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The hunger games

I’m cookless in Mumbai, and drowning slowly

My cook has quit. As living alone in Mumbai goes, this is the third-worst thing that can happen to you after bad neighbours, and being a single, Muslim girl who works in the media business. After two weeks of butter chicken rolls from Mini Punjab (garnished with my tears), I’m at the end of my wits and my liver’s life cycle. Efforts to find a replacement are on, but in Mumbai, searching for a cook is like searching for an open space; there aren’t many, and rich people have already snapped up all the good ones.

Between my mum, my aunts, and our neighbours, I got fat off an army of incredible female cooks. I was never told cooking is a woman’s job, but growing up in an environment filled with women who loved doing it, I realise now that I was conditioned to believe that. Representation pic/Thinkstock
Between my mum, my aunts, and our neighbours, I got fat off an army of incredible female cooks. I was never told cooking is a woman’s job, but growing up in an environment filled with women who loved doing it, I realise now that I was conditioned to believe that. Representation pic/Thinkstock

Making inquiries is difficult. People respond to my cries of “Do you have a good cook?” by gathering up their children and retreating into their homes like Sadashiv Amrapurkar and Ranjit are coming to town. To be fair, I respect their sentiments. When you’ve wrestled three other potential employers and robbed a bank to match your cook’s demands, you guard your prize like a Lannister guards a throne. On the rare occasion when contact with the cook master race has been established, I’ve been refused for logistical reasons. Maybe you live ten metres outside the cook’s 700-metre radius of operation. Or you’re not comfortable with the 3 am to 4 am slot a cook has free.

More crucially, the situation has exposed my fatal flaw; my inability to cook. Like most entitled Indian men, I grew up on my mother’s cooking. And I’m sorry everyone, I know your mother “is the best cook in the world,” but your lives are a lie, because my mum wins. She’s a culinary Neil DeGrasse Tyson, exposing my mind to all manner of cosmic wonders, from her humble but spectacular bhendi chi bhaaji, to her sublimely judged ninth symphony: paneer koftas and kheema mutter with freshly-made butter-garlic naan. Just thinking about it has resulted in me eating my right hand between the beginning of the previous sentence and its end.

Between my mum, my aunts, and our neighbours, I got fat off an army of incredible female cooks. I was never told cooking is a woman’s job, but growing up in an environment filled with women who loved doing it, I realise now that I was conditioned to believe that. And now, here I am, just a boy, standing in front of an empty kitchen, asking it to feed me.

This began with a cook quitting, but is now a full-blown existential crisis; this isn’t about burnt Maggi or undercooked chicken (though there have been lots of both). It’s about inadequacy, both absolute and relative. Absolute, because I am thirty years old and incapable of a crucial life skill that fuels my own critical life processes. And relative, because I also feel inadequate at this skill within my peer group, which is made up of some excellent cooks, male and female.

I need to learn how to cook, pronto. Not in the way that I need to learn the guitar or teach myself Japanese because it’d be a great conversation starter. This is about trading in years of entitlement for self-sufficiency. So, I’ve started to teach myself. And I’m proud to report it isn’t going as badly as I thought it would; it’s worse. So much worse.

For starters, I got it all backwards. The first thing I learnt how to make was chocolate mousse because it has exactly five ingredients, one of which is whiskey, and the most complex instruction is “Leave in fridge for one hour.” This means that, so far, of the five essential food groups, the only one I’m getting daily is diabetes.

The success of the Lifestyle Disease Mousse led to my second mistake — overconfidence. Not for me were the innocent charms of sabzi or rice. If I can make mousse, I figured, why not go for gold with my mum’s special red chicken curry? I mean, I’d observed her making it, and I’d carefully noted down ingredients and approximate cooking times on my iPad. How hard could it be?

It turns out that my observations may have missed the four prior hours of soaking of the whole spices, and I may have forgotten to note down “tenderise and marinate meat before cooking”, and it’s possible that I may not know the difference between a spice grinder and a blender, and it’d be credible to suggest that what I ended up with was not a red chicken curry so much as Chicken Sludge Feat. Lumpy Spice Bits.

But I have learnt from my debacles; the key to cooking is preparation, organisation, and monitoring the food constantly. So, now I think about what I want to eat in advance, and I’ve organised all the take-away menus in a single folder, and I call the delivery guy four times along the way to make sure my butter chicken roll will be here at the right time. When you put your mind to it, it’s really not that hard.

Rohan Joshi is a writer and stand-up comedian who likes reading, films and people who do not use the SMS lingo. You can also contact him on www.facebook.com/therohanjoshi

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