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A Nobel Laureate in the kitchen

The magic of cooking is to make something out of virtually nothing, writes Abhijit Banerjee in this essay 

I have been interested in food since I can remember. (Photo: Priyanka Parashar)
I have been interested in food since I can remember. (Photo: Priyanka Parashar)

Each morning, as I make my way to MIT’s campus on my new kick scooter (a habit picked up during the lockdown when we were trying to avoid the metro in Paris), my mind drifts to the work ahead—papers, classes and the endless meetings— before settling on the most important subject of the day. What should I cook that evening?

Also read | Abhijit Banerjee's cheat sheet for the kitchen

Two days ago, it was stuffed baby eggplants (with coconut, garlic, coriander seeds, sesame and tamarind), fried karela and lamb with a tomato rasa. Yesterday I made burgers, guacamole, roast corn and reheated the leftover ribolitta (a marvellous Italian cold-weather vegetable soup thickened with day-old bread) that I had made for dinner three days ago. The menu for that evening had also included store-bought mushroom ravioli in a mushroom sauce and roast artichoke. Today I plan to take a break and take my wife Esther out to a fancy meal to celebrate the end of a hard week of work. But I will be cooking for our children—most likely a rich, unctuous macaroni cheese.

I have been interested in food since I can remember. I would cook an occasional family dinner when I was about fifteen. But as an adult I have cooked nearly everyday, usually making three, sometimes four courses each night. I shop and roughly plan the week’s menu on the weekend (a typical weekly plan might go like this—three days of Indian food, one day of Chinese, two of some variety of Mediterranean cooking and so on) and then fill in the details on the ride to university. I am the family’s cook, the food shopper, the menu planner.

The cooking usually takes me a bit more than an hour. I start at about 6:15 pm and end at about 7:30. How do you have the energy to cook like this, day after day, I am often asked. Greed, I reply. Besides, the chopping and the slicing, the sautéing and the frying, the grilling and the baking, played against the soundtrack of my home—the kids’ chatter, Esther’s cool, low voice, and the laughter of one of our frequent guests—really helps me unwind.

Abhijit Banerjee's sesame panna cotta. (Photo: Juggernaut Books)
Abhijit Banerjee's sesame panna cotta. (Photo: Juggernaut Books)

It’s more than just the food. I love thinking about meals, the people I will feed, the stories being told, the shape of bodies around the table, the sound of laughter, the quiet of mindful eating. When I cook for a dinner party, I especially like creating a story around the food I am cooking.

Some of those plans are ironic: Andhra-style Ribs with Nepali Alu Achaar and Stir-Fried Green Cabbage, as a comment on the American classic, ribs-potato salad-slaw. Others are political: the wonderful Afghan Kabuli Pullao with the Spinach Pachadi from Kerala, at the very other end of the subcontinent, for the orange, green and white combo that represents the harmonious ideal embodied in the Indian tricolour, alas increasingly forgotten.

Yet others serve to maintain peace when different preferences pull in different directions: Thai Pomelo Salad with shrimps cooked separately, for those who eat shrimps and tempeh for the rest, with a chickpea soup rich in saffron to start and some strawberries with black pepper and balsamic vinegar for dessert—a meal with something for the vegans and the rest. I often use these plans to present the meal—the best meals are good stories—though of course there are times when it’s better to hold your tongue.

How did I learn to cook? By making mistakes. I have cooked cakes that leaked dough, meat that tasted like old leather, fish that suddenly melted into the stew. And in making these mistakes I’ve learnt two invaluable lessons.

Also read | The science of baking a cake 

There is no shame in starting again—especially if you suspect that something went badly wrong right at the beginning of a new step. The early ingredients are usually a small part of the overall cost of the dish, especially if you count the price of your time and the thought of watching your mother-in-law’s face as she munches through the soufflé.

Take comfort in the fact that it’s a big part of your learning experience—the next time you will know what cumin seeds look like just before they turn black and acrid. And, just to be on the safe side, buy some extra of everything you will use—other than the expensive and perishable main ingredients like meat, fish or wild mushrooms.

