Cook’s choice – a rant about Indian cooking

I left my home in India at the age of nineteen to go college in the United States.  For many years, between college dining halls and late night work in New York city,  I hardly ate any Indian food at all.  I had been raised in a household with a small army of cooks and helpers, with a mother who could guide people verbally through complex recipes and sniff out amateurish cooking without taking a bite.  I certainly had no idea how to cook.  Many years later, while holding my first newborn, the desire to cook started slowly bubbling up in me.  No Pepperidge Farm goldfish or Annie’s chocolate bunnies for him.  I would give him a love of real food and good food.  The rest would take care of itself.  

I turned to Indian cooking, of course.

First, I discovered there was nothing that could be called Indian cooking.  It was a catch-all phrase for regional specialities that came from places such as Punjab, Maharashtra, Bengal, Andhra along with twenty-plus other states. I had grown up in Calcutta, in Eastern India, but my father’s family came from the north, Dehradun, and my mother’s family was from Rajasthan, in the west.  We had grown up eating a mix of all these cuisines, layered with the evolving cosmopolitan food of Calcutta – British Indian! Chinese! Italian! French!  My husband’s family was from the coastal parts of Andhra Pradesh, a whole new way of eating and cooking that I had never experienced.  Now we were in the United States, where we tasted foods from other parts of India.  Our friends came from all over India.  The wholesome and nourishing home cooked meals that I ate at their homes could not be found anywhere, certainly not in the Indian restaurants that dotted New York City.   

Another discovery that I made was that there was no concept of a one-dish meal in Indian cooking.  The typical plate or thali had a couple sabzis, bread, yogurt, lentil, a chutney or two.  Even the simplest khichari, supposedly a one-pot meal of rice, lentils and vegetables, came with a good yogurt raita and pickle and crunchy chips.  And if I were to look closer, each family had a unique interpretation of how they made their classics, passed from mother to daughter or more likely, daughter-in-law.  The food my mother-in-law made had the same eggplant, same potatoes and same toor dal, but all cooked differently than my family.  The variety was daunting and thrilling.  The spices – too many to count – whole spices of every kind, ground spices and spice mixtures suited for different dishes.  Unique combinations of tarka elements.  I would constantly discover new ingredients, ones I had never heard of before, on trips to the grocery store, and would continue to do so, years into the future.  A profusion of nuts, fresh herbs, leaves, and grains.  I couldn’t find a unifying principle but I knew when the dish didn’t taste quite right.  My grandmother counted twenty different spices in her garam masala.  Could we make do with less?  She looked at me dubiously.  

I remembered that our kitchen at home in India was always full of people doing something.  There would be the head cook, busy at the stove.  The lady with the sharp sickle-shaped boti on the floor, swiftly and skillfully massacring vegetables.  Someone else on the stone silbatta, hand-grinding a wet paste, with the sharp smell of garlic, ginger and onions, and dry spices.  A dishwasher, busy at the gaping black stone area on the floor.  Someone else, rooting in the pantry, looking for our monthly ration of whole wheat grain to be sent to the mill to be ground to flour.  Someone who did the daily shopping of fruits and vegetables and planned menus, likely my mother. How did we live like this, I wonder, and how had it all changed so quickly?  Twenty-five years later I was alone in the kitchen, mincing ginger, garlic, onions, tiny green chillies, cilantro and tomatoes, which every dish I made seemed to need.  For Indian cooking, there were no equivalent jars of pasta sauce, no dried pasta shapes or jarred condiments to work with.  I was the head chopper, the head cook, the head dishwasher and head shopper.  My friend Harsh said he had perfected dishes with minimal chopping.  I reminded myself to call him.

I watched a TV show with the late chef Floyd Cardoz who explained that everything in Indian cooking is slow-cooked because the cooking is done on chulhas, mud stoves fired by cow dung; the resulting heat was low and slow.  Long, slow cooking coaxed great flavor from lentils, for instance.  I resented this insight, because it was true.  I simply couldn’t rush the cauliflower cooking on the stove, the eggplants that were melting to a tender mess and the roasting potatoes.  Then, there was fermentation, pickling, both long and slow processes too.  The ideal bread was roti, unleavened and rolled out fresh, made on a griddle just before eating.  It was all a labor of pure love.

But there was a flip side to this profusion.

For instance, my maternal aunt, Anu masi and I once got talking about pav bhaji.  We both loved the fragrant, spicy bhaji at Mayaram, a local stand outside the Air-Conditioned Market in Calcutta.  

