I love food, certainly. But sometimes I think what attracts me to cooking that it feels so much like a scientific experiment. Next to languages, science was easily my one of my favourite subject, especially chemistry. (Actually I liked everything but civics, I’m such a nerd that way!) I still vividly remember the countless times I stood at the door of the lab at school, my nose stuck to the glass as I gazed forlornly at the shiny lab tables and rows of coloured bottles on them that were, sadly, off-limits for me in primary and lower secondary school. In India, almost always (unless you move around a lot) you got to the same school from kindergarten through 10th standard (that would be 10th grade here I think). So you can imagine how many years were spent yearning after this lab.
Once I found myself in it, I had a ball. All intrinsic excitement though. I never once mixed the wrong compounds or turned my hair pink; though this older me thinks that pink hair would have been hilarious, the younger me would have been horrified to not get that experiment right the first time. We both agree that it was fun for us anyway. My idea of fun may have developed in strange directions over the years but the essence of it never changes. I’m never happy when an experiment is a disaster.Even at the risk of sounding just like Alton Brown, cooking has chemistry at its basis. Different ingredients come together and can either work in harmony or can result in metaphoric chemical disaster. And while I’ve had my low moments, for the most part no one has fainted from my cooking. Not like that time I excitedly stuck a test-tube containing the product of an experiment under my lab partner’s nose. I had to go over the lab safety lecture twice before they let me in the lab again.
Today I’m going to tell you about a super scrumptious potato. I was introduced to this dish fairly late which is surprising. Before I ate it I would have confidently told you that in my young life, I had probably consumed potatoes any which way they could be produced in Indian cuisine. But one spoon of this dish and I knew I’d been wrong. The first time I ate it was when I was eighteen and a bunch of us landed at my best friend’s place, desperately hungry for a snack. Unable to find his mom, he cheerfully proceeded to divide up a (major) portion of the night’s dinner among his friends. And I literally cried that all I could get as my share was two little potatoes. After that, whenever his mom cooked this dish, I was there, plate in hand, trying hard not to drool.
Fast forward light years (it seems like) forward and my best friend is now my husband, and since his mother lovingly and painstakingly wrote all her recipes in her own hand in a notebook for him, this now means that I can have this dish whenever I want. But I don’t. Because you see, the dish I am talking about is Kashmiri Dum Aloo, made in the absolute, authentic Kashmiri way. Kashmir is where my father-in-law is from. And though my mother-in-law is from the same part of India as me, she became a deft hand at cooking all his childhood food for him. This amazing lady, though a vegetarian herself, can cook absolutely perfect and succulent meat, without ever tasting the food herself. Ah moms, they are just so good with food, and they don’t even know it!
If television and eating out is any indication, there’s a trend I’ve noticed here in the US. Whole spices are not really appreciated in food. I have watched enough British cooks and chefs to realize that they have no problem bunging in whole spices. The Spanish and Italians don’t seem to mind it either. I’m not sure of the French, but then they are big on subtler flavours. Tune into any food related show on US networks and you will see the cook/chef-of-the-hour urging you to use powder as opposed to the whole version. I’m guessing this is because moving the spice out of the food to the side of a plate may not be something one may want to do while eating. For Indians, it is so part of the food, we do it without thinking. And occasionally if you end up putting it in your mouth, well, unless it’s a cinnamon stick or a black cardamom pod, it’s highly unlikely to hurt you at all. In fact, chew it and deep flavours will be revealed to you in true glory.
Indian cooking is an excellent showcase of whole spices. In fact, they are much appreciated and their use can alter a dish significantly as opposed to the powdered spice. There’s a certain sprightliness and deep earthiness which they bring to a dish. The powdered spice brings the same thing only with a different degree of deep heat. It’s hard for me to imagine a biryani or pulao or meat curry without the inclusion of whole spices. It would be like the deep base missing from the symphony.
Boy, today was h-o-t! Yesterday was bad enough but this morning was unbelievable. April’s not even over yet and we’ve already had a record high of 92°F. To many of you it may seem that I’m overstating this, since you may live in much hotter places. Heck, I’ve lived in much hotter places. Bombay is far from a ski vacation and college in Texas had many sweltering days where being outside gave you a fairly good idea of what hell must feel like. The difference is, here in the Bay area, we’re spoiled weather-wise, especially in San Francisco. Think bright beautiful sunshine with your own personal air-conditioning around you. That’s what it is like, sunshine with heat optional. The fog ensures that we need jackets in the summer, because when there is no sun, it is cool. Even on hot days, the temperature difference between night and day can be as much as 30°, as it is supposed to tonight. And as I sit here writing this, smelling the ocean on this hot spring night, the breeze starting blow in through my window is telling me this will be true.
It’s a darn shame I can’t sleep on the roof of my apartment building. I would brave random nocturnal creature attacks to enjoy a few hours of cooling slumber. It is impossible trying to sleep when you are hot. You slowly roast where you lie, incapacitated and zapped to near death by the crazy heat. Living in these cooler climes has taught me that I prefer the cold. I love everything about summer except the heat. Crazy but true. Even as I continue to slowly type this at the rate of two words per minute, I’m getting slower as my brain continues to melt into oblivion. Oh my future and past kingdoms for an air-conditioned room! (Incidentally in case you are wondering, apartments here rarely have air-conditioning, courtesy the normally fabulous weather.)
The need to be different and unique; I went through it too. That was before the time I realised I am different and unique, as are we all. No wait, come back…I wasn’t beginning to preach. This point will become a character sketch, you’ll see.
Anyway getting back to the need to be different; I believe it first truly struck me when I was five and in first grade. The teacher called upon us to each name our favourite fruit, as a prelude to the five sentences we would write about it. Right away, the aspiring teachers’ pet (moi) decided she was going to dazzle the class and the teacher with my sensational choice. As I listened to the litany of ‘mango (the easy highest favourite) apple, orange, banana, grapes……’ , I mentally whizzed through the fruits I liked and decided to go with watermelon which no one had mentioned. (Not very surprising; in India we are spoiled by an abundance of fruit, kids would largely think of melons last.) I had already started composing the write-up in my head, probably along the lines of ‘Watermelon is red. Watermelon is sweet. Watermelon is juicy’ (hey I said I was 5!) when the unthinkable happened. A friend stood up and said ‘Watermelon’. Black thoughts, probably along the lines of what Caesar must have thought of Brutus, passed through my head. But reeling from this unexpected blow, I rallied and thought of another fruit; the pineapple. That would show ‘em you can’t keep me down. At this point I’d probably eaten the thing once (who knows? I don’t have perfect recall), knew it was pretty good. Yup by the time the teacher got to the S’s, no one mentioned pineapple and I had my very own, only vote, favourite fruit. Was I cool or what? (*choke* sorry I can’t believe what a chump I was once.)
Life is not without its little ironies. While I didn’t know it then, pineapple is one of the very few things I grew up to be quite allergic to. Pineapple in its raw form can give me a sore throat a hypochondriac would be proud to acquire. Sad really, I do love the fruit, but I can’t eat it. Stuff like that cured me of any claims on being unique pretty soon.