I woke up with a start today, completely disoriented, something that hasn’t happened in a long time. Today was like coming out of a mental fog. There was no clarity of day or time. Was I late for work? Had I missed a test? (Yes, it must be only me who deliberately picks eight o’clock for all her exams when she could pick absolutely any time. This way it gets over and done with faster, you see.) But then, just as suddenly, the eerie-ness of it all faded. It was my Friday off. My next test is at the end of a month. There was a moment of quiet calm. And then it was effectively shattered by a sharp and precise thwack-thwack-thwack of a hammer. Construction workers don’t have Fridays off.
The renovation of my apartment building continues merrily on. It inevitably figures in my conversation because these days it is over on my side of the building. And at times, it is cacophonic. There is a strange desperation that claims your life when your home is no longer your refuge, when the simple act of reading a book or listening to music could be summarily interrupted at any time by loud noises and vibrations that has utensils bouncing off the dish rack. The situation also has the odd air about it of bringing my work home with me. The noise doesn’t consciously bother me unless it’s very close, but every time there is a new, different noise, part of my brain automatically engages in trying to figure out what machine it is, what phase of work is going on. Probably normal given my profession, but certainly not something I want to do on an off-day. Fortunately this is San Francisco. There is no dearth of places to be. So we packed some snacks and decided we’d be somewhere else.
There is an amazing array of food that could pass as snacks in Indian cuisine. Some of them just as easily become a side dish in a meal. Bhajjis (or bhajiyas or pakoras) are one such snack. They are the Indian version of fritters. They just use a different flour for batter and are principally made of vegetables. The flour here is chickpea flour, way tastier than most flours are. There is a basic and very simple ‘no yoghurt or buttermilk’ batter with a one time dipping given to the veggies. The veggies can be practically anything large enough to hold, dip and fry.
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.
The current economy is taking its toll and no one is immune from its effects. While there are changes in weather and joys in spring, some part of me seems chilled in a grip of melancholy and in my head there’s a strident head-ache. Actually that latter thing could also have a lot to do with the fact that there is intense hammering on the outside of a wall less than two feet away from my head. I woke up to its dulcet tones early this morning and now its 3 pm and I’m thoroughly sick of it. I should be immune to stuff like this, there are days that I work around much louder noises on site. But the build-up has been unbearable. The only thing stopping me from going outside and bopping that construction worker silly with those shingles he’s so busily trying fix on my building wall is the fact that he’s whistling cheerfully. In the gloom and doom of the time we live in, someone is happy, someone is doing a job he loves. What kind of person would want to ruin that for anyone?
It is a good thing that I haven’t been contemplating making a soufflé of any kind. Every time that hammer hits the wall, everything shudders slightly and I’m willing to bet good money that it would fall flatter than that joke I heard last night at dinner. Since I’m home on this somewhat cold Friday and the construction work outside was slowly robbing me of the ability to string coherent thought together, lunch had to be a tried and tested go-to recipe I can make without thinking. The day called for something warming and comforting to warm me and soothe my aching head, so I decided to go with one of my versions of Egg Curry.
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.