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The grim reflections of a man without a kitchen

Two weeks without culinary exploration and excitement dulls your columnist’s senses and the excitement of living on the frontiers of ceaseless discovery

Most of all, I miss the challenges of my style of intuitive cooking. (iStockPhoto)
Most of all, I miss the challenges of my style of intuitive cooking. (iStockPhoto)

Two weeks without cooking is about the longest I have gone without entering my kitchen. It’s an odd feeling. I discern discomfort, itchy fingers, a loss, like something is missing in my life. I have often said that I don’t particularly enjoy cooking. I do it because I must, because it is simply a part of my daily routine.

But the fact is that I like good food, and—to put it immodestly—I enjoy my own cooking, I always have, even if my menu in my early 20s was limited to eggs and sausage masala whipped up on a hotplate on the floor. As I grew older and my repertoire expanded, I revelled in my experiments with my culinary truths. When your imagination and sweat—well, not literally—goes into your food, it somehow tastes better than anything the best chefs can conjure up.

The reason I had not cooked was the minor matter of a criminal defamation case that my wife was subjected to over more than two years. The denouement came last week and involved much flying back and forth to Delhi, juggling work and the 10-year-old’s hectic life. While I was treated in Delhi to the most delicious food at our home away from home at our friend Shammy Baweja’s—especially her saunf chicken, which has featured in these columns—I felt somewhat displaced back in Bengaluru because we currently stay with my mother, and my kitchen is currently mothballed.

This is not to say the food isn’t good. I have just finished a dinner of which the high point was dried shrimp, my mother’s—and my—old favourite. It’s just that it is not my kitchen and it is hard to cater to my own whims, fancies and moods. No one likes their kitchen interfered with, and I do my best to stay out of my mother’s daily food plans.

But it’s more than that. I realise now that there was a certain anticipation every week to thinking, at least vaguely, about what we might cook. I enjoyed browsing markets and picking up produce and meat that could be stocked and translated into lunch or dinner, depending on what I might have read or what I might imagine. I have always cooked spontaneously but to do that you do need to ensure you have at least the basics.

Most of all, I miss the challenges of my style of intuitive cooking. It kept my hands nimble and my mind sharp.

Paul Theroux, one of my favourite writers, once said cooking requires “confident guesswork and improvisation—experimentation and substitution, dealing with failure and uncertainty in a creative way”. I agree with that, except, as I said, I have not had much experience with failure.

I think it is the uncertainty of cooking that excites and challenges me, and this is what I miss most of all.

Julia Child said that in cooking you must have a what-the-hell attitude, and she was right. Culinary exploration provides a thrill that is not substantially different from discoveries on other frontiers. I am not suggesting grilling a duck of 7kg with rum and fresh roasted spices was the same as Roald Amundsen making his way to the South Pole, but I imagine I might have been as satisfied with my humbler landmark as he was with his admittedly monumental achievement.

To me, cooking is not about regularity and predictability as much as it is about spontaneity, excitement, ceaseless discovery and the feeling of triumph. You cannot help but feel successful when you have turned out a meal for 20 who landed up at your house with no notice on a torrid Delhi summer day when the asphalt was melting and scorching winds from the great northern desert were drowning your house in dust.

And then there’s the productivity boost offered by culinary endeavours. I don’t know if there is a link between adrenaline and deep thinking but I find my mind is sharper when I have produced a meal that has met with some domestic acclaim—from child, wife or mother. I feel happier, satisfied and ready to tackle tough writing assignments when I have already received validation for a different set of skills.

These skills, of course, are especially good to have because they do not arise from formal training but from instinct and perception. If I were to go out on a limb, the qualities of a good cook overlap with those of a good leader, which I do not claim to be, but I have led teams with reasonable success, and I wonder if I might not attribute that to culinary felicity and confidence. After all, forceful execution is a leadership quality, hmm?

Cook with what you have, do it well and with confidence, I always say. As George Patton, the famous American general, said, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

So, my two weeks without cooking, not surprisingly, were dull, uninspiring and unmemorable. I struggled to put pen to paper, pick letters on the keyboard, and found my problem-solving abilities distinctly dulled. Next week, I intend to snap out of my dull phase by opening my kitchen window, doing a sweep of the market and firing up the stove. Please await a better, brighter me.

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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