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

PAPIA: I would say the dining table. We always try to eat at least one meal together on week days and usually share all our meals on weekends. Conversation flows better over a nice, relaxed meal and that is when we tend to catch up with each other. Of course, now our kids are grown up. And, unless they are home we are usually at the computer chatting on Skype.  

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?

PAPIA:Not any more. It is just the two of us and the kitchen is where I fix a quick meal at the end of the day. It becomes a busy place and the nerve center when the kids, and especially, the extended family, is home. Then it hums and vibrates with life. Everybody is in the kitchen at all hours of the day. And if meals are not being prepared then endless cups of tea and coffee are being consumed over animated conversations or heated discussions.

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?

PAPIA: I love cooking for our family and friends. The whole process takes up a lot of my time and energy – selecting recipes, shopping for ingredients, planning, prepping, and cooking. What I enjoy most is trying out new ingredients and recipes and it gives me great pleasure to see people licking their plates clean and reaching out for seconds. My least favorite activity in the kitchen is the cleaning up that comes after.

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?

PAPIA: The kitchen was mostly out of bounds for me. My father had given stern orders to everyone that I was not to be allowed in the kitchen. Occasionally though, I would pull up a stool near the doorway and chat with my mother while she cooked. She was an amazing cook and very particular. Her specialty was snack food – chops, cutlets, singara, kochuri, cakes, sweets, savories, etc. – no one made them better than her. Cooks came and went in our household – no one lasted longer than a few days, no one was good enough for her. The refrigerator was another story. Afternoons were the time when my brother and I raided the pantry for food. First the refrigerator, then the cupboards - we systematically ate our way through fruits, ice cream, sweets, achar, puffed rice, nimki, chanachur and anything else we could find. Considering how skinny the two of us were, I still wonder where all that food used to go.

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?

PAPIA: Yes, I don’t really recall men cooking; it was an all-women affair. I had heard stories of my grandfather and his friends cooking meat in the courtyard since it was not allowed in the house, but that was before my time. At my maternal grandmother’s house they had male cooks who cooked for the extended family. The emphasis was on quantity rather than quality.

In my immediate family, my mother was the main cook, occasionally relieved by female cooks that came and went, as I’ve mentioned. My father had neither the time nor the inclination to cook – morning tea at 4 am every day was his only sojourn into the kitchen. One of my maternal uncles though, was a fabulous cook. He liked to make restaurant-style dishes and his specialty was tandoori chicken and biryani. And this was way back when these dishes had not become such common household fare. It was there that I tasted my first Litti too. And rabbit and some tiny roasted birds that were sold as badris or budgerigars. Later, in our generation, my brother turned out to be an exceptional cook too, so did some of my male cousins.

I didn’t really learn cooking while at home. Not even after my marriage, when we lived in Delhi. I started cooking much later, when we moved to the United States. It was a necessity, at that point, which drove me into the kitchen. Then, of course, I would write home asking my Mom for recipes and she would write back. That is how I got some of our family recipes – the rest was trial and error, of trying to approximate what my taste buds remembered.

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

PAPIAYes, of course! Kitchens have changed drastically from the days when I was a child, even in my parents’ or grandparents’ home. First there were the clay ovens burning coal and wood that had to be lit every day. The houses filled with smoke and food had to be timed carefully. Later, the cooking range made its appearance, together with the gas cylinders and plenty of rumors about how dangerous it was for your health. Over the years we moved from the flat grinding stone and freshly ground spices to the mixer-grinder and pre-ground, packaged spices.

In the USA, I was introduced to the oven, together with new concepts such as baking and broiling. And then there was the barbecue. The range also changed from home to home, from electric to gas to the flat-top. The intrinsic difference between my kitchen and my parents’ or grandparents’ kitchen is the number of labor-saving devices that are available to us. There are gadgets for everything these days. My dad loved buying kitchen gadgets and would often pick up stuff at fairs and exhibitions. We acquired choppers, yoghurt makers, roti makers and so forth, which continued to languish in the pantry shelves unused. In my kitchen, on the other hand, the food processor, the blender, the rice cooker, the microwave oven, the toaster oven crowds my counter top. My drawers and shelves are bulging with pots and pans, utensils and bakeware, all kinds of knives and all kinds of serve-ware.  

