This was supposed to be a noteworthy year, the entry to a new decade. But 2020 turned out to be iconic for all the wrong reasons; a wringer of a year, marked by fear, anxiety and uncertainty due to the covid-19 pandemic. Our homes became our havens, food our comfort and social media our go-to place to hang out. While I haven’t exactly gotten down to introspecting about the year that was, there were definitely some learnings and big shifts that will remain in the years to come.
Cooking with less
As a student of Hindustani music vocal, one of the creative exercises recommended to practise improvisation is restricting yourself to just three or four notes out of the possible seven in a particular raga. This economy of notes makes us get into all possible combinations and explore these three or four notes to their fullest. This exercise is one of my favourites as it makes me create patterns and combinations which I would not have discovered or delved into otherwise.
At the start of the lockdown, I found myself in a similar situation in the kitchen. Not stepping out of the house to a supermarket and reducing the number of deliveries coming in, I was getting creative in cooking three meals a day using a restricted list of staples that I had stocked up on and whatever fresh produce we could get easily. While Indian cuisine has a very long list of staples comprising grains, lentils, flours, spices and so on, one can easily make any number of dishes using staples like tur dal, rice, onions, garlic and chillies, like the khichdi recipe I share here.
As a food writer and author, it was par for the course to have a fully stuffed fridge and kitchen shelves stocked with ingredients from around the world. I would come across a new recipe to try out and buy a few more new ingredients for it. Having had my brush with minimalism in stocking and cooking, I now feel bad about buying too much. I want to see more empty spaces in the fridge and kitchen shelves. I am going to carry this mantra of minimalism into 2021.
Cooking from scratch
Not being able to go to restaurants or eat street food for months on end had us cooking these dishes at home. Recipes, cooking tips and hacks and lots more food-related conversations were on overdrive on social media and WhatsApp groups. Food websites, including my own blog, saw a massive boost in traffic.
My younger sister, who is otherwise super busy with her toddlers, took it upon herself to make all of hers and her family’s favourite dishes during this period. This included making puris for pani puris from scratch.
In my case, cooking with fewer ingredients meant not stocking up on a dozen different masalas and having to make my own masala or improvising using the spices available. Although I do already make a lot of things from scratch, 2020 made me slow down even more and spend time on making sourdough bread, fermented dishes and beverages as well as pickles.
Learning resilience from nature
2020 saw a boom in gardening all around the world. The fear of running out of food led to an increased number of people attempting to grow some of the basics in their homes, be it a balcony or a windowsill.
As an avid kitchen gardener for the past 10 years, it made me look at my garden space with newfound respect. With no external gardening help for a few months, the garden turned into a jungle. Over 10kg of sweet potato, dozens of limes, pretty nasturtium flowers and leaves and bunches of long beans were all nature’s cheering gifts during the worst of times.
The world seemed to be at a standstill but the garden kept going about its business. Nature teaches us a thing or two about resilience. For those of us stuck at home, having some greenery around has been a welcome relief, giving us the feeling of being one with nature despite being cloistered within four walls. Pruning the leaves, getting hands dirty with the potting and repotting, making compost from the wet waste generated at home are all wholesome activities that are like a soothing balm to a mind wrecked by pandemic anxiety. While I do have a fair bit of foliage in my home, if there’s one hashtag I want to pursue with devotion, it is #crazyplantlady.
Here’s wishing you a fulfilling and flourishing 2021!
This is my go-to dish when I have nothing more than a few staples at home.
One-third cup tur dal
Two-thirds cup rice
1 tsp grated ginger
A pinch of turmeric powder
1 tsp salt
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp ghee (or more)
Half tsp cumin seeds
2 green chillies, slit
(or use dried red chillies)
2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small onion, sliced
Wash the rice and dal and soak in a bowl of water for 30 minutes. Drain and place in a pressure cooker. Add the grated ginger, turmeric, salt and bay leaf along with four cups of water. Stir to combine well. Fit the lid of the cooker with the whistle. Allow to come to full pressure (one whistle). Reduce the flame to minimum and let it cook for 15 minutes. Allow the pressure to release naturally. Open the cooker. Remove and discard the bay leaf.
For the tempering, heat ghee in a pan. Fry the cumin seeds and chillies. Once the cumin seeds splutter, add the garlic and sliced onion. Sauté on medium flame for six-seven minutes until the onions have browned a bit. Transfer over the khichdi.
Serve with curd, pickle and papad for a filling and comforting meal.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.