Saturday, January 19, 2013
I began my serious stint with cooking after my marriage.Here I must mention that if I'm a good Cook today the credit for this rests solely with Suhas--Sudhir's older sister.I married into traditionally typical Marathi family---they relished a few things in the Colonial Continental Food and some Punjabi dishes but actually needed the comfort of the basic Marathi Cuisine on a day to day basis.Now since I married very young,Mummy hadn't taught me the basics of our Cuisine--besides though we all belonged to the same extended family,the proportions of the Spices used differed in each branch--hence the confusion!!I mean that though basically our Community hails from Goa, it was after the Portuguese Invasion.The forced conversions to Christianity forced a lot of the original settlers called Gowd Saraswat Brahmins( GSBs) to flee from their homeland into the neighbouring areas of Goa.My mother's ancestors settled in Saawant wadi in the Konkan belt of Maharashtra and incorporated the nuances of that Cuisine into their own--- while retaining their own individuality.My father's ancestors settled further inland on the Deccan plateau in kolhapur--and their Cuisine evolved using the local flavour which enhanced their original culinary style.Sudhir's ancestors moved as far up North as Mumbai as it was then called and their culinary style melded with the local one to produce the Mumbaikari Cuisine.Thus I married into a home that used 3 different styles of GSB cooking--the Mumbaikari,the Kolhapuri and the Konkani styles of cooking.While the proportions of the Spices like Cloves,Cardamom and many similar items differ one thing remains constant in all--the fieryness of the Red Chilli!!Of these the Konkani cooking is the most complicated--then the Kolhapuri while the Mumbaikari is the simplest of all.
My sister-in-law Suhas would travel for an hour from her home in the Northern Suburbs to our South Bombay home to teach me the basics of our daily cooking.It is she who taught me the way to cook the Vegetables in a way to enhance their original tastes and the various styles of cooking the Dals.Since we are basically Fishatarians,Fish was a regular item on our daily Menu.She also taught me the way to cook various types of Fish Curries and I began to really enjoy cooking immensely.It was once I'd mastered the basics that she began giving me the tips needed to cook more complicated stuff--that done I began collecting the Recipes from my two Grandmas--Aaji and Akka.Their basic approach to Life was reflected in their Recipes--both were meticulously perfect in the precise measurements of Stuff--but while Akka would use a smaller quantity as a base, Aaji would go all out for a larger one.Surprisingly though despite my Maths. I managed to increase or decrease the scale accurately enough to clone the original tastes.Once we shifted here to the Central Suburbs where we still live, I also learnt to cook Mughalai Food--most of it from Mummy an Ace cook herself but some of it through a Cooking Class run nearby our Complex.My implements consisted of a few Brass Pots and Pans but were mostly Stainless Steel stuff.The "Paataa Varvantaa" helped me grind my Masalas,my Fresh Coconut for the Fish Curries and the Kerosene Stoves were a stand by to stretch out the number Stoves while cooking for Parties.Those days Kerosene was the least of our problems while the paucity of Gas Cylinders was the worst!!However we struck lucky when we were given an extra one within a year of our Application and while this ensured an unbroken supply of Cooking Gas,I retained my old Faithfuls--my Primus Stoves--for they were truly indispensable whenever I needed to cook large quantities in minimum time!!
Later Gas powered portable Stoves were introduced in the Market.These worked for 30 hours each--and I was among the first to buy these because those days we entertained a lot.By now my "Paataa Varvantaa" had been replaced by a Mixer Grinder--but i still have my old Stone--maintained in peak condition--maybe some day I'll flex my muscles again!!Not just that,my old Brass and Copper Utensils are today on the Loft--having been outdone by the later Stainless Steel versions which too have been replaced by Surgical Steel ones--all in the name of better Health Safety.Since the use of Oil has been reduced to minimum I have also acquired quite a few Non-stick versions too--for Mughalai and Punjabi Cooking needs proper browning of the Onions,Ginger and Garlic to achieve the right flavour,colour and texture.I have also inherited the meticulousness of my female ancestors--the last of these being my mother.While Akka taught me to measure the various Ingredients and Spices using my fingers,Aaji taught me the correct way to cook the Konkani Curries really well!!Finally it was Mummy who was the hardest taskmaster---she stood looking over my shoulder--while I fried the Masalas on a low flame for literally hours till it met with her satisfaction.She truly deserves the credit of turning me into a perfectionist----one of my many failings that our daughters tease me about---- who just cannot settle for less!!My culinary Journey and it's Success is a tribute to my sister-in-law Suhas--one of the best Cooks I've seen--and even today the one Cook I truly admire!!
