Conquering the enemy in the kitchen

Published: May 17, 2020, 07:37 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre | Mumbai

For most women who have sub-contracted everyday cooking, as a lifestyle choice, the lockdown presents a changed social context. Here is how the daily meal became my compulsory laboratory

Columnist Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre preps to make corn upma
Columnist Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre preps to make corn upma

picMandakini Prakash Amte, doctor-social worker-Magsaysay Awardee, has often spoken about her initial shock when she first saw the remote Hemalkasa village in Gadhchiroli district, where her husband decided to work amongst the Madia Gond tribals in 1973. Her admission is characterised by a rare straightforwardness. Unlike her rosy notion about what life in a forest would be, Hemalkasa lacked every urban convenience. Most importantly, it took her time to accept the basic meals served in the Lok Biradari project. "One day, we had potatoes, the next day was reserved for onions, and the day after for an onion-potato mix," she recalled in a public interview. The audience chuckles whenever she narrates the experience.

I remember myself widely sharing Dr Amte's subsistence-kitchen with uninitiated friends. Their laughter comes back to me during my isolated state in the lockdown. Little did I know that many years later I would be preparing similar, elementary, meals in my own kitchen, and that one day an onion-potato veg mix would be a reality I'd embrace. Never had I visualised that for two months, I would be engaged in an activity, on a day-to-day (not on-off) basis, that I had successfully dodged for over five decades. Also, that cooking for a family of three would be a matter of survival, not exploratory fun.

Cooking is not a conscious choice for many, and few have the privilege to opt out. In the same vein, it is a chosen joy for many men and women. They communicate with the rest of the world by sharing their culinary wonders. Some treat food as a tradition which evolves with constant endeavour. I have interacted with many who nurture a specific regional cuisine, which gives them their sense of identity.

For instance, Meenakshi Meyappan, author, and owner of a heritage hotel in Karaikudi, stands as a proud ambassador of the Chettinad tradition, which prides on roasted and ground aromatic spices. Meyappan traces the south-east Asian connect of the Chettiars, who were introduced to certain flavours only after the trader community travelled to Malaysia, Ceylon and Burma. Chef Vishnu Manohar, who markets Vidarbha's saoji preparations, also finds happiness in making the super-spicy delicacies. I have first-hand experience of the daily kitchen involvement of Manohar and Meyappan, which is irrespective of their rise as gourmet experts.

Not just known chefs, but many homemakers own their cooking with panache. A Kolhapur friend says her tamda/pandhra rassa shoos away respiratory ailments. My sister-in-law has the claim over the trademark Valacha birda; due to which she holds a special Varsha Vahini status in Vaishya Vaani homes which value the concoction she gets right each time she treats the kadve vaal (butter beans) to her red chilli dry masala.

While food attracts most of us, only a few are involved in the making of what they eat and feed others. Many are happy eating without much of a connect with the back-end operations. I belong to that category. Initially, as a daughter (and working journalist) living with parents in a nuclear setup, I didn't have to cook and neither did I show interest in the craft. Later, as a wife-mother-professional working for a diplomatic mission with fixed hours, I opted for a cook who guaranteed three daily meals and tiffins. I have had three cooks in the last 22 years, a system I have been used to and grateful for. I owe my late-night play watching, weekend workshops, solo vacations, column writing, ideation, and general mobility to the women who cook to make a living. Mumbai, the city of distances, is said to have around 3,00,000 domestic cooks. According to the estimate provided by Uday Bhatt, an active constituent of the now-inactive Maharashtra State Domestic Workers Welfare Board, a significant number of households in Mumbai and suburbs "wouldn't run smoothly" without the services of an unorganised sector.

Had it not been for the Coronavirus outbreak, I wouldn't have visualised myself as the person ensuring meals on the table. But, the unprecedented lockdown upturned normalcy one fine day and shook the ecosystem I had created. For me, basic skills like kneading dough, rolling a poli, cutting raw onions, scraping coconut, grating ginger, mashing bananas, assessing salt quantum etc, took up significant day hours. It wasn't getting better with practice. The men in the house stepped in to see if they fare better; but, while the husband qualified only as an assistant, the younger gent showed poorer results. I channelled his energy towards sweeping, thereby, deciding to steward the ship.

While this is a First World issue on a relative scale, the first two lockdown weeks were the most draining. I sensed a psychological and social pressure that was building because of varied recipes made (and shared online) by well-meaning friends trying out Shepherds Pie, grilled crab, basundi, multi-grain dosa, mussels in white wine, anda chingari, etc. Some were baking bread at home; a minority was also busy with fruit-based coolants and cold soups. One friend, whose Instagram handle, Masala Maharani, has humbled me even before lockdown, offered exotic tiger prawn curry pictures, making me wonder about the size of her refrigerator and summer appetite. Each preparation made me feel further inadequate. On usual days, I wouldn't be affected by someone else's cooking. Women like me have long back delinked cooking and grihasthashram. But, the claustrophobia of a lockdown implanted worries that were foreign to my constitution.

Just as the advent of smartphones made every user a photographer, the national lockdown made every Indian (almost) a nutrition-food expert who shared the cooked wonders, as a matter of national duty. Since feel-good content is generally lacking in the lockdown scenario, food became an aphrodisiac and cooking replaced other entertainment. Also, I had another issue—elaborate recipes were being passed off as "simple lockdown meals".

To complicate matters, PM Modi started giving novel taskers to the nation at this point. One had to be alert. At the time when he asked people to bang utensils, greasy tavas were lying in my sink. I could not clap too hard for service givers because hands were engaged in cleaning the sooji for corn upma. My bandwidth couldn't deal with new to-dos when I was grappling with "what's for the evening?"

I distinctly remember the day Modiji asked us to light diyas. That was when our microwave conked off. Not that the gadget was being used for making chocochip cookies or rava cake, but lament worthy was the loss of a coffee/tea reheating facility; resultantly my son's popcorn had to shift base to a pressure cooker. That also meant some additional utensils for cleaning. With every meal came its luggage. Women's rights activist Kamla Bhasin's poetry shared online that day, seemed super-apt on this occasion. Her feelings about the seemingly unending house chores were mine, too: "Kaash ghar ka kaam bhi ishq ki tarah hota, karna nahin padta, khud ho jaata" (If only housework were like romance, one didn't have to do it, it would happen on its own").

Memory recall played a huge role during the lockdown. My late mother's take on phodni (tadka) was key to any dish. In her theory, if a woman has patience for the rai to fully stop spluttering in the heated oil, the rest of the journey won't be uphill. I was also reminded of her quick no-frills dahibhaaat with stuffed phodnichi mirchi along with curry leaves and coriander sprinkle. I have adapted her toop methkoot bhaat or lavana bhaskar powdered rice as the main course. Her dadape pohe—raw poha punched with onion-coconut seasoning—need no planning.

My mother-in-law's online tutorials characterised the lockdown. She reiterated her abiding belief in easy-to-store 'rainy day' sprouts, which once soaked overnight, can be either boiled and made into a missal with farsan and tomato-onion or an usal curry of varying consistency. Her dried tablets made of pulses, called dubuk wadi, is a quick fix eggie substitute.

The lockdown offered different insights to different people. For me, the gain is survival cooking. I have accepted—am told that many 'constants' may turn 'variables' in the post-Corona world—a life without aides in the kitchen. There was a time when I fretted over the cook's leave, factored in her medical emergency, made alternative arrangements, ordered dabba food from neighbouring restaurants, etc. In Mumbai parlance, 'badli' options have to be ready. Today, the fear of a perceived loss of domestic help has receded. I am the badli.

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