You don’t become the heart-throb of India by slaving over the evening meal in a stuffy kitchen, even though for every Indian man growing up in the 1980s, it was pretty much the stuff of adolescent fantasy. Madhuri Dixit in her post-marriage avatar, can still, annoyingly, make said men nudge their wives and go “See, she cooks for her husband and kids, and looks gorgeous doing it”.
This wasn’t always the case, however. Dixit laughs, remembering her first encounter with a particularly disastrous plate of prawns. She was cooking to impress her new husband, Shriram Nene, and she hadn’t realized that frozen prawns in the US come precooked. “They were very rubbery by the time I finished with them,” she recalls. Nene ate them anyway.
The actor has come some way since. On the sets of Food Food channel’s new reality show The Maha Challenge (which airs in September) in suburban Dahisar in Mumbai, she is mentoring a women’s team “that cooks by instinct” against the men’s team “that cooks by precision”, hoping to end the debate on which gender rules in the kitchen once and for all. But who knew Dixit could cook!
“Well, I cook all my family’s meals. I’m pretty hands-on in the kitchen, though not as hands-on as my mother,” she confesses. The daily menu depends on the amount of time available. “I find Indian food time-consuming. It’s first bhuno (fry) the masala, grind it, add it to something else that’s bhuno-ed... The quickest is pulling something out of the freezer,” she says. She loves to experiment with American, Mexican, Chinese and Thai cuisines. “I used to follow recipes step by step, but with experience, you follow your taste.”
The shift to Denver, US, away from the glamour world that brought mom’s cooking chauffeur-driven to her sets, meant reinventing her food traditions and setting new ones for her own family. “At home, we used to eat traditional food. Most of it was Indian, not exactly Maharashtrian, because we lived in a society which was mixed; it was a little bit of Punjabi, even Marwari cuisine.” On the sets, swapping dabbas (lunch boxes) with other stars was common and a great way to bond during shoots, she recalls. “During Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, Anupamji (Kher)’s dabba had some awesome stuff.”
Being away makes you realize how much of a community-based event food is in India, she adds. “I used to wait for Lohri when my Punjabi neighbours made channas and puris. I LOVE Punjabi kadi. Of course, every festival you wait for some speciality. For Diwali, my mother makes good chaklis; even other people come home for her chaklis, chiwda and shankarpala. Of course, Ganpati was modak; ukdi che modak. It’s my absolute favourite.”
Back in Denver, the Indian community tries to recreate the memories of such shared feasts. “Friends will get together and decide a menu, instead of cooking and then calling people over for a party. For us, the cooking is the party. There is music, cooking; it’s great fun. Food is not just about eating; it’s the sharing, it’s the company, it’s the loving.”
Like every seasoned housewife, Dixit has some splashy signature dishes for her guests. “There’s a salmon I make which is good; you can grill it, or throw it on a barbecue on cedar planks. Or you can put it in your oven. I use olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and blackening seasoning and put it in the oven. The key is to broil it for the last 2 minutes until the skin is a little crisp. I pick up a lot of recipes from books.”
Many of Dixit’s experiments in the kitchen are efforts to coax her boys to eat more, and eat healthy. “Instead of using maida (refined flour), I use wholewheat. But I’ve learnt that you can’t use all wholewheat, you must mix a little maida with it in proportion. Sometimes I make gingerbread and for dessert, sheera is popular at home.”
Her elder son being a fussy eater has, in particular, sparked quite a few innovations. “If you want them to eat vegetables there are so many creative things you can do; slice the kakdi (cucumber) and make a snake out of it, make a snail out of it; put it upside down and put toothpicks with grapes on it and make little eyes out of it; decorate it. Make him do it too, and that’s why I used to watch a lot of food channels to get ideas to get my children interested in eating,” she adds. Pig in a Blanket, a particular favourite of the boys, is a chicken curry cooked in dahi (yogurt) and rolled in a roti.
Pot boiler: Many of Madhuri Dixit’s experiments in the kitchen are efforts to coax her sons to eat health. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Of course, like all true innovators, Dixit too has a few story-worthy disasters to report. “I set the fire alarms off once: I have a plum tree in my backyard so I was making jam. It has to boil for some time, and then I got distracted with my kid and completely forgot it was on the stove. It was like charcoal by the time I realized, the smoke alarm went off, and I was like ‘Oh, no!’.”
Healthy cooking and sensible eating are her watchwords. “Don’t overcook the vegetables. In India, we cook the hell out of them. I always leave my vegetables a little crunchy. When there were no fridges, they used to overcook and put lots of masala in it. Today you can go easy on masalas. Encourage healthy eating, lots of fruits, vegetables, limit your consumption of oil. Though I have to say some food needs a little (more) oil, otherwise it just doesn’t taste that good.”
Then there’s soul food, for days when you are just not well, or want a taste of home. “For me, varan bhaat is comfort food; it’s a Maharashtrian thing. It’s great once in a while, you crave it. Cook the rice separately. Pressure-cook the moong dal, put salt—sometimes you can put gur (jaggery) in it—or a little bit of lime. If you want, it doesn’t really need tadka (tempering), but you can give it a jeera tadka in ghee. I also like it in the Punjabi way where they put garlic and mirch ka tadka in ghee.”
Sundays in Denver’s summer are barbecue time. Dixit says it’s a great way to get children to eat vegetables. “You can put anything from zucchini to corn on the barbecue. Put a little lemon, butter, salt. You can boil the corn and put on some chopped parsley. On the barbecue, add garlic, salt, butter but keep the corn in the husks (remove the hairy strands), that makes it retain the moisture, else it becomes too dry.”
But the recipes closest to Madhuri’s heart remain those her husband and mother cook for her.
Madhuri’s mother’s Kanda Poha
31/2 cups jada poha
1/2 tsp sugar
4 tbsp oil, plus some to deep-fry
1/4 cup raw peanuts
1 tsp brown mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
A pinch of asafoetida
6-7 curry leaves
4 medium onions, chopped
6 green chillies, chopped
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/4 tsp red chilli powder
1 medium potato, peeled and cut into half-inch cubes
1/4 cup boiled green peas
1 tsp lemon juice
2 tbsp fresh coriander leaves, chopped
Salt to taste
Place the poha in a colander and wash it under running water. Drain well, add salt and sugar, and toss lightly. Set aside. Heat sufficient oil in a kadhai (wok) and deep-fry the peanuts till crisp. Drain on absorbent paper. Heat 4 tbsp oil in a non-stick pan and add mustard seeds. When they splutter, add cumin seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves, and sauté for 30 seconds. Add onions and sauté till lightly browned. Add green chillies and sauté for 30 seconds. Add the turmeric and red chilli powders and stir well. Add the potato, cook till it is done. Add the peanuts, green peas, and stir. Add the poha and stir lightly. Reduce heat to low, cover the pan with a lid and cook till the poha is heated through. Add lemon juice and stir lightly. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve hot.