Luck and complexity in the lockdown
Relentless daily cooking has forced us to discard fancies and frills, and focus on the basics of cooking
On the first day the lockdown was partially lifted in Bengaluru, I was very excited. I knew the country and the world were in terrible shape but as for us, I felt our luck had turned.
We were permitted to use motorcycles and cars for the first time in a month. Curfew only ran from 7pm-7am. Most importantly, the liquor shops were finally open. I fired up my motorcycle, my equally excited nine-year-old jumped on with me and we roared off into a bright, sunny day.
There was so much we wanted to do: Buy fresh vegetables and other goodies at our old-fashioned supermarket, which we had not visited in weeks because it was beyond our neighbourhood; buy alcohol for the wife’s birthday; buy the child her heart’s desire, which was no more than humble chewing gum; and gun the engine and let the Bengaluru breeze wash over us.
It did not quite turn out that way.
“What’s all this dust, appa?" asked the daughter in dismay, as we found the municipal authorities had used the curfew to dig up a key road and leave it that way. Others had had the same idea, so we were soon caught in a river of dust. We spied a petrol station and since I had not checked the air pressure in my tyres, we drove in and found ourselves in a queue of others who had had, you guessed it, the same idea.
When we finally reached the supermarket for the goodies and the gum, we found a long line, with customers appropriately distanced, snaking out on to the road. We quickly turned around, the sunny day now distinctly hot, and headed for the liquor shop. The line was even longer, and much as I love the wife, I was not going to stand there with child beside me while police lathis enforced distancing.
Once our excitement was dead and buried, we quietly headed to my parents’ home, where we have been living since the lockdown began.
One of the pleasures of living with parents is that you end up doing things you planned to do but never got around to doing. In my case, it was to recreate an old recipe from the Maharashtrian side of the family. My mother, originally a Deshmukh—descended from a clan that ran districts and collected taxes for the Mughal and Maratha equally—used to sometimes make a slightly complicated dish that combined fresh fenugreek, dried prawn, rice and dal. You could call it the one-pot Deshmukh meal.
Relentless daily cooking during the lockdown, as I wrote previously, has forced us to discard fancies and frills and focus on the basics. This has actually been good. My dull, boring, broiler chicken curries are now—if I may say so—um, elevated. “This is very good," said my normally taciturn father after I marinated the bird with curd, tamarind and the usual Indian kitchen spices, used fresh ginger and garlic and let it simmer for 2 hours. That evening, I made—I am ashamed to say—palak paneer but the wife suddenly leaned across and whispered, “This is really good."
Time, you see, is a great redeemer for the cook in a rush, which is what I was before the lockdown. Of course, maybe I just got lucky.
So, as I washed the prawn, chopped the onion, ginger and garlic, soaked and ground the rice and dal, I realized why I had not attempted the Deshmukh one-pot before: My mother, her legs creaking, sat outside the kitchen and issued a series of directives, all of which I followed obediently, although “don’t forget to add salt" was too much to bear.
My luck extends to cooking. Rarely, if ever, does anything go wrong. But on this day, it did. After wandering out of the kitchen, I realized no whistle had blown. To my alarm, the lid of the cooker opened easily and I could smell the bottom slowly burning. I moved everything to another cooker, a messy job, but that too would not whistle. I guess they were all locked down.
Finally, I realized the dal and rice had slow-cooked anyway. I could scrape enough lightly browned prawn, fenugreek, rice and dal off the bottom to create a lovely, smoky topping. Inadvertent, but there it was.
The Deshmukh One-Pot
1 bunch fresh fenugreek (methi), washed and chopped fine
1 cup dried prawns, washed and drained
1/2 cup white rice
1/2 cup chana dal
2 medium onions, chopped
3 tbsp garlic, chopped
1 tbsp ginger, chopped
2 tsp red-chilli powder
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp garam masala powder
3 tsp vegetable oil
Salt to taste
Wash the rice and dal and soak them together for an hour. Drain most of the water and grind roughly, so it remains grainy. Set aside.
In a pressure cooker, heat the oil and fry the garlic until it starts to change colour. Add onions and fry till translucent. Add ginger and sauté for 30 seconds. Add dried prawns, red-chilli powder, turmeric and garam masala powder. Let the spices blend in, then add the ground rice and dal and mix well. Add fenugreek and salt. Be careful with the salt because dried prawns are heavily salted. Add water, seal the cooker and allow two whistles. Let steam dissipate, open and add water if too dry.
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
FIRST PUBLISHED08.05.2020 | 04:06 PM IST