Friday, January 18, 2013
While Aaji's Kitchen was very clean it was always full of clutter and people---making it appear smaller than actual size,the Kitchen at Kolhapur where my paternal Grandma Akka ruled the roost was huge,meticulously clean and spotless!!This Kitchen was also well lighted--the Skylights set high in the Walls let in lots of Light but no Sun.The floor was a Cow Dung smeared one---another smell that I adored!!A mixture of Clay,Cow dung and water would be spread on it at night--so that it would be dry by morning.Surprisingly this kept the house cool and it's astringent and antiseptic properties kept Infections at bay.I still remember the smooth but slightly serrated feel of it under my bare feet--and another thing--the soles remained perfectly clean--for Dirt would come off it cleanly when swept up with a broom!!There were Wooden Alcoves set in the thick walls with wooden shelves.These shelves held a dazzling Golden array of different sizes of polished Brass Canisters--each holding different types of Grains,Flours,Pulses and an assortment of home made varieties of Papads.
The all pervading Coal fired Stoves were used here too--but while Aaji's Kitchen had individual Stoves called "Sigris/Angeethis", Akka's were built of Brick and plastered to the floor with the Cow Dung Mixture.While here too we sat cross legged on the floor on the inevitable "Paats" to eat there also was a Dining Table in another room--used mainly as a Study table by my father and his siblings while growing up.Akka would collect everything--all the Utensils,Ladles,Ingredients and Condiments--neatly arrayed in row in front of her--and then commence her cooking.This Kitchen too had a massive Grinding stone and Akka's one eyed helper--Parvatibai would do the honours of using it to grind the various Masala pastes fine.Parvatibai and Akka had been together a very long time--and were pretty close--but neither of them would ever admit that--even in a weak moment!!Both women would be in the Kitchen for atleast four hours each morning--but they always emerged from there fresh and sparkling--spotlessly clean with nary a pleat of their nine yard saries amiss!! One would never guess that they'd been toiling in the Kitchen over a hot Stove so long!!
The Cowherd would bring a Cow and a Buffalo to our door early in the mornings--Cow's Milk for the children to drink and Buffalo Milk for the Tea,Curds and other necessities would be milked fresh on the doorstep into sparkling huge Brass pots called "Kalashees".The Cowshed at the back of our "Waada" had been converted into a Godown and was choc a bloc with Firewood,Sacks of Coal and Grain.The smell of warm,fresh Milk and the taste of it in one's mouth early in the morning is another fond memory.In both Aaji's and Akka's Kitchens meals were cooked to feed a certain number of people--but so perfectly that there were usually no leftovers from the earlier Meals--necessitating the cooking of fresh Food for each Meal.Evenings meant a stroll down the steep narrow lane outside our ancestral home to the River nearby--and buying fresh bunches of Green leafy vegetables on the River bank.We'd walk along the River watching the Sun set--but were discouraged from swimming in it because it had a whirlpool in it's depths and a treacherous current.The fresh smell of the Earth rose up from the roots of each bunch--and all of us cousins would gorge on the simple Dinner that Akka prepared for us.Unlike Aaji, Akka believed in eating light at night--so Dinner would consist of freshly cooked Green Leafy Vegetable called "Paaley Bhaaji" eaten with freshly roasted large "Bhakris" made from "Jwaari/Zondhaley/Jowaar" or Sourghum flour. There would be a simple Dal to accompany the Rice along with the usual Pickles,Papads and fresh Curds--set in individual bowls.Then it was up to the Terrace to lie under the Stars gazing into the dark velvety depths of the night sky.
Aaji's meals were sumptous at each Meal--while Akka preached austerity at night.Both ate small Meals but where Aaji loved to feed people and coax them into over eating, Akka respected a person refusing a helping saying that overeating caused more harm than good!!Also she used just the right amount of Oil while Aaji was generous to a fault with it--along with a lot of other Spices!!Akka however encouraged us to gorge on Fresh Curds,Milk,home made Butter and Ghee saying that Ayurveda also extolled the virtues of such a diet!!Even today I can still remember subtle nuances of Aaji's fiery Konkani food--so very different from Akka's equally fiery Kolhapuri Cuisine--though both used the same Spices in different measures!!Both have left behind a wealth of Recipes that have made me a really good Cook--and while I try to reduce the Oil and some of the fieryness of the Red Chilli Powder--I still follow each one to a T to achieve a similar taste--for ours not to question why--ours only to follow the rules till we die!!
