Last Sunday's Brunch (a weekly supplement with the Hindustan Times) had a piece by Vir Sanghvi on his column Rude Food, which touched on a topic close to my heart. He writes, that with the evolution of families into nuclear units and the fact that its common for both partners to be working now, home cooking and therefore local cuisine may be dying. After a hard day's work when one comes home, there are the options of ready-to-eat food as well as takeout available now in most urban areas so in a matter of minutes you have food on the table - why bother making amti or cholar dal the exact way it was made by your mother's side of the family, when you have a generic "yellow dal" available at the neighbourhood take out?
So, Sanghvi says, we have young couples today who eat food which is very different from what they grew up eating, when their mothers or grandmothers had the time to cook traditional meals or the families had cooks and help to turn out elaborate meals. When they entertain, they tend to make more international food in keeping with the times. This he bemoans, is the end of home cooking and local eating habits as we know it.
I too feel that regional cuisine habits are important to preserve however, I don't think that traditional family cuisine will die such an early death as he predicts - what is happening now is, it is evolving. Each family will still have their unique food habits, it will just be a bit different from what the previous generation had.
In my own home, growing up, we had rotis (wheat flour flat breads) for lunch everyday - very different from what my mother grew up eating in Chennai, but so much more convenient to take to work in Mumbai when we were short on time. My dad on the other hand, was used to having rotis since he had moved to Mumbai right after he graduated and before that lived in Delhi with his father. So, in a way the process of moving away from traditional South Indian meals dominated by rice had already begun in his time itself. We did have rice for dinner with traditional dishes like sambar, rasam, thogayal, poriyals - but idli and dosais (rice and lentil pancakes) were only for the weekends while the rest of the days we had bread, poha (beaten rice tempered with onions, potato and spices), upma (semolina savory pudding) etc for breakfast.
My mother experimented with the North Indian dishes we had at restaurants - so there was malai kofta, paalk paneer, chana masala, rajma and kadhi made at regular intervals. Dals with different temperings became a staple and Bombay chaat was a hot favourite too.
She never gave up making her childhood favourites though - she used to wax eloquent on the meals she had in the first 20 years of her life, growing up in a village for the first 10 and then living with her grandmother in Chennai for the next 10. Some of the dishes used ingredients which were not even available in Mumbai and we could only wonder at how they would have tasted. Sometimes she would find ingredients like fresh berries (as opposed to the sun dried berries one uses in sundakkai vathal kozhambu) or drumstick greens or other types of greens which were normally not available and would be so excited about it, that we but naturally ended up sharing her passion. Our love for bitter gourd for example, is very much because of her and the fact that she used to make it in some very specific dishes which, according to her, brought out its true flavour (I know,I know, some of you are going "huh? what flavour?-you mean that horrible, bitter taste?")
Some days (Saturday afternoons especially), she used to cook traditional Tamilian dishes like keerai masiyal or poritcha kootu (a lentil preparation made from split mung bean lentils tempered with a coconut based masala), mix it in with soft, fluffy steamed rice into a big bowl, garnish with a spoon of ghee and then make small balls of it and put it into our outstretched hands to pop into our mouths. Then would come rasam saadam (lentil and tamarind based soup mixed with rice) and then thayir saadam (yoghurt with rice) - all with a piece of vegetable stir fry in the centre of the ball. As we talked, we would eventually have almost twice the amount we normally did!
Which brings us to my cooking now - I laugh when my mother says she finds it strange how I cook some dishes in a way which is just not "our" way. Like the bitter gourd in our house;besides the tamarind and lentil based pitlai and dry stir fry which are Tamilian dishes, we also love to have it cooked as a Mezhukkuppuratti, a stir fry preparation from Kerala - specifically this recipe from Sig. I guess what she means is that changing food habits is fine as long as we are eating a completely different cuisine from ours, but sambar and rasam should ideally be paired with a poriyal or a varuval!
And so food habits have changed some more for the next generation - we eat rotis for lunch with mostly North India dishes like rajma, chana, lentils, spinach, dry preparations of vegetables like okra, cauliflower, potatoes, cabbage, gourds, pumpkin etc. Rotis for dinner too, twice a week atleast, simply because we tend to eat larger quantities of food when we have rice and would like to avoid that. Other days we have a soup and salad or pasta or grilled chicken or fish or stir fried noodles or even something like couscous on occasion - very different from what we ate growing up (atleast on a regular basis).
