Tadka mein cheeni, and other lockdown cooking secrets

My hands keep getting nicked and burned now. I panic-grab rotis straight off the fire; nimboos slip away from under the knife, leaving my finger in its place. Small scars, archiving small stupidities. Embarrassingly, cooking is new to me.

I spent half my twenties low-key mimicking those career woman caricatures from the movies, always running late to this meeting or that in block-heels and shift dresses, trailing cigarette smoke and urgent instructions, out to drinks a lot, home late a lot. The cooking for my one-girl household was outsourced to a host of delivery apps and to Manisha Didi, who let herself in for an hour every morning, packed a dabba for office, and left easy-to-microwave meals in the fridge for dinner.

I told myself I didn’t have the time to cook but of course I did. I’d just swallowed that patriarchal notion, folded into a common misconception of entry-level feminism, that one can consider themselves “independent” just by virtue of making money even while lacking the ability to make a basic meal.

For the last three months, locked down with my parents, I’ve been on daily dinner duty. It’s been a crash course. I can now make a decent chicken curry, an ok thakkali sadam, pretty good daal, genius-level aloo parathas. It feels good. It was time.

I can’t help but announce my very, very successful attempts to friends, and they reciprocate. Amshu told me about a ripe mango curry she’d just aced. Kaneez just learned, from another friend, a good hack for flash-freezing chopped vegetables. Parag sent an Andhra chicken recipe I’ve been meaning to try.

I vaguely remember overhearing Ma on calls like this when I was younger, with her own mother or sisters or friends, swapping tips and cautionary tales. I think I found them boring.

Ma keeps telling me I should write down and save the recipes that come out well. I have no such instinct. “They’re all online anyway,” I keep saying. This type of knowledge just doesn’t feel so precious to me. Not scarce enough to save. It’s abundant.

I can follow chefs’ cook-alongs on Instagram, or turn to Facebook’s thousands of top-angle recipe videos. I could join the 9 million other people subscribed to home chef Nisha Madhulika’s YouTube channel. I can google whatever dish I’m craving, scan recipe options for the highest rating by the highest number of people, (marvel that six thousand people came back after making and eating ma ki dal, to leave behind star ratings) and close that tab with no hesitation when I’m done. What’s to write?

Ma learned to cook differently — from helping Nani. By 9 or 10, she was straining this, peeling that, stirring this, saano-ing that. Nani learned at her in-laws’, as a teen, from trial and error and watching others at work. At 16, Ma went to a cooking class and started writing down her favourite recipes in a brown notebook.

When she was pregnant with me, she graduated to notebook #2. I’ve only known it to be yellowed and crinkled and overflowing with magazine cut-outs, its original cover fallen off, the pages held together by binding. But in 1991, it must’ve been crisp and blank, neither the book nor its young owner knowing yet that they’d accompany one another for decades to come, from city to city, home to home.

Nani and Ma both got really, really good when they were tasked with cooking at their sasurals. No YouTube channels, no Googling “watery curry fix” and “green chilli hand burn” and “aata sticky why” like I have. No mid-tadka WhatsApp video call to their mothers to ask if the onions are brown enough.

Their world wide web was the women they knew, and the women those women knew, and so on. It was those phone-calls, forming chains of betis and bahus passing forward their scavenged kitchen secrets. Ma’s notebooks are, in a way, painstakingly kept archives of other women’s experiments and generosities.

Titles read: Sridevi’s tomato chutney. Nisha di’s mutton curry. Rupa’s sarson fish. On 20th June 2004, a Sunday, she learned to make mango achaar. A note: “Mummy’s recipe, from Shimla, on phone.”

Geeta’s bisi bela huliyana. Valli’s uppu kari. Reena mami’s kadhi bari. In 2007, Ma wrote down a recipe for a Mexican salad.

The source, in parentheses by the title as always, says only: “Net”. So it began. Then, again: Malpua (Mummy). Leenu’s salad. It’s brand new to me, this genre of info-exchange, and feels a bit like stumbling onto the loudest, most ancient frequency of the world’s ongoing gup-shup, a din rich with strategic and creative knowledge, men and women trading secrets they’ve borrowed from sisters and friends, Facebook and Dharmyug, trial and error. It’s a welcoming crowd, friendly, eager to share, together in facing the oldest question there is — how should we eat? — and they’re doing it all the time, everywhere, in every language. Only, you need to collect some nicks and burns to be let in. Otherwise, I don’t know, it sounds boring. I video-called Nani at noon.

She’d just come to her bed to lie down after making a sukha aloo, a daal, a tomato chutney, and a sitaphal sabji. A breezy morning’s work for her, even at 80. She told me one nuskha to make any curry richer (half a tea-spoon of sugar in the tadka) and another for bringing out the full flavour of tej patta (she’s only just tried it once, she said, so not to go telling people yet).

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

— to timesofindia.indiatimes.com

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