My mother was gifted a cookbook 14 years ago. I still remember it was called The Foolproof Cookbook: For Brides, Bachelors, and Those Who Hate Cooking. The well-intentioned friend who bought this for my mom was obviously being more than a little sexist in addition to being clueless. My mommy was a busy doctor but she held her own in the kitchen. Her food was simple, nutritious, and tasteful. I can still savor her Aloo-Gobhi and flaky paranthas on my tongue.
Even now, I don’t think anyone can make a better Lachha Parantha than my mom. But I also know her food wasn’t what you’d call gourmet– not that growing children need gourmet food at home anyway. And while the Foolproof Cookbook was flipped through a couple times, my mom never really found any use for it. It was too basic, too condescending, and rather impractical as a cheat sheet for those who hate cooking.
But I loved looking at the pictures in the book. I was about 11 or 12 years old. And even though I wasn’t really allowed near the stove, I was fascinated by the images in those glossy pages. But these weren’t pictures of perfectly plated entrées– no, I was interested in the descriptions and looks of the whole spices; the dark scratchy cinnamon, the black cardamom seeds peeking out of the cracked pale green shell, the feathery texture of fresh dill, and the fiery hue of dried chili peppers.
Our kitchen didn’t have whole spices. We usually just bought machine-ground, mass-produced garam masala which typically consists of cinnamon, pepper, cardamom, cloves, and nutmeg. On my next shopping trip with my parents, I insisted on visiting the whole spices section and boy, oh boy!.. that changed my world.
I’m 25 now and my mother died 11 years ago. It pains me that she never got to sample the spice mixtures I have developed over these years. But I have shared my love for food and for cooking with my father who is a very good cook himself and who gave my mom her first lessons in mainstream cooking after their marriage. Today, my cooking is inspired by my mother’s Punjabi and Sikh heritage. Her side of the family came to India as refugees after the partition. And my Nanima–my maternal grandma–cooked in a way that reflected the desperation of those times in which barely half a liter of milk was divided evenly among four children, where salt and oil were considered absolute luxury, and where every overbaked roti was treated like the finest of fried breads.
But in addition to this sensitivity, my mother’s culture has also imbued my cooking style with a certain robustness. While wastage is an absolute no-no, rustic indulgence is important. And that’s why I remain partial to desi ghee (clarified butter), mustard oil, raw and cooked red onions, and super spicy green peppers that burn your mouth like a dynamite going off on your tongue.
From my father’s side, I have inherited the love of entertaining. My grandfather believed in feeding guests till they were absolutely ready to beg for mercy… just kidding! They always came back for seconds and thirds and even fourths. That is the hallmark of hospitality from Jammu and Kashmir. Long-grained basmati rice cooked to perfection for a biryani, lotus stems simmered in a rich yogurt gravy with whole spices, and flavorful Jammu Rajma served with mint chutney, yogurt, and raw marinated ginger… need I say more?
Food is a passion for me… even if it is not always obvious.
Most of the content on this blog is political. I write a lot about Feminism, the refugee crisis, issues of race and color, the state of my country, and conflict resolution among other things. Sometimes, I post recipes. But it is more the exception than the norm.
However, food is political. It is tied to the stories of the cultures it has evolved in. Simple breads reflect the frugalness of poverty, plain stews mirror the urgency of fleeing war, spicy brittle snacks recreate the dry heat of drought-stricken lands, and recipes passed down over generations are the aromatic time machines that give us a peek into events from a thousand years ago.
There are hundred different things that make a dish great. Every chef has their own pearls of wisdom. Every cook has secrets they will never share with anyone else. But one thing that we would all agree on is the quality of ingredients.
Food needs to be fresh and soulful. Each element must come together like the notes of a symphony. The texture of every herb must complement the flavor of the base of the dish. The starch and the vegetables must be a marriage made in heaven. Logically, I should talk about meat and fish next. But I’m afraid, as a vegetarian, I cannot do so. And this is where I must talk about food and guilt.
Almost every culture has ceremonial delicacies and community celebrations that revolve around collective meals. Eid-Ul-Fitr is signified by Sewaiyan and Sheer Kurma. Holi revolves around sweetmeats like Gujiya. Passover is about Matzah in its infinite avatars. Christmas sees an abundance of plum puddings and mince pies.
Food is festive. Food is comfort. Food is joyful.
That’s also why I don’t believe in using meat in my food. There is nothing celebratory for me in a plate on which dead flesh is served. It saddens me that it took me so long to come to this realization. But while vegetarianism is my personal philosophy, this article is about more than just that. Guilt-free food is also about the freshest of ingredients from ethical sources. Nothing is more terrible than realizing that your scrumptious Tiramisu is dusted with coffee harvested by enslaved children working 18 hours a day on a wretched plantation somewhere in Coté D’Ivoire. Buy Fair Trade and/or local. Always.
Secondly, it is an honor to serve food to someone. It means that your guest has chosen to trust you with their palate, health, and wellbeing for that meal. It’s a huge responsibility and as a chef, you must do everything in your power to give them the experience of a lifetime in every single morsel.
And that means no compromise on the quality of ingredients, no shortcuts, no pre-done store-bought sauces, and definitely nothing out of a freezer. This is a pretty tall order for anyone– especially when one is a working parent cooking for their family on a budget. There can be no waste. It is stupid to chuck perfectly good things in the bin and almost criminal because even as we speak, millions around the world are starving.
The best answer to that is to visit the local farmers’ market every week, to stock your fridge with veggies and fruits only for the next seven days, and to make sure your pantry always has lentils, rice, flour, eggs, milk, honey, potatoes, onions, garlic, and shallots. On the spice front, take half-an-hour every month to buy fresh whole spices and grind them at home based on your personal preferences. Organize everything on a chart. Label each bottle with a name and a date.
And when you’re failing at your targets and things are about to start rotting in the back of the refrigerator, take them out and whip up something with the leftovers. Stews and scrambled eggs are the easiest answers. Soups and salads are another good way to minimize waste. And if you feel you still have too much, call a friend over or offer a portion of your food to a homeless person who would otherwise rummage through some restaurant’s trash for their dinner.
Most importantly, cook together with your loved ones. Eat together when you can. But also cook well just for yourself. TV Dinners are not an option. Neither is takeout.
Food is sacred. Treat every bite like a blessing.