But that does not mean we have forgotten our traditional cuisine - we still eat sambar and rasam atleast once a week; idli, dosai, adai, semiya upma and idiyappam are regularly eaten for breakfast. Kozhambu, poriyal, thogayal (lentil/coconut based thick chutney), avial, kootu and kurma in all their variations make their appearance by rotation for lunch or dinner - especially on the weekends. Yes, I do have T now, who helps me and does a lot of our day to day cooking and that makes it easier; but I didn't have any help in the kitchen for a long time and used to make all of these dishes even at that time. After coming to Delhi especially, South Indian food was something I made myself for a couple of years (and still do for many dishes) because it was something completely new to T.
I like to cook though and I know that makes a difference - my mom herself was not (and even now isn't) someone who really loves to cook; the fact that my Dad is a real foodie and loved to have variety and good food, was one of the reasons that prompted her to go the extra mile inspite of having a full time job. And today with the commuting involved plus travelling on work etc, it does get difficult - and all said and done, it is considered the woman's responsibility in most homes to take care of getting food on the table - right from shopping for groceries and vegetables to planning meals to making it. If one doesn't like cooking that much to start with, I can very well appreciate the resentment at having to spend so much time on these activities when one could be doing so many other things one actually enjoyed.
The other reason why Mom spent time and energy planning a mix of interesting meals is because she wanted to make sure we were eating healthy - nutrition was a big issue with her and she used to go on ad nauseam about the protein and vitamin content of different food items and how important they all were for a healthy body. It seems to have registered at some level because I find myself doing the same - green vegetables are always there in some form or the other everyday, followed by dals and fruit and balanced out with carbs - preferably complex, given our current knowledge on the dangers of eating simple carbs in excess.
So, while it is easy to make use of the ready-to-eat and take out options available, in the long run I think it is worth spending some time to ensure that healthy eating becomes part of our lifestyle. Not just in fits and start when we get onto some new fangled diet every 6 months which then lasts for exactly 6 days because we can't sustain eating just fruits or raw vegetables (or whatever these diets prescribe) for every meal.
With a little bit of planning, one *can* manage to eat healthy without resorting to processed food or take-out all the time. I have done it and I see a lot of my friends doing it too - especially those who live outside India and have absolutely no help on hand. Simple things like prepping food on weekends (pureeing tomatoes, chopping onions, boiling vegetables, marinating meats, sprouting beans) can help save time in putting together dinners on weekdays. Also, we can now make use of some of the innovations in food processing technology which can make cooking Indian food that much easier. Ginger garlic paste for e.g., packaged coconut milk, dessicated coconut powder, spice powders, dried herbs, tamarind paste, frozen peas - all of these can save a lot of time and effort.
While cooking as well, a little bit of organisation goes a long way - I like to think of it as sequencing tasks in a way that you spend as little time in the kitchen as possible. Some tips which help me:
1.Soak lentils a little ahead of time a little ahead of time (or even overnight) to speed up the cooking process.
2. Put the lentils (dal) into the pressure cooker as the first step - by the time you prep for the other dishes, the dal would be cooked and ready to be tempered.
3. While it may seem easier to finish chopping all the vegetables at one go before you start
cooking, its a better idea to chop the first vegetable which needs to be cooked before the others (usually onions and tomatoes) and while they are being sauteed you can continue with chopping the other vegetables.
4. Try to make sure all burners on the stove are in use for maximum time utilisation - I try to do this by cooking the dal (or vegetables or pasta) on one burner, sauteeing the onions/tomatoes on another burner and roasting spices/tempering/boiling milk on the third.
5. Similarly, I try to use my oven to the maximum too - sticky potatoes (arvi) for e.g. After boiling and tossing it with spices, I just roast them in the oven since cooking them on the stove needs a lot of supervision to prevent them from sticking to the bottom as well as frees up one burner for other things.
6. Set yoghurt, fill bottles and ice trays, knead the chapati dough and clean the fridge while you are waiting for something to cool or cook in the kitchen.
7. Prep for the evening meal while cooking in the morning - cook some extra dal for the evening meal with rotis, puree tomatoes for pasta sauce, or cook rice and cool to use in a fried rice for dinner.
