My Kitchen Misadventures

I could have titled this as just ‘Kitchen Misadventures’ and included others in this shared fellowship. But nobody likes to own up to their failures and as a peace loving person, I do not want to face any artillery after having published this. It is barely comforting that no one is likely to read this post, but I believe it is safer not to have potentially troublemaking posts floating around in the cloud. I was never an aspiring chef but was thrust into the kitchen by my mother who preferred visiting her birth family frequently and took the train to Chennai quite often, leaving us to fend for ourselves. “We” were my father, my older brother and myself. I was about twelve at the time, and my brother was three years older. My brother had no inclination to step into the kitchen at all, but to his credit, would eat anything we told him was food. He would not complain and he would not waste. I had a more sensitive palate and more demanding tastes. My father, alas, was one of those patriarchal people who always knew what was wrong with any dish but had no skill in actually cooking anything. I stepped into the kitchen at twelve because I realized I would be condemned to eating rice with extremely watery and tasteless rasam for ever, along with burnt cabbage, unless I started participating in the murky processes in the kitchen. I had only my own tastebuds to guide me, living in such a family. My mother, I must add, would go to great lengths to cook a large number of dishes, especially during festivals, but since she did not enjoy eating, her cooking always seemed to me to be a little off-target. (I am convinced only a person who likes eating and cooks for himself can be an outstanding cook.) My mother’s cooking was a little like the curate’s egg – good in parts. I remember making upma at her bidding with no guidance from her except the most minimal, only for her to scream at me that the onion was too raw and smelt terrible and that I was no good at all. As a person, as a cook, as a daughter? I could not figure it out. But when I tasted the upma, it was quite good and the onions had the right amount of crunch. I suppose she did not like it because she did not like to eat onions anyway. I was barely thirteen then and had never been taught to cook. Anyway, once my mother was on her usual trips to Madras, and we had moved to our own house by then. My father ambitiously declared that “we” would make vatha kuzhambu, a Brahmin special which had few ingredients and required an experienced cook. By that he meant that he had a general idea of what went into the dish but not how to proceed. Following his directions faithfully, I ended up staring at a thin liquid bubbling on the stove which did not seem to be what “we” were aiming to make. My father told me to add more red chilli powder and more oil, following the principle that more spice and oil adds taste. We tasted it and the heat of the chili powder left us with burning mouth and tongue. He said it probably needed to cook till it thickened but matters were not improved. I suppose we must have eaten our rice with that concoction of chilli powder and water, not to mention the oil floating on it, because my parents would never allow us to throw away any food. I am sure I longed for the days when we were living in a rented house and it was a simple matter to go to a nearby hotel with a large steel tiffin box and order two vadas and sambhar to go with it. The cook would fill up the container with sambhar to the brim – those were the days when the waiter and the cook would understand that we were there for the sambhar really . But the vadas were wonderfully hot and crisp and the sambhar could never be replicated at home. The two vadas would be divided among the three of us and their disappearance from our plates left us – my brother and I – wishing we could have one vada each. We were too poor to expect to eat two each and would have been happy with just one. The aroma of that “hotel” sambhar was heavenly. Over the years, I became a better cook by virtue of necessity and was able to manage the kitchen on my own. I learned to experiment, and eating and sharing food with friends in college led to an abiding interest in cooking. But my brother never developed any culinary skills even as an adult. If somebody cooked and fed him, he ate well. If nobody was around, he did not mind living on biscuits. Even if he was starving he did not complain. His forced kitchen adventures were often disastrous. Once he lived for fifteen days on rice and rasam, unaware that he had mistaken turmeric powder for rasam powder, and ate what he presumed was rasam. It was water boiled with salt and turmeric powder. Perhaps the mustard tempering made it taste better. My mother returned home and wondered why the turmeric powder jar was empty and why the utensils were so yellow, until I got to the bottom of the affair. My late brother-in-law’s late wife told me that when she was newly married she had ambitiously set out to make mysore pak. But several cups of sugar and a jugful of pure ghee later, she was forced to pour the mixture down the drain in a secret operation for fear of being found out. Knowing my grim-faced brother-in-law I thought she had done the right thing.

There was the time when my father and I, as joint cooks, made a vegetable curry, sambhar and rasam, and along with my brother sat down to eat, but… where was the rice? We had forgotten to cook the rice.

Among my misadventures (notice the plural) I remember making rice balls to cook in a sweet dish called pal kozhukkattai. This was years later, when I was in my thirties. The balls turned out to be too hard and I decided to feed them to the crows. But when I dropped them a few at a time on the window shade, a matter of five feet, for the crows to eat, many of them bounced like little table tennis balls and jumped right off the shade to the ground below. I was afraid they would hit somebody and cause injuries. But to my everlasting humiliation, the crows that turned up to eat the rice balls, pecked at them from different sides, then lifted up their heads and looked at them, and – flew away.

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