Cooking is not just about preparing food and eating it. If you look at the history of Indian cooking, you will come across interesting tales that talk about our tradition and culture and our great culinary heritage. At a session titled ‘Culinary Twists & Tales’, celebrity chef Ajay Chopra and author of Crumbs!: Bread Stories and Recipes Saee Koranne Khandekar discussed their love for food, importance and peculiarity of recipes and the importance of literature in cooking.
The session, which was part of a recently-held literary event in the city, was hosted by noted food and wine journalist and writer Antoine Lewis, who lives to eat and writes to live. Excerpts from the discussion: What was it like to be a food writer 20 years ago? Lewis: People’s eyes kind of lit up when I would mention I was a food writer and immediately all the stories would come tumbling out about the great meals they had, the little dhabas that they had been to.
They had kept these stories for so long and suddenly they had got an outlet to tell them. That’s the nature of food, there are so many tales and stories behind it, the way we communicate food experiences is not just through recipes — it is through legends, mythology, fiction and literature as well. We relate to food in a very personal way.
How do you associate food with memories?
Saee: A lot of our collective memories are formed through the stories that are handed down to us. Storytelling is a great part of food and cooking. A passionate storytelling is so evocative that even if someone is talking about a dish made by his/ her grandmother, the tale becomes an experience for you. You feel like you have actually tasted the food. We have put together a family cookbook to retell these stories that we have heard from our aunts, grandmothers and cooks at home. All of these people have lived under the same roof, cooked in the same kitchen but each of their stories are vastly different. I was lucky to go back to at least a 150 years ago to know my grandmother’s grandmother through the little diaries, bits of parchments and small notes.
Ajay: If the food is so good that it is able to create a memory in your head, you are never going to lose it. We as chefs operate through memories — it is not possible to learn a thousand recipes but even if we taste a spoon of a good dish, say, Butter Chicken, the taste goes into our brain and stays as a memory and when we recreate the dish we refer back to the archive library of our taste. That’s how interesting food memories are!
Why is it important to document the details of cuisines and food?
Ajay: If you look at the Indian cuisine per se, we are far behind the Western, European or Mediterranean cuisines in terms of documenting and archiving our cuisines only because nobody took an interest in writing them down or hand over the recipe. Imagine if every family did cookbooks and tried to preserve their traditional recipes and cooking techniques in the form of writing, a mela of cuisine would evolve and it will be a glorious moment for food.
Saee: Because India is a land of oral traditions, I think we need to go back to the stories we listened to as children, and nursery rhymes surrounding food. In the past, a woman’s life would revolve around the kitchen. She would sing little couplets and folk songs while grinding grains, drying masalas or making pickle or papad. There was a sense of community amongst women themselves. We need to refer to these as culinary forms of literature. Besides modern cookbooks, we should also look at these traditions. The concept of recipes and notion of measurements in cooking is very new in India as we usually measure by hand.
In that sense how important is it to stick to recipes and what are the challenges?
Ajay: Our cuisine is very diverse — even if you give five people the same recipe, the same ingredients and the same time, the five dishes will not be exactly the same. We often say, ‘pyaaz ko bhuno jab tak woh brown na hojae’ (fry the onions till they turn brown) and brown has got at least 75 shades.The exact shade of brown has never been described in our recipes which changes the flavour of the dish! When and how you add the spices makes a lot of difference to the dish. A chef needs to dig out the reasons behind a particular texture, flavour, colour and taste of a dish. There is a lot of science behind cooking.
Baking requires a lot of precision. Why?
Saee: Making cakes is a an exact science. But with bread, you can be a little forgiving because you have very few ingredients to start with.
However, a bread recipe that is written in the UK in winter will flop if you try making it here in the Indian summer. So that’s where the knowledge comes into play. You should be able to tell your readers that if proofing (the final rise of shaped bread dough before baking) in the UK takes 12 hours, it probably means only three hours in Indian summer. Humidity has a huge role to play here. When it comes to recipe writing you can’t just write how many grams of what needs to go in for how many hours. You also need to keep in mind the peripheral changes.