Ink on my Apron: Turning tables
Nothing in life will prepare you for the uninhibited joy of running your own kitchen. Demarcating and designating drawer real estate becomes a task that is dictated to by nobody’s whims other than your own and not a soul is around to judge your condiment and baking tin hoarding ways.
One of the unwritten joys of adulthood is that of roles being reversed. Equations that have thus far gone unquestioned are challenged and routines that were once easily slipped into are abandoned with a guilty eagerness. Growing up, in the truest sense of the word, is the realisation that the decision to shower pre- or post-dinner is completely yours to make and that the only eyebrows that will be raised on being greeted by a week’s worth of steadily piling laundry are your own.
I miss a lot of things about living at home but the most liberating thing – that I make no bones about - is having free run of my own expansive and thoughtfully laid-out kitchen where my word reigns supreme. I’ve lived away from home in bursts from the time I was 18 but have never had the luxury of “single kitchen ownership”.
“Cooking” in a hostel in Chennai was more a furtive act of sustenance that entailed melting imported cubes of Kirri cream cheese – treasured booty from my biannual trips to Dubai – into steaming bowls of Maggi noodles that had been masterfully made with prohibited electric kettles. If we were really living on the edge, however, my roommates and I would treat ourselves to “sandwich day”. Old crumpled up newspapers would be neatly laid out on our dusty desks and red onions, green chillies and tomatoes would be painstakingly diced and mixed with canned tuna.
A slight promotion in life came in the way of a communal “student kitchen” in Bath. Although the facilities were meant to be shared with three other postgraduate students, I learned very early in the day that none of my counterparts, barring one, shared my enthusiasm in the cooking department. Much to my delight, I finally had free run of counter space and was even generously handed over an extra cabinet, seeing as “you need it more than any of us to accommodate your not-so-humble student chef needs”.
Nothing in life, however, will prepare you for the uninhibited joy of running your own kitchen. Demarcating and designating drawer real estate becomes a task that is dictated to by nobody’s whims other than your own. Not a soul is around to judge your condiment and baking tin hoarding ways. Food styling props finally have a home to call their own and your fridge – oh, that thing of beauty – can be compartmentalized just the way you want it to be and fridge cleaning days become a cathartic purgatory act.
My parents flew down from Dubai last week and I was thrilled at the prospect of allowing them to put their feet up while I played host. My mother, clearly unused to not stepping into the kitchen, asked doubtfully, “Are you sure you don’t need a hand? I have nothing to do. Let me at least help with the chopping, it hardly takes me a few minutes.” Firmly turning down her offer, I excused myself for an hour-and-a-half. After turning around items in my repertoire that my parents hadn’t sampled, I settled on a prawn moilee and cheat pressure cooker tomato garlic dal - new and reliable “naadan” staples that have proven to be crowd-pleasers in recent times.
My parent’s “homecoming dinner” proved to be a resounding success and both joked about how living alone had transformed me from being the person who needed an entire day to cook dinner to someone who churned out a wholesome meal in a commendable period.
Over the next few days, all prior plans of pulling out all the stops and wowing my parents with elaborate culinary endeavours were thrown off track with a weekend trip to Pondicherry and subsequent days of eating out. On our return, both parents expressed a desire to eat, “really basic, simple, home-cooked food”. While they vociferously emphasised that nothing would be more welcome than a “basic dal, yoghurt and rice”, I wanted to change things up a little.
A zippered bag of almost forgotten okra looked at me beseechingly and seemed the perfect component to add to an interesting spice mix I’d bought at a mom-and-pop store in Pondicherry. Vegetarian food is by no means an area of expertise for me and that probably has a lot to do with my own dietary preferences. Having said that, I know what I like and settled upon an okra curry with an onion and tomato base. The okra was cut into thin rounds and given a quick sauté in coconut oil to retain its firm texture and prevent it from falling prey to a soggy fate. This would then be added to the curry again at the final simmering stage. The surprise twist was adding some yellow lentils to the caramelised onion and tomato base and then topping up with water before being sealed and given the pressure cooker treatment. Once taken off the stove, three tablespoons of thick coconut milk were added to the gravy along with the okra.
Photo courtesy Jehan Nizar
The result was altogether delightful and reminiscent of two of my favourite things – a thick breakfast sambhar and a satisfying dal done right with the virtuousness of a green addition. As with most good improvised recipes, this one will be hard to replicate or share a recipe for as it involved a fair amount of trial and error and instinctive taste-as-you-go tweaks.
Jehan Nizar is a lifestyle features writer and food blogger at inkonmyapron.com.