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Conquering the Brussel Sprout

May 3, 2010
in memory of Sitalakshmi Viswanathan.

It was an important decision, which is why my mother and I were fighting about it. My room was an unholy mess, stacks of books on my bed and clothes on just about every surface. On the floor were my two gigantic suitcases. When I bought them, they looked big enough to fit provisions for a small army. Now I was finding out that they weren’t big enough for both my ideas of life in a foreign land and my mother’s concerns for her son’s comfort. I was already irritated that my suitcases were too heavy when my mother gave me six kilos of rice, double wrapped and vaccum sealed. I had just squeezed in some spices and lentils that I was sure would be hideously expensive in America. There was no room for the rice. “I am going there to study!” I said a little too loudly, “Not to eat! I am not throwing my books out so I can fit in all this rice!” I had pulled out the trump card. My mother sighed and patted the nearest stack of books, and didn’t say anything when I left four kilos of rice behind. She turned out to be right. Every Indian store in New York carries spices, but that particular kind of rice isn’t easy to find.

I actually started cooking quite by chance, on a day when my mother was ill. She had lain in bed all morning coping with an upset stomach, and I just couldn’t stand the thought of her dragging herself to the kitchen to make lunch for the two of us. I was at home, in between projects, with time weighing heavily on my hands. So I volunteered. I picked two very simple dishes that I knew would be easy to digest but comforting for her. Then I went to her for instructions. I was expecting something in the nature of a recipe, but I got a few vague directions about the food and more than a earful about correct conduct in the kitchen. I kept interrupting her, “So how many red chillies should I put in?” “It depends on how much yogurt you start with,” she said, “But whatever you do, don’t use the big stainless steel pot, it heats too fast and you’ll burn the chillies.” Very helpful.

So I entered the kitchen with some trepidation. I knew my way around very well, because I loved that comfortable warm yellow room. It had shiny black granite counters that I loved sitting on, chattering endlessly to my mother while she made fritters on rainy afternoons. When my house was built in 1954, my sensitive grandfather had insisted on the kitchen being one of the largest rooms. That kitchen was the nerve centre of my home. Conversations happened there, as did celebrations. And for the very first time, I was in charge.

The French scholar Michel de Certeau, who specialized in theorizing about everyday life, refers to cooking as a “tactical” activity. Cooking involves some amount of planning, it is true, but so much of it is making do. “A tactic,” he says in his book The Practice of Everyday Life, “depends on time – it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized ‘on the wing’.” The making of food depends on so many variables: what’s available at home, what’s on sale at the market, how much time one has, and –perhaps most importantly – one’s mood. De Certeau also cautions us not to forget how much of the joy of cooking is derived from “manipulation”. The ancient Greeks had a word for this kind of joyful manipulation – metis, under which they included “clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things, hunter’s cunning, maneuvers, polymorphic simulations, joyful discoveries.” Sounds exactly like my first cooking experience.

I had decided to make Kadhi: a soupy spicy yogurt concoction that was a personal favourite. I assembled all the ingredients and set the oil to heat in the small copper-bottom pot. In went the first ingredients, mustard and cumin seeds, perfectly in accord with my mother’s instructions. But as they spluttered in the hot oil, popping their skins and releasing their flavours, the other spices in the box called out to me. I boldly reached for the fenugreek seeds. They were bitter, it is true, but fenugreek in yogurt was a famous home remedy for upset stomachs. In they went. Then I dutifully whisked the yogurt and gram flour together, but stopped just before I tipped it into the pot. The fenugreek would be strong, would it overpower the dish? I’d lived four years in the western province of Gujarat, where they made their Kadhi sweet. My mother didn’t like sweet things too much, but a little sugar would set things right here. And some fresh ginger. It smelt fabulous now, but I couldn’t sneak a taste. My grandmother believed that cooking was a pure and sacred activity, and that tasting food before it was served was sacrilege, an impure act. I was nervous as I set the table. I watched as my mother served herself and tasted the first mouthful. “What did you put in it?” she said, “It tastes great!”

In the two years between that day and the evening before my flight to the US, I built up quite a reputation as a cook. At first I found it surprising, because I never stuck to any recipes. When people asked me how I achieved my results, I found it hard to provide any exact measures or proportions. And nobody believed me when I said that I cooked by smell. I stood staunchly by my grandmother’s interdiction against tasting, but I always knew when something smelt right. I later discovered that this is easier with Indian cooking, which depends so heavily on strong smelling spices. The first time I tried making pasta sauce, it was disastrous precisely because I had no idea what it should smell like in the early stages.

When I moved into an apartment of my own, I experimented freely.  I used any equipment that was available. I made Spanish omlettes in a round bottomed pan, and used grated carrot for the filling. Turmeric was an essential ingredient in my pasta. I’d wake up in the morning with the vague idea that caramellised sugar would be a good addition to opo squash curry, and by evening I’d have three friends over to try it out. And they loved it.

My grandmother had an entirely different philosophy about cooking. She wouldn’t cook unless the perfect ingredients were available, even if that meant sending my father on wild goose chases on a Sunday night. She held all the proportions in her head, but they were absolutely sacred. Her attitude towards kitchen equipment was equally religious. Certain ladles were to be used only for curries, others only for yogurt. The vessels meant for milk only ever held milk, but even worse, the vessel meant for cow’s milk may never be used for holding buffalo’s milk. That kind of order was important to her; it gave meaning to her experience of cooking.

