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Opinion | Why there’s no creativity in this column

Cooking is a welcome distraction and refuge from the worsening pandemic. But you may find it difficult to cook to a plan or cater to family moods

Cooking these days offers a point of stability.
Cooking these days offers a point of stability. (Istockphoto)

Let me first announce that today’s column on creative cooking has no recipe, as it usually does. This is not because I have not been feeling creative. It’s just that I have been cooking a lot of things that you, dear regular reader, are familiar with.

Inspiration in daily cooking comes in two ways: by planning or on the spur of the moment. I confess to a planning deficit but I do let random ideas germinate before I reach the kitchen and harvest the bounty that emerges as I get started.

The seeds of culinary thought may sprout any time: as I fall asleep, as I brush my teeth, as I chuck a frisbee at my 10-year-old, as I read, as I cook, as I drive, and when I am, er, on the pot (come to think of it, the last spot is most appropriate, considering it is the arena of culmination for all gastronomic endeavours).

My point is that inspiration does not usually come out of the blue. You must give it space to emerge and take shape. When it does, I may make the effort to find ingredients. I remember once reading about a fish made with a fennel bulb, an ingredient not easily available in India. I rode my cycle to three stores until I found it. I have been known to obsess over a spice or a herb. Once, in my determination to use the Lebanese spice blend called za’atar, I drove to a fancy supermarket 4km away, violating in the process my half-kilometre-from-home shopping limit.

Of course, such obsession does not often take hold of my mind.

Most times, I cook without a plan. If my mind is over-occupied, which it usually is during these challenging pandemic days, there is no choice but to pull out random ingredients from the fridge and then ponder their fate and the family’s mood.

Often, the family has no choice because I cook according to my whims and the state of the freezer and the vegetable compartment. But, in general, it is wise to ensure your cooking follows your family’s moods.

I would not make a biryani on a lethargic, dark and rainy day. I would not make the child a fish curry—she is indifferent to fish—when she has returned home ravenous after, say, an evening of exertion. I definitely would not make the wife lightly tossed beans, broccoli and carrot when she craves chhole, pickle and rice.

These days, catering to moods and cooking to a plan are rare affairs.

From being a city that appeared to have the pandemic under fair control, Bengaluru looks like it is teetering on the brink of chaos. People are dying waiting for a test, waiting for an ambulance, waiting for a hospital bed, waiting outside a hospital or simply dying waiting for all these. A couple three houses down tested positive and were lucky enough to be picked up by an ambulance, as was a man—two years younger than I—five houses up the road.

It may appear strange that in the midst of such a tightening noose, so to say, I ramble on about my cooking styles and practices, but, really, cooking these days offers a point of stability, a welcome island of fixedness in an increasingly turbulent, changing sea of uncertainty. Better to be industrious, I say, than to be fatalistic, dreading what is and what might be.

So, I cook every day and hope for the best. Food is a great distraction from pandemic-era reality.

With cases spiralling and increasing evidence that the virus is airborne and lingers especially in closed, air-conditioned spaces, we try to limit needless shopping journeys. We know now of people who have got the virus without stepping out of home or barely stepping out, so there is no defence as such, except to stay masked, stay distant from friends and strangers and stay home as much as is humanly possible.

And that is why I have recently been repetitive.

In the last edition of this column, I described various adventures with the eggplant. Those have continued because, in large part, it is easy to wash and process. The editor of this paper asked me why pork and fish had, of late, disappeared from my column. I explained that my in-laws, whom we evacuated from Mumbai, now live with us and that means eating much less pork or beef, since they do not venture beyond the occasional piece of chicken, fish or a dollop of kheema.

They are also not particularly adventurous when it comes to food, so I stick to what works, what’s available easily and what’s easy to cook. This is not to say that our food is not interesting or good to eat. It’s just that I can not possibly put out recipes for kheema-palak, fish roast or lightly tossed vegetables and for endlessly tweaked salads and rice.

I have tried to reveal to my in-laws the thrillingly diverse world of south Indian cooking, and that it extends far beyond the idli, dosa and sambhar that they are used to. With considerable trepidation, they have sampled kalappam, fish moilee, seviyan biryani, kadala curry and other delights served up by two ladies in the neighbourhood, one from Kerala, the other from Karwar, Karnataka.

Perhaps I should dip into their creativity next week. Stay tuned.

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.


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