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In 2020, why we must embrace culinary simplicity

The culinary theme for the year, should be simpler food that uses ingredients at hand or close to the land, not only because we need to reapportion our time, but to reaffirm our connection to our traditions and culture

The pleasure of eating raw mango with a sprinkling of chilli powder.
The pleasure of eating raw mango with a sprinkling of chilli powder. (Photo: iStock)

The pleasure I saw on my child’s face usually comes from an ice-cream cone or a pizza. Today, she was eating thinly sliced raw mango, which she dabbed into a red-chilli-powder-salt mixture, scattered on a plate made of entwined leaves. It cost 20.

Around her, children and their parents were eating cones made of leaf stuffed with ber (Indian plum), crushed ice soaked with flavoured water or freshly cut star fruit. Everything was priced at 30 or under, and the waste degraded into the dusty, red earth of Matheran.

A 2-hour drive south of Mumbai, Matheran is India’s only hill town that bans the automobile. Mud tracks lace the forests that carpet its plateau, and your transport options are horses, human-drawn rickshaws or your feet. Rhesus macaque monkeys, habituated to stealing bottles and bananas, swagger through the shady paths—and the sunsets, if Mumbai’s smog permits, are a brilliant ochre.

Modernity has cast its grim shadow on Matheran. This year I saw more plastic waste than ever, overwhelming the municipal waste collectors who roam the forests. On weekends, Dasturi, the last stop for cars, is overwhelmed by their honking and the clouds of choking dust they throw up. Some local hotels offer swimming pools and spas, and in the market I see small cinemas offering mystifying “9-D" experiences.

But the charms of Matheran remain: long walks on interior paths devoid of tourists, birdsong and food that stays close to the land.

I bring that food to your particular attention because 2020 will be a year of bringing simplicity back to our cuisines—well, certainly to mine. This column has always been about quick, creative cooking, but I have digressed recently into more elaborate culinary efforts because I have had the time.

Given the economic collapse and political unrest roiling India, however, the year ahead will require greater attention to the big picture. The culinary theme for the year, I propose, should be simpler food that uses ingredients at hand or close to the land, not only because we need to reapportion our time, but to reaffirm our connection to our traditions and culture.

I began to think about this as December rolled along, and I found myself increasingly distracted by the protests raging through India’s cities, by young people who found their voice through verse, slogan and determination, by the brutalities inflicted on protesters and by what we needed to do to reclaim the republic. What we eat has—and will always be—important. It must because no revolution runs on an empty stomach. But the reprioritization and symbolism are equally consequential.

It was quite without being conscious of the shifting sands under our collective feet that I began changing some things in my kitchen: fewer complicated recipes or luxuries like chapatis and starters that could double up as main courses.

That’s how the pav—beloved on Mumbai’s streets as the wrap of that greasy vada, which I quite abhor—evolved into a starter that served as the first course and replaced the need for a chapati, one afternoon. You can read about it below. A quick salad and a quick fish comprised the rest of the meal.

Since the humble pav—its Portuguese roots reflect the syncretic heritage that many of us now try to ignore—is the focus of this column, let me tell you that it serves as the main source of sustenance along the road from Mumbai to Matheran. You can wash it down, if you wish, with neera, the fermented, mildly alcoholic first distillate of coconut water that is sold at little stalls that line the old highway.

When they arrive at Dasturi, gateway to Matheran, the first place my wife and her cousins head for is a little roadside tin shack that apparently serves some of the best vada-pavs south of the Vindhyas. I am in no position to judge, of course.

Even the nine-year-old, who, like her father, is indifferent to the charms of the vada-pav, likes the soft bread. As she walks along the dusty forest roads, the charms of the city recede, and she gives in entirely to the local produce.

In the market, we buy five sitaphals (custard apples) and five oranges for 100. The sitaphals are grown locally and are unattractive. Their skin is partially blackened but inside, the chummy store owner assures us, they have almost no seeds and can be scooped out with a spoon. He is right. We settle in to devour the almost-seedless sitaphal as the cicadas begin their evening symphony, and the sun sets into the smog and uncertainty beyond.


Serves 3


A slab of 6 pav, sliced half lengthwise

4-5 tomatoes, chopped

8 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

2 tsp olive oil

1 tsp brown sugar

Salt to taste


Heat oil gently in a non-stick pan. Sauté garlic for 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and sauté on low heat for a minute. Add sugar and salt. Mix, cover and simmer for 10 minutes or until the tomatoes start to disintegrate and thicken into a sauce.

Meanwhile, on a griddle, toast one side of the two halves of the pav slabs. Ladle on the sauce and serve hot.

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.

Twitter - @samar11

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