Ink on my Apron: The kids are alright
In an eager bid to showcase my heritage to the “kids” next door, I decided to churn out a foolproof Malayali repertoire.
I’ve always considered myself to have had the good fortune of inheriting great neighbours. Whether it was in Bath or now in Chennai, these are people who’ve thrown their homes, hearts, and pantries open, with zero expectations. Food has always played a critical binding role in most of these relationships and I put some of this down to the fact that I am someone who can think of nothing worse than breaking bread alone. Great meals, after all, are to be savoured and lingered over together in good company and what better way to take the edge off a long day at work than by sitting around a communal table with people whose presence doesn’t warrant changing into “going out” clothes?
Cynthia and Ashwin’s entertaining style is different from mine to say the very least. There is a laidback ease and effortlessness to it that I envy yet am well aware I will probably not be able to emulate. In their mid-twenties, my neighbours’ relaxed vibe seems to live in direct contrast to my meticulous planning ways. For me, having people round – even if in an impromptu fashion – usually entails a fair share of forethought and a week of drawing up menu plans. Bedtime reading is foregone for obsessively poring through aspirational recipe reserves. Will a Cypriot-inspired roast lamb with date molasses rise to the occasion or should I stick to my tried-and-tested party trick of a good old-fashioned Malayali beef fry?
My move to India has seen me fully embracing the “cook local” movement and I would be lying if I said this isn’t as much about the newfound excitement of conquering indigenous uncharted territory as it is about not burning a hole in my pocket. After all, it’s not much of a choice when it’s a toss-up between shelling out Rs 500 for an imported tub of fresh double cream versus a basket of fruit and vegetables to see you through the week. Minor hiccups aside – such as discovering that ready-to-go freshly grated coconut is pretty much unheard of in this town and one must be willing to invest some serious muscle power in the traditional ways of coconut scraping – I’ve been attaching myself to local vendors and butchers with surprising alacrity.
After two weeks of being all but ordered to drop in, “whenever, without feeling the need to give prior notice or ring the doorbell”, I felt it was time to pull out a few stops and return the favour. I’ve always been a big believer that the best way to initiate someone into your most intimate world is by introducing them to what features on your everyday table. Whether it’s the watery brown chicken curry that every Indian household will seek comfort in and have a variation of or the most basic dal that is a permanent fixture at both lunch and dinner, there is a lot to be said for the humble staples we resort to day in and day out.
In an eager bid to showcase my heritage to the “kids” next door, I decided to churn out a foolproof Malayali repertoire. I make no bones about the fact that there is no such thing as too much meat and the result was a mellow chicken kurma offset by a delicate blend of aromatics and freshly chopped mint and coriander leaves with a dash of coconut milk and ground cashews for some rich body. Cooking by colour is a philosophy and balancing act that I believe translates to the overall aesthetic of a dinner party spread as well and so I chose to make a fiery dry red mutton varattiyathu or roast to take things up a notch.
The best sorts of people are those who aren’t shy or abashed when it comes to their dining requests so, at Ashwin’s behest, a no-bake banoffee pudding was rustled up with minimal fuss. And since I’m living out my minimalist year in true style, our Saturday evening drew to a grand end as we dug into dessert scooped out of a round plastic Tupperware container that proved to be a particularly classy makeshift serving bowl.
All photographs courtesy of Jehan Nizar
Jehan Nizar is a lifestyle features writer and a food blogger at www.inkonmyapron.com.