“What’s in it,” I asked her, my tone hushed and conspiratorial. 

 “I asked them for their masala recipe,” she said, as though we were discussing the provenance of the jewels in the Tower of London.  “They handed me some – it wasn’t anything special – just cumin and coriander powder.  But the spices were freshly roasted and ground.”  

I thought of the vibrant green chutney at my local bhelpuri stand and how I learnt that it was just freshly ground green chillies, coriander and lemon juice when I begged the chaatwala for his recipe.  His tamarind chutney was just tamarind, sugar and cumin, cooked slowly together.  Mom had the same observation about the excellent chai at the gurudwara tea stand.  She examined the black tea leaves to find that it was just black tea of basic quality boiled for a long time with milk.  My mother in-law regularly used salt and red chilli powder to season her pan-roasted potatoes – just that – and it was delicious.  Kheer, a decadent rice pudding, could be made with just three ingredients – milk, rice and sugar. Could Indian cooking be as simple as it was complex? 

My husband’s good friend Bijli was over at our home, tasting a paneer makhani and black dal that I had made. “What did you use in the dal,” he asked.

“It’s just green chillies, ginger, garlic and tomato with a sprinkle of red chilli powder” I told him. He nodded his head. “It’s the same ingredients that we all use. Just a matter of when it’s added and how much.”

Perhaps that’s why no one taught me how to cook when I was growing up.  I had to find my own way, veering between the simple and the complex.  First, I had to arrive at a desire for Indian cooking.  Then, a path would open as I pitted myself against the stove.  There would be mishaps and missteps.  I would add too much masala. I would bemoan the lack of instinct, there would be frantic phone-calls to my mother who, even while out for an evening walk, would rattle off immediately “use 25g of rice per liter of milk for kheer, boil the milk until it reduces to half and add the cardamom and saffron when the stove is turned off and the milk is still warm.  The color of the milk will change”  No recipe could ever tell me precisely how much of which spice to use in any dish.  Yet the most important lesson would lay ahead:  I had to learn to be intensely in the moment while cooking.  If my attention wavered, the food would lack flavor or burn or become over-spiced.   The art of Indian cooking lay in intuition and attention

The other day, I met someone for the second time after ten years.  I didn’t remember our first meeting, but she did.

“I’ve also been to your house,” she said.  “ I think it was in 2012.”  I had no memory of this, and I was terribly embarrassed.  

“I loved your cooking,” she added.

I chuckled to myself, and wondered if anything had changed between then and now.  Had my cooking improved?  I was still a struggling cook, only as good as the last meal that I had made.  Each attempt to cook was a jumping off point into the unknown.  I still called mom.  I still relied on notes, blogs, YouTube videos, and intense watching of what was cooking on the stove.  I steeled myself daily for the protests heaped upon me by my teenage children “Not home food again!”  I remained a beginner, trying to master this stove-top art.  Anything less, and the dish reeked of compromise.   And perhaps that is why I have remained devoted to Indian cooking.  Such has been the love that it has demanded, such has been the adventure that it has always taken me on, and such has been the payoff: intense, authentic flavor and a taste of home like no other.

Mom’s rice kheer, best made with raw milk from Guernsey cows that Udder milk delivers to us in New Jersey, but any milk will do

Serves 10-12, and keeps well refrigrated for 7-10 days

1 gallon of milk

100g of rice, ideally basmati or a sweet, short grain rice like govind bhog or kalijeere

1/2 – 3/4 cup of brown demerara sugar, to taste

Freshly crushed cardamom powder (from pods) to taste (1-2 tsp) (optional)

Some strands of saffron (optional)

Chopped pistachio or almonds (optional)

  1. Use a large heavy bottom pan, and rub some ghee or melted butter all over the bottom to prevent the milk solids from sticking. (If I don’t do this, I curse myself later, when scrubbing the pot)
  2. Pour the entire milk in and cook on high until the milk comes to boil; lower heat and let the milk cook uncovered, stirring occasionally
  3. Allow the milk to cook down for some time and then add the washed rice
  4. Keep cooking until the milk is about 1/2 of the original volume, stirring occasionally. This takes a long time – perhaps an hour or more.
  5. Add sugar towards the end and keep cooking; taste for sweetness. Sugar releases water so look for the optimal thickness that you desire. The milk will have turned color to a pale pink and will generously coat the back of a spoon.
  6. Add crushed cardamom and saffron when the milk is still warm, but off the stove. I love these spices in kheer.
  7. My favorite nut to add is pistachio.
  8. Serve warm or chill and serve cold.

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