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Culinary comforts

I've always been intrigued by cooking – for who doesn't enjoy the fruits of that labour – but it was never really one of my ambitions to become a good cook. It felt like aiming too high, ever slightly out of reach. In fact, if you check out the Food label on this blog, you'll find that hardly any of it is about my own cooking. 

I moved to London in 2011, opting for a dorm with a kitchen rather than one where meals were provided. I preferred the idea of being able to choose what and when I ate. Perhaps I thought I'd figure out how to cook along the way, and throwing myself into the deep end was the answer. I learned a few basic things before moving, some more theoretical than others. The first few days in the huge, bright kitchen were a mess; I needed to get used to the stove-top (no fire) before actually figuring out what to do upon it. I bought iffy heat-and-eat meals from Tesco, and I used the microwave a LOT. I guess those were my culinary beginnings, if we can call them that, and I eventually widened my repertoire and began to cook and modify by intuition. 

Cranberry orange muffins with buttercream frosting, a team effort

Nine years down the line, I don't consider myself a great cook, though I like to think that I can hold my own in the kitchen. While I was never too confident sharing my cooking – I liked it, though – over the years I've made things for my family, my husband, and occasionally for friends. I'm still not sure what I would take to a potluck, but I'm still learning. Of course, the lockdown this year gave us ample opportunity to hunker down and cook what we desired to eat, and I struck through my 2020 goal of "cook and bake more" as early as May. Recently, I started making a simple weekly meal plan which has worked wonders; it's certainly helpful to take some of the thinking out of cooking. And though I was initially sceptical, I've come to love our open-plan kitchen. Cooking shouldn't feel isolating.

As the year draws to a close, I've been thinking about the dishes that I've come to trust, which I know I can turn to at any point and they won't disappoint. But as I reflected on these comfort foods – comforting because of how they taste, how they're made, how they make me feel – I realised that there was another aspect. They reminded me of specific people or events in my life. Here are some stories.

Egg fried rice

The first time I made egg fried rice was in those first few months in London. I'd bought a box of ready-to-eat egg fried rice from Tesco, and my flatmate RocΓ­o was not impressed. She figured I could make a better version myself ("maybe you can, I certainly can't," is what I wanted to say). But as I got more used to the pots and pans and stoves, a voice in my head said it couldn't hurt to try. Turns out I could make it, and it went through a few improvements with tips from another flatmate, Andrew, who always worried about how much salt I ate, and suggested that I wash bisected onions to avoid crying – and who also told me that the secret was using refrigerated rice. Over the years, this has become a favourite whenever there's rice left over, and I like to do it in two quick steps (frying all the veggies and an egg together, and then adding the rice) which leaves a bit of crunch. It always brings me back fondly to those early days.  

Cheese omelettes for brunch

Before the egg fried rice, though, there were eggs. As a kid, I would try to sample everything at hotel breakfast buffets, and my brother would often order a cheese omelette. I think my brain retained this information when I started making omelettes every time I was in a hurry or out of ideas, and in addition to tomatoes and/or capsicum, I would always add some cheese. These humble omelettes were often my brunch in London, and I do variations of this depending on ingredients, but that version is still my favourite – with a bit of oregano to season, and cooked in butter. I add the cheese later, once I turn the omelette over, and then fold it in half – this makes each bite extra cheesy. I know my omelettes won't let me down, and I made them for the first balcony brunch in our new Bombay flat, and, of course, when my brother visited us. 

Paneer, halfway done

I grew up watching my grandfather make paneer from milk, in a procedure as precise as it was fascinating to witness. When we visited our grandparents' farm in the hills, every morning there would be a flurry of activity involving heating and curdling milk, which would then be strained, pressed, cooled and cut into slabs for selling. But my favourite paneer recipe comes from my mom – crunchy onions, juicy chopped tomatoes, cubes of soft paneer. Later, we started stirring in some capsicum too for a richer flavour. I remember my mom taking this dish to a New Year party, and cooking it with my brother in our kitchen in Delhi for a family dinner. 

Chhole

More often than not, the three-hour trek up a mountain to visit our uncle and grandparents would culminate in a hot lunch of kabuli channas (chickpeas) and rice, and I've watched my mom and nani stir them in a kadhai for ages, while my mother-in-law prefers to pressure cook them along with the tadka of onions, tomatoes and masalas. My recipe in lockdown has evolved from all of these methods, with the channas properly soaked overnight or for several hours; but before this, in London, there were chickpeas in cans, just needing that additional flavour. Three of my fellow Indian students invited me to meals comprising of this dish, and one of them took her own life two years ago. It sometimes reminds me of her, and her generosity. Remembering is important.

