SONGSOPTOK: What, according to you, is the most important place in your house for communicating with the different members of the family? Why?

AMRITA: From time immemorial, long before the concept of dividing a living space into different pockets came into existence, man would gather his clan around a fire at the end of each day.  The whole day would perhaps have been spent behind travelling, hunting, gathering or even battle. But as the sun went down and darkness took over, man for his own safety, if not for social interaction, was inclined to group together with his fellow beings. This grouping happened around a fire. Fire, which gave warmth, light and protection against the wild creatures of the jungle.  We have now come a long way from those ancient times, but our instincts have still remained the same. At the end of a long day, filled with myriad activities, man instinctively gathers together around a fire. The fire, (though now symbolic in our minds, because we so often eat out of a pizza box!) is housed in the area called a kitchen. The kitchen, in my home is the comfort zone which we all gravitate towards  at the beginning and end of each day and the kitchen table is the place which knows all our secrets, our longings, our fears, our disasters and our triumphs.  

SONGSOPTOK: In a lot of homes, kitchens are considered to be the nerve center where the whole family congregates at regular periods of the day. Is that the case in your home? Can you give us a brief description of such interactions?

AMRITA: In our home the kitchen is definitely the centre of our mini universe.  This is the place where we gather while rubbing our sleep-blurred eyes early in the morning. This is where the morning cuppa cheers us to take on the day. Depending upon what kind of activity awaits us, we grumble or grin and it is always up to the other members to give advice, sometimes not taken in the right spirit……… but it is given nonetheless. And somehow it is this very thought that no matter how hard the day is, we have our home to go back to, is what makes us face the day and slay the dragons that randomly come and obstruct our paths.

I remember this one time I was facing a very challenging client. He was challenging enough to make me want to give up my profession. I am an Architect and a Realtor by profession. Have been so for the last thirty two years and quite good with the quality called patience. But this client was seriously making me think of taking up mountain climbing. That was seeming really easy as compared to dealing with him. Every morning I would grumble and groan and that night I was seriously thinking of parting ways with him. My husband and son both advised me to hold on to my patience a little more and not send the mafia after him. It was this very table that was witness to that advice and thank heavens I heeded it. That ‘challenging’ client is now one of my best clients and not only have I found him his dream home but in turn have found his four other friends their dream homes.

SONGSOPTOK: Do you consider cooking as a chore or do you enjoy cooking meals for family and friends? What is it you like most about cooking? What do you like least?

AMRITA: I enjoy cooking. Immensely.  Let me be very honest, I had not known how to boil water. I was an immensely spoilt person and cooking did not beckon me in any way. Somehow, marriage changed all that. I think it was the fact that I was now responsible for something as basic as filling peoples’ stomachs that gave me the high. That, and the words of praise that came out of peoples’ mouths. I find cooking to be a stress buster. The mechanics of the art and the fact that you cant really go wrong. I find recipes and tastes go click-click-click in my mind, like gears clicking in place, and smells and tastes somehow all get coordinated into a seamless orchestra. Please note, I am not talking about the cleaning up after the show! That does not fall into my basket of the things ‘I like to do.’

SONGSOPTOK: When you were growing up, did you often visit the kitchen? Was it to raid the fridge or to spend some time with whoever was cooking the meal?

AMRITA: Absolutely not. When I was growing up, the kitchen was a place which I knew existed but I never had any reason to visit, unless it was the pantry next to the kitchen, where was stored that ambrosia of childhood-the mango pickle. Always closely guarded and always rationed! And the best time to carry out this raid was in the middle of a blistering hot summer day, when the custodians of that hallowed space were deep in slumber

SONGSOPTOK: Were the cooks mainly women in your family? Did they teach you how to cook? Do you have family recipes that you cook frequently?

AMRITA: Yes, my grandmother and mother were the main cooks even though we had a cook at home who was from Orissa. He was a superlative cook with a superlative temper to match. After he left, it was these two ladies who dished up one fantasy after another, not just for the family but for every visitor and relative far and near.  Food used to be cooked and transported to a random aunt or uncle, just because they liked that particular dish.  Food and feeding people was very, very big in our home. I never learnt to cook then. I was literally taught to cook by my mother-in-law, herself a formidable chef and later when I did not get my mother’s cooking any more, I learnt to cook all the things that she made and which I loved to eat. Some foods have become memories only, because no one can ever make them the way only she could.

SONGSOPTOK: Is your kitchen different from your parents’ or grandparents’ kitchens? In what way? Are there features that you particularly miss? Why?

AMRITA:  My kitchen is different from my grandmother’s but not so different from my mother’s kitchen. For one, we have so many gadgets of convenience. Previously, the grinding stone played a very important role.  Without it, an Indian kitchen was incomplete. Now this venerated object has long been pushed into the background, under the kitchen sink and in its place has marched in with stilettoed heels, the smart and sleek food processer, which with the turn of a tiny lever grinds, cuts, chops and slices with gay abandon.  The microwave oven has done away with washing millions of pots and pans and warms and cooks sleekly and elegantly. Gone are the days of mothers patiently heating up food for their offsprings. Now a mother just smartly wraps up a plate with its food in a cling-wrap and the offspring, just as smartly sets the timer for a minute and lo-and-behold. Hot food is ready!  But where is the warmth of a mother’s love which is more important than the food itself? Where are the concerned questions as to what has happened during the day?  Where is the love which accompanied every grind of the grinding stone? No machine can ever achieve that!

