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The joys of staying relevant

Octopus tentacle. Fish eye. Rabbit. Make your child experiment with food--and she will force you to be experimentative


Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

I don’t know why I bother to ask. At 6.15 every morning, Monday-Friday, I ask my six-year-old what she will have for breakfast. She barely looks up because the answer is the same.

Motte dosa.” Two eggs steamed on a dosa.

“Wouldn’t you like something else today?”

“No.”

“Scrambled egg? An omelette?”

“No.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love it that my daughter likes what I cook. Breakfast is a ritual we both look forward to. We share a bright, green chutney of onion, chana dal, coriander, green chillies (two, always) and lime—sometimes with coconut. We joust with dosa bits, she eats the yolks, I eat the white, and we make silly faces at each other and discuss world peace—you get the general idea.

But I do think it would be nice to make something other than motte dosa, day after day.

It’s not that she doesn’t get tired of the same food. For instance, chicken is suddenly enemy No.1, as it should be. Whatever you do with it, antibiotic-pumped broiler raised in a crowded coop cannot taste better than flavourful cardboard. She’s getting tired of chicken pulao and chicken fried rice for school lunch and roasted chicken at home—although she will eat it if I have made it.

So, what does she like? The mutton curry and 10 puris she eats at her grandmother’s every Friday night—when she flees home and stays over—is on top of her list, along with pork fat, although I haven’t made enough of it recently. She will cheerfully eat some vegetables, such as—yikes—slimy bhindi, beans, potatoes and paneer with, um, chaat masala. That keeps the family vegetarian, her mother, satisfied.

In short, my daughter is not an overly fussy eater and, like her old man, she will try anything that was once alive. But she has always liked the exotic. When she was 2, she ate her first rabbit at a legendary restaurant called Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, where I taught for a semester at the university. She didn’t know what she was eating, so she asked.

“Er, bunny,” I said, with some trepidation.

“Bunny?” She looked at the stewed rabbit. We waited. “Oh bunny!” she said and wolfed it down.

Some of the other things she likes are ham, sausages, octopus tentacles and fish eyes, the last mentioned is something that I do not eat. She likes to pluck the eyes of a whole roasted pomfret or mackerel, suck on it meditatively and crunch it into pieces, if possible (a mackerel’s eye is hard and impossible to crunch). She particularly likes to peer down at an octopus tentacle as she sucks it, like a lollipop, into oblivion. The eye plucking-and-crunching ritual is reserved for her other grandmother, who cannot bear to watch and tries to now ensure the fish’s head is lopped off before it reaches the table.

If you want to get your children to be unfussy eaters and enjoy what they eat, I suggest two things: Expose them to a variety of food, and cook as often as you can.

It has helped that my little one has eaten in places as diverse as California’s farmers’ markets, Darshinis—self-service idli dives—in Bengaluru, Singapore food courts and highway stops on road trips in Karnataka. We stopped carrying food for her some time ago, and she’s adapted very well indeed. “You must try something, never say no,” is the rule instilled by her mother, and she dutifully obeys, even if she’s tired and full.

She likes the occasional pizza and chips, but while her grandmother varies mutton curry with Domino’s, we try to make everything at home—pizza, for instance. That keeps her particularly interested because she gets to participate in the ritual and pleasure of cooking. For instance, she pulls up a stool when nervy grandparents are not around, and lays out a reasonably round dosa—and flips it. She likes to fling garlic, onion, tomato and orenago (as she calls oregano) into the pan when I am making pasta sauce or pound basil, garlic and pine nuts for a basil pesto. With her mother, she likes to make a sandwichwalla-style toastie, roasting it in the hand-held toaster over the flame.

Unsurprisingly, she is more than keen to eat anything she has had a hand in producing, claiming of course entire credit for whatever emerges. My next task is to revamp my repertoire to address that bored-of-chicken refrain. On weekends, leftovers are always a pleasure to work with. A bit of leftover paneer, ham, beaten curd and minced tomato worked very well inside a pita pocket. When there is no pita, she settles for chapati. She makes me think, and her occasional bouts of culinary boredom force me to be creative and stay relevant as a cook.

As she grows, that boredom will, I am certain, become more frequent. I’m ready. But I do hope we will always have our motte-dosa breakfasts.

This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar also writes the fortnightly column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. The writer tweets as @Samar Halarnkar

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