The kitchen is his pulpit

Updated: Jul 05, 2020, 09:14 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

A Catholic priest, also a trained chef, is teaching us to make simple, one-pot lockdown meals, while doling out faith lessons

Pics courtesy/Shailesh Shetty and Preetham Rodrigues
Pics courtesy/Shailesh Shetty and Preetham Rodrigues

The kitchen of Catholic priest Fr Warner D'Souza in Malad East is a humble celebration of food. Potatoes and onions play peekaboo from small plastic buckets that hang from the wall, while straw baskets with veggies of all kinds are seen colouring the corner right below. It's but the neatly-lined bottles and jars of spices, pulses and sauces, covering every inch of empty space in his cooking station, that has piqued our interest. Gazing like a voyeur into his kitchen in a video on YouTube, it's hard to tell which spice is stored in which bottle. But, the distraction aside, the priest has us glued to his every word. Today, he is discussing the Gospel of Matthew from the Bible, where Jesus "calls us to give more love". That the sermonising is happening not from the pulpit of the church, but inside his brimming kitchen, might feel strange. Stranger is the fact that the faith lesson is being accompanied by a quick cooking tutorial.

Fr D'souza, who is the priest in charge at St Jude Church in Malad East, is preparing beetroot bhaji for his viewers. And the transition between conversations about food and faith is smooth.

Until before the lockdown in March, YouTube was still alien territory for Fr D'Souza. The priest, who is also the director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum in Goregaon, was an avid blogger. His page, amusingly named, was where he wrote on everything from faith, travel to food, art and heritage. But with the church having to shut its doors temporarily due to the pandemic, Fr D'Souza was forced to celebrate mass online. Tough times called for new, innovative measures. And so, around the same time, he also launched a new YouTube programme, Food for the Soul, a series of lockdown lessons about food and religion, which has raked in nearly 7.6k subscribers in less than two months. The idea for the programme, was a happy accident. "Somewhere at the start of the lockdown, a news channel was talking about what people were viewing most on Google during quarantine. Food seemed to be on everyone's mind," he recalls. "It struck me then that I anyway run a faith blog, and I am also a professional chef [Fr D'Souza studied hospitality at HAFT, Sophia College], so why not marry the two?"

Fr Warner D'Souza
Fr Warner D'Souza

Though the programme offers a Christian experience of life, food, he says, is universal. And so, even while discussing the scripture, Fr D'Souza speaks about issues that will be "acceptable to everybody". "Like marriage and anger—they affect almost everyone. I wanted the people watching, to relate. Yes, it is a Christian perspective, but it's a perspective nonetheless. It's for people who want to nourish their soul as well as stomach," he says.

Fr D'Souza says that he didn't really have the time to learn what it takes to be a chef on YouTube. His friend, former model and VJ Maria Goretti, already had a successful stint with her food channel on the platform. "But to be honest, I didn't watch any food shows before getting started. When I went in front of the camera, I realised it was just a matter of adjusting to three lenses and an iPhone."

His teachings about faith are also deliberately brief. "Even when preparing food, the challenge was always to hold people's attention. You can't go beyond 15 minutes, because viewers will switch off. Initially, I couldn't figure out what to teach and cook. We were not doing any editing, and so, I was doing a continuous show, trying to avoid any mistakes. I didn't have the luxury of time, cameras, or variety of ingredients. I had one hand tied behind my back."

The lockdown, he says, necessitated preparing simple meals that everyone could make at home. "We have to be conscious about what is going on around us. Currently, we have this huge divide in our country, which is being spoken about, but not loudly enough." His dishes, hence, are devoid of excesses. Some of the ingredients, like chilli, tomato, melon and bitter gourd, came from his terrace garden. He also prepares, what he describes as one-pot meals, with leftover veggies or those that offer interesting combinations—like chorizo (Goan sausages) and black eyed peas or chowli. "I enjoy mixing and matching ingredients to create meals for one," he shares in his blog, where he usually posts recipes from his video series. "This [chorizo and chowli] is my twist on a Portuguese feijoada, a staple dish made with cheap and easy to find ingredients. This meal originally had grains, vegetables and pork meat… and is traditionally cooked with red kidney beans or rajma," he writes further.

Before he became a priest, Fr D'Souza worked as a chef for a year at the continental kitchen of The Oberoi in Nariman Point. But, he enjoyed cooking much before that, as a child. One of the first dishes he made was a Goan fish curry, at the age of 12. "It started out of necessity. My parents used to work, and we didn't have the luxury of maids. So, my older brother, younger sister and I would do the household chores after we came back from school. My mother introduced us to cooking. One of the things she made me do was grind masalas. I remember my first experience of grinding red chilli masala on the stone, and my hands burning after that. They were on fire. But I loved it," he recalls. In his youth, it was his professor Annabelle Rodrigues, now head of department at Don Bosco College Hospitality Studies, who influenced him to be a better version of himself. "Though my first love has always been the kitchen, it's only because of the pandemic that I am now cooking more often."

Though he has amassed a following through his videos, Fr D'Souza isn't quite sure yet, about the future of the series. "I don't want to lose sight of the fact that principally, I am still a priest."

Spinach cooked with moong dal

Spinach cooked with moong dal

1 large bunch of spinach
1 handful moong dal, soaked in water for two hours
2 large onions, chopped finely
2 large tomatoes, chopped finely, 3-4 green chillies
4 cloves garlic, ¼ tsp turmeric
½ tsp cumin seeds
Oil and salt as required

Wash the spinach and chop it fine. Soak the split moong dal for two hours and drain and set aside. Add the cumin in hot oil and fry for a minute. Now add the green chillies and garlic followed by the onions. When the onions are translucent, add the tomatoes and allow this mixture to be rendered down. This will take about four minutes. Now add the turmeric and the dal and half a cup of water. Season with salt. Allow the dal to cook in the water till the water dries up. Make sure you don't over-cook the dal, it should have a bite to it. Now add the finely sliced spinach and stir it all in for a minute. Spinach does not need to be overcooked. It will continue cooking in the heat of the dish. Turn of the gas and cover with a lid.

Beetroot cooked with curry leaves and coconut

Beetroot cooked with curry leaves and coconut

250 gm beetroot, cut into fine dices
30 ml oil
2 cloves finely chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
2 sprigs curry leaves
1 finely chopped onion
3 finely chopped green chillies
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
¾ teaspoon cumin powder
50 gms grated coconut

Heat the oil in a deep pan. Add chopped garlic and sauté till it turns light brown (on a medium flame). Add mustard seeds and curry leaves and allow the mustard to crackle. Add onion and chillies, and sauté for a minute on low flame. Now add the chopped beetroot and add salt to taste. Let this cook on low flame for 2 minutes and then add turmeric powder. Continue the cooking process for one more minute on a low flame. Finally, add cumin powder which is the main flavouring agent. Turn off the gas and add grated coconuts and give this a stir and cover. Allow the beetroot to cook in its own heat. Garnish with freshly chopped coriander leaves.

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