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Virtual food?

VIJAYSREE VENKATARAMAN

Learn to cook from the Net. Expert cooks are now catering to cravings on the web.


"EATING pulao, longing for puliyogarai." This was how Nancy Gandhi, an outsider in Chennai introduced Ashok, a blogger from Afghanistan. Ashok, an architect from Madurai, works in Kabul for an American construction firm.

"Living in an entertainment-free country for the past year, Ashokism, my blogspot, is the only way to meet interesting people and sharing ideas and smiles," he wrote. The multi-talented Ashok — from thinnu ketta Tamil Nadu — has made many friends with his posts on local cuisine, among other things. "The Afghani roti is almost a metre long and half an inch thick. Nobody makes it at home. Everybody buys it from local bakeries. It is all right when warm, but gives your gums good exercise when cold." Further, the rumour that the dough was kneaded by foot put him off totally. When his colleague Sundarapandian made chapattis and kurma, Ashok posted pictures of their simple Friday meal. "Don't ask me why it's so great?" he warned. "If you are as far away from home as I am and live on the Afghani roti, you will appreciate the Indian version."

Original suggestions

Expert cooks, who take pity on their less-skilled compatriots, are now catering to cravings on the web. They give you step-by-step instructions on re-creating classic dishes and offer original suggestions for tackling unfamiliar supermarket produce.

Mahanandi is an excellent example of a food blog that inspires confidence even in timid cooks (such as me). The superb quality of the digital images — from the ingredients to the finished dish — ensures a steady flow of grateful visitors. Such innovative food blogs make even the best of cookbooks seem passé. From Mahanandi, I learnt of other Indian food bloggers like The Green Jackfruit, a California-based cooking enthusiast. She had a great recipe for a sprouted moong-and-lentil pancake. "You need not make a hole in the middle. I do this because my mom does it," she said, a concession to tradition. This healthier version of adai was a diabetic-friendly recipe from a Tamil weekly, the author added.

Chai Pani from London reminded us of our collective unsophisticated past, when most of us in Madras did not know what paneer was. Her family encountered this soft cheese when she was 12. Her father walked up to the host — a kind Marwari — and asked him about the baffling dish on the buffet table. "Panneer, as in panneer soda?" he asked. "No, no," the host replied reassuringly. "It's made out of milk. Just like butter; pure vegetarian." Two decades later, this London blogger tells us how to make Ratatouille and Honey Polenta Cake with élan. She also transports us magically to Mylapore with tales of cooks in her childhood home. "The older women looked a lot like Meenakshi Ammal," she confides.

Doctor's advice

Gluttony is no sin, a physician from Madras reminds us helpfully with his blog title. He offers us the traditional recipe for fried anchovies and myriad other delicacies. "Start cooking the dish that takes longest first. That way, it will be cooking while you prepare the other items" is his housekeeping hint from a long list compiled from Tamil magazines during his college days. (Yes, I am as incredulous as you are about this strange hobby.) One of the doctor's best posts is a long one dwelling on the simple pleasure of having dinner sitting on the floor, which is undoubtedly the best way to enjoy ethnic food.

Spice Queen, Devagi Sanmugam of Singapore, author of 12 cookbooks, food columnist, cooking instructor, entrepreneur and professional bon vivant, posts about the pleasure of eating desi food with fingers. "Well, good food is always `finger-licking good' not `spoon-licking good', right?" is her clincher. Next time you are in Singapore, check out this celebrity chef's ability to concoct original recipes from handpicked ingredients.

Every recipe has a regional variation, a fact that multi-cuisine restaurant owners, both at home and abroad, seem to forget.

Authentic versions

But food bloggers keep ethnic eating alive by taking you right into their ancestral kitchens. My Chettinad chicken recipe comes from Sue's Recipe Server — an on-line database with hundreds of recipes from around the world — maintained by non-desis. While it works for me, I would still like to see an authentic version of the recipe by a local person.

Food blogger Aspiring Annapoorna says, "All good cooks must be blessed by the goddess." Annapoorna apparently hands you a ladle with which you work your culinary miracles.

Some of these miracle-workers then blog the procedure to create mouth-watering meals, an answer to the prayers of people like Ashok, stuck in Kabul.

For others like me, food blogs sate an appetite for nostalgia, whether or not we actually take to the trouble of making the "simple, sinfully rich tasting, sweet golden diamonds" of Mysore pak or heavenly sweet pongal. There are many worthy inheritors of the Samaithu Paar legacy in the blogosphere.

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