Freshly cooked basmati rice, aromatic, fluffy and long grained. Masoor dal seasoned with cumin seeds, turmeric, fried red onions, green chillies and tomatoes. Potatoes, chopped finely and fried to a crispy golden brown. Posto (poppy seed sauce) slow cooked with potol (pointed gourd). Hilsa fish that melts in the mouth, delicately steamed in thick white mustard sauce. And to end, a little terracotta pot of mishti doi (sweet yogurt) with its lovely mellow brown richness. A home cooked traditional Bengali meal my soul craves, to say nothing of my taste buds. Sometimes I sit in my kitchen in Ann Arbor, smelling and tasting each of these in my mind, wistful that my mother is not here to make this meal for me, or that I am not at my parents' place in Kolkata to savor it.
So what is it about the taste and flavors of home cooked meals that is so vividly evocative? Is it childhood nostalgia? An innocence about life that gets captured in the simple, honest flavors and textures? Is it the daily human connection that forms its foundation - who cooked the meal, who we shared it with, the emotions that are expressed through it, the conversations surrounding it? Is it what we celebrate through a special meal? Perhaps the everyday predictability and comfort of its simplicity and unpretentiousness? A connection to the cycle of life through the changing seasonal foods?
One afternoon a couple of weeks ago I was at my friend Lakshmi Narayanan's home. I sat around in her kitchen, sipping the strawberry-mango smoothie she made for me, chatting and watching her cook Indian food. She is a wonderful cook who teaches Indian cooking at Hollander's in Ann Arbor, in addition to often having friends over for dinner at her home. Lakshmi also regularly offers cooking workshops as a way to raise funds for SPARSH. She is organized and methodical, following recipes faithfully and efficiently, quite unlike my own style of cooking Indian food - I rarely use recipes and even when I do, it is just to get a general idea. Which means that the result is less predictable and also an excellent reason for me to not teach Indian cooking!
Lakshmi started the preparation - chopping the red onions, garlic, green chillies, zucchini and tomatoes, grating ginger and marinating the chicken. On the menu was chicken tikka masala and daal with zucchini and tomatoes.
The spices, waiting to add zest to the onions, ginger and garlic frying in the pan for the chicken, and to the sauteeing zucchini and tomatoes for the daal.
The chicken is grilled for the tikka masala.
The fresh and fragrant cilantro is chopped for garnishing.
And finally the two scrumptious dishes - chicken tikka masala and daal with zucchini and tomatoes are ready, filling the kitchen with vibrant colors, textures and aromas. A wonderfully rich sensory experience!
Photographs by Sreyashi Dey, May 2010