I don’t know how to cook.
That’s perfect. I love to cook, said this man with salt and pepper hair.
This was a conversation that I was having with a man that I would, in the next six hours decide to get engaged to.
I was meeting him for the first time. He had been a simple three-lines profile on a matrimonial site. I had been an essay. We had been corresponding via emails and gmail chats for about a year and a half. There had been no phone calls or video chats, barring a brief phone call that he made to pay condolences when my father passed away.
I had loved that he knew the difference between its and it’s; read Murakami and Rohinton Mistry, and could write an entire 800 word email without ever using ‘words’ like ‘howz’ ‘waz up’ and such.
When we decided to get married by the end of our first evening together, I did not realise how food would become one of the central elements of our married life and how most of my hashtags would center around ‘good food’ and ‘marry a man who cooks’.
When my husband-to-be had proclaimed that he loves to cook, he wasn’t lying. A man of few words, and prone to being moody and to sullen silences, food was indeed his prose and poetry both.
A shelf of different dals
When I moved to Bangalore to be with my husband, I had assumed that for a single man living by himself, his kitchen would stock some essentials but that would be about it.
His kitchen was tiny. There was barely any counter space to put up a water purifier or a microwave. It was a sort of a kitchenette. But the cupboard above held six or seven different kinds of dals and pulses. Kidney beans, pigeon peas, split chickpeas, petite yellow lentils, green grams, Indian brown lentils, black eyed peas…
He was stocked up on all the masalas too. True to his promise, he cooked for us every day. He got fresh vegetables from the market – long beans, aubergines, cabbage, cauliflower, bottle gourd, ladies finger interspersed with visits to the butcher, bringing home chicken, fish, prawns and goat meat (commonly known as mutton in India) to make delicious curries.
Watching him cook and cook with passion, began to have an effect on me. I called my mother daily, asking her for instructions and her recipes and started cooking. I wasn’t very confident at first, but gradually, my repertoire expanded. From the Gujarati handvo (baked savoury lentil cake) , dal dhokli (a sort of Indian version of a pasta, albeit in dal as the base), kadhi (a curd and chickpea flour accompaniment to rice and roti), I went on to try recipes sourced from the internet and cooking blogs – cauliflower keema, prawns in coconut gravy, Parsi dal, long beans cooked with shredded coconut.
At the end of our first year together, he gave me a hardbound copy of Vikas Khanna’s book Flavors First, with the following words inscribed on the first page ‘For someone who claimed she knows no cooking, you have been making some real interesting food (the growing tummy says it all)! Here’s wishing you a lot of adventures in the kitchen in the years to come.’
Cooking is prose, cooking is poetry
We are both very different people when it comes to our personalities. I can talk. Incessantly. I like details, I like anecdotes. If you asked me, how was your day, it would take me at least fifteen minutes to answer that question. I would tell you about what I had for lunch, what my colleague said to me at lunch, about the woman I met while I went grocery shopping… If I asked my husband the same question, nine out of ten times, his answer would be ‘Fine.’
There was only so much that he would talk about. However, I soon realised that all his stories came out via talking about food or while cooking.
One of the most important man in his life was introduced to me via food. My husband had lost his father while he was still at university. He seldom spoke about him, his grief was personal and stored safely away and rather, as he said, he had little time to grieve as he had to start providing for his mother and sister very soon after that.
His father now came up in our conversations as my husband would bend over a pot of something nice stirring on the stove. My father, he would say, was the one who introduced me to paya (trotters). He would reminisce about getting up early on Saturday mornings to go to the only shop near the railway station in Vadodara, a hole in the wall really, to scoop up the paya with an oven made double bread (a kind of bun made in India). I now know the sort of dal his father preferred, how he liked his cabbage subzi, or the dhabas that they both frequented together. Or how when they went on a particular holiday, his father’s dinner would often turn stone cold because every time his father sat down to eat, my husband, then a child, would want to go to the bathroom.
My father, he once said, doubling up with laughter as he spoke, once gave me a sip or two of beer when I was seven years old. We were on a trek to a mountain and when I asked for water, the adults realised that they had forgotten the water bottles at the base. All they had was some chilled beer. And so, my father gave me a sip or two – it won’t harm you, he said, after all, you can’t go thirsty and there’s still time for us to make the trek down.
Together with these stories, other stories tagged along – and little by little, we could have an evening of conversations – spanning our childhoods and growing up years.
Sometimes, after we would have had a fight, he would stay silent but start cooking. It would be something I would like. It was his way of making amends. Again, food came to our rescue.
Please don’t look at the menu prices
But food came with its own differences. How much eating out is okay? Once a week or twice? How much should you spend on one evening? In a country of deep inequalities that was India, should we feel guilty about spending on one meal out that could potentially buy someone two weeks worth of groceries?
We both grew up in the same town and even went to the same school without ever meeting each other, but the way our parents ran their households were very different.