Banana chocolate chip mini muffins

In the summer of 2012, a professor invited all his MA Social Anthropology students to a potluck dinner at his home in London. It was here that I first tasted moussaka, tajine and, excitingly, banana bread. Exciting because I could not get enough of it. I was slightly worried that it might even replace chocolate as my favourite kind of cake. It was rich, moist and baked to perfection by my friend Franny – who is now, in a fitting turn of fate, completing a chef apprenticeship. I had to struggle to be polite and not gobble more than two slices in company. Franny gave all credit to the foolproof BBC recipe, which I had asked her for even though I couldn't really bake, but the most beautiful thing of all was that she visited me a couple of months later, just before I left for a tour of Europe, with a loaf of banana bread all my own. Later, I tried out the recipe in Delhi with my mom, and it didn't disappoint. In the lockdown, it transformed the too-many bananas we couldn't eat before they became overripe in the Bombay heat into deliciousness. I have since experimented with banana-chocolate chip muffins (no fat) and banana French toasts (no eggs) – we've just had a lot of ripening bananas – but this heavenly-smelling-tasting recipe will never be replaced.  

Cranberry breakfast cake

There has been another contender in my baking, though. Two years ago, my (now) husband bought three bags of dried cranberries and promptly decided that he didn't want them after all. We added them to salads occasionally, but we figured the easiest way to eat them might be baking them into things. So for quite a while, many of the recipes we looked up online involved cranberries, marking some memorable occasions for which we baked together – cranberry orange muffins for Christmas, cranberry and white chocolate cookies to take home to my parents for New Year's day, a beautiful cranberry breakfast cake drizzled with honey to celebrate the end of my education loan and again for my birthday. The cranberries are finally over, but I miss them. Luckily, I know where to get a bag, or several.

A jar of homemade pesto alongside ingredients for a pasta

Also a couple of years ago, I was slightly crestfallen when I found that the husband had ordered a pesto pasta for my dinner. Pesto was my least favourite kind of pasta sauce; I think I just didn't fancy green. He said he thought I'd like it, and I probably had never told him I didn't. I figured it was a sweet gesture and I could at least have a little, but it turned out I couldn't. I tore through it. It was delicious and I couldn't believe what I had been missing out on. Then last year, he ordered some basil with our groceries to adorn pizzas and such. Only it was a lot, and he was off visiting his parents, so I was struck by the inspiration to attempt making my own pesto. I found a simple recipe that used almonds instead of pine nuts, which we had an abundance of, and I decided to give it a whirl. How can I describe the scent of basil leaves being chopped up, ground in a mixer with almonds and garlic and cheese? It is everything. It is a huge part of why I love making pesto now. The other reasons are pasta, pizza, paneer, sandwiches and grilled chicken.

Comments

  1. Lockdown has been great for our cooking skills, eh?! All your food looks great, and egg fried rice is a favourite of mine as well!

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    1. Having no choice does that sometimes! It definitely pushed me to try new things I probably never would have otherwise, so not complaining :)

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    2. > bought iffy heat-and-eat meals from Tesco

      I did that too! Was still doing it when I first moved to Hamburg… πŸ™ˆ

      I also like open-plan kitchens more! The only downside is that in a studio like mine, managing cooking smells becomes tricky.

      For a second I thought you went to London after I went to Norway, but then I remembered all the cooking tips you gave me while I was there.

      Cheese omelette πŸ˜‹ I haven't had one for a long time - I think the last time was when you made it for me!

      > we've just had a lot of ripening bananas

      I can relate to this!!

      The cranberries thing made me lol, I can totally imagine that :D

      And omg pesto is amazing! Especially the freshly made one! (not that I've ever made it myself).

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    3. Ah we all have ready to eat stuff for emergencies (and sometimes not so much). No shame in it! I just meant the ones I got weren't very good.

      Our apartment is small too and that was one of my concerns with the kitchen, but it's been okay. Actually doesn't seem that much different that a non-open kitchen, smell pervades when it has to :)

      Haha my student tricks! I don't know if I use many now but it's always good info to have.

      Cranberry everything! It all turned out really good too, remember the cookies?

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