For a while, I tried to live up to the legacy of my grandmother. Though my kitchen hygiene improved by leaps and bounds, I found the actual cooking much too constricting. But I made another surprising discovery. I derived far less comfort and satisfaction when I served food that was made to an exact recipe. I felt my friends’ appreciation float over my head, and fly away into the hands of the anonymous creator of those recipes. What they were eating wasn’t mine.

Authenticity is overrated anyway, I told myself. What does tradition mean, inside a kitchen? Chillies are the most important spice in scores of traditional Indian recipes, but they were only introduced to India by Portuguese traders in the 16th Century. The Portuguese forged an unlikely culinary link between South America and India, bringing with them exotica like potatoes and tomatoes. I’d be hard pressed to find an Indian Chef today who could cook without either. The British introduced the concept of baking, and the Turks were responsible for most desserts. I have never cooked without a pressure cooker in my life, but pressure cookers came from the US, in the 1950s.

My father came up to my room as I was packing to leave for the US. He probably had some vague idea of having a heart-to-heart, but I was too worried and tense to respond. Instead, he ended up trying to help me pack, wrapping my kitchen utensils so they wouldn’t dent. As he stuffed spice packets into a saucepan, and then swaddled the whole thing in a t-shirt, he said “This is the most important thing you have learnt in your life.” I stared at him. My father was telling me that packing was the greatest life skill I had? “Cooking.” he clarified “It is very important. I’m so proud of you because you can cook. That is something I never learnt.”

I felt the emotion behind what he said, but I didn’t really understand the words until many months later. As I stood in the aisle of an American supermarket, staring at the unfamiliar vegetables, I thought of that 16th century Indian cook who first saw a chilli. “I can’t cook potatoes all the time!” I told myself, “I need to start somewhere.” So I added broccoli, brussel sprouts and sour cream to my shopping cart. The next morning, the brussel sprouts were simmering in a spiced tamarind sauce. The resultant curry was so good that I posted the recipe on my blog. Within two weeks, friends wrote to me saying that they tried the recipe and loved it. I had conquered the brussel sprout. In all the months of coping with homesickness, that odd sense of accomplishment was the most comforting feeling I’d had.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2010 7:56 am

    I remember, right after I returned from Milan, we were sitting in Akhila’s living room, and she was in the kitchen making her trademark, rice and chowli (however it is written). You sniffed the air, and without looking up from my sketchbook, said “You need more salt. And put one more clove no?”. Out came La from the kitchen, gaping “HOW did you do that?!”.

    I have that line down in one of my sketchbooks.

    A silly scrawl of a clove, with your pearls of wisdom. It confuses people when they see that page, but I can taste the chowli with the extra clove whenever I see it :) :)

    PS: Zucchini tastes louwely when vadhakkified with just fenugreek or cumin. As does paruppu podi in a salad of chunks of potato, capsicum, spinach leaves and shredded cheese slices. Ooh, I want to cook.

  2. May 3, 2010 7:57 am

    I meant tomato. Not potato.

  3. lakshmi permalink
    May 3, 2010 9:21 am

    Avi,u have one proud mother. I’m still amazed at how Ambicu and u can judje the seasoning by smell and colour. Wonder where u got the genes from- i def don’t take credit. You just brought back all the times we spent in the “yellow” kitchen-me cooking and u or Ambicu telling me about your day at college. As i get older i find i think a lot like Ammamma- mildly(note that) about which karandi to use for what.Genes????

  4. May 3, 2010 9:59 am

    I have never had good Brussels Sprout. It’s like Unicorn meat to me -

    • Avinash permalink*
      May 4, 2010 8:39 pm

      thanks for the pic, btw. I should have credited you as the photographer in the first place, but I hope this will do.

  5. ambica permalink
    May 3, 2010 10:44 am

    the poor heathen (ie north indian) i married is currently suffering under all the kitchen rules of ammamma, inviting the wrath of the gods by using the brass payasam (which i have not made in 3 years) ladle for curds..but we are inching towards middle gorund, which i guess is what marraige is all about..
    ave, i think the first time we cooked was to take charge of the shapees (arvi) curry to ensure optimum crispness and non-squidgygoo-ness, no?

    • Avinash permalink*
      May 3, 2010 12:42 pm

      yes, I suppose, but we weren’t really in charge of anything except the frying. anyway, you started cooking way before I did.

      And to split hairs, I suppose the first thing I cooked was Maggi. But I didn’t think that counted :D

  6. aravind permalink
    May 3, 2010 11:54 am

    y’know, i experiment by adding different sorts of alcohol to otherwise ordinary recipes, and the results so far have been encouraging.. chicken kalyani (named after the local beer), beef in old monk etc are fun to cook, esp when the alcohol is present in both the cook and the dish :D

  7. Akhila Krishnan permalink
    May 3, 2010 3:13 pm

    :) I will testify before any jury how you are my cooking God :)

  8. Akhila Krishnan permalink
    May 3, 2010 3:15 pm

    And I loved reading this post. I think a book is waiting to be written.

  9. lakshmi permalink
    May 3, 2010 11:12 pm

    Am planning to take a copy of this to Ammachithi.I keep getting back to it !!!

  10. aarohi permalink
    May 4, 2010 4:47 am

    HEy Avi…Its very interesting…Its fun to read your blog….Hope you are doing good…

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