The Barefoot Saga

I wasn’t always a foodie. I do not have one of those Masterchef contestant type stories…”I wanted to cook ever since I was an embryo…” Oh sure, I loved to eat and coming from the home that I do, there was never any dearth of the good stuff.  Ask any Gujarati family, they will vouch for that. We always had fresh hot breakfasts and snacks,  full thali style meals,  bottles of chutneys and pickles and jars of crunchy spicy instant snacks in case one got hungry after all that food.

 While I was growing up, my grandmother and my mother, the grand dame and her protégé kept not only our family and friends well stuffed and fed but also the entire extended family, friends of friends and whoever else that could manage to get themselves invited over!

 My grandmother married into the family very young and had very strict in laws. It was a large household built on patriarchal systems and she was the nervous, dutiful daughter in law without a voice. But, she had a secret.  She loved to cook. She wasn’t a gourmet cook but she knew her traditional stuff and tried each day with enthusiasm and passion to keep up with the pernickety in laws at the dinner table. There were not only iron clad rules about how the food should be made but also how it should be served and at what intervals. God help her if a dish, down to the last grain of salt, wasn’t made ‘the way THIS FAMILY makes it’ or god help her if she put a hot roti in someone’s plate while there was still a piece of the previous roti there. And if the gaps between two rotis was too long… There was no pleasing them.

 My grandfather, the shy, young husband and a bit of a black sheep for choosing to be an educated professional over running the family business too could not defend his new bride vociferously. But he chose to acknowledge her talent and passion and encouraged her to broaden her horizons and against much brouhaha enrolled her in The Cordon Bleu Part Time Cookery Course for Young Housewives at the Dadar Catering College in Bombay.

 So, this Gujarati housewife who hadn’t even finished gujarati school, went to college. Without knowing a word of English save for ‘hello, goodbye, yes, no, sorry, thank you and please’ and barely passable Hindi, she diligently took notes in her ‘Hinglish’ class. She wrote verbatim the terms she did not understand and got my grandfather, clueless about cooking, to explain them the best he could.

 Daadi, the kitchen goddess of the Parekh Kutumb, now armed with a Cordon Bleu certificate no less, cooked her way into the hearts and memories of all those she fed. No one, but no one missed Mrs. Bhanuben Dhansukhlal Parekh’s invitation to dinner.

 We have always been a joint family and when I was 10, the age at while most Indian girls are expected to start learning kitchen basics, I acquired a brand new aunt! My father’s younger brother married so that meant three women in the kitchen! Who then had the need for a ten year old helper? Surely not my three mothers! While other girl cousins from nuclear families were expected to start helping their mothers, I was free! I read and wrote and painted and daydreamed but was never called in for kitchen duty…

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 Sure, I could do tea and eggs and instant noodles but that was only if I felt like it. You know, even today I cannot knead dough because I still refuse to. I hated the process so much I never put my hands into the sticky stuff. I spent hours standing by the women in the kitchen gabbing on about things a young girl gabs on about. But just standing there, I observed and absorbed. I had a million questions about why certain things were made the way they were and why only certain masalas were used a certain way. Why, why and why not? Today I can tell you how to knead different dough. I can show you techniques and poke a finger to test if the dough is correct, right down to the last tablespoon of water. Just don’t ask me to do it myself…So maybe I inherited my kitchen skills and my passion for food from my grandmother. But the fussiness is all my own, to paraphrase my mother.

 My culinary journey actually started off with my very first job. Just out of college, I was looking for something to do. “I need a job that is challenging. I need a job that will give me grief!” I said to my friend Antara. Oh the masochistic enthusiasm of youth…She kept her word. Antara got me started as an assistant to her father. Filmmaker, TV Producer, celebrity gastronome, food critic and the cultural czar of India, Siddharth Kak.

 The job was everything I had asked for. Gruelling, demanding and unforgiving. I worked closely with SK on all aspects of his work. The documentary films, the cultural TV shows, the foundation for cultural research and his food columns. Juggling so many things was tough but SK taught me well and demanded nothing but the best at all times. Among all the madness each week, what I unknowingly started looking forward to the most was the transcription and research required for his weekly food and restaurant review column for a couple of leading dailies. It was my job to decipher his scribbled handwritten notes and give them to Lissy, his secretary to type. Often Lissy and I sat poring over his notes, fascinated and perplexed by technical descriptions and foreign sounding jargon. Who the hell knew what ‘sous vide’ was then? The beautifully crafted critique, the cultural references to the cuisine, the poetic musings over that perfect bite soon started seeming to me like revelations from deep within my own psyche. I felt myself being drawn in, being newly observant and critical of food as I perceived and consumed it.

 Somewhere along this adventure, the company bagged a food show on the Star World network. It was to be a cooking competition between two teams judged by a celebrity chef. It was the Star Sunday Lunch and it became my baby. I started assisting the team that I later led but my world had exploded and it was raining food! We were primarily a team of women, all madly passionate about food, and the hapless Mr Bhattacharya. The research, the learning, the sharing and just being around the food greats was an experience that changed my relationship with food forever.  We got to interact with great home cooks, awarded chefs, restaurateurs, cook book authors, sommeliers, you name it. Most importantly, we got opportunities to experience their food.

 On the unglamorous side, we researched cuisines, whetted candidates for the show, managed and massaged egos, stretched every single rupee, went scouting for sponsorships, measured out and prepped ingredients,  bought all the produce, wrote scripts at a pinch and even washed the dishes…All hands on deck. 13 full TV episodes in 3 days every filming schedule. There was food in the pantry and food on the sets, food in the script and food in my head. I was in gastronomic heaven.

 The show lasted 104 episodes but left the love for food deep within me. It was never about only eating it. Still isn’t. It is intellectual, technical, temperamental and romantic.

 Few years passed and Star Sunday Lunch had run its course.  My forever love for food was only sweetened by my marriage to my best friend and fellow foodie, Hitesh. A true blue globe trotter and far more epicurean than I will ever be. The shared passion for food has always kept us in the search for the next perfect meal, the next gastronomic revelation. It could be a simple rendang curry, homestyle varan bhaat and potato subzi, the perfect sev batata puri or a nut encrusted salmon with wasabi on soba noodles with a miso and red wine reduction. Our supper has to sing to us, including our instant noodles!

 Today we live in our Goan idyll in a large, rustic home, indulging in our cooking adventures each day. Our time together in the kitchen is like a courting dance. Our roles defined and our movements fluid. Hitesh is an extraordinary baker and simply intuitive at cooking meats, while I do mostly vegetarian and seafood best. We effortlessly fill in the gaps in each other’s culinary repertoires as we do in life. A marriage that was just meant to be.

 Cooking gives me immense joy but there is nothing more fulfilling than sharing great, laidback meals, wholesome and generous in spirit, a fair bit of drinkery thrown in, with friends and fellow foodies. So kick off those shoes and come to my barefoot bistro…I’m just laying the table.

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