…and other helpful excuses in the kitchen!
The trick to making soft and delicious Gulab Jamuns is the butter that you drizzle into the Bisquick and Carnation milk powder while mixing and kneading into little balls! This little tip was not in the recipe that I copied from Cedar Rapids public library. I am proud to say that it’s something that I came up with! This was just one of many gastronomic techniques that I had developed during my bachelor days in Iowa!
More science than art!
Like every other Indian grad student in the US, I learned cooking from those that came before us. Every student’s pantry had the requisite cans of Garbanzo beans (for Chhole) and Red Kidney beans (for Rajma). Starting with the easy staples of Chhole , Rajma, scrambled eggs and V8 sambars we eventually graduated to pizzas made from scratch as well as more complicated sounding Indian non veg items. Every desi grad student was self-taught and, by the end of the first semester, could easily whip up a meal for the roommates as well as for weekend parties. The new comers just watched and learned. It was no big deal .. a little bit of this and little bit of that and then go crazy with the spices and cook the hell out of the whole mess and voila.. in no time you are a genius in the kitchen (at least in your mind)!
When I started living by myself as a working bachelor, I did try and bring some finesse to the cooking style and even consulted some recipe books to expand my repertoire! I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Saranya Mandava – a copy of whose popular recipe book was acquired from a friend. This was the first recipe book that had all the traditional Indian (and Andhra) dishes suitable for the US market! During those bachelor days in Iowa, I had the patience, time and aptitude to experiment in the kitchen – and more importantly, there was no one to throw cold water on my enthusiasm. Even if the end result was an inedible horrible mess, (not that it ever was), didn’t Thomas Edison fail multiple times before he hit on that perfect element for the light bulb? I certainly was no less of a scientist in the kitchen!
Back in those Cedar Rapids days, when I was craving for Idlis (South Indian breakfast/brunch item) — I used an Idli mix packet (imported from an Indian store in Chicago) to make one large idli as shown – using the inverted lid of a rice cooker for pouring the batter and steaming it, in a 5 qt dutch oven (since I didn’t own the requisite “Idli Plates”). It was perfect! Who cares what its shape was as long as it tasted authentic! This was also the first time I had made the traditional Idli chutney with Peanuts+Coconut+Tamarind+Chilli peppers!
Another time, when I felt like having proper whole wheat chapatis and not the store bought tortillas, I started with whole wheat flour and improvised with a 2 liter bottle of coke (as a substitute for a rolling pin)! Ahh.. how can I forget those early days when the smoke alarm used to trip quite often (or the time when the apartment supervisor showed up in panic), just because I ended up with blackened Cajun Chapatis (quite unintended, of course)!!
Queen of her domain!
By the time Uma arrived on the scene, I was already an expert at cooking and more importantly, I enjoyed cooking! When Uma was in college, her mom had told her – “Once you learn cooking, you will be cooking for the rest of your life.. so there’s no rush , you can learn later”. So she had never stepped in a kitchen till she came to the US! Which is no big deal, as that was the case with me as well! Uma came to the US armed with a few written recipes from her mom and a recipe booklet! I was her first cooking guru. I taught her the basics and the rest is an amalgam of recipes, phone consultation with me (while I was at work) and hours and hours of phone consultation with her mom (AT&T did send us a thank-you note that year for helping them meet their revenue goals)! As far as cooking is concerned we are polar opposites – She doesn’t really enjoy cooking, but does an excellent job of it when she does cook and is very particular about starting and ending with a clean kitchen. I, on the other hand, love to experiment in the kitchen, and have been told that I “leave a mess behind” (of course, that’s debatable, in my opinion). 🙂
Uma is a strict traditionalist in her style of cooking. She will not mix two ingredients or spices unless her original notes or her mom says it’s OK to do that! She still hates cooking – but whatever she cooks is tasty and traditional! (I am required to mention this per the legal contract!). 🙂 She rules over the kitchen and says that I make a mess and create extra work for her when I do cook! She gets upset that I don’t follow a recipe or that I do not name the item till it’s all done (really, who knows what it will turn out to be anyway). I have essentially been kicked out of the kitchen for all practical purposes and only invited to take care of a few selected items which are my signature items, such as the aforementioned Idli chutney, Avial (which morphed into Vegetable Korma – after some key ingredients were subtracted by family members) and Masala chai (which I have been told is too strong, sometimes)!