My father, who carried a newspaper cutout of Mahatma Gandhi in his wallet till the day he died – believed in living simply. Eating out was an exception and not a norm.
Nandan, on the other hand, was a spilitting image of his dad and had also inherited his dad’s love of food, spices and eating out.
Running a household together meant that we had to navigate the different approaches we had towards food and money.
There were times when I was quite taken aback at the number of times we were eating out, and the amount we spent on food. But when you tend to live with each other, you learn and unlearn. A month in which we had eaten out a lot and incurred a lot of bills, I wanted to raise the topic of how it was affecting our monthly finances, but I didn’t. A month passed and to my surprise, he raised it himself, acknowledging the fact that we needed to moderate our eating out. I liked to think that perhaps a bit of my thriftiness had rubbed off on him.
On the other hand, I had come a far way too. I had come to really pay attention to what I was eating and enjoy what different cuisines had to offer. From a person who rarely ate out, I had begun to look up restaurants and local haunts before we travelled anywhere.
However, it was still difficult for me to spend more than a certain amount on eating out. That is why, when I turned 40 this June in Ireland – far away from friends and family in India and in the UK, my husband booked a table at a very nice restaurant in Dublin to make the evening special. However, he had to sit me down a day before and talk to me about not looking at the prices on the menu card and ordering what was the cheaper option.
Please promise me, you won’t do that. You can never enjoy a meal that way, he said. If you are worried about the amount we will end up spending, we will cut down on our eating out for a bit – okay? But please enjoy the food and what the restaurant has to offer, he pleaded.
Half of a rabbit and a bowl of snails
I was a vegetarian for about 30 or so years of my life. Though I turned a non vegetarian before I met my husband, I think I discovered that I was ready to try different kinds of food once we were married and started eating out and exploring different restaurants.
In Malta, our Airbnb host suggested we try a family run restaurant that sourced its vegetables and meat from its own farm. Once we reached there, and were seated, we had a look at the menu. Their rabbit was supposed to be very good. We decided we would have that. The waiter came over to take our order and he said that for starters, they had a special that day and it was snails. Would we like to try that?
We looked at each other. My husband was a little unsure, but I said, let’s try it out. He was easily convinced. We were the only people in the restaurant who ordered the snails.
I can’t say if I would have them again, but we both surprised each other that day. My husband later said he was very impressed that I finished up my share of the snails. I had come a far way from my roti dal-bhaat-shaak routine.
For me, I found a companion who was patient and encouraging when I wanted to try out something new and when things didn’t go exactly as planned.
Like for instance in Cornwall. We were there for our wedding anniversary and since I had been wanting to try a lobster for a while now, my husband suggested we order it at a now since we were close to the sea.
When the lobster arrived on our table, I was clearly in a state of a shock. Something about it frightened me. I thought its whiskers moved. I also got intimidated. It came with a set of ‘tools’ to break open the shell and scoop out the meat. I was conscious of the other people in the restaurant – all white – and who were able to dig into their lobsters and other seafood with ease.
Don’t worry, my husband said. If you don’t like it, just leave it, and we will order something else. But first, let me get you a little help in getting the meat out.
He summouned the waiter and explained that it was my first time trying out a lobster and I wasn’t comfortable using the tools that I had been given. Could something be done to help me?
The waiter was gracious. He took the lobster back to the kitchen, scooped out the meat, and came back to me, ‘Don’t worry about getting using your hands and getting them dirty. We want you to enjoy your first lobster and will give you a water bowl when you finish. The chef has also loosened up the meat – so all you will need to do is to use your fork or your hands, but please don’t worry.’ I was able to finish most of my lobster.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to order it again in the future. Maybe a takeaway lobster curry from a South Indian restaurant. But a full blown lobster with his accompanying tool kit in a restaurant – no, good lord, no. However, I have to admit that both – the waiter’s gracious demeanour and my husband’s patience helped me through that evening.
Puddings and bedmi puris over diamonds and other things
Our seven year anniversary fell on a Monday, this June. On Saturday morning, my husband brought home oranges, blue berries, strawberries, grapes and cantaloupes. And a packet of unflavoured gelatin. He meticulously cut all the fruits, and then poured the gelatin liquid over it and put it in the fridge to set.
On Monday, I made bedmi puri (unleavened deep fried bread stuffed with spices and made from a mixture of different flours) and also got home a packet of diced Irish spring lamb. I made the lamb curry the next day – it was my first ever attempt at cooking lamb.
These were our gifts to each other. Such gifts mark special days as well as ‘everyday’ days. From khoba rotis (rotis with beautiful designs and indentation), fried pomfret, mutton biryani, manchow soup, stuffed capsicums, custard apple rabri (an Indian sweet made from custard apple), Malaya Patchaly curry – our gifts to each other are little culinary delights cooked in our kitchen.
But how could it be anything else?