I don’t know about you, but I like my kheer cold, straight from the fridge. And so after the hubby had taken baby to sleep on Friday night, I started my kheer making, with the SIL watching and helping. The milk was set on the stove to boil down with some pounded cardamon seeds, while the channa (fresh paneer) was made and the pistachios chopped. Watching milk boil and occasionally stirring it, is perhaps the most boring kitchen job ever. We hung around for a while chatting, discussing this and that, but still the milk would not reach the desired consistency. After an hour it seemed like it was ready for the rice powder and saffron, so I added them in, but still it wasn’t thick enough. At that point we decided to leave it alone for a while and went out to watch some TV. After about 20 minutes I decided to go check on it. As I entered the kitchen the dreaded smell hit me – the sweet smell of milk boiling was replaced by the smell of burnt milk. Ugh! All that effort. I quickly moved the milk to another pan and tasted it to assess the damage. The smell hit you immediately but the taste was well-masked by all the saffron and cardamom. Both SIL and I agreed that the addition of sugar and some more cardamom would salvage the whole operation. So that’s what we did. After another twenty minutes the kheer was transferred to another bowl, topped with pistachios and left to cool.
The next morning the “guilt” of the previous nights disaster lay heavy on my conscience. Over tea I admitted to hubby what had happened and made him taste the kheer immediately. With him the thing is, he can eat a lot of foods, but then there are certain things he just cannot tolerate. Like garlic in dal. And burnt milk. He tasted it and said it was alright. But I knew he would not eat anymore. Neither did the cousin who visited. It was finished almost entirely by me, with the SIL and the babysitter graciously eating some and even offering praise! Another lesson in patience learned the hard way. How many extra pounds did I gain eating all that kheer by myself? I shudder at the thought.
On Saturday morning the cook came by to help with all the chopping. I love cooking in India. You always have help chopping and cleaning up; makes cooking a whole lot easier doesn’t it? I don’t mind chopping an onion or two or may be some peppers, but to plough through half a kilo of onions and tomatoes, peel and finely chop ginger and garlic is such a pain! Who’s with me? After she had neatly chopped and arranged all the vegetables I set about cooking. The chole – wait for it – is my mother’s secret oil-free recipe! Can you believe it – eating beautiful, spicy, tangy chole without any of the guilt. You could eat an extra puri or two with them couldn’t you? I know you are wondering how. Well I ain’t telling. You can certainly get a taste of them from me and try to deconstruct the recipe but no other way.
The aloo dum and paneer were new recipes for me, but the sauces were quite simple. So cooking was moving along at a brisk pace but I was restless. I always get restless when we have guests over and there are multiple things to do. Instead of enjoying my cooking I was constantly worried about what everyone else was up to, if the baby was okay and whether he had had his bath. Something wasn’t quite right. Then I poured a paste of roasted sesame seeds, coconut, fennel seeds, green chilies and ginger into hot oil in a pan which already had cumin seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves. As the paste cooked and the sweet smell of coconut and fennel seeds mixed with the heat of ginger and green chillies filled the air, I breathed the aroma in deeply. In an instant, the world was a more benign place. I calmed down, took a tiny break and played with the baby for a couple of minutes. Then it was just me and my pans, my kitchen and my smells for the next hour or so as I finished the cooking.
We had puris after the longest time, but since it was a festival we decided to indulge and I think everyone stuffed themselves, especially since I also made everyone eat the pea pulao, which for once had turned out with the rice grains nicely separate. As always mama’s chole was the most appreciated dish proving once again that mommy rules! Who would have thought that vegetarian food could be so intensely satisfying? I marvel once again at the brilliance of the cooks hidden in all parts of our country who discovered (and continue to do so) innovative ways to make the humble vegetables, dals and beans available around them into something that you could eat every day and somethings that were fit for a king – literally!
My SIL’s in-laws were a heavily fish eating Bengali family who switched to vegetarianism – even no onions or garlic – for religious reasons. But eat a meal in their home and you wouldn’t miss the meat or fish. In fact you would be thankful it wasn’t there! Her MIL offers five beautiful vegetarian courses, so who has the space for meat or fish afterward? She uses the whole gamut of vegetables, nuts, spices, beans and dals available to her to create new flavors with the same foods each and every time. It is such a joy to eat her cooking and speak to her about food.
I believe that as humans we are in some sense “naturally carnivorous”. We love to bite into things, eat hearty foods, chew and macerate it, tear it apart with our fingers (if we were allowed, but otherwise with a fork) and hence Indian vegetarian food (and now the world over) has its share of “meaty” foods – be it the koftas or the paneer or the wadis or the gattas, and most recently the Nutrela nuggets, to complement the soft veggies and the thin dals and satisfy this urge. But these have a natural flavor that is in some sense “one-dimensional” – paneer is sweet, wadis are spicy, etc. While beef or pork has natural depths of flavor, one cut different from the other in taste and texture, you cook it in different ways that show off the flavors and textures – either grill, roast, stew or braise. The vegetarian foods get their flavor from the spices that you add to it. So it takes immense creativity to choose the spices that enhance the flavor of the vegetable or the paneer or the kofta. And then to find another way to cook the same vegetable or paneer or kofta because your child is bored of eating the same food every week!
And so a salute to vegetarian cooks all over this beautiful land of mine and slowly, the world over. You are all an inspiration!