Today, I am happy to report that after all these years, a little bit of me has rubbed off on Uma and vice versa. She is in the mood for experimenting with different spice blends as well as some combinations of vegetables which were a taboo earlier. As for me, I have been more careful to not make a mess (“an ounce of prevention…”) while cooking. She has picked up newer recipes from VahReVah.com and also added her own twists to some of the recipes to come up with awesome results! She makes a mean Hyderabadi biryani and authentic Paalak Paneer!
On one winter weekend morning, the kids wanted pancakes or waffles for breakfast but Uma and I were not quite in the mood for a sweet breakfast. So, I experimented with topping the waffle with chopped onion, chilli pepper and some Andhra style gun powder! The delectable result was thoroughly appreciated by 2 out of the 4 in the family. The other 2 screamed – “Sacrilege”!
There was another time when we bought Paani Puri shells from store and got very creative with the filling – different salsas, Adobo, Cajun and Creole seasonings instead of the usual ‘Pani’. The kids used to turn out delicious Naanzas (Naan + Pizza) for a quick meal – improvising different toppings based on whatever was available in the house! So, all in all the inventive streak does run in the family.. and we have fun with it!
Chicken Biryani (Paprika waala)!
In those early days in Allentown, when we were hosting a party, I was making chicken curry and as usual, I wanted to experiment with some new spices (I was always a scientist in the kitchen!), so I decided to add paprika in addition to chilli powder. The end result looked very impressive, till I tasted it and realized that it was extremely bitter! We panicked briefly… and then, with guests arriving in less than an hour, I jumped into the the Mr Fix-it mode! I quickly washed every single piece of chicken under running water and then turned it all into chicken biryani! The guests thoroughly enjoyed the dinner and especially loved the biryani. When they asked for the recipe, we gave it to them – every single step including the first pass with paprika and washing the pieces in the sink! I am not sure if they remember this, but after 27 years, we still remember this (and chuckle) like it happened yesterday! 🙂
As Ramya and Vidya get ready to try out Indian cooking on their own, I decided to create a cheat sheet of sorts for them as well as all others who like Indian food but are generally intimidated by the seemingly complicated steps involved in preparing it.
Most likely, because of my experience and interest in cooking, I am too analytical (when it comes to food) for my own good. Whenever we emerge from a restaurant, I immediately deconstruct every item we had for lunch/dinner down to its nuts and bolts to minimize the chef’s efforts (and to ruin the experience for the family)! ):
“Looks like they went crazy with the Aamchoor in that Chhole!”
“$7.99 for that Double-Ka-MeeTa?? I can make that in 20 mins with toasted bread, milk and nuts!”
“That biriyani reminds me of our twice cooked paprika chicken biriyani.. wonder how they got hold of our family recipe?”
“Hmm that Gulab Jamun seems to have the stamp of approval from the American Dental Association!!”
Back in Iowa, where it all started, when word spread among my friends in and around Cedar Rapids/Iowa City that I was a Gulab Jamun expert, I started getting requests to make and bring some for parties. One particular party stands out in my mind after all these years (for reasons that will become apparent soon)! It was a big gathering in Iowa City for someone’s farewell dinner (I think). They asked me to come over and make my world famous Gulab Jamun. I was, of course, more than happy to oblige. I followed the recipe word to word, including the trick about butter in the Bisquick and Carnation milk powder. I must have made almost 100 of these balls! Some of the ladies at the event suggested that I should start my own catering business! I pushed any such suggestions aside with a modest/sheepish smile. When it was all said and done, just before arranging the food, I tasted one of the syrupy balls and I almost chipped a tooth! It was as hard as a marble. I could not believe that my tried and true formula failed me in such a massive, humiliating way! Someone said “Don’t worry, they are not too hard.” to console me!.. One good thing that came out of that disaster – No one dared to ask me to come over and cook ANYTHING after that!