I am an average cook. Indeed some might even sneer secretly and comment that I have to improve to reach the ‘average’ rating. Not that my food kills. It is good enough to satiate a rumbling tummy – not good enough to make you lick your fingers. I can, though, boil a mean rasam blind folded. Anyway, I am one of those positive thinking fools who set about improving weak points in a plodding manner. Ergo, I’m addicted to cookery shows. I’m not alone. I’m told by reliable sources that most of Britain is with me.
What is it about these shows that nail me to the sofa? With a slack mouth I gape at the idiot box as harried wannabe chefs dash around the kitchen grating, chopping, peeling, frying, steaming, boiling, baking. And from the mess rises dishes too beautiful to behold - exotic looking, perfectly shaped lumps placed on a colour-coordinated sauce that has been spread on the plate with the perfection of zari work. Not to mention sprigs of herbs balancing here and there on the plate delicately. And the super sensuous voice-over describing the food – I wouldn’t know most of the terms, all French. To me, all I hear is Chandler Bing’s voice saying ‘Rue de la blah bluh blah blah’. But before I know it, the hour would be up, and I would not have blinked.
The other day I caught this program where the chef is a bloke. Nothing glamorous about him. ‘Yond Cassius has a mean and hungry look’ would describe him well enough. Yet, I was captivated. He was in a kitchen that was bright and cheery – very ‘farmy’ if you know what I mean. It was a kitchen of my heart – no stupid cupboards and cabinets – all solid, open oak shelves on which sat ancient-looking porcelain jars. Something on the stove was bubbling away as Cassius drank tea wiggling his eyebrows at me. Then, he led me out of his kitchen to his kitchen garden, and I swooned. It was as lush as a rain forest. Cassius went about cutting sprigs of coriander, basil, thyme and what not. Then he wiggled his eyebrows some more and pointed out to the hazelnuts and avocados. He said it was nature’s plan to make these two available at the same time. He gave me a lopsided smile and told me ‘Don’t be afraid to experiment’. He collected the gifts of his garden in a beautiful wicker basket and went about explaining how simple it all is to cook. Into the roaster went olive oil, butter, cloves of garlic, herbs and many other magical things (magical in HIS kitchen, mundane in MINE). Meanwhile, he drained the pasta and drank some red wine. Then, we went back to his lovely garden where he sat at a wrought iron table and enjoyed his meal as I stared at him with a mean and hungry look.
It gets worse during Christmas. The wholesome, absolutely delectable Nigella rules the roost. Her kitchen is spotless, not a splatter on her clothes, no batter on her nose, no flour on her chin, no oily T-zone as she goes about grilling veal or venison. Her tresses are perfectly curled, her makeup is impeccable, and even if she says ‘peel the potatoes’ – it sounds incredibly sexy.
Why am I – a curd-rice eating Iyengar by birth, a daal and aloo posto eating Bong bou by matrimony – watch shows where I cannot even attempt to try 99% of recipes? I can’t put my finger on it. Perhaps I am responding to the sensuous factor in all these shows. You know, the beauty-in-food logic. What tastes good, should also look good logic. A lot of unsaid messages are absorbed. ‘This is what a cheerful kitchen looks like’. ‘This is what a good cook looks like’. ‘This is what good food looks like’. ‘Quality over quantity’ justifying the miniscule portions.
Have you noticed that in the past decade, there has been a distinct shift towards ‘being sexy’. No no...not your clothes and shoes – it’s just everything. From choosing curtains to dinner plates – every magazine and every T.V. show tells you ‘THIS is perfection – are you there yet?’ Now, this messaging has percolated to food too. Earlier on, cook books used to be slim paperbacks with just the recipes. At best, there would be a photo of a homely Aunty in a printed silk saree, with two or three gold chains on the neck in ascending order of loop size, jasmine strands peeking on either side of the ears, standing next to a bowl of laddus, smiling awkwardly at the cameras. Now, cook books are more eye-catching than the average fiction best seller. Usually hardbound, the glossy covers have the chefs - perfectly tanned, perfectly toned, flashing away dentist-fixed smiles as they hold up some equally alluring dish. Besides, chefs these days are celebrities – with their own paparazzi following.
Talking of celebrity food, I’d been to this Indian restaurant in Salisbury. We were proudly told there was a special menu – a three course meal. The starter was a choice of chaats. It was served in a shiny, narrow, rectangular plate. There were three chats in three teensy weensy portions. Measured to a teaspoon if you ask me. The food looked as beautiful as a Botticelli. It was gone in 60 seconds. Then came the main course. Pulav served in a grilled capsicum sitting on a bed of roasted tomatoes and potatoes. Tasted great. But it was over before I blinked. The dessert was one gulab jamun sitting shyly on a bed of vanilla icecream. The hungry Iyengar blood boiled.
You see, in my land this is what sexy food looks like. First of all, food is served on a large plantain leaf. And when we say ‘special’, we mean it. There will be MOUNTAINS of rice. There will be rasam, sambhar, nalagiri, morekolambu, manjekolambu, aviyal, pachchadi, appla, at least three different palyas, at least three different gojjus, at least two of these - puliyogre, chitranna, kadambam, pongal apart from the plain rice, and then some shundal, some khara boondi, medhu vade, thair vade, at least two different payasas, one served on the leaf, one served in steel tumblers. And yes. CURD RICE to signify all’s well that ends well.
But, remember that I am a positive fool? I did try assiduously to live up to the expectations of the media.
I thought I’ll start with the food. Now, how sexy can anna, saaru, palya get? I eat out of a steel plate. I slurp the sambhar. I smack at the mosaruanna with nimbehannu uppinakaayi. I drink my coffee out of a large mug, and usually have a foam moustache during this ritual. Darn it. Maybe I can just describe the food in a sexy way. So today I told The Husband (in what I thought was a sexy voice) that for breakfast, we are having ‘semolina roasted in clarified butter and cooked with stir fried vegetables seasoned with mustard, asafoetida and turmeric, spiced with green chillies, garnished with coriander and grated coconut, topped off with a dash of freshly squeezed lime juice.’ The Husband’s first question was if I had a throat infection. And then, that cunning ‘play it safe’ look dawned on his face, because obviously, he had no clue what I had just described. He said he’ll have oat biscuits instead. I slapped on the upma on an unremarkable thatte and thrust it at him. Che.
Just so you know, there’s hot chapathi with steaming tomato irulli gojju for dinner. The finger will be licked, remaining gojju gravy shall be slurped off the plate. That’s as sexy as can be. So there!
© Sumana Khan - 2011