What I miss especially from those days is the freshness of the ingredients and most of all, the spices. Nothing tastes as good as cooking with freshly ground spices.

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?

PAPIA: Not always, but most of the time. Almost all of us associate comfort food with memories of childhood and eating the food that our parents, grandparents and extended families cooked for us. Even the food that we ate at the commercial eateries was sourced and prepared according to local custom and demands. This is still true in spite of the proliferation of global fast food and popular food chains and restaurants. And when we cook we usually end up making the same kind of food ourselves. This is especially true when we get older and are away from home, trying to bring up our own families or heading our own households. We turn again and again to cooking and eating the cuisine of our childhood as often as possible. The food of other cultures becomes an occasional thing - a palette teaser, a monotony breaker. As a result the cooking habits of specific groups and families are passed on and preserved for posterity.

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?

PAPIA: I am pretty flexible in the kind of dishes I like to cook. It depends entirely on my mood and the ingredients that are available at hand. But I am definitely not the kind of person who would cook the same few dishes over and over again. I like variety and experimentation. Cooking for me is a creative activity and when I don’t do that cooking becomes a chore.

Sharing my recipes, even a few favorite ones, will take up too much place. But here is one I especially enjoy. Served with Khasta paratha this is a dish that is perfect for cosy winter nights.

It is known as Bhagmati Ande Hyderabadi. When Prince Quli Qutb of Golconda married his favorite concubine, Bhagmati, he named her Hyder Mahal, after whom Hyderabad was named in 1587. This dish is reputed to have been her favorite. It looks gorgeous, tastes delicious, is relatively light, and quite easy to make. The recipe serves 4 people.

There are 2 layers to it – 1) a layer of mushrooms in gravy and 2) the eggs yolks and meringue. You’ll need:

3 tbsp. ghee

1 tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp mustard seeds
3 finely chopped onions
1 tbsp grated ginger
1 tsp garlic paste
1 finely chopped green chili
3 large ripe tomatoes, blanched, peeled and pureed
½ tsp black pepper powder
10 finely ground blanched almonds
10 ground cashew nuts
250 gms. sliced mushrooms
3 tbsp cream
1 tbsp chopped coriander leaves
8 eggs

1 tsp garam masala powder

½ tsp chili powder
salt to taste

Heat the ghee in the pan and add the cumin and mustard seeds. When they begin to splutter, add the onions, ginger, chili and garlic. Fry until translucent and add the sliced mushrooms. When they have browned a little, add the tomato puree. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer until the gravy becomes quite thick. Then add the almond and cashew nut powder, salt and pepper and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the cream and simmer for a few more minutes. Stir in the coriander leaves and transfer everything to a baking dish. 

Gently separate the egg yolks and egg white. Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold the egg white on top of the mushroom gravy. Then make shallow depressions and gently slide the yolks in. Sprinkle the garam masala powder, chili powder and some salt on the top.

Preheat the oven to 180/350. Place the baking dish in the middle rack and bake until the yolks are sealed and the whites cooked – takes about 15-20 minutes.

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?

PAPIA: I quite enjoy eating at restaurants – all kinds, including those that serve traditional or even home-cooked food. Again, it depends on my mood and what I feel like eating. What I am picky about though is the quality of the food – I want to see fresh, quality ingredients, cooked to order, delicious, plated nicely and served in a clean environment. And if it claims to be traditional, then it needs to be authentic.

Even the self-professed ethnic eateries are seldom authentically traditional though and customize their food for the local palette. This is true as much for Chinese, Mexican, Vietnamese, and all other kinds of food, as much as Indian. In Indian restaurants one seldom sees regional foods and Bengali food is extremely rare to find outside of Kolkata.

