my son would ask, totally confused. I just love watching such shows whatever be the reason. Do people who watch movies do so with the intention of becoming movie stars? Just as you watch movies to get entertained, cookery shows give me enjoyment. No one really understands my logic, not that I care. I am quite selective about my shows. I don’t very much watch the shows hosted by qualified chefs who are almost always male. They are so lacklustre and so text-bookish.These are the ingredients, this is what you do and this is what you get. How boring! How unimaginative!Where is the experience? An experience that caters to all your senses. I would rather read from a cookbook instead! Then, there are those anorexic looking models who host food shows probably to buy those stilettos they so precariously balance themselves on or to buy that outrageously pricey skimpy designer wear that they plan to wear for the next party. Yes, they sure do cook up a few things on their show, but I wonder if they ever eat anything at all.
Then we have a band of yummy mummies-turned-TV hosts. They sure do arrest your attention. Amrita Raichand, I think, leads the band. She lights up the screen with her beguiling smile. Her creativity and undisguised love for her son is so instantly endearing. When she dunks her diamond studded well-manicured fingers into a bowl of flour that needs to be kneaded, she somehow stops being a sophisticated socialite and becomes like any other keen mother who is trying to make something enticing for her son who will soon be back from school with a hungry but finicky palate. She becomes one of us.
And then, we have Nigella Lawson. When she appears on-screen, I am like a dumb-struck kid watching an amazing magic show with wonder-filled eyes. I seriously wonder if anyone who watches her show ever notices what she makes. I for one really care a damn about what she puts into her pan or pours out of it. For me, the show is about Nigella, Nigella and only Nigella. Her soft husky voice teases my ear. My heart warms up when she lavishes the screen with one of her sunshine smiles. She moves around her kitchen pulling out her designer spoons, ladles, pots and pans with such experienced ease that I suspect she had learnt to cook even when she was in her mother’s womb. I also love the way she is so comfortable with her buxom self, so full, so beautiful. The slight tilt she gives her head as she flirts and romances the camera can send your heart racing. She engages you in a non-stop soft chatter. Here we don’t see a qualified chef standing on a pedestal instructing you how to get your dish right. Instead, we are drawn into a sensuous tour of a complete kitchen experience. The soft creamy sauces and gooey gravy she cooks up, the crunchy salads she rustles up, the colours she plays with are all meant to activate your senses. If there is something called food porn, her show is the ultimate destination. The sensuousness with which she ‘hmmms’ and ‘aahhs’ as she licks the stray sauce or cream that has coated her dainty finger or when she tastes the food is bound to give you a ‘foodgasm’. To me, she is the undisputed food goddess. She evidently has men worldwide eating out of her hands, literally.
So in the midst of watching Nigella Lawson, Amrita Raichand, other yummy mummies, stick thin models, boringly methodical male super chefs, my kitchen hearth too burns, cooking up far from divine but definitely edible dishes, day after day…