8. Similarly, prep for the lunch box for the next day while cooking dinner - cook and cool rice for a mixed rice preparation like tomato rice or tamarind rice. Or make a vegetable curry dish in a pressure pan (from tempering to cooking) and cool before refrigerating for the next day.
9. In a notebook, make a permanent list of all the kitchen ingredients as well as grocery items (like soap, washing powder etc) used in the house. While I am waiting for something to cook, I go through the list and write down the items I need to replenish (which I would have noticed while cooking or cleaning) on a flexible, white board magnetic strip attached to the refrigerator - I keep adding to it through the week. On the weekend, I just pop the white board strip into my bag and use it for my weekly grocery shopping trip to the supermarket.
As Sanghvi points out in his article, it *is* harder now to get cooks and more expensive too (and he also says that some people consider it politically incorrect to have help around!!); but I think it is easier to find someone to come in for an hour or so in the mornings and help with kneading the dough, cleaning greens, chopping vegetables and other work like this which makes the actual task of cooking that much easier.
While I do agree with Vir Sanghvi that home cooked cuisine, which reflects subtle changes between regions and even from family to family, can be lost with the current trend of people taking to ready-to-eat packs and restaurant take-out food, I think what is more important to consider is that it is these trends which are slowly raising obesity levels all over the world and making conditions like diabetic commonplace. We are the only ones responsible for our health and if we do not take care to consider what we are eating, we will do our bodies a lot more harm than we can foresee.
And for those of us who have children - they learn by example; while it would be great if we could preserve traditions and food habits by cooking the food we grew up eating, it is even more important for them to learnt that it is not that difficult to cook from scratch on a regular basis. If they see the adults around them making informed choices right from the buying to cooking, they usually tend to absorb those things unconsciously and make better decisions when the time comes for them to make the same choices. They will learn to pick and choose the kind of processed food they buy if they know that a lot of them contain high quantities of sugar, salt and fat.
Regional cooking is also important because it usually uses vegetables which are locally available; I do use zucchini and cherry tomatoes sometimes for a roasted salad, but its the courgettes (tindas),raw bananas, ridge gourds (tori/peerkangai), parwal and tendli which are always on my list - the fact that they are locally sourced makes them cheaper as well.
There are people who have even forgotten how these vegetables are cooked traditionally or even if they do, don't cook it because their regular diet now consists of roast chicken, pasta and grills and it is vegetables like babycorn, mushrooms, cauliflower, green beans and carrots which are served on the side.
Nothing wrong with that - but I do believe that by omitting local vegetables which are in season, we are missing out a lot nutritionally as well as some of their medicinal properties which are highly relevant in the Indian context.
Gourds like bottle gourd (lauki/dudhi/sorakkai), ridge gourd, snake gourd(podalangai/padwal) etc are recommended for the summer season because of their higher water content which makes it easy to digest in the heat; ivy gourd (tendli/tindora/kovakkai) has been proved to help in preventing diabetes while bitter gourd (bitter melon/karela/pavakkai) has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity and lower elevated blood sugar levels. Also, eating a number of vegetables helps to bring variety to the table as well as helps avoid eating vegetables which are out of season at ridiculously higher prices.
We have several kinds of greens in India - methi (fenugreek), suva (dill), sarson (mustard greens), khatta paalak, haak, molai keerai/arai keerai/siru keerai(all amaranth varieties), murunga keerai(drumstick leaves),agathi keerai, poonaganni keerai, pulichai keerai, manathakali keerai and most regions have a different kind of preparation for each kind - get to know these before its too late and you stop eating them completely. These are calcium rich sources of food and, again, bring variety to the table. Many regional cuisines in India combine greens with fish, chicken or meat - a perfect way for a complete meal.
Our festivals are another occasion to make a bit of an effort when we have a little more time on our hands (if we haven't already left town for a three day weekend!) to recreate some of the meals and sweets that we have enjoyed in our childhood. Onam sadya, Pongal sapaadu, Naba Barsha mishti - all different ways of enjoying some delicious (and at times maybe not-so-healthy) regional delicacies. Even if we can't make them at home, maybe those are the times to go out and indulge in a lip smacking thali at a speciality restaurant.
So what are your thoughts on this subject - "much ado about nothing? Its food after all!" - would love to hear your comments.
What are the time saving techniques you use to make cooking a little easier and less of a chore? I know you have a lot of ideas - do share them here with us.