Feast with Marwaris: A lesson in traditional cooking and risk- taking

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The Great Indian Kitchen

“I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized stilton, raw oysters, or working for organized crime ‘associates’, food for me always been an adventure.” – Anthony Bourdain

I have never been a foodie, nor have I claimed to be any connoisseur of good food. I have never even been fascinated by ‘cooking.’ Hell, I hate entering a kitchen or acting as a sous-chef to my mother, as is the case in most of Indian families. Well I might be generalizing a bit, as mostly inside a traditional Indian kitchen, you’ll always find a girl being trained young on the ‘masalas’ and the ‘tadkas,’ while the boys are trained to do all the ‘outside household chores.’

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In ancient India, kitchen used to be a pet-project of men known as Maharaj. Maharajas used to be people of higher caste who were allowed to touch sacred ingredients such as ghee and oil. It was believed that if lower caste mortals touched the food, it would get polluted.

Coming back to my ‘cooking skills,’ I can safely say for myself that fortunately I was never forced by mother to enter a kitchen and that all my life, I will always brag about the fact that my brother is a great master chef! 🙂

So recently, when I travelled to Salawas in Rajasthan, with Rural Odyssey, I was overwhelmed by our host (Chottaram Bhayyia’s) insistent invitation to join in a ‘traditional open-fire’ cooking session at the Chhotaram Prajapat’s Homestay. Reluctantly and with some peer pressure from co-travelling friends amidst much excitement and hulahoo, I agreed to try my hands at the ‘Chula-Chokha’ for desi Indian khana.

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Ker Saang… a local vegetable 

Indian cuisine, is different from the various world cuisines, not only in taste but also the methods of cooking (which may vary from region to region, state to state and family to family) as well! Depending on the regions’ environmental conditions, landscapes and dominance of various civilizations (foreign and domestic) which ruled India, the food reflects a delectable blend of cultures, spices, flavours, colours and textures. Rajasthani cuisine in particular, represent the ‘desert’ flavour of the country and has a rich spread of ‘daals and achars (pickles)’ which substitutes the lack of fresh vegetation and scarce water in the food.

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A traditional masala box- In Indian kitchens, you will find typical compartmentalized steel boxes, which hold secrets to many a grand recipes 

We were soon led to the kitchen by Mamta didi, followed by her husband Chottaram Bhaiyya who consistently pestered us with his humorous banter “Look, the food you prepare should be good, else, we’ll punish you!” Mamta didi smiled and introduced us to her ingredients, flavours and an assortment of cooking cutlery. She then announced that I had to prepare ‘Gatte ki Sabzi’ (Gram flour dumpling curry), a trademark Rajasthani curry. She had already boiled the required gatte (gram-flour balls) for us to start directly working on the main dish and save time. She then explained us the process of open-fire cooking and the amounts of spices I was supposed to mix in the curry. I was suddenly transported to the world of my childhood memories and my experiences in my native land- Tikoti. Tikoti is a small village in the state of Karnataka in India and my grandfather owns big farms. I then reminisced of my time as a kid, a time I spent looking at my grandmother prepare food for our family and boasted of my knowledge of how to turn the chulha on.

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The traditional gas stove majorly found in rural India

To the uninitiated, chulha is a traditional Indian cooking stove used for indoor cooking. It is a U-shaped mud stove made from clay and cow dung. The thickness of the walls of the stove is not as important as the dimensions of the fire-side are. The front of the chulha has an apron. This apron helps hold the fuel to be burnt (usually wood, sticks, cow dung patties, straw, crop waste etc.). Once the process of cooking is complete the apron holds the ashes, which are removed later.

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Prepping up- Preparing the gram flour balls

Coming back to the session, my friends continued to cut the ‘gattes’ in smaller pieces, while Mamta didi guided me on the selection of spices, to be churned for the curry in a silver pot. For the last ingredient, however, it felt as if the whole world came crashing down when Mamta didi surprisingly came yelling at me and stunned sat looking at me. At last, the shock and suspense in the room tapered off, as Mamta did broke in one spell of high pitched laughter. I learnt later that I was supposed to assort all spices together, churn them together in the silver pot and add them all together in the heated oil pan. Instead, I put one ingredient separately in the oil, while I continued to churn the others. This, Mamta didi would explain me later, can cause the curry to burn or the separate spices would retain their own flavours leading to a not-so tasty curry.

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Trying hands on the chula-chokha

At the end of the session, when another friend had tried her hands at cooking some local styled vegetable and a failed ‘Bajre ki roti’ making session, we settled down. Mamta didi then revealed the grand secret behind the world-famous Indian culinary feat, which took me back to Mr. Anthony Bourdain’s claims. And with it, that day, I learnt a few lessons of life from my hosts in a small remote village of a state in my country:

  1. The next time, when you laugh at the idea of a woman cooking in a kitchen, remember, it’s not a chore, it is an art!
  2. Good food, very often is simple food
  3. Eating food is not a necessity to be alive. It’s a grand adventure, an amusement park. Enjoy the ride!
  4. Food is power. It is magic. It has the ability to inspire, surprise, shock, excite, make you nervous, and delight. It can make a society, bridge the differences between people, and hold the fabric together in ways that are often charming and interesting.
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The grand adventure, which turned out to be ultimate yummilicious experience 😉

And last but not the least, as the lord of culinary world says himself:

Good food and good eating are about risk, an adventure! 😉

All pictures, courtesy: Shradha Agarwal of Ghumantoo

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7 thoughts on “Feast with Marwaris: A lesson in traditional cooking and risk- taking

  1. Aaah Deepika, this took be back to the time when we used to stay at my granny’s place is India (I’m from Mangalore, btw). We still use the traditional method of cooking (sometimes for rice) and heat water by fire there.The older generation prefer these methods as they’ve grown up with it and they say “food cooked that way tastes good “. My granny even prefers to grind red chillies rather than getting them from the market.

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    • Oh wow, I didn’t know you were a Manglorean.. that’s good to know. So glad I could take you back to your memories. And it is so good to know, that your family still uses the traditional methods of cooking. So good! 🙂

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