At an age when people discover and abuse alcohol, I was sober. During my college days in Bengaluru, the parents of many friends permitted late nights if they were told I was driving. They knew I did not imbibe and could be trusted to bring their inebriated teenagers home alive.
Did I entirely miss the adolescent alcohol buzz? I did. I was a nonconformist. If anything was cool and popular, I wanted no part of it. Driving around the sleepy city at night, I got my kicks from the cool night air streaming in through the windows and indulgently watching my friends blather on.
It was when I entered my late 20s that I began my experiments with alcohol. As I recall, it was in the US, during a master’s degree in the early 1990s, that I was persuaded by my students—I was a teaching assistant—to join them for a glass of wine. It was there that I also accepted an offer to drink Old Monk from some desi boys.
When I returned, Old Monk and red wine were my poisons of choice, and so they have remained. I may be partial to the occasional bourbon or feni, but my choice has varied little. I rarely drink to get drunk—I am happy with the light buzz of two glasses of wine or a more intense one from four Old Monk pegs. For the last few years, though, I have been limited largely to three-four drinks a week at most, a legacy of a clogged artery.
I use alcohol as a kind of fixer-upper for the day that was. I am not the only one, of course. “Alcohol,” said Finley Peter Dunne, a US writer from the turn of the 20th century, “is necessary for a man so that he can have a good opinion of himself, undisturbed by the facts.”
Indians have a conflicted relationship with booze, either avoiding it entirely or drinking it like it is going out of style. If it is not available or affordable, underground manufacturers will brew it out of turpentine or any chemical at hand. The enhanced chance of death does not appear to deter drinkers, whether they drink as an escape from grim lives, to get a happy buzz, or discard inhibitions.
A third of Indians drink, and more are joining the bandwagon: over seven years to 2017, states a Lancet study, consumption rose by 38%.
Consider supposedly puritanical Gujarat, land of Gandhi, where alcohol production, sale and consumption has been banned for more than half a century as a tribute to the Father of the Nation. Production or sale of killer brews carries the death penalty but booze is freely available—home-delivered, no less, by a flourishing underground industry—and the Gujarat high court is currently hearing a case seeking an end to the ban.
My suggestion for Indians to improve their tenuous relationship with alcohol is to use it liberally while cooking. Indian men, among the world’s worst in helping at home, need to step up in any case. If you infuse your cooking with alcohol, you will lift the quality of your food, and drink less—it works for me.
I often add whatever I am drinking to whatever I am cooking. The results have been commendable. It’s hard to go wrong with alcohol. Much of it evaporates when heat is applied, and when it is allowed to bind with food, especially meat, it lends a sweet-sour, even smoky flavour.
My favoured alcohol for cooking is Old Monk, which I add liberally to pork. I have flambéed pan-fried chicken with vodka, and if I am drinking wine, it’s really quite easy to use, even with vegetables. The added benefit of using wine to cook is that you do not need to worry about that glass lying at the bottom of a used bottle slowly turning to vinegar.
Last week, when my 10-year-old and her bestie suddenly showed up for dinner, I remembered I had a bit of wine left and some unused sliced sweet potatoes. It was not particularly difficult to do a quick google search to find the two could be used together. My daughter objected at first. Given no choice and reluctant to diss appa’s cooking, she said it was good but bitter (it was, if anything, sweet). Her friend loved it and lashed the potatoes with three helpings of the wine sauce. Now before you think I am encouraging underage drinking, a couple of teaspoons of wine sauce isn’t imbibing. Give it, so to say, a shot.
BAKED SWEET POTATO WITH WINE SAUCE
Half kg sweet potato, slices
2 tbsp minced garlic
1 tsp chilli flakes
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tbsp fresh basil, roughly torn, or 1 tbsp rosemary
One-and-a-half tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste
Fresh pepper if you like
For the wine sauce
1 cup wine
1 tbsp honey
1 tsp butter
Mix all the ingredients and set aside for 15 minutes. Do not add basil until almost done. Lay out the sweet potato on a greased baking tray. Bake for 15 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius, turn over the slices and bake for another 10-15 minutes until the edges brown lightly. Remove and drizzle wine sauce with a teaspoon.
Wine sauce: Reduce the wine to half or less, add honey and butter and boil some more.
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. @samar11
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