My complicated relationship with food
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No, I do not actually like to cook. I’ve said that often enough over the nine years I have written about my dubious culinary adventures. But a man in a kitchen is still such a novelty in this country that those who think they know me or read my ramblings assume that I must love cooking. Some common reactions:
It must help you relax (er, no, regular cooking is hard work).
It’s a great way to de-stress, isn’t it? (If I wanted to de-stress, I would be in bed with a good book or lolling in the pool.)
Your wife is very lucky (would you say that to me if she was the one who cooked? Anyway, don’t ever tell her that).
Will you review this new restaurant? (Just because I cook does not mean I eat out or am in any way qualified to review the work of professional chefs.)
I cook because I like to eat. That’s about it.
I do admit that I like what I cook, always have, since I began my working life about a quarter-century ago, working my way up from eggs and sausage masala on a hotplate on the floor of a tiny room. Along the way, it emerged that my friends and family also liked my proclivity for churning out hearty meals with whatever was at hand. Really, it’s just a part of life.
The only reason my cooking is at all a matter for public discussion is this column. Last month, I was admonished by a women who said she really did not care about what I had to say, but she always looked for the recipe at the end. As it happened, that was the first time (today will be the second) there was no recipe. Later, I met another woman who said she did not care about the recipes, but she liked my ramblings.
Today, I met a man who said, “Ah, you write the meat column!” What, no, I don’t, I protested. I eat very little red meat these days, and I actually bung in a fair number of vegetarian recipes. It’s true, I do, as I did last time. No one really believes me. His wife, a vegetarian, looked at me sceptically and said nothing. Oh well.
My friends assume I must use cookbooks. I don’t, almost never. But I keep getting these books, mostly of food that they like. An Assamese friend gave me a book on Assamese cooking; another who considers herself quasi-Kashmiri, handed me a compendium of Kashmiri cuisine. My collection of cookbooks is now easily 100 strong, occupying a shelf on our bookcase and half our crockery cupboard. From common Tarla Dalal booklets of easy cooking to The Complete Larousse Gastronomique; from Jiggs Kalra’s original classic Prashad: Cooking With The Indian Masters and Mrs K.M. Mathew’s essential guide for the young Kerala housewife, Kerala Cookery, to Claudia Roden’s magnificent The Food Of Spain. There are recipes from Anglo-India, the outer Maghreb and inner Goa.
I do read these books, now and then, but mostly for what they reveal about their authors and about places near and far. I have a great interest in geography, and cooking—I have come to realize—offers a great insight into its human aspect that sterile cartography cannot. So, Gilda Mendonsa from Goa tells me of the merging of the “gentle arts”—visiting, conversation and food. Bridget White from Bengaluru reminds me of legacies gained, lost and preserved, of toad in the hole and curried sheep’s head. Only on occasion, perhaps once or twice a year, do I read these books for culinary inspiration.
I do not watch cooking shows on television or the Internet. I would rather read about the Maratha Confederacy or the latest potboiler about the future of the world threatened by the rediscovery of the oracle of Delphi. My wife appears to have lots of time to watch these shows and badger me—much to my irritation—to copy what they do. I refuse, of course. I’ll be damned if I watch and try to replicate what office managers and massage therapists from Brisbane are cooking up on an Australian reality show.
I’ll tell you two more reasons why I cook: It’s a great time of day, and it’s always good to receive accolades from a captive audience. I usually cook in the evenings, in the shadow of a great ficus tree outside my kitchen window, the Bengaluru breeze rustling its branches, curling around the smoky fragrance of roasting spices rising off my cast-iron pan. When we settle down to our early dinner—around 6pm—I always ask my six-year-old, how is it? The replies range from “awesome”, “mmmm”, a silent thumbs up to a—pause—“good”, which means she would rather not say. My irascible, often cantankerous spouse mostly breaks into a big beam. I might not care too much about cooking, but I sure do like its benefits.
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.