Thursday, January 17, 2013
As I began growing up--specially with Sohan Singh's exit from our Kitchen Mummy began reigning supreme in the Kitchen.A new phase in our childhood began--I began to get interested in cooking--and my imagination would run wild--My experiments were comme ci comme ca--a few hits and quite a few misses--but Daddy was my staunch supporter--he'd say that no one can learn anything without making a few mistakes!!Mummy on the other hand began training me in the manual labour involved--using the heavy Grinding Stone to grind a huge number of Masalas--in different consistencies.She'd say if I liked to eat it then I too should make an effort to add my contribution to the Dish--and grinding Fresh shredded raw Coconut to the consistency of a fine Paste was no mean task--not to forget thankless!!No matter how finely ground it was Mummy wanted it finer still!!
All my childhood Memories centre around Food.The Kitchen in Aaji's huge flat in Bombay (Mumbai) was fuelled by Coals.My earliest Memories are of sitting in the cosy warmth of the Coal stoves early in the morning--dunking my soft,warm freshly baked Bread in my Milk--another great comfort Food.My Grandpa maintained a large household.Mummy's Aunts,Uncles and Cousins were forever coming and going and I don't remember a single day when there were less than 20 people present for a Meal at any Mealtime!!Aaji was a fabulous cook--like "Annapurna" or the Goddess of Plenty--- she could whip up a Meal in an hour on her relatively primitive resources--and what a Meal!!There would be a fresh ground Chutney,a Salad,a Raita,two Vegetable Curries--one with gravy and one without ,besides an Usal made from different Legumes daily in rotation.Then there would be a Fish Curry and "Kokum" curry--made with Sun dried Mangosteen Shells soaked in freshly extracted,spiced Coconut Milk.The staple of both Rice and Chapati as well as the regular sides of home made Pickles,Papads and Fried Fish completed the "Thali".We'd sit on low oblong shaped stools called "Paatas" with Silver Flowers tacked on in the corners.A slightly taller square stool called a "Chaurang" served as a table.Each person ate in a polished Silver Plate called a "Thali" and different Silver Bowls held the various Curries and the Kokum Curry and each Meal would begin after Grace had been said and the Food blessed.
Early in the morning I'd accompany my Grand Uncle Dada Kaka to the nearby Grant Road Market to buy the fresh raw Ingredients for the Meal.He carried a huge Bag made of woven Grass--I carried a much smaller version of the same material and shape.We'd stroll from stall to stall looking at,approving and finally haggling over the fresh catch to reach a price acceptable to both--the seller and the buyer!!The larger Fish went into his Basket the smaller into mine as did the Vegetables--he took the heavier stuff while i carried home the bunches of fresh Spinach and Cilantro along with Curry Leaves and tiny, spicy and very hot Green Chillies named "Lavangi Mirchi" or Clove Chillies!!Being Konkanis all the food cooked in Aaji's home was Coconut based--it was cooked in home extracted Coconut Oil--all sourced from Aazoba's ancestral Property in erstwhile princely state of Saawant Waadi in the Konkan.All the men would eat a full Meal by 9 a.m.--for being early risers their day began at Dawn--4 a.m. each morning.My taste buds can still recall the taste of the sweet,fresh steamed Rice--steaming hot with it's ladlefuls of hot plain "Varan' and oodles of ghee splashed over it.This is one of the easiest and most nutritious dishes to cook--pressure cook 1 cup of split Pigeon Peas (Tur/Toovar/Arhar Dal) with an equal amount of Water for 3-4 whistles.Allow pressure to subside and then mash the Dal till well blended.Add a Lime sized piece of Jaggery,0.25 tsp.Asafoetida and 1 tsp.turmeric Powders along with salt to taste.Stir in 1 tbsp. of Ghee and simmer over low flame till well blended and slightly thick.Ladle it over hot steaming plain Rice and pour spoonfuls of Ghee or Clarified Butter over it.Mix well and serve with a crisp Papad and home made Pickle--simply yummy!!
Another thing that still lingers in my mouth is the remembered taste of Aaji's Coconut Kokum Kadhi.Those organically grown Coconuts had a very addictive taste--I could even at that young age drink down potfulls of the stuff!!The delicate blending of Black Pepper Corns,Garlic,a sprig or two of Fresh Cilantro along with a tiny Green Chilli for the bite mixed with freshly extracted raw Coconut Milk--all ground together and the extract mixed in with the Sun dried Kokum shells soaked in a little fresh Coconut Water,a pinch of Asafoetida Powder and Salt to taste.The huge Chappaties,the Crab,Clams and other Shell Fish as well as Sardines,Pomfret,Bombay Duck,Mackerel,King Fish and many other tasty varieties featured on my Grandma's Menus.There would be a balance of Pulses,Vegetables and Fish which were a regular part of our Diets--with Sundays reserved for Chicken and Kid.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
I knew only how to cook basic Food--like the traditional Marathi Dal and Rice combination called "Varan-Bhaath",3-4 types of Vegetable added Potato Curries when Sudhir and I got married.Since I grew up in the erstwhile Indian Punjab, my style of cooking was mainly based on the North Indian variety--learnt by observing the various Cooks my mother employed down the years. Narayan Das and Sohan Singh stayed with us for a long time--the former since my parents employed him after their marriage till I was 6 years old and the latter from my age of 6 years till I turned 13 years old.It was then that with 3 girls in the house and our Nanny--- Amma ---leaving to nurse her old father in their Village prompted Mummy to let Sohan Singh go after he left for a visit to his Village.These two taught me that no dish needs to be embellished to make it healthy and tasty--one only needs to pay attention while cooking it and even when simply cooked it can turn into a satisfying Dish--wholesome,nutritious and finger licking delicious!!