SONGSOPTOK: Do you think that cooking habits always reflect the culture and the practices of the societies we live in? Why? Do you consider this to be a positive or a negative point?

AMRITA: Cooking habits always reflect the culture that we have grown up with. You must remember that everything that man does is primarily because he has to eat. That is man’s basic necessity next to breathing. All subsequent actions of man are of secondary importance.  As man has evolved, so have his eating habits. Right in the pre-historic ages when ‘cooking’ was first begun, animals were hunted, skinned and then roasted  on a central pit and around this fire, men, women and children gathered to fill their bellies. This was as close to animal behavior as could be. Now we gather together in a Dining Room and have our meals together. Our meals are very refined as are our eating habits.  They reflect our degree of evolution. Some societies which have sprung up near the coastal regions, have a lot of fish in their diet. The reason for this is obvious. Those that are found in the colder climes, have a lot of protein intake. They cook their food using different mediums and spices.  As man has evolved, so have his eating habits. We find that as society gets more sophisticated, so do the eating habits of its people.

SONGSOPTOK: What kind of food do you like to cook – traditional family dishes / traditional dishes of the country / society you live in / innovative and experimental cooking / fusion cooking / … Will you share some of your favorite recipes with us?

AMRITA: I like to cook. The kind of food that I like to cook is not very rigid, because it all depends upon my state of mind at that point of time. Days go by, when I just want to eat vegetables and that’s when I take out all the vegetarian recipes that I know and I never seem to get enough.  Traditional cooking is a must during festivals and this is the time when even the most mundane dish takes on an aura of festivity and gets transformed into a lip smacking concoction, so far untasted. And then sometimes, its all new kinds of experiments that I like to play with. Fusion food cooked once, loved and then forgotten. Of course now with the advent of smart phones, it is really difficult to forget anything since we take pictures of every little thing and these are preserved for posterity. I am born a Bengali and married to a Maharashtrian. Our food reflects our cultures which are very different and sometimes startlingly similar. I never have got the opportunity to get bored of cooking except on the odd day when a Subway sandwich jumps in to save our lives!

SONGSOPTOK: In this context, do you favor the restaurants that offer the so called traditional food? Or would you rather cook it yourself? What is your experience, if any, about these ‘retro’ eateries?

 AMRITA: I prefer to do my own traditional cooking. For one, satisfying the stomach is only the subset of satisfying the mind. The dishes that taste just-so have to taste, look and feel just-so. And no restaurant can bring that about. Sometimes, I have gone with my friends to these ’retro’ eateries and have been sorely disappointed. They have fallen far short of expectations. It may be that I had set my expectations too high or it may be that I am too hard to please. I have sometimes been called a snob. I know that I am not one. It is just that for me, food is too precious to deal with in a trivial fashion. Food is not just about food; it carries with it, a whole gamut of emotions. Love, care, perseverance and the soul of the chef all go into the making of a meal.

SONGSOPTOK:  ‘Fusion cuisine’ has become very popular almost everywhere around the globe. What is your opinion about this trend? Are you an adept of this type of cuisine? Why?

AMRITA: Fusion cuisine has taken the world by storm. I agree with it because in a way it has helped bring the different societies of the world closer to each other. It has promoted greater understanding of each other’s cultures. Take a look at Chinese cuisine. Traditional Chinese cooking is an acquired taste but Chinese food is loved all over the world. This is only because Chinese cuisine has adapted itself to cuisines all over the world. American-Chinese, Indian-Chinese are all cousins of the traditional Chinese food and these have made permanent places for themselves in the world of Fusion cuisine.

SONGSOPTOK: Do you watch live cooking shows on TV? What is your opinion about them? Do you think that these programs, immensely popular in almost all countries in the world now, have actually contributed to better cooking and food habits?

AMRITA: I do love watching cooking shows. For one, I love to see the new techniques that are used to make some very traditional meals. The different varieties of food which are shown are mind boggling and one always feels as if one has come out of a very important and very informative class. Of course these shows have the capability of making you feel very stupid if you don’t watch out.

SONGSOPTOK: Do you teach your children to cook? Do you think that a lot of our traditions can be handed down to the next generation through cooking and food habits? Why and in how?

AMRITA: My son is a natural born cook. He is an Economist by profession, but cooking is what makes his eyes sparkle with excitement. I absolutely believe that not only can our traditional recipes be handed down to the next generation, but we must do so. Junk food is becoming all the rage amongst children and slowly but surely they are being weaned away from traditional food. If only mothers make that little extra effort to keep their children grounded to their traditions too, then they would not have to bemoan the fact that their children no longer have any roots. The children would go bounding towards their roots, smacking their lips, every step of the way!

AMRITA KANGLE is a realtor and architect by profession and a writer, poet and artist by passion.

We sincerely thank you for your time and hope we shall have your continued support.
Aparajita Sen

(Editor: Songsoptok)


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