Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Food : April 30, 2000
The old order changeth
The author is a food writer based in Chennai.
Years pass by. Times change and a new century has started. It is time to reflect on what has been and what will be. It is but natural for each person to think of the changes in his or her own perspective. Since I spend most of my time cooking and thinking about food, I often think how the way we cook and eat has changed over the past few decades.
The changes start literally at the grassroots. The taste I remember of fresh milk from home-reared cows, fed on the grass from the nearby fields is unknown to my children. The rice, dhal, vegetables, cooking oils, spices and condiments have changed drastically with modern methods of farming, storing and processing. As for the cooking, everything from the fuel to appliances and vessels have changed. The recipes on the Internet have replaced the hand written family favourites, passed on from mothers to daughters. Cookery books and magazines however, still exist as a bridge between the two. Looking at the food from the point of view of health, people are aware of the need to restrict the consumption of fat and sugar and avoid saturated fats like butter and ghee.
Still there are some things, which have thankfully remained unchanged. Good, tasty food is still popular and is one of the priorities in life. All social events and festivals focus on special meals. Eating out is a part of many outings and recreations. Well cooked home food is still comforting and offers a sense of security and belonging. People living in urban areas are familiar with many different Indian and international cuisine. Some traditional dishes of every cuisine will continue to remain popular though they may undergo some changes, look and taste a little different from their earlier versions as time passes.
Take for instance the ever popular signature dish of South India, the idli. The batter for the idlies no longer requires laborious grinding in the old stone grinder. The electrical wet grinders, sleek, efficient and user-friendly can turn out the idli and dosa batters effortlessly. Old heavy idli steamers have been replaced by compact idli stands that fit into the pressure cooker. The most revolutionary change in idlies to this day is the microwave idli cooker, made of heat resistant plastic, light and easy to clean, which can turn out eight steaming fluffy idlies from the microwave oven in just three minutes.
In the North, the making of roti, the staple of every meal which required manual kneading of the dough, rolling out the discs and cooking them on the tawa is now made easy using a food processor for making the dough and the roti maker doing the rest. The traditional tandoor, or the big clay pot oven, fueled by coal is no longer indispensable. Popular tandoori dishes can now be prepared at home in compact gas tandoors or in an electric oven.
Non-stick cookware, specifically-designed for Indian dishes, is a big help in turning out some traditional dishes with ease and confidence. The preparation of the batter for aapam or hoppers, and its degree of fermentation had to be perfect for the aapams to easily slide out of the traditional chetti. This demanded considerable skill and practice. The non-stick aapam chettis are a boon to the modern busy housewife as the aapams from these will emerge in one piece without any fuss. The non-stick idiyappam stands make it possible to turn out thin and light layers of string hoppers. I hope soon we will have non-stick kuzhi aapam or paniyaaram chetti in which one can turn out these all time favourites with confidence. Puran poli or Mangalore poli and wafer thin dosas are much easier to prepare on a non-stick tawa. Perfect pulaos and biryanis, with each grain of rice unbroken, light on fat and cooked to perfection seems a tall order to many. But this task is made much easier when done in a thick-based non-stick pan. Rich creamy kheers and payasams, an inevitable dessert for all Indian functions are messy and need much less attention in a non-stick kadai.
Apart from the cooking methods, the recipes of traditional dishes have changed considerably over the years with changing trends in taste and awareness about physical fitness. Though the commercial mithai shops still use a liberal quantity of fat in halwas and mysorepaks, most housewives adapt new recipes for home made sweets with minimum amount of fat or opt for milk-based sweets which are less rich in fat and sugar.
Looking at the changes at the international level, global cuisine is an "in" term these days. Often spoken of among culinary pundits, at adventurous restaurants, in food magazines and television cookery shows, this cuisine has evolved from fusion cooking where compatible flavours, foods and cooking methods of the east and west are combined to create dishes which offer the best of both. Many cynics scoff at this idea, dismissing it as hotch-potch where anything goes. Nothing, in my opinion, is further from the truth. As in all creative endeavours, there could be varying levels of success and appeal in fusion cooking. Results, I admit, could range from brilliant to disastrous.
A good knowledge of the original cuisine, combined with imagination and patience for experimenting is essential for fusion cooking. Variety and novelty are the key words in today's lifestyle, in fashion entertainment or in food. The scope for this is endless in fusion cooking. In fact, the emergence of fusion cooking dates back to almost 30 years with the introduction of French Nouvelle cuisine when renowned chefs used Chinese and Japanese techniques to shorten cooking time in classic French dishes.
Later the growing awareness of the ill-effects on health caused by extensive use of rich meats and dairy products in affluent western countries resulted in appreciating and adapting the Asian practice of basing the meal on staples and compensating for the reduced use of rich meat with fresh vegetables, fruits and flavours.
Fusion cooking is not limited to combining ingredients and cooking methods of different cooking but extends to presentation. Some Indian restaurants in the West serve Indian food in Western style. A pizza topped with tandoori chicken or paneer tikka is an example of fusion cooking with which many of us are familiar. Curry buns, ice-cream with hot jelabis or gulab jamuns, ice-creams made with custard apple, tender coconut or lychees, chikoo souffle, katti rolls are other well accepted dishes of global cuisine. But fusion cooking can be more adventurous when creative chefs fry Madrasi idlies in Malaysian style or bake them with spinach and white sauce in Italian style. Chinese spring rolls can be made with rumali rotis and seekh kababs wrapped in puff pastry. Indian paneer is used in Russian stroganoff and mushroom and peas curry prepared in Arabic style. Rasagollas with brandy custard sauce and a three-layered cake filled with carrot halwa, rabri and moong dal halwa.
But can fusion cooking be practical in home kitchens? Certainly. Any enthusiastic cook with an exposure to multi-cuisine cooking can attempt fusion cooking. Starting which caution and restraint, initially attempting safe and familiar combinations. As you gain confidence, attempt more adventurous creations.
How about a snack based on Scotch eggs and potato bonda? Cut hard boiled eggs lengthwise and sandwich with a spicy mint chutney. Prepare a potato mixture as for bondas, mashing potatoes till smooth. Roll the sandwiched eggs in a little maida (this will ensure that the covering sticks firmly to the eggs), then cover them with the potato mixture, keeping the covering not more than 1/2 cm thick. Coat with beaten egg and bread crumbs and deep fry in hot oil. Serve for brunch or high tea.
Why not combine cooking of various Indian states to create new dishes and help national integration at least in home kitchens? Aloo parathas with vathal kuzhambhu, khandvi stuffed with thogheyal, kantel parupu usili, naan with soraa puttu... Good luck with modern cooking and bon appetite.
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