In fact, I often plan entire dinners with some redundancy built into them—that way, if one course is really inedible, I can throw it. Just remember not to throw freshly burnt sauce into the plastic bag in the trash can as I once did—it will burn through the bag and flood your kitchen with the ineffable odour of burnt plastic with cinnamon dressing (or whatever you happen to be cooking).

Second, embrace gadgets. I have a food processor, a power blender, a beater, a hand blender, a spice grinder, a pressure cooker, an ice-cream maker and many gadgets that I could not name offhand. And I use them all the time. They save time and make food taste better and I think they are all worth it. But I also realize that together they cost at least a thousand dollars, which is a lot of money for many people.

Friends often encouraged me to write down some of my recipes for them, and like every passionate amateur I had fantasised about writing a cookbook for many years. But I only thought of doing a book seriously about five years ago when I was trying to come up with an appropriate Christmas present for my brother-in-law. As I started to think of how to frame the book, I began to notice the extent to which my sensibilities about cooking were connected to my instincts as an economist and a social scientist.

Abhijit Banerjee's Indian-style sprouts. (Photo: Juggernaut Books)
Abhijit Banerjee's Indian-style sprouts. (Photo: Juggernaut Books)

As you probably know, the word economics comes from oikonomía, “management of a household”. Economists are trained to think about how to make the most of limited resources, and that instinct drives what we do in the household as much as anywhere else.

For me every meal starts with what the cook is trying to achieve: assuage hunger, impress someone, just get through the evening without a disaster. Then there are the people being fed—some of them like food, others just the talk about food. Some want light, others delight in richness. Some may be vegetarian, others unabashedly carnivorous. There are ingredients that were forgotten or seemed too exorbitant, spices that could not be procured, gadgets that felt like a waste of money. Then there are the cook’s own constraints—there is work to be done, children to be bathed and fed, late hours at work. The meal has to work with all of that, economize on the scarce resources, generate the greatest good for the greatest numbers. Cooking is economics.

The reverse is also partly true. Food has an important, if uncomfortable, place within economics. Adam Smith, who, as much as anyone, founded modern economics, in the much-quoted expression of his credo tells us that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” It is the butcher, brewer and baker, notice, not the cobbler, carpenter and candlestick-maker.

However, for Karl Marx, another out-sized influence on the field, food is important because it provides fuel to the workforce, but cooking is a distraction, at least from the point of view of a social scientist. This spawned a long tradition of studying workers (especially workers in poor countries) as walking, talking machines that turn calories into work and work into commodities that get sold on the market.

This focus on being productive means that poor people must always be on the lookout for more calories and better nutrition. There is of course a lot of truth to that: the Irish came to the US to escape famine conditions at home; women working as domestics in India will stop quickly between jobs to gulp down some tea doused with milk and plenty of sugar, as way of restoring their flagging energies.

But it also misses something important—in this description of the lives of the poor, the pleasure of eating, to say nothing of cooking, has no place. Fortunately, the poor refuse to cooperate. As anybody who has ever spent time with poor people knows, eating something special is a source of great excitement for them (as it is for me). Every village, however, has its feast days and its special festal foods. Somewhere goats will be slaughtered, somewhere ceremonial coconuts cracked, perhaps fresh dates will be piled on special plates that come out once a year, maybe mothers will pop sweetened balls of rice into the mouths of their children.

My love of cooking is born of a similar celebratory attitude to food. If we needed to simply fill ourselves with nutrition to live—we could eat boiled eggs, raw carrots, plain rice. But we don’t. We dream instead of a chicken curry with almonds and raisins, a salad of burrata and mangoes, potatoes smothered in sesame seeds. The magic of cooking is to make something out of (virtually) nothing, to bring to our lives a little sparkle, conjuring food that helps make the day a little less stressful, a little less dull. As the great chef Alice Waters said, ‘if you fall in love, well, then everything is easy.’

Cooking To Save Your Life: By Abhijit Banerjee, Juggernaut Books, 296 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>1,999
Cooking To Save Your Life: By Abhijit Banerjee, Juggernaut Books, 296 pages, 1,999

Partially adapted from Abhijit Banerjee’s Cooking To Save Your Life, published by Juggernaut Books.

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