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No fancy touches


Cooking that’s straightforward and direct, without any fuss, has its own charm.

Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

What's in those boxes?...

Haute cuisine is such a weighty and well known concept that the other, its opposite, needs a term of equal gravitas. It would so diminish its worth to call it simply home-made. I had to search high and low to find the phrase – Messieurs Davidson, Larousse and Google were of little help, though the effort was enjoyable.

Eventually, Baptiste, a real Frenchman born and bred, came to the rescue. Not only did he suggest la cuisine familiale and la cuisine de grandmère (too historic), la cuisine de cantine (a bit pejorative), malbouffe (utterly trashing) cuisine des bas fonds (too contrived) and the one that did fit, la cuisine conviviale, but the very fact that he offered so many options - and their connotations - was proof of his appreciation of nuance.

Detecting a pattern

But what takes my fancy is cooking that appears to have no nuances, that’s straightforward and direct. Who hasn’t walked past a park at lunchtime and seen groups of office workers sitting down in the shade of a tree, opening their “tiffin”, unwrapping the roti; and paused when they opened the little steel box that contains the sabzi? When I see this, I stop and pretend to search for something I’ve dropped, or to “answer” my mobile so that I can stare at what lies within. And if a pattern can be detected on sheer anecdotal experience, I would say it’s most often a yellow curry with potatoes.

There are plump cubes of potato in a gravy that’s bright yellow with turmeric, the occasional coarsely chopped chunk of red tomato glistening here and there, and shiny droplets of chilli-infused oil floating on the surface. The rotis are thick and soft, with or without ghee, with sometimes a quartered onion and a couple of green chillies tucked to the side.

The sabzi has seasonal variations: there could be cauliflower florets among the potatoes, green dhania or methi (coriander or fenugreek) or, most often, cubed baingan, aubergine (or brinjal). This combination, when made at home, is at the bottom of my list of favourites but that’s because I probably don’t cook it right. I remember my mother describing Chandro, the cleaning woman, eating her lunch. She said Chandro would unwrap her cloth bundle – in the pre-polythene days – and take out two rotis large and thick enough to suffice for a robust meal. Sandwiched between them was the ABT – alu baingan tamatar – that made us drool. Ma would ask Chandro to sit and chat with her while she ate and later describe the meal to us. She said that Chandro removed the top roti and broke off a bit. The curry had a dark brownish-red masala, spreading oil at the edges, with rudely cut chunks of yellow potato and black aubergine; but it wasn’t very much, so she would touch the piece of roti to it, break a piece of alu or baingan and drag it across the lower roti, which would get smeared with red oil. Then she would pop the morsel in her mouth, left a little open for air, because the mirch was making her gasp, and chew slowly, recounting some domestic drama. Every other mouthful she would take a bite of a crisp green chilli and finally wind up with a deep glug of “ machine ka thanda pani”. After many weeks my mother couldn’t bear it any longer, so she abandoned her embarrassment and asked Chandro if she would please exchange lunches with her. She did. Our home khana was probably wholesome and certainly boring, but Chandro’s ABT was so good that many attempts to replicate it were made but failed.

Awkward with the basics

Probably the problem with our cuisine is that it’s neither here nor there. We are so well-travelled, so exposed, so caught up with our pulao Shahjahani and poulet aux herbes, trapped in self-made boundaries, that we’re awkward with honest-to-goodness basics. My daughter one day went in search of her playmates, the cook’s children. They were at breakfast, years ago, but she remembers still. They were eating anda (egg) curry with dahi and a stack of parathas. And my friend Bunty, when she’s in town and snowed under with social engagements, will break them all if I agree to feed her anda curry. Why do we consider it a treat? It was never made in my parents’ home even in the Days Before Cholesterol; eggs were for breakfast, puffy French omelettes for dinner. So if arterial plaque wasn’t a concern, the reason was probably that eggs were common, eggs were cheap. Eggs could not be served in an Indian curry.

Now I make a simple onion and garlic based curry and avoid freshly home-ground spices, using, instead, any store-bought readymade masala as well as a pinch of fenugreek seeds. The flavour then is sufficiently “commercial”. Most important, I fry the hard-boiled eggs with a lot of turmeric so that they are no longer bald and shiny but transformed into golden nuggets with a crisp, rough, burnt-orange skin.

Anda Curry

(Egg Curry)
Serves 4
8 peeled hard-boiled eggs
2 tbsp vegetable oil, preferably mustard
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/8 tsp fenugreek seeds, methi dana
1/2 tsp peppercorns
2 large onions, grated fine
20 cloves garlic, peeled and pounded coarsely 1 tbsp tomato pur‚e
1/2 tsp packaged garam masala
1 tsp red chilli powder (or less)
3-4 green chillies, slit
Fresh coriander, chopped
Method: In a medium pan, heat oil
and add turmeric and eggs, all at
once. Keep sliding and turning eggs
until coloured well all round.
Remove eggs with slotted spoon,
halve lengthwise and place in
serving dish.

To the same pan and the same oil, add fenugreek seeds and peppercorns. Stir for a few seconds, then add and saut‚ onion and garlic until golden brown. Stir in tomato puree, salt, garam masala and red chilli powder and cook till oil rises to the surface. Add slit green chillies and boiling hot water, about 2 cups. Gravy should be thick. Simmer for a couple of minutes, sprinkle with chopped coriander and pour over halved boiled eggs.

To hard-boil eggs: Add them to a pan of cold water and turn up heat until water comes to a boil. Regulate heat to maintain bubbling for 10 minutes. Transfer to a pan of cold water and, when cooled enough to handle, hold gently and roll each on counter top to craze the shell; this helps to remove it almost in one piece, like fabric.

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