I was in my kitchen.
Tossing a couscous salad. An eye on a bubbling Thai curry on one burner and spare ribs on the pan on another. I was cooking for friends. Or, given the fun I had, possibly for myself. I cooked. I photographed. Tripping on the super macro function of the camera. Basking in the light of the hundred watt bulb I fixed above the stove earlier in the evening. And then clicking on my Blackberry to http://twitter.com/#%21/Finelychopped as I cooked.
I grew up on years of watching Doordarshan with my mother on New Year’s Eve at Calcutta. Mumbai meant freedom. Celebrating NYE outside of home was a big part of this. ‘Media party’ at Juhu hotel, a poignant time at Madness with friends, Navy Ball in a blazer. Stolen moments at a seedy hotel at Mandwa, ten years back and marriage the next year. Domesticated, penniless I still insisted on celebrating NYE outside even as she tried to show me the virtues of being home, avoiding traffic and crowds and bankruptcy.
Starters & More, Marine Plaza, Asia Wok, Golden Pavilion, Zenzi … year after year I would have the ads on the local tabloids on my finger tips as I planned our NYE with military determination. Till one year, when we didn’t get a place at Zenzi. We headed back. Picked up a pizza at Pizzeria at Bandra and spent NYE with Harry and Sally.
The spell broke. We stopped going out on NYE. It was never just by the two of us any more. We had grown up.
Coming back to last night, at the risk of sounding like Nigella in Express, the dinner didn’t take too much of effort to put together. The food was ‘restaurant -like’ to the extent that it was under-salted as I realised today. Thankfully the NYE cheer ensured that no one noticed that. We have enough left overs left to see us through 2011. I always end up cooking in excess when we have people over. The inclement weather did one couple in. Couple of people didn’t eat. K due to nausea, that too without alcohol. Or tasting the food! A logistic mishap left us with a dozen donuts in the fridge.
What I put together yesterday, as always, hinged on instincts and memories, experiments. Planning and shopping took two days. I love Pali Market, Bandra. You get every single ingredient that you can dream of. Feta, spare ribs, galangal, kaffir limes, Thai brinjals, lemon grass, bird’s eye chillies, lemon grass, beef mince, parsley, corn, shitake mushrooms, button mushrooms, couscous, fresh turmeric, fish sauce, sprouts, basil … you name it and is is their within your arm’s reach.
On the cards was a dish I had made before with a twist that I wanted to try this time. Microwave spare ribs finished in a pan this time. A seasoned cook who tried what I made last time kept telling me about how ‘microwaves’ aren’t for cooking. Something I heard from her even the morning after. Then I saw Nigella one day on the treadmill’s TV. Oven baked spare ribs, finished on a pan. I was inspired.
The spare ribs seemed as sensuous to touch, as seductive to look at. They cooked much better this time. So Nigella, Gia and Kirti, who later told me about the post micro part of his recipe, were all right. Well, who said we are not open to suggestions?
There was Thai green curry as learnt at the cooking class at Chiang Mai. I made a red curry in the class but K prefers green. But then, as they told us, the curry mixes are the same for red and green. The difference lies in the colour of the chillies used. Figure that out.
A last minute idea to make a Thai sprouts side. Goaded by memories of Chiang Mai where I had my first magical bites of sprouts with curries. I pounded the peanuts, added them to sprouts, chopped galangal, kaffir lime leaves, honey, basil, fish sauce, bird’s eye chillies. Even K, who managed to eat today, liked it which is quite something given she doesn’t like salads or peanuts in food. Anirban, a food aficionado and soulful singer, approved of the pairing of sprouts with curry and rice.
A vegetarian cous cous with feta, corns, mushrooms and parsley. For a guest who was not much of a meat lover. And had treated to us to an amazing lunch at Olive. This was healthy stuff. Tossed in the salad bowl I stepped out of office and picked up at The Bombay Store. The shop we bought our first set of crockery from. More than a decade back. I should have had made less off the salad though.
Making a ‘guest’ appearance were a ton of chicken momos and a freshly baked cake. The cake pushed the donuts deep into the fridge. Hopefully Banu’s grandson will enjoy the donuts if his granny comes to work.
The actual cooking didn’t take too much time thanks to some pretty good planning. I prefer to stick to Oriental and Continental when I entertain on working days. Less complicated than the Indian dishes that I cook. The back breaking part was making the Thai curry mix. I took the mortar and pestle that I bought from Chiang Mai and pounded away. Coriander seeds. Then galangal. Raw turmeric, which as a turmeric powder user, I had never seen before. Lemon grass. Kaffir lime leaves. Garlic. Chopped onion. Green chillies. De-seeded. I pounded away. Ignoring aching bones and a weary back as I watched the curry paste turn to the desired colour. Eyes lighting up as I saw the galangal, so difficult to cut, blend in. The yellow turmeric too. The lemon grass stem caused concern. But the coriander seeds gave in each time stone hit stone. This was quite an adventure.
The heady aroma of freshly grounded spices wafted through our kitchen. A new experience in our colourless, antiseptic, ready made spice powder world. I was alone and yet could hear the murmurs and cries of the spice markets of yore around me.
I could sense my grandmothers standing beside me that night. One left us years back. The other fighting a painful battle against old age. I had drawn them in to my kitchen with the smell of fresh ground spices. I pounded away as I was transported to an innocent world where I was less than four feet tall, discovering the flavours of India in my grandmothers’ kitchens at New Delhi and Calcutta. Though the two venerable ladies would have been baffled by my Oriental mortar and pestle. Worlds apart from their flat Bengali ‘sheel noras’.
Sounds romantic? It was bloody hard work. A Thai grandmom would have possibly approved of the mix. Done it more easily than me I am sure. But I needed a back rub at the end of it. If not a drink. The reason for the popularity of massage parlours in Thailand became pretty obvious.
Everyone else arrived barely before 2011 did. I had to leave my drink aside as we had a Cinderella amongst us who would head of to shimmy the night away at twelve. I headed back to my cave.
I was crowded in as I tossed two salads, fired up a curry and seasoned the spare ribs in the kitchen. I have got used to cooking with an audience. The kitchen slowly emptied, I was putting the dishes to bed. The cracker burst. A New Year was upon us.
I was in a happy place. Literally,
And here’s wishing you a 2011 which is, well, nicer.
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