Everyone is their own favourite cook. You don’t have to be good at putting food together for this to be true, just basically competent. No one else will really cook dishes the way you like them – no one else will add exactly the right amount of salt, the ratio of turmeric to cumin that is precisely suited to your taste buds. You can love a restaurant for its pasta or biryani, or the specific fluffy bread they serve, or the perfectly rolled dumplings. But if that chef came over to make you breakfast, they would still probably not put enough salt on your eggs or butter your toast exactly how you might like. Their pancakes might be too thin, too crisp, when you prefer yours pudgy.
Late in the evening, in an empty house, you can cook for yourself – snacking on nuts while you wait for the simmer of a sauce because there is no one to judge you or to split the snacks with. A tomato sauce, Marcella Hazan-style perhaps – something simple, rich, luxurious. Or the Alison Roman-recipe shallots. I own one good piece of cookware, a blue Le Creuset that I could only afford because they were discontinuing the size: probably because it is too small to do any real cooking with. But it is perfect for caramelizing four to five shallots, which have been thinly sliced and left to cook in a cast-iron pan over a low flame with a generous pinch of salt till they turn soft and jammy. When you taste one, the flesh will be as tender and sweet in your mouth as a piece of fruit.
Put on the music that you like the most, that no one else shares a love for – Whitney Houston, Dolly Parton – and sing badly along to it. Try out your best Nick Cave. Then add anchovies and chilli flakes and a whole tube of tomato paste which seems like too much but is not. Season as you go, always. Wait for the tomato to also go jammy, dark. It is a generous recipe – you save half in a jar as a gift for your future self, to spread on good bread or eat with eggs. The other half is softened up with pasta water and the spaghetti draped into it, shiny and satin-brown.
Eat in silence, with a drink you’ve earned just for making yourself a delicious meal, or with the kind of a lazy podcast that makes you feel as if friends are in the room but you don’t have to participate in the conversation. Or watch again the movie everyone else is sick of sitting through with you even though you yourself find it so homely, with every viewing the jokes landing deeper in you. Mine is Moonstruck, a good film about food; each time they make eggs in that movie, I feel hungry. Or Goodfellas, which is the best film about pasta – the thinly sliced garlic cloves melting in a way that I do not believe is gastronomically possible.
Because cooking is an expression of true, earnest love, the desire to feed and delight. When you were cooking for your family, your friends, your lover, you were trying to tell them something true. And you can tell yourself that too, even if the truth is that you like bucatini better than most or that you had to use two tins of anchovies because you began spreading the first on crackers and ate them while you waited for the shallots.
Cook to make time stop, to make pain stop but also just because food is good. You do not need to learn anything from the act of chopping onions. Just let yourself cry and enjoy them when they’re crispy. There are no lessons here, only the simple pleasure of greed.
Kali Dal in the oven
1 cup black lentils (urad dal, or beluga lentils)
2 tsp tomato paste
2 tsp turmeric
3 tsp garam masala
1 cinnamon stick
3 small red chillies (chopped if fresh, or dried red chillies should be halved)
4 cloves of garlic, smashed and minced
½ a red onion, chopped very small
1-inch fresh ginger, grated or minced
1 can coconut milk
15 coriander leaves to garnish (optional)
To taste: salt, black pepper, water
Soak the lentils overnight in cold water – the water should cover them completely. Most of it will soak into them.
Add the lentils to a pot of water and bring to a hard boil. Season with salt and a teaspoon each of turmeric and garam masala. The water will go frothy as it boils, the spices breaking out into bright splotches of colour. Lower the heat and allow it to simmer for about forty minutes. Try not to touch it or fuss with it during this time.
When the lentils are soft but still hold their shape, turn off the heat and drain.
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan or, better, a Dutch oven or any pot that can go in the oven, heat your oil. Just a generous enough glug to cover the base – soften the onions in this till they are translucent and then add the ginger, garlic and chillies. Fry till fragrant. Add salt, garam masala and turmeric. Then add the tomato paste and cook till it goes dark in the pan.
You should have a paste now; the cinnamon stick and anything else you want to add can be toasted in this. I sometimes add cloves or whole peppercorns.
Add the lentils into the pot and fold together. You will need to add a cup of water or stock to loosen the mixture which can then go into the oven (at 180°C) for three to four hours. This is a forgiving recipe but also one that is very easy to mould to your tastes. If you prefer a thicker dal, cook for longer. If you want it on the soupier end, add more water.
I like to leave the dal in the oven for as long as I dare and then adjust on the stovetop. I add a can of coconut milk twenty minutes before serving to make it thick and creamy. Many recipes add heavy cream and butter which is delicious but difficult to justify (even for me) on a weeknight. I find using stock, instead of water and coconut milk, enriches the flavours enough to get a similar unctuousness.
Eat with rice or naan or just by itself. Thinly sliced chillies or fried onions or coriander make a great garnish.
Excerpted from the essay 'Stone Soup' from the book 'Desi Delicacies' edited by Claire Chambers, with permission from PAN Macmillan Publishing India Pvt Limited.