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A storyteller's guide to cooking

Songs are a form of stories and cooking is a form of storytelling. Here’s what stories and music can do to your kitchen

Pages from a 1940s' handwritten recipe book. (Courtesy: Istockphoto)
Pages from a 1940s' handwritten recipe book. (Courtesy: Istockphoto)

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Don’t you ever run out of recipes and stories?

That’s a question I am asked sometimes by those who astonishingly continue to follow my ramblings even though I have been at it for more than a decade. The truth is, I do—recipes, that is, not stories, of which there is never any dearth in a country where there is a story around every corner, in each of millions of lives and in every kitchen, however high or humble.

About the recipes, I should clarify that I might occasionally run out of recipes fit for print but I do not actually run out of recipes because, like stories, there cannot be a shortage of ways to interpret food in a country where the cuisine changes so dramatically from region to region and home to home.

Culinary inspiration—for those who seek it and those to whom it might arrive fortuitously—can come from an ingredient, a person, story, song or even the weather, but I like to believe stories and songs are especially important. Much depends on the kind of receptivity you feel at that moment; it’s a lot like tuning a radio to the right frequency (you can tell I am of a certain vintage).

For instance, when I lived in Delhi, the summer often subconsciously pushed me towards cuisines from the Maghreb, a place I have never been to. When the great loo swept in, that hot, dust-laden wind from the western desert, I gravitated towards lightly spiced and light foods. It was the time when I made chermoula—fresh coriander, cumin seeds, lime juice, a bit of red-chilli powder, garlic, salt and olive oil ground coarsely together. Tossed with boiled vegetables or fish, it provided the best of sleep and paired with the cheapest of wine.

I was reminded of this summertime inspiration last week when an uncharacteristic heat wilted India prematurely; April was the hottest in 122 years of record-keeping, we are told. I produced vegetables with chermoula and basic grilled zucchini with tahini paste one evening as an adequate antidote to a very warm day.

Likewise, breezy evenings infused with blues, jazz or the fado—my great weakness, although I have no idea why I am so infatuated with Portuguese love songs—tend to push me to meats with alcohol. Since Bengaluru is usually blessed with nine months of such weather, it may explain why I make so much pork with rum, roasting slowly until golden-brown tenderness. I suppose both the meat and the music pull you into a slow, smoky embrace, a gradual infatuation.

There’s a song in La La Land, a 2016 Hollywood musical, where Emma Stone sings—now there’s someone who, as she sang, had me infatuated—about an aunt who lived in Paris, dived into a frigid Seine, lived with her liquor, died with a flicker, and how she still could see the flame. When you listen to music like that and have something in the oven, you can’t rush either.

Songs are a form of stories and cooking is a form of storytelling. There is a rhythm, a cadence to sautéing, grilling, steaming, marinating and tempering. What we cook says a lot about us: where we come from, what we like, what we don’t, what we feel when we light a stove, and what inspires us. In the daily grind of cooking, we tend to forget how we got here, and why we cook what we do.

So, if you cook regularly for your family, it might be a good idea if, on occasion, you thought about how the food you put on your table is linked to your music and your stories. That is a technique many great chefs use, such as Damian D’Silva, who is from Singapore, a small country where the food reveals big stories. From his grandparents, both passionate cooks, D’Silva inherited a love for Malay, Indian, Eurasian and Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine, the last of which is inspired by all the others.

One of D’Silva’s signature dishes, he tells the Michelin Guide, is a home-style stir-fry of brinjal and prawn smothered in what he calls Sambal Juliana. For the longest time, he says, people asked him: “Who’s Juliana? Is she your girlfriend?”

As it emerged, the sambal—a paste of chillies, lime juice, shrimp paste, shallots and a type of palm sugar called gula melaka—had a story, one that D’Silva likes to share with guests. It is said to have been created, he said, by the wife of a foreman in the 16th century for his homesick captain.

I am no D’Silva but a substantial number of my recipes were handed down by my grandmother, each rooted in a story that survived because she wrote them down in inland letters to my mother, each accompanied by a recipe. Sometimes, a recipe needs a story, such as my first and only dessert, which I made for the first, and only, time in 45 years: a stale croissant pudding with rosemary and rum.

I committed many of my earlier stories to a diary that has entries called Fighting chicken or Star Trek brinjal. The former was not a great memory, having been thrown together, the diary tells me, when we were, well, in the middle of a marital dispute. The latter was created on a day when we were absorbed by one of the many Star Trek series and wanted to spend our evening with the crew, exploring strange new worlds and going where no one had gone before. If you have a story, take it to your kitchen or tell me about it. I am listening.

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 on Twitter. 

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