Words Tasneem M.
Header Credits Jamila M. (@Jamilamilamila)
Cooking: Experiment vs. Exact Science
Culinary Adventures (Andaaz Apna Apna)
It mystifies me when people try to cook only by thermometers and tape measures and other such empirical tools; mostly because my fondest and earliest memories of food were devoid of such measurements. Instead, I was taught how to cook using decidedly unscientific methods that employed inaccurate math problems. “If a fist and a half of rice feeds one person, how many do we need for seventy-five people?”
Food was always explored with the senses. Does it taste, smell, feel right? And while you’re still puzzling over the answers to these questions, here comes the pièce de résistance of the Indian home cook – the word that has no translation – “Andaaz”. “How much sugar? One spoon? Two?” Use your instinct. Taste it, smell it, eyeball it, and pray to a higher power that you’ve got it right. If you do it repeatedly, you will make several mistakes in estimation – each time in a new way. Legend has it that after numerous errors, multiple blistered fingers, and several misshapen rotis, you too (like those who came before you) will master the art of cooking instinctively. And your food will taste vaguely redolent of your mother’s.
My mother often jokes about how I was raised in kitchens. There were several reasons for this. Primarily because I grew up in a large joint family, in a sprawling Victorian, Indo-Gothic, South-Bombay home with the kitchen at its heart; both architecturally and metaphorically. We convened around food.
Mealtimes were chaotic mainly because there were ten members of the family permanently residing in the house. But before you begin to think that that’s a lot of people, I have some news for you. There was an unwritten rule in our family that anyone and everyone was welcome to a meal with us. The doors of our home were always welcoming friends, family, friends of friends, friends of family, that particular uncle’s sister’s father-in-law’s niece who was studying in the city and her five hungry roommates. Often, inviting other people over was not premediated, and it was usually done without consulting the other members of the family (this was before the advent of family WhatsApp groups). We usually ended up feeding an average of twenty five people at every meal.
There was always a small army of people to cook for; and my mother, grandmother and a battery of staff were always engaged in the logistics of feeding people. The background music of my childhood has therefore always been the sounds of the kitchen. The sound of my mother’s chopping knife hitting the teakwood chopping board as she julienned a mountain of carrots. The sizzle of mustard seeds in the pan as she tempered a vat of daal. The sound of bubbling (and then overflowing) bechamel sauce from a saucepan clearly meant for less ambitious culinary feats than cooking at such a scale.
This constant influx of guests often meant we were exposed to an assorted range of characters. People who brought their own ideas and ingredients to the table, or the thaal, as it were. Because there was a constant stream of travellers stopping over at our house there were, also, bottles of sumac from Turkey, habanero peppers from Mexico, and cinnamon from Sri Lanka. Our shelves were stocked from around the world (‘til now, my uncle ships me honey from New Zealand).
There were people who were amazed by the fact that there were potatoes in our biryani, there were people who insisted that the only way to eat palidu was with vinegar and sugar, there was even someone who taught us how to make a salad with walnuts that she insisted would rival the salad at the Waldorf-Astoria. “Just add another pinch of hulbo to the methi, and whip it till it’s frothy…” “You know, I told her the salt crust on the meat had to be packed tightly!” “Choux pastry needs to be handled with care. If you overwork it, it’ll collapse.”
But despite the varying nationalities, opinions and ideologies, there was always a consensus regarding what makes a meal truly great. They agreed that there is no miraculous measuring cup, no cast iron pan, no magic spatula, and (echoing Po from Kung Fu Panda) there is no secret ingredient. There is no way to make the worth of a good meal quantifiable (not with all the ‘andaaz’ in the world). The only thing that truly matters is how many people leave with happy memories and full bellies.