How can I write a food blog and not thank the person who first introduced me to food, literally and metaphorically. As a child, I took my mom for granted and hated her constant bickering about food – eat this, eat that – and in my case, don’t eat this, don’t eat that! Because I took everything for granted. It’s only when I left home and had to become an adult that I began to understand her. Every now and then I remember some of the amazing things she has done and never taken any credit for.
Life was very different when we were children in pre-liberalization India. Things were not so easily available. And for my mother who moved from Dehra Dun to Chennai after getting married in the early 70s, everything must have been so different. So many things that she was used to would not have been available and so many new things to deal with. But she adapted, what seems to be seamlessly, so that when we were growing up we got the best of both worlds – Dehra Dun and Chennai. On any special occasion like our birthdays or whenever she hosted a party, she would cook up an elaborate meal with the staples like rice, puris, raita, dal and 2 or 3 vegetables/chicken. Plus there would be dessert. She loved to cook and entertain, even though I am sure she was drained by the whole process. Still in her home, there was never a shortage of food, there were always tonnes of leftovers after parties. This is a trait I have inherited from her. She would plan these meals days in advance and wake up earlier than normal to make some preparations done before going to work. She had help, but there are always so many little things to do. We didn’t even get paneer in Chennai then. She curdled the milk and set the paneer. If there was a party at home, you would often find a slab of paneer wrapped in a thin cloth resting under a chair!
Parties were not the only time we were treated. She often indulged our desires by making samosas and pakoras for evening snack time on weekends. Let me tell you samosa making is not easy. This was one recipe she warned me about – you need to watch me make it she said and she was right. First there is the dough, then there is the frying. I tried it once but was a hugely unsuccessful. I just couldn’t roll the dough, it fell apart! I may be able to make a better dough now since I have more experience. But I haven’t had the courage to try it again. I have the luxury to give up you see. I can walk down the street and buy a samosa for a few rupees. My mom didn’t have that luxury. That’s why she can make good samosas and I am craving one right now!
Having lived abroad for a few years – Europe and Canada – my mom is open minded when it comes to food. Macaroni was the only pasta available in India then and she would sometimes make baked pastas with vegetables and chicken. I learned about the famed white sauce or bechamel from her. And pizza! There was one pizza place in Chennai in the 80s and early 90s which was really far away from IIT Madras. We would all pile up onto my dad’s scooter and go there sometimes. But then we started getting the pizza bases in the super markets and mom started making pizza at home. She would get chicken salami and chicken sausage and make her own mix of toppings to go on the pizza. I think that was the one thing I could actually do before leaving for the US – prepare the toppings, assemble the pizza and bake it off.
I have already talked about her chaat making skills. She is very good at whipping together stuff. The last time I was there she quickly knead some dough and fried up some fresh papdis for dahi papdi chat. I also remember this one time when my mom and a couple of other ladies from campus got together to hold a chaat sale for the IIT students one afternoon. They started at 4 and were sold out by 7. My mom has initiative like that. And she has creativity. She was the one who first piqued my interest in writing by showing me how to write an essay for school. I was completely fascinated by the way she strung together words to make them something so beautiful. I was struck by how something so mundane as a trip was transformed into something so magical just by her words. I have been hooked since.
Her creativity also showed in her cooking. When she made her Gulab Jamuns she would sometimes hide little surprises inside them like raisins. But her signature dish is a dahi wada that she makes by stuffing a coconut mixture inside Now if you have worked with dahi wada batter you are familiar with how sticky it is. But she devised a method to work with it using a piece of plastic to hold it so she could stuff it. I have seen her do it several times now and under her supervision stuffed a few. But I don’t even try to make them myself. I leave that to the master! She did all these experiments but she had the experience to know how to salvage the food in case something went wrong. With me it often happens that all the food goes waste if something goes wrong. That’s why I am wary of experimenting with some dishes which require so much effort!
Mom has as much of a sweet tooth as me. In fact I have inherited it from her. We have to have dessert these days. I’ve already shared the story of her Indian sweets. But she also baked and keeps insisting to this day that she is not a good baker. She would make cakes and cookies during the summer vacation. She also tried to make our birthday cakes a few times, complete with the icing and all. I remember her getting quite worked up about the texture of the the icing and wondering how she would put it in her pastry bag and pipe it. But I mean she owned a piping bag and tried to pipe. Something which even I don’t do, I only slather frosting on! She once made a birthday cake for me with colorful icing. And I complained to her that I hated it and didn’t want to serve it to my friends. She tried to convince me that it looked nice. But I was quite a stubborn, spoiled brat. So she surprised me in the evening by bringing a nice birthday cake on her way back from school. I am embarrassed by my behavior when I think about it now; I was so insensitive. But such are the spirits of moms. I wonder though if I have the generosity of spirit to be such a forgiving mother.
Before wrapping up I have to tell you about two more foods that my mom makes that I am thoroughly impressed by. One is the khasta kachori. It is a multi-step process – make small pakoris, grind them up, fry up the ground pakoris with spices, stuff into dough and fry up. Wow! I saw her make this a couple of years ago when she visited to help take care of the baby. I helped her and we spent all afternoon making these. So elaborate and she would make these twice a year. But they have great keeping ability and so she made a bunch and we ate them slowly. Not so with hubby though. When he returned from office he would eat 3 at a time. I had to hide a few for myself!
The second dish is floating islands. I didn’t know they were such a big deal when I saw her making them. I was perhaps 11 or 12 and my father had a visitor from Germany I think, so mom wanted to make a non-Indian dessert for him. She beat the egg whites and poached them in the custard and what fascinated me was the technique. I kept admiring the little blobs of meringue simmering in the sauce. She knows so much and is so modest about it. The dessert was delicious but she made it just that once. She herself can’t eat it because she is allergic to eggs and yet she knew how to make it!
Everyone thinks their mom is a super hero. I don’t think so, because that is taking away from who she is. She is a human being who has her flaws, but because and despite them she is an exceptional person. She worked hard – both inside and outside the house- to build a comfortable life for us. And almost always, she did it with a smile. It is ironic indeed that me, who always thought and was always told that I was like my dad, find myself becoming like my mom. If I can get halfway there though, I will be quite satisfied.