Toto’s Kitchen – The Making of a Cook

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By the time I was seven I was making the evening tea
for my parents and boiling the milk every day. So I wasn’t scared of the gas
and actually knew how to operate it. And then the fishermen used to gift me a
fish every now and then – fresh out of the sea – when they returned with their
evening catch. The first day I trooped home with a pomfret, my mother wasn’t
very happy. Bengalis aren’t too much into sea fish (the river fish is much more
delicious) and that too one pomfret didn’t make sense. But I think she
concocted something out of it. Anyway the next time it was a cray fish and I’d
decided to cook it for myself. I even cut and cleaned it myself – at a friend’s
house and then in a pan of butter I fried it with salt. It was absolutely
delicious. Not just for me – the parents of my friend tasted the left overs and
certified it good. My next dish was a brinjal concoction that I left cooking on
the gas till it cooked so well that the pan also had to be thrown away. At age
seven I became a retired cook – basking in the glory of my lobster. Then
cooking took a back seat till we went on camp from school.

We were placed in groups of four and had to survive on our  own. I of course was the
experienced cook who knew it all. I churned out soggy noodles and fried eggs
and a potato dish that was left raw. But it was all highly appreciated and
digested. I remember this very exotic dessert that my mates Claire and Jyothi
made with mashed bananas, topped with jam and garnished with a generous
sprinkling of powder milk. Ah heaven! If only mothers and dieticians understood
palates the way we children did. Nothing had ever tasted better than these
foods – and nothing ever has. Even the tuck shop fare of egg on bread. This
concoction called for an egg, deep fried in a kadai of oil of questionable
origin, dumped in its oil dripping state onto a thick slice of bread. It had to
be eaten with a rickety aluminium spoon that bent every time you tried using it
– so you gave up and used your dirty fingers, which you then saved up, to lick
at leisure after the delicacy was consumed.

Boarding school made me, according to the rest of my
family, a weird eater. Mashed banana on a hot buttered toast; omelettes with
jam; ripe jackfruit and honey, condensed milk by the spoonfuls, and some of
these I still enjoy. So if you have a problem child where food is concerned, I
suggest you let him/her into your kitchen to concoct what he/she wishes to eat
and then see the difference.

All this weirdness apart, by the time I was entering
college I respected food and I guess I was old enough by then, to also dictate
to my mother what I wished to eat, and be granted those wishes. But Calcutta is
a strange place. I ended up eating three major meals that consisted of rice as
the staple. For breakfast I would eat Rice and dal and mashed potatoes made
Bengali style. For lunch (at 4 p.m.) it would be rice and dal, vegetables, fish
or meat or chicken. Dinner was again rice and dal and …There was a hunger pang
at around 6-7 in the evening, which I used to initially take care of with the
chaat man who strolled by at that time. But that got boring after a while and
one day rustling around in the refrigerator, I discovered the meat that my
mother cooked and kept for the dog, on a weekly basis. I stole a bit of the
stock, a few pieces of meat, shoved in a tomato and some noodles, green
chillies and coriander for the garnish and voila I had a soup fit for a king. I
tried making tomato soup also at that time but for some reason I used oil and tempered it with cumin and the end result was pretty disastrous. My father suggested we
turn it into an egg curry the next day but my dog and I were quite happy eating
it the way it was.

My eighteenth birthday was rather eventful from the
cooking point of view. My mother had gone across to my grandmother’s house a
couple of days earlier for some other function. And then the floods hit
Calcutta. It started raining on the 26th of September and didn’t
cease till the 30th. My father tried bringing my mother back on my
birthday eve (i.e. the 27th) but came back with a fish. Luckily the
maid had also got stranded at our house so whatever leftovers were there in the
refrigerator, the three of us steadily demolished – interspersed with toast and
eggs. Then on the great day my father came back home in the evening with the
Maharaja and Maharani of Tripura (who also happened to be his first cousins) –
as they were stranded at the airport and had nowhere to stay. It was my
responsibility as the daughter of the house to feed them. There was nothing
ready cooked. Only that raw fish. The maid put her hands up – she wasn’t
confident of cooking it – so I did. Whatever masalas I found on the shelves I
put into the curry with the fish and then in the end when it didn’t quite taste
right I added a generous amount of Aji-no-moto. With hot steaming rice (which
the maid cooked) we all had a fantastic meal. And I graduated to become the
Clown Cook of the family – whoever had heard of a Bengali fish curry with
aji-no-moto? There were many more such bloopers. When I tried making a
cauliflower roast that my grandmother used to make it tasted like Dahi bhalla.
The first time I cooked Tinda, I didn’t know one was supposed to peel it. And I cooked it in gravy! As a result of all this, even today when my
family comes to eat at my house they’re never sure what to expect – and when
they get normal food it’s a big surprise.

Would you believe I learnt the art of omelette making
from a Mills & Boon? So much so, I wanted to open a fast food restaurant
that would only serve different types of Omelettes. Like a salad bar – I
fantasised about all the different kinds of fillings I would have ready and the
permutations and combinations of different flavours. At the age of 18 I found
most of my peer group knew how to cook. My sister was a fantastic cook – though
a little lazy. My cousin Pinku had learnt all the little secrets that her
mother had. Even my college friend Rita cooked rice and French toast with great
mastery. My only claims to fame were – ready “made for the dog” meat
soup, ze omelette, espresso coffee – the kind you bashed up the coffee powder
and sugar – and of course Tea.

Demands were made on my mother to teach me how to
cook. Mother argued that once I got married I would perforce have to learn – so
I should instead enjoy my life. I argued that I needed to know at least a few
basic dishes to get me by. So mother finally gave in and next Sunday was the
mutton curry lesson day.

Sunday arrived. The mutton had been bought. The spices
were ground and ready. The onions were sliced and kept. By the time I reached
the kitchen all I had to do was put it together. But even then this was serious
stuff. First I had to marinate the meat and let it stay for an hour. Oh what
patience I needed. Ma probably needed twice as much to keep her temper down
because I kept nagging her. Luckily the hour passed. Then that dreadful monster
– the pressure cooker was mounted on the gas – the oil poured in – then wait
for the oil to heat – add the bay leaf – add the sliced onions – brown them –
add the meat – let the marinade brown – add water – shut the lid- wait for the
pressure to rise and then put the little knob on – and then again wait for the
mutton to cook. After the first whistle put it on sim and let it cook for 7
minutes. Then switch off. Wait for it to cool – open it – add the potatoes that
had been waiting along with me, and the ground garam masala and shut the lid
again. Only this time round, at the first whistle, switch off. Whew! So much of
waiting and waiting. Ma must have deliberately chosen this dish for me to start
because that was my first and last lesson in cooking.

The curry came out well. It had to, with Ma telling me
what to do and how much and when, every step of the way. But at least my
curriculum vitae had a mutton curry added to it. After that, time flew. Final
year of college and eight honours papers – a broken heart and a new love tangle
and before I knew it I was married. The kitchen part of the marriage did not
exist initially because they (my in-laws) had a cook and so I didn’t think
about it either.

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