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LIPIKA DEY

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 5/15/2016 |




Like all young girls of middle class urban Indians of the seventies I was not supposed to love cooking. My mother being a compulsive cook toiled it out at the kitchen to dish out delicacies – delicious and routinely non-monotonic. My grandmother was a compulsive cook who entertained no short cuts. My mother enjoyed innovation but allowed deviations to traditional dishes only under duress. However – when it came to her daughters – she was absolutely strict. No need to step into the kitchen other than to be her taster once in a while – was her verdict for us. And with her fondness for a tight slap along with a tight hold on my delicate ponytail I dared not.

But it is difficult to suppress genes – and even more difficult to deter enterprising future cooks from entering the kitchen. While me and my sisters cautiously kept out of the kitchen when mom was around – we enjoyed spending sunny spring mornings meticulously cleaning and sorting raw jackfruits or banana florets for her. These processes being laborious – she accepted the help – albeit grudgingly. Winter evenings were often spent close to the hearth, helping the maid roll out fulkas. The bonus was a peek into a surreal world of marshy lands where people hunted for clams, mussels, water spinach or marsilea to cook a meal, of the value of a fifty paisa coin that could buy a few spoons of mustard oil and a match box to light a fire and cook the clams, of hunting for edible mushrooms that adorned Snow White’s garden in my book of fairy tales, of frogs croaking in the impenetrable darkness that descends over a village soon after sunset with dots of twinkling fireflies, of draughts that cracked up parched fields - a world of poverty and have-nots far removed from my realities – Sarat Chandra materializing for me in that smoky kitchen.

Time flew. It was my first summer break – a long and arduous time away from friends. Mom was down with high fever. It was time to put to test some of those theoretical knowledge acquired through observation. After raking up our brains for something easy and tasty for snacks, we zeroed in on Luchi and Begun Bhaja (Puri and fried brinjals). We sisters were all experts in kneading and rolling. A wok full of oil was heated up – and then came that momentous time – when the puris had to be slid into the pot of boiling oil! The heat seemed unbearable as my soft hands neared the oil – the last three quarters of a feet were insurmountable. The puri was left to plop into the oil. The hot oil splashed up in a rage to smear my hand with loving red hot blisters. Next evening, an old classmate from school days, a boy who wanted to be more than a friend – stroked the blisters with tearful eyes – a perfect excuse for my mom to banish from the kitchen till further notice.

But man proposes God disposes. As we entered our third year – a mess worker’s strike at Kharagpur compelled us to cook for survival. And the dormant genes sprung to life. Starting with the ubiquitous potatoes we soon graduated to Bhindi, brinjals and Egg curry. As confidence reached new heights – I ventured to cook at a senior friend’s house to celebrate the engagement ceremony of another couple. A few post-graduates - with me as the sole UG representative – it was a bunch of novice cooks with lack of expertise of different orders. I was assigned to cook the quintessential Rohu kalia and payesh – kheer for the uninitiated. Armed with full theoretical knowledge – I even managed to fry the fish this time without any major disaster. But the moment of truth still had to be faced – what seemed to be a pool of curry good enough to be served with ladle when I had last seen it on fire – had dried up mysteriously by the time it was served! Curry or no curry – friends declared that they could spot a cook in the making. The dessert – thick and creamy with an abundance of cashews – turned out to be a delightful rice-cake not a rice-pudding – which had to be cut into pieces with a knife but enjoyed thoroughly by all and sundry – friends emphasizing yet again on the point of a budding cook – the bud a tad far from blooming yet – but then it was only my 20th year on this earth. Obviously I was not perfect. And the only way to attain perfection is to practice. So my culinary adventures continued. It was another momentous realization – that this is one feminine trait that feminists can enjoy stress free without the fear of antagonizing the men in their lives. All things sharp or tangy, crispy or crunchy, spicy or hot - were enjoyable to boys, friends and boy friends, men - retro or metro – so long as they emerged from the pans and pots of feminists and not their tongues.

As my penchant for cooking grew – so did my kitchen. Graduating from a kerosene stove to an air fryer is a long saga spread over 27 years. Along with the paraphernalia grew the repertoire of activities to choose from - sauteeing, broiling, glazing, braising, grilling or roasting – further complicated with options galore to choose from the repository of animals and birds, herbs and vegetables – native and foreign, organic and inorganic, gluten-free and oil-free. Cooking is no longer a simple art. Cooking today rather needs a storehouse of knowledge along with the ability and inclination to understand a complex fusion of science, arts and technology.

But then life forced me to walk the reverse direction in complexity. Yet another technology challenge was posed to me when I wanted to make a simple caramel pudding at a new place – a new set-up – bereft of all gadgets – barring a simple induction plate – not even a gas stove. Induction plates are choosy about who they allow on top  – one can only use designated vessels with induction-friendly bottoms. None of what I had, seemed fit to cook a caramel pudding – other than a small doubtful looking aluminum saucepan.

“Can one use aluminum vessels on an induction plate?” – thankfully one can google anything these days. Well – it didn’t say no – the answer was rather long winded – about eddy currents and electro-magnetic waves – induction and not conduction. I have never managed to read a full page of any Electrical Engineering document without having to take three breaks.  But time was short – and my concentration was stupendous. The summary of that long document seemed to say that impossible is nothing though it would be inefficient to try this combination.

Who cared for efficiency? I was not into any cooking Olympiad. All I wanted was a perfectly caramelized creamy pudding – with caramelizing posing the severest challenge. I coated the aluminum pan with sugar – switched on the plate and braced myself for some inefficiency. But the plate refused to light up – it was obvious that the induction plate was in no mood to turn itself on at the contact of a simple aluminum vessel that was meant for the ordinary gas oven – and not designed specially for it. Well - the last line of the document did say that “all-metal friendly induction plates are yet to be manufactured” – but then the whole article on inefficiency was rather redundant I thought. My old belief about documents related to electricity being rather dubious returned.

But the pudding had to be – for I am a compulsive cook. So a comparatively smaller induction friendly wok was fished out and forced to serve as the caramelizing pot and then the pudding bowl – immersed within a big wok of boiling water – old world style steaming in 21st century.

The proof of the pudding is in eating they say. Life comes a full circle when the certificate-of-proof is issued by mom – so what if she has to knife it out from the wok! After all it is the taste and the texture that matter – she declares and gives me a 100 percent! Dad asks for a second helping.

It is for moments like these that compulsive cooks like me never learn a lesson – they continue to try impossible things under impossible circumstances. Once in a while the cloak of impossible vanishes like thin air. Buds break into flowers. Fingers touch the sky. The blisters are healed by a magic touch. The journey continues.


[LIPIKA DEY]

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