Two years ago, I drove to Pondicherry with my best friend. Just like every Chennaiite who goes to Pondicherry, we too planned to return with a car loaded with the much cheaper alcohol. And a couple of French pastries, perhaps, for scenic beauty.
Except, we did not. When we returned, the backseat of my car was filled with food — sourdough bread, sesame bread, at least 5 varieties of cheese, pesto, handmade pasta, lemon butter biscuits, oil, vanilla extract, single origin vegan chocolates (this was the main reason we went there, to write about the chocolatier), coffee. Not a drop of alcohol.
In the coming weeks, I made a roasted grilled gorgonzola with burnt homemade tomato paste, eggless chocolate French toast, warm pear and gorgonzola salad with sesame bread and pistachios toasted in butter-balsamic-honey and coriander pesto, pan-fried veggies and paneer sandwich. Auroville had been like a candy store.
I wasn’t always a posh ingredient hoarder or the kind to cry when Lucky Peach magazine shut down, or even someone who cooked. Seven years ago, I’d have been content with curd rice and pickle or chapathis and dal for dinner. But one day, seven years ago, something cracked.
That day I couldn’t take anymore of my mother’s version of pasta — or macaroni as we all knew it then. It was smothered in a mix of ketchup and tomato puree, used onions in sesame oil and very little cheese. Often, we were too polite to say, “No amma, this doesn’t taste good.” We’d instead say, “we’d like to try a different new pasta. The different pasta she then made would be the equally (if not worse) horrible Sunfeast pasta, which I thought even made powdered brick taste delicious, in comparison.
I couldn’t take it anymore. In a family where everyone was indifferent to food except as fuel, I was the restless oddball longing for a great meal. This is not to say that my attempts to master pasta were immediately successful. If life were the cast of Ratatouille, I was certainly not Remy the savant rat. I was the utterly useless Linguini with Gusteau-like dreams.
My pasta was sometimes mushy; sometimes it wouldn’t integrate with the sauce or the sauce would be too runny itself, flavourless, grainy, short on cheese, clumpy. I would say that I finally learnt to make consistently good pasta a few months ago. Which isn’t to say that seven years’ worth of pasta was bad, but that my triumph was thanks to a little tip from Bon Appetit‘s Adam Rapoport, who taught me to always incorporate a cup of pasta water into the sauce and to never drain the pasta before adding it to the sauce.
All over the internet are people who don’t know they have been Remy and Gusteau to me. They taught me to boil just enough water (eyeballing it) for pasta and how to make a delicious sauce minus any preparation or a recipe. Now, I cook it al dente, transfer it immediately to a pan containing garlic sautéed in butter, add a cup of pasta water so the starch helps with the mixing and the consistency of the sauce, dump a ton of cheese (parmesan or cheddar) and finish with a smattering of freshly cracked black pepper. Cacio e pepe, it’s called, an infamously simple and deceptive recipe. I now use it as a solid base for all my pasta experiments.
Why the obsession with pasta? I wanted something elaborate-seeming, something dramatic and festive, but I didn’t have time to make something elaborate, dramatic and festive. Living alone comes with its share of time-stealing tasks and knowing a few reliable recipes when you’re hungry always comes in handy. I can now make an intricate pasta dish with my eyes closed, although I wouldn’t recommend it.
I have undiluted power in how I choose to cook what I choose to eat, in breaking a dish down to its most integral components and juggling it to create something new. Exaggerating to say I play god, but it does feel close to that. I might not have a control over a lot of things in my life — especially having grown up with a lot of restrictions placed on my association with food — but with food, now I have complete authority.
December 31, 2015.
Everyone I knew in Chennai was out celebrating by binge-drinking. I wanted to go along but a new obsession took over the evening instead. Hummus. I made my own tahini for it, used black chickpeas instead of the usual white, spread my silky-smooth hummus on bread slices, topped them with vegetables and sticky-sweet pan-fried paneer and welcomed 2016 with a big hearty bite. New Year’s Eve is a terrible time to order in but it never occurred to me.
It’s true that my family is indifferent to food (though kind about my experiments) but I recently realised that they all like making things with their hands. For my parents, it’s art and for my grandfather it was installing railings and other complicated fixtures in the house. For me it’s food. I am that caricature who obsesses about cutting garlic and Instagramming everything I cook. I look at something I make and think, “I made that,” and I’m pretty sure the pleasure centre of my brain, the amygdala, lights up.
