My mother’s cook, ally, support and friend Lakshmi has been with her for about two decades, partaking in the family’s joys, sorrows, even boredom. A calmly efficient, typically southern polyglot—she speaks Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Hindi—she can whip up, before the pandemic of course, a feast at short notice, going from lunch for two to lunch for 10 unfazed.
Guided by my mother, Lakshmi developed over the years into a fine cook, melding her own instincts with my mother’s experimentative ways. My mother no longer cooks but whenever we grumble about the sameness of food, we find Lakshmi trying out something my mother may have watched on YouTube or rediscovered in her innumerable chits of paper and notebooks.
Last week, for instance, we got a round, pie-like dhokla that appeared to have been made with millets, spiced and steamed. Lakshmi is as comfortable with Konkan fish curries as she is with my mother’s innovations and her own home food, which includes many spare parts, such as liver and brain.
During the lockdowns, when public transport shut down and Lakshmi stayed home, our life and hers underwent seminal changes. When my father died in January, she was as distraught as us. A few months later, her mother died, and the sadness that had descended on Lakshmi appears to have deepened.
Suddenly, her food appears to have lost some flavour. Chicken, paneer or gourd appear to have a certain sameness, and her cooking appears to lack its usual fragrance and verve. Of course, sadness may not be the only reason. If you have cooked for your family and your employers for years, fatigue is inevitable. Now, we try to ensure she does not have to cook on weekends, something I believe every family should do in any case.
My approach to the weekend differs fundamentally from my mother’s. She likes to list how her fridge is stocked for the weekend, while my weekend mantra is “let’s see”. She always asks: “Do you need anything? I have so and so and lots of chapatis.” She, like the wife, believes in packing the fridge with food so there isn’t much to do over the weekend, when help is minimal. I snort at this approach.
I like an empty fridge and an empty kitchen. That lets me wander off early in the morning on cycle or motorcycle, search for the freshest ingredients, which I find tend to appear in the markets on Friday and Saturday mornings. I fling open the doors and windows, let the Bengaluru breeze in, play some music, do the prep and assemble the weekend meals as daughter, cat and spouse wander in and out.
The let’s-see-how-it-goes approach has much to recommend it, allowing you to make the best of what markets have to offer, the family mood, the weather, the music and your stamina. I must confess weekend cooking isn’t entirely by seat of the pants. Since I am given to some inexplicable sleeplessness most nights, my thoughts invariably wander to a rough breakfast, lunch and dinner plan. I might forget when I wake up but some residual memories linger at daybreak, enough to get me started.
The last weekend was a typically at-home one. My mother was staying with us, the fridge was empty, and my skittish wife and mother—they of the stocked-fridge philosophy—wisely asked me nothing. My mother only ordered me a fresh, whole betki for me, and I got to work.
It was a minimal lunch: a roasted fish, appams from a neighbouring store, a Burmese vegetable curry and a potato salad. I modified the salad’s Germanic provenance, using a Syrian garlic sauce instead of mayonnaise and cream. This, too, I modified, adding kasundi mustard.
The ladies appeared to approve, there was little left over, and much to be pleased about. There is a lot to be said for weekends.
German Potato Salad In Garlic-Mustard Sauce
(vegetarian and sausage version)
4 potatoes, boiled or pressure-cooked until done, cut into cubes
2 tbsp chives, chopped finely
14 olives, chopped finely
8 pickled gherkins, chopped finely
6 spring onions, stalks trimmed, chopped finely
4 sausages, fried and sliced round, half-inch thick
Salt and fresh pepper to taste
For the garlic-mustard sauce
1 tbsp cornflour
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp mustard
Salt to taste
To make the sauce, dissolve cornflour in cold water and set aside. In a pan, gently heat the water, add the cornflour and stir with a whisk. The mixture will thicken. Pour into a bowl and place in the fridge to cool. Mix garlic, lime juice, salt and oil well. Add the cornstarch mixture and blend in a food processor. Transfer the garlic sauce to a bowl and whisk in the mustard.
In another bowl, place half the chopped potatoes, olives, spring onions and gherkins. Mix in salt, half the garlic-mustard sauce, sprinkle with chives and grind fresh pepper on top. Decorate with a sprig of mint.
For the non-vegetarian salad, mix the other lot of chopped potatoes, olives, spring onions, gherkins and sausages. Stir in salt, half the garlic-mustard sauce, sprinkle with chives and grind fresh pepper.
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.