One interesting experience I had was in Bloomsburg, PA. I was in the mood for some simple Indian food but didn’t really expect to find any. So it was a pleasant surprise when I walked into this tiny restaurant run by a Bengali couple. They served fixed menu dishes for each day of the week. On that day it was Cholar Dal, Peyanji, PanchMeshali Tarkari and Murgir Jhol. It was delicious home-cooked fare and I will remember that place for a long time to come. And oh yes, the place was packed even on a week night.

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?

PAPIA: I am all for fusion cuisine if it is done right, if the result is a new invention where all the ingredients blend harmoniously together and tastes divine. However, a fusion cuisine should have a new name to go with it. I have a problem with those that claim to be cooking a traditional dish and then take liberties with the recipe. I don’t want to see almond paste and cream in my dhokar dalna or shukto for example.

In this context, I am also not a fan of the gimmicky new cuisine that has become so fashionable, e.g., molecular gastronomy dishes. They look amazing I’ll admit, but seldom wow with their taste and are invariably over-priced.

I don’t claim to be an adept at fusion cuisine. With me it is a matter of necessity rather than choice. Having lived in so many different places in so many different conditions I have had to improvise. Very often it is a matter of opening the fridge, looking through my shelves, and tossing things together to come up with something that tastes good. Call it fusion cuisine if you will J

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?

PAPIA: Yes, I must admit I am a bit of an addict when it comes to these shows. But over the years they have burgeoned to the point that one has to pick and choose – there is so much out there that is a pleasure to watch and so much that is just rubbish. One example being The Cutthroat Kitchen – I’d rather take a nap, thank you. The trend seems to be towards competitions and reality shows. I can understand that they are preferred since they appeal to a wider section of TV viewers. I enjoy watching shows like Master Chef, Top Chef, Chopped, and The Great English Bake Off too. But my favorites are still the old-fashioned ones where a chef stands in the studio kitchen in front of the camera and just shows you how to make something in the good old tradition of Jaques Pepin and Julia Child. Some of my contemporary favorites are The Barefoot Contessa, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, The Hairy Bikers and Lorraine Pascale, to name a few. Then it is not only entertainment but I am learning something too.

Another genre that I am fond of is the travelling chefs who go to different countries and showcase the local cuisine. Rick Stein is probably my favorite in this genre.

Are these shows a positive influence on our food and cooking habits? Yes and No. A lot of it is just TV and most of the audience is there for the viewing fun. But what it has given us is access to a wealth of information about food and cooking - in the past, present and future; in different countries around the world; in humble kitchens and upscale restaurants and patisseries; with an enormous range of ingredients and a plethora of cooking styles and gadgets. What we make of it depends on each of us. Some of us have learned to cook better, some of us have learned to eat better, and some of us have just gone back to life as usual. What it has done though is made us more discerning and aware. And yes, plating has definitely improved, even in home kitchens. In fact, sometimes it is more art than cuisine J

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?

PAPIA: I have had to teach my children to cook. Both of them left home at 17, and after the first year of dorm living and eating, had to learn to provide for themselves. Today, they will often call me from the grocery store or kitchen asking for tips on how to cook something, or more often, fix a cooking disaster.

As parents we do pass on our traditions to the next generation – either deliberately or inadvertently. But it depends to a great extent on them too. They are influenced today not only by the tradition and culture they experience at home but also in the world around them – a world that is becoming more and more diverse and global every day. I always made it a point to cook Indian food for dinner when my children were growing up. Today they are equally comfortable cooking and eating Indian dishes, as well as all other kinds of global food including pizzas, pastas, sandwiches, steaks, Chinese, Mexican, you name it. On a day-to-day basis, I guess they live on pasta and sandwiches. Indian food is now comfort food for them; it is what they crave for when they come home. The interesting part is that my American daughter-in-law, a total stranger to Indian food when she met my son, now loves Naan, Kebabs, Biryani, Daals and Dosas. Recently she managed to navigate through a plate of Ilish mach totally on her own So there is hope for the next generation too J

PAPIA ROY: Lives in the Netherlands, work as a graphic designer and writer. Mother of two grown up sons, Papia is a very accomplished and innovative cook. She is closely associated with running a very popular cooking forum on Faceboook with almost 6000 members.

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

(Editor: Songsoptok)


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