Just as every parent knows a child who eats with minimal fuss is a rarity, I know cooking without repeating oneself isn’t easy. The repertoire of dishes I can cook is very small—the few people closest to me love them, so I have not tried learning anything new. Essentially, that means I am not a serious, adventurous cook.
That comfort of getting along fine in life with limited kitchen skills vanished when my daughter joined Tridha, a Steiner-Waldorf school in Mumbai.
In all Steiner-Waldorf schools (based on the philosophy of Austrian innovator and academic Rudolf Steiner), lunch, or a mid-morning meal in the case of the kindergarten classes, comes from the homes of students. Every day is one child’s “special day”—the food comes from her or his home, and the entire class shares it. Every month, we get a designated date to cook for this class of 22, which combines nursery, junior KG and senior KG. The only rules we got from the school: Send freshly cooked food; no refined flour, no refined sugar, nothing from a packet with preservatives, so bread or ketchup or jam or mayonnaise are out. You get the picture. It boiled down to variations with wholewheat, rice, vegetables and fruits.
All hell broke loose. To begin with, how were we to wake up at 5am and cook for 22 children, and cook food that they would eat?
Thankfully, our turn came 20 days after the first day of school, by which time my four-and-a-half-year-old was a mini-foodie. She had gone through a culinary journey of vegetarian food unique to many Indian communities and states.
“Yellow sponge cake,” she said one day. Dhokla, she loved it. “Neer dosa, mmmm...”; “rajma-chawal”; “Indori poha”—not that she liked everything she got, but she started eating food that is alien to her home kitchen, which only knows simplified, non-spicy Indian, easy Italian-Mediterranean and largely non-vegetarian Odiya-Assamese food. She learnt how to make Maharashtrian modaks in class.
Subsequently, our kitchen too has opened up. Rajma-chawal is now regularly cooked at home. I am still trying to perfect the neer dosa. On our special days, we have woken up at 5am to knead dough, make peas-parathas and tomato chutney the east Indian way. Our repertoire is growing, we are thinking of ways to make food fresh, local and delicious, and introduce the children to Odiya and Assamese food. The child is increasingly interested in cooking.
The lunch hour of a class like this holds a lesson we often overlook. Food is a powerful way of bridging cultural and social barriers. The fun route to national integration, embracing different tastes.