One of the dubious pleasures of bachelor life is that you can cook for yourself, especially if you have a stomach that does not take kindly to restaurant food. You do live in interesting times, as the Chinese are reputed to curse, when you enter the kitchen.
When I first went to Delhi, South Indian restaurants were not all that prevalent especially in Mayur Vihar Phase-I, which was considered the back of beyond in the nineties (Jamuna-paar, they used to say in contemptuous tones). Ergo, I forced my lazy bones to get into cooking mode.
Eggs, they say, are easy to cook. Anyone, apparently, can boil an egg. So, armed with a loaf of bread and a dozen eggs I sallied into the kitchen sanguine about putting together an edible breakfast. (I know! I know! Nothing particularly South Indian about boiled eggs, except the cook! This was just for starters!). Having happily boiled a pan of water and put in a couple of eggs, I took them out and knocked on the shell with a spoon. Like Caesar’s heart’s blood flowing out when Brutus’ dagger pierced him, all the contents came rushing out to see who it was that knocked so un-gently outside. Hmm! There was more to boiling eggs than I thought!
My next attempt turned out better since I waited till nearly all the water boiled away. I happily started peeling the shell off. When I was nearly done, the egg popped out of my hand and started bouncing and rolling all over the kitchen with me in hot pursuit. Having made an audacious diving catch within inches of the drain, I came up with the egg in my hands. The egg had such a contemptuous yellow leer on its face that I was infuriated enough to fling it at the wall.
Cooking Tip 1: It really does not pay to get angry at your food-stuff – especially if you do not have anyone to clean up after you!
Rice is one of the easier things to cook in South Indian cuisine. What with curds and pickles readily available from the market, curd rice was on the cards for me. Having taken a detailed tutorial about water proportions and all that sort of intricate details, I set forth to cook myself lunch on a Sunday. Having settled the pressure cooker cozily over the flame, I relaxed in my sofa reading a book. Bliss! The cooker was reputed to let you know about the status of readiness with a wolf-whistle.
I really did not know whether that sustained hissing noise from the kitchen was the whistle that my mother had coached me to listen for. It somehow did not tally with the sort of hooting that went on in her kitchen. I went into the kitchen only to see this beautiful white fountain spewing off the top of the cooker and my lunch spread all over the kitchen – ceiling, walls and floor! (I do know that that odd-shaped dingus is supposed to crown the cooker – if you truly wanted to keep the rice in! I can forget things, can’t I?). What with cleaning up the mess and all, it was dinner-time before I slunk out of the house to the local restaurant.
Cooking Tip 2: It does not pay to take it too easy even with the ‘easy’ dishes!
As time goes by one does learn a few tricks. For example, I have learnt that milk boils over in that single instant when you take your eyes off it. Maggi waits for you to lose patience and go over to switch on the TV and then cooks to a crisp. After years of experience, I have learnt to stay with one hand on the burner knob and both eyes on the boiling pan with all my nerves keyed up in that absolute pitch of concentration that would be the envy of an Olympic 100m sprinter waiting for the starter's gun to go off. Despite that, my success rate is only about 50%. Olympic sprinters would have lynched any starter who kept them on tenterhooks for that long but…..well, read the first cooking tip!
Another thing that built up in this period was a total aversion to non-Indian cuisine as well as any up-market restaurant. What with salt and pepper shakers and an array of sauces, it seemed to me that they charged you a fortune merely to give you the pleasure of cooking your own food at your dining table. Since cooking had ceased to be any sort of pleasure to me, I preferred being served up a dish, complete with taste, even if you did not even have the outlet of yelling at someone for the inedible food that you perforce had to swallow.
It may surprise you to learn that I raised my sights as high as the making of upma. I am nothing if not optimistic and there I was in front of a boiling bowl of oil with a platter full of vegetables poised over it. The platter broke and fell into the kadai. The kadai teetered on the burner, positioned itself with what seemed to be deliberate intent and started sliding in the direction of what is euphemistically called my privates. Out went my hands and pushed the bowl back on the burner – else, I may not have been alive to tell the tale (How often do I have to tell you? It is NOT a pity!)
Cooking Tip 3: It is better to get out of the way of boiling oil. Take it from me, your hands are not made of asbestos.
Whatever else I learnt from cooking, I have realized how it happened that women do the cooking normally. Being the braver sex, they must have shooed the less courageous menfolk away - to amuse themselves with childish pursuits like fighting off the odd saber-toothed tiger and hunting the mastodon - while they took on the hazardous undertaking of cooking.
My mother always used to say that if a cook produces a dish that tastes the same way time after time you ought to consider her a good cook – even if you did not like the dish. By those standards, I am the best cook in the world. My food tastes invariably inedible!