1 am, October 2016.
I’m simmering dal in my tiny kitchen. My kitchen is shaped like the long block in Tetris and Mumbai is muggy. The only ventilation comes from the windows in front of my stove. If you want to breathe the windows need to be open. If you want to cook the windows need to be closed. I picked dal over ventilation. I wiped my sweaty brow slightly pleased with myself. It’s a simple enough recipe: sauté onions, ginger, garlic, tomatoes, green chilies, with necessary masala and spices in jeera spluttered oil. Then add the boiled dal with water, salt and sugar and simmer till the water evaporates. You can add butter if you want, ghee makes it lovelier. But oil suits just as fine.
I grew up on a cheat’s cheat version of dal. Boil moong dal with vegetables and spices, add ghee and eat with chapathis. It put me off dal for a long time. Far from home I wanted dal. I also wanted the good stuff, and I didn’t want to make any half-assed versions, no matter how hungry or how much pressed for time I was.
The whole process shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes tops. Of course, mine takes three hours. I simmered the dal for two-and-a-half-hours. Cleaning up, Instagram, making rice and storing away for lunch took 30 minutes. I was sweaty, irritable but also terribly pleased with how the dal turns out: incredibly creamy, thick and flavourful.
I wake up most days thinking about what I should have for breakfast and dinner to falling asleep while conjuring up new recipes. And living on my own meant not just cooking treats, it meant cooking everything.
After I moved away from home, I quickly cracked a routine for daily cooking. First, the decision of what to make. This starts as a stray thought in the morning, takes some shape in the afternoon and materialises once I get home in the evening. Then I pull up some recipes online, give them all a quick glance. To be thorough, I’ll acquaint myself with at least five recipes. After that, a quick run into the kitchen to make sure I have almost all the ingredients; usually I’m always missing an ingredient or two. Which only inspires me to get creative and experiment with what I have or add something quite unlikely and come up with a dish of my own. Then I re-read the recipes or quickly call my mum (if I’m making rasam or sambar) to cross check the finer details and armed with my phone, I camp in the kitchen.
I came up with this routine when I moved to Mumbai in April 2016. As I struggled to find a decent house with a decent roommate — it took me four months before I gave up and settled on the first house that looked habitable. While living with my dad’s uncle for three months and then my grandmother for another three, I stayed up all night poring over recipes of what I would cook once I had my own place. I still read recipes at any given time of the day — to me it’s as fascinating as a China Miéville novel. When my wifi connection is sturdy, I binge-watch cooking shows. And I honestly think I’ve seen them all.
From Santa Cruz East to my office in Lower Parel (approximately 12 km), I took the train to work. Which meant I had a limited window for commuting — making sure you board before the rush hour, calculate the time it’d take to walk from the station to work and time my departure from work so that I could take the ladies special. All of this calculation played havoc with what was important — my cooking schedule. So I did what any obsessive meal planner would do: make lunch the night before or make enough dinner that leftovers become the next day’s lunch. I obviously had to make do with a functional breakfast, except on the two days of the week I didn’t work. Which is what led to the three-hour creamy dal.
This year, I moved to Bangalore and got lucky with my living situation, considering I only moved once. I christened my moving in with one of my triumph meals, spaghetti in a tomato cream sauce. After I moved, my new roommate admitted she wasn’t into cooking very much. What she was though was enthu enough to live with someone who’d cook no matter how exhausted, angry, happy, sad she was.
Which is how I came to make in the last three months — tacos, sambar and paruppu sadam with beans thoran, pancakes that didn’t come from a box, mango pulissery, thyme, rosemary and parmesan roasted potatoes, ragi roti topped with tzatziki, stir-fried vegetables, tabbouleh and hummus, my triumph pasta and moussaka. The last piece of my obsession had clicked into place. A willing subject and an enabler.
The moussaka was a game changer. A sentence that was never uttered in Greece and should have never been written in Bangalore. But it really was a game changer. It took us three hours to make. I cut the brinjals and the potatoes into round slices, salted them to remove excess water and dried them gently on paper towels before deep frying them. My roommate, meanwhile, made béchamel sauce with vegetables, grated cheese and preheated the oven. We were ready to assemble. By the time it baked and we got around to eating, it was around 1.30 am. Neither of us were actually hungry but we were so proud. We went to bed at 3 am smug. We had come through a war together and were hungry for more.