Now and then, I sponge recipes off my friends, particularly when I am bereft of inspiration and imagination. So, in steamy Delhi last week, I turned to my friend Namita, a woman with a large laugh, larger heart and—like me—a penchant for healthy food.
Her contention is that she cannot cook. I suspect she can but cunningly stays away because her two daughters do—one is a master baker—as does her husband, who lives to cook, turning out everything from traditional Maharashtrian recipes to Japanese steaks to pickles. She recalled the time, laughing loudly and proudly, her daughters had referred to an omelette she once made as a “vomlette" (she blames bad eggs).
Since the food in her sprawling Delhi home is always outstanding, I abandoned Namita and turned instead to her major-domo. A man whose grave, mostly unsmiling demeanour reveals itself to be a mask when he demands feedback on his culinary efforts and breaks into a smile when you respond with praise, Laakhan is a master of adaptation, innovation and—as I was to subsequently learn—technology.
Last week, when apprised of the need for something healthy and delicious, good for child and adult, not too spicy and not too bland, he listened impassively and produced a chicken stew that was one of the best I had eaten. Friends who like masala and heat could find nothing wrong, and the eight-year-old, who is gradually developing a distaste for average chicken—and I do not blame her, given the insipidness of the usual broiler—consumed the stew with evident pleasure.
When I sat down with Laakhan, a straight-backed man with a neat moustache, it was hard to structure the recipe in the manner you see below. His methods are in his head—to the observer, they are organized chaos.
When he said, “Take the onions and fry them, then add the chicken," I tried, and failed, to first get the ingredient list. “Wahi toh bol raha hoon," he said, furrowing his forehead. That’s what I am saying. Keep up, he meant. So I abandoned linear thinking and scribbled frantically to keep up.
I was bewildered. Where were the vegetables I had eaten in the stew? Oh, add them of course, he said. But which ones, how many and when? Laakhan regarded me balefully, with the air of a man who had better things to do.
“Aap ko jo sabzi pasand hai (whichever vegetables you like)," he said.
“Beans, carrot, cauliflower...oh, if you’re adding cauliflower, add it at the end or you will never see it," he smirked. “You understand?" In case you did not, he meant cauliflower cooks quickly and will disintegrate.
And, so, it continued. When I asked how the stew was created, he shrugged and said, add water. Later, he walked to a cupboard and silently produced a cube of Maggi chicken stock. Isko bhi daliye(put this in as well). After I had everything—or thought I had—and asked how the stew got its flavour, Laakhan said, “Oh, of course you must add khada masala, whole spices—cardamom, clove and cinnamon."
“So, that’s it?" I asked.
“Oh, and bay leaf."
By now, I was struggling to keep up and arrange the jigsaw.
I thanked Laakhan, who had returned to slicing cucumber and watching Saving Private Ryan with his young son. While I was leaving, he called out, “Dhania bhi dal sakte hain". You can add coriander powder too. After another step, “Aur haldi bhi, agar aapko colour chahiye." Turmeric if you want colour.
After a while, he followed me out, smiling when I looked up. “Waise jab bhi mujhe koi doubt hota hai, main YouTube dekhta hoon." Whenever I am in doubt, I look up YouTube. It’s very easy, Laakhan said, in his newly expansive mood, and you can find anything about anything.
I should not have been surprised, but I was. Technology is not an aid that immediately comes to mind when you think of traditional home-cooks-cum-stewards or khansamas, of which Laakhan is a modern version, keeping track of supplies in the kitchen and order in the house. I confessed to him that I did not use YouTube for culinary guidance. You should, was his typically laconic response. Let me think about that.
Laakhan’s chicken stew
1/2 kg chicken
1/2-inch piece cinnamon
3 black cardamoms
1 bay leaf
1 tsp peppercorns
2 potatoes, quartered
1 large carrot, chopped
1 cup beans, chopped
1 cup cauliflower, small florets
1 onion, finely chopped
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp ginger-garlic paste
2-3 cups chicken stock (or 1/2 Maggi chicken stock cube)
2 tsp olive or sunflower oil
Salt to taste
Heat oil in a non-stick pan. Add clove, cardamom, bay leaf, peppercorns and cinnamon and wait until they swell. Add onion and fry till translucent. Add ginger-garlic paste and sauté for a minute, drizzling with water if it sticks. Add chicken and potatoes and sauté till the chicken starts to brown. Add pepper powder, coriander powder and turmeric. Sauté for a minute, adding water if it starts sticking. Pour in enough chicken stock to cover everything, or add water and add the Maggi cube, stirring it in. Add salt. Bring to a boil and add carrot and beans. When the chicken and vegetables are cooked, add cauliflower. Simmer until the cauliflower is done.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
He tweets at @samar11