Opinion: Meat and madness in an Indian summer

  • People often say that summertime is about salads, fruit and light and easy cooking. But my culinary life has been the opposite
  • The days of heat have been about meat, roasting, baking, the fragrance of spices and frangipani

It’s an odd thing for an Indian to say, but I have always found something elemental and fascinating about summer in the subcontinent.

First, there is destruction and death. The land warms, then bakes, as hot, dry winds wash in from the northern desert. Fields, trees and living things wither. Every year, according to media reports, more than 1,000 people die in the annual heat, and those that survive scrounge for water and livelihood.

But this heat is part of the cycle of death and life. It is a prerequisite for the monsoon that brings relief and revival. When the land heats, the air becomes thinner, to be replaced eventually by cooler, moisture-laden winds from the Indian Ocean.

This cycle of heat and watery restoration is now threatened as the planet heats up. The monsoon is more uncertain, and the summers more intense. By the turn of the century, we were warned in 2017, parts of the subcontinent would be too hot and humid for human habitation, unless we did something about it.

This is disquieting news, to be sure, but since I may not be around to see if this scientific prophecy comes to fruition, I will dwell on it no further.

Let me talk instead about my fascination for the summer. I grew up in the Deccan, that rocky, baking heart of the peninsula. It is still one of India’s poorest areas, ridden with backwardness and black magic, but I shall forever associate it with the innocence and romance of childhood.

My younger brother and I spent the hot, dry days with a wild-eyed cocker spaniel called Bimbo and a large, frisky sheep called Curly. We roamed the dusty lanes, played marbles in the black soil and jumped into a deserted local pool—dog, sheep and all—when possible. We listened terrified as local “uncles" told us stories of the ghosts that populated dark local roads and the crumbling tombs that littered the countryside of what was once the Bahamani kingdom. We ate soupy trotters called paya for breakfast and lots of meat and biryani.

As we moved to aggressive, Hindi-speaking Delhi—a culture shock for a preteen used to gentleness and gentle Dakhani Urdu—we struggled with a land and people more given to vegetarian food. We survived no-meat Thursdays because a sympathetic cook slipped boiled eggs into the dal. At other times, when meat was scarce, we survived on—and celebrated—the dried fish called Bombay duck and dried prawns.

When I returned to Delhi later in life as a young professional, I learnt what it was to survive the summer alone. My home quickly became an informal restaurant, my friends drawn to its cosiness and my willingness to fire up my gas stove at any time of the evening—or day, if it was a holiday—and cook for whoever chose to walk in.

I dished out vast quantities of keema with rice and rotis from the neighbourhood dhaba. The food was simple, unburdened by dietary requirements and the delicacies of middle age. The only cooling came from a rickety desert cooler or a ceiling fan—if there was electricity. We laughed, drank, smoked and ate a lot. The only thing I asked of my friends was that they wash their dishes before they left. That wasn’t much to ask, was it?

After I married and had a child, I cooked more often and more varied food. Since my wife is vegetarian, I had to expand my repertoire considerably. Our home continued to be an open house. The living room now had air-conditioning, but my kitchen was as hot as ever. I remember a distinct feeling of madness and achievement, standing there unbowed by the Delhi summer, sweat streaming down my brow and body, wild-eyed as I roasted duck, made chermoula paste and tossed vegetables.

Ever since the 1990s, when I cooked through those steamy summer days of 47 degrees Celsius, wilting but not collapsing—although I did twice land up in hospital from heat stroke—I have always associated summertime with my best cooking.

People often say that summertime is about salads, fruit and light and easy cooking. But my culinary life has been the opposite: The days of heat have been about meat, roasting, baking, the fragrance of spices and frangipani, which I somehow associate with the Delhi summer.

In Bengaluru, a city that wilts at 35 degrees Celsius, I mark the arrival of summer with the flame-red canopies of the gulmohar tree. As I write this, Delonix regia—the gulmohar’s scientific name—are in bloom across town. As the heat rises, it is quickly tempered by evening rain, appropriately called “mango showers". Indeed, the first mangoes are on the trees and in the market.

In my 50s, I have turned to lighter food, eating more mangoes than ever. Perhaps I am getting older and wiser. Perhaps. It rained today, and, as the humidity rises, my thoughts drift to roast pork and rum. Excuse me. I’ll be back.

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

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