Love, the secret ingredient
Hyperbole does not come easy to me, especially not when commenting on food. But it was, quite simply, one of the best meals I had ever had.
It started with Iranian haleem, lamb and wheat cooked together until they disintegrated into tawny togetherness, topped off with cinnamon and browned onion. Unlike the Indian haleems I was used to, this had no ghee and no oil. The other entrees joined in easily, like voices melding into perfect harmony. There was the Esfahan biryani, which, instead of rice, used a naan as the base for fire-roasted, finely minced, lightly flavoured lamb; the fesenjan, slow-cooked chicken in a paste-like gravy of walnut and pomegranate molasses, served with saffron rice; and the effervescent mast-o-khiyar, an Iranian raita of chopped cucumber, yogurt, dried mint and rose petals.
I ate all of it, all, watched by the voluble, attractive woman who had transformed her home cooking into a pop-up menu at SodaBottleOpenerWala, a chain that uses motifs and recipes from Mumbai’s old, Irani-style restaurants. Anaida is a singer, actor, life coach and chef rolled into one. In my younger days, I was a fan of her music videos on MTV, but I was there that afternoon as her guest because I tagged along with her childhood friend, my wife. As I slowly stuffed myself, I asked Anaida if she ate such food every day. Well, yes, she replied, and as my eyebrows rose, she said: “You know, I have a secret ingredient, and that is love. I make everything with love.”
I suppose her simple declaration had something to do with her Persian heritage, known for romance and Rumi, the poet who eulogized faith and love. It got me thinking of the connection between food, love and human senses. When I fire up my stove every day at 6am, I tend to forget why I do what I do. Anaida reminded me that cooking is very much about love, romance and everything in between.
As the luminous Brazilian chef Isabella Oliviera in the movie Woman On Top, Penelope Cruz has a signature last line: “The last and most important ingredient is to share it with someone you love.” I hear her when Cruz explains how to turn “simple ingredients into dishes that fire the blood and satisfy the heart”.
The link between food and love is as old as human memory. It returns to us when we slow down our lives or, maybe, read books and watch stories that unfold around food and passion, such as Like Water For Chocolate, a Mexican movie about love, revolution and tears, the last of which mix with a batter that causes those who eat it to yearn for true love.
I began cooking in my pre-teen years because I loved to eat. Later, I realized, I cooked because I sought love and togetherness, and since there weren’t many men who cooked, it certainly helped that I could. Always tongue-tied around women, I often let my cooking do the hard work. I can’t say it always worked, but let’s just say it didn’t exactly fail. It may sound counter-intuitive, but I am lazy about cooking. I do not cook to de-stress, and I do not look forward to it. I do it because I know this: Once I begin, there is something magical about everything that goes into it—the spices, the thought, the process and the final result. Eventually, it gives me pleasure, it stirs my soul.
The ruminative, romantic quality of cooking emerges every morning when the pan sizzles as I lay out the first dosa of the morning and break two eggs on it. When the yolk stays intact, order reigns, aligning with chaos as the white races away. It pleases me to watch scrambled eggs forming without lumps, an omelette rising, a pork roast simmering gently, and, in general, watching the labours of effort, sweat and love emerge.
There isn’t always a method to what I cook. This column has forced me to list ingredients and proportions, but this does not come naturally. Every week, a patient copy editor points out a step I have not listed, an ingredient I omitted to mention. I understand Isabella—she who controls her chronic motion sickness by driving, leading while dancing and clambering atop while making love—when she says, “I will not give you my recipe, I will show you what inspires me.”
I am inspired by what I use, how I use it and whom I cook for. My cherished ingredient is kokum—the dried rind of a mangosteen—life-giver to my fish curries. It reminds me of my grandmother, my origins and my traditions. The kokum’s taste-giving sourness is to me a reflection of life’s euphoric and piquant phases. Similarly, the smoke from roasting spices sears through my nasal passages, I sneeze, my eyes stream and my senses stir. At the end of the day, to watch my family smile and laugh and relax when they eat what I have cooked—well, if that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.
2 cucumbers, small cubes
1 packet (2 cups) hung yogurt
1 tsp mint powder
2 tbsp rose petals, crushed
Rock salt, to taste
Mix yogurt, chopped cucumber, mint powder and salt. Garnish with rose petals and serve.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.