My mother's Kitchen was a huge airy Room--well lighted and spread out with Platforms on all four sides and a huge Ceramic Sink with a Wooden Draining Board in the corner next to the door leading to the Vegetable garden.We also had a spacious Room next to it which was the Pantry also with a huge Ceramic Sink with a draining Board--the built in Stone Shelves held various Items--Cutlery,Crockery,Glasses,Jam Jars,Squash Bottles etc. A square 8" by 8' Room we used as a Larder stood next to it fitted with Stone shelves to store huge Canisters of Dal,Rice,Wheat and other stuff like Pickles and Indian Sweet Fruit Preserves called "Murabbaas'.There was also a huge Black Stoneware Jar to keep the Dried Fish in--tiny shell on dried Shrimp called "Zavala", the slightly bigger shell on one called "Sukat".Then there would be peeled and dried medium sized Shrimp/Prawns called "Sodey" and the larger sized ones known as "Sungta".Along with this there would be dried Bombay Ducks,Mackerels,Kingfish and Sardines---all added to various Marathi style Vegetable Curries or cooked in Mummy's Konkani style Coconut Curries--something we used to salivate over since morning!!There also were two other huge Stoneware jars--one to store the Sea Salt and the other to hold Sun cured, cleaned and salted Tamarind Balls.These Condiments would be sent by my maternal Grandparents--Aaji and Aazoba-- in huge Parcels each year--one every two months.The Spring Parcel would contain Dried Fish,Dals,home made Papads,Turmeric and Red Chilli ,Garam Masala ,Konkani Red Masala Powders as well as a roasted,spiced fine Dal Powder called "Methkut"---to be eaten sprinkled over hot steamed Rice,with a pinch of Salt and oodles of Ghee poured over it---- perfect Comfort Food for the Soul in the Winters!!There would also be Jars of Sweet Indian Gooseberry and Bael Fruit Preserves--and all this was made by my Aaji at home.Everything would be carefully packed to avoid breakage--the Jars would be cushioned with old Newspapers and packed in her old Saris to prevent the Glass Jars used to hold the Masalas and the Preserves breaking--thereby ensuring that these reached us in perfect condition!!The excitement of unpacking those huge,cloth covered and Lac sealed Wooden Crates added to our day--and would be the topic of conversation in our home as well as with my friends in the neighbourhood.Since they all were North Indian they got all the stuff they needed locally--hence would be very curious about the contents of our Parcels!!There also were huge Ceramic urns to hold the Jaggery that Daddy would buy freshly made directly from the Sugar Cane farmers around Chandigarh each Winter.This Larder was a Magic place--for there were also old Brass Canisters overflowing with Kashmiri Dry Fruits----Almonds,Pistachioes,Walnuts,Pine Nuts and Dried Apricots.It also was the coolest place in the house---and a favourite refuge to visit whenever I was starving--which was every hourly!!
The Kitchen in our home was a Coal fired one--there were 4 Iron Stoves built into a Brick and Clay Platform against one wall with a huge cavernous Chimney over it.Each Stove had an Iron Box fitted under it--and these were the primitive Ovens that Mummy,Narayan Das and Sohan Singh used to magically produce melt in the mouth Teatime treats like various Cakes,Biscuits and Pies.Not just that ,these Ovens also roasted the entire "Raan" or Leg of Lamb in Indian or British fashion to succulent mouthwatering perfection--for me till today the smell of a Coal fire reminds me of the wonderful Food of my childhood!!I loved helping out with the Baking and Pie making though creaming the Butter and Sugar till light and fluffy by hand was extremely painful and exhausting--specially in the Winters!!By mid Sixties Modernisation hit our Kitchen--and this was in the form of shining Brass Stoves fuelled by Kerosene or "Mitti kaa Tel" as it was locally called in Punjab.From here on the Romance went out of Cooking--there were Pressure Cookers and Gas Stoves---the Coal Stoves called "Angeethis/Sigris" were retained in their single individual Avatars--but the Food somehow lost that beautiful Ingredient called "Mystique!!
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