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With a little help from my friends

A reunion after 35 years is an occasion for friends and food to coalesce, but the true test of friendship: who will help clean up after?

Don’t hesitate to take the help of guests to clear up after a dinner party.
Don’t hesitate to take the help of guests to clear up after a dinner party. (Samar Halarnkar)

What, I am often asked, is the most difficult thing about cooking?

Not a thing, really. It is the furthest thing from rocket science, it only requires practice, it gladdens the heart, fills the stomach, of course, and warms the soul. You can learn to cook, as I did, by trial and error when you have no money to eat out. You should cook if you prefer to eat food over which you have control, if you want to stay healthier, become somewhat wealthier and wiser about a field fewer people than ever appear to be familiar with.

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The real challenge comes after cooking—washing and cleaning up.

Now, I understand that most Indian households have someone to do it for them but I believe that cleaning and washing up is part of the deal. I feel substantially guilty if someone is going to clean up my mess. Help from the wife is usually forthcoming—unless there are, well, extenuating circumstances—and we form a team good enough to cater to and clean up after a maximum of 20 people. We had five less than that the last weekend but we were unusually challenged because of the variety of entrées. The plates and dishes wouldn’t stop coming and our 20 minutes of post-dinner effort seemed to stretch endlessly into four shifts of washing.

Yet, we had little to complain about because some of our guests jumped in, and that made all the difference. One washed the first lot of plates and glasses, another the second, a few washed their own. When friends pitch in, home parties are so much easier and comforting. I understand this would horrify most Indians but if your friends really are like family, then there is little to be bothered about. The end result that evening was that things were well in control by the time everyone had left. I have no qualms in allowing guests to help clear up if they volunteer. While I would not dream of asking them now, I often did when I was younger.

My home has always been party central because I do not mind cooking. But when a party would come together organically on weekends during my past life in the Delhi of the 1990s, I was not as happy to clean up. The deal was this: You can come by any time, I will make dinner but you bloody well will, at least, wash your own plate. If you help out with a dish or two, all the better.

I have mellowed over the years, so I do not ask anyone to wash up, as I didn’t last weekend when some of my dearest and oldest friends came by. We call each other the Byaand and our motto—and, indeed, our WhatsApp group name—is C’mon the Byaand. It is one of those ‘in’ jokes, developed in college and continued into real life over the 40 years we have known each other. Our lives diverged after college, even though they overlapped off and on, depending on who found themselves in what city. Most of the children are now in their mid-20s, except three under 13, including ours. Our chosen fields of work varied greatly—generator manufacturing, banking, adventure, journalism, IT—but when we converged at our home, we found a few basics had not changed: the jokes, the stories, the mutual affection and, most importantly, the ability to take each other for granted, which is why washing dishes or helping out came easily.

We had converged at my home in Bengaluru because two of the group had recently returned home, from Goa and from the UK, galvanising those of us who lived here to discard the distance—physical and emotional—that had grown between us. So, there we were on a typically breezy Bengaluru evening, gleefully eyeing the food on the table.

I made my slow-roasted pork (with ginger, Sirarakhong chillies and black sesame) and Goan fish curry, the wife made her newly perfected black dal and her old-but-gold salad with lettuce and cherry tomatoes. The other contributions: mutton cutlets, a galette, paneer tikkas, ratatouille, spinach rice, appams and sannas.

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Unusually, I used hamour for the fish curry. A type of grouper, it’s very popular in the Gulf states, and, since one of us had spent many memorable years in Dubai, I thought I would make him feel at home. Like me, “Choclate” (we won’t get into why Harish Kumar Gurpur is called that) is a jhakta cook, using whatever is at hand, except that, unlike me, he has professional training and worked for years in the hospitality industry. Despite having returned home no more than a week ago and struggling to figure out where to get cherry tomatoes and zucchini from, he turned out a spare but wonderfully fragrant ratatouille, based on a recipe from a British cricketer-turned-chef called Galton Blackiston— making, like me, his own alterations.

Everyone ate at different intervals, the hard drinkers last of course, but that helped with intermittent clean-ups, conducted in between glasses of wine, bourbon and feni. Liquor, in my experience, makes cleaning up quicker. Such was the enthusiasm to get things done that our last straggler had to run into the kitchen to retrieve his plate to continue his dinner. The evening, which started at 6.30pm, wound down at a civilised 10.45 and after a final washing up, we were in bed by 11.15, enough to get a good night’s sleep and head out for a morning run—all made possible with a little help from my friends.

Choclate’s Ratatouille
Serves 6

1 onion, quartered and layers separated
1 medium eggplant, sliced and each piece quartered (make smaller pieces if they seem too large)
1 yellow pepper, one-inch slices
1 zucchini, sliced and halved
15-20 cherry tomatoes, halved
7-8 large cloves of garlic, crushed
100g basil leaves
90ml olive oil
2 tsp pepper
Salt to taste

Pour oil, pepper, garlic and salt over vegetables—except tomatoes—in a bowl and mix well. Spread out in a baking tray, cover with foil. Preheat the oven and bake at 200 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes. Then add tomatoes and continue baking for another 15 minutes. Mix in torn basil leaves and continue baking for another five minutes.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He tweets @samar11.

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