Online inventory and the kitchen challenge
During lockdown, and through the pandemic, blogs and YouTube tutorials turned out to be excellent cooking teachers
There was a time, not so long ago, when recipes were heirlooms. They were passed on from generation to generation. Most times, they were oral or experiential: you quizzed your mother or grandmother how a particular family favourite was rustled up; or you got even more invested, and hovered around the kitchen while they cooked, picking up cues, putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle being chopped on granite slabs and assembled on the stove.
It was not uncommon for ‘secret’ recipes to be written out on pieces of paper. In beautiful handwriting. Stored inside a cabinet drawer. Or inside a jar atop a pantry shelf. At times, left to roost. A friend was telling me the other day how she chanced upon a bunch of her (late) great-aunt’s (a phenomenal cook) “culinary notes” in one of the recesses at her ancestral place; she’s now planning to digitise the archive.
I was never one for taking down notes or storing nuggets in my head. Never bothered about kitchen craft — although I could whip up a mean omelette with ‘fancy trappings’ (read: mashed potatoes and Amul cheese) at a rather young age. In my state of adulthood, the few times I fixed myself chicken curry or masoor dal (with ghee) or some trite form of pasta, they were by usually strung together by instinct. They turned out well enough, but I never had time (and inclination) to pursue cooking as a passion — or even a necessity. And yes, I purchased a few cookbooks along life’s journey — again, impulsively — all of which gathered dust.
All that changed when the lockdown happened. I realised my time in the kitchen — that started out as whimsical snatches — was giving me a sense of structure at a time when each and every other timeline had started getting blurred. I needed to expand my repertoire, making an omelette or a chicken curry with Shan masala mix and yoghurt would not give me the frame I so desperately needed. So, I turned to that thing called the Internet.
The first thing I’d do in the morning, while I was still lying supine in bed, would be to check out “easy and simple” recipes. Blogs — gosh, I had no idea there were so many home cooks writing out formulas for fantastic food alongside clicking real-time photos and videos — and YouTube tutorials became my go-to haven for vicarious inventiveness.
In the process, I discovered something about myself. Whenever I was searching for a recipe, I was invariably tempted to type in “Bengali” after “easy” and “simple”. I’ve never been an enthusiastic parochialist about Bengali culinary leanings, but I now — when push was coming to shove at a juncture that had become existentially epiphanic — I was seeking comfort in food I had an intrinsic connect with. There is this vegetable called chichingey which can evolve into a delish slow-fried piece de resistance with the aid of mustard oil and nigella seeds. In the Queen’s language, it translates into ‘snake gourd’ (a Bengali expat friend’s fussy daughter doesn’t eat it only because it reminds her of snakes, even though chichingey doesn’t really look ophidian); you get it selectively in Delhi — where I was domiciled during the duration of the lockdown, and the semi one that followed, in India. But, with mask on and steely determination, I scrounged around Delhi’s Bengali ghetto in an attempt to find chichingey, and finally had my way.
I started ordering fresh fish online, even though I never cared much for seafood while growing up, and laid Bengali touches on them. I learnt how to make mustard paste the hard way: not in a mixer-grinder but in a pestle-and-mortar (I finally made use of the lovely pink-hued marble one a friend had gifted me ages ago), and used it to cook rohu and bhetki. And I went through the long-drawn-out rite of making kosha mangsho, after “consulting” a number of videos, and going with the one that “looked” like what our cook, back in the day, in Calcutta, would pull out like a rabbit from under the magician’s hat.
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