Expecting the expected and other kitchen scheming
It takes heart, soul and thought to keep your family interested in what you cook. Predictability—but not too much—doesn’t hurt
Beauty is boring, said the Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco, because it is predictable.
I don’t have a problem with predictable. When I visit someone, I like predictable at the dining table.
This is no bad thing.
At my parents’ house, I know I will get fish curry and fried or grilled fish—in this season when few boats venture out to sea and fish-eating must pause to let fish breed, we settle for the plentiful, thumb-sized mandeli (anchovies); at other times, prawn biryani or dried shrimp. At my friend Shammy’s house in Delhi, I know I will get saunf chicken, flavoured with roasted fennel seed. At my in-laws’, it’s likely to be “Indian-style” grilled fish—they know I like mackerel or sardine, with a tandoori pomfret once a week—paneer-palak or the Sindhi seven-vegetable curry called sai bhaji, with bajre ki roti, made of pearl millet. At my friends Thapa and Rohini’s in Mumbai, I know I will get mustard fish, shredded mutton and beans lightly tossed with almonds. At my friend Rohit’s in Singapore, I will get grilled chicken, boiled carrots and lettuce.
It’s always been this way since I can remember. It was home-made biryani with mirchi ka salan (curried mild chillies) and bagar-e-baingan (tempered eggplant) and super-soft shami kebabs at Didi aunty’s and Mumtaz uncle’s. It was roast pork, sannas (steamed rice cakes) and a rum-drenched plum pudding set aflame at Fifine aunty’s. It was mutton curry and rice at Doddamma’s, where the Gowda family, who helped raise me showed me how to crack bones with my teeth.
As you can see, there has been a marked change in diet from childhood to middle age, but you get the idea—I know what to expect.
At home, I cook a lot for myself and the family, and they know that dosa, chutney and egg are—almost always—breakfast. I personally don’t have a problem with eating the same thing every day; I am known to have eaten kheema for breakfast, lunch and dinner for five days at a stretch. But this approach risks quick discontentment when an easily bored wife and child are involved.
The morning I wrote this column, my eight-year old—anticipating two half-fried eggs with dosa, called out, “Scrambled egg please!” The previous day had been Sunday, breakfast was late, and she was in a bad mood. I dared not serve up the dosa and half-fried eggs as I do most weekdays, so I gave her a sourdough sandwich with ham, Cheddar cheese and a full-fried egg. When she tires of chicken or mutton curry in her lunch, I switch to shredded chicken tossed with garlic, tomato and onion, stuffed into a roll.
The wife, obviously, is not quite as forgiving as a doting daughter, so keeping her interested is trickier. The daily dosa works fine, and I’ve tweaked her regular yellow dal with combinations of other dals and spinach and fenugreek. Couscous and other (vegetarian) offerings from the Maghreb were once a sure-shot way to get approval, but these days she likes to experiment on her own through our part-time cook.
As you might guess, it takes considerable effort to keep your family interested in what you cook. Predictability does not hurt—indeed it’s welcomed, especially when the girls return from a work trip or holiday; the wife likes her bowl of dal, rice and vegetable, the daughter her dosa and egg—but you must know when to break the monotony.
Heart, soul and thought are the essence of home cooking. If you don’t feel love when cooking, and if it does not stir your soul in some way, it’s best avoided. Home-cooked food generates closer bonds, excitement, euphoria and a general feeling that all is well with the world and God is in heaven. None of this comes without thought and effort. I look at or imagine faces and personalities and think my way through a menu. When my parents come over, I think of food made with our personal twist. It could be something as simple as the wife’s salad, suffused with seeds, fresh fruit and her trademark dressing, it could be something as unfamiliar and complex as a Senegalese fish thiéboudienne. When friends come over, my roast pork and Goan fish curry are familiar and welcome staples.
Sometimes, you need to completely break the mould, as I did last week, and think radical. I could sense some ennui at home, so I contemplated our little kitchen garden with its fresh basil, rosemary and oregano. Could I make something that used no spices perhaps? Just herbs? Something light and quick? I did, and here it is.
It’s good if your family usually expects the expected, but a little extra heart, soul and thought never hurt.
Sliced eggplant in yogurt sauce with fresh herbs
1 large eggplant, thinly sliced
1 cup fresh curd
1 tsp garlic, chopped
2 tsp fresh oregano, chopped
3 tsp fresh basil, chopped or torn
3 tsp pomegranate seeds
6 tsp olive oil
A few strands of saffron
Salt, to taste
Fry eggplant in 4 tsp of olive oil until done. Place the slices on a paper towel to soak up any excess oil. In a bowl, whip curd with a fork. Drizzle in the remaining olive oil and whip again until smooth. Add oregano, saffron, garlic and salt. Pour over the eggplant. Sprinkle with basil and pomegranate. Serve warm or cold.
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.
He tweets at @samar11