Unsaid, Untold #3

Oct 18, 2020

On food

It is fair to say that other than coffee, my father and I shared very little in common when it came to food. For one,  he was not a picky eater. He used to enjoy each morsel with true joy, regardless of whether he was eating jaggery with ghee and roti, as he liked to do after dinner, in winters, or a simple moong dal. He was a simple man with simple tastes when it came to food. 

As a child, I never heard him critique my Mom’s cooking or interfere in the workings of the kitchen. Growing up in a Punjabi clan, my family was quite the unicorn when it came to my father’s absence from the kitchen affairs. He gave my mother the space and means to feed our family as per her style. He ate whatever was served, with little demands. Surprisingly that was not common in all Punju households. At least not the ones I had visibility into. 

Just as long as there was something sweet to eat after dinner. And for that too he had simple hacks like sweet rice made with sugar, milk and rice, and ghee roti shakkar. 

Ever since my Mom became a housewife, after we moved to Delhi, my father did not do much in the kitchen. Although he could be quite proficient and creative if asked to. It was so rare to see him in the kitchen that I have very fond memories of when he did.  

Once when I was seven or eight, we were visiting my maternal grandmother’s house in Punjab as part of our summer vacation routine. It’s what we did back then, year after year. And no one complained of the routine since exotic summer travel was beyond our means. 

Usually, the entire family would go to MalerKotla together, and my Dad would come back after a week, while the rest of us stayed back for a month. Then he would come to pick us up at the end of our stay. 

The week that he stayed with us in MalerKotla was the best week of the trip. We tried to do a lot of adventures together in a small and unassuming town of MalerKotla. He took us for long walks in the fields nearby. Watching cauliflowers the size of my head was quite a scene for me. I recall a lot of dreams of bobbing heads of cauliflower talking to each other. We used to go on a self-guided archaeological tour of the Nawab’s palace, which was at the end of the road, where my Nani stayed. I have clear and vivid memories of my father trying to peek through the shattered windows and doors left open. While all I could care about were the bats nests. 

One such summer, he was unable to come to pick us up, and since we were old enough, my mother suggested that we travel back by ourselves. When we reached home, Dad had made some delicious daal chawal for us. I can taste the dal in my mouth as I type. That was the first and the last day I tasted my Dad’s daal. It’s amazing how I can recollect the taste of his preparation even after three decades have passed.

I also recollect his delectable Egg Pudding. Although I have never tasted a pudding like that ever since. It was a creative way to blend 2 ingredients my Mom wanted us to eat before going to school in winter mornings – Milk and Eggs. So he boiled the milk, added some cardamom, and added a lightly beaten egg beaten to. Egg made smooth flakes in the milk, and the sugar on top of it made it quite delicious. As we grew up, he stopped making the dish. But just like the daal I remember the taste of his famous egg pudding. 

My mother has never been a very social person. The joke was that there was room for only one in the house. But way back in Saharanpur, the small town I grew up in, she did participate in some Lions Club activities. The Lionesses, as they were called, referring to the spouses of the Lions Club members, created a kitty group. I don’t recall the mechanics of it. But every few months, a bunch of my Mom’s Lioness friends would come over at our place for a meal (more like a feast). 

At one of those events, my mother declared that she was bored of the typical feast menu and my father created a one of a kind sandwich that became a family and friends favorite for years to come. He mixed Amul Cheese Spread, with tomato sauce and black pepper and used it as a spread. Back then there weren’t 52 flavors of Amul Cheese available in the market. He layered the sandwich with thinly sliced cucumbers, and used a bowl with sharp edges to cut it into a round shape. The sandwiches were a hit. And that’s how my dad became my creative genius. I was so delighted by how seamlessly he went about creating something with the ingredients we had. I  think I was in 4th grade at the time. That was likely the origin of my impatience with mundane dishes. Thanks Mom. And also my desire to create new dishes, from simple ingredients. Thanks Dad.

In winters his last roti was with ghee and shakkar (jaggery). We always had a stack of chikki and reveri at home. And that too from his favorite shop. He loved these winter delicacies, and I also became fond of them under his shadow. I still enjoy them when we go to India in winters, and I think of his love for these simple joys.

