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Tastes like old times

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Weekend Plus Desk :
I’ve always been greedy. I’m fortunate that I was born into a family where this early talent was fiercely nurtured and honed. Today, my food fixation is at world-class levels, but milord I’m innocent - my mother did it.
My mother is a fabulous cook, so food in our home was always yummy. Plus, in the Pleistocene era of socialist India I grew up, civilisation had not yet progressed to the invention of Zomato and Swiggy. Which meant that we compared our home food to other people’s home food, not to the delights available today - and by God, our home food was way better.
It wasn’t because my mother made complicated, elaborate things. Our food was simple. It had to be. Mummy is an instinctive adventurous cook, but she worked all our growing years - on most days, she just never had the time to cook up feasts. So everyday food was a fragrant dal, fresh vegetables cooked simply, and sometimes a mutton gravy to liven up proceedings. But I can rarely remember a meal that I was not dying to attack, because at our table, there were always extras. A fabulous piquant salad, a tart mouth-puckering chutney, a raita that cleared up your nasal passages - something that elevated the meal to a different level.
Simple food made well, sans lots of oil and spices but high on flavour - that's always been the way we have cooked and eaten at our family table. To me, ghar ka khana is the fragrance of basmati chawal eaten with arhar dal made with a tadka of jhambu (wild garlic chives native to the mountains). It's the knowledge that to lift a simple cucumber raita to transcendental levels, all you need to add to it is a pinch of haldi and a handful of rai seeds ground on a sil batta. It's the alu sabzi rustled up in minutes - flavoured with heeng and crunchy with tiny nutty jakhiya seeds on the outside.
So simple cuisine is encoded in my DNA - and the signature of home food to me. This love is something I have proudly passed on to my children.
However, for them, pahadi food doesn't rouse the same passion and bliss it does in me. For them, the best home food is still simple, but it means other things. It is the things that they can reliably expect to eat at home, which they can't order in from anywhere else. It’s food they know they can request a million times over but which won't make me grumpy while cooking. That the ghar ka khana they adore is different from the kind I loved growing up, that it belongs to my own slapdash a-bit-of-this-and-a-bit-of-that style of cooking than any real cuisine is immaterial. It is simple and when done well, tastes a little like heaven and a lot like home.
Til ki chutney
Dry roast brown pahadi sesame seeds in a wok (use a folded tea towel to move them and stop them popping all over) till they smell nutty. Separately dry roast a small spoon of zeera seeds and a whole dry red chilli. Grind together when cool. Add nimbu juice for tartness and gur for sweetness and a pinch of salt to balance. Amazing with anything.
Pomelo Salad
Grind fresh cilantro leaves with green chillies and salt. Add along with some sugar to pomelo pulp. (The balance between the tartness of the pomelo and the sweetness of the sugar and the flavour and sharpness of the chilli and salt is key). Best eaten lolling in the sun on a cold winter day.
Prawns with Chilli, Garlic and Rocket
In a skillet, to oil add salt and freshly sliced garlic flakes. Do not brown. Add deseeded fresh red chillies for a pop of colour. Add prawns and cook till translucent and the tails turn fiery-red. When just done, add a heap of rocket leaves and turn off the flame. The heat in the skillet will wilt the rocket. Add a spritz of lime juice and eat immediately with some warm crusty bread. A perfect way to get kids who won't eat any greens to eat a garden full of them. n

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