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The cupboard of thingamabobs and the birthday problem

When friends and family give you presents that you hoard, an occasional burst of enthusiasm can be rewarding

Chicken, fish or ‘paneer’ are perfect ingredients for a tabletop grill. Photo: Samar Halarnkar
Chicken, fish or ‘paneer’ are perfect ingredients for a tabletop grill. Photo: Samar Halarnkar

My birthday was last week, and it left me unimpressed. I only felt—as the songwriter once said—older than I once was, younger than I’ll be, that’s not unusual. The years may roll by, but so what? I believe I am fitter than I ever was, certainly more than I was in my roly-poly 20s and 30s, more aware of what I eat, and substantially wiser—although many of my friends and family may dispute that point. I am, you see, happy with my somewhat predictable, regulated life.

My only source of birthday stress in recent years has been the question that some of my near and dear ones pose: What shall I get for your birthday? To which my answer is the same—get me whatever you want or get me nothing, it’s all the same, just don’t involve me.

Don’t get me wrong, I love surprises. But family, really, the point is to ensure it is a surprise, not harry me for ideas (but you do know that I have no interest in clothes, so don’t take the easy way out and get me a shirt).

The inevitable weapon, then, in the great hunt called presents-for-Samar is cooking thingamabobs. As I have mentioned often, I have little interest in things culinary. But since I write this column, people assume I might appreciate some new kitchen gizmo.

Alas, I do not.

I tend to use the same things I always have. Some of my knives date back to my college days in the US, which I left in the winter of 1994. Many of my pans have had more lives than a cat’s. Some of my katoris (bowls) are older than me, purloined as they are from my parents, with their year of origin inscribed: 1963. In short, I am somewhat conservative in my choice of kitchen equipment, and I don’t crave for the latest and brightest.

Of course, that does not stop people from presenting me with kitchen toys. I certainly do appreciate the affection. It overwhelms me that they would give so much thought to a birthday present and spend so much just because they love me. So, they do and, so, I have a cupboard full of these wonderful thingamabobs that I never use.

This year, the loving wife gently reminded me of the cupboard and suggested, as gently, that I consider using these gifts. Somewhat irascible on a normal day, she was gentle in her suggestions only because it was my birthday, when I can do all the things that annoy her and get a bright smile in response.

After many years, I listened, and—guided by my meticulous spousal stockist—rummaged through the CKG: cupboard of kitchen gifts. We found a clay tagine, three bamboo steamers, a Philips air fryer, a Masamoto chef’s knife with its own sharpening stone, four sizzler plates and a German tabletop grill.

It was the last, a Severin, that I decided to haul out of storage. It seemed pretty straightforward, except that the instructions said it was good for tabletop use only if the table was, well, outdoors. “Do not use in enclosed space," it said. I am inclined to ignore such illogical instructions, but the spouse is a more panicky personality.

“What," she demanded to know, “if it explodes?"

Since I did not know how to respond to such a technical question, I was banished to a balcony, where I squatted on the floor and, using an extension cord, fired up the grill. The grill pan was deep and asked for a litre and a half of water to keep it cool. Again, I was inclined to jettison such warnings, but with a what-if-it-burns scenario hurled at me, I gave in and obeyed.

The chicken, fish, paneer, onion and capsicum that I grilled were components of a last lunch for my in-laws, who were visiting from Mumbai. Since they do not accept that anything that emerges from my kitchen can be flawed, I was assured of praise. Essentially, you understand, anything I cook becomes part of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I will probably use the grill again, since the kebabs came out rather well—and it wasn’t just the in-laws who said so. I am my own worst critic, and I was suitably impressed. No false modesty here when I get it right.

Regardless, may I emphasize to you, gentle reader, that while you are always welcome to invite yourself over, you are never at liberty to present me with a kitchen thingamabob. The Severin grill was a success, but it’s now time to begin using the other inhabitants of my CKG. Let’s see, it took me three years to use the grill. At this rate, I should be good until I hit 70—at least.

Grilled chicken (& paneer) in wine and chilli marinade

Serves 4


300g chicken

250gm paneer

1 onion quartered capsicum, slit lengthwise

For the marinade

6-7 dried red chillies

1-inch piece cinnamon

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1 black cardamom

1/2 star anise

1 piece mace

4 pieces of garlic

1-2 tbsp red wine

4 tbsp yoghurt

Salt to taste


Roast red chillies, cinnamon, cumin seeds, cardamom, star anise and mace on a cast-iron pan until they smoke and crackle. In a food processor or mortar-pestle, add the spices and form a coarse paste with the garlic and wine. Marinate the chicken, paneer, onion and capsicum in the chillies and wine paste. Add yogurt and mix well. Set aside for an hour. Grill until done, basting with oil occasionally. I also grilled three pieces of fish using no more than red chilli powder, turmeric, salt and lime juice.

This 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.

He tweets @samar11

Read his previous columns at

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