Everyone in the family knew about his sweet tooth. But his favorite was my Mom’s kheer. It is not kheer, mind you. It is rabri mixed with some grains of rice. It is delicious. He loved milk based sweets a lot. His favorite winter wedding highlight was hot milk with jalebi. He liked his jalebis to be thin, and crisp. If we ever lost track of each other, it was easy to find him, hanging out with his friends, either by the coffee machine, the jalebi place or the malpua stand. He was predictable in that way. 

I recall dining at restaurants quite often as a young kid. My father was very particular about exposing us to a variety of cuisines, and flavors. He had his favorites – Fujiya at Malcha Marg, Golden Dragon right outside IIT gate, and Chef’s Salad in Vasant Vihar. He picked up the skill of using chopsticks after we moved to Delhi. And he insisted that both my sister and I learn the skill. When I went to China for work, many years later, I realized how critical that skill was for me. It was difficult to even find a fork at most authentic chinese restaurants. I wish I had taken the time to tell him that. But back then I was racing through life, with little cognizance of how he was slowing down on the other end. 

When he visited me in the US, I was traveling Monday-Thursday for work, and did not end up cooking a lot. Also when my Mom is in town, the keys of the kitchen are in her hands. So I stay out of it. It’s better for all of us that way 🙂 I wish I could have cooked more for him then. He would have enjoyed the variety and the flavors. He loved mutton. He would have enjoyed my instant pot version. Sigh! Yet another thing left undone..In this lifetime I didn’t get enough chances to cook for my father.  

On Coffee

Now this topic deserves a whole chapter. The little secret never told is that I started drinking coffee from the age of six or seven. Blasphemy!

I didn’t like the taste and color of milk. So my mother tried the Horlicks/Bournvita solutions. My father was completely against those, since they were full of sugar, and did not meet any of the health claims they advertised. So one day, in order to appease my whim, he added a tinge of coffee to my milk. I was delighted, and he met his purpose. So coffee and I go long back. Thanks to him, mostly.

As I grew up, my mother would heat the milk, and keep the sugar and coffee by the side for each of us to add. She had no idea why the coffee container depleted so quickly in those days. Her guess was that it was my father, but the reality was that I had just realized the freedom of making my own strong cup of coffee. And that started the addiction that I am unable to get rid of, until today. 

On Sunday afternoons when the family would wait for the weekly movie to air on Doordarshan, the only TV channel, my father used to make coffee for all of us. He made it by beating sugar, water and instant coffee, in a cup, until it turned smooth and almost white. Then he added hot milk to this mix, and made delectable cappuccinos. Frothy, and delicious. Over time the responsibility to beat the coffee passed on to my sister, and then finally to me. I carried on this habit well into college days and there are friends who still recall my middle of the night, noisy coffee making habits. I still indulge in this form of coffee occasionally. 

When he visited the US in 2009.  He was amazed by the variety of coffee flavors, beans and styles. Baristas and Cafe Coffee Day had already opened up in India by then, but he had not yet come to terms with any other form of coffee. In the US he enjoyed the lattes, and always wanted his milk hot. The graduation from instant coffee, to extra hot latte happened over night. He had always wanted to try black coffee, and so we did that in iHOP in Vegas. He didn’t hate it, but didn’t ask for it ever again. I on the other hand, picked another habit. Eleven years and counting I need to start my day with black coffee. 

Sigh! All the coffee we would have enjoyed, if he was still around. I would have gotten him hooked into the science of it with the single origin flavors, and local roasting, and shared with him my research notes on filter coffee varieties available in the US. He would have enjoyed it. 

I wonder what kind of a woman I would have been if he had been the typical Punjabi father who interfered in the kitchen, and instructed his wife on how to make curry and which masalas to buy. 

Definitely not the woman who makes Sri Lankan Curry Masala because she loves to make her own spices. Cooking will never be a chore for me. Because I have happy memories of cooking from my childhood.

Food is meant to bring the family together.  It brought my family together when I was a child, and continues to do so now that I have a child of my own. May the passion and the creativity carry on!

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